CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT Chief Tactical Officer’s Private Office -- 0936 hours “You’re serious?” John stared at his commanding officer in disbelief as he unwisely questioned the orders he had just been given. Lieutenant Commander Ryzal fixed the young tactical officer with an impatient glare. “Do I often come across as unserious? You have your orