Resistance is Futile
"We are the Borg."
The most terrifying words known to any sentient life form moved across the bridge like the cold breath of doom, making everyone who heard it know with that one sentence, their lives were about to end. No one spoke, but neither could they breathe as they listened to that toneless, mechanical voice echoing through their ears, a prelude to the horror that was to come.
"Lower your shields and surrender your ship. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."
The Borg cube, one of four, loomed large in the view screen of the USS Maverick and for a second, Chris Larabee thought they might as well have been the four horsemen of doom. As he sat in the command chair, possibly for the last time, watching the inevitable enveloping his crew and his ship, he forced himself to keep his eyes fixed on the screen ahead. Chris simply could not bear to have his comrades look into his face and realise he had no tricks to save them.
Against this enemy, they were utterly powerless.
The Maverick might have been able to fight off one cube perhaps even two, but four was beyond the ship, and they all knew it. The enemy had them surrounded, and there was nowhere to run, even if they did manage to get past the blockade. The transwarp drives on the Borg ships would overtake them quickly, long before they were beamed off the bridge into a living hell.
The idea of his entire crew, over a thousand men, women and children becoming assimilated, where everything that made them who they were was trapped in a prison they would never escape, was more than he could bear. Beside him, he didn't have to look at Mary to know she was thinking about Billy, his young life ending before it even had a chance to begin. It made him feel guilty, being grateful Adam was presently on Earth, spending a month there attending bridging classes to aid his future application to Starfleet Academy.
Chris had so wanted to be there for him and hated the fact the boy would be losing another parent. He hoped Adam was strong enough to bear it.
"Chris," Buck finally spoke.
"I know," Chris swallowed, closing his eyes and steeling himself for the inevitable.
"It's okay pard," Vin looked over his shoulder at him, the Vulcan's cobalt coloured eyes conveying without needing to go into detail, he understood this had to be done. "We're with you."
A hand reached for his and Chris relented enough to let those long, slender fingers intertwine between his own. Feeling the warmth of her touch made Chris finally turned to meet Mary's gaze. Chris wanted to tell her he was sorry, that he should have been a better Captain so that he could have found a way to save them. Yet there was no recrimination in her blue-grey eyes, even if they were filled with sorrow. While she did not weep, he still could tell she was crying inside.
"Save us, Chris," she said quietly, her eyes glistening with emotion. "Save us before it's too late."
"I'm so sorry," Chris whispered, unable to say anything else. The apology was not just to her but to the rest of his crew whom he had so utterly failed.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," she said softly. "You did everything you could. Now you need to do the only thing left."
Chris nodded and faced front again, glaring at the cubes who would not wait much longer to begin taking them. With a deep breath, he uttered what might be his final order as master of this vessel.
"Computer, initiate auto-destruct."
AN HOUR EARLIER
Chris Larabee was happy.
After the death of his wife and child, he resigned himself to being merely content. True happiness without the love of his life seemed to be an unreachable goal, and though he had moved past the anguish of losing them, he knew the future would always bear the taint of their absence. Still, his existence was not one of complete despair. There were glimmers of sunlight through the grey of his life, where hope penetrated the shadows of his heart.
Becoming the master of the USS Maverick meant the achievement of a lifelong dream, even if the sweetness of the prize was offset by the bitter aftertaste of his widowhood. His captaincy brought him other boons, some that were completely unexpected and others that were familiar like a warm blanket. Buck Wilmington returned to his life, cementing a friendship that began at the Academy into brotherhood by the time Buck took his place as Chris's first officer.
Waking up at Starfleet Medical after the Battle of Sector 001, Chris had thought he was having a pleasant dream about Marcus Larabee until he opened his eyes and saw a face just as thoughtful and kind. Meeting Josiah Sanchez was like getting back that absent-minded old man, surrounded by his books and wearing his out of place bow ties. With a bottle of Saurian brandy, Josiah could make him think he was talking to his father again, allowing him to hide nothing, including the vulnerabilities Chris tried so hard to hide.
When he first met Vin Tanner on the bridge of the Rutherford, Vin had been terrified of his own shadow, but somehow, they made a connection Chris still did not understand. It was like the younger man knew precisely what was in his head, without Chris ever needing to say it. Unlike most people who trod lightly around the Captain, Vin did not. The Vulcan was unafraid of him because just like Chris, Vin knew his place was forever at his Captain's side.
Then two things happened to alter his world entirely and told Chris in no uncertain terms, life could throw you for a loop at the slightest whim.
From across the different dimensions, he found Adam again. It was not the child he buried, Chris was not so deluded he thought that for one moment, but this Adam, a teenager, had never known his father and had just lost a mother. They were both wounded in their way and yet the familial connection they made upon first meeting was undeniable. Drawn together by similar needs, he had become Adam's father, and Adam had become his son.
The kid who was seventeen years old never knew a life that wasn't a struggle, and it was with pride; Chris was able to give him a new start. Now Adam was in San Francisco, undertaking a months worth of classes to help him qualify for admission to Starfleet Academy in the next year. It fulfilled a few of the fragmented dreams Chris mined in secret when his own Adam was born.
Yet even getting Adam back was nowhere as surprising as what happened the instant he laid his eyes on her.
When Mary stepped into his Ready Room that first time, Chris knew he was lost. The only time he had ever felt a reaction so strong, was the moment he laid eyes on Sarah Conley. Suddenly, the grief that assailed him for so many years became a thing in the past, to be finally put away instead of being an ever-present reminder of his loss. It was time to move on, and though he fought it hard, it was impossible.
Chris Larabee had fallen in love with Mary Travis the moment he saw her.
Now, as he lay next to her sleeping form on his bed, his fingertips tracing small circles against the luminous skin of her shoulder, blinded by the glimmer of her golden hair, he knew he was happy.
Watching her sleep, her lips curled with a little smile of contentment, dreaming what he hoped were beautiful dreams inspired by the night they share together, Chris knew he wanted to wake up to this sight every morning for the rest of his life. Of course, it was a secret desire he shared with no one because he was still Captain of the Maverick and unless he was ready to make a more permanent commitment, something neither of them was prepared for, they would steal moments like this for the foreseeable future.
While Adam was away, no doubt engaging in the kind of debauchery that brought a tear to Buck's eye and a new streak of grey in Chris's hair, Chris invited Mary to dinner the night before, and it ended with her staying over. Billy was having a sleepover with Lilith at Audrey King's quarters, giving them freedom from their parental duties and the leave to explore the intimate side of their relationship for the first time.
"Hey," she smiled when she fluttered her eyes open and saw his face over hers.
"Hey," Chris greeted her with a kiss. "Sleep well?"
With a look of feline satisfaction, Mary let out a wistful sigh. "Eventually."
A swell of masculine pride raced through him, and he grinned. "It's not my fault you're an animal who wouldn't let me rest. I could barely keep up with you."
"Me?" She shoved him gently, and as Chris landed on his back, Mary took the opportunity to roll on top of him crushing his bare chest with her own naked flesh and relishing it when she felt Chris's arms circling her waist.
With playful mischief, she retaliated without repentance. "Well, I'm used to Vulcan stamina."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "Lieutenant Travis, that was a shot across the bow. There's gotta be something in the regs about impugning a captain's performance."
"I'm afraid not," she shook her head sweetly. "You'll just have to prove it."
Laughing, Chris rolled on top of her suddenly and lowered his head to kiss her. "I'll show you Vulcan stamina...."
"We can't leave this here," Vin Tanner told Julia Pemberton as they stared at the collection of chrome, iron and rubber spread out across the floor of his quarters where the coffee table usually sat.
Julia nodded in agreement. While she saw some order in the parts arrayed before her, to the uninitiated, it was just a big mess, and Vin would have a lot of explaining to do when Alex returned to their quarters after duty and saw it. "You should have told me you were building this thing. I would have assigned you one of the empty storage holds to keep it."
Vin shrugged unhappily, somewhat chagrined he had not considered the idea when he was first struck with the inspiration for his latest' project'. "I didn't think it would be that hard. I figured I'd have it done in a few hours."
Julia stared at him. "You're kidding."
The Vulcan bristled even further, disliking his mechanical ability being questioned. "I've built things before!"
"Model ships Vin! Model ships! This is not a model ship, this is a 2018 Harley-Davidson 114ci Fat Bob! I mean it's as great as bikes can get from that era! Look at it! It's got 124ci barrels and Mahle pistons and an M8 camshaft. Not to mention the inner cam bearing, high capacity lifters, adjustable M8 pushrods, clutch pack with 1270mm springs! This is a piece of art! You don't build it in a few hours!"
"Okay, okay!" Vin threw up his hands in mea culpa since she lost him right after the word bike. "Can you help me put it together or not?"
Vin had tried to do the work himself, but it became quite apparent to him, especially after Julia made her recital, he was out of his depth. He honestly believed he could get it done during the afternoon before Alex got back from her shift, but as the day progressed and his frustration mounted, he was forced to call in reinforcements.
Julia swatted him on the shoulder. "Not before Alex gets back!"
"Ow! You know I'm starting to see why Ezra hasn't asked you to move in yet."
"Remarks like that are not going to convince me to help you," she huffed.
"Sorry, sorry!" Vin's apology came complete with an unrepentant smirk. "Come on, Julia, please?"
Julia threw up her hands in defeat, unable to deny the man when he gave her that puppy dog look. If it was able to penetrate Alex Styles's tough demeanour, Julia stood no chance whatsoever. She was too much of a soft touch. "Alright, I'll help, but first things first. We're going to transport this whole thing to Cargo Bay 2. That will save you from being murdered when Alex gets home."
"Thanks, Julia," Vin grinned and planted a grateful kiss on her cheek. "You're the best."
"Yeah, yeah," Julia shook her head in resignation. "That's what all you men say until I mention the word commitment."
"This is where the wealthy and the powerful rule. This is her world, a world apart from mine. Her name is Catherine, and from the moment I saw her, she captured my heart by her beauty, her warmth and her courage. I knew then, as I know now, she would change my life forever."
"He comes from a secret place, far below the city streets, hiding his face from strangers, safe from hate and harm. He brought me there to save my life. And now wherever I go, he's with me in spirit, for we have a bond stronger than friendship or love, and although we cannot be together, we will never ever be apart."
Josiah Sanchez exchanged a look with Charlotte Richmond, both telegraphing the same thought to each other to commit homicide if they heard those accursed words one more time. Both inhaled deeply as if the intake of oxygen would settle their rising exasperation at the lone spectator watching their rehearsal for the Maverick's drama society's production of Beauty and the Beast.
"What's wrong with it now, Commander?" Charlotte maintained her calm, turning a barely concealed look of irritation at Ezra Standish who was watching the opening scene of their play.
From the front row before the stage, Ezra rose to his feet and exhaled an exaggerated air of disappointment. He was wearing a grimace, and in Josiah's opinion, that would be an accurate depiction of the pain Ezra would feel when the Counsellor gave him a knuckle sandwich if he continued on his present course.
"I am," Ezra paused to find the right word, "if I am employing the correct vernacular, not feeling it. You two are meant to be tortured lovers, your tragedy must swallow the audience whole from the very onset. If they do not believe you two are hopelessly in love, then they will hardly endure the next three hours of this production, will they? Right now, I do not believe I see that level of commitment from either of you. I need more."
Josiah's spine stiffened, trying to draw from that well of infinite patience allowing him to do his job but he had been trapped on this Holodeck for the last two hours having been coerced to take on the role of the Beast, replacing Lieutenant Stevens who had come down with Rigellian flu. Audrey King, who was a member of the society, had asked him to step in but he had not realised Ezra who was directing this particular production, would turn into the 24th century's version of Cecil B DeMille.
"I think it was fine," Josiah replied, maintaining his calm, relaxed Counsellor's facade even if he was rumbling inside like a volcano. "Don't you think it was fine Lieutenant?"
"I think it was perfect," Charlotte gave Josiah a look revealing the sincerity of her words. No matter how much of an ass their director was behaving, Josiah's delivery of that speech was perfect. Hell, if a man said such things to her, she certainly would follow him anywhere.
"Well I am the director," Ezra retorted, not liking this mini-coup developing between his leading man and lady. "It is my opinion that must be satisfied."
That did it for Josiah.
"Lieutenant, would you like to join me for lunch?"
Charlotte brightened into a smile. "Why, Counsellor, I would love to."
Ezra stared at both of them. "Ladies, gentlemen, we are still in the middle of rehearsal!"
Both Charlotte and Josiah ignored him as they descended the steps from the stage and strolled past Ezra, seemingly not having heard a word he said.
"Now, you are being childish!" He called out after them when Josiah called for the arch to appear. The familiar doors of the Holodeck appeared, sliding open to reveal the corridor outside. Both officers continued to ignore the Security Chief, lifting their chin in haughty indifference as they left the room.
Ezra watched them leave and then mused to himself. "Perhaps it was something I said?"
Inez Recillos caught a glimpse of Buck Wilmington the instant he walked into Four Corners and was somewhat surprised to see him. Glancing at the chronometer on the wall, she knew Buck should be on the bridge, keeping an eye on things since from what he mentioned at dinner the night before, Chris was taking a personal day. Considering their missions of late, what with the diplomatic duties the Captain had been undertaking, negotiating treaties with several new planets who were joining the Federation, he needed the break.
Then she noted JD Dunne was also here, seated in one of the booths facing the window, afforded a spectacular view as the Maverick travelled at warp through the frontier. The young man's usual enthusiasm and bright personality were nowhere to be seen, but then again, Inez, like the rest of the ship knew what was at the heart of his melancholy. Casey Wells, his girlfriend since he arrived on the Maverick almost a year and a half ago, was leaving the ship.
"Buck," Inez waved him over as the First Officer made eye contact.
As always, Buck felt his heart skip a little at the sight of the lovely bartender who no longer looked at him as the pest who was still on the make, but someone she genuinely cared for. Tearing his gaze away from JD whom he was headed towards, Buck made a slight detour and went to the bar instead. Catching the direction of Inez's eyes before she turned to him, Buck guessed she was just as concerned for JD as he was.
"Hey Darlin'," Buck greeted.
"What are you doing here? I thought the Captain left you in charge of the bridge today?"
"He did," Buck nodded in affirmation. "But Alex is at the con so she'll keep us from running into an asteroid or something. Actually, I was here because JD should have been on duty ten minutes ago and the boy's never late."
"Oh," Inez's expression turned into one of concern because being late for one's shift when it came to JD, was an indication of a more significant problem than mere tardiness. "She hasn't even gone yet. What's he going to be like when she does leave?"
"I don't know," Buck shrugged unhappily as he leaned against the counter, eyeing JD, who was nursing a drink in silent misery. "But he's young, and she's really the first girl he's fallen hard for. That can be tough to get over."
"True," Inez nodded, although she could hardly compare her own experience with JD's. Raphael had been her childhood love, and until his death at the Battle of Cardassia Prime two years ago, she had never imagined life without him. In the last three months, she had started to move on, and Buck had played a large part in her healing. Still, first loves were hard to forget.
"I mean, I can't blame her. Bajor is going through a whole lot of change right now, and the girl's never spent any time there. I can understand her wanting to go back there for a few months, to reconnect with her people. Besides, it's not like she's going forever. Chris says she's the best Yeoman in the fleet. Whoever fills the slot she leaves behind is only going to get the job temporarily until Casey is ready to come back."
"One can manage a long distance relationship," Inez pointed out. "I did it for years with Raphael. It was hard, but we pulled it off."
"That's right," Buck nodded, no longer intimidated by her mention of her dead fiance. He was confident enough in her feelings for him and understood Raphael was a big part of her life. One that could not be forgotten simply because they were in a relationship now. "Anyway, I better go get him before he throws himself into the warp core or something."
"Good luck," Inez sighed, retreating when she saw Lt. Opa waiting at the far corner of the bar for service.
It didn't take long for Buck to cross the floor of Four Corners to join JD at his table. The young lieutenant was nursing a mug of coffee whose milk scum indicated the beverage was so far untouched. JD did not appear to notice his arrival, a further sign the boy was still heartbroken over Casey's impending departure.
"Hey, JD," Buck announced himself.
JD looked up at Buck, his brow furrowing in confusion as he stared at the First Officer, wondering why the man was here when he ought to be on the bridge when the realisation struck him like a hammer. His eyes widened as he sat up, comprehending Buck had sought him out because he should be on the bridge too. JD didn't need to look at the chronometer to know he was late for duty and sprang up from his seat.
"Oh man, Buck, I'm sorry!" JD began stuttering apologies before Buck placed a hand on his shoulder and bid him to calm down.
"It's okay," Buck pushed him gently back in the seat. "Just take a moment to catch your breath before you discombobulate something."
JD sank down against the soft cushioned seat and exhaled loudly. "I'm sorry Buck, I just got to thinking and lost all track of time."
Sliding into the seat across him, Buck patted him on the shoulder. "Hey kid, I get it. I do, but you can't let it drive you crazy."
"I'm not," JD protested immediately and then realised if he was so distracted that he missed going on duty, then Buck was right, he was letting it do just that. "It's just that I'm going to miss her so much. I mean I figured we were going to be together forever...."
"JD," Buck met his gaze. "You're in Starfleet, and that is a tall order for career officers like us. Transfers happen, people move around. You got to get used to the idea that there are times when you're gonna be away from the people you love. Casey ain't breaking up with you, she's just going home to spend some time with her people."
JD sighed, knowing Buck was right, but he feared she might like it so much on Bajor, she might never come back, and Buck had also touched a nerve. While he intended to remain on the Maverick as long as possible, what if he was transferred or promoted to another ship? They might never see each other again. The idea made his gut twist in dismay.
"I know," he nodded. "Casey's been talking about going back there for a while now. Since Bajor is more or less settled after the war and everything. I think she wants to find out if she has any family back there."
"That's fair," Buck nodded. Casey was adopted by Admiral Wells when her parents had died trying to smuggle her into a refugee camp during the Occupation. For the most part, Casey was raised human, but looking in the mirror every day, was a reminder to the girl she was not. She hailed from one of the most spiritual races in the galaxy, a spirituality she knew almost nothing about. "Bajorans put a lot of stock in their religion, I can understand her wanting to learn more about it, and you've got to accept it."
"I do," JD took a sip of his coffee and then winced in disgust because it was cold. "I mean, I will. I'm just going to miss her, that's all."
"I know," Buck said in understanding. "In the meantime, come on. You've got duty, and I've got to get back to the bridge before Alex decides she can run the Maverick without us."
"Right. Thanks, Buck," JD said gratefully, aware as First Officer Buck had the power to be a lot less forgiving than he was at JD's absence on the bridge.
"Any time kid," Buck patted him on the back as they both headed towards the door. "Anytime."
"Good lord woman, it's just a wedding!"
Rain stopped short as she strolled across the pristine white sand and gave Nathan Jackson the Trill version of the Evil Eye. Even though she was wearing a bikini with a bright floral sarong around her waist, the Transporter Chief still managed to look quite menacing. The couple was presently standing on the holographic creation of Maafushi Beach in the Maldives, where Rain was perfecting the programming required for the upcoming nuptials between Chanu and Claire Moseley.
The scene was perfect, with crystal blue sea and gorgeous sunshine overhead. Further along the beach, the venue was set with snow-white chairs arranged in neat rows, split by the aisle of rose petals leading to the altar. Beneath it, stood a floral archway composed of red and white roses, carnations and baby breath. The effect was quite spectacular and had taken some programming to get just right. Framing the ceremony were tiki torches that would be ignited when evening came.
That had been the easy part, the reception was much more complicated, but Chanu and Claire were good friends and Rain who had planned several weddings during her numerous lifetimes as a Trill, had volunteered. Naturally, she wanted everything to be perfect, but it was taking considerable time and Nathan, a man who was bored by all things frivolous, couldn't understand the need for such fanfare.
"Just a wedding, Nathan? Just a wedding? Was the leaning tower of Pisa just a tower? Was the Mona Lisa just a painting of a really bored woman waiting around for her boyfriend to take her out, or the Obelisk of K'haroska just a rock? This is a work of art, and it has to be perfect! I mean, this wedding sets the tone for the whole marriage. This is a day that will follow them forever. You can't imagine the pressure."
"I can't even imagine forever. For all you know, Chanu and Claire could be divorced in a month. They haven't even lived together! You know the first time she finds his socks in the sink, there could be blood."
"Doc, you're killing the romance here," she shook her head in exasperation. "That does it, when we get married, you're not allowed to plan anything."
"That's because there's nothing to plan," Nathan said as a matter of factly. "We're going to have it at the saloon in Four Corners."
Rain's eyes widened. "Excuse me?"
"Yeah, it will be great," Nathan said enthusiastically, having put a lot of thought into his own nuptials since this all began. The healer reached the conclusion it was not wise to let Rain plan any of it if this business with Chanu and Clare's wedding was any indication of how overboard she was going to go. "We'll do it in the Magnificent Seven program, you know in the old West. With Josiah playing preacher and performing the ceremony at his church. Then have the reception at the saloon. It will be perfect."
"Yeah since you'll be by yourself!" Rain exploded. "In a saloon? You want to have our wedding in a saloon? It's a good thing you haven't even asked me yet, or else I'd have to spit in your eye!"
Nathan threw his hands up in defeat. "Well, I won't then, not that I was planning to."
"Fine," Rain sniffed and turned her back to him, arms folded.
"Fine," Nathan grumbled doing the same.
"You really weren't going to ask me?" Rain looked over her shoulder at him a second later.
"I didn't say that," he frowned because a few months ago, he considered proposing until Rain suggested they move in together instead. In retrospect, it seemed like the best course for a relationship only a few months old. "I was going to ask eventually."
"Eventually?" Rain turned around.
"Yeah, we were ready."
"When?" She eyed him suspiciously.
"Whenever," he shrugged, having the sneaking suspicion he might have just talked his way into proposing marriage.
"Whenever? What does that mean?"
Nathan groaned. "I don't know whenever! Right now if you want."
"I do," she challenged.
"Hold on to that thought," Nathan returned, his brain needed to play catch up. "You're saying if I asked you to marry me right now, you would?"
"Yes," Rain nodded, suddenly realising where they were right now. "I guess I would."
"Okay then," Nathan broke into a grin and lowered himself dramatically on one knee. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes," Rain beamed happily taking his hand. "But we're not having my wedding in a saloon."
"Oh well," Nathan straightened up, "we'll just have to call the whole thing off."
Even though she had the bridge in the absence of the Captain and the First Officer, Alexandra Styles left the command chair vacant. She was more content to remain at her post at the science station, continuing her survey of the local area for star mapping purposes. Much of the area had only been charted briefly by passing probes, and an in-depth study of the sector had been absent until now. With the Maverick's mission to the frontier opening up much of this wilderness to the Federation, now more than ever accurate data was essential.
Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, the ship lurched violently, sending Alex slamming against her console. Across the bridge, yellow alert klaxons began screaming through the air at the same time amber warning lights blinked furiously across every console and every panel.
"What the hell just happened?" Drew Katovit, who was manning tactical immediately demanded.
It took a second for Alex to regain her balance to be able to study her console to determine that answer. When the readings appeared before her, she stared at the view screen ahead for confirmation. The stars were no longer rushing past them at high warp, but instead almost at a standstill.
"We just dropped out of warp."
"How?" Drew's questions came within seconds of Chris Larabee's voice echoing across the bridge.
"Captain to the Bridge, what the hell is going on?"
As Alex scanned the area and found the answer, her eyes widened in horror at the materialising view of the giant singularity appearing out of nowhere in front of them.
"Captain, you need to report to the bridge immediately."
If one did not know what it was, the phenomena could almost be considered beautiful.
In the same way one admired a great white shark swimming through the ocean, an engine of nature, perfectly formed for its environment, the quantum singularity before the Maverick was similarly magnificent. Drawing to it all matter unfortunate enough to be caught in its gravitational field, the accretion disk composed of particulates, filaments of light, debris from fragmenting asteroids and threads of shredded comets, surrounded the dead eye staring back at the crew of the Maverick.
Within ten minutes of the singularity appearing in front of them, Chris Larabee and the entire Senior Staff were on the bridge. Chris was in his command chair with Mary in her seat, neither displaying any sign of the intimacy they shared not long ago. Buck returned to the bridge a few minutes before Chris, allowing J.D. to relieve Jewel Chun who was impatiently awaiting his arrival at navigation, only to be disappointed at having to leave when things started getting interesting. Once again, Alex was sharing the length of her station with Ezra who resumed his position at tactical, grateful to abandon the world of the theatre for something less cut-throat.
The Maverick had not stood down from yellow alert, with all hands reporting to their posts. The civilian crew were ordered back to their quarters, while Josiah remained at his desk, his com channel open for anyone who might need counselling during the crisis. It was always difficult for the civilians on board the Maverick, who so often were unwilling participants in the danger facing the ship. Meanwhile, Nathan had no doubt mobilized his medical team in anticipation of injuries to the crew.
"How the hell did we not see it before that thing was right on top of us?"
Chris's question came out a little more harshly than the Captain intended, making Alex flinch in reaction. As the one who had the Con when the alert was sounded, not to mention the Science Officer of the Maverick, Alex should have detected the singularity long before the proximity sensors on the Maverick went into overdrive. While she knew he was not blaming her for what was happening, Alex couldn't help feeling she had failed somewhat for not suspecting this situation was on the horizon.
"Captain, I've been conducting surveys for star mapping purposes all morning. I saw no evidence of a singularity of that size at any point. It just...just appeared." Her expression showed her complete bafflement at how this came about and glancing at her, Chris felt immediately bad for the tone of his question.
"It's okay Alex," Buck spoke up, noting the guilt in her voice as did Vin, who shifted his head just enough to cast his wife a look of concern if not silent support. "We know nothing got past you."
"This isn't your fault Alex," Chris added, giving a little nod to show her he did not hold her accountable for anything. "It's just strange, that's all. Have you been able to get any readings off it at all?"
"Aside from the usual gravimetric disturbances, minimal," Alex frowned unhappily. "For me to get better readings, we'd have to get in closer."
"Closer?" Mary stared at Chris, not liking the sound of that one damn bit. Even now, seeing the singularity from the safety of her seat on the bridge, she felt a shudder of fear run down her spine. The black eye of the thing, from which nothing could escape, was like the entrance to oblivion. If the Maverick were to be caught, she didn't even want to think of what would happen, not just to her but to Billy.
"Don't worry," Chris gave her a little smile of assurance. "We'll remain beyond the gravitational pull of the event horizon. Still..."
Chris faced the phenomena that had taken up nearly all the space on the view screen. The Maverick was holding a position at a safe distance, but even that still felt too close. As Chris studied it, something about it felt wrong. His instincts, relied upon so frequently to save his life and that of his crew, was nagging at him. Something didn't feel right, and the sensation made the hairs on the back of his neck stand.
Buck, who knew his Captain well enough, noticed the intensity of Chris's gaze upon the image on the viewer. The First Officer of the Maverick knew something was going on behind Chris Larabee's penetrating eyes, and it usually meant the difference between life and death.
"Captain, what's on your mind?"
"I'm not sure," Chris admitted before speaking up louder. "Vin, take us in at one-quarter impulse, get as close to the accretion disk as you can without getting us pulled in."
As expected, Ezra Standish spoke up immediately. "Captain, the sudden appearance of that spacial behemoth is still a mystery to us. I would recommend keeping our distance until we know more about it."
"Which won't happen if we don't get any closer," Buck countered before Chris could. "We need to know what we're dealing with. Other ships are going to be coming through this area, we have to know all we can learn about that singularity, so we can warn them."
Ezra frowned unhappily forced to concede the point because Buck was correct. They did need to know how such a phenomenon could appear so suddenly before them. There had been ships through this area in recent months, and not one of them recorded the existence of a singularity. There was a mystery here, Ezra was sure like the Captain, but he was just unconvinced how much they ought to risk trying to uncover it.
"Alex, Ezra, monitor the intensity of the gravitational field, the instant it approaches anything resembling the limits of our ability to break away, we'll be withdrawing." Chris offered Ezra a nod of acknowledgement to show he was not dismissing Ezra's worries in the slightest. "Got that Vin?"
"Aye Sir," Vin replied, the helmsman watching the sensor readings on his own display, conscious of what they were riding into.
As the Maverick proceeded forward, the stars moved almost lethargically while the ship was at impulse. The approach to the singularity took place at a snail's pace, which was what Chris expected. Vin was taking it slow, and for good reason, they needed to initiate braking thrusters at a second's notice if the gravimetric forces tugging at them became more insistent.
"God it's huge," Mary whispered under her breath.
"That must have been a hell of a dense star that collapsed for it to produce a black hole that big," J.D. commented, his eyes switching from the screen and his instruments as the Maverick proceeded ahead.
The ship shuddered suddenly, with everyone on the bridge feeling it.
Another alarmed screamed in their ears, and the Maverick immediately halted position. As the whine reached a crescendo in their ears, they saw something hurtling past them in the view screen, tumbling in a free fall towards the event horizon. The asteroid was breaking up even as it passed them, the impact with the Maverick, along with the intense gravitational field carrying it forward was too much for it to maintain its structure.
"Damage report!" Buck snapped.
Julia Pemberton's voice replied almost instantly. She spoke through static, her features appearing as a grainy image on the screen. "We're okay. It just scuffed the paint, that's all."
"We appear to be experiencing some disruption to our communications systems," Ezra spoke up, explaining their poor reception. "With all the turbulence we are experiencing the closer we approach the singularity, the greater the interference to sub-space."
"Understood," Chris nodded. "Ezra, raise our shields. I don't want us harming the paintwork any more than we have to," he said for Julia's benefit. "I still have a couple of payments left to make. Julia, monitor the situation, in case we need any additional power getting away from that thing in a crunch."
"Already done Sir," the perky redhead answered promptly, proving once again why she was the absolute best at what she did.
"Raising shields," Ezra announced, just as the Maverick began to shudder again. This time, the gravimetric forces could be felt through the hull and beneath the soles of their feet. While the ship continued its slow approach, everyone who was standing found a reason to grab something for support.
"Captain," Vin spoke, "I don't reckon we ought to get any closer than we already are. I'm fighting to keep the ship from going any faster like it wants to do thanks to its forward inertia."
"Understood," Chris nodded. Vin Tanner was one of the best pilots he knew, and if the Vulcan believed going ahead might end up with him being unable to pull them out, then it was a warning Chris was taking seriously. "Alex, are you close enough for your scans?"
The Science Officer did not answer, and her silence quickly pulled the attention of the other senior staff in her direction. While Vin's focus was still fixed on helm controls, Chris could tell by the stiffness in his shoulders, he was listening to what was happening at the science station.
"What is it?" Chris broke the silence, needing an answer immediately because Alex's troubled expression was putting them all on edge.
"Captain," Alex looked up at Chris, her expression mystified. "I'm registering matter at the centre of that singularity."
"What? How can that be? You shouldn't be registering anything at all!" Buck exclaimed, understanding her puzzlement. In fact, they all did.
Chris was thinking fast. If there was something at the centre of the singularity, then everything they knew about black holes was wrong. In truth, all Chris expected to learn from Alex's scans were the readings on the energy particles being ejected from the relativistic jet, the composition of the accretion disk and the level of energy output from the photon sphere. Once past the event horizon, the singularity itself would prevent any kind of scan. If Alex could scan it, then it meant...
"Vin! Turn the ship around!"
Chris's order was so sharp, everyone on the bridge jumped.
Like always, that was all the prompting Vin needed to do exactly what the Captain demanded. The Maverick banked hard to port, with the singularity becoming a blur of colour as the ship started to fight the gravimetric currents tugging it in the opposite direction.
"Bring her to maximum acceleration!" Chris didn't bother explaining himself, but everyone on the bridge knew Chris would not make such a statement without good reason.
"Chris, what is it?" Buck finally asked.
"Alex shouldn't be able to scan anything past the event horizon of that singularity, because if she can...."
Alex caught on to her Captain's line of thought. "It's not a real singularity. It's been created."
"Are you telling me someone built a singularity?" Buck stared at the image of the black hole, now shrinking in the view screen before them.
"Why not?" Ezra interjected. "The Romulans have been powering their warbirds with miniature quantum singularities for some time now. It stands to reason that someone somewhere might be able to construct a larger version like the one we have just encountered."
"Who?" J.D. stared at the senior officers, unable to imagine who would have that kind of technology.
Chris did not answer because knowing someone had created the thing was not the problem, it was the who of it that had the Captain of the Maverick hollering for Vin to get them out of the area fast. "Vin, as soon as you get clear, I want you to go to Warp 9. Get us out of here as quickly as possible. J.D., prepare a Class One probe to launch in case we can't transmit to Starfleet."
"Chris, what is it?" Buck insisted because Chris's reaction spoke to something worse on the horizon that no one but him could see.
"There is only one species we know, that can build a singularity of that size," Chris explained. "They don't use it to power any ship, they use it as a way into our dimension."
"Into our dimension? Buck stared blankly at him until understanding flared in his eyes. "Oh shit."
"What?" Mary almost threw up her hands in exasperation, her stomach turning into knots at the fear she could see not only in Chris's face but now also on Buck's.
The singularity was growing smaller and smaller in the view screen, the danger being left behind, but the tension levels on the bridge had skyrocketed.
"I think I know," Alex spoke up, racking her brain as to why her Captain was reacting so strongly to the realization the singularity was a construct, not a natural phenomenon. "Species 8472?"
"They were in the Delta Quadrant!" Ezra balked in response.
When USS Voyager had returned from its exile in the far reaches of the galaxy, in the Delta Quadrant, its Captain, now Admiral Kathryn Janeway had provided valuable information on a previously unknown part of space. However, it was the ship's experiences with the Borg that Chris paid close attention to. To return home, Voyager had to cross the vast space of Borg territory and had more encounters with the Collective than any other ship in the Fleet. One of those encounters included a partnership with the Borg, where the Collective was forced to accept Voyager's help to defeat Species 8472.
Species 8472 lived in a dimension known as 'Fluidic Space' and were by their accounts, the only sentient life forms there. When the Borg penetrated the barriers between the dimensions in an attempt to assimilate them, the Borg discovered a race resistant to their assimilation process and far more vicious than any they encountered. In retaliation for the contamination of their genetic purity, Species 8472 pursued the Borg into normal space and unleashed a devastating invasion that not only threatened the Collective but all life forms.
Only with Voyager's help was Species 8472 defeated and it was assumed hostilities had ended, but the presence of this artificial singularity meant something had changed. Species 8472, to date, was the only race they knew who used quantum singularities as a portal to and from their dimension. Chris knew if this was here, then Species 8472 was not far behind.
"Captain," Alex spoke up. "We're free of the gravimetric turbulence. We can go to warp."
"You heard the lady Vin," Buck prompted. "Take us to maximum warp, we need to warm Starfleet, they could be coming our way."
"Are you sure, Chris?" Mary asked, hoping they weren't premature in their assessment since there was not yet any sign of this deadly enemy.
"Mary," Chris turned to her. "They can open a portal anywhere in the galaxy. They chose to do it here, not in Borg space. That can't be a coincidence."
"Going to warp," Vin announced ignoring the discussion behind him, his fingers moving across his display with reflexes unmatched by anyone else on the Maverick.
The reassuring sound of the warp engines bursting to life boomed softly in their ears as the Maverick surged forward, leaving behind the glittering canvas to become shooting stars streaking past them. The sensation of reaching high warp, lasted for only a second before the Maverick experienced another violent jolt. This time, no amount of inertial dampeners or shields could protect the crew from the turbulence.
Buck was almost thrown off his chair, prevented from hitting the floor by Chris's hand, gripping his shoulder. Mary had grabbed Chris to avoid landing on her hands and knees, while Alex and Ezra fell forward, only to be halted by their respective stations. Vin managed to stay in his seat, refusing to be dislodged because he had to steer the ship right after its sudden jolt. J.D. did hit the floor, landing on his side.
"J.D.!" Buck reacted instinctively.
"I'm okay!" J.D. groaned, feeling an ache along his ribs he knew he would have to get checked out later. Right now, he was only interested in returning to his post.
"What now?" Chris demanded as he heard fresh klaxons screaming through the air. Instead of yellow alert, however, the panels were flashing in angry red colours, a clear signal to all that whatever calamity was upon them was much worse than what they had experienced earlier when they first encountered the singularity. Indeed, the screen in front of them maintained the view of the black hole they just left.
"We've been knocked out of warp again," Alex answered, her eyes scanning the console. "Ezra, are you seeing what I am?"
Ezra studied the display on his tactical station, trying to confirm the readings Alex was viewing with such astonishment. "I am afraid so. Captain, we have just encountered a massive emission of graviton energy emanating from ten thousand kilometres off our starboard bow. I cannot calculate it," he looked up from his console. "It is simply off the scale."
Chris had no idea how jarring it was to see Ezra's consummate gambler's mask completely lowered because what lay beneath it, was nothing less than shock.
"Captain, it's a transwarp aperture!" Alex exclaimed.
Chris didn't need to hear anymore. "VIN! GET US MOVING NOW!"
"Aye Sir," the Vulcan replied, fingers moving fast across the console trying to force the engines back into operation. Helm control was behaving sluggishly after the destabilization of the warp field the ship used to achieve faster than light speed.
The main computer's cool announcement seemed surreal in the face of their dire circumstances, especially when Buck's order to change the direction of the view screen's image revealed the aperture materializing in front of them. As if someone had torn a hole in space, the gap of light and energy was nowhere as mesmerizing as the six objects that appeared through it.
"Oh my God," Mary uttered a strangled gasp, never realizing there could be something worse than being caught by a black hole until this moment.
The Maverick had spent almost a year and a half preparing for this enemy and yet seeing them face to face for the first time, Chris knew they might have been deluding themselves into believing any preparation was going to be enough. The memory of what occurred the last time he confronted them over the skies of Earth, on the bridge of the Rutherford, suddenly surfaced in his mind. Clenching his jaw, Chris Larabee knew he was not losing another ship to them.
To the Borg.
As the lead ship closed in on them, penetrating their shields with the same ease others of its kind had used to dismantle Federation forces with terrifying ease, the green strobe of a scanning beam moved across the bridge. No one could breathe as they all stared at the ships before them, thinking the same thing, that they were going facing a hell worse than death.
Although right now, compared to assimilation, death would be a mercy.
There were six of them. When Chris Larabee faced the Borg at the Battle of Sector 001, there was just one of them. One ship had managed to decimate almost twenty-seven starships, with the loss of life so massive, Starfleet was crippled. If not for the extraordinary pooling of resources which allowed Chris to gain Josiah Sanchez as his Counsellor and caused Mary Travis to be drafted from the diplomatic corps to a starship posting, there wouldn't have been enough crew for its ships. What victory they achieved at Sector 001 had come about because of luck, nothing else.
And that was one ship.
Chris stared at the six cubes and felt for the first time, this was one fight he might not win. He was not afraid to die. Anyone who signed on for a career in Starfleet knew this was a possibility. Space was a beautiful place, but it could kill you quicker than you could blink if it desired. Except in this instance, they wouldn't even be given the dignity of death. No, if they were beaten now, he and his crew would be facing a living hell, and that was the one thing Chris could not bear.
As the green scanning beam moved across his bridge, allowing the Borg to catalogue each of them as raw material to be acquired and processed, he closed his eyes and told himself he could not show fear. If his crew saw he was afraid, it would infect them, and that simply would not do. They had to believe he could get them out of this, like he had delivered them from the Dominion task force more than a year ago and more recently the quartet of Romulan warbirds.
The scanning beam vanished and following it were the familiar words Chris still remembered in his nightmares, his blood turning cold at having to hear it again.
"We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ship. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."
Screw that, Chris thought to himself, even though his hardened expression telegraphed the words to the rest of his comrades. Instead, he sat up ramrod straight in his chair and shook off the fear that gripped him earlier. His crew needed him to be strong and believe their Captain wouldn't let the Borg take them without a fight. Furthermore, if it came down to it, Chris knew he had the will to take them all to oblivion to escape assimilation. Tapping his combadge, Chris spoke in a voice of perfect calm.
"Captain to all hands. Battlestations."
The order jumped started the rest of the Senior Staff who liked their Captain, were temporarily paralyzed with fear at what those six Borg cubes meant to their continued existence the instant the scanning beam began moving across the bridge. As the alarm for battle stations screamed throughout the Maverick, mobilizing everyone on board to the extreme danger, the crew were rushing to their posts while department heads checked in with the First Officer, voicing their readiness to accept whatever order the Captain gave them.
"Buck," Chris leaned over and whispered in the ear of his oldest friend. "Whatever happens, we are not letting them take the ship."
Buck met Chris's eyes and understood immediately what Chris was telling him. "Scorched Earth?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "When the time comes."
"If it comes to that, I'm behind you Chris. One hundred per cent."
Mary, who was seated next to Chris and Buck, overheard the exchange and said nothing in response. She knew what it meant and thought it made her quake inside with fear, Mary knew it was an act of last resort and faced the horror of assimilation, one she could accept. She would rather die as Mary Travis then survive as some random number in the Borg's collection of drones. Reaching for Chris's hand, she squeezed it once, drawing his gaze to her.
She gave him a little smile, telling him just as Buck had done verbally, she was with him no matter where their course took them.
Chris was grateful for that because it was one less thing to worry about.
"Captain the Borg have completed their scan. What are your orders?"
As always, Ezra Standish was a mask of calm as he waited for Chris Larabee to save them if he could. However, as he was a betting man, Ezra honestly didn't think much of their chances, but like Chris, he would rather die fighting than surrender to a fate worse than death.
As Maude often claimed, assimilation would be a waste of his God-given talents.
"Initiate ablative generator and then let Alex take over shield operations, I need you at weapons."
"Aye Captain," Ezra nodded, his eyes shifting away from the six Borg cubes to nod at Alex.
"Vin," Chris continued speaking in a calm, almost reflective tone, his hands steepled beneath his chin. "Take us to the Vikaris quasar at maximum burn. We have to stay ahead of them for as long as we can. They can't use the transwarp drive without overshooting us, but they can still match our speed. We've got to be faster to get beyond the range of their weapons. Their weapons have only one purpose, to drain our shields so they can board us."
"I'll keep us ahead," Vin promised thinking this was too much like the last hour of the Rutherford's life.
Vin was with Chris with during the battle over Earth, forced to take the Con when the officer holding that post had been killed by a power surge. He had been less than two months off a starbase posting, and the Battle of Sector 001 was his first. Vin remembered how the shockwave of the destroyed cube had reached the already fragile ship and finished her. Although the Captain didn't know it and Vin never saw any reason to enlighten him, Vin had been the one to drag the unconscious man into a life pod, never imagining he was saving his future best friend's life.
"Engineering. I want all power to propulsion and the shields. No matter what, we've got to keep them off us long enough to get to the quasar."
"You got it, Captain," Julia Pemberton answered promptly. "Spit and baling wire."
An involuntary smile stole across his lips at the remark, thinking how it had struck him the same way when she assumed command of engineering after the casualties on the Rutherford left her in charge. She was a junior lieutenant then, whose sunny disposition hid nothing less than nerves of duranium. She'd held the ship together, gave the Rutherford her day as they helped Jean-Luc Picard obliterate the Borg cube intending to assimilate Earth.
"Right," he managed a grin.
"Captain," Ezra spoke up. "At your command."
Across the hull of the Maverick, thanks to the specifications provided by the USS Voyager upon its return to the Alpha Quadrant, the shield emitters powered by the newly installed ablative drive, began sealing the galaxy class ship in a near impenetrable cocoon of energy. Due to its mission on the frontier, the Maverick had been one of the first ships to be outfitted with the technology, and even though Chris had been irritated by the additional time spent at Space Dock, he was never more grateful for it now.
From the outside, the ship looked as if it was encased in armour, but the illusion was apt, the ablative drive was capable of withstanding a direct hit from a Borg ship. Within seconds, the entire vessel was protected, with its pigeon blue hull now taking on the gun-metal grey of a warship. While Chris had no idea whether the technology was ever intended to be tested against six Borg ships at once, it still gave them a fighting chance.
"PUNCH IT VIN!"
The instant the armour was deployed, Vin Tanner was poised to act. Even before Chris finished the sentence, the helmsman fired the engines, having already plotted the trajectory through the cubes and then the course to the quasar. The enormous dying star exuded enough radiation to make it difficult for even the Borg to find them, and that was a margin wide enough for escape.
The Maverick lurched forward at maximum warp, the burst of acceleration feeling like an explosion under their feet as the ship blasted ahead, flying directly towards the lead Borg ship. As the Borg cube shifted position to avoid the collision, Vin pulled up hard forcing the Maverick into a near ninety-degree climb along the patchwork hull of the cube with less than a hundred feet to spare. Everyone on the bridge fell back in their seats while Ezra and Alex held on to their stations because not even anti-gravs was going to keep them from sprawling.
The Maverick reached the top of the Borg hull only to have two Borg ships attempting to cut them off. Performing a perfect barrel roll that should never be tried on a vessel this size, Vin turned the Maverick sharply to starboard and passed through the narrowing gap between the two cubes. Both enemy ships were incapable of pulling up in time, and it was with some satisfaction Vin saw they had collided. An explosion of white and amber followed the impact, and though it was nowhere capable of destroying either cube, it allowed the Maverick to slip past the blockade of ships.
"That was awesome!" JD managed to say, admiring the skill Vin had just displayed to escape the enemy.
"Don't mean a thing if we can't stay ahead of them," the Vulcan shrugged, too busy keeping the Maverick flying to accept any compliments, which in his opinion were premature.
"Captain, they're in pursuit," Alex reported. "Three Borg ships have broken off and are coming after us."
"Three?" Buck stared at Chris. On the viewer ahead, the screen revealed the triad of ships behind them, growing steadily as they match the Maverick warp for warp.
"They're not here for us," Chris guessed in the last few seconds. "They're here for that damn singularity. They want to know what Species 8472 is up to. It's why they've sent six ships."
"Captain, they're closing the distance" Ezra warned, waiting impatiently for the gloves to be taken off his firing controls. "They're firing!"
The Maverick shuddered dangerously as she was struck by the Borg energy blast. The shockwave was felt throughout the ship and alarms screamed in protest at the abuse, but all systems were still in the green.
"Shield strength down to 90 per cent," Alex announced from her station. "It's holding."
Chris took no pleasure in the report. The Borg were six ships, and they had more than enough resolve to pound the Maverick relentlessly until the armour buckled. She was nowhere safe yet, not until they got to the quasar.
"Thank you, Kathy," Buck whispered, feeling immensely grateful at Voyager's Captain for bringing this technology to them. He didn't want to imagine how quickly this fight would have ended otherwise.
Another blast rocked the ship, and it was followed by two more in quick succession.
"Captain, they're trying to adapt to the armour. We've lost another five per cent shield strength."
It was time, Chris thought, to pull out their ace in the hole. "Fire transphasic torpedoes, full spread. I want that lead ship taken out."
"With pleasure Sir," Ezra answered promptly, his hands flying over his console with the same speed he dealt cards and earned his reputation as the best card player, according to William T Riker, in the fleet. Well, best in the Federation, Ezra thought silently, but he didn't wish to brag about it.
Within a second of Ezra inputting the final command, the Maverick's weapons bank, usually host to photon torpedoes, unleashed a trio of amber energy blasts. Resembling shooting stars, the weapons hurtled across the distance between the starship and the enemy, striking the Borg cube across the face. One after another, the explosions that followed ripped the vessel apart, ending it in a brilliant explosion that lit up the entire view screen.
"YES!" JD exclaimed, pumping the air with his fist in jubilation.
"Target the second cube and repeat!"
Even if JD's exuberance felt good to hear, Chris was realistic. They were hopelessly outmatched with even one Borg ship, let alone five, and as far as he was concerned, one lucky shot did not mean they were out of trouble.
Before the debris from the lead ship had cleared, a fresh triad of transphasic torpedoes escaped its banks, just as the Maverick was struck again on the starboard section of the hull. The ship shook from the impact but drew some satisfaction when the torpedoes struck the enemy ship. Once again, the darkness of space was temporarily illuminated by the brilliant explosion of a second Borg cube. However, what elation there was to be taken from its destruction was brief.
"Captain, the remaining Borg cubes have broken away from their position at the singularity," Alex lifted her gaze from her station, wearing an expression of grave concern. "They're coming straight for us."
"How long until they get here?"Buck asked, suspecting it would be minutes if they were lucky. Seconds, if they were not.
"One minute until they intercept us," she replied.
"Ezra, get ready for another volley," Chris instructed, knowing this time the Borg would come in on an attack vector, anticipating an enemy was capable of giving as good as it got.
"JD." Buck regarded their navigator. "Deploy a Class 9 probe with a copy of our mission logs before the rest of those Borg ships get here. Starfleet needs to know what's happening."
"Aye Sir," JD nodded and immediately got to work, no longer displaying any signs of their deep personal relationship. He knew the importance of the order and the narrow margin of time he had to carry it out. Starfleet had to be warned of the danger, not just from the Borg but the threat posed by Species 8472.
Glad Buck had taken care of that bit of business, Chris gave Mary a quick look to see how she was doing. The woman's face was pale, revealing her fear, but she was controlling for his benefit. Chris loved her for that but could do nothing to express his gratitude because she was right, there was too much to do.
Another jolt from the Borg vessel indicated just how determined the Collective was to add the Maverick and its crew to its number, prompting Chris to check in with Engineering. The Maverick was taking a beating, and while the armour was holding, its strength was finite. "Engineering, what's our status?"
"We're still in good shape, Captain," Julia answered brightly. Chris wondered if she was maintaining her optimism for the sake of her engineering team or did she really believe they would come out of this unscathed. If it was the latter, Chris wished he had her faith.
"Divert every watt of power to the shields. The rest of the Borg ships are converging on us, and I have a feeling they're going to try and buckle the armour."
There was a slight pause, and Chris knew right there and then, his first assumption about her demeanour was correct.
"Aye Captain, I'll do what I can."
As Chris terminated the conversation, he looked over his shoulder and saw Ezra's expression softening because he knew the woman better than anyone else. Ezra could tell just like Chris, the spirited redhead was rattled.
"She's scared," Buck said quietly in Chris's ear.
"Who can blame her?" Chris muttered back when another blast from the Borg ship jostled him forward.
"Ezra, fire torpedoes again!"
"Firing," Ezra returned promptly, and the viewer revealed three more torpedoes streaking out of the Maverick's torpedo banks. This time, however, the Borg ship had adapted enough to flip on its side at the last minute, evading the deadly energy blasts, letting them pass harmlessly by.
"Damn it!" Buck swore just as the Borg ship fired again.
This time the jolt felt sharper, and Chris knew their armour strength was down even before Alex made the announcement.
"Armour strength has been reduced to eighty per cent."
The cube continued its dogged pursuit, increasing speed now that it was aware reinforcements were on route. Vin was doing his best to avoid the blasts, but the Borg were laying down so much firepower it was impossible to evade them all. If a lesser pilot had been at the helm, Chris knew the Maverick would have been in worse shape.
"Captain, I'm reading an aperture forming on the cube," Alex announced, her expression dark.
"What?" Chris stood up from his chair and stared at her. "Let's see it."
The image on the viewscreen immediately shifted, presenting them a view of the Borg cube. In the middle of its front face, a circular hatch appeared, no larger than the doors of the Maverick's own hangar bay. For a moment, Chris thought it looked like a single monstrous eye blinking open. The familiar strobe of eerie green light was unleashed into space, followed quickly by a Borg sphere. The ejected craft swiftly blasted away from the mothership, heading straight for them. Smaller than the Maverick, it was able to narrow the gap between them rapidly.
"Evasive maneuvers Vin!" Chris shouted, having recognized this tactic once before. Not from a Borg sphere but a Jem'Hadar ship on a kamikaze run.
But it was too late.
The impact was nothing less than catastrophic when the sphere smashed into the Maverick's starboard nacelle. Across the starship, everyone felt the collision. Chris and Buck were both thrown from their seats. Mary, remained in hers only because she had slammed into the headrest of the Captain's chair before she was bounced back into place. Ezra and Alex both went tumbling against the far wall, narrowly avoiding a section of panelling that exploded overhead, raining down sharp fragments of plasteel and glass.
Panels erupted from the overloads while conduits broke free and live wires spat embers across the carpeted floor. Klaxons screamed through their ears while lights flickered and then dimmed across the formerly well-lit bridge. In its place, the bloody hue of emergency lighting bathed the crew and the ruined command centre of the Maverick.
Chris scrambled back to his seat and tapped his combadge frantically. "Engineering, damage report!"
There was only silence.
"Engineering!" He tried again, but still, no one answered.
Glancing at tactical, he saw Ezra's jaw clench at the continued silence. The Security Chief was hiding his worry by returning to his station. Alex did the same, clutching her arm in pain and Chris could tell by the angle she'd dislocated it.
"What's our status?" Buck demanded. "Is the armour still up?"
"No," Ezra shook his head. "The armour is down, our shield strength is almost entirely depleted. They targeted our shield emitters. The collision caused too much damage to the array. "
"Captain," this time it was Vin who spoke up. The helmsman seldom did, but the streak of green blood across his face and the grave expression on his face told Chris to expect the worst.
"We've got maybe enough power for twenty minutes of warp, then we're back to impulse."
Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to determine what to do next because communications appeared to be down, and he had no idea how badly his ship was damaged. However, Vin's statement told him he had run out of options. Compounding that terrible realization was the appearance of the remaining Borg vessels. The viewer had not sustained damage and showed the arrival of the enemy ships moving out of formation to surround them.
And with that arrival came the dreaded realization, they had nowhere left to run.
The Larabee Hat Trick
"Computer, initiate auto-destruct."
Chris could not believe it had come to this. An hour ago, he was sharing a bed with the woman next to him, the same woman who now stared at him with love, even as he uttered the order that would see them both dead in a matter of minutes. He surveyed his bridge, bathed in the red glow of emergency lighting, thinking the colour of blood seemed macabrely appropriate under the circumstances. His senior staff, his friends, stared back at him with understanding, not disappointment at the words spoken, aware this was how it had to be and was glad for it compared to the alternative.
"Self-destruct initiated, command officers verification code required."
The main computer's indifferent voice interrupted his thoughts, reminding Chris his task was only half-done. On the viewscreen in front of him, the four Borg vessels loomed ahead, supremely confident their prey was done. As he thought of them infecting his bridge with their evil, taking his ship as well as their souls to become apart of their obscene menagerie, it made his next exchange with the computer so much easier.
Meeting Buck's gaze, his oldest friend as always revealed his solidarity with a nod and prompted him to keep going. Delay was something they could ill-afford and would cost them dearly if they squandered it. In the background, the whine of emergency klaxons felt distant as Chris closed his eyes and spoke in a quiet voice.
"Captain, Larabee, Christopher. Command authorization code - Nimrod."
"Voice pattern recognition accepted." The computer returned promptly and then added. "First Officer's verification required."
Buck didn't mince words and answered just as quickly. "Commander, Wilmington, Buchanan. Command authorization - Palomino."
"Voice pattern recognition accepted. Self-destruct commencing."
A countdown appeared on one of the panels on the wall, telling them just how much time they had left. Buck uttered a loud exhale, not realizing how bitter those words could be to say, even though it was the only play they had left.
"I'm sorry," Chris apologized, not just to Buck but to the rest of his staff. "I'm sorry I couldn't..."
Chris couldn't finish. The rest of his words died in his throat as the main computer began the countdown. It couldn't end yet, not like this. However, even as those defiant thoughts surface, Chris wondered what did he think he could do. If they made a run for it, the Borg would follow, and with their dwindling warp capabilities, they would catch up to the Maverick. Furthermore, with their depleted shields, the enemy could beam directly onto the Maverick to fill his ship with drones, or worse yet, spirit his crew away to the Borg vessel.
Even if they managed to stay ahead of the Borg, then what? Chris would not risk any population with the threat of assimilation by running to them for help. There was nowhere they could go the Borg wouldn't follow and reaching anyone else would doom them to the same fate. The Borg were relentless, they would follow the Maverick anywhere.
Or would they?
The idea came together so fast, he was almost dizzy from the speed of it. It was insanity, pure insanity, the logical part of his mind cautioned, but then the part of him that ignored the reasoned approach, who took risks, told him he had nothing to lose. Better to die trying to escape, then simply wait for a computer to make it so.
"Computer, belay self-destruct."
"Captain, Larabee, Christopher. Command authorization code - Nimrod." Chris interrupted hastily before the computer could finish.
"Buck," Chris shot him a look to do the same.
"Uh...Commander, Wilmington, Buchanan. Command authorization - Palomino."
"Voice pattern recognition accepted. Self-destruct aborted."
"Chris?" Buck stared at him in question, his mind whirling as it caught up with what the Captain intended. "What have you got in mind?"
Chris didn't answer him because he had an idea, and the success of it depended on how quickly it could be put into effect. He'd make his explanations to those who needed it later, right now, he had to act while he still had time to do it, before the Borg locked onto the Maverick with their tractor beams.
"Ezra, drop our shields and raise the cloak."
Ezra Standish's jaw dropped open in astonishment but Ezra being Ezra, who was never at a loss for words very long, quickly found his voice. "Captain, even if we raise the cloak, it will not take them long to detect us. They possess far more sophisticated scanning equipment than we do."
"A few minutes is all we'll need," Chris said sharply, not liking the editorial because he was perfectly aware of this already. "Do it now."
The pointed tone of Chris's voice told Ezra he'd do better than to argue. "Aye Sir, dropping our shields and raising our cloak."
"Captain," Alex spoke up, feeling the same concerns as Ezra and considered it her duty to speak up and make him aware of the risks, even if it was likely her advice would be ignored. "We can certainly deploy the cloak since we don't need the shields for that but if we take one direct hit..."
"I know the risks," he bit back sharply before turning to Vin because right now her words were just white noise. "Vin, maximum warp the minute the cloak is fully deployed."
"You got it," Vin replied, entirely at ease with whatever Chris demanded, no matter how outrageous it might sound to the others. He wasn't about to bother the Captain with useless questions when he could tell just by the urgency in his friend's voice, Chris Larabee had a plan. "Where are we headed?"
"Straight into the singularity."
An audible gasp rippled across the bridge as everyone gaped at the Captain in shock. Everyone except Vin that is, because as far as the helmsman was concerned, Chris Larabee had just pulled another rabbit out of his hat.
"Right away," he nodded, knowing just how far he could get them on what was left of warp power.
"Ezra?" Chris turned to the Security Chief.
"Shields are down, and we will be under cloak in three...two...one..."
Before Ezra could finish the sentence and Chris could issue the order, the Maverick exploded forward at Warp 9.
Emergency alerts immediately screamed their protest at the sudden acceleration in the Maverick's present condition, and the ship shuddered violently in agreement. No sooner than it surged ahead, the saucer section dipped sharply, descending at the steep angle necessary to bypass the Borg vessel directly in front of them. All around the crew, the stress to the structural integrity of the Maverick felt more potent with the absence of shields to blunt the turbulence.
With the disappearance of the Maverick behind its cloak, the Borg's reaction was just as violent. It was unclear if the Collective ever assimilated a Romulan warship to be familiar with the technology, but the sudden attempt by the starship to make a run for it caught them by surprise. Furthermore, the failure to lock on a tractor beam when they had the chance, allowed the Maverick to slip past their net. Unleashing a massive burst of weapons fire on the space previously occupied by the wounded craft, the Borg tried to force their prey to the surface once more.
"Captain, they're firing all weapons banks!"
"I know, I know!" Chris cut her off. "Vin, evasive pattern delta!"
Under Vin Tanner's control, the Maverick continued its sharp descent, closing the distance to the first Borg ship before diving beneath it. Flying along the underside of the cube, Vin was able to avoid the energy blasts fired by the other vessels. So far, their cloak maintained their anonymity, but like Chris, Vin took nothing for granted. Every inch of space he could put between the Maverick and the Borg was an advantage they desperately needed.
The rest of the bridge crew watched Vin's expert piloting of the Maverick through the viewscreen, with white-knuckles and clenched stomachs. Vin performed another tight maneuver between two closing Borg ships, carrying out a barrel roll that had everyone clutching any sturdy surface to keep from being flung across the bridge again. All the while, the senior staff found themselves staring wide-eyed at the sideways view afforded by the monitor screen.
"Chris, are you sure about this?" Buck asked once the Maverick completed its 360-degree turn and the whirlwind of the last few minutes subsided temporarily. Even if he admired Chris's bold move, the singularity may not be any safer for them than the Borg they were attempting to escape.
"Honestly, I have no idea," Chris admitted readily, not about to pretend this was nothing but a Hail Mary pass. "But anything's got to be better than blowing ourselves up to avoid assimilation. The Borg might try to come after us if we go through the singularity, but I'm betting they won't risk alienating Species 8472. The only reason they weren't entirely wiped out the last time is that they had help from Voyager. I can guarantee you, I don't intend to be that accommodating."
"It's a hell of a gamble Chris," Buck said with just as much honesty, "but it's not the first time you've saved our skins doing something stupid."
"I'll say," Mary commented from her seat, drawing Chris's attention for the first time since this battle began. Allowing himself a moment, he wanted to make sure she was alright, just for his peace of mind.
"You okay?" He asked her gently, unable to give her any more than that.
"I'll be fine," she assured him, brushing back a lock of gold hair shaken loose from the hair clip she used to keep it in place, tucking it behind her ear. In truth, she was terrified as hell, and the rough ride they were enduring was making her sick to her stomach, but Chris had given them a fighting chance at survival, and for that, Mary would suffer anything for him.
"Captain, the Borg are in pursuit!" Ezra reported as the ship continued to weave and dip, determined to stay ahead of the enemy weapons and their tractor beams. The larger ships were faster than most, but Vin was using every last bit of power left in the propulsions systems to reach the singularity, ahead of them.
"How are they tracking us?"
Chris had no illusions the Maverick could remain undetected by the Borg for long. The Borg's technology was formidable, accumulated over centuries of assimilating thousands of races throughout the galaxy. It stood to reason, at least some of those unfortunate races might have devised a method of seeing through a Romulan cloaking device.
"I cannot say for certain, but considering the damage done to the nacelle, we could be venting any number of gases and raw plasma. While the Borg are unable to target us specifically, they do know in which general direction we are headed."
"Well, that's better than nothing," Chris shrugged. "Vin, take her to Warp 9.9."
Aware of how the increased speed would affect his ship, Chris almost wished Julia Pemberton would contact the bridge to chide him for taking such reckless action. The fact that she had yet to do so concerned him more than he cared to admit. Without looking at tactical, Chris had no doubt Ezra felt the same.
"JD, how long until we get to the singularity?" Buck demanded, having given up his attempts to reach engineering or the rest of the ship to get a report on the damage sustained by the collision and worse yet, casualties. Not only was comms cut off from Engineering but he was unable to reach Sick Bay and determine how many people they'd lost when the starboard nacelle was struck.
JD immediately brought up the image of the singularity in the distance, his fingers flying over his console to give Buck a more accurate answer. "Two minutes."
Staring at the singularity now looming larger and more significant in the view screen, Buck took some comfort that it was not a true black hole or else entering it would mean nothing less than annihilation. This one was a doorway to a situation almost as perilous as the one behind them. Still, it was probably the first time anyone had looked upon such phenomena and considered it a source of salvation, instead of doom.
Hoping to have better luck at a different station, Buck noted Alex was crouched beneath her science controls, one of the consoles that had taken severe damage when the sphere had rammed them. Even as he approached, he saw the science officer attempting to repair the damage. Meanwhile, Ezra was at tactical, his own hands moving across the console, trying to draw power from every system he could access to boost their shields when it was needed.
"How bad is it?
"Not as dire as I thought," Alex craned her neck to look at Buck before going back to work. "I've rerouted the sensors to the secondary array we use for stellar mapping. It is nowhere as powerful as the main one, but it should do the job until we can get around to conducting repairs. I think the reason the comms are off all over the ship might have to do with a power surge in the communication array."
"It's more than that," Buck dropped to his knees so he could speak without Ezra hearing. "I've tried my combadge, no one in engineering is answering."
Alex's gaze shifted in Ezra's direction and understood Buck's desire for discretion.
"We were hit on the starboard nacelle Buck," Alex said quietly, "that's hella close to the Engineering deck. There could be any number of reasons why they're not able to contact us. If the warp core has been compromised or anti-matter containment failure, Julia might be focussed on maintaining our primary system instead of focussing on the comms."
"I hope you're right," Buck nodded. He prayed Inez was in her quarters along with the rest of the civilians after the yellow alert was sounded because he had no wish to go through what Ezra was probably suffering about Julia.
Despite the Borg maintaining their pursuit, firing blindly in their direction in the hopes of making a lucky shot, Chris knew with the approach of the singularity dead ahead, the Collective was going to be the least of the Maverick's problems. Now, as it grew more massive in the viewscreen, Chris wondered if flying into the heart of the maelstrom was the best course of action.
When the shockwave from another stray Borg energy blast shook the ship, Chris brushed away the unproductive second-guess. They had no choice, it was this way or face certain doom, either by assimilation or by blowing the ship. Almost on cue, Ezra reminded him of what was now required of him.
"Captain, we will need our shields to enter the singularity. We must lower the cloak."
The cloak had given them their advantage, but Chris knew as well as Ezra, the closer the Maverick got to the singularity, it would be subject to tremendous gravimetric turbulence capable of tearing her apart if they did entered without their shields. As it was, their shield strength was depleted thanks to the collision and may still be incapable of protecting them if they entered the vortex.
"Do it," he nodded. "Then fire transphasic torpedoes again. With our shields raised, we should be able to withstand the blast."
"Captain, I would not bet the house on that."
"And I thought you were a gambler."
"I prefer better odds but," Ezra studied the progress of the Borg ships on the still functioning display at his tactical station and replied, "at present, we appear to no other alternatives."
"Isn't that the truth?" The Captain muttered reaching silently and saw Mary gripping the armrests of her chair tightly, no doubt frightened for herself and her son, hoping he wasn't risking all their lives with his hazardous plan. Covering her hand with his own, Mary looked at him with confidence. Chris was sure he did not deserve.
"Do it now and fire torpedoes."
"Aye Captain," Ezra answered when suddenly, the reddish glow of emergency lighting which had bathed the bridge since the encounter with the Borg sphere vanished. The room flooded with the bright illumination of main power and with a burst of static, overlapping comm signals filled the air. Department heads were chattering in unison, creating a cacophony of noise that became impossible to discern.
"We just got comms!" JD said excitedly, and no sooner than the apparent announcement was made, the image of Julia Pemberton appeared on the main viewer. Behind her, Engineering seemed to be in the same wretched state as the bridge, but the lit panels and crew working diligently at numerous stations told Chris it was still functional.
"Sorry for the radio silence Captain," Julia smiled, and her eyes shifted past his shoulder long enough for Chris to know she was surveying the bridge to ensure Ezra was alright. Without needing to see for himself, Chris knew Ezra was similarly relieved. "We've had some problems down here."
"I can see that," Chris managed a genuine smile. "Good to see you, Lieutenant."
"Likewise, althoughI couldn't help but notice you seem to be taking the ship towards the singularity."
"That's correct," Chris didn't bother with any more explanation than that. "Lieutenant we need as much power to the shields as we can get."
"Chanu and I are already rerouting power from our auxiliary systems," Julia explained, anticipating the request the instant she was able to repair the sensors and determine their present trajectory. "I can give you sixty percent shields, no more. I need the rest to keep the warp engines online, at least until I can conduct repairs to our starboard nacelle."
"That will do," Chris replied with approval as he saw Buck returning to his seat again.
"Captain, we have decloaked, and I am raising shields," Ezra announced at the same time. Once again, the Maverick began shuddering violently as the Borg were able to target them directly. Julia's timely rescue with the increased shield strength was the only thing keeping them from destruction. This time Vin's steerage was limited because the Maverick had only one direction it could go.
"Alright then," Chris leaned back into his chair and saw the singularity staring back at him like the flaming eye of some dark god. "We're going in."
Buck Wilmington demanded as the Maverick shook off another blast from the Borg ship, sensing the drain on the shields almost as if the power was being sucked from his own bones. Behind them, the four Borg cubes continued their relentless pursuit, even if their determination to catch up to the Maverick seemed an almost desperate attempt to keep the outmatched starship from entering the singularity. He supposed there was some comfort to be taken in knowing Species 8472 scared the Borg as much as it did the rest of them.
"Shield strength down fifteen per cent!" Alex exclaimed as she struggled to maintain her footing in the face of the battering the Maverick was taking.
"Shit," Chris swore from the centre seat, just as aware as Buck they could not keep losing shield strength while attempting to enter the rift created by the singularity.
The increasing gravimetric forces as they flew past the edge of the accretion disk towards the photosphere was terrible enough. It would be nothing compared to the turbulence they would experience when they crossed over the event horizon. Unlike typical black holes, this singularity was not a region of dark space but a blinding white light which only proved this was no natural phenomena. If they lost any more shield strength, the ship would break apart long before the Borg could claim her.
"Ezra, fire transphasic torpedoes! Get those bastards off us!"
"Aye Captain," Ezra complied, not even bothering to tell Chris that the resulting shockwave might harm the Maverick. At this point, he was sure the Captain would not care. His display provided him with a view of the ships in pursuit and Ezra aimed for the lead ship in the chase. The transphasic torpedoes had worked better than any of them believed, but the Borg were continually evolving, there was no telling how long the advantage would last.
"On screen!" Buck ordered, and from his station, JD complied, giving them all a glimpse at what Ezra's volley was about to do.
The torpedo struck the first Borg ship, and though there was a slight shimmer as the Borg shields were penetrated, it was no match for the technology brought to them from Kathryn Janeway. The triad of torpedoes flared across the surface of the hull, each explosion was more intense than the one preceding it. By the time the third one hit its mark, the cube was no longer visible beneath the brilliance of the blast. The ship cracked apart like an egg. While the Maverick's crew were nowhere out of trouble, it still felt satisfying to remind the Borg they were not as invulnerable as they liked to believe.
"Borg cube destroyed!" Alex announced, giving Ezra a brief smile before the reality of the situation asserted itself. "The remaining three are still in pursuit."
"Fire again Ezra! Use all our torpedoes if you have to, but we're not entering Fluidic Space with those assholes following us!"
"You turn a lovely phrase Captain," Ezra remarked, his gaze fixed on his console, already setting up his targeting screen to unleash another barrage of torpedoes at their enemy. "However, I do not think it will come to that. Fortunately, our last trip to space dock ensured we are sufficiently armed to dispatch these brigands without exhausting our supply."
How the man managed to squeeze in so many words in such a short space of time was beyond Chris. Nevertheless, the Captain was glad to hear the report anyway. By now the Maverick was shaking harder and harder, with everyone on board able to feel the turbulence as they were being carried forward by more than just their engines. Klaxons continued to whine throughout the ship, issuing redundant warnings to the rest of the crew at what was about to happen.
"Distance to singularity."
"Ten thousand kilometres and closing," JD answered Buck promptly over the sounds of the ship's shuddering. "We'll be past the event horizon in twenty seconds."
Once again, if this were an actual black hole, they would never know it until the crushing death in the singularity.
"The Borg are continuing their pursuit," Alex announced, working side by side with Ezra at tactical, taking up the duties usually his responsibility as he plotted a new firing solution for their enemies.
"Ezra, where are we with those torpedoes?" Buck shot the Security Chief a look, not liking what the bombardment by the Borg was doing to their shields. They were about to ride into a maelstrom and doing it with their shields weakened was going to cause structural damage they could ill afford at this point.
Once again, the viewscreen shifted its perspective from the singularity to the vessels in pursuit. The three Borg ships loomed large before them, but it was telling that they had not already succumbed. If not for the upgrades, one vessel would have been enough to finish them, as it had done at Wolf 359 and the Battle of Sector 001 to a Federation armada.
The Borg, an unimaginative lot, had not altered their attack formation, lacking the ability to adapt to tactical thinking. Their superior technology was usually all they needed, but when faced with new situations, as they had when they first encountered Species 8472, they could be defeated. The torpedoes struck the hull of the nearest ship and the explosion that followed lit up the viewscreen. In less than a second, the flames were extinguished by the vacuum of space and the debris quickly swept away by the currents of the accretion disk.
"Fourth Borg ship destroyed!"
"Nice shooting Ezra," Buck said with relief, "what about the other two?"
Alex didn't answer for a moment, studying her console to give him an answer. Lifting her eyes to his, her expression remained grim. "They're not giving up Commander, they're still maintaining pursuit."
"Damn," Buck swore under his breath and turned to Chris. "Permission to continue firing Captain."
"Belay that, we don't have time," Chris said over the sound of the tremors in the hull.
The Maverick, even with its shields, was shaking so severely his teeth were chattering as he spoke. Glancing over to his right, he saw Mary's eyes were fixed on the screen ahead, the view now shifted back to the singularity ahead. Her pallor was as white as the knuckles she was digging into the armrest of her chair. No doubt her reaction probably mirrored everyone on board the ship.
"Warning, structural integrity is down 10 per cent."
"Vin, take us to full impulse!" Chris ordered ignoring the computer's voice of doom.
"You got it," Vin who had been ignoring the chatter behind him, answered almost laconically as if Chris had just asked him to take a leisure flight, not entering the singularity like a bat out of hell.
As it was, they lost the warp field the instant they were within reach of the accretion disk, the turbulence unable to maintain its stability. Forward inertia was pulling them towards the eye at near faster than light speed already, with Vin using their thrusters to ride the rapids. Full impulse would be sending them through the singularity like a bullet. However, they couldn't survive the trip if the Borg continued to deplete their shield strength.
"Going to full impulse now," Vin announced just before the Maverick accelerated in a burst of power, making everyone lurch forward in their seats and against their stations.
Space became a blur of colour as the vortex surrounded them on all sides, swirling radiation and the debris from the objects caught in the gravity field, turning it in a slurry of matter and energy. At the centre of this maelstrom was the singularity. Approaching it was like flying into the sun and Chris had to look away from the screen to avoid the assault on his retinas.
"Entering the singularity in ten seconds," JD managed to shout, and even though his voice was loud, Chris could hear the fear in it.
As the radiance from the vortex expanded across the view screen until they could see nothing else, Chris had to question whether or not he had done the right thing by taking this gamble. The ship might not survive the entry, and if it did not, Chris would have condemned a thousand people to die.
No, he had faith in Vin Tanner's ability to get them through this if nothing else.
The helmsman said little as always, but even though none of them could see Vin's face, except maybe JD, he was concentrating hard. Vin knew how the Maverick handled and had an intimate knowledge of her maneuverability. Knowing how much he could push her had allowed the ship to perform things he never imagined a craft of this size was capable. Yet the Maverick was his ship to fly, and when he was at the controls, they soared together.
"Come on darlin'," he said under his breath, using a term of affection he reserved for only one other, "you can do this."
Almost in answer, the Maverick entered the singularity without further delay, ignoring the bombardment of the Borg ships, the wailing of the emergency sirens throughout all decks and even the shuddering of its superstructure. It disappeared into the brilliant white light while riding the current of gravimetric eddies threatening to pull the Maverick apart. As he guided the ship into the heart of the rift, Vin thought of the term the pilots of old used to describe a moment like this.
Threading the needle.
When it felt as if the quaking could get no worse, and their bones felt ready to be shaken out of their bodies, the violent turbulence came to a sudden stop. The light that blinded them all on the bridge vanished and what remained in place could not be called space, even if its designation contained the word. The screen revealed a place that bore an uncanny resemblance to the view of the world from the bottom of an ocean. Instead of the reassuring blackness of space, sprinkled with the diamond glitter of stars, there was a vast expanse of green, stretching into Infinitum.
"This is it?" Mary looked at him. "This is Fluidic space?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded, staring at the screen with a frown. He'd reviewed Kathy's data tapes about the area when Voyager's mission logs were finally released by Starfleet after its return. Rising to his feet, he took a step closer to the screen as if getting closer would help him determine what it was that wasn't sitting right with him at his first viewing of the dimension.
Buck, on the other hand, was concerned with more practical matters. "What's our status?"
"Our shields are at fifty per cent," Alex answered automatically, aware this was what would be of most concern to the First Officer.
"What about the Borg ships?"
Ezra never got a chance to answer the question because the Maverick rocked with a familiar shudder. Dormant emergency alerts resumed the siren cry of warning, reminding everyone on the bridge their entry into Fluidic space had not eliminated the Borg threat after all. The two cubes appeared on screen again, ready to resume their pursuit even in this alien territory.
"Permission to fire Captain," Ezra frowned, wanting to be rid of these cybernetic scavengers once and for all. It appeared entering Fluidic space was not enough to deter their relentless pursuit. The Captain's gambit, however, had given them enough breathing room to avoid assimilation, and in this realm, the Borg were just as vulnerable as they were.
"Do it," the Captain snapped, but there was something in his face that made Ezra do a double-take before the urgency of the situation forced him to dismiss the observation for now.
Suddenly before he could fire, emerging from the swirling mist in front of them, with little or no warning were a phalanx of ships Chris knew immediately were bio-ships. Remembering Kathy's report, Chris recalled Species 8472 were capable of detecting the compression waves caused by vessels entering their dimension. If they had been the ones to establish the singularity in the Alpha Quadrant, it made sense they would be close by.
"Hard to port Vin! NOW!"
Vin barely had time to bank the Maverick hard, avoiding the ships rushing past them. The bioships swept past the starship, barely noticing the Federation intruder. Instead, their focus seemed to be on the Borg ships in pursuit. As alerts shrieked loudly in their ears again, the view screen revealed the new arrivals moving to intercept the Borg cubes behind them.
"What the hell?" Buck stared at his science officer. "How did we not see them coming?"
"I'm still trying to recalibrate what's left of our sensors in this environment!" Alex returned tautly, her hands already moving quickly over her console, trying to configure her station to avoid any more surprises. "Fluid space isn't empty, it's full of matter."
Mary suddenly stiffened in her chair, her eyes widening as an alien sensation flooded her thoughts. For a second, she wasn't sure what she was sensing. Not long ago, Mary encountered the Val' ea, a telepathic race of children who'd infected the minds of the Captain and the senior staff. That invasion had been inadvertent, resembling the feeling one got in a crowded room surrounded by too many bodies. The sensation she now felt was entirely different. She could feel them crawling around inside her skull, winding tendrils of connection in her language centres as if creating new wiring.
Once established, the message they had to deliver made Mary jumped up, breathing hard.
Chris got to his feet just sharply at seeing nothing less than panic in her blue-grey eyes. "Mary, what is it?"
"Chris," she raised her eyes to him. "We have to get out of here now!"
There was fear in her eyes, and for a moment, Chris thought the situation might have finally snapped her formidable nerves. Mary wasn't a military officer, she'd spent her life as a diplomat. The last year had seen her thrust well and truly out of her comfort zone. He supposed it wasn't impossible that there were limits to how much she could handle at one time.
Closing her eyes, trying to shut them out, she stared at him and stated, "I can hear them."
Her statement forced even Vin to look over his shoulder in concern. Thanks to Mary, Vin was able to erect the mental shields essential to his race's ability to keep their telepathic tendencies under control, but while she had been able to guide him, her own talent was weak. It was her marriage to Syan of Vulcan and the mating bond between husband and wife that surfaced Mary's own latent abilities. Unfortunately, it made her susceptible to the thoughts of powerful telepaths who were able to slice through her mental shields easily.
"Species 8472. Chris, they think we're guilty of something. I don't know what but they're holding us responsible. They keep saying we did this to them!"
"Did what?" Buck asked just as mystified.
"Doesn't matter," Chris cut in and helped Mary back to her seat. "Vin, get us out of here. If Mary's right, they'll be coming after us when they're done with the Borg. We need to put as much distance between them and us while they're fighting it out. JD, drop a sensor buoy to mark the spot. Without stars and subspace, we're navigating blind."
As the Maverick took flight away from the confrontation between the two warring races, the senior staff watched the battle unfold as the bio ships opened fire on the two lone cubes. Firing a single continuous stream of power that lasted seconds, the beam of energy from the bioship cut the enemy cube in half. The display of power was enough to send the cube into overload, and the explosions flaring across its hull climaxed in a brilliant flare of light.
"Jesus Christ," Buck whistled. "I thought our transphasic torpedoes were nasty."
"I was under the impression the Borg cubes acquired the technology to defeat Species 8472," Ezra commented, his own attention fixed on reviewing the tactical data on the aliens, especially after hearing Mary's statement.
On cue, the single Borg ship fired a different weapon, one that was not the familiar energy-draining blasts that threatened to take apart the Maverick shields. Resembling a Romulan disruptor blast, the emerald coloured torpedo hurtled through space and struck one of the bioships nearest to it. The smaller, organically designed craft seemed to shimmer at the assault, and for a moment, it appeared it might have been compromised.
But then nothing happened.
"Oh God," Alex whispered. "Captain, I have a bad feeling they might have been adapting too. The bio-molecular weapon Voyager used against them may no longer be effective."
That was an understatement, Chris thought as he saw the bioships converging on the single Borg cube, now completely defenceless, reminding him of a zebra cornered by a pack of hyenas. Chris almost felt guilty at leaving the cube to its fate, but then he remembered what the Borg were, and how the Maverick had come to be in Fluidic Space.
After that, he felt nothing at all.
As Claire Moseley made her way to Shuttle Bay 2 to properly seal off the area after the devastation caused by the collision with the Borg sphere, she couldn't believe how things could change so radically in one hour.
When the red alert sounded, she and Chanu were in her quarters, discussing where they were going to spend their honeymoon. Chanu wanted them to go to Dorvan V, so she could, at last, meet his family who had settled on the distant colony world with other descendants of the Pueblo Indians of Earth.
It had been problematic for him to see them in recent years since Dorvan V had always been considered disputed territory between the Federation and the Cardassian Union. This had been especially difficult during the Dominion War, and while the Cardassians had left the peaceful community alone, it was exceedingly dangerous for a Starfleet officer to attempt a visit, even for family. Now the territory was firmly under Federation control, Chanu wanted Clare to meet his father Kojay and see the village he had grown up in.
Claire was looking forward to the trip mostly because Dorvan V was not that far away from Deep Space Nine, where her brother Rafe was stationed. It meant he could also participate in the marriage ceremony Chanu was certain his traditional parents would insist upon when they reached the community. The young blond engineer didn't mind. She adored Chanu, and she was interested in spending some time learning about the culture of the Pueblo. It amused her to think that even though Starfleet allowed them to explore distant civilizations and races, there were still some mysteries left to learn about her own people.
Walking along the corridor with her engineering kit in hand, she frowned at the damage caused by the Borg sphere. The passage she was travelling in was dark, and Claire frowned at her insistence to do this repair work herself when Chanu suggested she not go alone. With everyone working hard against time to restore primary functions to the ship, Clare thought it a waste of resources to assign two people to a job she could carry out on her own.
Now that she was faced with the hallway covered in debris, with light panels shattered and tangles of wire dangling from exposed ceiling panels, she couldn't help think the place looked a little scary. Telling herself she was being silly, she continued towards the shuttle bay doors, intending to seal it until the damage on the other side could be assessed appropriately and repaired. At the moment, their situation was too critical to waste power by cordoning off the place with emergency force fields.
Reaching the door, she put down her tool kit and lowered to find the instrument she would need to begin the work. The lack of illumination on the door panel told her the circuitry was probably fried and she would need her engineering tricorder to run a diagnostic of the damage before she could begin the work. She was rummaging through the tool kit when suddenly the door slid open.
Claire looked up abruptly and had just enough time to utter a soft cry of shock before the pain came, and everything she was, ceased to be.
"Hey Alex," Buck leaned against the science station where Alex was presently hunched over her console, tapping furiously as she reconfigured the Maverick's damaged sensor array to function in their new environment.
"Yeah, Commander," she responded, not looking up from the display as she continued to manipulate the digital images on her screen to match the specs she needed for the recalibration of the sensor.
"I didn't mean to snap at you earlier," he apologized, feeling a little guilty at jumping on top of her when the bioships had come out of nowhere. "I know you're doing your best."
Alex lifted her eyes to his, a little smile crossing her lips. "I know that Buck," she gave him a look of affection, not at all slighted by his demand earlier. Still, she was touched at the apology and decided it was very much in keeping with his warm character.
"Those bioships took me by surprise too. Our sensors are used to functioning through a vacuum. In this environment, where we seemed to be surrounded by whatever organic soup is outside, it's harder for signals to come through, especially after the damage we sustained f collision."
"Yeah," Buck nodded in agreement. "At least we've shaken off the Borg. I can't think of any hell worse than becoming one of those damn things."
"Me neither." Alex raised her eyes to the view screen to see the environment outside. "You know despite the current situation, I think this is an opportunity to gather some valuable intel about the region. Voyager didn't get to spend much time in Fluidic space, so we know very little about it. If they're coming after us, we need to learn as much about it as we can."
"Spoken like every egghead science officer I ever met," Buck grinned. "Gather intel as needed, but we need to get out of here, the sooner, the better."
"Understood," she nodded, showing she was not so enamoured by the possibility of exploring a new frontier that she could forget the danger they were presently facing. The screen before her, previously displaying numerous images had now settled on one set of digitized readings, all flashing green. "I think I've set up our senses appropriately to detect any more bioships before they get to us."
"Good," Buck said with approval and turned to Chris who was still staring at the viewscreen, lost in thought.
The Maverick had left the scene of the battle between the Borg and Species 8472, journeying further into the region. So far, they had detected no sign of anything close to resembling stars or planets, making Chris wonder how on Earth the race lived. They would need some form of terrain to build ships or for that matter, a civilization. Surely they couldn't have evolved living like schools of fish. It was perplexing.
"Chris, Alex has configured the sensors."
Chris drew away from the screen as Vin continued ahead, using thrusters to carry them forward instead of impulse power. He wanted to reduce any chance of creating the compression waves the enemy used to detect them. Even the marking buoys JD had released at intervals were cloaked to ensure they did not leave breadcrumbs for the bioships to follow. Meanwhile, Ezra was at his own station, studying what he could about the bioweapons used by Voyager and how they might be improved so they could be used effectively against the enemy once more.
"What have you got?" Chris asked, once again wearing that slight frown telling Buck something was on his mind, if not what exactly.
"I've configured our sensors to detect massive shifts of liquid density, utilizing the same principle seismologists use to detect the intensity of underwater quakes to predict tsunamis. I've calibrated our sensors to look for mass displacement roughly the size of the bio ships. It will give us a good indication of when they are coming our way. It's an early warning system anyway, at least until Julia repairs our main sensor array."
"Good work," Chris turned back to his chair, with Buck giving Alex a nod of approval to carry on, before following him.
"Buck I want a senior staff meeting in thirty minutes, all department heads present so we can figure out how we get out of this mess. While I'm all for up and leaving Fluidic Space as soon as we can, Mary's warning has got me worried. They opened up a rift in our space, that tells me she might be right about them thinking we're responsible for something. We might need to figure out what that is or risk having an armada coming after us in the Alpha Quadrant."
"Yeah, that's all we need," Buck shook his head and then spoke up. "Chris is something else wrong?"
Chris stared at him for a moment and realized the gnawing sensation he had in the pit of his gut had not gone unnoticed.
"It doesn't look like I thought it would," Chris admitted after a moment.
"Excuse me?" Buck didn't understand as Chris sat down at his seat.
"I reviewed Voyager's mission logs, and the footage I saw of Fluidic space showed a place that looked like you were travelling along the bottom of the ocean. All green and golds, it looked..." he struggled for the right word and picked the closest one that fitted. "Healthy."
Buck turned to the screen to take a closer view of Fluidic space as it was right now and did not see the ocean. If anything, it looked murky like dank water. Vibrancy was not the first word that leapt out at him.
"I know what you mean," Vin said, finally able to look away from the Con now they were out of immediate danger. "When I was growing up on that planet with my foster folks, I fell into this swamp one time and went all the way under. It wasn't deep, but I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The water was no good for drinking, and it was all thick and stagnant. That's what it looks like out there, the bottom of a swamp."
The mood during the senior staff meeting a short time later was understandably bleak.
Once the final tally was made, the casualty list was as bad as Chris feared. They'd lost seventeen crew in the collision with the Borg sphere and nine more during the fiery aftermath due to explosive decompression, structural failure and various plasma fires. Most of the dead were in the service, but a few had been civilians, and those losses hit Chris particularly hard. Forced to put away his anger and sorrow until the proper time, right now, his crew needed his mind focussed on the task of getting them home.
For the first time, Chris could truly appreciate Kathryn Janeway's situation, beyond the words in her mission logs.
As the meeting of the Senior Staff got underway, no one at the conference table could ignore the unnerving sight of Fluidic space beyond the window. The strangeness of the place seemed more potent in light of Chris's suspicions regarding the state of the region. Joining them at the table was Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and Julia Pemberton. While none of the three had been on the bridge during the battle, it was clear the last hour had also taken its toll upon them.
Nathan appeared exhausted, no doubt because he would have been on the front line, dealing with the casualties flooding Sick Bay after the nacelle had been struck. Nathan, who never appeared to have developed the calluses doctors so often needed around their emotions, might have been taking the loss of the crew even more personally than Chris. The Captain couldn't blame him of course. While Chris received his news of the casualties from reports handed to him, Nathan would have seen them first hand.
Julia's soiled uniform indicated she didn't have time to change before this meeting. Such was the emergency on the ship, expending the time to change her clothes seemed trivial when their survival depended so much on the Maverick returning to full operational status. Her uniform was stained in places with soot and grime. A smattering of it was on her cheek beneath her notice. Chris supposed directing her Engineering team to repair a thousand wounds across the Maverick was far more necessary than her personal appearance.
Josiah, on the other hand, seemed silent. While he would have sat out the battle either in his quarters or the Counsellor's office, Chris imagined he was probably all talked out from trying to offer comfort to the terrified civilian portion of the crew. During these battles, Josiah always made himself available to anyone who needed soothing during the crisis. For many families, the price of remaining together meant facing the same dangers, and for a few, it was simply too much. As Counsellor, Josiah was the voice of the civilian population on the Maverick, and at moments like this, Chris could see just how much of a burden it was.
"Okay, how bad is it?" Chris asked once the meeting was underway, directing his first question at Julia.
Julia let out a sigh and eased into her chair, appearing almost grateful the meeting allowed her to catch her breath. As it was, she'd left her team a long list of instructions so they could keep working while she was here and felt a little guilty she was getting some respite when they were not.
"As you know, our communication array, along with our deflectors, were damaged in the crash. We have limited short-range communication via our combadges, but that's it until the repairs can be conducted. The main engines are still functional, but they need to be taken offline for at least four hours to restore full warp capability. Our biggest problem right now is power. We seemed to be bleeding it out, and if we don't cap it off soon, not even our auxiliaries are going to keep us from becoming dead in the water."
"So that's the good news," Buck spoke up immediately, trying to diffuse the grim mood that fell over them after that somewhat depressing report. "So what's the bad news?"
"Given enough time, we can repair all this damage Captain," Julia met Chris's gaze, wishing she had not put things so starkly but then knew the Captain would want no padded truths. "We've got partial shields restored with what's left of the deflector array. To get back to full operation, we need to go out on the hull and replace the hardware."
"Outside?" Ezra blurted out before he could stop himself.
All eyes turned to him before the Security Chief retreated behind his composed gambler's facade once more. Still, it was clear to everyone he did not like the idea of anyone venturing into the strange environment outside. Least of all Julia.
"Captain," he spoke in his most professional voice, not looking at Julia as he addressed Chris. "That might not be wise. At this point, we have insufficient information about this region and what dangers might lie in it."
Chris tended to agree, but he also knew right now, the Maverick was vulnerable. They'd beaten the odds and survived an encounter with six Borg cubes, Chris did not want to gamble they would be so lucky in a battle with Species 8472 with the Maverick in her present state. "Is there any other way to conduct the repair without you having to spacewalk?"
Julia glanced at Ezra, seeing through his attempt at indifference and knew he feared for her, but just as she was forced to cope with the danger he faced as the Chief of Security, he would have to extend her the same consideration.
"I'm afraid, not Sir. It's more than just the deflector array that's been damaged, we've got multiple breaches across the saucer section that must be sealed. We've got plasma bleeding from the structural damage to the nacelle which can only be repaired from the outside. We simply can't waste the power using emergency force fields. As it is, we're experiencing severe power blackouts in the surrounding area."
"Captain," Buck spoke up, understanding Chris's hesitation after losing more than twenty-five people today, but they would lose a lot more if the enemy came calling when they weren't ready. "We need to get out there," he shifted his gaze towards Julia and then Ezra, "but we need to do this smart. We need to know it's safe first."
"I agree," Alex added her voice to Buck's in support and then glanced at Vin, offering a silent apology for what she was about to propose. "Captain, I can go out there in an EV suit and collect some data, including samples. The transporters are offline, and we need a fast answer. I'll go out there, get a sample of the substance that makes up Fluidic space and get it back for study. EV suits are pretty indestructible, it should keep out any contaminants, and I won't be out there long."
Vin's expression remained as unflappable as ever, but Alex knew if he had a problem with her suggestion, she would hear it when they were alone.
"I'll go with her," Ezra volunteered.
"No," Chris countered immediately. "You need to get working on building us bio warheads. The ones the Borg used on Species 8472 had no effect, and I won't be caught like they were."
"But Captain," Ezra started to argue when he found himself on the receiving end of the Larabee glare, bringing an end to any protest. "Aye Sir."
"I'll go with her," Vin volunteered not looking at his wife because he was not speaking as her husband, but as a comrade. "Because Alex is right. That's not space," he glanced at the window. "Whatever is floating out there, might be capable of supporting life other than Species 8472."
"Oh shit," Buck swore, falling back into his chair, the thought not even occurring to him until now.
"They claim to be the only things that exist in their dimension," Mary reminded, having reviewed the information about Species 8472 before this meeting. "According to Captain Janeway, they found everything on our side a threat to their genetic purity because they were alone in this place."
"With that kind of arrogance," Josiah spoke, finally able to contribute something to this meeting. "They might not consider other creatures living in their realm as true life forms, so from their perspective, they are alone."
"Frankly," Nathan added, "I find it extremely unlikely that they are the only living things in this dimension. I need Alex's samples to be certain of this, but considering how much reliance they have on organic technology, I would say what's out there, would share a lot of similarities to planets in the early stages of biological development."
"Exactly," Alex nodded. "For all we know, this entire dimension of space could be like Earth four billion years ago. It could be a primordial soup out there, full of organisms. Just because Species 8472 believes they're alone, may not make it so."
"Which only proves my point it is dangerous outside," Ezra reiterated. "You should be accompanied by a security team."
"We should keep the party small Chris," Vin advised, "at least until we know what we're dealing with. It may be nothing, but if there is something out there..."
"He's right," Buck agreed. "I recommend one security officer to accompany them."
Ezra would have preferred more, but he was willing to accept Buck's suggestion. He would have preferred to go himself but guessed Chris would never permit it while the ship was still in their present circumstances. He was too valuable to waste.
"Do it," Chris ordered. "In the meantime, it's all hands on deck. Buck, go over the personnel records, re-assign anyone with engineering capabilities to assist Julia with the repairs."
"I can help out, Captain," JD spoke up, usually silent during these meetings because he was still a junior officer. "I mean if it's okay."
"It is," Chris gave the younger man a little smile, perfectly aware of just how versatile JD could be. The kid who beat the Kobayashi Maru had also done pretty well in his engineering classes, Chris had no doubt he would provide valuable assistance to the efforts of the already taxed Engineering team. "Looks like you got another set of hands at your disposal Julia."
"We could use it," Julia gave JD a look of gratitude.
"Okay," Chris looked at Nathan, "how is Sick Bay doing?"
"We've got a lot of wounded," Nathan replied. "Lt. Wo Chin's surrogate went into premature labour when their quarters suffered some structural damage. We've managed to stabilize her, but Wo Chin's husband Kumar took a nasty hit on the head. Doctor Zheng is still in surgery with him." The healer was still somewhat annoyed he had to leave it to his assistant CMO instead of handling it himself, but such were the duties of a department head. "Most of the injuries are the result of radiation leakage and burns from the plasma fires."
"Some of the civilians have offered to help," Josiah added. "They're volunteering to run equipment and food to where it's needed. Casey's rallied the first aiders to help out in Sick Bay. Inez has organized everyone to grab their meals at Four Corners, so we're not overtaxing the replicators. The school is babysitting the children whose parents need to be on duty, using the empty holodecks. People are scared, but having something to do helps them forget where they are, which isn't easy to ignore under the circumstances." Josiah glanced at the window.
"Billy is with them," Mary told Chris Billy had with Audrey King and daughter Lilith when the crisis began, and while she had spoken with him in the last thirty minutes, she knew Chris would have like to have checked in with the boy himself.
Chris couldn't help feeling exceedingly proud of his crew and the civilians on board. Considering their situation, they had pulled together like a real community, and it made Chris doubly determined to ensure he got them back to the Alpha Quadrant. "Josiah, please give my thanks to the civilians for all their help. I know we are in a difficult situation, but they can be assured we are doing everything we can to get them home."
"I'm certain they already know Chris," Josiah answered, perfectly aware of how much confidence the crew had in their Captain. A short time ago, they were facing assimilation, now they had a fighting chance of survival. It was not lost on anyone it was Chris Larabee who delivered them from this fate. "But I will tell them."
"Alright," Chris turned back to the others. "Ezra, you need to get to work on those torpedoes. Somehow, they've managed to get around the nanite bioweapons developed by Voyager. We've got to regain that advantage. Nathan, you're the most familiar with the Borg assimilation process than anyone else on board. If I'm not mistaken these bioweapons were built using Borg nanites, so give Ezra a hand."
"I can do that, although," he glanced at JD. "JD was helping me with the technological side of it. Ezra, he could explain some of the engineering aspects of the nanites better than I could."
"JD your dance card appears to be full," Buck looked at the kid who was surprised at Nathan's endorsement. "Julia can you spare him to help Ezra."
"Well I suppose you could make it up to me later Commander," Julia flashed Ezra a smirk, knowing perfectly well he would be embarrassed by this personal display. Under the circumstances, a little levity might just be what they needed.
A ripple of amusement moved across the room, especially when Ezra looked like he was blushing proved she'd succeeded on that score.
Clearing his throat, Ezra gave her a look. "We'll talk about that later, Lieutenant."
"It's a date," she winked at him.
"Okay, okay," Chris threw in with a good-natured chuckle before Ezra could turn any redder. "Stop making my Chief of Security twitchy, I need his mind on the job. JD you're with Ezra and Nathan."
Turning to the other couple at the table, Chris issued his last order before Buck called the meeting to a close. "Alex, Vin, suit up. The sooner we know the conditions out there, the faster the Engineering teams can get to work."
Ezra Standish caught up with Julia Pemberton after Buck dismissed the Senior Staff from the Conference. Nathan and Josiah were headed to the lower decks where Sick Bay was situated while Alex and Vin went to the airlock to make their 'spacewalk' across the hull. Ezra took the opportunity to speak to Julia, aware time would not permit it later. As it was, JD had already made tracks to the Armoury to begin work on the bio-molecular warhead they intended to use to protect themselves from Species 8472.
Despite the levity she brought to the somewhat tense meeting earlier, Julia was now making a beeline back to Engineering, urgency in every step she took to the turbo lift. He knew by her stride, she was eager to get to work and nothing grated at Julia more than seeing her beloved ship in anything less than perfect condition. Nevertheless, his call had halted her in her steps, and she turned around, surprised because she would assume and rightly so, he was just as eager to get back to his duties as her.
"This is not about me teasing you in there is it?" She asked when he was close enough. "I'm sorry, I just thought everyone was so edgy in there, and you were being so Ezra, we needed to laugh."
"So Ezra?" He stared at her.
"You know, all doom and gloom with the dramatic delivery of a Tennessee Williams play."
"Charming," he gave her an affectionate look. "No, I was not annoyed by that. If I were easily perturbed by any of the things you do, I would have fled when you forced me to share my abode with a feline possessing the demeanour of a Klingon Targ."
"Ezra," Julia gave him a withering stare. "You know Cosmo says that if you share your space with a pet, you are one step on the road to living with someone."
Once again, Ezra cursed the magazine that had been the bane of men for the past four centuries. Julia, who considered it the bible by which she navigated their relationship, was an avid practitioner of the dark arts held in its digital pages. "Yes, having my expensive Persian rug cleaned regularly has really taught me that lesson."
Julia uttered a short laugh, but when she fell silent, Ezra could see she was itching to get going to Engineering and truth was, he was eager to return to his own duties as well. However, after the self-destruct order given earlier, Ezra felt compelled him to take a little time for himself. Soon he would be occupied with Nathan and JD, attempting to construct a bio-molecular weapon using stone knives and bearskins, and the opportunity to speak his mind would be lost.
"Anyway," he resumed speaking, ignoring the scatological wisdom provided by Cosmo, "I have been giving some thought to our situation, and I think when we leave this dreadful realm, we ought to give serious consideration to sharing a living space. After all, since you forced me to buy Huxley, perhaps you should help take care of him."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up, realizing what he was asking her. Once again, Ezra was caught in the dazzling brilliance of those emerald eyes. "Oh, Ezra I would love to!"
Before he could utter another word, he was on the receiving end of an embrace that evolved quickly into a passionate kiss. Even though they could feel time pressing against them as if its presence was given physical form ready to tap their shoulders and remind them they had matters to attend, for the moment at least all was forgotten. Ezra held her close, never understanding what it was, he had done to earn this bundle of sunshine in his life when there were only the seedy backrooms of darkness before. Julia's view of the world was a beautiful place, so unlike his jaded perspective. Yet somehow against all the odds, she understood him and was able to sidestep the deflections of his gambler's character to love the person beneath.
"Well," he said, flashing Julia his trademark dimpled grin when they parted. "We can discuss the details when this crisis is over. Such as what to do about your unicorn collection."
"Me and the unicorn collection are a packaged deal Commander, get used to it." Julia winked as she turned on her heels and headed towards Engineering.
"Not while there is breath in my body," Ezra called after her, smiling as he did the same, going towards the Armoury.
"Captain," Charlotte Richmond, temporarily taking Alex's place at the Science station while the science officer and the officer of the Con were undertaking their mission on the hull, piped up a short time after Chris, Buck and Mary had returned to the bridge. "The sensors are picking up some sort of mass directly ahead of us."
"A mass?" Chris shot her a look from his command chair. "I need a better definition than that, Lieutenant."
So far the screen revealed nothing but the disheartening view of the murky dark substance that made up Fluidic space, but Charlotte's announcement meant there was something there, something they could not see just yet.
"Ensign Chun, let's see it," Buck prompted Jewell who had retaken the navigator's station since JD was down in the Armoury. "Magnify the view 400 per cent."
No one knew what to make of it when Charlotte's 'mass' materialized in front of them.
From a distant, it looked like a giant dutch elm with branches splayed out like a fan, except these branches bore no leaves and even from a distance, it was a tree several thousand miles across. They hadn't even neared it yet, but Chris knew just by looking at it when the Maverick got closer, the thing would make them appear positively tiny.
For a moment, the Captain was struck with the story of Telperion, one of the Two Trees of Valinor featured in JRR Tolkien's Silmarillion. Those books had been his father's favourites and looking at this mass now, reminded Chris of that fabled tree, shortly after the creature Ungoliant devoured its life.
And just like Telperion, this mass with its branch-like latticework looked dead.
"What is it?" Buck asked the question on everyone's mind.
"I can't be certain until our sensors are fully repaired," Charlotte attempted to answer, "But preliminary scans indicate it is definitely organic, with a high concentration of calcium in its composition. Captain, it's almost ten thousand kilometres across."
"That's almost the size of a small moon," Mary gasped next to him.
Earlier Chris had wondered how Species 8472 had developed civilization in this odd region of space without planets and moons from which natural resources could be mined to build ships and cities. How did they live without something resembling a home? Were they nomadic? He had a thousand questions and wished things were not so hostile between the Federation and the species because he would have liked to have asked them.
"Captain, shall I alter course or should I go in closer?" Nora Densham, who was at the helm, asked.
"Move in slowly," Chris answered, wanting a better look at the mass because they needed to learn all they could about this region if they were going to be traversing its expanse for a time.
"Chris," Buck leaned over in his seat to ask quietly. "Not to sound like Ezra, but is that the best idea? For all we know that could be one of their cities."
"No," Mary spoke up, capturing the attention of both men.
Her inadvertent interruption made her cheeks turn red with embarrassment, and she quickly explained herself.
"I'm sorry, Captain," Mary used his title to indicate she was making this report as one of his officers. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I don't think there's anyone there. I can't sense their thoughts. They're extremely powerful telepaths. Just one of them passing us by on a ship was capable of penetrating my mind. If there are a lot of them on that structure, I would know it."
Chris trusted Mary's psi ability as limited as it was. On more than one occasion, it had given him an edge, and in more urgent situations, it had saved their skins. He wasn't about to doubt her now. Still, Chris was not one to rely on a single point of view when it came to the lives of his crew and Mary knew that. While he valued her opinion, as her Captain, he needed more.
"Is there any way we can confirm any signs of life on that thing?" Chris directed the question at Charlotte, swivelling slightly in his chair so he could face her. While she was a competent officer, it still felt odd to see her there instead of Alex.
"I'm afraid not Sir. Our sensors aren't functioning fully and are having difficulty differentiating organic composition of everything in this region. We might get better readings after the repairs are done."
"What about tricorders?" Buck suggested.
"That could work," Chris agreed. "But it means sending an Away team there to scan the thing."
"I can do that," Buck offered automatically.
"Nice try," Chris shook his head even before the words left his mouth. "But we've already got a team preparing to leave the ship, so if we get closer, they should be able to take the samples they need as well as run a tricorder reading over the mass. Besides, if no one is there, it might be a good place to hold up while we conduct repairs."
"That's true," Buck agreed since the structure was certainly large enough to provide them ample cover. "Mary, you sure there's no member of Species 8472 on that thing?"
Mary continued to stare at the unique latticework. "I can't say I'm absolutely certain, but if they were there, I'd feel it. I wish we had a Betazoid on board. They'd be able to give you a better answer."
"You're doing fine, Mary," Chris said gently. "Besides, the last time Buck went anywhere near a Betazoid, he almost got slapped."
"I told Deanna I was sorry!" Buck groaned exasperated and shot Chris a dark look for bringing that up, especially when he remembered Will Riker's laughter later. Tapping his combadge, Buck ignored his Captain and reached out to their science officer.
"Alex come in."
Alex, who was with Vin and the security officer Ezra assigned to them, Drew Katovit, were at present in one of the outer airlocks, preparing to leave the ship. "Yeah, Buck, I'm here. What's up?"
"We've encountered a mass, a calcium structure the size of a moon. We'll be within visual range in a few minutes. We're unable to detect any life signs from this range with our sensors the way they are, but..."
"We can do it with tricorders." She completed the sentence.
Chris and Buck exchanged a little smile before Chris spoke up. "We need to know if anything is alive there. It's large enough to provide us with some cover while we conduct repairs, but before I make that decision, I wanted to know if there's any danger. Conduct a preliminary scan and maintain an open channel at all times. Are you armed? "
"We're loaded for bear, Captain." Vin's voice replied before Alex could answer.
"Good," Chris approved, aware that Vin would go nowhere without a weapon. He was almost as cautious as Ezra in such instances. "If you so much as get a twinge something is wrong, I want you three to haul ass and get back here, understood?"
Perfectly aware of how much Alex could get carried away when investigating something new, Chris emphasized his last word for her benefit.
"Don't worry Chris," Vin added. "I'll bring her back kicking....ow! That hurt!"
A soft burst of chuckling rippled across with Buck shaking his head, Chris rubbing the bridge of his nose and Mary rolling her eyes. A second later, Alex replied, her tone professional as ever.
"Understood Captain, we'll maintain contact at all times."
"See that you do," Chris reiterated. "Good luck you three."
Maria Ruiz, the Maverick's Head Nurse, left Sick Bay for the first time since the crisis began, headed for her quarters. After how close they had come to being assimilated, she needed to see her husband Henry and daughter Sofie to make sure they were alright. Maria was grateful, Henry, a botanist in the science department, was able to return to their quarters to be with their four-year-old daughter who would undoubtedly be frightened out of her wits from what had been taking place the last hour.
Doctor Jackson had allowed Maria the time to make the trip, deciding she would be no use to him if she were distracted by worried for her family. He could spare her for twenty minutes if it were put to good use allaying her fears.
Taking the turbo lift to deck fourteen where her quarters were located, the ride was smooth even though the internal lighting seemed to be flickering on and off. Considering the damage to the ship by the collision with the Borg sphere, Maria was grateful they weren't in worse shape. Honestly, she was rather thankful she didn't have to get down there using the stairs or worse yet, access conduits. As the turbo lift hummed along its journey, Maria leaned against the wall, taking a breather, the events of the last hour catching up with her.
There were so many wounded. It shook Maria's resolve to see the effects of plasma burns on some of the victims caught in the explosions caused by the nacelle when it was rammed by the enemy ship. Most had to be heavily sedated for the medical staff to administer dermal regeneration. Medical science had done wonders for healing the tissue victims, but there was no magic pill to make that excruciating pain any less.
Casey Wells had been a godsend because the girl was able to soothe people already in distress and supposed she must have acquired the skill dealing with the Captain on a daily basis. Chris Larabee might have been a beloved figure amongst his crew, but the man had a temper that was just as infamous as his razor-sharp ability to command. Before Casey left the Maverick for her sabbatical on Bajor, Maria made a mental note to suggest she consider a nursing career. Her bedside manner was simply too good to waste.
When the lift came to a stop, and the door slid open, Maria forgot all about Casey Wells. Deck 14, which also included Shuttle Bay 1 was bathed in reddish light, a symptom of the red alert status the ship had been in a short time ago. No doubt the damage had prevented normal illumination from resuming, but when Maria stepped out into the hallway, she couldn't help feeling a little chilled. Conduits were dangling from the ceilings, some wall panels flashing intermittently, while fragments of those that were shattered covered the floor.
A surge of alarm filled her then. Maria wondered how many of the quarters on this deck were occupied. She hated to think Henry and Sofie were alone down here in all this. Hurrying down the corridor, she noted the doors leading to one of the quarters were sliding open and close repeatedly. As she passed by it, she called out.
There was no answer.
Feeling a chill of fear she couldn't explain run down her spine, Maria continued her journey towards her quarters, the need to see her family becoming more urgent with each step forward. Sidestepping a ceiling panel lying across the corridor, she neared her residence and saw the door was closed. A reassuring surge of relief flooded her at the idea, whatever was happening out here had yet to reach them. Activating the panel, the doors slid open soundlessly, once again proving they were still safe inside.
Except the inside of the room was pitch black.
Once again, her demand was met with silence. "Computer lights!"
The computer refused to obey, and the room remained shrouded in darkness, the black tugging at the fray of the reddish glow of emergency lighting pouring through the room. Maria wanted to turn on her heels and run but, her fierce desire to find her family compelled her to step deeper inside to investigate. Perhaps they were gone, driven by the lack of power to join the families congregated in the holodeck.
"Henry, Sofie! Are you in here?" She tried one more time.
Her answer was a strobe of red light, flashing in her eyes. For a second the narrow beam of red blinded her, and as the spots dissipated, the crimson glow illuminated the face from which it originated.
It was Henry.
As Maria began to scream and the door slid to a close behind her, she realized while Henry was present, everything that was her husband was no longer in the room.
When the pillar of the warp core suddenly came alive, humming steadily as it pulsed with energy for the first time in the last hour, Julia along with the rest of the engineering team, let out a collective sigh of relief. Across Main Engineering, panels presently flashing dire readings abruptly shifted course, turning green with recovery.
"The antimatter containment magnetic field is rising Julia," Chanu announced with relief. "It's reached 50 per cent and still climbing."
"Good," Julia smiled and turned to her team. "We still got a lot of work to do, but we've got main power. There are systems all over the ship that are compromised and running on auxiliaries. We've going to stagger our switch back to main power, so we don't overload anything and create shorts. Our primary goal is to restore full power to the engines, shields and begin preparation to repair all arrays damaged during the collision. We need the sensors back at optimal. You've looked out the window, that isn't Kansas out there."
The brief pause to bask in their efforts ended with that sobering reminder. Even though Engineering was located in one of the lowest levels of the ship, they were still provided with enough observation windows to see what was happening outside. The world beyond was far more alien than anything they had ever seen, and right now, without their sensors, they were navigating it blind.
As Julia returned to the central engineering station in the middle of the room, Chanu came alongside her as she studied the display revealing the Maverick's present condition. For the most part, the diagnostic image of the ship revealed sections were either flashing green or amber, indicating the severity of the damage. Only one section appeared to be glowing red.
"What's going on here?" Julia asked Chanu.
"Oh, that," Chanu frowned. "We've got power fluctuations across that entire deck. I sent Claire down to seal off Shuttle Bay 2, so we didn't have to use force fields, but the problem might be more extensive than we originally thought. Claire's probably trying to deal with it down there."
"Well I'll head down and give her a hand,," Julia said, heading towards her toolbox after noting the issue was starting to spread. "You stay here and keep working on restoring shield strength, or else you'll have Captain Larabee on the horn, and you don't want to be on the receiving end of his angry voice."
Alexandra Styles inquired of her two companions, one of which was her husband and the other being Drew Katovit, Ezra Standish's trusted Assistant Chief of Security. After squeezing into their environmental suits, or EV suits as they were called to cause less strain on the tongue, they now stood in one of the many airlocks of the galaxy-class starship preparing to step into Fluidic Space.
"Let's go for a stroll Darlin'," Vin Tanner winked through his visor before taking a step next to her while cradling the same type phase rifle Drew was carrying behind them.
"I'm good Commander," Drew commented.
"Initialise gravity boots," she ordered, tapping the controls on the forearm of her suit and immediately feeling the magnetic pull of the boots against the deck beneath her. Glancing quickly over her shoulder, she saw Vin and Drew had done the same before she reached for the airlock panel to open the doors.
Red lights immediately flashed throughout the small space, giving warning of the decompression about to take place, with all three bracing themselves for how different this was going to be in comparison to a typical spacewalk across the hull. It was no void on the other side of the door, but an emptiness that drew out the oxygen like poison from a wound. An air pocket might even be formed.
They were not disappointed. The translucent substance poured through the opening doors of the airlock like a boat being submerged underwater. In a matter of seconds, the ‘fluid' for want of a better word, rushed past them and if it were not for their magnetic boots, all three would have been flattened against the wall from the sudden deluge. It took less than ten seconds for the airlock to be filled entirely and a further ten seconds before any of them felt steady enough to proceed.
Even though she was leading the Away Team, Vin stayed close to Alex.
No matter how much being a Cardassian prisoner shaped Alex's situational awareness when it came to trouble, at the heart of her, Vin knew she was a scientist first. Alex loved nothing more than a puzzle and exuded almost Vulcan patience when she was trying to decipher one. He knew despite the danger they were in, Fluidic Space checked all the boxes of her scientific curiosity, which was why he insisted on coming with her. He had no desire to let her fascination get herself killed.
The Maverick had closed the distance to the mass while they were getting ready to leave the ship, and now as they stood at the mouth of the airlock looking out, they realised how much it dwarfed the starship. Its branches spread so wide before them, its edges were lost in the murkiness of Fluidic space. Completely organic in its design, it twisted and turned, curled in some places and angled in others, but there was no doubt in any of their minds, in the absence of planets or moons, these odd constructs could afford the life forms in the realm the same comforts.
"Oh my God," Alex whispered as she left the airlock, pausing just long enough to shake off the momentary disorientation that came with walking across the hull like a fly. "Look at the size of it."
"Reminds me of coral," Drew observed. "I went diving off the Great Barrier Reef during one of my furloughs, and this looks like some of the older, dead coral."
"That would not be an inaccurate analogy Lieutenant," Alex agreed, thinking the mass did look like greying bleached coral. She reached for the tricorder hooked onto her belt and began scanning, wanting to gather as much data as possible as they made their way across the hull to reach one of the nearest branches of the coral, a word she liked much better than the mass.
"What can you see?" The Captain's voice filled all their comms.
"Not much," Vin remarked not as interested as Alex. His blue eyes were searching the expanse before them, thinking now more than ever of how much this place reminded him of the bottom of a swamp and by that analogy, the things that might be living in it. "We decided we're gonna call the mass the ‘Coral' since that seems to fit better."
"I like that," Buck Wilmington's voice added a second later.
"Captain," Alex spoke up after a moment, raising her eyes from the readings on her tricorder. "Judging by my initial scans, Fluidic space is some form of organic plasma. It contains high volumes of water, electrolytes, dissolved proteins, glucose, amino acids, minerals, lipids and phospholipids. In this environment, it is doubtful Species 8472 is the only life form here. I'm already detecting microbes in the solution. This stuff is the perfect environment for life to thrive."
"Alright," Chris's voice grew taut because all of this seemed to confirm Vin's earlier suspicion they better mind their step while being out here. When the Away Team returned to the ship, all three would have to undergo decontamination to ensure none of these microbes would spread to the Maverick if harmful. "Keep your eyes open in case any of those life forms decides to show up."
"Already on it," Vin replied, exchanging a nod with Drew about where his priorities lay.
Alex was removing a vial from one of the pockets on her sleeve and extracting a sample of plasma for Nathan's examination. While her scan had detected microbes, it would require the doctor's expertise to determine their exact nature. Filling up the vial, she quickly replaced it in one of the pockets of her suit before speaking again.
"Captain, we're going to head towards the..." Alex threw a quick glance at Vin and Drew, "Coral. We'll keep the channel open as ordered."
The trio crossed the saucer section of the Maverick, their boots clunking against the metal with each step forward. The ship had moved as close to the nearest branch of the coral formation, to ensure their boosters when fired would not have far to carry them across the gap.
Vin thought travelling across the hull in Fluidic space felt like trying to walk along the bottom of a swimming pool. The viscosity of the plasma made their limbs feel heavier, worsened by the cumbersome EV suits. Vin, who liked most Vulcans did not enjoy being in the water and longed for the vacuum of space after a few minutes of crossing the football field-sized saucer section of the Maverick.
"We should have just worn scuba gear," Drew commented as the edge of the hull came into view. "We could just swim over there."
"Only if you want to end up in Nathan Jackson's dog house," Buck spoke through their comms. Having been on the receiving end of the doctor's ire after handling a plant on an alien world that ended up giving him a severe allergic reaction, Buck knew how annoyed Nathan could be about quarantine regulations not being observed. The man had Buck stuck in decontamination for a day, all the while giving him a stern lecture on why what he did was just plain dumb.
"Captain," Alex spoke suddenly, her brow furrowing as she stared at the display of the tricorder, "I'm detecting what may be life sign readings."
Her statement made Vin and Drew immediately freeze in their tracks. Both men began surveying the area around them, attempting to glimpse what it was Alex had detected, their weapons raised in readiness to fire.
"Can you identify it?" Chris demanded, his voice tense and Vin knew he was on the cusp of ordering them back to the ship.
"They're not bio-ships," Alex quickly clarified. "They're moving too slowly, and their pattern seems erratic. I think I need to recalibrate the tricorder to get a more detailed reading."
"Oh Alex, I think I know why the tricorder is having trouble detecting them."
Vin's comment made Alex look up immediately and what she saw was a bloom of luminescent creatures coming into view through the translucent plasma surrounding them. In size, they were no larger than the humans gaping at their sudden appearance, but that was where the similarity ended. Their bodies closely resembled jellyfish with long, slender tendrils swaying gracefully behind them as they swam off the Maverick's bow at an almost languid pace. As they moved, their dome-like bodies pulsed with an array of colours, from blue to green and then a deeper shade of purple.
Alex realised as she scanned them, the creatures swam so closely together it was most likely the reason the tricorders and the Maverick's sensors had been unable to distinguish them from a single life form instead of many. Nevertheless, the introduction to the wildlife of Fluidic space took place without incident. The school continued along their potentially migratory course, unconcerned by the new arrivals observing them with such fascination.
"Chris, are you seeing this?"Vin asked since Alex was busy conducting her scans.
"Yeah," Chris nodded from the bridge, similarly fascinated by what he was witnessing on the view screen. "What are they?"
"Closest definition I can give you is some form of Medusozoa. They certainly bear a lot of the characteristics of free-swimming medusa phase jellyfish."
"Alex," Vin prompted, more eager to get moving now he'd seen this. As pretty as those creatures were, it only proved his point. Things were living in the vastness of Fluidic Space, and not all of them might be as harmless as the life forms they had just seen. "We need to get moving."
"He's right Commander," Chris agreed, proving once again, that even though they were separated by space, he and Vin still knew each other's mind even from this distance. "Move on. We need to start repairs right away."
"Aye Sir," Alex lowered her tricorder and pushed the scientist into the background and assumed the sensibilities of the Maverick's third in command. Giving both Vin and Drew a nod, she led the way, resuming their journey to the coral.
After years trying to find a way to create a defence against the Borg nanoprobes, it was quite a surreal experience for Nathan Jackson to find himself in a position where it was necessary to make them even stronger. The idea of giving the Borg a further edge felt profane, especially when no more than an hour ago, the Captain of the Maverick had been prepared to blow the ship to save them from the horror of assimilation.
Although they had agreed to meet in the Armoury, Nathan had contacted Ezra and JD respectively and directed them instead to Sick Bay. While they would eventually end up in the Armoury to modify a torpedo into a bio-molecular warhead, the work to remove the vulnerability Species 8472 had exploited to the Borg's expense, had to be conducted in the private laboratory attached to his office.
"I suppose the first question we must ask ourselves," Ezra stated as he, JD and Nathan stood around the doctor's workbench. "How was Species 8472 able to render the Borg bio-weapons completely ineffective?"
"Well they would have to get around the nanites of course," JD stated the obvious. "Although how they did that is another thing entirely. Didn't Voyager's doctor design the things to fool Species 8472's immune system?"
"That's right," Nathan nodded. Having read the medical files on the species, Nathan knew the reason the Borg had been unable to assimilate Species 8472 was due to the race possessing one of the most sophisticated DNA strands of any life form in existence. With an immune system designed to obliterate any invading organism, the Borg nanites stood no chance until Voyager manufactured a way around it. "Voyager's doctor...."
Despite himself, Nathan could not help but cringe at the notion of a holographic doctor had been responsible for administering all medical treatment to Voyager's crew for seven years. However, Nathan brushed away his prejudice and the bad taste in his mouth. The program was responsible for devising a way to manipulate Borg nanites like never before.
"The Doctor," Nathan resumed speaking, "was able to fool Species 8472's immune system into not noticing the nanites, allowing them to slip in and begin the assimilation process under the radar. It was a good idea, but the instant the weapon was used, I can't imagine how the species wouldn't have taken steps to innoculate themselves against the danger. My guess is, they probably found a way to detect non-organic particles and purge themselves of it the minute it hit their system."
"This does not bode well for us then," Ezra sighed. "If they can detect Borg particles, then we have lost the only hand we could play."
"Then what do we do?" JD asked, frowning at their lack of options.
"I'm not sure," Nathan admitted honestly. "I wish we had access to the Borgs' systems to know what exactly happened when they fired their weapons on those bio-ships. I'm sure they would have sensor data that might give us an idea of how those weapons failed. If we could have scanned the bio-ships when the weapon was deployed, it could have given us a clue on where to start."
"Unfortunately, we were rather busy at the time," Ezra pointed out dryly.
"Don't I know it?" Nathan raised his eyes to stare at the glass wall of his laboratory facing Sick Bay.
Following his gaze, Ezra felt immediately guilty for the comment, since the Maverick's infirmary was at present filled to capacity with wounded, to say nothing of the poor souls in the morgue. Nathan and his staff were on the front line of that carnage, and his brown eyes showed how haunted he was by the loss of every life he was unable to save.
"I am sorry, Nathan," Ezra quickly apologised, "I did not mean to imply..."
"I know that Ezra," Nathan stopped him before he could finish. "But you get what I mean."
"I do," Ezra nodded. "Unfortunately that does not aid our situation."
JD, who had been silent until now, waited for the two men to move past the moment before making himself heard. "What about all the stuff we were doing together?"
When JD first arrived on board the Maverick, he'd been enlisted to aid the doctor with the technological aspects of nanotechnology since engineering disciplines were outside the scope of Nathan's expertise.
"Oh that," he shook his head already discounting the idea. "I was trying to create our own version of the Borg nanoprobes, except I was calling them artificial antibodies. I figured they might dispense some form of electromagnetic charge, microscopic from our perspective but enough to short out the Borg nanoprobes."
"That does not at all sound very safe," Ezra stared at him, disliking the idea of having thousands of microscopic gremlins turning his bloodstream into a shooting gallery.
"It isn't, which is why I didn't pursue it," Nathan shrugged.
A sudden knock ended the debate for the moment, and all three men turned to the lab's entrance to see Casey Wells standing at the doorway, appearing embarrassed for intruding.
JD looked away immediately, refusing to meet Casey's gaze, and though the action caused hurt in her eyes, Casey did not react to it. The two senior officers made no comment about the frosty exchange between the young couple, aware Casey and JD were going through a rough patch, due to the girl's decision to go to Bajor. JD, who was in love with Casey, had difficulty reconciling himself with her decision since it could mean her departure from the Maverick might end up being for good.
"Hey Casey," Nathan ignored the tension between the young lovers. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said meekly, "but have you seen Maria around?"
"She should be here somewhere," Nathan returned before realising he hadn't seen the woman since she left Sick Bay some time ago. While he supposed Maria could still be catching up with Henry and little Sofie, the woman was a dedicated nurse who would not stay away for long when there were so many in Sick Bay needing her care. "She didn't come back?"
"Not since you told her to go see Henry and Sofie," Casey replied, avoiding making eye contact with JD who was now taking an interest.
"That's not like her. I mean I let her go because I figured her head wasn't going to be on straight until she saw for herself they were okay, but she wouldn't stay away from Sick Bay this long."
"How long?" Ezra questioned, no longer sounding like the affable southerner but the Chief of Security with razor-sharp instincts.
"Maybe forty minutes," Nathan answered after giving it some thought. "Look its probably nothing, I mean with all the damage, it might have taken her a little longer to get to Deck 14."
"Deck 14?" JD shot Ezra a look. "Isn't that where we've been experiencing intermittent power drains? She might have gotten stuck in a turbo lift or something."
Ezra's thoughts were nowhere that benign, and for a few seconds, he said nothing, thinking hard. Deck 14 had some crew quarters, which Ezra had ordered evacuated due to its proximity to Shuttle Bay 2, the closest point of entry to the port nacelle heavily damaged in the collision with the Borg sphere.
An ugly idea formed in his head, but with the same instincts that made him the best card player in the fleet, Ezra knew he could not discount it. Without another word, Ezra tapped his com badge.
"Captain, we may have a problem."
"Well at least the turbo lifts are working," Julia commented as she and Terry Greer, one of her junior engineers, took the journey to Shuttle Bay 2 to assist Claire Moseley with the repairs.
"That's true," Terry nodded. "I wasn't looking forward to climbing all the way down to Deck 14 carrying our equipment. I have had enough of climbing to last me a lifetime."
Julia uttered a short laugh perfectly aware of the reason for Terry's dislike. "You still haven't gotten over your last shore leave huh?"
Terry made a face at her commanding officer, comfortable enough to take such liberties with the woman. She and Julia were crewmates for almost a year now and had become friends.
"I didn't mind meeting Drew's parents, but honestly, climbing K2? What is it with men and this need to prove they can withstand the elements? Didn't we just go through ten thousand years of civilisation so we could have soft sheets and indoor plumbing?"
"I date a man who loves to play a Southern cardsharp in the Old West. I have no standing to comment."
"That's true," Terry smiled back when the lift doors came to a stop.
The first thing that struck Julia the instant the doors parted was the rush of warm air into the lift. The change of temperature was so contrasting, she felt it against her cheeks almost immediately. It was soon followed by the enveloping humidity that swiftly went to work forming beads of sweat beneath her hair and her uniform.
"Why is it so hot in here?" Julia asked as the reddish glow of emergency lighting caught her attention.
"Maybe the environmental controls have been damaged.," Terry suggested as she followed Julia out of the lift.
They had gotten no more than a few steps ahead when a beam of crimson light struck Julia in the eye. After being on board the Rutherford during the Battle of Sector 001, Julia knew immediately what was happening. More importantly, she knew what had invaded her ship.
"What?" Terry stared at her blankly until more points of light appeared, and the previously evacuated deck came alive with bodies that should not have been there.
"MOVE," Julia ordered turning back to the turbo lift, shoving the younger woman ahead.
Terry Greer stumbled towards the open doors of the turbo lift, running into its safety, but when she looked over her shoulder, Julia Pemberton was nowhere behind her.
"Captain, we may have a problem."
Chris Larabee never thought a single sentence could carry so much ominous foreboding. For a split second, he almost believed they might make it out of Fluidic Space alive. After all, it appeared exposure to the alien environment had not caused the Away Team any il-effects, and the trio had made it to the Coral, a mass sizeable enough to be a potential hiding place while the Engineering team tended to the repairs the ship so desperately needed. Yet, all it took for the light at the end of the tunnel to blink out of existence was Ezra's words reaching out to him from Sick Bay.
"What sort of problem?"
From across his chair, Chris exchanged a corresponding grimace of concern with his First Officer as Buck's jaw tensed and his spine straightened.
"It appears Head Nurse Ruis is missing," Ezra explained. "She was last seen on route to Deck 14 and has not been heard from since."
"Have you tried raising her combadge?" Buck asked and then wished he hadn't. Ezra wasn't an amateur, the man would have made every attempt to find the woman before bringing it to the attention of the bridge.
"Of course," Ezra answered with no hint of annoyance at the question. "I have attempted to locate her with internal sensors, but with the hardware damage sustained during our confrontation with the Borg, we cannot rely entirely on its answer."
"Where was she last seen?" Chris chimed in.
"On route to Deck 14," Ezra answered. "I ordered everyone evacuated from the area due to the power fluctuations it has been experiencing, and its proximity to Shuttle Bay 2. Thanks to our less than stellar communication system at present, she may not have realised this when she set out."
"Deck 14. We've been having problems with power on that deck since the crash, Chris." Buck reminded.
Chris remembered but until now, had no reason to give it too much thought. After the collision with the sphere, it was to be expected. Except with Ezra mentioning Deck 14, the closest deck to the damaged nacelle, prefaced with a missing crew member, a terrible possibility began to take shape. With internal sensor function at limited capacity, they could not even scan the area to pinpoint the woman's location if she were there.
"Have you gotten a security detail ready?" Chris asked, knowing Ezra would be smart enough to know his reaction to plan well ahead.
"On standby waiting to proceed on your orders."
"You have a go, Lt. Commander. Do a room by room search if you have to, I want her found. At the very least, with all the wreckage we sustained down there, she might have had an accident and be unable to get help."
Meanwhile, Buck tapped his combadge, wanting to get to the bottom of the power drain on Deck 14. If Ezra and a security team were headed down there, Buck wanted to ensure at least some of its systems were back online to give them help. "Engineering, come in."
"Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu speaking." Chanu's voiced filled the bridge.
"Where's Julia?" Buck asked puzzled and while Ezra was no doubt on his way to Deck 14, Buck was sure the Security Chief was all ears since his channel with the bridge had yet to be terminated.
"Lieutenant Pemberton went down with Lt. Greer to Deck 14. They're attempting to deal with the power fluctuation issue."
"How long ago?" Chris asked tautly.
"About ten minutes."
"Have you heard from her since?" Buck inquired, knowing it took about ten minutes to get to Shuttle Bay 2 from Engineering, turbo lifts and all.
"No, but she hasn't been gone long...."
"Chief Engineer Pemberton," Chris didn't wait for Chanu to finish and tapped his own combadge. "Come in."
There was no answer.
The silence immediately ratcheted the tension levels in the room. Chris saw Buck and Mary looking worried, and God only knew what Ezra thought as the Chief made his way to Deck 14 with his security team.
"Computer, locate Chief Engineer Pemberton."
"Chief Engineer Pemberton's last recorded position was in Turbo Lift 4," the computer replied in her usual calm tone, even if the words delivered inspired the exact opposite. "Unable to provide an accurate location due to the malfunction to the internal sensor array."
"Damn it," Chris swore before tapping the combadge to mute his next words from the Security detail. "Buck go down there. You know how Ezra can be when it's Julia in trouble. Make sure he's thinking clearly."
"Right," Buck stood up immediately, not needing any reminders on that point.
When Quinn, the child of the Q entity had placed them in a pseudo-reality of the Magnificent Seven program, it had resulted in Julia being murdered by one of the story's villains, Silas Poplar. Ezra's reaction to Poplar when his complicity was revealed had shocked them all. Ezra put a bullet in the man's head for his crime and was fully prepared to hold Q accountable for her death. While his gambler's facade hid much, when Ezra's fury was provoked, it burned hotter than a supernova.
"Chris," Mary leaned over and asked quietly. "You think she's in trouble?"
Before he could answer, Josiah's voice echoed across the bridge.
"Captain, we may have a problem."
Two minutes earlier, Josiah Sanchez decided he needed a drink.
For the last hour, his duties had taken him across the Maverick, with only a brief pause at the Conference Room to attend the Senior Staff meeting. Josiah had lost count of how many people he was forced to counsel, how many hands he had to hold and equally reassure them, everything was going to be alright. This was no easy feat considering the relentless pounding the ship had taken in its attempt to escape the six Borg cubes that came out of nowhere.
While Chris Larabee's dedication to his ship was unquestionable, he rarely saw the crisis from the perspective of the civilian members of his crew. From the seat of his Captain's chair, Chris did not see the effect of his decisions on the families waiting for their loved ones to return to their quarters. With views of space afforded to most living residences, none of them was unable to ignore the sight of the Borg cube windows, and what capture by the Collective meant for them and their futures.
For some, it was simply too much.
If Josiah were forced to make a study of it, he was convinced the percentage of separation and divorces usually rose steeply after incidents such as these, after the danger of life in Starfleet went from concept to reality.
In the last hour, he'd talked to several spouses who were ready to take their children and leave the Maverick for good. The terror of assimilation and now their presence in Fluidic space, cut off from the Federation was proving to be more than they could handle. Others were still committed to their relationships, but there was no doubt the sight of those cubes had been traumatising, and they needed to talk to someone about their fears if only to purge themselves of it.
After spending a little time with the Potter children who like the most of the Maverick's youngest members, were fearful of their parents' welfare, Josiah headed back to his office needing a moment to catch his breath. While he did not participate in the heavy lifting required by the rest of the Senior Staff, he knew the value of his role onboard the Maverick and needed the time to offer guidance to the crew for whatever came next.
Standing in front of the turbo lift, he was snapped out of his thoughts when the door slid open and stumbling out of it as if she had just run a mile was Lt. Terry Greer. She looked white as a sheet and was panting hard when she ran straight into him. Looking up at Josiah, her blue eyes touched his with wide-eyed fear.
"Oh God Counsellor Sanchez!" She burst out, shocked and dismayed at the fact she had taken this trip alone, her mind a storm of moths with wings beating so hard she could not focus on speaking coherently.
"Terry, it's okay, you're alright," Josiah said quickly, trying to calm the girl down so she could tell him what's wrong. He could see the panic across her face and knew no sense would come out of her until he could settle her down. Half the time, his voice was enough to do the deed. "What's happened?"
"I have to call the bridge! I have to tell them!" she stuttered, trying to get herself under control. The last thing she had seen... the memory was so intense, she almost felt sick to her stomach. Worse yet, the realisation was somewhere in those crisscrossing beams of light, was Julia.
"Tell them what?" Josiah's jaw tightened, realising they were in trouble, but it was a new kind of problem, more urgent than what he had heard during their meeting. "Lieutenant," he tried a different tact. "Report."
The word made Terry's eyes fly open, and Josiah marvelled at its power. No wonder the staff looked like God had spoken when Chris Larabee made the same demand.
"Julia... I mean Lt. Pemberton and I went down to Deck 14, to help Lt. Moseley stabilise the problems we've been having with power fluctuations." She said breathing slower, allowing the oxygen to slow her racing pulse. "When we got there, the emergency lighting was on, and it was hot. You could feel it the instant you stepped out of the lift like it had jumped up a good fifteen degrees and it was humid. We hadn't walked more than a few feet down the corridor when we saw this red light, it looked like a narrow beam infra-red. The instant Julia saw it, she told me to run. I thought she was behind me, but when I got into the lift, she wasn't! I wanted to go back, but there was more than one light now, at least a dozen, and it was coming towards me! I left her Counsellor Sanchez! I left her!"
The woman's anguish at the decision was plain on her face, and Josiah put aside his own fears for the little redheaded engineer who shared baked Alaskas with Vin Tanner and brought Josiah new additions to his collection of unusual shot glasses following shore leave. "You stand here a minute," he edged her towards the nearest wall, "and collect yourself. I'll let the Captain know."
"I shouldn't have left her...." Terry shook her head.
"You did the right thing," he made her look him in the eye. "The Captain needs to know what is happening."
She nodded, not appearing entirely convinced but Josiah didn't have time for that at present. They were in trouble, and the Captain had to know.
"Captain, we may have a problem."
"Like what?" The tension in Chris's voice told Josiah immediately whatever fresh trouble was brewing on the Maverick, he was already aware of it. Josiah quickly relayed Terry's story. Within a second of Josiah uttering his last word, the still-functioning emergency klaxons across the Maverick began screaming loudly.
"This is the Captain, we have an intruder alert. Repeat, intruder alert. All hands are to evacuate Deck 12 and 13 immediately. Repeat, we have an intruder alert."
"Chris, what's going on?" Josiah replied, the shrill sound of the alert assaulting his ears enough to make him wince.
Chris's reply felt like brittle glass. "Trouble."
Touching down on the nearest branch of the Coral after leaving the bow of the Maverick, Vin Tanner thought as big as the place had looked earlier, it was nowhere comparable to what it felt like now he set foot on the grey-white surface. As their feet touched the ground, loosened grains of white swirled around them at the disturbance. The white particles offered a wave of greeting before retreating back to the surface once the fanfare of their arrival had passed.
Staring at another branch running over his head, for a second Vin thought it looked like the shelf of a mountain range because the size was almost the same. The strands of white running back and forth like spidery webs across the plasma realm of Fluidic Space, was almost beautiful if it was not so terribly alien. As he and drew kept his eyes fixed on those branches, trying to spot any signs of life, Alex was scanning the area, taking note of the ridges and dips that looked like hills and valleys
"You found anything?" Vin asked as Alex's eyes remained fixed on the display while she took a few steps ahead., walking past a line of growths that might have been boulders if this were land.
"Plenty," she replied, not looking up at him. "It's actually not that different from what Drew thought."
"It isn't?" The security officer asked.
"Charlotte was right, it does have a high calcium carbonate content, but there's also nitrogen, aragonite, some calcite and phosphorus. I think this was definitely some form of coral."
"I thought coral was supposed to be all bright and pretty," Vin remarked, having gone diving once and though he did not care for the experience, he did remember thinking the undersea world was awful pretty. If this was coral, why wasn't it bright and luminous like those creatures they had seen earlier? The dull-grey white seemed out of place amidst all that.
Alex, realising Vin had pointed out something important, wanted to investigate further. Narrowing the scanning field on the tricorder, she had it after a few seconds. "Vin, the coral's dead."
"What?" He stared at her.
"All of it," she widened the range of the tricorder to the shelf over their heads. "I'll need the ship's sensors to confirm the scope of it, but I think everything here is dead if not dying, and as recently as the last six months."
"What could do that?" Drew spoke up. "I mean something like this would take thousands of years to form, if not millions. How could conditions alter so drastically to kill it off so quickly?"
"I don't know," she thought quickly, her mind already shifting through the possibilities. Lt. Phillips was their resident marine biologist. Alex was confident the man would be able to pinpoint the cause from the data she was collecting in the tricorder to provide a more specific answer, but for now, she was able to make a guess. "I mean it could be a variety of things, changes in the environment due to contamination, shifts in current that might alter the access to the nutrients to help it grew, I can't tell more than that, only that it was sudden."
She was about to tap her combadge to make her report to the Captain when suddenly, she saw Vin was no longer paying attention to either of them. Instead, his focus was fixated on the Maverick across the expanse of Fluidic space. While she could not see his face through the visor, he held their wounded ship in such scrutiny, it almost looked as if he were rivetted by what he was seeing.
"Vin?" She started to say when he spoke up abruptly.
"Alex. Get over here, I need the tricorder."
His urgent tone propelled her forward, and whatever it was, Alex knew it was bad. Vin was not someone who exerted himself like this often, but when it did, there was no hiding the authority there. While Alex never entertained any thoughts of commanding her own ship, it was moments like this that told her someday Vin just might. Exchanging a quick glance with Drew, she crossed the distance to where he was standing at the edge of the coral, just a little further along the branch than where they had landed, facing the Maverick.
"What is it?"
Vin didn't answer, his keen eyesight spotting something that needed immediate explanation. If he was right, there was no time to waste. Once the device was in his hand, he aimed it in the direction of the Maverick as Alex and Drew flanked him, feeling their insides clench in anticipation of whatever terrible thing he had just discovered.
It took her a moment to spot what he discovered, and her eyes widened once she realised what it was. The object was attached to the charred hull of the ruined port nacelle. While the nacelle was still intact, the luminous sapphire glow of the engines had been replaced by black. Yet despite this, they were able to identify the wedged-shaped object protruding from the hull of the nacelle. For a moment, it did look like someone had driven a shard of metal right through the duranium plating.
"Oh my God...." Alex gasped. "Is that what I think that is?"
"Yeah," Vin nodded grimly, his blue eyes looking away from the readings on the tricorder, now flashing green confirmation. "It's a Borg breaching pod. They're on the ship."
Ezra and his security detail reached Deck 14 before Buck Wilmington could join them.
Forcing away his worries about Julia, Ezra told himself if he did not have his faculties anywhere but focussed on the situation, he would be no good to her or any of the people still trapped on Deck 14. With a detail that included Lt. Kate Stokes, Lt. Pico Chavez and Ensign Ravi Sharma, Ezra reviewed the conclusions he made after Casey's revelation Head Nurse Ruis had vanished. If the Borg had come on board the Maverick, it was probably during the collision, when their internal sensors were offline, and they were scrambling to restore main power.
The aftershocks were so calamitous, the Maverick's attention would have been focussed on restoring the shields and maintaining warp power so they could escape the Borg. The idea the Borg might have used the situation to transport through their destroyed shields had not been considered when they were on the run for their lives. No doubt the Collective might have had just enough time to transport a handful of drones to the Maverick. There was no need for a larger complement.
Why would they? The instant they arrived on the Maverick, they would begin assimilating crew members to boost their numbers. Drawing just enough power for whatever vile purpose they intended, Ezra swore at his lack of foresight because it meant they had time to create new drones and now, now his Julia... he couldn't even begin to finish the thought.
No, Ezra shook his head, he couldn't think of that.
Kate threw a sidelong glance at the Chief and knew he was hiding his worry behind that well-practised facade of control. Everyone on the security detail knew what Julia Pemberton meant to him, but they also knew him well enough to know he would not appreciate any well-meaning platitudes not to worry.
"Remember," Ezra spoke as the turbo lift indicated they were approaching Deck 14, "their shields operate on a rotating modulated frequency. You will have no more than five, six shots at most before they adapt and render our phasers useless. If you cannot subdue them by then, leave."
"What settings shall we use?" Sharma, the youngest of them asked. His age indicated this was the first time he was facing this particular enemy.
Ezra blinked slowly and answered after a moment, his voice a little less steady than before. "Shoot to kill. Chances are likely you will not have time to change your settings before they adapt. If they adapt, we lose our window to put them down."
"But some of those might be our own people," Chavez stated.
"We know that," Kate shot the man a murderous glare for the utterly unnecessary reminder.
"Oh, Chief I didn't mean...." Chavez shut up immediately, realising what he had just said.
"Just carry out your duty, Lieutenant," Ezra said stonily as the door slid open.
Warm air immediately greeted them in waves, and if Ezra needed any further proof of the invader's presence on the Maverick, it was silenced when he stepped out of the turbo lift into the sweltering temperature. The Borg required a temperature of 39.1 degrees Celsius with a humidity level in the mid-90s for optimum functioning of their cybernetics. There was no doubt in his mind they were definitely here.
Bathed in red lighting, the security detail did not progress any more than a few meters into the corridor, when the light of multiple beams of red appeared before their eyes, covering their faces and uniforms as if they had suddenly broken out in hives.
"We are the Borg. Lower your weapons and surrender. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."
It was Julia on the other end of those words.
Ezra thought he'd prepared himself, he really did.
Riding down the turbo lift, with the possibility of what was happening on Deck 14 and Julia weighing on his mind, Ezra told himself he could handle it. He was the Chief of Security of the USS Maverick. He had seen things in his life that made him fist up inside in revulsion and still, he managed to do his job. Ezra could overcome this, no matter how terrible it was. When Julia was murdered by Silas Poplar, he'd held himself together long enough to find and kill the animal who satiated the insecurities of childhood by savaging innocent women, this could not be worse than that.
He was wrong.
She stood before them, still in uniform but everything else about her was Borg. The implants already spread across her face, and her skin was ashen grey, and mottled, a sign the nanoprobes injected through her system was spreading fast. Her green eyes were still her own, but the fire, that emerald spark that captured him from across the Conference Room the first time he saw her, that was gone. It was a flame extinguished under the boot of assimilation.
He thought of the girl who'd embraced him with happiness when he finally asked her to move in, the one who put up with all his foibles, who read Cosmo like it was the Guttenberg Bible and had stickers of daisies on her toolbox, was lost. Everything she was, was simply gone. He wanted to die right there and then until he forced himself to remember assimilation wasn't death. She could be saved. Somehow, he had to save her.
"Commander...." Kate asked, not knowing what to do. Her first impulse was to open fire but seeing Julia Pemberton about to transition into a Borg made her falter.
Ezra's response was to shoot the first Borg coming towards them.
A spread of green phaser fire moved across the cyberman's chest before he tumbled against the floor, unmoving. His death prompted the others forward, and Ezra searched for Julia among the faces. She had not advanced, and he suspected it was mostly because she was yet to become Borg fully. The insidious transformation had yet to afford her all its protections. The only reason she was allowed to speak for the Collective was due to her being the highest-ranking Starfleet officer assimilated since their invasion of the Maverick.
Just like they'd taken Jean-Luc Picard and turned him into Locutus, so had they done to his Julia.
The Borg moved forward in that slow mechanical way like some cartoon version of a robot. It would almost be funny if one forgot the person trapped by the Borg cybernetics was still in there, helpless. The Security detail opened fire, seeing familiar faces in the Borg's turgid charge forward and forced themselves to ignore it. The first volley of blasts flattened the Borg line of defence, and Ezra watched them hit the deck, their bodies sparking with phaser fire with the hit.
As they fell, Ezra's stomach clenched, seeing one of the bodies had a Starfleet uniform. The man's face was so severely mottled, with all his hair gone and his face half-covered with cybernetics and left eye replaced with an optical Borg implant, Ezra barely recognised him. With a surge of pain and horror, he realised it was Lt. Silva from Astrometics. Silva, who was an amateur magician and was once almost shoved out of an airlock by Vin Tanner when his famous flower trick went wrong.
"Keep firing!" Ezra ordered, refusing to yield the position until he absolutely had to. They would adapt soon enough, but until that moment, he was still going to try and reach Julia.
The hallway became a kill zone of red infrared beams, and green phaser fire as more and more of the Borg fell in the hall, and Ezra had to wonder how many of the people on Deck 14 had been assimilated. Were his own security people down here? As he looked through the smoke created by phaser fire, he saw Julia further down the hall, being led away from the fighting.
"Cover me!" He shouted and leapt over one of the bodies, landing near a Borg who immediately raised his hands to inject him with the soul-crushing nanoprobes. Ezra reacted instantly. He swung the butt of his phaser rifle to block the hand reaching for him before shoving the drone hard. The Borg stumbled and looked up just in time to see the barrel of Ezra's phaser aimed squarely at him. The blast ended him immediately, and as phaser fire continued to savage the number of the enemy, Ezra sprinted down the hallway.
"CHIEF!" Kate shouted on top of her lungs behind him. "GET BACK HERE!"
Ezra knew he was insane, he could end up in the same situation as Julia, but Ezra was no longer thinking like the Chief of Security. All he could think about was the woman he loved, trapped in an existence that was as close to hell as one could imagine. She was being led towards Shuttle Deck 2, the hive of all Borg activity on the Maverick. If he could get to her before they could complete their process of assimilation, he could get her to Nathan and have the doctor free her of the nanite monstrosities in her body.
With phaser fire still blasting behind him, Ezra was just passing one of the living quarters when he heard a scream. It was loud and piercing, belonging not to an adult he realised in a flash of clarity, but to a child. The Chief of Security froze in his steps for an instant, uncertain of what to do. The cry rang out again, and Ezra closed his eyes, knowing there was only one thing to do. Cursing at God for the choice forced upon him, Ezra raced into the room that was the source of the frightened scream.
He entered just in time to see a Borg tearing a little girl from the ventilation shaft she had taken refuge. She was no more than four years old, her screams reduced to shrieks of terror. The Borg paid no attention to the fact the child was kicking and screaming, only interested in acquiring raw material for use. Ezra fired at the Borg without a second thought, his phaser blast striking the cyberman in the side. Green energy crackled across the Borg's body, and he spasmed once or twice, before he collapsed on the floor, releasing his hold of the girl's ankle.
The little girl scrambled to the wall, hugging her knees to her small body as she wept such pitiful tears, it broke his heart hearing it. Ezra crossed the distance between them and dropped to his knees and reached for her. The child lifted her tear-stained face and Ezra immediately recognised her as Maria Ruis's daughter, Sofie. At the sight of him, she jumped to her feet and quickly embraced him hard, her slight body shuddering as she broke into fresh sobs.
"It is alright my dear," Ezra remarked realising he was lying through his teeth. It was not alright, not in the slightest, but this little girl didn't need to hear that. She needed him to be strong for her and for him to do his job as Chief of Security. "Come now little one, let us get you someplace safer."
Ezra got to his feet, picking her up and feeling her arms and legs wrap around his body as he carried her to the door. The phaser fire was still coming, and Ezra knew they must have reduced the numbers of the Borg in the hallway so he could make it to the turbo lift and his security team. Sidestepping the bodies on the floor, he kept Sofie's head pressed into his shoulder, so she did not see the carnage of the firefight. Ezra feared for her sanity if her father and mother were among the dead.
"HOLD YOUR FIRE!" Ezra shouted to Kate and the others when all of a sudden, the doors to Shuttle Bay 2 slid open.
At least a dozen new beams of red pierced through the fog of phaser fire.
Ezra raised his weapon and fired, sending a bolt of green phaser energy at the emerging Borg. The blast struck the first one in the new group, but instead of being halted, a shimmer appeared over the Borg when the energy hit, dispersing it. Ezra tried again but knew even as he pulled the trigger, and the Borg closed in, it was too late. They had adapted. The second shot did nothing to stop the approaching Borg, and at that point, Ezra turned to run.
"Retreat! They've adapted!"
That was Buck, Ezra thought as he heard the voice announcing the unfortunate state of their battle with the Borg. Looking over his shoulder, he tried to see if Julia was among the new batch of drones and felt an ache when he couldn't. Instead, he focussed on the child in his arms, the one who no doubt saw one or both parents ripped away from her by these cybernetic monsters, who had narrowly escaped a similarly terrible fate in a maturation chamber.
The Borg had no use for children.
Those who were taken were placed in maturation chambers. Their growth was accelerated so their bodies would become adults in a matter of weeks, instead of years. All the while, they would listen to the Collective whisper in their ears, destroying the promise of what they might have been for good. He could not let it happen to this child, he would not. He had not gone after Julia because he had to save little Sofie. He would not let that sacrifice be for nothing.
Ezra saw the turbo lift ahead and his security team, waving at him to hurry up, with Buck Wilmington leading the way. When had the First Officer arrived? Then again, Chris Larabee wasn't stupid and knew precisely how Ezra would have reacted to Julia being in trouble. The Captain probably sent Buck down here to ensure he didn't do anything stupid.
Too late, Ezra thought, although his act of foolishness had allowed him to reach Sofie, so it was not a wasted effort. He did save someone, just not Julia.
Then without warning, one of the Borg drones that they thought dead sprang to life. As Ezra questioned how this could be, he realised the Borg may have simply been wounded, and the cybernetic implants had taken time to repair the damage. Before he could fire, Buck pulled the trigger on his phaser, but this time, the shot had no effect. The Borg's shields had adapted, and with their adaptation, their phasers were now useless. The Borg advanced towards him, and Ezra could do nothing but run, because he couldn't go hand to hand with a drone, not with a child in his arms.
Suddenly, Buck Wilmington slammed into the Borg drone, using his weight like a linebacker, propelling the cyberman back a few steps. He closed the distance between the disorientated Borg and swung the butt of his rifle against the enemy's jaw and cybernetics or not, Ezra was sure he heard bone cracking.
"Get moving, Commander!" Buck shot him a look that would not be defied.
Ezra didn't argue. Holding onto Sofie, he made for the turbo lift doors even as Kate and the rest of his Security team were attempting to shoot past him. Not looking over his shoulder, Ezra heard Sofie whimpering in fright into his shoulder as she clung to him for dear life. Only when he ran past the barrels of phaser rifles aimed at the advancing Borg drones, did he dare to look at what was behind him.
Buck was running towards him, barely a hair's breadth out of reach of the new Borg drones, now fully protected from their phasers. The First Officer was jumping over bodies, sidestepping others in his advance to the turbo lift. It was clear now they had lost Deck 14 and had to protect the rest of the ship from being similarly occupied. Kate and the others continued to fire, trying to slow down the advance when an arm reached out from one of the drones lying on the floor, similar to the one who almost captured him and Sofie earlier and wrapped a hand around Buck's ankle and pulled.
Ezra watched in horror as Buck landed hard on his face. The big man barely had enough time to overcome his dazed state when the Borg who had caused this fall, got to its feet with surprising speed. Before Buck could react, the two assimilation tubes slid out of the drone's arm attachment, penetrating his uniform to sink into the First Officer's shoulder.
"BUCK!" Ezra shouted as he saw the pure naked terror on Buck's face as the First Officer realised what had just happened. It lasted only for a second because soon the expression of fear on Buck's face drained into vacancy. He almost put Sofie down and went after Buck, but it was Kate who grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back into the turbo lift as the Borg drones swarmed the hallway.
"Sir! It's too late! We have to go now!"
Ezra almost shouted she was wrong, until he raised his eyes to the corridor as the doors started to close, and saw Buck was now standing upright, no longer resisting, and though the First Officer appeared to be looking in their direction, Ezra was sure he saw nothing.
Two minutes later, the bridge was silent as a tomb.
No one could speak. Everyone present was still shocked. Everyone except Chris Larabee who stood up from his command chair like the burning heart in the centre of a galaxy. Staring hard at Ezra, he could barely control his rage at the news the man delivered, the news too terrible to be spoken over the comms, that required Ezra making a personal appearance on the bridge to give him.
"What do you mean he's gone?" Chris's voice was a strangled whisper and in its soft tones was the Herculean restraint he was using not to erupt like a supernova.
Ezra swallowed thickly, for once unable to meet the Larabee glare. He'd left it to Kate to take Sofie to Sick Bay, while he returned to the bridge, still stunned not only over the loss of Julia Pemberton but Buck Wilmington too. The First Officer's stricken visage, seconds before the turbo lift swept them away to safety, would haunt Ezra until his dying day.
"The Borg was able to assimilate him, Captain," Ezra repeated himself, and the statement still caused an audible gasp of dismay throughout the bridge, as if hearing it for the second time did not lessen the impact of what had taken place.
"How the hell did this happen?" Chris was out of his chair, glaring at Ezra with a mixture of rage and incredulity. Knowing his oldest friend, since the Academy, who stood up with him at his wedding, whom his son called Uncle Buck and saved Chris from his self-destructive behaviour after Sarah and Adam died was assimilated, made Chris almost sick with rage. The fury running through him felt as virulent as the nanoprobes turning his friend into a zombie.
"HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN!"
The word felt like lashes against his skin, but Ezra knew Chris was right to be angry. If he hadn't gone after Julia, he wouldn't have been cut off, necessitating Buck to come after him. Even though he'd saved little Sofie's life, that had been done in the course of doing something selfish when he should have been thinking clearly.
"I am sorry, Captain," Ezra said miserably, not knowing what else to say for the first time in his life.
"Sorry?" Chris growled. "He's being turned into a fucking drone as we speak...!"
"CHRIS!" Mary stood up from her chair and was practically glowering at her Captain, refusing to let him go on, not when she could see Ezra breaking apart inside. "It's not just Buck down there, it's also Julia!"
As if he had been doused with a bucket of icy cold water, Chris realised what he had done and immediately fell silent, not to mention ashamed. Mortified by his insensitivity, Mary's sharp rebuke reminded Chris Ezra had not just lost a friend, but also the woman he loved. The last thing he needed was for his Captain to behave like a bastard.
"I'm sorry Ezra," he apologised regaining his composure. "This is the Borgs' fault, not yours. I know you did everything you could to prevent this."
"Not enough," Ezra shook his head, unable to think otherwise. "Not enough."
"Chris, what's our plan? They won't stay on Deck 14."
"I know that," Chris replied and swallowed thickly, before tapping his com badge. "Engineering, come in."
"Yes, Captain," Chanu's voice spoke a second later.
"Shut down all power to Deck 14, including the Shuttle Bay,. Not one watt of power is to get down there, do you hear me?"
"Aye Sir," Chanu nodded. "Right away."
The next order Chris had to give was probably the worst one he ever had to give in his life, but he was Captain of the Maverick, and he had to think about his crew, not just the friends that might have been lost. This had to be done no matter how sickening it felt.
"Computer," Chris spoke up, and even though he was loud enough to be heard, the tone of sad remorse was evident. "Disable all command authorisations for Commander Buchanon Wilmington. Authorisation Captain, Christopher Larabee. "
Mary's breath caught at that order and Ezra couldn't meet the Captain's eyes wondering if the pain in Chris's voice was anything like the black well of despair he was presently experiencing. Cutting Buck off from the Main Computer felt like giving the man up for dead but Ezra, if he had the mind to speak, would be the first to remind Chris it had to be done. If the Borg had control of their First Officer now, they would have access to those codes, and that was an advantage the Captain could not allow the enemy to have.
"Captain!" Alex's voice filled the bridge. "The Borg are on board the Maverick!"
Chris exchanged a glance with Ezra and then Mary before he answered quietly. "Alex, we know."
"You know?" Alex's voice revealed her surprise. "You know they've gotten on board with a breaching pod? They must have launched it shortly before the collision with the sphere. I think they used the crash to mask the breaching pod's penetration of the hull..."
Well, at least that question was answered, even if it was a moot point now. "Commander, get ready to transport back to the ship immediately."
"Chris, what's happened?" Chris heard Vin suddenly interrupt. It wasn't the Vulcan's habit to jump in like that, but Vin would have been able to tell by just the sound of his voice something had gone terribly wrong.
"The Borg have taken Julia," he said, not looking at Ezra as he spoke. "And Buck."
"Oh God, no."
If Buck was here, he might have been touched by the level of anguish in the voice of the Maverick's second officer. Despite the less than auspicious start to their working relationship, the two had developed a close friendship that bordered on family. Alex's absolute lack of interest in Buck had given the man an unvarnished view of the female perspective while Alex considered Buck someone she could confide in almost as deeply as Vin.
"Captain," Vin spoke up a moment later because Alex's silence spoke volumes. "We're ready to beam back on your order."
His designation was One of Four.
After his imperfections were removed and his programming initialised to become truly Borg, all that he knew became theirs to exploit. The technological superiority exerted by the inferior enemy had seen the destruction of no less than four Borg cubes. Now because of him, the Borg had access to that data. They would add it to their own distinctiveness and the next time they encountered the Federation, assimilation would be assured. If nothing else, the Borg knew how to adapt.
Although he had a name once, it was irrelevant and imperfect. The memories of who he had been, the mother who didn't live long enough to see him join Starfleet, the women who breezed in and out of his life and the ones who had the endurance to stay, were now bits of data stored in his memory banks, deemed as useless information. The past was irrelevant, the emotion of love and duty equally unnecessary.
Every part of his former life was relegated to a place he could no longer access, and if there was anything left of Buck Wilmington, he was screaming behind walls he could never escape, drowned out by the voices of the Collective.
Inez Recillos was exhausted.
Presiding over Four Corners, which at present was wall to wall with both crew and their families, she directed the servers who worked in the Maverick's mess like a general with her own miniature army. Giving her team orders to keep the mood light, to ensure everyone got what they needed, she was determined to keep their minds off where they were. Fortunately, the restoration of main power meant food replicators could be used to feed the masses, a thing Inez was grateful for because ration packs were poor substitutes for comfort food in a crisis.
Four Corners was always the social heart of the Maverick, and on occasions like this, it served as a refuge for those who found comfort in being with others, not sequestered in their quarters alone. It made acceptance of where they were easier to bear, and the view of Fluidic Space afforded by the picturesque windows of Four Corners was rather spectacular, even if it was an unfamiliar alien dimension. A short time ago, a school of creatures with a remarkable resemblance to jellyfish swam by against the backdrop of the sizeable tree-like mass that made the Maverick look positively tiny.
"Here you are. One of my very special banana splits," Inez presented the serving of ice cream, chocolate and fruit to one of the twin blond girls at the counter. The Whitworth twins, the nine-year-old daughters of Lt. Whitworth of Astrometrics, belonged to the group of children Inez had agreed to babysit while their parents were on duty.
"Thank you, Inez," Tina, who was nine, told the bartender as she picked up the platter with both hands and returned to the area at the corner of Four Corners, Inez had nicknamed the playpen, occupied by the children under her care. They varied in ages from four to ten, spread out across floors with crayons and drawing paper, while others played with games and toys. It was nice to see them there.
Inez was about to go serve another customer when she noted the doors to Four Corners sliding open and stepping through was none other than the Captain and Josiah Sanchez. Chris Larabee's presence drew an immediate response from those present, particularly the Starfleet personnel who wondered what he was doing at Four Corners when his customary place would be bolted to his Bridge during times of crisis.
A surge of disappointment filled her at Buck's absence but then supposed if Chris were here, the First Officer would need to be on the Bridge. In any case, he'd stolen a few minutes earlier on to check on her, to make sure she was safe down here, aware she would have her hands full with the civilians flowing into Four Corners. Still, Chris's appearance in Four Corners felt strange, especially with Josiah at his side.
Until he looked straight at her and Inez realised why.
The last time he came to see her like this was to tell her Raphael had died.
Watching Chris and Josiah cross the space between the door and the bar, pausing briefly to offer the obligatory greetings expected from the Captain, there was no doubt in Inez's mind she was the reason for his visit. Without realising it, her hands clenched into fists. Inez stood behind the bar, stuck like a fly in amber as he prepared to visit upon her some terrible news that required the presence of a Counsellor in the aftermath.
She almost turned and fled the room, not wanting to hear the doom he was about to visit upon her life but she couldn't move, because suddenly Buck's absence felt ominous. In the last two months, she had finally admitted herself she cared for him, and though he never said it out loud, Inez knew Buck loved her. It was why she had to stay and force herself to listen to the truth, even as she felt the cold blanket of despair descending over her world.
"Is he alive?"
She asked before Chris reached the counter and he wished more than anything, he could tell her everything was fine, that he'd just come for a drink at the bar, but he couldn't. Even though he didn't have time to leave his Bridge, not with the Borg running loose on his ship, Chris could not leave it to Josiah to do this or worse yet, tell her as a face on a view screen. He owed it too much to Buck Wilmington for such an act of cowardice.
"Inez," Josiah started to say, and Chris gave him a look to stop. Chris could do this and for Buck, he would.
"Yes," Chris answered, but before the delusion of relief set in, he added, "the Borg have him Inez. They managed to get on the ship through Shuttle Bay 2, and they were able to assimilate him."
When he said the word assimilate, his voice almost broke. Clearing his throat, he tried to imagine what Inez must be thinking. She had already lost one man she cared about. It seemed unbelievably cruel she should lose another so soon after finding love again.
"Assimilated," Inez started to wipe the countertop, paying close attention to a spot that didn't exist. She understood little about assimilation, only that it was a thing the Borg did to you, and it was something terrible no one should endure. "Can we get him back?"
"I am going to do everything in my power to try," Chris stated firmly, not just to her but to himself. "I promise you Inez, none of us are giving up on him, but I just thought you should know."
"In case you fail to get him? Back " She shot Chris a look and only then did he see the tears spilling over her anguished brown eyes. "Is that why you're telling me?"
Chris didn't know how to answer her, but thankfully, Josiah spared him the need to try. The Counsellor reached for her hands, covering her knuckles with his large palms to keep them still.
"No," Josiah said kindly. "We're telling you so you know there's still the hope we can bring him back to you."
Inez blinked, and the tears ran down her cheeks freely, leaving streaks across her dusky skin. It glistened beneath the ambient light of the bar. "Does it hurt? Assimilation?"
Josiah did not react to Chris's lie, understanding Inez's fragile emotional state could not bear the truth in all its brutality. Assimilation wasn't death. It was a living hell, and it would serve no purpose for Inez to know that. For Buck's sake, Chris wouldn't do that to her, he couldn't. Buck wasn't in physical pain, but mentally, God only knew what Buck was going through. The thought of the friend who walked through life playing big brother to everyone, robbed of free will, made Chris's insides twist with outrage.
"I have things to do," she managed to speak, even though her voice was little more than a whisper. Her composure, what remained of it was about to crumble, and she had no desire to do it in front of a room full of people. "Please excuse me."
Chris made no move to stop her as she swept out of view, disappearing into the small back room behind the bar. He was sure when she was alone, Inez would be weeping a torrent of tears.
"I'll stay," Josiah let out a sigh and turned to Chris. "She shouldn't be left alone. You should get back to the Bridge, figure out how to get Buck and Julia back."
Chris nodded, knowing he would be doing just that, even if he had to go down to Deck 14 himself, he was going to get Buck and Julia back, not only for Inez but for Ezra too. The Chief concealed his devastation behind a facade whose foundation was crumbling because some agonies were even too much for Ezra Standish to withstand.
"This shouldn't have happened to her again," Chris stared at the wall of drinks, knowing behind it was the room Inez had vanished into. "Not twice."
"It shouldn't happen to anyone, but it has." Josiah knew he did not have to remind Chris of this. The Captain's empathy for the bartender came from a very personal place, and even though Chris had gotten over Sarah's death, he was far from recovered. "She's strong, she'll cope, whatever happens."
Chris wasn't so sure.
"What about you? Are you alright?"
Chris raised his eyes from his introspective thoughts and saw Josiah studying him carefully. He could lie and shrugged off the question, but the truth was, he wasn't alright. He was far from it. Losing Julia was terrible enough, but Buck. The thought of not having Buck at his side, taking him to task when he was behaving like an asshole was an existence Chris did not care for.
"I thought I was saving us by bringing us here," Chris stared at the expanse of Fluidic space beyond the windows. "I thought it was the only way out. When they destroyed our shields. It was the only thing I could think of to keep us from assimilation. Even if the transphasic torpedoes made them vulnerable, they would have continued after us until the engines failed or we fell into the range of their tractor beams. I thought if we came through the singularity, they would give up but they didn't, they just kept coming."
"Chris," Josiah stopped him before he got any further with this display of self-recrimination. "If we hadn't run into the singularity, they would have boarded the Maverick, and all of us would have been assimilated. You did the best you could, and we're still here. Now you've got to pull yourself together and figure out how to get us home."
Josiah paused before adding, "with or without Buck and Julia."
Chris opened his mouth to object, determined to leave neither behind but he knew if it came down to the crunch, if the fate of the one thousand people on the Maverick hung in the balance, he knew the choice he would make. Across Four Corners, the crew and their families were looking to him, their Captain, to bring them home and knew whatever decisions he made, his responsibility to them would come first.
"I don't know if I can live with myself if I do that," Chris stared at the Counsellor.
"Can you live with yourself if you don't?"
Josiah didn't need to hear the Captain's answer because his silence spoke volumes. Chris Larabee would do what was necessary to get them home, even if it meant sacrificing Buck Wilmington and Julia Pemberton.
While Inez's reaction to Buck's situation was one of despair, JD Dunne's response landed at the extreme end of the spectrum.
"What are we waiting for? We can't just stand around here doing nothing! Buck and Julia need our help! We gotta go down there with a security team and get them back!"
The kid had embarked on a tirade surprising those who were accustomed to the ordinarily calm Lieutenant, who rarely showed a temper because he was often in the company of superior officers and didn't feel it appropriate for him to raise his voice when they did it well enough for him. The revelation of what happened to Buck Wilmington surfaced a side of JD rarely seen. His rage, coupled with his bewilderment at their seeming lack of action, took no prisoners in its explosive fury.
Of course, they all understood why. When JD had come on board the Maverick, Buck Wilmington saw a young man, who despite his brilliance earning him a posting on one of the best ships in the fleet, was still in mourning. JD's assignment as navigator should have been reason enough for any Academy graduate to celebrate. Except the person whom JD most wanted to share in his success had died in the same battle that earned Chris Larabee his captaincy.
Buck, who shared a similar experience when his own mother passed shortly before he entered the Academy, had taken the boy under his wing, beyond the demands of his professional responsibility.
To JD, Buck had become more than mentor and friend, he filled the sizeable void left by Jennifer Dunne and became the father figure JD never knew. No matter what his doubts and his fears about being a bridge officer on the Maverick, Buck was always there to remind JD, he had earned the right to be there, and wherever she was, his ma would be proud.
The idea of that man, whose kindness made everyone around him feel just a little better, with his big broad smile and earnest desire to shoulder the weight of their problems, being reduced to a mindless drone was unimaginable in JD's consciousness.
"JD, it's not that simple." Mary tried to calm him down, sharing JD's revulsion at the situation, but his words were playing havoc with Ezra's state of mind.
Like the rest of them, JD stopped pacing the floor of the Conference Room where the remains of the Senior Bridge Staff awaited for the Captain's return to discuss what came next. Vin and Alex had been transported back to the Maverick once main power was restored, and its disconnection to Deck 14 left the Borg inert for the moment, with security force fields keeping the drones penned in. The surrounding decks were already evacuated with security posted at every possible access point to the rest of the ship.
It was at best, a temporary stop-gap until they could decide what came next.
"It is that simple!" JD threw up his hands, forgetting who he was addressing. "We've got to go down there and get Buck and Julia back before it gets any worse. The Borg are probably down there now, filling their insides with nanoprobes! Using what they know to get to the rest of the ship! It's what they do!"
JD had read everything he could about the Borg after the Battle of Sector 001 took his mother and his subsequent work with Nathan Jackson to produce a cure to the Borg nanoprobes. JD knew precisely what Buck and Julia were being subjected to. The horror of it was too much for him to accept on any level.
"JD, settle down." This time it was Vin who tried to diffuse JD's escalating fury, even if he secretly agreed with the kid. The Borg weren't going to stay put. Containment in Deck 14 would be hurdled soon enough, it was just a matter of time. "We all know how you feel, but if we don't do this smart, we're going to be no help to anyone down there. We've gotta avoid the same problem Ezra's detail ran into."
"You mean like letting Buck and Julia be turned into drones?" JD flared and even as the words were uttered, Vin saw Ezra flinch because they cut to the bone. The kid was on such a tirade of anger, he had no idea the crippling blow he just inflicted on Ezra Standish.
"Lieutenant, that is ENOUGH."
Alexandra Styles, now acting First Officer snapped with enough force in her voice to douse the flames of his outrage for good. She saw Ezra barely holding it together, not just because of Julia but the guilt tearing him inside at allowing Buck to fall to the enemy. Like him, she knew how to erect facades of strength so those around them wouldn't see just how much pain was being concealed, and it was this insight that made Alex see how close he was to breaking.
The glare Alex shot JD was merciless, and it drove the young officer into his chair without another word.
"JD, there is not one person in this room who doesn't want to help Buck and Julia, not one. But this isn't helping the situation. Buck and Julia have been taken, and we have to accept that. We have to accept it because recriminations and rage are not going to get them back. If we ever want to see them again, we have to keep our heads and figure out what we are going to do next."
Alex wanted the room under control before the Captain got back because Chris Larabee would not have tolerated JD's words to Ezra under any circumstances. As it was, she was fighting to restrain her own feelings on learning Buck and Julia's fate. Buck's loss was particularly biting, given how prophetic his words about fearing assimilation had become.
JD dropped his gaze to the smooth dark glass of the conference table, feeling a wave of embarrassment at his outburst. "I'm sorry Commander."
"It's okay," she patted him on the shoulder and retook her seat, letting out a sigh. "This is hard on all of us. Ezra," she looked across the table at the Security Chief, wondering if he needed to be given a time out, at least for a few minutes so he could catch his breath. "How you doing?"
Ezra swallowed thickly and with it, all the anguish he felt at seeing Julia assimilated and Buck's realisation he was going to experience the same violation, was shoved into the deep recesses of his soul because Alex was right, they all needed to think clearly.
"I am better Commander," Ezra answered and felt Mary's hand cover his. Turning to the protocol officer, he saw the sympathy in her blue-grey eyes and was grateful for it. "Thank you."
As he spoke, the doors to the Conference Room slid open, and the Captain walked in, with Nathan Jackson at his side. Josiah's absence was noticeable, especially when they knew where he had been. As always, everyone stood up when Chris entered the room, a gesture of respect the Captain was soon waving away, so they could retake their seats, as he wanted this meeting could get underway.
"How is Inez?" Mary asked, empathising with Inez's pain, considering she was a widow.
"Not good," Chris shook his head. "Josiah's staying with her."
No further explanation was needed beyond that and truth be told Chris was not in mind to provide it. Right now, his ship was in trouble and his friends needed to be recovered before anything else happened.
"The breaching pod is still lodged in the nacelle. They might be able to draw power from it, but how much power is unknown. It might be enough to maintain Borg systems, but not enough to breach our forcefields." Alex answered.
"I saw we get that monkey off our backs first," Vin stated. "We got no idea what it might be doing to the ship while it's still connected to the Maverick."
"Can't we use a shuttle to tractor it or maybe the transporter beam?" Mary suggested, surveying the room for an answer.
"We can't tractor it because it could tear the nacelle off the ship if we try to pull it out and at this point, with our internals sensors in their current condition, we have no idea how much the pod is integrated with the Maverick to attempt a transport." Chris explained.
"What about flooding the entire deck with anaesthesine gas?" Vin suggested instead. "Knock the sons of bitches out and strip them down while they're under."
"It won't work," Nathan shook his head, wishing it were that simple. "Those nanoprobes don't just control their cybernetics, it maintains their life functions. Assimilation takes place on a molecular level, which is why they can land on any planet, whatever the atmospheric conditions."
"That's true," Alex agreed, "I mean they can walk through a vacuum without worrying about decompression."
"We can't use energy weapons on them either," JD added. "I mean all we can manage is a couple of shots before they adapt and we're defenceless."
"Then we do not use energy weapons," Ezra spoke for the first time. "If phasers do not affect them, we require something they cannot adapt to, largely because it's too primitive. The Borg cannot function without their human components, so to stop them, we must do extreme damage to those parts of their bodies."
"What are you suggesting?" Mary asked, finding that solution somewhat extreme.
"Guns," Chris guessed Ezra's meaning before the Security Chief could reply. "You mean guns."
"Are we suggesting we just gun them down?" Nathan exclaimed horrified. "We can restore them if we can incapacitate them but if we shoot them..."
"We end their suffering," Ezra whispered, blinking slowly as the words left his lips. "If nothing else, we end their suffering."
Ezra's words hung in the air like the Sword of Damocles.
"There's gotta be another way!"
This naturally came from Nathan, and the shock was not just on his face but mirrored on JD and Mary's as well. Chris, Vin and Alex, on the other hand, did not react at all. Their expressions appeared grim, and their refusal to dismiss the suggestion outright implied their serious consideration of it.
Ezra said nothing but everyone at the table knew what it took for him to make such a ruthless recommendation.
"Nathan," Chris spoke on behalf of the security chief. "Buck Wilmington and I have known each other for as long as I've been in Starfleet, he's my oldest friend. He was the best man at my wedding, godfather to my son and he kept me from walking away from Starfleet after the accident. I've been through it all with him, and I can tell you right now, if we can't get to them, if there is even the remotest chance he could wind up with the Collective, he'd want that escape."
No one could refute that statement. Living life out as a drone, losing all sense of self while watching helplessly as the Borg annexed God only knew how many civilisations, it wasn't living and they couldn't deny given the alternative, Buck wouldn't choose death as a way out of that nightmare. The same could be said about Julia, whose bubbly personality, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, would rather die than living her existence out as Borg.
"Look, we're not there yet," Chris swept his gaze across the faces now the possibility settled over them like an ominous cloud. "We have several problems to deal with, the least of which is Species 8472. They know we're here and it's only a matter of time before they come after us. We need the ship up at full capacity before they can reach us, and we can't do that and fight the Borg at the same time. Suggestions?"
The question did the job of snapping everyone out of their emotional devastation, reminding them there were still other matters to attend beyond the horrific situation Buck and Julia were trapped. The Maverick was more than just two people. She was a ship with over a thousand people counting on them to do their jobs, no matter what their personal feelings were at present.
"Captain," Alex said after a moment, searching for solutions and remembering what Buck would do if he were here. The Captain needed answers and the one that surfaced in her mind, while obvious, was the one she was loathed to suggest. However, under the circumstances, they had little choice in the matter. "I think we ought to consider separating the ship."
Eyes widened at the suggestion.
In a day of increasingly dangerous situations, the suggestion seemed to compound the burden they were already carrying.
"Is that necessary?" Nathan looked at the bridge officers for direction, since to him, it sounded rather extreme. Then again, less than a few hours ago, he and Rain had been arguing about wedding arrangements, now look where they were. Nothing ought to surprise him anymore.
"That's not bad," Vin said first, and it was not merely because Alex was his wife, but because separating the ship opened up a world of possibilities for their present situation. "That's not bad at all."
"I agree," Ezra chimed in. "It does solve some of our more immediate concerns, Captain."
While Chris would typically balk at separating his ship, he could see where Alex was going with this. Their presence in Fluidic space required out of the box thinking and Alex had just presented him with a solution that was not only bold, but it would allow him to protect his crew as well as deal with the Borg threat. Leaning back into his chair, he met Alex's gaze across the table, nodding in approval for her to continue.
"If we separate the ship, we can effectively keep the Borg from getting to the rest of the crew, limiting the number of victims they can turn into drones. Not to mention the sensor and communications arrays are on the saucer section. Engineering can conduct repairs without incident."
"I concur," Ezra met her gaze, preferring to focus on the Borg without worrying about the civilians who could be used to fuel the Borgs' numbers. "In the event Species 8472 do intercept us, we can engage them while at the same time allowing the saucer section the opportunity to depart the area safely."
"That's right," Vin added. "It's not like we can go to warp in this region anyway. The saucer section has full impulse engines, phaser and torpedo banks, as well as deflectors. Not to mention it has its own anti-matter reactor, so it's not defenceless. On the other hand, when we separate the ship, we can switch to the secondary sensor array, which means we'll be in better shape for a fight."
Glad to see his senior staff leaving behind the emotional trauma of losing Buck and Julia for the moment to focus on their situation, Chris felt a surge of pride for this group of people who were not only his staff but his friends. He prayed their number would be whole again. For now, this was the best thing to do. Chris was allowing the Borg to take no one else.
"Alright then," Chris said, sitting up and sweeping his gaze across the faces at the table. "We're separating the ship. Nathan, you, JD and Mary will report to the saucer section. The rest of us will head to the battle bridge and commence the separation."
"Chris!" Mary burst out in protest before she could stop herself, her emotions getting the better of her because she did not like the idea of being sent away at all. Then she saw the sharp stare Chris was aiming in her direction.
Long ago, when they decided they were going to be a couple, Chris had stated there were some lines they could not cross if their relationship was going to work. This was one such instance because the look he was giving her right now, told Mary in no uncertain terms this was not a request, but an order from her Captain.
Shoulders slumping, Mary flinched under his glare and looked away, feeling ashamed and embarrassed by her outburst. "Yes Sir."
Everyone else at the table had the good sense to ignore the tense moment between Captain and the Protocol Officer and Chris was relieved he did not have to remind Mary, in this room and at this table, she was one of his officers, not his lover.
"Captain, I want to stay," JD broke in, wishing to be heard before this decision became set in stone. He didn't want to leave the others, not when they would be actively working to retrieve Buck and Julia. "I can help."
"I know you can," Chris said kindly, mindful of JD's feelings on the matter but not about to let it sway his decision. "But I need you to work with Nathan to build me the bioweapons to deal with Species 8472. If we get into trouble, that might be our only defence against them."
"Captain," Ezra added, "Lieutenant Katovit will be able to assist Doctor Jackson and Lieutenant Dunne with that work, and I would prefer he remained on the saucer section leading the security team there."
"I agree," Chris approved, having similar confidence in Drew Katovit, before turning back to JD. "JD, I need you to take charge of the saucer section and keep my crew safe. Can you do that for me?"
JD wanted to argue, but his loyalty to Chris Larabee would not allow it. Besides the Captain was right. It was important the civilians, who were more than just Casey, Inez, Billy and all the people they saw daily, who made up the community of the Maverick, be protected. As a Starfleet officer, his duty was to them first, not to any one person.
"Yes, Captain," JD nodded, knowing the decision was right but hating that the words felt like ash in his mouth.
"Chris, there's something else," Nathan spoke up while there was time. He had a feeling after they left this room, things would speed up, and the opportunity to discuss the matter would be lost. "I had a quick look at the sample Alex collected from the outside, including her tricorder readings from the Coral."
"What about it?" Chris shifted his attention from JD to the doctor. It was hard to believe before the Borg came along and turned their lousy situation into something worse, there had been a mystery to be solved in Fluidic space.
"Well, it was what we suspected," Nathan explained, "a substance not that different from blood plasma, with protein chains, amino acids, water and electrolytes. It's a primordial soup not too different from the biological environments of many planets in the early stages of developing life. As is the case in all these types of environments, microbes are abundant. So far what I saw didn't look dangerous, and I will need to confirm it with more analysis, but I can tell you right now, just from the quick study I made, they're dying."
"Dying?" Mary gasped and quickly glanced out the window of the ready room to the iridescent world outside. "How?"
"I'm not sure," Nathan shook his head in bewilderment. "Near as I can figure, it's some kind of radiation, not unlike Berthold rays but nowhere as extreme. It's interfering with organic matter on a molecular level, draining the power right out of its atoms."
"Is that what happened to the Coral?" Vin asked, recalling Drew's observations about the mass outside and its bleached appearance.
"Yes," Nathan nodded. "However, whatever has caused the degradation of atomic bonds isn't here anymore, it just caused enough damage for the decay to be irreversible. There's something about it that feels familiar. I have to consult my medical database, but whatever it is, it's destabilised every living thing in the area."
"Maybe this is why they're blaming us?" JD suggested. "This environment has survived for a long time without any harm, this suddenly showing up after contact with normal space might have something to do with it."
"Could it be a Borg weapon?" Ezra inquired. "The Collective did initially open the rift to Fluidic Space. Seeing how easily Species 8472 disposed of the Borg ships previously, perhaps the Collective is attempting a different approach to invade this region."
"No," Mary shook her head. "The sense I got from my brief contact with them is they were blaming the Federation specifically, for something we did to them."
"And the singularity was opened in our space, not the Delta Quadrant," Alex added.
Chris didn't need to hear any more. "Nathan, we need to know all we can about this. If we can end hostilities between us and Species 8472 by proving to them what is happening in their territory isn't our fault, we can end one problem before it starts."
"I'll get on it," the healer nodded, understanding the importance.
"Alright people," Chris got to his feet. "Let's move like we got a purpose."
Once the decision was made to separate the ship, things moved quickly.
So far, the Borg had yet to emerge from Deck 14, but Chris knew they were on borrowed time. It wouldn't be difficult for the Collective to burst through the barriers erected to hold them at bay, which was why he accepted Alex's suggestion of saucer separation. Evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the stardrive section of the ship continued, with Nathan, JD and Mary remaining on the bridge. Taking Alex, Ezra and Vin's place at their stations were Charlotte Richmond, Drew Katovit and Nora Densham, with JD taking centre seat.
Even though he knew she wasn't happy about it, Chris was adamant Mary remain in the saucer section with Billy. Besides, he was confident JD could use her counsel if things went south with the Borg.
After the shipwide alert was made by Chris through alert panels and combadges, and the acknowledgements from all department heads were received, followed by the swift preparations, it was time for Chris, Vin, Ezra and Alex to head to the battle bridge on Deck Eight. Accessible through the seldom-used emergency lift in the far corner of the room, Chris took a moment to speak to Mary.
Despite the hard stance he did not regret taking with her in the meeting earlier, he still wanted to say goodbye because it was no way to leave things between them if the worst should eventuate.
"After we separate, JD's going to take the ship closer to the Coral, so it can be used as cover while we stay where we are. Not that I think they're capable, but I don't want to risk the Borg getting access to a transporter and attempt to beam over to the saucer. We're going to remain beyond transporter range for the time being."
"Alright," Mary nodded in understanding, noticing the others waiting at the lift for Chris to join them. Even though she wished she was going with him, in retrospect, she realised he was right. They were heading for combat, and Mary would be far more useful staying out of their way. Taking a deep breath, she met his eyes, fighting the urge to touch him like a lover. "Please take care of yourself. We've lost enough today."
Chris was grateful that the earlier tension between them passed but he couldn't linger. There was too much to do.
"Take care of Billy," he said gently. "I'll see you soon."
With that, he broke away, giving her a parting look of affection before he headed towards the lift.
"Computer, transfer command to the battle bridge. Authorisation Larabee, Christopher - Captain."
"Acknowledged," the computer's reassuring voice returned. "Transference complete."
As Chris stepped into the turbo lift, he gave JD one final order. "JD, take care of my ship."
"Aye Sir," JD followed Chris's progress from the command chair, wishing more than anything he was going with them.
As Chris Larabee disappeared behind the doors of the turbo lift, Mary reclaimed her seat next to the command chair now occupied by JD. Lowering herself against the cushion, she noted the vacant position on the other side of JD and felt a surge of grief she was sure the young man knew all too well.
Buck's absence never felt more cutting.
"We'll get him back JD," Mary patted his hand as it lay against the armrest. "Chris won't give up on him."
JD nodded, but it was hard to feel that way right now when the empty First Officer's seat felt like a void as deep and hollow as the singularity.
Less than a minute after departing the main bridge, Chris nestled into his command chair on the battle bridge and shifted uncomfortably. He sat in it so infrequently, it still held the stiffness of new leather. Beside him, the notable absences made him realise how isolated starship commanders who came before him must have felt. The Captain's chair never felt lonelier than at this moment.
As if to remind them of the dire circumstances prompting its use, the battle bridge was bathed in dim lighting and tinged with a reddish hue signalling their current status. Its layout was similar to the Constitution-class starships of old, with the Captain's chair commanding the room, the helm and navigation stations in front of him and the security and operations stations behind him on a raised floor.
"Vin," Chris said to the officer of the Con at his station. "The minute we release the docking clamps, I want you to take us at least 50 thousand miles away from the saucer section, beyond transporter range. Maintain that distance at all times."
"No problem," Vin nodded, already setting the range parameters into his console pad.
"Captain," Ezra spoke up from his security station behind Chris. "All department heads are reporting in, the evacuation to the saucer section is complete."
"Good," Chris faced front again, seeing nothing but the murkiness of Fluidic space and turned to Alex who was occupying the Ops station next to Vin. "Begin the countdown."
"Aye Captain," she nodded and tapped her console, initiating the sequence. "Saucer separation in ten seconds. Nine... Seven... Five... Three... One. Initiating saucer separation."
From a distance, the graceful starship appeared to be stretching like a band of elastic as the bow of the saucer edged outwards. Across the Maverick, the sound of docking clamps disengaging echoed throughout the four million tonnes of starship pulling itself apart. The Maverick's nose moved further ahead of the starboard drive until the saucer section glided into view of the viewscreen.
Seeing it from this perspective filled Chris with a sense of profound loss, that the best part of the Maverick was going with the saucer section, leaving behind the draconian reality of their situation. No one spoke for a few seconds as they saw the saucer section pulling further ahead of them. The Captain wondered if the rest of the senior staff felt the same way, that separating the ship felt like he was taking the easy way out, by playing it safe.
No, he shook his head. He would not take any chances, not after losing Buck and Julia.
"Saucer separation complete," Alex announced, throwing a sidelong glance at Vin, who knew what was expected of him now.
"Moving us 50 thousand kilometres away using thrusters," Vin spoke just before the Maverick started moving, evidenced by the sight of the saucer veering off the screen as the helmsman followed the Captain's order to put some distance between them.
"All systems are nominal Captain," Ezra answered, looking up from his console that was flashing reassuringly in green. "We appear to be suffering no ill effects from our last maneuver."
"Alright," Chris leaned back into his chair, still disliking how it felt as the saucer section disappeared entirely from the view screen and the Maverick pulled away from the Coral, heading out into the expanse of Fluidic space. "What's the status of the Borg?"
"So far, they appear confined to Deck 14. My security team reports they have made no effort to penetrate the rest of the ship by either Jeffries tubes or access tunnels. I suspect the lack of power may have hindered their progress for the time being."
"I wouldn't count on it," Chris said tautly. "The only way they can return to the Collective is to leave Fluidic Space. In here, they are cut off from the rest of the hive, just like we are. My gut tells me, they're trying to retake the ship so they can get back to normal space."
"I think the Captain is right," Alex turned away from her screen. "Captain, no matter what the cost, we cannot allow these Borg to leave the ship and reach that end."
"I know," Chris was way ahead of her. Ever since Buck and Julia were taken, he had thought of nothing else. "We have to get them back before they rejoin the Collective because Julia and Buck can give them all the technical data to the new armour and our transphasic photon torpedoes. If the Borg get that, they can adapt, and we'll be defenceless again."
"Jesus," Vin whispered under his breath. They had barely gotten away from the six cubes as it was and stranded themselves in Fluidic space to do it, to say nothing of the friends now lost to assimilation. The idea of facing Borg without the advantage they had, made him remember the carnage he witnessed during the Battle of Sector 001 when they encountered one cube.
Chris stood up from his chair, giving up entirely any effort to be comfortable in it. Facing Ezra, he spoke with ice in his voice. "Now let's get those Borg sons of bitches off our ship and our friends back."
He was One of Four, Primary Adjunctant of Trimatrix 1.
With adaptation and assessment of its new acquisition, the Borg quickly exploited the tools at their disposal to its maximum efficiency. For the assimilation of the USS Maverick, the Borg determined very quickly, the knowledge contained in the human formerly known as Buck Wilmington would be of most use to them, even more so than that of the former Chief Engineer. Along with the technical data contained in his mind, Buck Wilmington bore an understanding of how Captain Chris Larabee operated, and in acquiring that information, the Borg knew how to proceed next.
Previous encounters with Federation starship Captains had taught the Borg one thing - proceed with caution.
Despite their superior technology and numbers, the Borg often found itself on the losing end of engagements with the captains of starships. The process in which a Captain was created included a set of variables the Collective was incapable of predicting. While the Borgs' primary objective was to bring order out of chaos, starship captains used chaos to create order. They could never be counted on to do what was logical or expedient and often railed against all reasonable courses of action, gambling with the most improbable variables to reach their desired outcome.
If it were not irrelevant, the Collective would have found this quite maddening.
One of Four, accessing the memories of Buck Wilmington, understood this and adapted accordingly. When the power was drained to the deck they established as their new hub, it was One utilizing the knowledge of his former self, that directed the drones to the two vehicles berthed in the shuttle bay. Each containing an anti-matter drive, they were more than sufficient to supply the drones of Trimatrix 1 with all the energy they needed. Making no effort to infiltrate the rest of the ship at this point, the drones instead took the opportunity to become fully charged and to analyze their recent encounter with ship's security.
The Borg were unnable to prevent the Maverick from separating since Buck Wilmington's access to the ship was severed thanks to the foresight of its Captain. Still, it had access to shuttlecrafts and the breaching pod so locating new drones for assimilation would not prove difficult. Their primary objective, now their upgrade was complete, was the assimilation of all crew still on the starboard drive. After this task was finished, the Collective would seek out the occupants of the saucer section and assimilate them accordingly. Only then could the Collective could begin construction of the quantum singularity generator to return to normal space.
Then Trimatrix 1 could then turn its attention to returning to the Collective at all costs.
Before optimum conditions for their return to the Alpha Quadrant could be achieved, Trimatrix 1 needed to penetrate the rest of the ship. Departure through the main access point on Deck 14 would cause too much attrition, something they could ill afford at this point. Thus the Borg adapted and found a new route. The individuals designated ‘security' were slavishly guarding all exit points from Deck 14.
All except one.
Chris Larabee asked once the saucer section of the Maverick was no longer in the battle bridge's view screen. As per his orders, JD was taking the saucer section towards the Coral to use its numerous branches for cover, allowing engineering to conduct the repairs needed to its damaged systems. Even though Chris accepted the suggestion when Alex made it, he still could not help but feel conflicted seeing the other half of the Maverick disappear from view. It felt too much like defeat to submit to such drastic action.
Still, it was the wisest course to take, even if it left the taste of sour whiskey in his mouth.
"All systems are in the green Captain," Alex announced from her station where she doubled as First Officer in Buck's absence. "We've got full sensors and communications now we're able to use the secondary arrays."
The secondary arrays, which was shielded during their engagement with the Borg, only ever saw exposure when the ship was separated. It spent most of its life as a minimally powered backup system in hibernation, sealed off when the saucer section was locked in its customary position.
"That's something," Chris shrugged, not able to take any comfort in this news since his ship was far from whole and Borg invaders were having free reign of Deck 14, even if they seemed momentarily contained. "Alright, can we detect how many Borg life signs they are?"
"I am conducting a sweep of Deck 14 even as we speak," Ezra answered automatically.
The Chief of Security was a little more himself now he was back at his station, working actively to deal with the Borg threat and retrieving their lost comrades. As it was, the memory of his last encounter with Julia was repeatedly playing in his mind, reminding him how much time he had squandered when it came to their relationship. If he failed to get her back, Ezra knew he would be spending the rest of his life regretting it.
Stop, he told himself forcibly. Just stop.
Blinking once to dispel those lingering regrets, Ezra pushed aside thoughts of Julia for now because he knew just how crippling it could be. Instead, he fixated on the readings flashing on the tactical station in front of him, its soft greenish glow bouncing off his face as the data appeared on the display.
"I am registering at least...." his voice trailed into the silence of horror as the readings made sense to him with shocking clarity.
"What?" Chris stood up immediately upon hearing the sudden drift in Ezra's speech. Turning his head around to look at his Chief of security, Chris saw Ezra's composure completely shaken.
All eyes lifted immediately to the ceiling with that one loud thud and through the plexiglass window of the battle bridge, they could see something was moving.
"Computer, erect emergency force fields...."
It was all Chris managed to say before the glass shattered, raining large pieces of deadly fragments down on their heads. Chris threw himself out of his command chair while both Alex and Vin dove for cover beneath their stations. However, the glass breaking was the least of their problems because as Vin had pointed out earlier, it was not space surrounding them, but matter.
A thick column of plasma poured into the battle bridge, quickly flooding the floor with the noisome fluid. By the time Chris scrambled to his feet, the fluid level had risen so steeply, it was swirling around his knees. In a matter of minutes, the bridge would be completely immersed.
"Computer, erect emergency force fields to seal the breach!" Chris shouted as he saw Vin scrambling out from beneath his station and hurrying over to Alex. Ezra was heading to the weapons locker, attempting to access the phasers stored there. While Ezra was armed, Chris knew the Chief would not be able to hold off the Borg on his own.
"Unable to comply. Force field emitters on the secondary bridge have been damaged," the computer answered with the voice of betrayal.
"Fuck!" He swore out loud, wondering if things could get any worse.
Of course, they should have considered the possibility the Borg might attempt to enter the ship this way. In Fluidic Space, there was no risk of explosive decompression if one penetrated the vessel from the outer hull. In fact, the sudden deluge of plasma into the ship's interior would create the perfect level of confusion for the Borg to slip through while the crew was scrambling to seal off the Maverick from further flooding. He wasn't even above crediting the Borg with damaging the emitters to ensure they could not erect emergency force fields to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, it was too late for recriminations at his lack of insight.
Not when the barbarians were not only at the gates but storming it.
The Borg wasted no time in pressing their advantage as Chris spied at least four faces peering down at them through the translucent deluge. He had no doubt there were more to follow. Hurrying to the steps leading to the raised section of the bridge, he was met by Ezra, who thrust a phaser in his direction. Chris had no more grasped the weapon in his hand before the security chief was leaning over the rail, firing the phaser and striking the first Borg to reach the floor in the chest. The drone jerked around cartoonishly as sparks flared across its cybernetic chest before collapsing, creating a turgid splash as he landed.
Another Borg soon followed, and by now the fluid was already past their waist and rising steadily. If the window had been any larger, they would already be entirely submerged, and Chris knew they had less than a minute to evacuate the area.
"Vin, catch!" Ezra called out to Vin and Alex who were making their way across the floor towards them. The helmsman caught the weapon with one hand just as another drone landed behind him.
Meanwhile, Chris was wasting no time now he was armed. Taking aim, he fired at a drone about to lower itself into the flooded bridge. The bolt of energy struck the Borg on the side, forcing it to lose its grip and fall to the floor. Landing in a sickly splash, spidery webs of energy coursed through the drone's body for a few seconds, before it disappeared under the rising pool of plasma.
"Vin, look out!" Ezra warned as another drone approached the helmsman.
Vin fired on reflex and as was customary for the best marksman on the Maverick, struck his target dead centre. Except instead of collapsing as the other two drones had done, this one staggered for a moment before straightening up, Phoenix-like, to resume closing in on the Vulcan.
"Shit!" Vin swore. "They've adapted!"
He tried firing again, but when the phaser blasts bounced harmlessly off the drone's shields, dispersing no sooner after making contact, Vin decided it was time for a different approach. Closing the distance to the Borg with far more speed than the drone was capable of moving, Vin circled it. The Borg unable to process the change in tactic, was unprepared for a physical attack. Grabbing the cyborg by the neck and skull, Vin twisted hard using all the strength his Vulcan physiology possessed, snapping the drone's neck. Sparks spat from ruptured wiring and disconnected tubes before the cyborg went limp in Vin's grip.
"Vin!" Alex cried out as another Borg closed in on the helm officer, it's hand extended outwards in readiness to inject twin injection nodes into Vin's back. Acting on reflex, Alex grabbed a piece of broken pexiglass lying across the Captain's chair and closed the distance. Her arrival was punctuated by the jagged edge she drove into the drone's body. The Borg spasmed in pain, uttering no cry as its dark blood spilled over her hands, blood that was not human. Only when the drone tumbled to the floor, did she realize this Borg was from a species she did not recognize and felt a surge of relief it wasn't one of the Maverick's crew.
"Vin! Alex! MOVE!" Chris hollered, waving them towards the turbo lifts as Ezra continued to fire, even though the shots were doing no good. The deluge had risen high enough to reach their armpits, shorting out the helm and navigation station. now completely submerged, only the top of the command chair could be seen now.
Chris's order had both the officers moving through the slick fluid, just as more and more Borg descended into the bridge from the newly created accessway. A sudden thought struck Chris at that moment, and it was one he could not ignore and needed action immediately. As he allowed himself to be steered by Ezra towards the turbo lift, Chris tapped his combadge and hoped his warning had not come too late to save the rest of his ship.
"RED ALERT! All hands, this is the Captain. Evacuate all sections adjacent to the outer hull. Repeat, evacuate all sections facing the outer hull, the Borg are attempting to breach the ship through the observation windows. Security, report to all sections along the outer hull and assist with the evacuation!"
As Chris gave that order, Ezra had a few of his own to deliver. "Security teams to proceed to the outer hull as per the Captain's order. The Borg are attempting to board the ship by breaking through the windows. Assist in the evacuation of these areas immediately. If they breach the windows, they will be able to flood the decks. Repeat, all security teams proceed to the sectors adjacent to the outer hull immediately!"
As Chris watched the fluid swirling around his ankles, he knew he'd lost his bridge again but had to stave off his fury to minimize further risk to the starboard drive. It might be too late to seal off the bridge, but he could prevent this same deluge from overtaking the rest of the Maverick. "Computer, erect emergency forcefields on all windows on the outer hull! Repeat, erect emergency forcefields now!"
More Borg landed on the floor of the battle bridge, wading past the Captain's chair to intercept them before they could escape. As more and more fluid drained into the room, Chris knew if they did not get out now, they would be assimilated long before they drowned in this deluge. Firing once again at the Borg in a vain effort to hold them back, he cursed at the lack of success as the drones kept moving, their shields ensuring the phaser fire was rendered harmless.
"Captain, we must go!" Ezra insisted as he activated the doors to the turbo lift, allowing the fluid entry into that confined space as well. Vin and Alex were now climbing up the steps, fluid dripping from their uniforms as they emerged from the almost entirely submerged bridge floor. Only the top of the Captain's chair was visible now, other than the Borg closing in on them. Despite their lumbering movements, the Borg were moving quickly, attempting to reach the potential new drones before they could escape.
Chris wanted to protest when Ezra shoved him into the turbo lift. When it came to his life and protecting the people he cared about, Ezra who was often the model of propriety, didn't give a flying fuck about protocol. The security chief was continuing to fire at the Borg, even though it did absolutely no good, determined to provide Alex and Vin with some cover as they ran towards the turbo lift. Thanks to the slick covering them, they were struggling to keep from slipping as they ran but still moved fast enough to stay ahead of the Borg.
Vin looked over his shoulder to see the Borg climbing up the steps, having no difficulty navigating the slippery surface as he heard Chris shouting at them. Alex was ahead of him, and he saw her reaching for the railing when she almost slipped. The deluge was filling up the rest of the bridge now, with the thick column showing no signs of slowing as the full tide of Fluidic space poured through the open gap in the roof.
Behind him, the Borg were closing, and Vin winced when he recognized one of them through the grey mottled skin and bald skull. It was Ensign Ana Furaha from Stellar Cartography. He remembered thinking her flawless skin reminded him of chocolate and how she had a smile almost as sweet. As he stepped into the turbo lift, seeing her cold, lifeless eyes fixed on him, it reminded Vin of Julia Pemberton, trapped in a similar shell. Was it just this morning, they had shared a Baked Alaska while plotting how they were going to rebuild his motorcycle? If the pain of her loss could break his heart just thinking of it, what in God's name was Ezra feeling?
The Borg appeared at the doorway and though Ana, no not Ana, Vin told himself, but the drone she had become, attempted to inject them through the narrowing gap, they were sealed inside before the tubes could reach them.
"Yeah, we're okay," Vin answered Chris after a moment, catching his breath. The Captain leaned against the wall, with eyes closed and Vin didn't have to look into his eyes to know what Chris Larabee was thinking. In a day of defeats, it looked like the loss of the battle bridge was taking its toll on him.
"Well," Alex let out a sigh, "you gotta give the Collective points for originality. I never even considered they might come at us that way."
"We better start remembering Fluidic space and normal space are two different things," Chris said tautly, the passing cloud vanishing from his eyes, much to Vin's relief. Although what was left behind was bald anger.
"What are your orders, Captain?" Ezra asked quietly because like Vin, he too recognized Ensign Furaha and couldn't help but wonder if this was what had become of Julia.
"We regroup at Engineering. Vin, you should be able to access helm control from there. Our objective has not changed. We're getting those bastards off our ship. The enemy just pulled down our shorts and kicked our asses without us noticing, that's the last time they're getting away with it."
"A lovely analogy, Captain, but I concur," Ezra made a face tapping his combadge. "Kate report. What's your status?'"
A burst of static filled the lift before Lt. Kate Stokes replied. In the background, they could hear the sound of phaser fire telling them all the security officer was dealing with a Borg incursion. It made Ezra doubly determined to rejoin his team so he could direct their efforts against the enemy first hand.
"We managed to keep most of them out when the Captain gave the order to erect the emergency force fields."
"Most of them?" Alex looked at Chris, not liking the sound of that one damn bit. However, before she could say more, Kate added further.
"They've managed to enter the ship via the damage in the starboard nacelle. The emitters were destroyed during the collision so we can't erect force fields. We've managed to pin them down using the internal forcefields before they can reach the rest of the ship, but they're adapting faster and faster Chief! Lt. Razel is reporting that another contingent is attempting to enter through the Anti-Matter generator!"
Chris's eyes widened at that revelation. If any damage were sustained by the anti-matter generator, at the very least, the Maverick would lose its ability to generate power. At the worst, they would have containment breach, and the subsequent explosion would tear a hole through subspace. The Maverick would return to the Alpha Quadrant alright, but it would do it as particles of atomic dust.
Alex had an even worse assessment of the situation. "Captain, if they can adapt so quickly to our phasers, it's not going to be long before they figure out how to breach our forcefields."
Chris Larabee closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath to steady himself.
The litany of abuses his ship was suffering was stoking his anger into white-hot rage. As always when he reached such levels of volcanic fury, the civilization of the Starfleet Captain fell away from his conscience like locks turning into molten lava. Now more than ever, he felt the spirit of the Man in Black, the one who could act with ruthless calculation to win the day. To save his ship from the Borg, he embraced the persona without hesitation, and if God damned him for it, so be it.
The Borg were not taking his ship.
Vin Tanner saw the change falling over his friend's face and understood whatever the Captain had in mind, it was best to step back and let him get on with it.
"Transporter Chief Rain," Chris tapped his combadge and spoke with a voice so cold it felt like points of ice against the skin. "Where are you?"
"I"m helping out in Engineering Captain," Rain answered automatically. As it had been with Kate earlier, she spoke over the background noise of voices barking at each other in response to their current crisis.
"Meet me in Transporter Room 1 immediately."
"Aye Captain," she answered without question.
"What you got in mind, pard?" Vin braved a question. This was the reason why Buck Wilmington was the First Officer of the Maverick because aside from Vin, the big man was the only one who could stand up to Chris Larabee in this state.
"Ezra, you get down to the anti-matter generator," Chris stared at him. "Make sure they do not blow up my ship. Alex, Vin, you're coming with me. We're going to deal with these Borg the way we would do if we were in normal space."
Alex nodded, suspecting what might be involved and dreading it.
Even though she was several hundred years old, Transporter Chief Rain Nal still marvelled at how quickly a day that started out rather well, could become utter rubbish in a matter of hours.
This morning she had become an engaged person, and the most troubling thing on her mind was the realization her husband to be was deluded enough to think their wedding would be taking place in a holodeck saloon. It was the universal constant no matter what species one was from or how alien the culture, men had no say when it came to planning a wedding.
As it was, in between avoiding assimilation by the Borg, aiding Engineering repair the multitude of problems arising from the collision with the sphere, Rain's previous hosts, Mysa, Nura and Lydia were on the case. By the time the Maverick slipped into Fluidic space, they'd already mapped out the most important aspects of the ceremony. The seating arrangements, the music to be played during the ceremony, (My Heart will Go On, thank you very much), and what colour flowers would go best with the dress she would be wearing for the occasion.
Considering the ship was presently on Red Alert, with enemy Borg roaming the outer hull like flies on a carcass and sections of Maverick was filling up with goo, Rain was satisfied her wedding planning were on schedule. Therefore when the Captain summoned her to Transport Room 1, she was confident that no matter what took place, at least her future nuptials would not be disrupted.
As the doors to the Transporter Room slid open and the Captain strode in purposefully, with Vin Tanner and Alex Styles flanking him, she wondered what he intended. Like the rest of the ship, she was aware of Buck Wilmington and Julia Pemberton's assimilation, and while Rain felt the sufficient amount of horror at that news, she also had confidence this was a temporary state of affairs because Captain Larabee would simply not stand for it.
When the trio reached her, Rain found her eyes widening at the sight of Vin and Alex in their current condition.
"Oh my God," Rain exclaimed with a wrinkled nose. "You've been slimed."
"Thank you," Alex returned sarcastically, her revulsion at Rain's description showing. "I wanted to be reminded I'm covered in snot."
"Yeah," Vin rolled his eyes. "I knew I married you for your charm."
Chris however, was in no mood for any kind of levity, not with the black storm cloud he was presently riding into his next action.
"This is not the time, Officers," he shot them a look with an edge to his voice they knew not to argue with. "Rain, can you get a lock on all the Borg?"
"On the ship?" Rain stared at him, the question took her by surprise.
"Yes on the ship," Chris said impatiently, aware Vin and Alex were trying to figure out what was on his mind. Well Alex anyway, Vin always seemed to know what he intended, even if Vin didn't have specific details. "Can you establish a transporter lock on them?"
"Yes, yes," Rain nodded, requiring only a split second thought to give the Captain an answer. "Their cybernetics has a very distinct energy signature, I can get a signal."
"Good," Chris said, not looking at his acting First Officer or his helmsman. "Because I want you to transport them all off the ship."
"Off the ship?" Alex interjected immediately, "and send them where?"
For a moment, Alex thought Chris intended to send them into the emptiness of Fluidic Space. Indeed, the threat to the Maverick would be over, but some of those Borg were their crew. Buck, Julia, Maria and God only knew how many others. They had yet to make a tally of how many were lost to assimilation, but Alex knew it was almost everyone on Deck 14. While she appreciated Chris's scorched earth policy, if Buck Wilmington were here, he would never stand for it.
Of course, she should have known better. Chris Larabee would never consciously endanger his crew.
"Nowhere. We're going to hold them in the transporter pattern buffer."
"Is that possible?" Vin stared at Rain but could not help the admiration from seeping into his eyes at Chris Larabee's solution to their Borg problem.
Once Rain overcame her shock and her feelings of pride at the Captain's ingenuity, she nodded wildly in answer. "It's possible, but we have to do it fast. The instant I begin transport, they're going to adapt their shields to disrupt the transport beam"
"But that would take plenty of them off the board," Vin declared, on Chris's page now. "That might be enough for us to retake Deck 14. "
"Exactly," Chris stated, giving Vin a faint smile that even when he was at his most unpredictable, Vin always knew what was going on in his head.
"Captain, how long can we hold them in the Transporter buffers? If the ship's computer suffers any kind of significant damage, it will purge the buffer to make room for memory. We could lose all of them." Alex pointed out. As elegant as the solution the Captain had devised was, she had to point out the difficulties and the potential danger.
"We hold them long enough to start bringing them out," Chris replied, having thought this through on route to Transporter Room 1. "One at a time."
"One at a time?" Vin spoke before he began to understand himself what Chris was planning. "So we can strip off the cybernetics?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "We bring them out one at a time and hit them with a focused burst of EMP before they have a chance to raise their shields. The Collective may be adaptable, but they can't fight physics. If we disrupt their cybernetic parts, we can separate the machinery from the individual."
Alex considered the idea and then nodded, "it could work. If we can render the nanoprobes in their bodies inert long enough, Nathan should be able to flush out the implants from their system entirely. We could restore everyone back to their previous selves."
"Okay," Vin looked at Chris. "How do we get started?"
"Alex, can you modify Vin's phase rifle to deliver the EMP burst?"
"Yes," Alex nodded, "but I recommend we do it in one of the cargo bays and reinforce the area with a dampening field to keep the EMP burst localized to just the drone. We could inadvertently short out our own systems attempting this, especially if we intend to do it repeatedly."
"Vin," Chris turned to him. "I want you to deliver the burst. You're the fastest with a phase rifle. The second their pattern is established, you need to fire. We can't give those bastards any time to realize what we're doing and block the shot."
"I'll get it done," Vin said confidently as he handed Alex the phase rifle Ezra insisted he take because the Security Chief would allow the Captain to go nowhere without the proper protection.
"The instant we put the drone down, he or she is to be transported to Sick Bay and held in a stasis field until we can extract the nanoprobes."
"Aye Sir," Rain nodded, once again feeling grateful her faith in Chris Larabee was justified.
"Captain," Alex looked up as she slid the housing off Vin's rifle to make the required adjustment. The Captain's proposal had surfaced another advantage in their favour. "Voyager constructed the bioweapons using modified Borg nanoprobes. I suggest when we purge them from the drones, we store them so they can be reprogrammed for the warheads."
It was a good plan. Synthesizing nanoprobes to arm the warheads would take time they did not have. So far they were lucky to avoid a visit from Species 8742, but if Mary was correct, and the aliens did blame the Federation for its current troubles, then they would not be far away. Worse still, there was no guarantee the warheads would work as well as they did when used by Voyager.
After reviewing the logs from Voyager further upon entering Fluidic Space, Chris discovered it was Voyager who provided Species 8472 with the technical data regarding nanoprobe warheads. While he lauded the decision made by Kathy to avoid a war, surrendering their only defence against Species 8472 would not have been his first choice. In any case, Chris guessed it was access to this data that allowed the enemy to diffuse the Borg weapons since the Collective would not have been privy to this fact.
"Do it. Until we get the Borg under control, I won't authorize reintegrating the saucer section, and we'll need to be in one piece when we fight Species 8472."
"Is there any chance we can talk them out of a fight?" Alex inquired. "I mean if Admiral Janeway managed to avoid a war, perhaps we might be able to convince them we're not responsible for whatever is happening to their territory."
"We can talk," Vin replied, "but we got nothing to say they want to hear. If there's a mass extinction event going on they think we caused, they won't listen unless we can give them proof we're not responsible."
"Vin's right," Chris gave the younger man a nod of approval for getting to the heart of their problem so succinctly. "At the moment, we have no information about what's causing the deterioration of their space, and without that data, we have no cards to play. If we want to avoid a war, we've got to figure out what's happening here."
"Alright," Rain looked up at the three officers, having filtered out their conversation while she had been configuring her transporter station to carry out the Captain's audacious plan. "I've got a signal lock on at least thirty Borg drones scattered across the Maverick."
"Thirty," Chris winced at the number. "How many can you get before they adapt to disrupt the transport?"
"More than half," Rain "after that. I can't say. You've seen how quickly they adapt."
"No argument there," Chris replied. "As soon as you get them, I want you to head down to Cargo Bay 2. It has its own transport pad, so you should be able to rematerialize their patterns down there."
"In that case," Rain said with her usual flippancy. "Let's get the bugs off our windshield."
One of Four was busy at work.
While the rest of the Collective was engaged with the crew of the Maverick, One of Four was inside the Federation runabout called Corrizo. The interior of the craft, a model of waste, with its cushioned seats, food replicators and sleeping quarters, was being converted into living space suitable for Borg. Tearing out all the redundant systems, with the aid of Two of Four, formerly the Chief Engineer of the Maverick, they installed Borg alcoves for regeneration.
Confidence was an emotion One of Four could no longer feel, but his calculations estimated the Maverick would ultimately fall. When it did, its crew would become Borg. However, in accessing the knowledge of Buck Wilmington, One could not discount the small probability Chris Larabee might stave off their attempts at assimilation. The phrase 'Larabee hat trick' kept surfacing in One's programming, words which made no sense to the Collective, but nevertheless, cautioned them enough to make contingency plans.
Although One of Four could not hear the voice of the entire Collective, he was attuned to the others sharing Fluidic Space with him. All of them were working to a single purpose, united by the desire for perfection, where all other races were inferior, chaff to be used for the making of something greater. The defeat of the cubes made a return to the Alpha Quadrant imperative. The technological information possessed by his former self and the Chief Engineer revealed the threat to the Collective.
No matter what, One and she who was now called Two of Four, had to return to the Alpha Quadrant. They had to deliver the details of this technology to the Collective.
One was continuing the work on the Runabout when suddenly he stood bolt straight from the console against which he hovered over. Voices were vanishing from his head. Not just one, or two but many. Those in the craft with him reacted with similar surprise and they stiffened with uncertainty at those silenced voices, trying to determine why the loud chatter they were used to hearing in their ears, now felt diminished.
One turned to look at Two and wordlessly, they communicated.
Six of us are offline.
Two nodded in response.
Six more have followed.
One could feel their disappearance.
Their life signs have not been terminated. They have simply vanished.
Two guessed why immediately.
They are being transported.
One knew what had to be done, and he transmitted the thought to the rest of the hive.
Adapting shields to emit transporter disrupti...
Six more were gone. One of Four could feel their voices vanish into nothingness and suddenly the loud chatter was reduced to the hushed whispers of those afraid of speaking out loud for fear of notice.
Initializing disruption emitters.
The whole process took less than a minute to activate, but even as the Borg adapted their shields to avoid being forcibly removed, another three voices had vanished.
Two spoke up again.
We have calculated the probabilities of success based on current data. We lack the numbers to take the ship.
One was begrudgingly forced to agree.
All remaining drones are to retreat to this deck immediately.
"Captain," Ezra Standish's voice reached Chris shortly after the Captain arrived in the starboard section's Sick Bay facilities with Alex. "The Borg are retreating. Repeat, the Borg are retreating!"
Exchanging a quick glance with Alex who was making preparations to enact the rest of Chris's plan at the console attached to one of the stasis beds, the news though good was by no means the end to their present predicament. "Ezra, how many Borg life signs are you detecting now?"
Chris had no idea how fast Rain could operate the transporter controls to do what he asked of her, but the woman wasn't his Transporter Chief for nothing. Having seen her transport a person in a freefall off a mountainside once, it was a testament to her skill she managed the feat using nothing but manual control. He had no doubt she would do everything in her power to neutralize the Borg threat by trapping them in the pattern buffer.
"Ten," Ezra spoke a moment later, his voice revealing his astonishment at how this miracle had come about, especially after the Borg proved so resistant to phaser fire. "Captain, I am reading only ten signals, and they are retreating to Deck 14. While I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, what pray tell happened to the others?"
"Let's just say I got creative," Chris replied, deciding he would explain it to Ezra later because they still had work to do. "They're probably falling back because they don't have the numbers to take the ship."
"I concur with that assessment," Ezra agreed. "What are your orders, Captain?"
Even if he did not say it, Chris had no doubt Ezra wished to chase the Borg back to Deck 14 and the Shuttle Bay to retrieve Julia and Buck, now they had a slight advantage. Chris shared the sentiment. Until Buck and Julia were free of the Borg implants violating their minds and bodies, nothing was won. "My orders are to get down to Deck 14 and get Julia and Buck back."
"It would be my pleasure, Captain," Ezra returned smoothly, but even Chris could hear the relief in his voice.
"It's ready Captain," Alex interrupted Chris's thoughts when she stepped away from the controls for the stasis bed, now ready for its first occupant.
"Alright," Chris decided it was time to see if this gamble of his worked. Sweeping his gaze across the secondary Sick Bay station, he missed the spaciousness of the version on the saucer section and wished Nathan Jackson was here. Chris's plan was formed in a moment of rage and desperation, and they had to make do with what they had. "I swore I'd never want to be in a position to use one of these."
"Well," Alex allowed herself a little moment of levity. "You can explain it to Nathan."
"Thanks," Chris gave her a look. "I try not to piss off the person who can give me pain meds when I'm hurt, and for doing this, I better not get hurt any time soon. Nathan is going to lose his fucking mind when he finds out."
Biting the bullet, Chris let out a deep breath and spoke. "Computer, activate Emergency Medical Holographic Program."
As soon as he finished the sentence, appearing in the middle of the floor, was a man of average height, balding head and dark eyes. His expression was sour and did not inspire Chris's confidence in believing it was capable of providing a proper bedside manner. The hologram, dressed in Starfleet blue, surveyed the room before fixing those dark eyes on him.
"Please describe the nature of the medical emergency."
"We're about to have a Borg drone transported here with its implants deactivated. We need you to remove all of them. Can you do that?"
"I see," the Doctor answered. "And how soon until replacements arrive?"
"No more than a day. Can you do it? We're on the clock."
The Doctor stared at Chris as if he were talking to a child. "Then, you better hurry."
In Cargo Bay 2, Vin Tanner was waiting patiently for the first of the Borg to appear on the transporter pad.
Twenty Borg were presently trapped in the limbo of the pattern buffers, doomed to exist as bits of energy and data until they were rematerialized. Rain was standing by at Cargo Bay 2's transporter station, waiting for the Captain to give her the order to proceed. Vin watched her hands move across the display like an artist playing a tune. He had to admit, he doubted anyone else could have removed as many of the Borg in her place.
"You have a go," Chris Larabee's voice chirped through their combadges.
"Okay," Rain replied, "let's put Humpty Dumpty together again."
Vin's finger tightened over the trigger of the phaser as the familiar hum of the transporter was heard, and the golden mist of energy appeared before them, quickly solidifying into a shape. The beauty of the transporter beam was soon replaced by the ugly, cybernetic form of a Borg drone. The face twisted into a parody of life thanks to machinery and implants was no one Vin recognized and for this, he was grateful.
The Borg's red eye glowed to life once the transport was complete, but it had no time to register anything in its environment before Vin pulled the trigger. The bolt of silvery energy fired struck the drone squarely in the chest, and it staggered on the platform as sparks began to appear across the exoskeleton concealing its original flesh. The Borg opened its mouth to utter a cry of pain and Vin could only watch as the EMP burst short-circuited its cybernetic components.
The short circuit caused an energy spike on the Borg's neural implants, and it spasmed violently before falling flat on its back, the red glow of its ocular implant blinking out of existence for good.
Rain hurried over to the Borg as it lay on the transporter pad, unconscious, with its cybernetic attachments smoking from the overload. Running a tricorder over the drone, she looked up at Vin. "It's done. We've severed its connection to the Collective."
"That's a start," Vin said with relief before tapping his combadge. "Chris, it worked. You got your first patient."
Hopefully, it wouldn't take long before they could do the same to Buck and Julia.
Even though it was only a few hours ago since Ezra Standish was last here, when the doors of the turbo lift slid open, what he and his security team found made him think it was years that passed, not hours. Gone was the sleek aesthetic of Federation ship design. Instead of vibrant, soothing colours and well-lit corridors, the deck now bore a terrifying resemblance to the alien nest the crew of the Maverick discovered on Fiorina ‘Fury' 361.
No longer bathed in the glow of red alert, the light was now a ghoulish shade of green. An obscuring fog lingered over the floor now running back and forth with cables and exposed panelling. With wires dangling from the ceiling like overgrown creepers and conduits cut open haphazardly, it was clear the Borg were transforming the deck into something that suited their purposes. Even the temperature felt insufferably hot, and the humidity dampened the walls with moisture, prompting Ezra to tug instinctively at his collar in discomfort.
"Remember, keep your distance," Ezra warned his security team, comprising of Kate Stokes, Lt. Razul, a Saurian complete with tail and retractable claws, and Pico Chavez. Moving through the darkened hallway, Ezra felt as if they were travelling through the gullet of some sleeping beast, praying it would not wake up and swallow them whole. "Do not get close enough for them to use their injection nodules because you know what occurs next."
No one needed further elaboration. Learning the fate of the Maverick's First Officer was lesson enough to drive the point home.
Ezra took point, but instead of leading the way with a phaser rifle, he was armed with a semi-automatic Browning shotgun. In fact, the arsenal of every member of his team saw their day before the mid 21st century and the advent of energy-based phasers.
Kate was carrying a pistol crossbow, from all accounts a family heirloom, with a fifty-pound draw weight. Lt Razul, on the other hand, was Saurian. Being a reptilian with a mouth full of serrated teeth and a tail which he sometimes used to subdue unruly visitors to the Maverick, he needed no weapons for hand to hand combat. Meanwhile, Chavez had opted for a Klingon bat'leth, on loan from Alex Styles.
"When we engage," Ezra continued to speak because the silence was making everyone nervous, "target their cybernetics first. If we can disrupt their operation, we may be able to give Lt. Rain the opportunity to transport and then hold indefinitely in the pattern buffer. If you must aim for the flesh, aim for the body. The injury must be crippling, not fatal."
"Right Chief," Kate nodded, not liking the idea of having to kill anyone who a day ago, might have been one of their crewmates.
"Gotta give the Captain credit," Chavez commented as he aimed his torch at a particularly dark corner and was relieved to find nothing lurking there. Once the Captain's plan was underway, the remaining Borg on the ship had adapted quickly, preventing further transports by emitting a dampening field impervious to a signal lock. "I would never have thought to use the transporters that way."
"Never underestimate the ingenuity of Chris Larabee when he is angered enough."
Ezra could share the Captain's outrage in this situation. Losing the battle bridge was adding salt to the raw wound left behind by the loss of Buck and Julia, to say nothing of being forced to separate the ship. As it was, Ezra was struggling to keep his own emotions in check, because he needed full command of his faculties if he ever hoped to get Julia back. The urge to throw caution to the winds by succumbing to his baser instincts was overwhelming. He wanted to race into Shuttle Bay 2 and retrieve his Julia before anything else happened to her, but Ezra knew he would never reach her if he acted rashly.
"I cannot blame him," Razul spoke, his voice always sounding like a hoarse whisper even with the aid of the universal translator. "If it were my pouch brother that is taken, I would let nothing stop me from getting him back."
"How about you both button up and let's get this done," Kate grumbled, a hint of exasperation because she knew just how much restraint the Chief was using to keep his emotions under control, and such comments even made innocently, was doing him no good. There was no way to tell who was being held in the pattern buffers when the transports were conducted, so it was entirely possible Julia might still be among the drones yet to be rescued.
Kate knew this, and she was sure the Chief did too.
At present, there did not appear to be any Borg activity in the corridor, but before the dampening field blocked out Maverick's sensors, they knew more than ten had escaped the forced transport and were last seen converging on the Shuttle Deck. While the Captain had taken steps to sever any power to Deck 14, the drone might utilize the anti-matter drives in the docked vehicles to furnish their power needs. However, without new drones to assimilate, it was an advantage they could not exploit.
Reaching the doors leading to Shuttle Deck 2 without incident, Ezra looked over his shoulder to issue his last order before they stepped into the heart of Borg infestation on the Maverick.
"We will not engage them until it is absolutely necessary. For now, we will enter and see what it is they are up to. Drones will not attack unless we attempt to interfere with whatever operation they are conducting."
"We got it, Chief" Kate nodded on behalf of the others.
Ezra regarded Kate a moment, grateful for the consideration she was giving him. Kate was one of the newer additions to his security team, having faced a personal crisis in the past that stalled her career somewhat. She'd come from a troubled marriage that spilled into her work, resulting in an official reprimand making her prospects for promotion difficult. Ezra had given her a chance to prove herself, and since her arrival on the Maverick, she displayed nothing but exemplary conduct.
Right now, he was touched by her efforts to lessen his worries and though there could be no salve until Julia was returned to him, Ezra still appreciated the effort.
Facing front once more, he reached for the panel next to the door and activated the button, the barrel of his Browning poised for action. The doors slid apart with its near soundless hiss and Ezra braced himself for what lay beyond. After what he'd seen already, he was ready for anything.
He was wrong.
For a moment, it felt as if they were stepping into the nightmarish version of a Dickensian slaughterhouse. The reek of stale blood and dead flesh wafted through the doors, clinging to the air despite the ship's ventilation system. Benches previously used to maintain the shuttles and runabouts had been converted into crude surgical beds, splattered with blood and gore. Dirty, brown stains slicked the deck, and a large storage container was left open, its lid discarded to reveal its grisly contents.
Arms, Ezra thought as the bile rose up his throat, arms and eyes. To his utter horror, he wondered if he scanned that terrible collection of flesh, would he find one of Julia's emerald eyes? The thought almost made him violently sick.
"Mother of God," he heard Chavez whisper, the young officer crossing himself as if he were looking at something unholy.
To aid in the secondary phase of the assimilation process, one of the shuttles had been stripped down, its exposed hull revealing the newly created alcoves where the drones were now regenerating, drawing power from the anti-matter core of the craft. However, the bulk of activity seemed to centre on the runabout Corrizo.
Ezra counted at least seven of the drones moving in and out of the craft, like busy ants in the midst of constructing a new hive. They were emerging and entering the runabout from every open hatch. Those who exited, departed carrying what appeared to be the interior furnishings of the vessel. Beds and seats were torn out, tables were removed, and anything that might be used for comfort joined the growing pile of discards in the middle of the shuttle bay deck.
"What are they doing?" Kate asked, staring at them in puzzlement.
It was no mystery. Ezra knew the answer immediately. "I believe they are readying the craft to depart the Maverick."
Tapping his combadge, Ezra knew he had to bring this information to the Captain. They could not allow the Corrizo to leave the Maverick, even if it meant storming the craft to do it. As of yet, the Borg had not reacted to their presence because they were merely observing and not interfering. Ezra knew the instant Chris heard this latest development, he and his team would be ordered to stop the Borg by any means necessary.
"Captain..." Ezra started to speak when the voice died in his throat.
Stepping through the main hatch of the Corizzo, was Julia. Or rather what was left of her.
As she strode towards the pile of discards, Julia did not see him or anything else the Collective did not require her to. He could only stare in anguish at the complete destruction of everything she'd been. Julia's left arm was gone, replaced by the obscene prosthetic worn by all Borg drones. Half her face was concealed by the ocular and cortical implants and the creamy skin Ezra loved charting during their nights together, was as grey as a corpse. Even her glorious red hair was gone, and if it were not for her surviving eye and the familiar shape of her petite body, encased in the tight Borg armour, Ezra would not have recognized her as the woman he loved.
"Julia," he whispered, and something inside him snapped.
Ezra was running before he could stop himself. Closing the distance between them, he heard Kate shouting after him, but the red haze gripping him would not allow him to answer. The compulsion to drag Julia, kicking and screaming out of this place if necessary, was like a fever. He couldn't let this continue, couldn't allow this to be her fate under any circumstances. The idea of that luminous spirit, who drew him to her like a moth to the flame, trapped forever in that horrific shell filled him with such a well of outrage he could barely think.
Only when he took a step towards Julia did the other drones attack. Julia raised her head to look at him, and the beam of red caught him in the eye, making him flinch. Her remaining green eye shone dully like a gemstone lost in the dirt. A drone began walking towards him briskly, in its stiff, clockwork manner. Before it could reach him, he heard the snap of a bowstring, and the drone dropped to one knee as the bolt of a crossbow speared him through the thigh, creating sparks of energy as he landed. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the attack had prompted the other drones into action, and they began to converge on the new arrivals.
Ezra knew he should be leading his team, but all he saw was Julia.
She tilted her head oddly as he closed the distance, eyeing him like some variance she couldn't account for before she continuing to walk away. Instead of coming towards him, however, she was returning to the runabout. Speeding up to reach her before she got there, another Borg lumbered forward to intercept him. Without thinking twice about it, Ezra raised the shotgun and fired at point-blank range. The blast was like a crack of thunder freezing time in a single moment. When it resumed again, his uniform was spotted with the numerous points of crimson beams as the Borg turned their attention to him.
The Borg Ezra had shot lay on its back, twitching like a frog as the cybernetic armour it wore hissed and sparked with energy. It was not dead but judging by the fact the male drone had not risen to his feet, Ezra concluded the blast had caused enough damage Searching the deck, he saw Julia walking up the ramp attached to the main hatch of the runabout.
"Ezra, what's going on?" Chris Larabee's voice demanded as he headed for the Corrizo.
"I am getting Julia back!" Ezra replied, discarding all professionalism for this one driving need.
"Ezra, fall back to your security team now!" Chris's voice indicating clearly he knew Ezra had gone off-script.
Ezra ignored him and ducked when a Borg stepped into view, swinging its prosthetic arm in his direction. Having no time to fire his gun, Ezra avoided the swing by ducking low enough to avoid it. Jumping up again, Ezra slammed the butt of the weapon against the cortical implant on the Borg's temple. The drone staggered sideways, the damage to the implant disorientating it enough to let the Maverick's Chief of Security get past.
Kate's horrified voice forced Ezra, to look over his shoulder to see the rest of his security team wrestling with the half dozen Borg converging on them. To his shock, he saw Razul on his knees. The Saurian had gone hand to hand with the Borg, and the one drone left on the ground proved he had been successful, but not enough. The Saurian was clutching his elongated neck, after the Borg standing over him had driven what appeared to be some kind of sharp tool through his flesh, not bothering with assimilation. Blood soaked his uniform, staining the familiar gold fabric to red.
Coming to Raz's aid, Chavez drove the point of the bat'lethinto the drone's back and was in the process of taking another swing when a drone closed in on him. The security officer had just enough time to turn when he stiffened in pain. Ezra could only watch helplessly as Chavez's face drained of expression as Borg nanoprobes surged through his body. As the technological infestation took hold of his cells, he sank to the ground, unable to do anything to save himself.
Chavez's collapse snapped Ezra out of his act of compulsion, reminding him of his responsibilities to his team. Kate was surrounded on all sides, and if he didn't act now, she would fall just like Razul and Chavez. Casting a glance at the runabout, he saw Julia disappearing through the hatch and knew, even though the realization made him wail inside, he had to let her go.
Running back to Kate, who was frantically trying to reload her crossbow, Ezra fired at one of the drones, drawing their attention away from the last member of his security team standing. The blast flattened the drone who was struck, causing the others to turn their attention to him again. Only when Kate turned to see his approach, did Ezra realize just how terrified she was and felt immediately ashamed for forgetting his own rules and jeopardizing not just her life, but damning Chavez and Razul.
Then without warning, the remaining drones started to retreat. Leaving the two humans behind, the Borg began moving briskly away from them. As they left, they paused long enough to retrieve Chavez who was still kneeling on the deck, frozen in place, now the nanoprobes had taken control of his body. Trapped in his transitory state, he was helpless as the fleeing Borg drones retrieved him and led him to the runabout.
"Are you alright?" Ezra asked quickly.
"Yeah," she nodded, no judgement reflected in her eyes at what his act of recklessness had done to two of their number.
"Come on," he gestured her to follow him. "If we can reach Chavez, we will be able to purge his system of those insidious nanoprobes."
Ignoring Razul's bleeding body as they ran past, Ezra focussed on reaching Chavez before it was too late. He had forgotten his duty and with Ezra paying the price for. Still, it was not too late to save Pico. Ezra was too far away for the shotgun blast to be of any help to the young lieutenant and knew if Chavez reached the runabout, they would be too late. Thinking quickly, he grasped at the only solution he could think of.
"Kate, shoot him in the leg!"
"What?" She stared at him.
"Shoot him in the leg!" Ezra barked again.
This time Kate did not argue and took aim with the crossbow pistol and fired. The bolt struck Chavez in the joint of his knee, bringing down the officer with one single shot. As he fell, Ezra sprinted toward him, determined to save Chavez from the same fate as Julia. No sooner than the thought crossed his mind, the engines of the runabout came to life, its twin nacelles flaring with blue energy.
"Captain, the Borg have taken command of a runabout! I think...."
Anything he was going to say next was halted by the barrier of energy splitting the deck in half, keeping him and Kate from going any further forward. Through the golden veil of energy, he saw the Borg continuing to board the runabout, with one of the drones escorting Chavez despite his injury. Chavez wore the same blank expression as Julia, who was no longer in sight, and Ezra imagined the fear the young officer undoubtedly felt knowing they were powerless to help him.
Chris's voice snapped him out of his despair. "Captain, they've erected emergency force fields to keep us from reaching them. You need to order them lowered immediately!"
Ezra could attempt it himself, but he has a sneaking suspicion, the authority to activate the forcefield had come from Julia. While he had rank enough to disable most of the security measures on board the Maverick, he would not waste time attempting to see if he could override the Chief Engineer's authorization when the Captain's command would make it a surety.
"Emergency force field deactivated under Captain's authorization," the computer spoke up a second later.
By the time the force field lowered allowing Ezra and Kate passage through the runabout, the main hatch had already slid to a close, sealing the Borg and their captives inside. The runabout's engines hummed louder, making the walls and the floor vibrate from the increasing power. Ezra discarded the shotgun, deciding it would do no good against the duranium hull of the ship. Unhooking the phaser from his belt, he saw Kate do the same as they closed the distance to the Corrizo.
"We must disable their engines!" Ezra said as he raised his phaser to fire.
"How are they going to get through the shuttle bay doors?"
As if in answer to her question, the low rumble of the Corizzo's engines seemed to reach a crescendo when the sleek craft lifted itself off the deck floor. Perfectly aware of what came next, Ezra opened fire without hesitation even as it hovered a few meters over the deck. Aiming for the nacelles, Ezra prayed they could do enough damage to disable the runabout and end its flight before it could begin.
Once again, the Borg proved more than capable of anticipating their response.
Even with both his and Kate's phasers, the twin bolts of energy never reached either nacelle. They dissipated harmlessly before contact was made with the hull, making Ezra's stomach clench with the realization they were too late.
"They have raised their shields!"
Chris, who was listening to their entire exchange on the open channel of Ezra's combadge, spoke up with that announcement, his voice soft. "Ezra, you and Kate need to leave Shuttle Bay 2 immediately. We're going to open the outer doors."
"You mean to let them escape?" Ezra accused incredulously, unable to believe Chris Larabee was making the suggestion. Yet even as he watched the runabout gliding towards the shuttle bay doors, he understood why. The runabout was going to leave the Maverick one way or another. How much damage it would do on the way out was entirely up to the Captain.
"Ezra, they've raised shields and are charging weapons. If we don't let them out, they'll blast out of there and take the shuttle deck with them or part of the hull. We have to let them go for now. We'll have a better chance of catching them once the runabout leaves the ship."
"Julia's still on the runabout Chris!" Ezra flared up, ignoring the fact he was edging close to insubordination.
"I know that Ezra, but you still have to leave."
Ezra saw the runabout flying closer and closer to the outer doors, aware of what kind of damage it would do if the small craft unleashed the full vent of its phasers inside the ship. The Maverick was already in bad shape, any further damage might result in crippling the ship beyond their ability to repair it.
"Come on Chief," Kate said kindly, guiding him towards the doors leading into Deck 14. "We'll get her back. Right now, we've got to leave before these bastards decide to take a more direct route out."
As he was led to the exit to Deck 14, Ezra knew with every fibre of his being as he heard the outer doors slide open and the deluge of Fluidic space to come rushing in after them, he had just lost Julia again.
For the first time, Chris Larabee felt utterly alone in command of his vessel.
With no choice but to direct his ship from the lonely seat at the central station of stellar cartography, the wrap-around holographic screen surrounding him made Chris feel as if he were flying the Maverick riding on top of her hull. The experience would have almost been heady if not for the lack of stars, the separation of his ship and the escape of the runabout Corizzo from Shuttle Bay 2. Even now, a full minute after the smaller craft had made its abrupt departure from the Maverick, Chris felt the sting of Ezra's disbelief.
If the Corizzo were to escape their grasp, their chances of restoring Buck and Julia would vanish right along with it.
"Vin, have you got her in sight?"
Vin Tanner, who had relocated to Engineering because the battle bridge was out of bounds, responded promptly through comms. "I got her, Chris. I'm moving us into tractor beam range."
"Good," Chris nodded, not wishing to face Ezra or Inez for that matter if they failed to capture the runabout, to say nothing about his own feelings about allowing his oldest friend to suffer the equivalent of a living hell. "Grab them before they reach the Coral. That thing is huge enough to give them plenty of places to hide if they get there."
"Don't worry," Vin assured him, just as aware of the stakes as Chris. "I'll do it as soon as they're close enough."
At the far end of the room, at one of the workstations, Alex Styles showed no reaction to Chris's occupation of her usual workspace in stellar cartography. As Science Officer, this was her domain. Here, and the laboratory beneath the walkway ending with the central station where the Captain was commanding the Maverick. Until they could repair the force field emitters on the battle bridge and drain the plasma of Fluidic space from the room, this would have to serve as the temporary centre of command.
Alex didn't mind one bit. Because like Chris, she wanted Buck and Julia back. Since he'd been taken, Alex had been haunted by Buck's words to her shortly before he went to Deck 14. Despite her love for Vin Tanner, Alex could not deny her affection for the First Officer. He was so many things to so many people. To JD, Buck was a father and mentor, to Chris, a friend and conscience while to Inez, Buck was a second chance. To Alex, however, he was someone she admired because he had a heart as big as a galaxy, and it was simply too obscene to see something that magnificent crushed under Borg hardware.
With the Captain's voice issuing orders to Vin through comms in the background and the image of the runabout Corizzo growing larger and larger in a screen generally used for making star maps, Alex's eyes shifted to the short-range sensors she modified for operation in Fluidic space. Since signals had to move through matter instead of a vacuum, Alex had calibrated the sensors to detect large surges of displacement the way scientists were able to detect tsunamis following an ocean quake. When she saw the benign readings in green suddenly begin to flash red, she wondered if Fate was working actively against them.
"Captain!" Alex burst out once she interpreted those readings.
The level of anxiety in her voice made Chris turn sharply. "What is it?"
"I'm detecting a compression wave coming towards us at bearing point 24. mark 139, range five thousand kilometres and closing."
Chris blinked slowly knowing the exact cause of that wave without Alex having to spell it out and what it would mean to their effort to retake the runabout. Exhaling loudly, he did not look at her when he spoke. "How long till it reaches us?"
Two minutes. It would not be enough time to grab the Corizzo, and even if they did manage to snag the ship, they couldn't go into a fight towing the craft. As it was, Chris had no idea their shields would be able to withstand the technology of the enemy on approach. The same enemy who almost single-handedly destroyed the Borg not long ago. Furthermore, he had to think of the saucer section taking refuge behind the Coral. He had no idea if Species 8742 had detected them, but Chris could not allow that possibility. There were families on that ship, families he had sworn to protect.
Even if it meant sacrificing Buck and Julia.
"Vin," Chris said quietly, the order he was about to give felt like ashes in his mouth. "Break off pursuit of the runabout and take us away from the Coral, maximum thrust."
With the channel open, Vin would have heard Alex's words just as plainly as Chris and knew what was about to come down on them. The officer of the conn also knew what it took for the Captain to give that order and did not question it. "Aye Sir."
"Alex, get Ezra down to Engineering. We need him to manage the secondary weapons console from down there."
"Yes, Captain," Alex nodded.
As Chris saw the view of the screen shift away from the runabout, revealing the approaching image of two bioships, he spared a thought for the people he was abandoning for his duty.
Forgive me Buck.
Ezra felt numb.
He sat on the floor of the deck outside the armoury, not knowing where else to go after leaving Deck 14. He should have asked the Captain for orders, but he couldn't formulate a thought that didn't involve him screaming in rage, so Ezra simply stayed where he was, trying to erase the image of Julia as a drone from his mind so he could function again. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the grotesque thing she had become, and it filled his stomach with the same curdling horror.
Until Ezra got her back, he feared he would never be able to remember her as anything else.
Suddenly, the red alert panels began flashing, resuming its warnings of a new threat to the ship and Ezra immediately tapped his combadge, because those angry red colours had the same effect of water splashing over his face. At that moment, Ezra also remembered the Maverick was Julia's pride and joy and after his utter failure to save her, the least he could do was protect the ship she loved so much.
Before he could report to the bridge, Alex's voice filled the corridor.
"Ezra, get to engineering! We've got incoming."
"What about the runabout?" Ezra demanded, breaking into a run towards the turbo lift.
"We can't go after it with bioships on the way Ezra," Alex said quietly, perfectly aware the Captain was listening to their exchange. "We've got to break off and lead them away from the saucer section."
Ezra paused as he reached the turbo lift and slammed the panel with his fist, biting down the curse of anger that wanted to escape his lips at that revelation. For a few seconds, he could not breathe, feeling the resurgence of numbing anguish at what this would mean. It was likely they may never catch up to the Corizzo if they were forced to engage Species 8742, and if that happened, Julia would remain a drone. Not just Julia but Buck and Chavez too.
"Yes," he finally trusted himself to speak. "I shall join Lt. Tanner shortly."
As the doors slid open and Ezra stepped into the turbo lift, he thought of his last exchange with Julia and knew he would never stop regretting the choices he made about their relationship. He should have made things permanent after that whole business with Q, but as grateful as he was to get her back, Ezra had not dared to take the step needed. She'd been patient about it, trying not to press, but he could see how it affected her, especially after Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles, the most unlikely people one would imagine married, had exchanged vows.
Now it was too late, and he may well spend the rest of his life regretting it.
The two bioships when they appeared, were precisely as Voyager described them.
From the rearview scanner, Chris was afforded his first glimpse of the enemy. While he had seen the footage of them from Voyager's logs, it was nothing compared to seeing them for himself, especially when they were closing in on the Maverick. Their design was unlike anything he had ever seen before, and he could very well believe the ships were the result of organic technology.
Their configuration reminded Chris of squid swimming in the ocean, but unlike those luminescent creatures, the hull or skin, whatever one called it, of the vessel ranged from black to olive green. The patterns on the hull were kinetic. He doubted Voyager had time to thoroughly analyse the vessels, but as Chris studied them, he observed the hull of both ships almost appeared alive, as if each were reacting to the environment they were presently travelling.
"Can you we hail them?"
Chris asked, making an attempt at diplomacy, even though their earlier encounter with the species indicated this meeting was going to be anything but confrontational. If Mary was right about what Species 8472 thought they were guilty of, he doubted they would be in a mood to listen.
"I can try," Alex answered, "but they're a telepathic race, so they may not communicate that way at all. If I recall correctly, Species 8472 needed a human form to interact with humans, if not they used telepathic means. With Mary on the other ship..."
"You don't have to tell me," Chris didn't need her to continue. "Engineering, raise our shields.."
It was Ezra who responded, prompting Chris to look over his shoulder at Alex. Both exchanged a look of relief, grateful Ezra was at his post, even though subconsciously they knew he would be nowhere else. Ezra was too much a creature of duty, and though he played fast and loose with the rules at times, mainly when it came to his onboard gambling activities when it came to the safety of the Maverick, the man took his job very seriously. Even the emotional trauma he was now suffering would not change that.
"Glad you're with us Ezra," Chris said kindly.
"I was never anywhere else." His voice was composed, but even Chris could hear the strain.
Returning his attention to the matter at hand, but making a mental note to check on the Chief later, Chris saw the enemy on approach. Both ships were coming at them at full speed, leaving no doubt they were on an intercept course. The holographic screen allowed Chris to catch a glimpse of the runabout, which was taking advantage of the situation to make good their escape. Chris could only afford them a brief glance, making a silent promise to himself and the friends on board the small craft, this would not be the end. He would find Buck, Julia and the rest of his crew, but first, he had to save the Maverick.
"Two thousand kilometres," Alex updated.
"Captain, they are charging weapons!"
"Vin! Evasive pattern delta!"
Even as the view screen revealed the Maverick banking hard to starboard, Chris gripped the edge of the workstation to avoid being thrown off the walkway. Behind him, Alex was bracing herself against the secondary workstation to keep herself from tumbling down the steps into the laboratory below. The holographic screen depicted the swirl of Fluidic space as the starship veered away from the Coral. As the great ship moved through the liquid world around them, Chris caught a final glimpse of the Corizzo disappearing into the numerous branches of the dead mass, taking the opportunity the arrival of the bioships had given them.
"Enemy ships are firing!'
Ezra's warning came a second before they felt it. Not since the Maverick was fired upon by five Cardassian warships simultaneously, had the ship suffered an assault as violent. Through the viewscreen, Chris saw the effect of the blast on his vessel as the Maverick's starboard section was practically forced into a barrel roll from the impact. Emergency systems screamed alert across all decks, and once again, Chris was hanging onto the central station for dear life.
"Ezra fire transphasic torpedoes now!" Chris managed to shout.
"Captain, we've lost fifteen per cent of our shield!" Alex called out from her station, where she was trying to remain standing while attempting to discern what it was they were just hit with. From the records, she knew the weapons of Species 8472 were capable of destroying Borg ships, but Voyager hadn't been able to analyse their weaponry in their flight to escape the ship in pursuit.
"What the hell did they hit us with?" Chris demanded.
"I'm not sure!" Alex shook her head as she tried to understand the readings appearing across her display screen. "Near as I can figure it, it's some form of tekasite, protomatter...oh my God. Captain, it's got the same readings as trilithium!" She stared at him in unmasked horror.
Trilithium? Chris shared her shock. No civilised species used trilithium unless it was as a weapon of mass destruction and even then, its use was roundly condemned by most of the space-faring races they'd encountered. The ability to stop nuclear fusion was deemed far too dangerous to be used near any kind of star or sun. Of course, it made sense, Chris realised. Fluidic space had no celestial bodies capable of being destabilised enough to go nova. Why wouldn't they use such weapons when there were no consequences to their environment?
"Firing transphasic torpedoes!" Ezra announced.
Chris saw through the external view afforded in front of him, the formidable torpedoes surging towards the bioship in the lead. It struck the alien craft across the hull, causing the enemy ship to veer to the side, it's surface cackling with spidery webs of energy. However, instead of breaking apart like the Borg ship had done, the bioship was still intact. Damaged, but not destroyed. It limped away from the fight, leaving one ship in pursuit.
"Fire again!" Chris ordered, not about to waste the opportunity to slow down the enemy. He had no doubt crippling either craft would do nothing but gain them a little time.
The bioship returned fire before Ezra could carry out the order, forcing Vin to perform another sharp maneuver that had Chris gripping the rail along the walkway. While the ship careened dangerously to port and starboard again, Chris was struggling not to be tossed over the side and cursed the Borgs' part in keeping him off his bridge where this fight should have been conducted.
While Vin managed to avoid the second shot from the bioship, he was not able to avoid the subsequent blast. Once again, Chris felt his ship shudder from the impact, hairline fractures began to appear across the screen around them. Conduits ruptured along the walls, and one of the consoles in Alex's laboratory below exploded.
"Damage report!" Chris barked and was somewhat jarred when it wasn't Julia who answered him. It took a second to remember why and when it did, he uttered another silent curse of hatred at the Borg.
"Minor hull damage Captain," Chanu replied. "Our shields are holding, but they're down to sixty per cent!"
"Ezra get that damn ship off us before it drains all our shield strength!"
Once again Chris watched as the triad of torpedoes escaped the Maverick's weapons bank, hurtling through the greenish sea of fluidic space. The bioship made an admirable attempt to avoid at least two of the torpedoes in the volley but could not escape the third. Once again, it was struck hard enough to be sent spinning off course, the destructive energy of the transphasic torpedoes spreading across its hull, but still, the ship was not destroyed, merely crippled.
"The enemy ships have given up the pursuit," Alex replied, relief showing in her face because, like him, she knew the Maverick could not have managed a sustained assault like that. Just two blast from the bioships weapons had been enough to drain half their shield power. If not for the transphasic torpedoes, she doubted they would have been able to fight the enemy off at all.
"Ezra, Vin, good work the both of you," Chris complimented letting out a heavy breath because they were nowhere out of trouble yet, but he wanted both men to know how instrumental they were to this narrow escape.
"Captain," Alex spoke up, brushing away an errant strand of hair from across her face. "I think we need to find the saucer section and get out of the area. We wounded them, that's all. They're still able to fly and since I don't have a clue how they communicate or the range of their telepathy. we have no idea how far away their reinforcements might be."
"Agreed," Chris had more or less reached the same conclusion. "Ezra, we're going to have to leave the area. We'll come back for Julia and Buck, I promise you, but we can't stay here."
As Captain, he had no reason to give Ezra an explanation, but the man had held himself together for the good of the ship and for that, Chris felt he was owed one. As he waited for the Chief of Security to speak, he looked across the walkway and saw Alex's grieved expression and knew she was just as torn as he by the decision, but they had no choice.
"Thank you, Chris," Ezra's voice replied after a moment. It was rare Ezra discarded protocol to address him so informally, but this was no ordinary day and nor was the promise Chris made to him. "We have to save the Maverick above all else. If I cannot help her at this time, I can ensure her ship is kept in one piece at least."
Chris said nothing for a moment, thinking how annoyed Julia would get whenever he put 'scuff marks' on her ship as she put it, or how he liked stopping in Engineering and listening to her sing from her repertoire of old musicals. Among the senior staff, it was Julia who always saw the bright side of a situation, no matter how bleak things were. It was what made her relationship with Ezra Standish so improbable, and yet Chris suspected that was the reason the Chief of Security loved her so.
"Vin," Alex spoke up, "I've set the navigational systems in the main computer to locate the saucer section via its transponder frequency. You should be able to use that to locate it."
Alex blushed a little at the informal response but supposed after what they had just been through, she wasn't going to begrudge him a little affection. Raising her eyes to the Captain, she saw Chris Larabee staring at the holographic display of Fluidic Space around them. His expression was unreadable, and she wondered what he was thinking.
"We have to find out what's going on here. Before they come after us with everything they've got. We've got to find out what they think we've done. It's the only way we're going to leave Fluidic space alive."
Sadly, Alex couldn't disagree.
It took less than thirty minutes to locate the Maverick and even less time than that for the ship to become whole again.
The crippled bioships had opted not to maintain their pursuit and despite Chris wanting badly to remain behind so they could search every inch of the Coral for the runabout, doing so would be courting folly. There was no doubt in Chris's mind the enemy craft was calling for reinforcements, and despite their success with the transphasic torpedoes, the Maverick was still in no position to face an armada, not until he had answers.
As he told Alex, the only way to return home alive was to continue their investigation into the cause of Species 8742's hostility towards the Federation and the Alpha Quadrant.
With the Maverick speeding away from the scene of the battle at maximum impulse, Chris found himself back in the Conference Room again, facing the remains of his Senior Staff. The loss of Buck and Julia at the table still felt profound, even with Chanu temporarily filling the void left by the Chief Engineer. The toll of the last day showed on the faces of all his senior officers who were both mentally and physically drained.
Ezra was barely holding it together, and Chris debated whether or not he ought to let the man have a few hours alone to come to terms with his grief. While Chris had not yet given up hope on any of his crew still onboard the Corizzo, Josiah would be the first to tell him they needed to prepare themselves for the worst. Chris had a feeling Ezra was already there, and he was starting to cave under the pressure. Nevertheless, Chris couldn't bring himself to excuse the man, not yet anyway.
Appearing just as physically drained as Ezra was mentally wrought was Nathan Jackson, who looked as if he needed a few hours sleep as well. If Chris knew his CMO, the man would have been burning the candle on both ends while he was on board the saucer section, aiding JD in constructing the bioweapons while trying to treat everyone who had been injured after the Maverick's skirmishes of the day. Only a direct order would compel the man to get some rest and Chris would do that if he saw Nathan falter.
Josiah also appeared weary. As always, he was being all things to the civilians, assuring everyone escape from this bizarre dimension was going to happen, while counselling the grieving families of the crew lost in the battle with the Borg. Chris made a mental note to ask him how Inez was doing and as well as check on Ezra when time permitted. Then again, by the way Josiah was subtly observing their Chief of Security, Chris suspected Josiah might already be making such plans himself.
"Status?" Chris asked no one in particular, his gaze fixed on the window outside, feeling his own gloom as he stared into the strange landscape of Fluidic space. Even though they were travelling at full impulse power, he felt as if they were stuck in mud. Chris never realised how comforted he was seeing the stars race past them when they were in space, and right now, he longed for the comfort they provided.
Alex, taking Buck's place, as Acting First Officer even though she clearly despised it, nodded at Chanu to prompt the nervous Assistant Chief Engineer to commence his report. It was apparent Chanu liked taking Julia's position at this table as much as she wanted to take on Buck's role. The lieutenant avoided making eye contact with Ezra who sat stonily at his customary place, but even she could see the fractures appearing in his usually impassive gambler's mask.
"We conducted repairs on the sensor and communication array shortly after saucer separation and were able to replace all the damage hardware via the outer hull. At the moment, we're running a routine diagnostic over the newly fitted systems, to ensure the interface with the main computer is working properly. We should have full sensors and communication ability within the hour. Right now, we're conducting last-minute repairs to the ablative armour, and that should be up and running in three hours. We needed the ship fully integrated to begin that work. I've also sent repair crews to Deck 14 now that it is clear. We're removing all the Borg hardware and the...."
His words faltered, and Alex knew exactly what he was about to say because he looked as if he was about to turn a shade of green.
"The biological material," Alex concluded for him, sparing him the need to clarify.
"Biological material?" Nathan asked, staring at her puzzled. "What biological material?"
Cursing under her breath at the fact she was going to have to spell it out, and wanting to save the Captain from doing it, she met Vin's gaze and saw the Vulcan giving her a look of encouragement. Glancing at Ezra who did not react to the question, Alex could not even begin to imagine what must have run through the man's mind after he encountered that grisly container of flesh.
"After the assimilation process," Alex turned to Nathan, "the Borg discarded the parts they didn't need."
"Parts they didn't need?" Mary started to ask when understanding flooded her face. It was swiftly followed by stomach-turning revulsion. "Oh God."
As the shockwave of that revelation impacted across the table, Mary ignored the wave of audible gasps, and exclamations of horror as she understood the reason for Chris's haunted expression. The shadows across his face told her he felt every injury inflicted upon his ship and his crew like arrows driven in the flesh. She wanted badly to reach out to him, but Chris would not appreciate such inappropriate sentiment at this time, so the Protocol Officer did the best she could, offering her support in silence.
"The material," Alex cleared her throat to do away with her own disgust, "is being stored in the starboard section Sick Bay. We activated the EMH down there to take charge of it. The remains have been placed in stasis to prevent further tissue necrosis."
"Jesus Christ," the healer whispered, uncertain what was worse, the fact his friends and the crew had been maimed to fit the Borgs' terrible mould, or he would have to match tissue types to see what limbs belonged to whom. Forcing himself to maintain his professional demeanour, Nathan regained his composure to deal with the situation as it stood. His throat dry, he took a sip of water from the glass in front of him before he trusted himself to respond again. "So we managed to recover some of our people?"
"At least fifteen of the patterns we stored in the buffer belong to Maverick crew," Alex explained. "Thanks to Rain, we rematerialised them one at a time and hit them with an EMP burst to short out all the nanoprobes in their system before they could adapt their shields. The EMH was able to remove nanoprobes after we transported them to Sick Bay. According to the EMH, the neural and cortical links implanted in the newer drones had yet to reach full integration. These could be removed without too much damage. Nathan, we managed to get Maria."
"And Claire," Chanu added, never more grateful for anything in his life when the news reached him in Engineering. During the crisis, Chanu had been on autopilot. Working on the Maverick allowed him to avoid facing what happened to Clare. When he was told she was among the rescued drones, he almost wept in relief. Now, he only wished Ezra Standish had similar news.
"Thank God," Nathan sighed in relief, grateful to hear his Head Nurse was alive and well. He soon regretted it when he saw Ezra flinch, feeling immediately guilty when it was clear Ezra was just hanging on. "I'll still want to check them out myself. The EMH is not a doctor, I don't care how much programming it's got."
"We kind of figured you would," Alex managed a little smile, though it did not reach her eyes. "We had to suspend the re-materialisation process when we ran into the bioships, but a few of the patterns we restored aren't from the Maverick. One or two are from species we have not encountered before. They may be from the Delta Quadrant. We're holding them in the brig for now, behind a Level 1 force field in stasis. There hasn't been enough time to determine how long they've been assimilated and in what mental condition they are in."
"After so long without free will, I doubt they'll be very functional," Josiah said thoughtfully. "If they've experienced a prolonged period of assimilation, the sudden loss of the Collective consciousness would be a tremendous shock to the system. Don't be surprised if a few of them want to go back to the Borg."
"You're kidding!" Vin's usually unflappable manner gave way to shock. He was aghast, unable to imagine any reason why someone would willingly want to give up all freedom to become a mindless cybernetic zombie.
"Not at all," Josiah replied, noting Chris was facing his officers now, taking an interest in the conversation. "It's a variation of Stockholm Syndrome. According to the report from Voyager's Doctor, the crew member called Seven of Nine was taken as a child. She went through adolescence and adulthood with no experiences beyond the Collective. Imagine if you will, growing up with thousands of voices in your head, being part of a consciousness where you're never alone and then having that snatched away abruptly. It's not like losing your sight or hearing, where you might have some basis for comparison. In her case, it was all she ever knew, and it was understandably traumatic."
"Are you telling me if we retrieve Julia and Buck, they may wish to return to that hell?" Ezra demanded, speaking for the first time, his voice raised.
"No" Josiah replied, unfazed by the Security Chief's outburst and was somewhat expecting it, considering the strain the man was under. "They haven't been assimilated long enough, and they've got fully formed personalities. Their sense of self, their connections to their lives, their relationships are still there. I have no doubt they are fighting tooth and nail to exert themselves, but unfortunately as we all know," Josiah raised his eyes to the others at the table, "the Borgs' conditioning is too thorough. But they're still in there Ezra. We just have to reach them."
"That is hardly a kindness," Ezra spat bitterly, the tidal wave of frustration and anger he had been trying so hard to restrain was beginning to spill over the edges of his control. "They are trapped in a hell they cannot escape, and with every second they remain in the grip of these insidious cybernetic monsters, what remains of their sanity is being eroded away. If we ever managed to save them, what remains will be nothing more than the broken pieces of the people we knew!"
"Ezra, we will find them!" Mary reached for his hand, wanting to show him they understood, but he snatched it away before she could make contact.
"How?" He bit back. "We can barely save ourselves! If we are obliterated in this place, then we just don't die, we condemn them to remain in that hell for all time!"
"Ezra," Chris spoke up finally. "You need to take a moment."
"No, I do not," Ezra turned on him viciously, refusing to be silenced now that the emotions inside of him had reached boiling point and would not be contained any longer. "I am merely stating the reality of our situation and our inability to face the fact Julia and Buck are gone!"
"Commander," Chris stood up, ignoring the outburst even if the words cut. "This is not a request. You're dismissed. Go to your quarters and take a few hours for yourself. Josiah, if you please, go with him."
Josiah nodded and got to his feet, distressed to see Ezra in this condition, even if he was expecting it. It was not the first time the Counsellor had seen Ezra react in the extreme when it came to Julia Pemberton. If they failed to retrieve her as Ezra had so brutally pointed out, Josiah feared for his sanity.
"You are sending me off the bridge like some errant child?" Ezra glared at Chris, refusing to be dismissed. If he had to sit out this fight, he would go mad! "You have no idea what this is like!"
Ezra opened his mouth to retaliate, but the words would not come. Chris was not staring at him with unkindness, but with empathy and Ezra knew then and there he was wrong, the Captain knew exactly what he was going through. Except unlike Julia, who may yet be recovered, Sarah and Adam Larabee were gone with no possibility of return.
Ezra blinked, and the red haze across his mind vanished to be replaced by the black tide of despair he had been fighting so hard to keep at bay. "I am sorry, Chris," he closed his eyes. "I did not mean...."
"I know. Ezra, I need you to pull yourself together so you can take your post because I need you on your game, if we're going to get out of here and find Julia and Buck."
"Come on, Ezra," Josiah placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let's take a walk, get a drink or something. I think you could use one."
"Yes, of course," he nodded, the fight had drained out of him as Josiah guided him away from the table.
As the Counsellor passed Chris, Josiah gave the Captain a nod of assurance he would not leave Ezra's side until the Security Chief no longer needed him. It was a promise Chris could take to the bank, having been on the receiving end of the Counsellor's help on several occasions and aware of how tenacious Josiah could be when someone needed his aid.
No one spoke for a few seconds after they left, but when the silence was broken, it was by Chris who gave Alex a nod of thanks for trying to spare him but decided it was time he retook the reins.
"Chanu, I think we're done," Chris glanced at the Assistant Chief Engineer. "Get back to Engineering and continue the repairs."
"Aye Sir," Chanu jumped to his feet, glad to be out of the room and the tension in it.
Once he departed, Chris turned to JD who had been silent all this time. The youngest member of his bridge crew had said nothing, content to listen but Chris suspected Ezra's outburst had made him understand how vital it was to keep his head together for what came next. When this as over, Chris made a mental note to tell the kid how well he was doing. Buck would have been proud.
"JD, how are we doing with the bioweapons?"
JD, who was still reeling from Ezra's dismissal even though he understood the Captain's actions, snapped back to attention and quickly answered. "We've managed to modify at least one warhead. Nathan came up with an idea of how we can mask the nanoprobes to perform the same way they did for Voyager."
"Yeah," Nathan replied, shaking off the aftershock of Ezra's departure. "Voyager had the right idea, but I think I might have a better solution. Instead of having the nanoprobes mimic the cells of Species 8472, I took it one step further. I've programmed ours to match the protein chains in their chromosomes, adapting the probes to resemble any one of the 100 odd genes that Species 8472 possesses in their DNA. On this level, it will be harder for them to detect the nanoprobes like they probably did before if they've devised a cellular defence."
"One ain't gonna be enough," Vin looked at Chris. "After we kicked their tails, they're gonna be coming after us with a fleet."
Chris tended to agree.
"We'll need more nanoprobes if we want to produce more warheads, Captain," JD pointed out. "That's going to take some time."
"We've got them," Alex stated, having anticipated this when she suggested they store the extracted nanoprobes purged from the rescued drones. "The EMH kept all the ones we took from the drones. I believe those can be modified for use in creating additional warheads?"
"They can," JD answered. "Now we know how to reprogram them, we can do that to as many of the nanoprobes as we can get. I could use your help, Commander, with the programming that is."
"You got it," Alex gave him a little smile.
"Good because I need to get back to my Sick Bay and conduct some research." Nathan stated.
"Research?" Chris stared at the healer in question.
"I've been studying the plasma sample Alex brought back, and I can tell you, now that I've spent a bit more time analysing it, the rate of decay of all microbial life in the sample, I doubt Species 8472 can do anything about it, or else they would have already."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Species 8472 has one of the most formidable immune systems of any life form we've encountered, and it appears the environment of Fluidic Space is composed of the same organic structure. It's extremely adaptable for life but what is causing this, isn't attacking cells, it's draining the energy from them. I mean every ounce of it, is being depleted. It's draining it at such a rate that the cells simply cannot recover even after the cause has moved on. As near as I can figure it, it's not just the microbes, it's in the plasma, even in the Coral. It's total and worse yet, how it draws the energy is a complete mystery, so even if you knew what was causing it, chances are that's not going to help."
"So unless we find the cause, they're all going to be dead?" Vin asked. While his opinion of Species 8472 wasn't stellar due to their present circumstances, he had no desire to see the entire race wiped out. Wait a minute, he realised then the full implications of what Nathan was suggesting, and the realisation became even more monstrous. "You don't mean just the life forms, the whole of Fluidic space? The entire dimension?"
"If it isn't stopped," Nathan met Chris's gaze. "Yes."
"This is why they think it's us, Chris," Mary explained. "Something like this threat couldn't have originated locally, it must have come from somewhere. This is why they think we're responsible. We have to help them. I know we're not in the best situation, but even so, we can't sit by and let an entire dimension die."
"We won't," Chris assured her, not only because it was the right thing to do but because it might be the only way for them to dissuade Species 8472 from destroying the Maverick when the bioships caught up with them. "However, we need to do this fast. We managed to survive our first run-in with them, but if they come after us in numbers, we might not be so lucky. Right now, we're cut off from safe haven, nor do we have access to resources if we need to conduct major repairs."
"Judging by what Nathan said earlier, whatever is doing it is some form of radiation that's draining the energy out of living tissue, even after it's moved on. If that's the case, couldn't Alex scan the region using the decay rate to determine the concentration?" Vin suggested.
Alex sat up, staring at Vin with eyes bright with possibility. "Yes, yes, I can. Captain, if we can track the decay rate, it could give us a trail to follow. The stronger it is, the easier it will be for us to trace it back to its source."
"That's a plan," Chris offered both officers a nod of approval, glad to see his bridge team regaining their bearings after the hits they suffered today. It was good to have a win or a course of action that wasn't just them running with their tails between their legs. "Alex, do that first before you help JD with the warheads."
"No problem," she said confidently, "once I tell the sensors what to look for, I can feed that into the navigational system, and Vin should be able to follow the decay rate back to its highest concentration."
"Uh I got a question," JD spoke up suddenly, hoping it didn't sound stupid and borne out of his inexperience. "If this thing is draining the energy from all the organisms in this environment, doesn't that mean us too?"
"Good point," Chris gave JD a nod of approval at the young man's astute and somewhat crucial observation. "Nathan?"
"Well it's difficult to say at this point because we have so little data. If it's hungry for energy, the Maverick's hull might protect us but the shields might be another matter."
Chris didn't much like the idea of the shields being drained if they were needed for a fight. However, the shields weren't their only protection at this point. "We'll use the ablative armour."
"Of course," Alex exclaimed. "That armour is specifically designed to repel energy draining weapons, it should work against whatever it is we're chasing."
"Alright then," Chris said, getting to his feet. "Let's do this."
TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO
His roommate was a slob.
This was the first thing Chris Larabee concluded the minute he stepped into the room he would be occupying for the next four years.
The half of the room he would be inhabiting was still in the pristine condition of vacancy, with its regulation made Starfleet bed with sheets tucked so tight one could bounce a coin off it, if one had a coin that is. His desk, side tables and the closet were similarly tidy, while the walls awaited him to add his own distinct touch, once he got around to unpacking his bags.
The other half of the room resembled a crime scene following the detonation of a photon grenade.
Clothes were strewn everywhere. On chairs, on the floor, across the unmade bed and on closer observation, Chris realised not all of it was male, if the frilly pink bra hanging from the lampshade was any indication. An impressive collection of empty drink cans and disposable food containers were gathered in slovenly worship on the floor next to the bed. Still, this untidy mess offered some hope the person with whom he would be sharing living space with, wasn't a complete idiot. The datapads scattered across the desk flanked the collection of orange rinds, food wrappers indicating someone who took his studies seriously.
Chris lowered himself on his bed, exhaling loudly and debating whether or not demanding a new room assignment was the way to spend his first day at the Academy. Behind their shared bathroom door, he heard the hiss of a water shower and raised a brow at that. Most people took sonics, but Chris supposed he couldn't dislike anyone who liked water showers, he'd grown up with them. His father was old fashioned and often cited no one could get really clean in a sonic shower, and Chris tended to agree.
"Hey Sweetie! Can you hand me a towel please?"
Chris's eyes flew open, and he stared at the bra hanging from the lampshade once more. There was a naked girl in the room with him. At seventeen, this was a big deal. Reaching for one of the towels on the collection left for him on the bed, Chris took it to her instead of grabbing one from his room mate's side. Frankly, some of those towels were cultivating bacteria on the verge of developing language skills. Sliding the door open, he left a crack just wide enough to let the girl know he was there.
A slender arm poked through the opening, clutching at air until Chris placed the towel within her grasp. As he did, Chris took note of what a nice arm it was, all graceful and luminous as it was covered in beads of water. He couldn't help but sigh a little at that glorious dusky skin, slick and gleaming before her arm withdrew into the bathroom again.
Bucky? Okay, that made sense. The guy liked being called Buchanan as much as Chris liked being referred to as Christopher. Still, Bucky knew how to get girls to take showers in his dorm room, Chris thought, unaware the universe was presently laughing its cosmic ass off at the understatement of all time.
As he stared at the bathroom door mulling over the girl in shower and what she might look like, the hiss behind him indicated Bucky was back. Turning around, Chris saw his roommate, Buchanan ‘Bucky' Wilmington for the first time.
First off, the guy was tall. Really tall. He stood at least three inches taller than Chris, with a head of dark, unruly hair and, warm brown eyes. He was also half-naked, clad only in sweatpants, barefoot while carrying what appeared to be a rose in between his teeth, and a tray of food in his hands. Stepping in, he caught sight of Chris and stopped short in surprise.
"Oh hey," he spoke through the stem of the rose, "you must be Chris! Kind of early aren't you? I didn't think you'd get here till noon."
"We start classes tomorrow," Chris pointed out somewhat defensively as ‘Bucky' unloaded everything he was carrying on Chris's desk. "I wanted to get here early."
"Early, huh?" ‘Bucky' broke into an utterly affable grin which told Chris immediately how he managed to get the girl in the shower. "Let me guess, you're one of those guys who planned on being an admiral from the time you could walk?"
Chris bristled at the taunt because he was absolutely correct.
"No," Chris returned, not wanting to look like an over-achieving tool with delusions of grandeur. "I just wanted to get here early."
"Don't sweat it," Bucky slapped him on the shoulder. "I'm just messing with you. We all want to be Kirk right?"
Before he could answer, Chris had a hand thrust at him.
"Name's Buck Wilmington."
"Not Bucky?" Chris stared at him as he took the outstretched hand.
"Hell no.... oh?" He stopped short at that and glanced slyly at the bathroom door. "You've met Lupe. Well you know how girls are, once they get attached to you, they start giving you cute nicknames."
Actually, Chris didn't know. Not in the slightest.
"Yeah, sure, happens to me all the time."
If getting to second base could be considered happening to him all the time. The truth was, Chris had been so single-minded during most of his adolescence in achieving his dream of qualifying for Academy entry, there hadn't really been a lot of time for girls, other than a few random dates. Furthermore, they tended to find him a little intense, which Chris never entirely understood.
"Stick with me," Buck said with a grin, understanding quite a bit about Chris Larabee from his half-hearted answer, and decided the guy needed to get laid in the worst way. "We'll get through the next four years without any trouble."
He lied. There was always trouble, and Chris enjoyed every second of it.
Casey Well's voice snapped Chris out of the memory he had repeatedly been revisiting since Ezra delivered the news to him Buck was taken by the Borg. Seated behind the desk of his Ready Room, he saw the girl bringing him a tray of food even though the food replicators were still working and he was more than capable of getting something to eat. Although if the truth was known, he'd skipped breakfast to get to the bridge and food had been the last thing on his mind during the previous few hours.
"Casey," Chris sat up in his chair as she brought the tray to his desk. Even before she reached it, his stomach rankled in interest at whatever she was bringing him to eat. "You didn't have to bring me anything."
"Don't be silly Captain," she gave him a look he recognised as one of infinite patience. Strange how all the women in his life seemed to share that same expression. "It's my job to make sure you eat so you can do yours."
"Right," he decided not to argue with her. Easing back into his chair, he saw she'd brought him a club sandwich and some fruit, what he recognised as her recipe to keep his strength up when there were in a crisis situation. She set it down on his table and then promptly went to the replicator on the wall panel to program him his cup of Jamaican blend.
Chris watched her for a moment, envying her youth and the fact the only thing she was responsible for was herself and a somewhat irritable Captain who was not always as kind as he could be. Seeing her made him think of that girl Buck dated. Lupe. The one who started his oldest friend's fascination with Latin women. Casey was sweet like Lupe had been, sunny even though there was a world of tragedy in her life.
"Here you go," she set down his coffee cup and flashed him a smile.
"Thank you, Casey," Chris replied, realising there and then how much he would miss her when she left the ship.
Instead of leaving, the girl lowered herself into the seat in front of his desk. Staring at him with a serious expression, Chris couldn't fathom what she wanted.
"Captain, are you alright?"
Chris stared at her surprise. "Of course, I am. Why do you ask?"
"Captain," she tilted her head and gave him a look which told him immediately, he was not fooling her at all. "I just wanted to know if you're okay, I mean with Commander Wilmington...." she didn't finish the sentence, but then again, she didn't need to.
"Yeoman, I'm fine." He insisted, but she didn't move and continued to stare at him. "Really, Now run along, I've got things to do."
"It's okay, Captain," she said quietly. "Whatever you decide to do, it's okay."
He had intended to tell her that this was not her concern, but the look in her eyes, the understanding and affection he saw there silenced him, and despite himself, it felt liberating to hear those words spoken with such sincerity. Before he knew it, the need to vent his frustration just as Ezra had done became too much to restrain, and the words flew out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
"No, it's not okay, Casey. It's just not. I have to get us out of here," he gestured at Fluidic space beyond the window of his Ready Room. "I have to get us home, and I can't figure out how to do it without sacrificing Buck and all the others, because even if we do manage to find a way out, how can I justify staying to search every inch of Fluidic Space for them? I can't risk everyone just to find a few people."
"But it's not just people, he's your friend."
"He's more than my friend," Chris bit back with more emotion than he intended. "He's my family, and I owe him more than I can even begin to imagine. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be in this chair commanding this ship. At the worst moments of my life, he's been there. Now, I have to decide whether his life is worth the risk to the rest of the ship. When Mary and I were taken by the C'Kaia, Buck came after us. He was ready to chase us all the way to the Delta Quadrant to get us back. How can I look at myself in the mirror when I can't do the same for him?"
"I don't know Captain," Casey sighed, having no answers for him, but decided he just needed someone to listen. "I know whatever you do, Commander Wilmington will understand."
"I wish I could be so sure, Casey."
"I am Captain because I know Commander Wilmington. He's got more faith in you than anyone else on the ship. If there is a way to save him, you will find it, and if you can't, he'll know that too. He'd want you to do everything you can to keep Inez and JD safe for him. That's the truth."
Chris turned away, unable to look at her and realising begrudgingly she was right. If it came down to it, Buck would want him to make sure JD and Inez survived. To that end, Buck Wilmington would risk anything, even what remained of his life. Closing his eyes, Chris felt more empathy with Ezra Standish than ever before and hoped Josiah was able to nurse the man through his pain. Hell knew Chris's own wouldn't be fading anytime soon if the worst came to pass.
"Thank you, Casey," Chris faced her again. "Thank you so much for listening."
"Don't you know Captain? " she gave him a little smile as she got up to leave. "It's my job."
Alex Styles couldn't bring herself to take Buck's seat when she returned to the bridge after helping JD and Drew Katovit with reprogramming the nanoprobes. While it felt good to be back on the Maverick command deck again, she couldn't ignore the noticeable void left by the First Officer's absence. It was just as jarring as the empty space at tactical Ezra customarily occupied. The senior staff had always felt like family, but right now, that family was fractured.
On the viewscreen ahead, there was nothing but the endless sea of Fluidic Space, and like the Captain, Alex disliked the absence of stars. As the Science Officer who spent hours in stellar cartography charting the Frontier for star mapping purposes, the lack of them felt as if the oxygen had suddenly disappeared from her lungs. Fluidic space felt suffocating and never did she think it more apparent than now when they were experiencing a momentary bit of calm before the next crisis.
Following the increasing rate of decay in the microbial life of the plasma of Fluidic space, Vin's stewardship of the helm took the Maverick further and further away from the Coral and the crippled bioships. As well as Buck and Julia, Alex thought glumly. The atmosphere on the bridge was as disconsolate as her mood, with Mary in her chair deep in thought. Alex wondered what was on her mind and guessed she was worried about the Captain, who was slowly being crushed by the choices he was making for the good of the crew, but not himself.
"How are you doing?" Alex drifted over to Mary and asked discreetly.
Mary lifted her eyes to Alex and offered the Science Officer a little sigh. "I'm fine, I'm just worried about Chris. He's in an impossible situation and whatever choice he makes is going to hurt."
Alex nodded in understanding. "I don't blame you. As much as I want out of this place," she glanced at the view screen and the translucent world of murky green in front of them, "I want to get Buck and Julia back. The last thing he said to me is how he couldn't imagine anything worse than being assimilated. It just kills me to know he's living that nightmare now."
"Chris will figure a way out of this," Vin suddenly spoke up, surprising them both because he seemed engrossed in following the trail of the life-draining phenomena plaguing Fluidic Space. "Things look pretty bleak now, but we've been in rough spots we didn't think we would get out of before, and we're still here."
"My husband the optimist," Alex flashed him a radiant smile.
"You know it, Darlin," Vin winked at her and his faint smile was a welcome sight in the face of the gloomy mood at present. It reminded both women there was hope and he was right. Hours earlier, they had faced death when the Captain ordered the self-destruct and just as quickly, Chris Larabee had turned their fortunes around so they could face another day.
All of a sudden, the bridge came alive with the shrill chirp of an alert. Though lacking the urgency of red alert, it was enough to send Alex hurrying to her station and rendering the attempt Vin made to alleviate the tension all but moot.
"What is it?" Mary asked.
"It's the proximity alert," Alex answered, her expression grave as she scanned the display.
"Is it them?" Vin glanced over his shoulder, poised to go into evasive maneuvers if the bio ships were back.
"No, I don't think so," Alex shook her head and tapped her combadge. "Captain Larabee, please report to the bridge."
She didn't offer any report mostly because he would be on the bridge in thirty seconds and Alex could use the time more efficiently to find out what had prompted the alert to sound in the first place. Scanning the area, she saw no signs of compression or displacement waves to indicate the fast approach of bioships. However, the pattern was familiar, and suddenly, the tension she felt bled out of her shoulders.
"What is it?" Chris asked as he emerged from his Ready Room and headed towards his command chair.
"I'm reading a mass in front of us, not unlike those produced by the swarm of jellyfish we saw at the Coral."
"The proximity alert sounded because of that?" Chris stared at her with surprise, not to mention a little annoyance at being pulled out of his sojourn for jellyfish whose migratory path they happened to stumble upon.
"No," she shook her head, her brow furrowing. "The sensors read them as an obstruction in our path because the swarm isn't moving."
"Isn't moving?" Mary stared at her. "You mean they stopped swimming?"
"Hey, you all," Vin called out, "you need to look at this."
All eyes turned to the viewer and what they saw silenced them immediately.
Earlier, the Maverick crew had marvelled at the luminescent creatures moving across Fluidic Space, a perfect example of the beautiful, natural wildlife of this unusual dimension. Breathtaking in their beauty, the swarm had glided gracefully before the Maverick , utterly oblivious to the interlopers into their realm, concerned only with the journey they were taking.
The jellyfish drifted across the screen, lifeless and no longer beautiful. The bioluminescence of their bodies was diminishing, like the dying embers of a fire. One by one, they looked like stars blinking out in the sky, and as the light they produce began to vanish, a soft, wailing bellow moved through the plasma to reach the crew's ears through the hull. It was of profound desperation and grief. At that moment, it didn't matter if these weren't intelligent creatures, it mattered they could feel the death around them.
"They're dying," Mary whispered, her hand covering her lips and Chris could see that haunting sound touched her heart because her eyes were misting with emotion. "They're all dying."
"How can they be dying?" Chris shot Alex a look. "We only saw them a few hours ago."
"I'm not sure," Alex shook her head. "But the entire swarm is affected. Captain, they're all dying before our eyes."
"How many are left alive?"
"No more than fifty," Alex answered quickly, "but their life signs are fading fast. If something is to be done to save them, it has to be now."
Chris thought of how many lives had been lost today, how many who might still die yet. At the end of the day, he might not be able to prevent those deaths, but right now, this was something he could change. The idea of these inoffensive, peaceful creatures being made extinct before his very eyes did not sit well with him, and he was going to do his best to help them if he could.
"Rain, this is the Captain," Chris spoke after tapping his combadge. "I need you at Transporter Room 1 immediately."
"Aye Captain," Rain answered without question. "I'll be there in a flash."
"Good," Chris turned to his Science Officer. "Tell Nathan to get down to Cetacean Ops."
Alex nodded in understanding. Cetacean Ops was the section of the ship prepared for life forms that required something other than an oxygen environment to survive. While its name implied only water-based species could use its facilities, it was also tailored for life forms with more complex environmental needs. The trio of bays could be modified to host extreme ranges of temperature, air content and in this case, plasma.
"You're going to bring them on board?" Mary asked, her eyes bright with the hope the survivors of the swarm could be saved. It pleased her to know, no matter how difficult things were, as members of Starfleet, they could still cling to their principles.
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "The Cetacean Ops isn't occupied at present. Those three bays are entirely sealed and can support these life forms. We could transport the survivors there until Nathan can figure out how to keep them alive. I'm not allowing these creatures to end up as collateral damage if what's happening in Fluidic Space does turn out to be our fault. We're Starfleet officers and our mandate is not just to seek out new life but also to render aid. I think this situation qualifies.
"Damn straight," Vin agreed, giving Chris a grin that told the Captain he wholeheartedly agreed with Chris's decision. Earlier on, he'd marvelled at the beauty of the swarm and hearing their heartbreaking sound of dying was more than he could stand. Once again, Chris's actions justified the loyalty and the affection his crew had for him, even when he was suffering tremendous personal loss.
"Alright then," Chris turned to the screen and felt his jaw clench when he saw another light extinguished. "Let's bring them aboard while we still can."
It was the only word Chris Larabee could think of when he saw them. Behind the plexiglass bay of Cetacean Ops, Chris was mesmerized by the haunting beauty of the creatures before him, singing their tale of sorrow requiring no words to express. It penetrated the walls of the bays and touched the hearts of all who heard it. Grief exuded from every tragic note of their song, and it reached Chris very personally on a day when there was much to mourn.
The newest arrivals on board the Maverick sailed through the plasma environment inside the containment bays, the illumination of the room set to the radiance of Fluidic space. While dim, the bio-luminescent creatures or Fluidics as Nathan was calling them for now, trailed magenta light as they tested their new environment and Chris wished there was some way to communicate with them, to let them know he and his ship meant them no harm.
"They're so beautiful," Mary said next to him. "And so sad."
"Yeah," Chris nodded. Earlier on, the size of their swarm had been large enough for the Maverick to believe they were being attacked by ships. That the number was now able to fit into three bays in Cetacean Ops with room to spare, filled the Captain and the explorer he was at heart, with a mixture of rage and shame. Suddenly, he imagined he was Cortes and his Conquistadors, arriving in the new world only to end the one already there. "Considering there's about fifty of them left, it's almost their entire school."
"Are you able to adjust the universal translator to communicate?" Chris glanced at Alex, who was hard at work with her translator attempting to do just that.
"No," Alex shook her head. "This species may not communicate in any way we can interpret. I'm afraid they're not that sophisticated."
"They're telepathic," Mary announced.
"You can sense them?" Captain and Science Officer turned to her in surprise.
"Very mildly," Mary explained. "That's how their telepathy works, it's carried through their song."
"What are they feeling?" Chris almost didn't want to know because it was evident in the sounds echoing through his ship.
"There's a bit of fear, but there's a great deal of grief." Mary blinked, and Chris saw her eyes glistening a little and knew whatever she was able to glean from her connection to the creatures, it was affecting her emotionally. "They may not be sophisticated by our reckoning, but they know loss. They understand many of their numbers have died and they don't know why."
"We transported one of the dead Fluidics to Sick Bay so Nathan could do a post-mortem," Alex explained. "Perhaps that might give us a few more answers."
Mary stepped closer to the glass as one of the Fluidics approached, its body pulsing with violet light. The Protocol Officer pressed her palm against the transparent surface, only to have the Fluidic repeat the gesture with one of its tendrils. The gossamer-like filaments at the tip spread out into a hand almost as if in greeting. As it did, the magenta shade of its body turned into sapphire, and Chris watched Mary's lips spread into a smile.
"What is it saying?"
Mary turned to Chris and Alex and blinked, a tear rolled down her moist eyes. "Hello."
Alex broke out into a smile while Chris raised his gaze towards the glass, and for the first time, Fluidic Space became a region as wondrous as any in the universe. He wanted to save it, not because it would avert a war with Species 8472 but because this was the reason why he had become a starship Captain, to protect every beautiful, fantastic corner of the universe for the diverse creatures living in it. In that instance, he knew something else as well.
He was not letting Buck go, not Buck nor Julia.
The doors of the bay opened behind them with the usual hiss and the eager voice of Nathan Jackson sliced through the melody around them.
"Chris! I got this! I know what's causing it."
All three officers turned to the healer in surprise. Nathan was so excited by his discovery, he was still wearing his scrubs. In his haste to reach them with news that needed personal delivery instead of relaying through a combadge, he had forgotten to remove them.
"What do you mean?" Chris stared at his CMO, hoping he had news that would crack this mystery wide open because honestly, the way their luck was going lately, Chris didn't think he could tolerate any more disappointments.
"I told you earlier on, there was something familiar about all this," Nathan explained, realizing what he was wearing and taking off the surgical gown over the top of his uniform. "Until I did the autopsy of the Fluidics, I couldn't figure out how."
"And now you can?" Chris asked, wanting the man to get to the point quickly. He had little or no patience left today.
"Yes," Nathan nodded. "As I suspected, every cell they possessed, was being drained of energy and even though whatever caused it has moved on, Fluidic space itself is the reason for the continuing decay. If this were normal space, the drain would have stopped after the cause moved on but because we're not in a vacuum but a matter state environment, it's continuing, and because of that, it's wiping out whole species in its wake."
"What is 'it'?"
Nathan told them.
Chris's jaw tightened. "Alex, I want a senior staff meeting in ten minutes, everyone, including Ezra."
"Aye Captain," Alex nodded, with just enough lift in her voice to show the news just delivered to them was the first break they had received in an otherwise traumatic day.
Less than ten minutes later, the senior staff was gathered in the Conference Room once more. Though Buck and Julia's absence was still profoundly felt, this time they had a purpose they could achieve, since they were prevented from tackling the more formidable issue of retrieving their lost shipmates. Chris had summoned Ezra to join them, suspecting the distraction might do the man more good and frankly because the solution to the problem Nathan had identified required all the resources at his disposal.
Ezra seemed a great deal more composed than their last meeting, and though there was no doubt in Chris's mind he was still gripped in the same anguish as his Captain regarding Julia and Buck, he appeared ready to work, his consummate professional mask back in place again. Chris had no doubt, Josiah, who was seated next to him, was responsible for much of this. Since Chris dismissed Ezra, Josiah had been at his side, offering comfort to a man who normally abhorred showing anyone his emotions.
"Alex?" Chris prompted her to begin the meeting, mostly because while Nathan had the cause, she had a better grasp of its history.
Alex had pulled together a quick report for the Senior Staff that would segue into Nathan's discovery during the autopsy of the dead Fluidic native.
"Unfortunately for all of us, Species 8472 is correct in assuming this threat does originate in the Alpha Quadrant and in particular, our section of it. Where they are wrong, is in the assumption that this is our fault. It isn't. In the year 2267, stardate 4307.1, a Federation starship was en route to Starbase 6 not far from the Gamma 7A star system, where it was directed to investigate the loss of contact, not just with the inhabitants of that system, but also the USS Intrepid, one of the few Starfleet ships with an all Vulcan crew."
"All Vulcan?" Vin raised his brow at that. "Isn't that a little...I don't know, exclusive?"
That was the most diplomatic word Vin could think to use.
"Back then," Mary explained, "it was common practice for there to be an all Vulcan crew, mostly because they didn't believe other species could fully appreciate serving with Vulcans, especially when most Vulcans don't need shore leave and they can go without sleep for much longer than humans. Furthermore, humans are used to physical contact, something most Vulcans were still getting used to from other species, a hundred years ago."
"Oh," Vin eased back into his chair, never considering such a thing. He did have to admit he was always an early riser and his ability to remain alert was much longer than humans, to say nothing about his mental abilities. Without possessing any of the disciplines all Vulcans were taught from childhood, his first few months serving on the Maverick had been difficult to say the least. "I never thought of that."
"Anyway," Alex glanced at Mary gratefully for giving Vin that explanation before a nod from the Captain prompted her to continue. "The ship dispatched was the USS Enterprise."
"Which one?" Josiah asked automatically, aware there had been several ships with that particular name.
"The original," Alex couldn't help but smile as she said it.
"Constitution Class?" JD sat up straighter in his chair.
"Yeah," Chris nodded, guessing the kid was about to burst with excitement at the possibility. "His ship."
"James T Kirk!"
There was not one of them in the room who had not gone through their time at Starfleet Academy without hearing the adventures of one of the Federation's greatest heroes, James Tiberius Kirk and the crew of the legendary USS Enterprise. Knowing their current predicament might have something to do with the adventures of James Kirk and Enterprise, filled everyone with a little bit of awe, in a mission that had so far yielded nothing but defeat upon defeat.
"While I am sufficiently agog by the inclusion of the legendary Enterprise in all this," Ezra spoke up, not at all sharing JD's excitement. "Can we continue?"
"Yes, sorry," Alex nodded and resumed speaking. "The Enterprise was dispatched to determine the reason for the subspace silence and soon discovered the crew of the Intrepid were all dead, and worse than that, so were the inhabitants of Gamma 7A. The population consisted of billions, but they were all wiped out by the time Enterprise was able to investigate."
"My God," Josiah whispered, unable to imagine the scale of it. "What was the cause?"
"It wasn't easy to determine at first, but the Enterprise was able to trace the cause to a dark matter area of space, or rather that's what they believed it was. The truth was beyond anything that was encountered at the time. Nathan?" she gestured to the healer to take up his part of the tale.
"Right," Nathan nodded. "It wasn't a dark matter anything, though the Enterprise could have been forgiven for thinking so considering the size. What it was really, was the protoplasm of a single-cell organism."
"A single-cell organism?" Vin exclaimed. "You mean like an amoeba?"
"If amoebas were the size of a planet, yes," Nathan answered.
"So all this," Mary glanced at the window and Fluidic space beyond it, "is because of a life-form?"
"That's correct," Nathan nodded. "This thing devoured any form of energy, from the warp engines, living tissue, you name it. In having to deal with it, Enterprise had to reach the cell nucleus and were drained of almost all power. When I examined the Fluidic creature, I recognized the same tissue damage recorded after examinations were performed on the USS Intrepid's crew. This is it, Chris," Nathan looked at the Captain. "This is our smoking gun."
"So how did the Enterprise eliminate the threat?" Ezra asked the obvious question.
"From the logs," Alex retook the narration. "They modified a torpedo to deliver a high yield antimatter explosion to the life-forms nucleus. It was a sound conclusion since the life form had a preference for positively charged energy. Captain Kirk believed negatively charged energy would be enough to destroy it."
"So we destroyed it," Vin stated.
"Not necessarily," Alex sighed because much of her speculation was theoretical. "According to the logs, the creature was about to reach mitosis, meaning it had a lot of energy stored for the purpose. The contact with an antimatter component and that much stored positively charged energy could have created an explosion big enough to open a rift in subspace."
"Like that produced by a quantum singularity." Ezra guessed.
"Exactly, I think this thing got blasted into Fluidic space, and if the conditions were right, which I believe in this case it was, the subspace rift was temporal."
"You mean this thing is the same life form encountered by Captain Kirk?" JD stared at her. "A hundred years ago?"
"It fits," Chris said with a nod.
"And this is absolutely the perfect environment for it to thrive, Chris," Nathan added. "Everything here is organic, exuding positive energy in one form or another. From the microbes in the plasma to the Coral and even Species 8472."
"Well, that explains why they're blaming us," Josiah remarked. "If something from their side infiltrated our space, with the power to annihilate every living thing in existence, we would naturally assume it's a weapon."
"Not merely a weapon," Ezra remarked, "but a weapon of extinction-level destruction. I concur with the Captain, we need to correct this matter immediately before they decide to respond with a military solution. Considering the formidability of their biological technology, I do not wish to see what it is they can conjure up to wipe us out of existence."
"There's one other thing, and this is a worst-case scenario," Nathan warned because they needed to understand exactly how much danger they were about to court. "We've seen extensive damage since we got here, meaning the life form has been consuming considerable amounts of energy. When a single-cell amoeba stores enough energy in its system..."
"Oh hell," Alex whispered.
"What?" Vin looked at her in question.
"It divides." Chris stated.
"You mean there could be two of those things?" Josiah stared at Chris as the Captain made that explanation.
"Not just two," Ezra replied just as gravely. "Four, sixteen, depending on its needs for reproduction and the supply of energy at its disposal. We could be contending with several life forms."
"I think it is several," Mary spoke up. "I think that's the reason they're so certain it's a weapon instead of the aberrant life form it is."
"Alright," Chris spoke up, taking charge of the meeting. "Assuming we are dealing with several life forms, we will have to deal with them all ourselves."
"Couldn't we tell Species 8472 what's happening?" JD suggested. "I mean, if we told them how to fight these things, we could work together to find a solution."
"Under any other circumstances, I would recommend that myself," Mary glanced at Chris. "But all I get from them is our culpability. They won't take our word for it."
"And we have every reason to lie," Josiah added. "We're in a vulnerable situation in their space. They have no idea our presence here is unintentional. We can't leave without help, and we can't communicate with Starfleet. Our only option is to appeal to them. If we come up with this story, they'll just say we're making it up to get ourselves out of trouble."
"Exactly," Chris agreed with the Counsellor. "So, here we are."
"Captain," Ezra pointed out because personal traumas aside, his responsibility was to the crew of the Maverick . "We can use the ablative armour to approach these life forms, but if they feed on energy, the armour will eventually be exhausted, and we will be subject to the same life-draining predicament as the Enterprise and the life forms of Fluidic space."
"Then we don't approach it using the Maverick ," Vin spoke up.
Chris turned to the Officer of the Con. "Runabouts and shuttles?"
"Yeah," Vin nodded, glad to see Chris had picked up on his unspoken thought as usual. "The runabouts are capable of firing antimatter warheads, and our shuttles can launch probes."
"An excellent idea," Ezra gave the Vulcan a look of agreement. "I see no difficulty in modifying a probe to contain an antimatter payload, aimed for the life form's nucleus. Depending on how many of them there are, that is."
"I don't like the idea of destroying any life form," Mary sighed, aware there was no other solution out of this situation. "However, I can't see any other way around it."
"Mary, this has to be done." Chris appreciated her concern, but the truth was, they didn't have any choice. He thought of the Fluidics in Cetacean Ops, their swarm perched on the edge of extinction as they sang their song of mourning, and knew he couldn't sit by and allow them to end. Not just them but potentially all life in this realm. If the alien creature continued to multiply, Fluidic Space could become infested, and nothing would survive here.
"I know," Mary nodded and once again, thought of that shy creature that greeted her earlier. No, she would not see it or any more of its kind destroyed.
"What are the risks to us?" Chris turned back to Nathan. "According to the logs, Enterprise barely made it out. Sure we have the ablative armour as Ezra indicated, but if there's more than one creature, we're still going to feel it."
"I can administer stimulants," Nathan suggested, "but according to the medical records of Dr Leonard McCoy, the Enterprise's CMO, people are going to be affected. Headaches, fatigue, loss of concentration, the severity depending on the species."
"Our shield strength is a lot stronger than it was a hundred years ago," Alex pointed out. "We can probably hold out a bit better than the Enterprise."
"Josiah," Chris regarded the Counsellor because the Maverick differed in one significant element the Enterprise was never forced to contend with. Families. "You need to talk to the civilians, tell them to keep children indoors, stick to low-intensity activities to keep up their strength. If you need me to make a personal appearance, especially to the children, I can."
"Noted," Josiah nodded, although he didn't think an appearance by the Captain was necessary and if the truth be told, he knew Chris really didn't have time for it. However, Chris was always mindful of his crew, even its youngest members.
"Alex, tells the department heads no one is to go anywhere alone. The last thing we need is someone collapsing in a Jeffries tube while conducting repairs, without anyone being aware of it."
"Aye Captain." Alex nodded, and after a moment added, "I can modify the ship's internal sensors to monitor the crew's life signs and flag medical if anything goes wrong."
"Thanks, Alex," Nathan appreciated the effort. "That will save time."
"Okay, Ezra and JD, you two get to work and build us as many antimatter warheads as you can before we reach the life forms. We better do this before Species 8472 catches up with us. I have a feeling we're going to run into them pretty soon."
No one could disagree with the Captain.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS EARLIER
JD Dunne should have been running a gauntlet of emotion as he stood upon the transporter pad of Starfleet Command, awaiting transport to his ship, the Maverick .
All week, he was on the receiving end of congratulations, well-wishes and stolen looks of envy and annoyance. Mostly from those who either felt he deserved the commission or were affronted by an ensign fresh out of the Academy scoring one of the best postings on the fleet. A year ago, he would have considered this a dream come true. He was going to be serving as the junior navigator on the USS Maverick , a galaxy-class starship about to embark on an expedition of the frontier facing the Delta Quadrant.
Today, all he felt was profound sadness.
When he finally left the Academy to take up his position on the Maverick , heading to the Transport Terminal with everything he owned, JD thought how different this felt in comparison to his arrival. During that time, his mother was with him, and Jennifer Dunne had been almost as excited as he was by his enrolment. JD remembered fondly how she fussed over him, making sure his trunk was packed with stuff he didn't really need but felt was her God-given right as his mother to insist he take.
After he'd settled into his room, she'd guided him through the Academy campus, showing him all her favourite places and introduced him to some of her old tutors with whom she still maintained relationships. It was a little embarrassing, but she had been just so damn proud, JD couldn't deny her the chance to show off her little boy. Later on, they'd spent the weekend together, taking a tour of San Francisco before she headed back to her ship.
JD had written her almost every week until her death, six months before graduation.
By the time he was to report to the Maverick , JD had convinced himself he'd gotten over his mother's loss, although there was a part of him that knew he never would, not really. Every time something happened to him, there was a moment when he would forget she was dead and he would start to record a log telling her about it before cold reality crept in again. Those moments continue to plague him, even as he felt the gold shimmer descend around him and with it the terminal on Earth.
When he rematerialized, he was standing in front of the First Officer of the Maverick .
Next to Commander Buchanan Wilmington, JD felt positively tiny. JD remembered thinking he would not want to get on the wrong side of the man since he was big enough to snap JD in half and not even break a sweat. The man looked impressive enough as it was, towering over him in his uniform, waiting in expectation for JD to step off the transporter pad.
"Uhm, Ensign Dunne reporting for duty Sir, I mean Commander, I mean Commander Wilmington."
Then as if the clouds of an overcast day had been chased away by sunlight, Buck had broken into a warm, welcoming smile. "At ease Ensign, I don't want you breaking anything on your first day."
"No Sir," JD shook his head, trying to recover from his less than auspicious greeting.
"Well you know who I am," Buck extended a hand towards him, "so I don't need to make any further introductions, except to say welcome aboard the Maverick ."
JD returned the handshake, uncertain of what to say. "Thank you, Sir."
"You can call me Buck," Buck said kindly. "Commander Wilmington is too much of a mouthful and Sir, makes me think I'm twenty years older than I actually am."
JD had opened his mouth to object but only managed a nod.
Buck had stared at him for a moment, sizing him up in a second, though JD didn't know it at this stage before he motioned JD to follow him.
Since the Captain had yet to arrive, Buck was getting everyone settled, starting with the youngest of the bridge officers. As Buck led him through the ship, explaining what Chris Larabee expected of his officers, JD had listened carefully, feeling more and more overwhelmed and wondering what on Earth he was doing on a ship like the Maverick , fresh out of the Academy. Sure, he'd pass the Kobayashi Maru, but he'd managed that trick out of sheer desperation, not any potential brilliance.
Then he set foot on the bridge and suddenly, JD didn't care anymore how he had gotten to the Maverick , he was just thrilled he was there.
The Officer of the Con had offered him a slight nod of acknowledgement and appeared almost as uncomfortable as JD who noted with surprise he was Vulcan. Except Vin Tanner was not like any Vulcan JD had ever seen, not with his almost shaggy long hair and ears carefully hidden beneath it. Yet there was no mistaking the slightly greenish tinge of his skin, the result of the high copper content in Vulcan blood.
As JD sat down at the navigation station, taking note of the empty command chair and then view screen before him, JD ran his palm across the navigation station in silent reverence. This was where he worked so hard to be. Now that he was here, JD was suddenly struck with a wave of profound sadness. This was a day he would have related to his mom in excruciating detail, perfectly aware she'd savour every morsel of it.
Except she was gone.
For a second, the pain of her loss was so acute, it felt as fresh as the day he was given the news of her passing. He almost couldn't breathe, and as he blinked away the sorrow that threatened to spill down his cheeks and humiliate him in front of his new comrades, JD felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Come on, kid," Buck said softly, "Let's go for a walk."
And they did just that, walking along the halls of the Maverick , still partially deserted because not everyone had reported in yet.
"It's okay you know?" Buck spoke as they walked in no particular direction, merely taking advantage of the Maverick 's numerous corridors and decks to pass the time.
JD stared at him in question.
"It's okay to miss her."
JD's response was automatic because the platitudes had come so fast and plenty during the last six months, he was almost programmed to reply without thinking. "I'm fine."
"Bullshit," Buck said, not at all caring that this was hardly the way to speak to a young, eager space cadet like he was. "You just lost your mom, and you're hurting. It's okay to feel it, even if you don't want to talk."
"I'm getting by," JD managed to say in the face of that advice. "I just...."
"Forget she's gone?" Buck ventured a guess, prompting JD to look up at him in surprise at the accuracy of his statement.
"Yeah," JD nodded slowly. "I keep wanting to tell her how I'm doing because that's what I've always done and then I remember she's gone."
"I know," Buck had squeezed his shoulder. "I felt the same way when I lost my mother. She wasn't Starfleet like yours, but she always made me feel special. She died before I got to the Academy and everything I've done since then, I keep wishing she could see it. I think she would have been proud, just like your mom is awful proud of you, wherever she is."
"I know," JD found himself opening up to Buck in the face of the First Officer's empathy. "I just feel kind of lost you know? It was always the two of us, and since she's been gone, I feel all alone."
"Well, you see Ensign," Buck offered him a smile. "That's where you're wrong. Your mom's gone, and there's no changing that, but you're not alone. I'm here if you need to talk and even though he's an ornery son of a bitch," the first officer glanced around to ensure no one was privy to that comment, "so's the Captain. As long as you're on this ship, I'll keep an eye out on you, so don't go thinking you're alone JD, you're just not."
And Buck was right, he wasn't alone. From that day on, Buck became his family.
JD Dunne concentrated on the work in front of him, pouring all his mental energies into building the antimatter explosive device that would need to be installed in a Class One probe. Working alone in the armoury, Ezra Standish had left him to his devices to address the more complex exercise of developing a nanite warhead to deal with their other enemy, Species 8472. It felt as if he had done nothing else but figure out ways to get around the numerous opponents appearing out of nowhere since the singularity showed up in the viewscreen earlier today.
"Hey, do you want some coffee?" Drew Katovit, who was working on this project with him asked. The Assistant Security Chief was stepping away from the collection of components he was using to construct the housing for the antimatter core to be inserted into the probe when it was ready.
"Sure," JD said gratefully as Drew slipped out the door to the nearest food replicator on this deck.
Facing front again, JD tried to concentrate on what he was doing, refusing to let other distracting thoughts enter his head because everything in his life seemed to be imploding lately, the least of which was being stuck in Fluidic Space. If Buck were here, the big man would tell him he was blowing things out of proportion but thinking about Buck made him remember where the First Officer was, and that only made JD want to scream in frustration. Wasn't it bad enough the Borg had taken his mother? Did they have to take Buck too?
JD hadn't noticed Drew leaving as he lingered on his thoughts, wondering how on Earth he was expected to go on if they didn't get Buck back? It was too hard to suffer that kind of loss, so soon after his mother.
So deep in his misery, JD didn't realize Casey had slipped into the room, passing Drew who was embarking on his pilgrimage to find fresh coffee. He saw her approach in surprise and had to admit, it was good to see her, even if things weren't exactly the best between them right now. In fact, after everything that had taken place in the last day, their disagreement about her departure seemed somewhat childish and added to his gloom, because on top of losing Buck, soon Casey would be gone too.
Yeah but she can come back, a voice that didn't sound too unlike Buck Wilmington pointed out. She isn't dead or assimilated, she's just going home for a while. What was wrong with that?
"Hey Casey," he greeted her, wondering why she had sought him out even if her presence wasn't unwelcomed. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see if you were okay." She admitted honestly.
"I'm fine," he started to say and then blinked because Buck's words echoed in his head. He wasn't fine, but it was okay to admit it. "No, I'm not. I want to go find Buck."
Casey leaned against the wall, careful to remain out of the way, so she didn't get underfoot as he worked. "Me too."
They lapsed into silence again and the awkwardness thanks to their quarrel, remained between them until JD could bear it no more. "Casey, I'm sorry."
Casey stared at him. "Sorry?"
"I'm an idiot," JD set down his tools on the nearby workbench. "Of course you should go to Bajor and be there for a while. I was selfish, expecting you to stay just because I couldn't stand you being gone. I don't have any right to hold you back and you've gotta do what's right for you."
Casey nodded, breaking into a little smile at his words. Pushing away from the wall, she narrowed the distance between them and embraced him a second later. "Thank you, JD," she said softly. "I love you, but I have to do this. I have to find out where I come from."
JD kissed her tenderly on the forehead. "You should. Buck said part of life in Starfleet was being able to let the people we love go, so they can come back to us. I want you to do that, Casey. I want you to go and do what you need to, so you can come back to me when you're done."
"I will," she whispered in his ear as they stole a moment with each other amid the storm around them.
And as he held her, JD couldn't help thinking even now Buck was still his teacher.
In hindsight, it was easy for Chris to understand why Species 8472 was so wholly unprepared to deal with the life-forms invading their dimension.
Pouring over the mission logs of Captain James Kirk and the legendary five-year mission of the USS Enterprise, specifically those surrounding the Gamma 7 incident, he could appreciate the man's bewilderment at what they were facing. Since Kirk's day, it had become increasingly clear that life evolved even in the vacuum of space. From Enterprise D's interactions with space alien life forms at Far Point Station, the Crystalline Entity and the space-born creatures of Alpha Omicron, even the Maverick had its own encounter with such life forms.
So far, the common denominator seemed to be energy. They all needed it for sustenance. Chris supposed being in space, upon what else would they feed? While Chris didn't like the idea of killing a creature for was merely fulfilling its biological function, what was to be done about it when they posed such a significant threat to other life forms? The aliens of Far Point were benign, but the majority endangered ships and wiped out entire civilizations. Where did his high minded principles of IDIC stand when faced with a death toll that numbered in the billions?
A chirp on his door made Chris put down the log account of the Enterprise's First Officer Spock, which was just as well because his eyes were getting tired.
The door slid open, and Josiah Sanchez walked in, brandishing a bottle of something green. Aldebaran whiskey, Chris realized after a moment. Easing back into his seat, he couldn't help but smile a little at the Counsellor's visit and reached into the lowest drawer of his desk to retrieve the pair of glasses he kept there.
"With the day we're having, I thought we could use a drink." Josiah sat down in the chair before the desk, placing the bottle on the smooth surface at the same time Chris set down both glasses between them.
"Amen to that Counsellor," Chris gave the man a look of affection. Josiah always seemed to know the best times to call for a 'drink' as he called it, even though Chris recognized it for what it was, an attempt to see how his Captain was doing without actually counselling him. Josiah learned well enough from their initial meeting following the Battle of Sector 001, Chris Larabee did not react well to psychiatrists or therapy for that matter.
As Josiah unscrewed the lid from the mouth of the bottle to pour them both a shot, Chris felt inordinately grateful for his presence and still marvelled at how much Josiah reminded him of his father, Marcus Larabee. The Professor had died a few years ago, surrounded by his books and mourned by his students. While Chris detested the man's bow ties, every one of them was kept in storage because he didn't have the heart to give them away.
"How's Ezra doing?" Chris asked, aware Josiah's focus since their last meeting was the wellbeing of his Chief of Security. With Ezra's penchant for masks, counselling him required a great deal of work on Josiah's part to penetrate the poker face Ezra wore over his emotions like a shield.
"Hanging on," Josiah was unafraid to admit. "Even after that display earlier, he still keeping a lot of his emotions bottled up, as if it were a great shame for him to even let us see that much."
"It's the gambler in him," Chris shrugged, familiar with Ezra's mannerisms even before the Maverick . "Always with the poker face."
Josiah nodded in understanding. "Most of his problem is guilt, of course. He's circling in on all the things he should have told or done for Julia before today and it's eating him up inside. I've tried to tell him Julia accepted him as he was, she didn't need the validation, but you know how it is. "
Chris did. How many times had he spent in a bottle, beating himself up over all the things he ought to have said and done when Sarah and Adam were still alive. He had blamed himself for things that couldn't possibly be his fault and it damn near broke him A Changeling decided their fate which had nothing to do with his shortcomings as a husband or a father. Julia was taken by the Borg. Ezra dropping on one knee, proposing the world and giving her the wedding of her dream would have changed nothing.
"I recall," Chris said quietly. "I just hope he doesn't spiral the way I did. I had Buck..." Chris faltered a moment because mentioning his oldest friend reminded him just how much he shared in common with Ezra in terms of mutual despair. "I had Buck to pull me back from the edge."
"The difficulty lies with the fact that Ezra would still not let anyone in on how he feels even if he does have friends to offer him the help. Thanks to his mother's altruism, or appearance of it, Ezra believed her lack of concern for others also included him, which is damn hard on a child. Since displaying sentiment was also considered a weakness in her opinion, he didn't dare express any of his. As a result, he's spent his life constructing facades to conceal his true emotions from everyone. This is further exacerbated by a childhood spent on the fringes of society where over sentimentality was deemed a failure."
"Yeah," Chris shrugged, aware that Maude Standish had made her living in places like New Sydney, Torman IV and the outlier colonies beyond Federation reach. Settlements of this type functioned with their own set of rules or lack of it. Criminal organizations such as the Orion Syndicate maintained control and local authorities had little or no power to enforce the law. Ezra had grown up surrounded by the worst kind of element and Chris always admired him for being able to rise above his seedier beginnings, to make something of himself. Hell, he even used it to his advantage.
"Ezra's had to construct a fortress of control to survive. It's why he's so successful as a gambler, but there's only so much he can keep truly hidden. Sometimes I think the emotions he does express to us are to appease our expectations. Added to that, his hesitation to discuss his origins speaks to his insecurity about his earlier life, adding another construct behind which he can hide."
"It's a wonder how Julia got in at all," Chris admitted as he took a sip of his whiskey. He always found the pairing a little unusual even when it seemed to work. "I mean with Vin and Alex, you can sort of see how a relationship could form. The two of them came on board with enough baggage to fill a star cruiser, but Ezra and Julia, they're so entirely different."
"I think that is exactly why it works," Josiah uttered a little laugh. "Julia doesn't know the meaning of the word guile. What you see is what you get, which is diametrically opposite to Ezra's experience.s While it might have been the physical that attracted him initially, I think it's her rose-coloured view of the world that touches him. Even after everything she sees, Julia sails through her life, hopeful instead of cynical. I'm sure there's a part of him that wishes to protect her innocence because it's a glimpse of what he's never been able to feel."
Chris lapsed into silence, wondering if Julia's sunny disposition would still be intact when, not if he told himself defiantly, they retrieved her from the Borg. Would the experience affect her significantly?
"You're worried about whether we can get them back?" Josiah guessed astutely.
Chris needed another drink before he could answer.
"I don't know my friend," he let the whiskey burn down his throat before he resumed speaking. "If all goes well and we managed to destroy the threat to Fluidic Space, not to mention avoiding getting obliterated to kingdom come by Species 8472, we have to find them. My worry is how much of a head start the runabout got on us and what would happen if Species 8472 finds them first. Species 8472 was willing to let us escape to take out that Borg cube. That tells me if they realize our runabout contain Borg drones, they're going to destroy it and not lose any sleep about the mistake."
"That is unfortunate," Josiah frowned, thinking not just on Julia but also Buck. Inez's hopes were propped up by her belief in Chris's promise to get Buck back, but what would happen to the lady if the Captain was unable to deliver? "So you're resolved to keep searching?"
Chris drained his glass and stared at Josiah across the table. "I know it's not the sensible decision and I ought to be putting the good of the many over the needs of the few, but I can't abandon Buck or any of them for that matter."
Looking away for a moment, his thoughts about Buck surfaced inside him like an ocean swell, white froth spilling over the edges of the beach, unrelenting and unapologetic. "I can't abandon Buck, Josiah. I just can't. He's more than just my friend, he's my brother, and I owe him more than I can even begin to describe. When Sarah and Adam died, I was ready to die with them, but Buck hung in there, he put up with all my shit and believe me, that was a lot, but he still stuck with me and kept me from walking out of an airlock. I can't let them have him, I can't let them destroy him piece by piece.."
"I understand," Josiah nodded in understanding. "And I know it might not mean much in the light of the decision you have to make, but there's many onboard the Maverick who agree with you, not just the Starfleet personnel, but their families. They've had more than a year to get to know Buck, and they hold him in great regard and have faith you can find him. They're behind you, Chris."
Chris let out a sigh, grateful for that fact. "I just hope they don't have reason to regret it."
"I can't look at this anymore."
Mary Travis turned away from the screen, grateful her role as protocol officer allowed her to do this when the rest of the bridge crew had no choice but to stare at the macabre tableau being displayed on the viewscreen. While she averted her eyes, she saw the others, in particular, Chris and Alex, staring stonily ahead and could imagine what was running through their minds as they bore witness to the carnage before them.
With the backdrop of yet another Coral construct, as equally dead as the one the Maverick encountered previously, were the latest victims of the space entity from the Alpha Quadrant. This time the creatures who had been overcome by the lifeform were squid-like, with tentacles connected by a dark crimson sheathe, making it look like it was wearing a cloak. In life, they must have been something to behold, but in death, they resembled the broken bodies of soldiers following the aftermath of a violent battle.
Contrary to what they knew about Fluidic Space and the claim made by Species 8472 being the only life here, it was apparent the dimension was home to numerous species, diverse and fascinating in their evolution. If the situation were not so dire, the opportunity for scientific study would have been too good to resist. Unfortunately, the Alpha Quadrant invader, the crew of the Maverick , was now referring to as the Protozoa, since it seemed the most appropriate name for a single-celled parasitic organism, had laid waste to all life it encountered.
They no longer needed to trace the rate of microbial death in the plasma to know what path the Protozoa had taken, all they had to do was follow the bodies.
"It's the same as the others, Captain."
Chris's jaw tightened. As an explorer, he could think of nothing worse than a foreign invader entering a new frontier, bringing nothing but death. While he was consoled the Federation was not the cause of this carnage, it still didn't make him feel any better knowing the Protozoa had come from the Alpha Quadrant. Alex's voice behind him sounded softer than usual, and Chris saw Vin craning his neck just enough to catch a glimpse of his wife and followed suit.
The Science Officer appeared visibly distressed at the decimation of the indigenous population in Fluidic Space. Chris could understand her horror. As a scientist, she was dedicated to the study and preservation of life. Seeing the death of so many species by a foreign agent into their environment went against everything she knew about contamination. General Order 1 or the Prime Directive as it was better known, prohibited Starfleet from interfering with other cultures for just this very reason. Even if they weren't responsible for what was happening now, it still stung to see its aftermath.
"You okay Alex?" Chris asked because he knew Vin would if he were anywhere but on duty.
"Yeah," she nodded somewhat sedately. "It beggars belief that the Fluidics we managed to save in Cetacean Ops, were the lucky ones."
"I agree," Ezra replied from Tactical.
The Security Chief had retaken his position, and Chris was glad to see him there. Even though Chris would never say it to Ezra himself, in the Captain's opinion, at work was the best place for Ezra to be right now. Having something to focus on other than Julia's situation might ease his burden for the time being, at least until they were ready to tackle the problem of retrieving their lost crew.
"Ezra, how are our shields?"
"Still functioning at full strength," Ezra studied his console and tapping the display lightly before looking up. "However, I am beginning to detect micro traces of power drain."
"It will get worse the closer we get to the Protozoa," Alex stated.
"Assuming there's only one of them," Vin spoke up. "With all the energy it's been getting its hands on," the Vulcan looked at the screen ahead of them and like everyone else on the bridge, felt similarly outraged by the deaths, "it might have divided already."
"God," Mary shook her head at the gloomy prospect. "If one of them is capable of doing this, I can't imagine the effect of more than one."
"According to James Kirk," Chris eased back into his command chair, still flinching every time he saw that empty seat next to him. "These things were like a virus invading the body of the galaxy. With the energy supply it has in Fluidic Space, it may well do that here if we don't stop it."
"I'm surprised Species 8472 hasn't done anything about it," JD spoke up, adding to the discussion.
"They may not be capable JD," Chris explained. "Their technology is entirely organic-based. If they even get close, the organics in their ships will immediately be affected. The Maverick is composed of inanimate material that, while conductive, does not generate energy. We can get far closer to the Protozoa than Species 8472 without being compromised."
"On that note, Captain, when do you wish me to deploy the ablative armour? Lt. Chanu informs me all the repairs to it have been completed, we can use it at your discretion."
Chris considered Ezra statement. "Not just yet. I think we should try and get by on what we have for the moment, I want to keep the ablative armour in reserve for when we finally reach the thing."
The Captain faced the viewer once more when at the corner of his eye, he saw Mary swaying slightly in her seat. Her head lolled back for just a moment, but it was enough for Chris to know something was wrong. Snapping back to attention, she shook her head as if trying to dispel the wave of disorientation suddenly gripping her.
"Mary," Chris caught her arm out of concern she might tumble out of her chair. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, yes," she nodded, somewhat embarrassed at her momentary lapse and being the focus of everyone on the bridge. "I'm sorry, Chris, I just felt a little dizzy."
Ezra and Alex exchanged glances sharing the same thought. Mary's disoriented state was a precursor to something worse.
"Captain, it's starting," Alex felt compelled to speak up. We're going to see more of the crew affected the closer we approach the Protozoa."
It fit with the log reports of the original Enterprise, Chris thought silently and tapped his combadge after her statement. "Captain to Sick Bay."
"Good timing Captain," Nathan's voice replied almost immediately, and the tension in it did not bode well for the crew. "I was just about to call you. We've got at least fifteen crew members reporting signs of fatigue and disorientation. A few actually fainted. It happened in the space of a few seconds."
"Mary just had a spell up here," Chris explained and saw Mary bristled with annoyance at being the first on the bridge to falter.
"Okay, I'm sending Josiah up there with stimulants," Nathan declared, using a tone Chris knew well enough not to argue with. Nathan was a rather good-natured man most of the time, but Chris would rather face a Queen Xenomorph than challenge the man's authority as the CMO of the Maverick . "He's been helping out in Sick Bay. I'm giving him a couple of doses for all of you, so let the man do the work and don't give him any trouble."
"Aye Admiral," Chris couldn't help but respond.
"Admiral my ass," Nathan snorted. "Try God."
A titter of amusement moved across the bridge, and Chris was grateful for Nathan's attempt at humour because after what they had seen so far, the mood needed lightening.
But it was just a moment.
"Captain," JD's voice filled the bridge from the navigation station. "I'm detecting an object half a light-year away."
"Is it a ship?" Ezra asked before Chris could.
"Negative," JD answered automatically, continuing to examine the readings on his display. "The object is moving too slowly for that. It's barely reaching impulse."
"Confirmed," Alex added, now that she calibrated her long-range sensors to scan the object JD had brought to their attention. "It is not any bioship. It's about five thousand miles across, and it's deflecting our efforts to scan it. Captain," Alex looked up. "I think it's the Protozoa."
"Our illustrious Science Officer may be correct, I am detecting a rise in the rate of our shield deterioration. If it is indeed the creature encountered by the USS Enterprise, then I believe our energy depletion is consistent with their experiences."
After learning what they were up against, Chris studied James Kirk's logs in greater detail. "Well, our shields are far stronger than what the Enterprise had back in the day or else we would be in worse shape than they were at the same distance. I say we follow Captain Kirk's lead. We head in there and fire an antimatter warhead at point-blank range. We'll use our shields for as long as we can, and when that reaches critical, we'll switch to the ablative armour."
"I concur," Ezra agreed, not so single-minded about Julia's fate he could not see the need to eliminate this threat for the sake of the billions inhabiting Fluidic Space. Like the rest of the bridge crew, he was appalled by the deaths of innocent life forms, dying on mass to satiate the needs of the Protozoa, a creature that was almost the embodiment of entropy and anti-life.
"Vin, head directly for the object at maximum impulse," Chris ordered, deciding there was no time to waste. If they could deal with this threat sooner rather than later, they could get back to the business of finding Buck and the others.
"We're on our way," Vin stated, his words spoken over the sound of his chirping console as he tapped the display to send the ship forward.
The Maverick 's acceleration could be seen as it moved through the plasma sea in front of them, its mass displacing the carcasses around them, scattering them in all directions. Despite himself, Chris felt ashamed at being unable to do more for the creatures than simply ploughing through their bodies felt like the worst kind of arrogance. However, if he wanted to prevent this carnage from recurring, they needed to reach the Protozoa and put an end to its murderous rampage.
Glancing at Mary, he saw her rubbing the bridge of her nose, and she looked decidedly pale. The effects of the energy drain had yet to hit him, but he could feel it tugging at the edge of his stamina, fraying the closer they neared the Protozoa.
"Not the way I planned on spending my day off," Chris said quietly, thinking the morning felt like a lifetime ago.
"I was hoping for breakfast in bed at least," she returned quietly, for his ears only.
"I did have something pre-programmed in the food replicator," Chris offered her a faint smile. "Plomeek soup."
Mary uttered a soft laugh, remembering the first few weeks on the Maverick , when she'd found him working himself to death, trying to be the best Captain he could be, forgetting to eat, prompting her to force him to join her for dinner. The menu had been Plomeek soup. He was unaware it was her husband Syan's favourite. The two of them had come so far since then, he was a man finally accepting his family's loss, and she was still mourning the empty space once occupied by her husband.
"We will find them Chris," Mary assured him softly. "I know it."
Chris wished he was that confident, but he knew he would never stop trying to retrieve Buck and Julia while there was breath in his body.
Continuing to scan the area to the Protozoa, Alex shifted her attention from her console to regard Ezra who was beside her at tactical. The Security Chief had said little since his return to the bridge, even though he was undoubtedly better composed than what he had been when he had his episode in the meeting earlier. Not that Alex could blame him, if it were Vin taken, she would be in no better shape emotionally.
If there were time, she knew Vin would have tried to speak to Ezra alone, but as the Officer of the Conn, with Vulcan endurance no less, Vin was reluctant to leave his station, even when his duty shift ended. While he had given her no specifics, Vin's choice of Ezra as best man at their wedding spoke to the friendship shared by both men. Alex knew Ezra had nursed Vin through the worst of his turbulent emotions during Pon Farr, successfully convincing the Vulcan to seek help. It was a gesture Vin never forgot, and because he couldn't do it himself, Alex felt compelled to reach out to Ezra.
In a lot of ways, Alex understood Ezra better than most. Like her, he lived behind masks. His walls had been erected since birth. Meanwhile, Alex was forced to build hers after her ordeal with the Cardassians. The people who loved them needed infinite patience and endurance to put up with their emotional barricades, and when either of them lowered their defences enough to let someone in, they loved hard.
She had seen just how ruthless Ezra could be when it came to Julia. In that simulated world, Quinn had placed them, Ezra was a wire of tight control when Julia was murdered by Silas Poplar. When it came time to unleash his fury, not even Josiah Sanchez was prepared for the ferocity of it, and Alex had a feeling if Julia was lost to them, Ezra might just be enraged enough to take on the entire Borg Collective single-handedly.
"At the risk of asking you something completely predictable," she edged a step closer to him, still eying her console. "How are you?"
Ezra raised his sea-green eyes to her and shrugged. "I am in better control of myself if that is what you wish to know."
"No, it isn't," Alex replied, smiling inwardly at his ability to evade the question. "But I can't imagine how you must be feeling, so I'm not going to attempt to offer you meaningless words to tell you to feel any different."
"I am going to tell you one thing though," she said without looking at him directly, continuing to scan the area for the Protozoa.
"And what is that my dear Alexandra?" Ezra asked, his own gaze fixed on his display as he prepared the warhead they would use when they reached the Protozoa for launch.
"You're not alone in this. We can't know what you're going through Ezra, but we can be here for you while you're feeling it."
Ezra said nothing, finding it difficult to lower his guard after his shameful display in the Conference Room. He behaved as if no one else was suffering the losses of the day. Everyone at the table cared for Julia as much as Ezra did. He knew of the friendship she shared with Mary and Alex, the sibling affection she had for Vin Tanner and JD Dunne. The Senior Staff were family, their bonds forged through battles and emotional upsets. All his life, he felt like an outcast. Only on the Maverick , did he feel apart of a kinship that accepted him on his own terms. Through his despair, he never felt that more than at this moment.
"I cannot even begin to process how I will be able to function if we do not find her Alexandra," Ezra admitted, making the confession he was unable to share with Josiah because the man would view it through a Counsellor's lens. "I have been a dilatory fool in regards to our relationship and if she is lost to us, I know I will never stop regretting it."
"Ezra, you weren't ready, and she knew it," Alex said kindly, having had numerous discussions on the subject with Julia, usually over a pitcher of margaritas and a holodeck recreation of Praia de Batata beach with Mary and Rain in attendance. "We will find her. I don't think the Captain is ready to give up on her or Buck, and there's not one of us here who isn't willing to ride into hell to get them back. Even so, she never thought you were a fool. She loves you."
Ezra offered her a little smile, "God only knew why."
"Oh," Alex gave him a little nudge with her shoulder. "That's easy. Julia likes working on fixer-uppers."
"Lovely," he threw her a shadow of his usual smirk.
Before she could answer, Alex's console came to life, chirping loudly to imply something had changed since she last checked the readings. The moment between them evaporated as Ezra returned his attention to his own station, trying to assess what threat if any there was to the ship, beyond the danger they were already facing from Species 8472 and the Protozoa.
"What is it?" Chris demanded from his command chair.
"Captain, I'm detecting...." Alex tried to articulate the readings into something that made sense. "A dead region ahead of us. I think it's the Protozoa?"
"I thought it was alive," Mary shifted her confused stare between the Captain and the Science Officer.
"It is," Chris quickly explained, "but according to Kirk's logs, the first encounter with the Protozoa was the detection of a dead zone in the middle of space."
"That is correct," Alex explained. "The life form's ability to draw all energy to it, including what's radiated by our scans makes it impossible for the main computer to define it in any way. Only the area immediately surrounding the region gives off any kind of reading for us to know its there."
"So the area isn't actually dead," Mary nodded in understanding. "It's just where the Maverick 's computer can't scan."
"Exactly," Chris replied. "Can we get a visual?"
It took JD only a second to give them their first look at the Protozoa, which was to say not very much at all. In fact, the region in front of them appeared no different than any other in Fluidic Space, except there was a faint outline of something substantial in the middle of the screen. While they could see current shimmering through the translucent fluid around it, the Protozoa itself resembled a globule of plasma fixed in place.
With the Maverick 's course placing the ship in a direct heading towards it, the Protozoa continued to expand in the viewscreen. Chris had to confess the size of the thing was enough to explain its devastating effects on Fluidic space. As it was, more dead life forms drifted aimlessly through the plasma in its immediate area.
A thud made him turn sharply, and Chris pulled his gaze away from the screen just in time to see Mary slide out of her chair.
"Mary!" Chris grabbed her before she could hit the floor. This time the disorientation gripping her appeared worse than ever, with Mary unresponsive to his words for a few seconds.
The effect wasn't just limited to Mary, however. As he helped the Protocol Officer back into her seat, he saw JD slumping forward across his console, gripped by similar fatigue. His own temples started to throb, but Chris shook off the sensation, aware this would get worse the closer they approached the Protozoa.
"Looks like I got here just in time," Josiah announced himself stepping through the turbo lift doors with a medical kit in his hand.
"It appears so," Ezra agreed, blinking away the pain in his head to manageable levels. "I fear it will get worse the closer we near the lifeform."
"It's not that," Alex shook her head, squinting as if she had a migraine as she stared at the screen. "Captain, I'm detecting additional dead zones."
The entire bridge fell silent with all eyes turning to the Science Officer.
"Including the one we just detected," Alex answered the Captain, rechecking her readings to make sure she was not picking up an echo or worse, making a calculation error. "Four. There are four of them out there."
"It looks like we have a problem," Chris sighed as he flinched when Josiah pressed the hypo spray's contents into his arm through the sleeve of his uniform.
The Counsellor was dutifully moving through the bridge, taking up the chores typically undertaken by Nathan Jackson who was by all accounts, inundated with patients down in Sick Bay, the nearer they approached the Protozoans. The shock wave of knowing just how many of the anti-life entities they were dealing with had now evaporated from their minds to be replaced by the compulsion to do something about it. Chris convened an impromptu senior staff meeting on the bridge, since they had no time to retire to the more formal settings of the Conference Room.
"Correction. We have four problems." Ezra, never able to avoid a witticism, remarked promptly.
Chris shot him a look of warning at this not being the time for such levity, before continuing. "Thoughts?"
"Chris we're already getting a quarter of the ship reporting the symptoms recorded by the Enterprise when they ran into this thing." Nathan, who was listening through coms from Sick Bay, spoke up. "It isn't critical yet, but the strength of four creatures at once is going to be affecting, shields or not."
"Captain, he's right," Alex agreed with the unseen doctor. "If it's affecting us this adversely from this distance, it's not going to get any better the closer we get."
"So let's not get any closer," Vin spoke up from the Conn, reminding the others of his earlier suggestion. "We got a runabout and two shuttles. The shuttles can launch the probes we've got rigged up with the antimatter warheads, and the runabout can fire one, and transport the other."
"Lt. Tanner is correct," Ezra nodded in approval at Vin's idea. "We do not put the ship at risk by drawing any closer to the Protozoans than we must. The shields on our smaller craft far exceed the strength of those on the Enterprise of a century ago, we will be able to tolerate the drain far more effectively."
"But we gotta be careful about the blast rate though," JD spoke up, "we can't set them off simultaneously."
"Good point," Alex gave JD a look of approval at that reminder, feeling it was her duty to do so in Buck's absence to validate the younger man's contribution because JD often felt overshadowed by his older comrades. "Captain, if we detonate those antimatter explosions too close to each other, I'm not certain what the effect will be."
"Agreed," Chris nodded, understanding immediately what his two junior officers were saying. "If this were normal space, the detonation of that magnitude would tear a hole in subspace, but with Fluidic space, it's not so easy to determine the effects."
"Without being familiar with quantum principles at all," Josiah remarked as he took JD's arm and administered the stimulant shot, "I can tell you just hearing it, doesn't sound very good to me."
"Chris, they already blame us for the Protozoans effect on their space," Mary added. "If we do any further damage, they will come after us."
"They're going to come after us anyway," Chris stated without any trace of doubt in his voice that sooner or later, the Maverick was going to be flying into a confrontation with Species 8472. If they managed to do what they intended, removing the Protozoans from the board might be enough to buy them some goodwill to avoid being destroyed by Species 8472's formidable weapons.
"We have only one play here," Chris ran his eyes across the faces of his friends and comrades, "we have to destroy the Protozoans. We do that, we might have some bargaining power with Species 8472. I'm counting on it to get their help finding Buck and Julia because I'm guessing they would be able to find a ship occupied by Borg a lot faster than we can."
As he spoke, he saw Ezra's composure shift just slightly before Alex reached over and squeezed his arm in support.
"So, we're going to time this operation just right. We'll leave a gap of sixty seconds between each explosion. That ought to be enough time for any residual effects to the environment to settle before we initiate a further blast. "
"So who's going?" Josiah asked the novice question, now that he had completed dosing the bridge crew, leaning against the seat usually occupied by Buck.
"Vin," Chris regarded Vin and saw his best friend waiting in expectation to be singled out first. "You take the runabout. You'll be exposed longer than any of us, but you've got the endurance to take out two of the Protozoans."
"Yeah I do," Vin was not about to argue with that, and if Chris hadn't picked him, he would have volunteered anyway.
"I'll take one of the shuttles," Ezra spoke up without hesitation. "As Chief of Security, I would not allow anyone to undertake a mission this hazardous in my place."
"I'll take the other," Alex spoke, meeting Vin's gaze long enough to tell him she was going and that was that. The helmsman offered her a little smile, expecting Alex would be one of the first to volunteer.
If he were anyone but the Captain, Chris, would insist on piloting a shuttle himself. Unfortunately, Chris's responsibilities to the Maverick took precedence over his ego. Besides, even if Buck Wilmington was absent, Chris could hear his First Officer reminding him most pointedly, in the conditions the Maverick found itself right now, there was only one place he ought to be, and that was on the bridge of his ship.
"Alright," Chris nodded with approval. "That's it then."
"Actually it isn't," Nathan who remained silent, mostly because he was treating patients while taking part in this meeting from down in Sick Bay, made himself heard again.
"What do you mean?" Chris wanted to shoot the man a patented Larabee glare and then cursed inwardly because he wasn't face to face with Nathan.
"Captain, right now you're all feeling the effects of the Protozoan drain because there are four of the things. Even though our shields are a hell of a lot more powerful than the Enterprise, the presence of four of the creatures takes away any advantage we might have. Now on the Maverick , we're not feeling it as much, but the runabout and shuttles don't have the same shield strength, therefore sending anyone into the nucleus of each Protozoa is going to be exceedingly dangerous."
"Nathan, we don't have a choice," Alex spoke up before the Captain could. Considering the losses already suffered since the Maverick encountered the singularity, the Captain did not need further reminders of the lives he was risking by his decision. "We can't allow those things to wipe out all life in Fluidic Space. We're Starfleet officers, we know what we signed up for."
Chris gave Alex a look of thanks, aware she was trying to step up because of Buck's absence, trying to fill the sizeable void left by his old friend. At that moment, he could tell why Vin adored her so. "Nathan, we will take all the precautions we can, but we have to do this."
"Is there any reason why we can't have two people on each craft?" Josiah asked. "One to fly and one to monitor life signs."
"Then we would have two people compromised instead of one,Counsellor," Ezra pointed out kindly.
"Not if we put one in stasis."
All eyes turned to JD, who was pondering the possibilities following Josiah's suggestion and hadn't realized he had spoken out loud the idea he was mulling over in his head.
"What did you say?" Chris stared at him.
JD swallowed thickly, mortified by his lapse. Even more now he had to explain himself. "I meant that you know the runabout and the shuttles both have medical stasis tubes for emergencies. The stasis field is pretty indestructible, and it has its own power generator, so even if the shields of the shuttles or runabout weakens, it would take a while before the stasis tubes were affected. We could program the computer to wake a sleeper if the life signs of whoever's flying the ship, drops below an acceptable threshold. Then they could take over and complete the mission or get them both to safety."
"That's good, JD," Vin gave the kid a grin. "That's really good."
"I agree. Alex, can we do it?"
"Absolutely," Alex nodded. "We can program each craft to trigger the stasis tube into waking the sleeper the minute the pilot begins to falter."
"Then I volunteer," Mary spoke up.
Mary gave Chris a look of utter impatience. "Captain, if you recall, I was able to break us out of a C'Kaia prison cell and fly their ship, I think I can handle this."
Chris groaned inwardly, supposing it was only a matter of time before she brought that up.
"Fine, throw that in my face," he glared at her. "But you're still not going. I need you on the bridge in case Species 8472 shows up. You're the only one who can communicate with them, and I'll need that if we want to avoid a fight."
Mary opened her mouth to argue but then realized he was right on that point. "Yes, Captain."
Chris let out an inward sigh of relief, maintaining his innocence that the reason for making her remain at his side was not out of worry for her safety but for the sake of the ship. He saw JD open his mouth and realized even before the kid uttered the words, what was in his mind.
"No, JD," Chris cut him off before the inevitable request was made. "I need you on the bridge with me. With Alex, Vin and Ezra off the ship, I need an experienced officer on the bridge."
"Sounding like my teenage son is not going to change my mind," Chris said good-naturedly. Chris was sending enough people he cared about to face these monsters while he had to remain behind, he wasn't about to send JD too.
"Yes Sir," JD said glumly as Josiah patted the younger man on the shoulder to console him.
"Alright then," Chris looked at his Senior Staff. "Let's do this."
Much to Nathan's chagrin, Transporter Chief Rain was more than willing to accompany Vin when he took command of the runabout Cimmaron. It was decided she would remain in stasis until Vin fired his first warhead at the Protozoan, with Rain coming out of stasis to take charge of transporting the second device when Vin went after his other target. With her expertise in play, it would allow Vin to make a hasty exit since he would be in the proximity of the Protozoans far longer than any one of the flight teams.
Vulcan or not, even his endurance had limits, and Chris was not about to test that.
Meanwhile, Ezra had assigned Lt. Opa to the shuttle Hawking commanded by Alex Styles since the security officer had the skill set to fly the craft in the instance Alex was overcome by the Protozoans. He would be accompanied by Kate Stokes, who seemed very reluctant to let him out of her sight for some reason. With Drew needed on the bridge while he was gone, Ezra was gratified by her presence. The woman, like Drew, was one of his most reliable officers and he knew if anything happened to him while he was piloting the shuttle Ballard, Kate would ensure they returned to the Maverick in one piece.
"Are you ready, Lieutenant?" Ezra asked as she prepared to climb into the stasis chamber on board the Ballard.
Kate did not relish spending any time as a sleeper when the shuttle was about to fly into danger, but her desire to protect the Chief overrode her fears.
"As I'll ever be," she stared at the bed and frowned in dislike.
"Lieutenant," Ezra caught her sour expression. "If you do not feel up to this, I can assign someone else for this task."
As it was Ezra felt guilty she was embarking on this mission with him, after his shameful behaviour on Deck 14, resulting in the death of Lt. Razul and Pico Chavez being assimilated. If she was doubtful of his ability to handle himself after Julia's abduction, he couldn't blame her for it. She worked with both of those men daily, considered them friends, and he couldn't imagine her feelings after such a loss.
Instead, her face showed her dismay at the suggestion. "Chief, I'm fine. I'm not about to let you go deal with this thing alone."
Without intending to, Kate reached for his hand, brushing it just lightly enough to show she cared. Ezra met her eyes and was mildly surprised by the intensity of the emotions projected his way. Grateful for her consideration, he took a step back from her.
For her part, Kate said nothing climbing onto the stasis bed so he could activate it and put her under, inordinately grateful he had not noticed the bloom of colour across her cheeks.
For the first time in almost a day, Vin and Alex stole a moment alone to wish each other good luck before boarding their own vehicles to carry out their mission to deal with the Protozoans. Since the appearance of the singularity, they had been running from one crisis to another, with barely any time to catch their breaths. Now on the cusp of a mission that could jeopardize both their lives if anything went wrong, Vin wanted some privacy with his wife, not the Acting First Officer of the Maverick .
"Look I know you've got this Vulcan endurance that makes you stronger than any of us, but you're going to be facing the Protozoans longer than the rest of us. Please be careful for me?"
Vin lifted her chin as he stood in front of the shuttle Hawking, the craft she would be piloting when she launched the probe into the nucleus of one of the four Protozoans. Pressing his lips to hers, for a second, the world and their troubles were forgotten. Their marriage bond always kept them mentally attuned to each other, but for Vin, it never took the place of physical contact.
Vulcans, in general, shied away from touch because of their mental abilities but Vin was raised human, and after he'd been rescued, people took pains not to touch him, for fear of offending him when in truth, it made him feel more of a pariah. Until Alex kissed him that first time, Vin hadn't realized how much he missed the contact of another person against his skin.
"I will, I promise," he assured her, aware she was especially afraid for him after what happened to Buck.
Since Buck had been lost to them, Vin knew exactly how affected Alex was by Buck's assimilation. For the benefit of the crew, including the Captain, she tried her best to hide it. With Ezra's wounded state after Julia's loss and Chris's obvious guilt, Alex wanted to project a brave front to the rest of the Senior Staff because that was what Buck would do if he were present. While Alex did not possess the same passionate feelings for Buck as Inez, Vin knew there was a small corner of her heart reserved for the First Officer.
After Buck had made a disastrous attempt to date Alex, the First Officer discovered just how traumatized she was by her ordeal as a prisoner of war and tried to reach out. Buck, who was incapable of seeing a lady in need without trying to help, did everything he could to be a friend to Alex without encroaching her privacy. It was he who suggested to Alex she ought to find someone she trusted and let them in, aware of her hostility to Counsellors. This advice allowed her to take Vin into her confidence and solidified the relationship that led to their marriage.
"I just don't want to lose another person today," Alex admitted allowing the emotions she had guarded all day to rise to the surface.
"You won't," he assured her. "Alex, we'll get Buck and the others back."
Alex blinked, realizing she shouldn't be surprised Vin could see straight through her.
"It was the last thing he said to me, Vin," she raised her eyes to his again. "Buck couldn't imagine anything worse than being taken by the Borg. All I can think of every second he's a drone is that he's living his worst nightmare and I know how that feels personally. We've got to get him back, before everything he is, all the good things that make him what he is, gets crushed for good."
Vin felt his stomach clench, understanding why Alex felt so horrified after hearing that. "We will Darlin' we will."
Alex was about to answer when she saw Rain approaching the runabout with Nathan, no doubt waiting for Vin to join her on board. The transporter chief was holding back, allowing them to say their goodbyes while she did the same with Nathan. The doctor didn't seem at all pleased by the prospect of Rain leaving the ship since Nathan more than anyone, knew how dangerous the Protozoans was to them.
"We better get going," Alex replied, taking a deep breath and stepping back into the persona of the Maverick 's Science Officer again. "The sooner we deal with these things, the faster we can get after Buck and the others."
"Right," Vin nodded. "Fly straight Darlin'."
Alex managed to smile, "You too, Cowboy."
On the bridge, Chris found himself compelled by Starfleet Regulations to remain in his command chair when all he wanted to do was to pilot one of the shuttles. On the viewscreen ahead, the quartet of Protozoans could be seen clearly now. Across the murky green expanse of Fluidic space, they were only visible by the outlines of their massive forms and resembled large hollowed rings floating in the plasma. Drifting around the Alpha Quadrant invaders, were more dead carcasses of Fluidic space lifeforms and seeing that floating graveyard, made Chris doubly determined to rid the dimension of these agents of anti-life.
"Captain," Ezra checked in. "The Ballard is ready for launch."
"Likewise Captain," Alex who was listening on the open channel to the bridge, responded just as promptly. "The Hawking is ready to go on your mark. "
"Good," Chris nodded, exchanging a glance with Mary and JD. "Are your passengers tucked away?"
"Yeah, Chris," Vin replied, "Everyone's squared away. Rain looks awful funny though wearing a sleep mask in her stasis tube.'
"A sleep mask?" Mary tried not to chuckle.
"Oh don't get me started," Nathan, who was listening from Sick Bay, quipped in resignation at his fiancee's eccentricities.
"That woman is weird," Chris shook his head with a grin.
"But fun," Mary pointed out.
"Alright you three," Chris shook off the joke and was sure Rain had worn the sleep mask for that very purpose, to break the tension before it snapped them all in half. She was like Buck that way. "You have clearance to launch."
The bridge lapse into silence as they watched the shuttles and the runabout leaving the ship one by one, appearing briefly in the main viewer before disappearing towards the separate hearts of the Protozoans.
Beneath his breath, Chris whispered softly. "Good luck."
Almost two years onboard the Maverick , Vin Tanner believed nothing could surprise him.
Most of the time, he faced the situations the starship encountered wearing the familiar unflappable mask that allowed him to conceal the extent of his shock and convince himself things would turn out alright. He didn't know until much later, his ability to maintain that expression of indifference often gave comfort to those around him, mostly because they believed it meant things wasn't as dire as they feared. If there were other Vulcans to discuss the matter with, they might have told him he was in his own way, displaying a version of non-emotion, even if Vin had turned his back on all of Surak's teachings.
It was not to say Vin disliked being Vulcan. He didn't. It had taken him a long time to accept he would always live in exile from his people. Fate had marooned him on a world with human rescuers who took him into their hearts and raised him as their own. Vin did not regret the love shown to him by his adopted parents or the price he would pay by having them in his life. Not long ago, he learned the name of his parents' thanks to Svinak, his doppelganger from the alternate dimension that gave Chris Larabee back his son.
Svinak who bore all the mental disciplines Vin never possessed and more, revealed his parents were V'tosh ka'tur, a sect that abandoned Surak's teachings of non-emotion, and were ostracized by Vulcan society because of it. His own investigations once they returned home revealed why no one was eager to claim him when he was finally rescued. There was simply no record of his birth for any family to be found. His parents, Svianek and T'Lara never reported his existence to the Vulcan Registry of Births, and as he no longer remembered their names, there had been no way to trace his family.
Vin liked to think that the current trajectory of his life would have pleased them. Staring through the cockpit window, he was glad he lived the life they would have wanted for him, able to feel the pleasure of love, friendship and at this moment, wonder.
The entity before him should have been terrifying and he ought to have no feeling for it at all, but it was difficult to view the thing without some measure of respect, despite its ravenous proclivities being so detrimental to all life around it. Once the runabout Cimmaron penetrated the solid space the scanners were unable to penetrate, Vin was able to see for himself the creature he was about to destroy.
It was exactly as described in the logs. The Protozoan was a single-celled organism, incapable of anything except the fulfilment of its essential functions. Devour and procreate. As Vin studied it, he had no need to scan it, because it was an almost picture-perfect depiction from a page of a biology book. He could see the nucleus surrounded by cytoplasm, speckled with mitochondria, centrioles and Golgi apparatus. He watched the thing going blithely about its business, with no clue everything it came into contact with, would die.
It is a virus, Vin thought.
"Cimmaron to the Maverick ," Vin spoke into coms as he stared at the thing through the cockpit window. "I've got a visual of the target. Confirming that it's what the Enterprise tangled with."
As a matter of course, he began programming the litany of tests Nathan had insisted he make before they fired their antimatter warheads. Running the DNA decoder after adjusting the enzyme recorded to take readings on multiple wavelengths, Vin completed the set by running the acetylcholine test. A wave of dizziness ran through him then, not unlike the lightheadedness one felt when standing up too fast.
"How are you doing?" Chris's question came through just as Vin shook his head to clear it.
"I'm doing alright," Vin replied, allaying his Captain's fears. While he could feel the weariness tugging at him, it was nowhere as severe as he imagined it must be for Alex and Ezra. Vin brushed away thoughts of Alex because his feelings for her would only get in the way of what needed to be done. Glancing at the medkit on the empty seat beside him, Vin added. "If it gets too bad, I'll break out the stimulants Nathan gave us."
"Good," Chris replied and Vin could tell that the Captain was wishing he was one of the pilots flying this mission. "Move into attack position and fire your payload as soon as you can. You've got another one of these things to deal with, you need to have something left when you do that."
"Aye Captain," Vin nodded. "How's Alex and Ezra doing?"
"They're doing okay," Chris assured Vin's to keep his mind off worrying about Alex. "They're on final approach to their targets."
As the Protozoa loomed larger and larger in the window, Vin felt another wave of fatigue sweep over him and reached over for the medkit. Flipping it open, it revealed the hypospray containing at least four doses of stimulant. Nathan was unwilling to provide more than that because his heart might start to go into cardiac arrhythmia if he took too much of the stuff. Pressing the hypospray against his jugular to ensure it got into his system as quickly as possible, it took but a few seconds before his head cleared and he was back to full alertness.
"Chris, I'm about to arm the torpedo banks to fire the warhead. Are Alex and Ezra in position yet?"
"Stand by," Chris replied.
To avoid damaging Fluidic space with multiple antimatter explosions, the detonations needed to be coordinated, and as Vin was first in position, he could fire one warhead before allowing Vin and Ezra to follow suit. The faster he fired the first torpedo, the faster Alex and Ezra could do the same and leave the area. The two humans would be far more susceptible to the energy drain than he.
"You have a go. Fire at will."
Vin was poised to fire and at Chris's order, he launched the warhead.
"Alright, get the hell out of there."
Vin didn't need to be told twice. The window in front of him revealed the Cimmaron's sharp turn, veering away from the view of the Protozoa that was oblivious to the death approaching it. Resembling a star hurtling through space, the torpedo glowed with amber light as it closed in on its target, the dark spot of the Protozoa's nucleus.
Vin paid little attention to this, even though he could have pulled up a view on his console if he wished it. Flying away from the Protozoa, he noticed his shield strength had been reduced by at least 25 per cent after being in such close proximity to the creature, explaining why he was hit with the wave of dizziness earlier. Of course, the runabout's shields were stronger than those of the shuttles and certainly better than the ones used by the USS Enterprise a century ago.
All of a sudden, every alert signal on the Cimarron came alive as the ship was jolted violently. As klaxons screamed in his ears and the runabout began to spin, Vin wrestled with the controls, trying to ride the explosive wave of power from the detonated warhead behind him, to escape the blast. The ship shuddered around him, and the case on the seat clattered to the deck.
The display revealed the scene behind him. Vin saw a brilliant explosion that completely consumed the Protozoa behind it. Looking away because the intense flare of energy was making him see spots, Vin continued his hasty departure when suddenly, the dead zone surrounding him, began to evaporate. In its place, was the welcome return to Fluidic space and the Maverick in the distance. Studying the screen once more, he saw the explosion was finally extinguished and where the Protozoa had been, was nothing but the familiar plasma sea of the region.
"Computer, scan for the Protozoa."
The computer's response was prompt and confirming.
"There is no evidence of the Protozoa life form in the previous coordinates."
Easing back into his chair, Vin let out a sigh of relief.
One down, four to go.
Alex's skull was pounding by the time she dosed herself with another shot of stimulant and frowned because she had one more left in the medkit provided by Nathan Jackson. As a human, the doctor had recommended no more than two doses, with the third to be used in emergencies. Unlike Vin, whose Vulcan metabolism could easily handle four without risk, Alex hated her human biology for being so much weaker.
Through the viewscreen, the Protozoa she was sent to destroy expanded across the cockpit window of the shuttle Hawking. As it increased in size before her, so did the effects of its vampiric need for energy. As it was the shields on the Hawking was down forty per cent and slowly descending. She'd rerouted as much power into the shields as she dared, aware compromising its strength would mean cause her to deteriorate faster.
Conducting the same plethora of test the others were doing on their own ships, Alex felt some measure of scientific curiosity bleed back into her mind once the stimulants silenced the kettle drum playing the highlights from a Wagnerian opera in her head. It was worse than the morning after she went drinking with Jadzia Dax on Deep Space Nine.
Oh, but what a night.
A part of her grieved having to kill this creature, whose place in existence could not be without design. She suspected it might have slipped through the cracks between dimensions, possibly originating from a place where it was not such a menace, but just another life form in its home universe. Her mind tried to grasp the mechanics of such a realm, and what other creatures might exist there. If this was a single-cell specimen, what were the more complex ones like?
They had believed Fluidic Space to be occupied by only one species, but as the carcasses they found on the way here revealed, Species 8472 was certainly not alone. Perhaps they were displaying the same arrogance as man some hundreds of years ago, when humanity thought themselves superior to everything on Earth, sentencing thousands of species to extinction. Species 8472 might possess the same sensibilities, albeit to a more extreme degree.
The Protozoa's size was almost covering every space of plexiglass on her cockpit window, and Alex leaned forward to see the sea of cytoplasm contained within the cell membrane sac, the mitochondrial strands drifting languidly through eddies along with other organelles. Grateful her scanner was taking all this data in, Alex wished there was some other way to do this, but knew the lives of the Maverick and the creatures of Fluidic space had to be protected. Silently, she made a promise to make a thorough analysis when this was all over. Perhaps if she did that, she might find some way to feed these things without risking any other life forms if they were encountered again.
The soon had no sooner crossed her mind when another wave of blackness swept over, and this time, Alex nearly slumped over the cockpit controls of the shuttle. Glancing at her vitals on one of the screens, she knew she was draining faster, now that she was within range of launching the probe at the Protozoa. She had to hang on, Alex thought defiantly. She had to hang on.
"Alex," Chris Larabee's voice snapped her back to attention. "The Cimarron has just launched a warhead. Begin the sixty-second countdown."
Thank God, Alex thought silently and immediately brought the shuttle to a stop. She was close enough anyway.
"Aye Captain," she replied and hated the weariness in her voice because she knew he would notice it.
"Alex, are you alright?" Chris demanded.
"I'm fine," She assured him as she tapped the sequence into the computer and prepped the Class 1 probe for launch in one minute. A counter appeared on her console screen, indicating how much time she had. "Just a little winded. Requesting a week off when this is done."
"Would you actually take it?"
"I'll try not to be offended by your scepticism," she returned with a little smile, aware she could be a workaholic as she reached for the final dose of stimulants. In the background, the computer's dulcet tones began the countdown to launch. Once again, she pressed the instrument to her shoulder, allowing the drugs to pass through her skin.
The fog in her head cleared, although this time it had not been as fast. With the shuttle frozen in place, she clutched the console, allowing the drug to take full effect as she readied the probe for launch. It wasn't just that she felt dizzy, but it was becoming harder to stay focused, which she simply had to be to launch the probe. Gritting her teeth, she tried to take her mind off her worsening physical condition.
"Is Vin alright?" She asked, sure the Captain would tell her if he were not. While they had a marriage bond that kept them tethered mentally, Alex still had difficulty in relying on it.
"He's fine," Chris answered promptly. "He fired the warhead without a hitch. He's heading to the next target now."
Alex closed her eyes, staving away another bout of disorientation, painfully aware now the stimulants were no longer having any effect. The shield strength was now declining rapidly, and as she watched the numbers slowly reach fifty per cent, Alex knew if she did not get out of here soon, she would not survive long enough to return to the ship. Digging her nails into her palms, the pain offered her some measure of clarity but not enough.
Without a second thought, Alex tapped the controls once more, a gasp of relief escaping her as she heard the computer making a new statement over the coms.
"Class One probe launched."
"About time!" Alex whispered under her breath. "Computer, full reverse thrust!"
The shuttle spun around abruptly as the probe escaped the small craft, heading towards a target for a purpose far beyond its original design. Alex paid little attention to any of this. She was trying hard to remain in her seat as the shuttle pulled away. Taking a final look at the Protozoa, she leaned back into her chair, closing her eyes a moment to regain her strength when another blanket of fatigue smothered her so completely, she could do nothing but tumble out of her seat.
The last thing Alex saw before she blacked out completely was the view of Fluidic space rushing past her through the cockpit window.
The game was Solitaire.
Ezra Standish stared at the screen, ignoring the behemoth in the cockpit window, interested only in the game he was playing. He'd decided to go with a three-card draw, using the vintage deck Julia had acquired during a trip home to Maine. It was in pristine condition, and he was sure cost a pretty penny to purchase, but God help him, he adored her for it. Originating in the 1870s, its condition was so perfect, the paper was as stiff as the day it was made. Produced by the New York Consolidated Card Company, the deck of 'Squeezers' as it was called back in the day, came complete with indices at the corner, so they could be fanned out in display.
Used only with the friends he played poker with on Friday nights, having the deck here during this possible suicide mission to destroy the Protozoa, seemed appropriate. It was also a reminder he had to survive this mission so he could get on with the business of helping Julia. The woman who would go to this much trouble for him, could not be lost for any reason.
"Ezra, the second warhead has been detonated."
"Excellent," Ezra remarked almost dismissively as his hand reached away from the cards played across a second of his console and he set the countdown to begin.
"How are you holding up?"
Ezra studied his cards, frowning at what he had in front of him. "I think I need a black Queen."
"I need a black Queen, I cannot move my red Jack, without a black queen. There doesn't appear to be one accessible to me at this point."
In the background, the countdown continued distantly, but Ezra's focus was on the cards. Focusing on the numbers, he could ignore the fatigue attempting to drag him into the darkness or the way the room wanted to spin like an old-style turntable. The cards had always given him focus, and this occasion was no exception.
"Ezra, are you alright?" Chris Larabee's voice exuded understandable concern, like that troublesome voice in his head he sometimes referred to as his 'conscience'.
"I am fine, Captain," he said, drawing the three again and saw no help with the new selection. "Although I cannot say the same for my game. I think I am out of moves."
There was a pause, and Ezra looked up long enough to take note of how much time was left. The computer's recital sounded like the voice of a dealer at the roulette table. The only thing missing was the white ball.
"Ezra, how many stimulant doses have you taken?"
"Just one Captain," Ezra replied. "I need no concoctions to maintain my thoughts, just the embrace of Lady Luck."
Ezra could not see the exasperation on Chris's face, but he knew his Captain well enough to know it was there, especially when the man uttered his next words.
"Even Lady Luck needs help, Commander. Take another dose."
The computer interrupted Ezra before he could respond. The single utterance made him forget the game because now there was a new imperative. No longer was he the gambler sitting at a felt-covered table, dressed too well for the saloon he was in and certainly too refined for the cheap whisky he was drinking. Now he was the Chief of Security again, and he had work to do.
"Launching the probe now."
His fingers moved across the controls with a different kind of dexterity, and within seconds of the chirping sound made by the freshly inputted commands, he saw the probe through the cockpit window of the Ballard, flying to its fate within the nucleus of the Protozoa. This time, Ezra was not too proud to use the hypospray, and pressed it to his neck with one hand, while the other turned the shuttle around and flew it away from the soon to be destroyed life form.
It was only after he put a reasonable distance between it and the Ballard, Ezra Standish realized the Maverick had suddenly gone silent.
If Ezra wondered why the Maverick had suddenly fallen silent, having the answer would not have made him feel better.
".....launching the probe now."
On the bridge, Chris was satisfied the mission to destroy the Protozoans was progressing according to plan. The reappearance of the Cimarron indicated the first life form was destroyed. Although Chris was glad to see Vin had made it out in one piece, the Vulcan still had one more creature to kill, and Chris hoped he was in reasonable shape to do it. Not after hearing Lt. Opa checking in to tell the bridge Alex had collapsed on the floor of the Hawking, prompting the security officer's emergence from stasis to get them back to the ship.
Easing back into his chair after Ezra's report, Chris was listening to Charlotte Richmond telling him they had avoided damaging Fluidic Space by their staggered antimatter assaults on the Protozoan when once again, Lady Luck as Ezra would say, decided to show her hand.
And their luck being what it was today, it was naturally bad.
Mary uttered a sudden groan, and Chris shot her a look immediately, seeing her double over in her seat.
Josiah who was occupying Buck's chair at present, mostly because Chris couldn't bear to see it empty and the Counsellor was the only one Chris could tolerate there for the moment, jumped out of his chair and hurried over to the Protocol Officer. At first, Chris thought Mary was suffering from their proximity to the remaining Protozoa, but as she clutched her skull in pain, he realised this was something different.
"Mary, what is it?" Chris demanded, feeling his anxiety for her welfare ratchet up a notch at the pained look on her face. While they could all feel the fatigue and weariness tugging at their bones, her reaction was far more acute.
Josiah was in the process of running a medical scanner over her, employing skills he seldom used as a Counsellor, trying to determine the problem. While he was nowhere as adept as Nathan, keeping company with the doctor had convinced him to brush up on the basics, since the Maverick often had emergencies requiring the extra help.
"Her life signs are stable for our current situation," Josiah answered, seeing Chris's approach towards panic and well aware the Captain couldn't be distracted right now.
"They're coming!" She raised her head and looked up at Chris. "Chris, I can hear their thoughts. They're coming, and there's a lot of them!"
She didn't need to elaborate on who 'they' were.
Chris jumped to his feet immediately. "Charlotte!"
"Already scanning!" The Acting Science Officer replied, her eyes already running over the Science station, trying to confirm Mary's urgent exclamation.
"Drew, is the Hawking on board yet?" Chris turned to Ezra's replacement at Tactical.
"Yes Captain," Drew nodded. "She just entered the shuttle bay."
"What about the Ballard and the Cimarron?"
"They're still in the null field surrounding the Protozoans."
Chris thought quickly, he couldn't waste time swinging around to pick them up, at least not yet. Cursing inwardly, he hoped Ezra and Vin could manage on their own until he dealt with this new crisis. It seemed fate planned on throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them today.
"Then raise shields and be ready to deploy the ablative armour."
"Captain, I'm detecting at least seven ships!" Charlotte stared at him with more than a visible trace of fear. It did not bode well for their situation.
"Confirmed," JD added from his station where he was scanning the area in his capacity as navigator. "Captain, they're coming at us on an intercept course."
The scene was as bad as Chris expected it as a phalanx of bioships appeared on the viewer, the points of their dart-like configuration moving through Fluidic Space with all the velocity one would expect from the design. The speed on which they were closing in on the Maverick told him they had seconds, not minutes to act.
"Time to intercept?"
"Forty-five seconds," JD replied promptly.
All of a sudden, the bioship broke formation, spreading out in a starfish pattern that Chris recognised from Voyager's footage of their encounters with Species 8472. Knowing what was coming, he knew the Maverick would not survive if Species 8472 launched the assault it intended by this new configuration. The things had taken out a Borg planet. A goddamn planet.
Crossing the space between his command chair and the Conn, presently occupied by Ensign Nora Densham who was taking Vin's place while the Vulcan was off the ship, Chris knew their present circumstances required someone who was not fresh from the Academy.
"Ensign, you're relieved."
The junior officer looked at him puzzled before she understood what the Captain intended and promptly obeyed, getting to her feet. Taking a step back, she withdrew to another station in case she was still needed. No sooner than she stepped away, Chris took up the seat she just vacated. JD glanced at Chris in surprise, having never seen the Captain take the helm but knew from experience, Chris's earlier assignment before he became the First Officer of the Rutherford, was the Officer of the Conn for the USS Indiana.
"Armour deployed Captain," Drew announced as he saw the ships completing their new attack pattern.
"Good," Chris replied as he swung the ship around, needing to put as much distance between themselves and the enemy ships as possible. "We have to lead them away from the Ballard and the Cimarron, long enough for Commander Standish and Lt. Tanner to detonate the antimatter warheads."
"Is there any chance we can talk to them?" Josiah asked. "Tell them what it is we're doing?"
"Mary?" Chris asked as he swung the Maverick around and headed away from the Protozoans. The bioships in his rear scanner revealed the ships had completed their attack formation and a volley of fire was coming their way. He did not look at the Protocol Officer as he spoke, his eyes fixed on his console and the screen ahead.
"I'll try," Mary replied. "They're rather upset with us over the attack on their ships before. I can't hear it in words, but the emotion is clear."
"I can try to hail them," JD suggested, aware it probably wouldn't do any good since he had no idea how the bioships functioned or whether or not they possessed any form of receiving transmitter.
"Couldn't hurt," Chris responded, his attention fixed on one of the ships pulling ahead in front of the others, as if leading the charge, except Chris knew better. "Captain, they're charging weapons!"
"All hands," Chris said, tapping his combadge to make the shipboard announcement, "Brace for impact."
All ships but one fired their weapons, but their target was not the Maverick . Instead, they were funnelling the energy beams into the lead ship, allowing it to act as a conduit to deliver one massive burst of power. When that deadly payload escaped the bioship and struck the Maverick 's hull along its wounded nacelle, despite Chris's best efforts to evade it. If not for the ablative armour, Chris was sure they would have lost the entire pylon. As it was the Maverick was flung into a violent tailspin. Everyone clung to anything they could reach as the bridge turned upside down as it was thrown into its corkscrew trajectory.
Klaxons screamed the ship's protest at the treatment and as soon as Chris fired the thrusters, forcing the Maverick to break out of the deadly maneuver. Being in Fluidic space meant they only had the use of impulse power to make their escape. Had they been home, Chris would have warped the hell out of there, but no such avenue was available to them.
"Ready transphasic torpedoes!" Chris shouted as he forced the Maverick to come about sharply, heading not away from the enemy ships but towards them.
"Captain, what are you doing?" Charlotte demanded. "You're heading right for them."
Chris ignored her. "Engineering, I want all power to the front shields."
"Captain," Josiah asked. "Mind letting us in on what you're doing?"
"Not unless this became a democracy and no one told me."
Mary gave Josiah a look that spoke volumes with what the Senior Staff had to deal with daily.
Another bolt of energy was coming at them, and this time, Chris was better able to avoid it, waiting until the absolute last moment to perform a barrel roll maneuver that not only took the Maverick out of its way but spiralled around the incoming fire. Once again, everyone gripped any handhold available to keep from tumbling out of their seats, wondering at what point Chris Larabee became an even crazier pilot than Vin Tanner.
Trying to keep up with what the Captain was demanding of him, Drew managed to unleash a volley of torpedoes as the Maverick continued in its spinning trajectory. As the weapons flew towards the enemy ships, it became challenging for them to avoid the incoming projectiles and one or two had to break formation to avoid being struck. As a result, the wing's ability to deploy its combined strength was temporarily disrupted as the ships in the Maverick 's line of fire scattered.
"Keep firing!" Chris ordered. "We've got to keep them from regrouping!"
"Captain, our shield strength has decreased by 15 per cent," Charlotte warned from her station.
"And I think I'm going to lose my lunch," Josiah remarked, never realising how disorientating it could be to be stuck on the bridge during these engagements. Usually, he found himself a comfortable spot, preferably in a closet or some confined space to ride out these battles. He did not think having a front seat could be even worse than that.
Despite the situation, Chris couldn't help but smile at the remark. "Oh, this is just a little bumpy. You're lucky it's me here and not Vin."
"I beg to differ!" Mary quipped as the Captain performed another dangerous maneuver, just as Drew fired again.
Another blast striking them made the Maverick spin around again and this time the starship took longer for Chris to right, tumbling sideways the way no vessel this size ought to be doing. This time, JD fell out of his seat but managed to scramble back to his station just as quickly. As Maverick prepared to returned fire, Fluidic space suddenly came alive with a brilliant white light, everyone on the bridge immediately identified.
"That's a warhead!" Charlotte shouted.
For a second as the shockwave moved through the battling flotilla of ships, all parties ceased firing. As the brilliance evaporated and sensors in danger of overloading normalised, Chris turned his ship around and headed towards the source. Emerging from the proximity of that blast would be his officers, and he needed to get to them before the enemy.
"Whose payload was that?" Chris demanded.
"It was the Ballard," Drew replied automatically. "Commander Standish's ship."
"Ballard, this is the Maverick , please come in."
A few seconds of silence followed before Ezra's voice filled the bridge. "Captain, do I take it this is a bad time to drop in?"
"Don't be funny!" Chris snapped.
"Captain," Charlotte looked up at him. "The bioships, they're falling back."
Chris looked over his shoulder at her, "are you sure?"
"Yes Sir," she nodded, glancing at Drew for confirmation. "They're falling back five thousand kilometres. Only one ship is maintaining position with us."
"Captain, they're hailing us," JD spoke up, compounding the incredulity of the sudden turn of events.
"Put them on screen," Chris ordered. "Ezra, get your ass back on board immediately. I don't know how long this detente is going to last."
"When you put it so succinctly," Ezra replied unseen. "I shall be on my way."
"Captain, we have to lower our shields to let Commander Standish on board," Drew warned.
"I know, I know," Chris was well aware of that but said nothing further when all of a sudden, a most familiar face appeared on the viewscreen, displaying as much irritation as Chris was feeling.
"Chris Larabee, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Isn't it enough you've filled our space with dangerous critters devastating our home. Now you gotta start detonating antimatter bombs left right and centre?"
Chris could only stare at the face in front of the screen that did not at all resemble a member of Species 8472, but a rather angry curmudgeon bearing a striking resemblance to Boothby, the head groundskeeper at Starfleet Academy.
"Of course not you idjit," the man on the screen barked back. "I just look like him, so I can talk to you people."
"Good likeness," Josiah had to admit.
"And just as charming." Mary agreed under her breath.
Chris shot them a look to be quiet before facing front again. "We're not taking potshots at your space, we're trying to stop the creatures that are killing off the life forms in your territory."
"You expect us to believe that?" The Boothby facsimile stated skeptically.
"We didn't intend to come into your space, we were investigating the singularity you opened in our quadrant when we ran into six Borg cubes. We entered the singularity to escape them, but once we got here, we saw what was happening to Fluidic space."
"Because you caused it!" Boothby accused, but there was less venom in his voice, and the look in his eyes implied the man was listening anxiously for Chris to elaborate.
"No," Chris countered immediately. "One hundred years ago, one of the things arrived in our territory and killed millions, the entire population of a planet and a full complement of a starship. We discovered it was a single-celled organism."
"Do I look like I fell out of the rhubarb patch last week?" Boothby stared at him in disbelief. "You're telling me that thing, devouring all life in our space, is a giant amoeba?"
"That's exactly what I'm telling you," Chris returned. "We had as much trouble accepting it as you, but we know how to kill it. The thing feeds of energy, all forms of energy, including those produced by living organisms. It's why your ships can't get close and ours can. We detected four Protozoans, and I dispatched my officers carrying antimatter warheads to detonate them inside the nucleus. That's the only way they can be destroyed. Now we've neutralised three of the things, but there's one more left. When this is done, I will turn over all our data on the creatures to you so you can deal with them yourselves, so this never happens again."
"You're willing to do that?" Boothby eyed Chris, still appearing suspicious, but there was something in his voice that implied acceptance.
"We're not here to pick up a fight," Chris said injecting all the sincerity he could put into his voice. "We're trying to get home, but we saw the damage being done to your home and we couldn't let that continue, not when we can help."
The man stared hard at Chris through the viewscreen, his face an expression of silent contemplation. On the scanner of the helm controls, Chris could see the bioships were holding position, no longer making any hostile moves. They were simply waiting for a decision to be made.
"Okay, I believe you. Mostly because that story is too ridiculous to be a lie. Also, because the little lady over your shoulder believes it to be the truth."
Chris glanced instinctively at Mary and realised even though Species 8472 was using a verbal form of communication, they were still able to read her thoughts and determine if the Maverick was attempting to deceive them.
"It is true," Mary spoke for the first time. "You can read my mind, you know exactly what we've been through since entering the singularity. We don't want to fight. We have families on board this ship, we just want to get them home."
"And we want to save our homes," Boothby nodded. "I guess we both got a lot to lose by not cooperating with each other, and my people have confirmed what you're saying. They're not registering those dead zones any more. Every time we've tried to close in on the damn things, they just wiped us out. We've lost a lot of good people and ships."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Chris admitted. "I saw what it did to the wildlife here and that was bad enough."
"Okay then," Boothby said with a nod. "We'll let you do what you have to, and you'll provide us with the information to keep the dogs off our lawn in the future."
"Keep your people at minimum safe...."
Before Chris could finish, another explosion lit up space around them. The antimatter detonation was far enough away to be seen but not enough to be felt. Everyone on the bridge flinched a little at the brilliant glare, and on the screen, Boothby winced similarly.
"Captain!" JD broke into a grin. "I've got Vin on the line."
"Put him through," Chris almost smiled.
"Chris, what in the hell are you doing to my girl? You can't fly her that way! She ain't a shuttle, she's a goddamn starship!" Vin's ordinarily calm voice exploded across the coms, sending a ripple of soft laughter across the bridge as he unleashed a litany of curse words at his friend whom he'd momentarily forgotten was his Captain.
Through the screen, Boothby stared at Chris. "That's a Vulcan?"
Chris rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Yep."
"If you come with me," Alexandra Styles said to Lt. Valerie Archer, or rather the Species 8472 version of the Starfleet officer who was a descendant of famed Admiral Johnathan Archer. "I'll give you what we have on the Protozoans."
"Of course," the dark-haired woman smiled politely. She stood up gracefully from the conference room table where she and her commander, wearing the face of Groundskeeper Boothby, were in discussion with the Captain after the final Protozoan was destroyed and all the Maverick crew was back on board.
From his chair, Ezra Standish frowned at the idea of allowing the woman any access to the rest of the ship, but as the Captain impressed upon him shortly after his return, they needed to show good faith while travelling through Fluidic space. After all, if the truth was told, the Maverick and its crew were trespassing, and it would be exceedingly bad manners to treat the natives like they owned the place.
"So now that you've launched a few torpedoes in our space, what are you going to do ?" Boothby asked Chris, and the Captain got the distinct impression Species 8472 would prefer it if the Maverick left Fluidic space immediately.
"Figure out how to get out of here of course," Chris answered not standing on ceremony. "We're going to leave by going back the way we came."
Boothby made a face. "Afraid it doesn't quite work that way, but we can help you out there. Our ships can create a portal for you to leave."
"Captain," Ezra looked at Chris, reminding him they had unfinished business to deal with. While he would never presume to tell Chris Larabee his business, under no circumstances was Ezra leaving without Julia or Buck, or any other Maverick crew already assimilated.
"First, we have to head back to where we encountered your ships near the Coral," Chris explained, catching the question in Ezra's eyes. "We have a missing runabout carrying some of our crew who have been assimilated. We're not leaving without them, nor are we allowing them to reach Borg space."
Aware of how Species 8472 felt about the Collective, Chris expected some vehement objections to this, but instead, Boothby seemed unsurprised by the revelation, uttering a response that captured the attention of everyone at the table.
"We saw them."
"Where?" Ezra demanded before he could stop himself from usurping the Captain.
"One of our ships spotted them. They were heading towards a region in our territory, we don't normally go, mostly because it's too dangerous. You see, singularities aren't the only way into Fluidic space."
"They're not?" Chris stared in surprise because Voyager had mentioned nothing about this.
"No," the man shook his head. "Before our technology developed enough for us to create singularities ourselves, we had access to your dimension through wormholes. They're scattered throughout most of Fluidic Space, and we use them as a kind of highway I suppose, into your territory. It's probably one of those damn trips that gave us away to the Borg."
"So what happened to the Corrizo?" Vin asked.
"Well they probably figured our ships would tear them a new one, so they hightailed it out of our space by using one of the wormholes.'
"Do you know which one?" Ezra asked because the escape of the Corrizo through a wormhole meant it could be anywhere in the galaxy. The possibility meant there would be next to no chance of ever recovering Julia and Buck if the runabout emerged in the Delta Quadrant. The despair threatened to rise up from inside Ezra and send him into a panic.
"We do," Boothby answered, but his manner didn't fill the officers at the table with much confidence, not if that grim expression on his wizened face was any indication. "But I wouldn't go after them if I were you."
"They're my crew," Chris said firmly, ignoring the ominous tone of his voice. If there were a way to retrieve Buck and the others, there would be nothing stopping Chris from seeing it done. He made a promise to his oldest friend and to Ezra, he would bring Julia and all the others assimilated, home to the Maverick . He was not about to abandon them at the first sign of trouble. Buck would never be halted by such an obstacle and neither would Chris. "If that's where they've gone, then that's our destination."
"Why don't you think we shouldn't go after them?" Mary had to ask, guessing Boothby might be warning them off for good reason.
"Because this particular wormhole is a little twitchy. There's some kind of instability we can't seem to identify. What we've been able to tell, it's got some strange neutrino readings and other quantum anomalies coming off it, unusual even for wormholes. Of course, the other reason we don't go traipsing through there is because those who went through didn't come back. "
Ezra's expression grew pale, as one would expect him to do at the possibility Julia might have met the same fate. Chris, on the other hand, maintained his expression of granite determination.
"If that's where the Corrizo went," he spoke up, not just to Boothby, but to his crew who might think he was reconsidering the idea of going after the runabout, "then that's where we're going."
As he made that statement, Chris saw Ezra's look of gratitude and nodded at his Security Chief in assurance. JD had been silent because as the youngest member of the bridge team, it wasn't his place to speak during a meeting like this. Yet hearing they were going after Buck and the others, made the young man breathe a visible sigh of relief. Once again, Chris was reminded of the strong bond between Buck and JD since the kid arrived on the Maverick straight from the Academy.
"Alright then," Boothby shrugged taking on the manner of a man who had done all he could and was washing his hands of the situation. "It's your funeral."
Less than a day later, the Maverick arrived at the coordinates provided by Boothby pinpointing the location of the wormhole used by the Corrizo to escape Fluidic Space.
Remaining long enough for the exchange of information, the Maverick left the area. However, before their departure, Alex conducted a thorough scan of the region to ensure the Protozoans were truly gone, and not merely thrust into a different dimension to cause further mischief. While Species 8472 would prefer it if they left immediately, Chris was right about the destruction of the Protozoans, earning them enough goodwill for the attack on the Federation to be abandoned. It also resumed the cautious friendship between the two sides.
Staring at the wormhole through the viewscreen, Chris could not help thinking it resembled a giant whirlpool and to enter it would be to descend into the depths of Fluidic space itself. It was almost the size of the singularity they used to enter this dimension. The vortex dragged the detritus of the plasma sea into the dark blue eye at its core. Pieces of coral, the carcasses of dead animal life and even soft porous material resembling kelp, were sucked into its orifice.
"It's a wormhole alright," Vin remarked, having seen one or two in his career to recognise the spatial phenomena, even if it looked like what happened when he drained the water from his bathtub.
"Confirmed," Alex announced, looking up from the science station after studying the readings produced by her scans. "I'm detecting normal levels of tetryonic particles, neutrinos and theta-band emissions. The content of ionised hydrogen is particularly high, so I recommend we go in there with shields and thrusters only. If we go in at full throttle, we're liable to ignite the hydrogen."
"I concur," Ezra agreed, already conscious of the risk the Captain was taking to retrieve Julia and Buck, without wishing the ship to be further endangered. As it was, he was still mindful of what Boothby had said about there being something unusual about this particular wormhole.
"Noted," Chris nodded, thinking the same thing as Ezra though he was unaware of it. "Vin, think you can ride the rapids with thrusters only?"
"I better," the helmsman replied and then glanced over his shoulder. "Otherwise, you'll probably take the Conn and Christ knows what will happen then." A little smile tugged at the corner of his lips as he threw a cocky smirk at his Captain and best friend.
"Just fly the ship Tanner," Chris waved him away dismissively. "JD, take us to yellow alert."
Alert panels were soon flashing throughout all decks of the Maverick . As the notification spread across the ship, Chris took the opportunity to address the rest of his crew.
"All hands, we are about to enter the wormhole that will, if our luck holds, return us to normal space. All department heads report to your stations and all civilians, please remain in your quarters until further notice. We will update you as the situation develops."
"Alright Vin," Chris said once all the forms were observed. "Let's get the hell out of here."
Vin did not waste time, eager to leave this place as the rest of the Maverick 's crew. "We're on our way."
The Maverick sailed forward, and as she approached the aperture that would take them away from Fluidic space for good, the starship began to shudder as the gravimetric forces began to work its will through the hull. While the violent currents were nothing the ship couldn't handle, Chris saw Mary clutching the grips of her chair while the rest of the senior staff clung to anything they could reach to remain steady on their feet to continue their jobs.
Nearing the maw of the wormhole, Chris imagined the dark blue eye he could see in the centre of it to be the welcoming sight of normal space peering through the maelstrom. Instinctively, he longed for the sight of stars. The turbulence continued to intensify, and as the wormhole grew larger and larger in the view screen, it felt for a moment like the ship might fly apart from the stress.
"What's our status?" Chris demanded over the sound of the violent shuddering.
"Our structural integrity appears to be holding!" Ezra responded over the noise. "Our shields are protecting us from the worst of the gravimetric forces."
"How long until we're through?"
"Fifteen seconds," Vin's voice never rose an octave despite the chaos around him. Instead, the Vulcan seemed maddeningly calm, his focus fixated on the viewer and his helm controls.
On the viewscreen, Chris saw the Maverick finally crossed the point of no return and knew they were committed to completing their journey. As the iridescent vortex of Fluidic space swirled powerfully around them, he saw the centre of the wormhole widen even further, and for a moment, Chris thought it looked like the lazy eye of a great space beast blinking awake at the sight of them. As it continued to expand even more, until the stars he imagined he was seeing became more and more visible, he suddenly heard Alex speak for the first time since they began their approach.
There was enough fear in her voice to force even Vin to glance over his shoulder at the same time as Chris. It wasn't often they heard the panic in her voice, and despite the fact they were seconds away from disappearing down the wormhole for parts unknown, they were all compelled to look in her direction.
"I'm detecting tachyon emissions coming out of that thing!"
"What?" Chris Larabee exclaimed sharply, needing only a split second to know what that meant. "VIN! TURN US AROUND NOW!"
But it was too late. They were going in.
When the Maverick stopped shaking, and some semblance of order returned to his bridge ten minutes later, Chris stared at the viewscreen in front of him and knew exactly where he was.
The planet was decidedly arid, with vast tracts of red desert covering most of the surface. What patches of ocean there were, could hardly be seen through the atmospheric shield of heat. The planet had no moons in orbit, although there were stories as far back as four thousand years that claimed there had been one once. Savage wars, even by human standards had destroyed it, raining debris across the planet that ruined its lush tropical climate and turning it into the harsh world before them.
"Is that what I think it is?" JD asked, shaking his head from the disorientation of their emergence from the wormhole.
"I believe it is," Ezra nodded, already scanning the area and noticing Alex was doing the same, although he was searching for enemy ships and she was studying for something else entirely.
"We were on the other side of the Federation," Mary stammered, recognising the world before her just as clearly as Chris. "How did we..."
It didn't matter, Chris thought because where they had emerged was not the problem.
"Alex, how bad?" Chris stared at his science officer.
"Bad enough," she returned after a second, knowing he recognised the urgency of the situation as well as she did. "I can't find any traces of subspace buoys, none of the orbital stations or starbases. Captain, there's nothing out there, and the stars are wrong. I'm detecting one that went nova two thousand years ago. It's still there."
"How is that possible?" Mary gaped as Alex's statement stunned every one of them
Everyone except Chris, that is. The instant his science officer had told him there were tachyons in the wormhole, he knew this was a possibility. It was why no ships from Species 8472 ever returned after passing through the wormhole. It wasn't where they had ended up, but rather when.
"The wormhole must have created a temporal rift at its exit point," Alex explained. "We've emerged in what by our calendar would be the 4th century BC."
"Are you telling me we have returned two millennia in the past?" Ezra's mask of composure was nowhere in sight, and he stared at Chris in astonishment.
"That's right," Chris nodded, facing front again and the red planet before them. "We've gone back in time."
"Where?" JD managed to ask as he grappled with the impossible realisation.
"Vulcan," Vin Tanner spoke for the first time, looking at the planet where his race began. "We're at Vulcan."
Continues in Vulcan
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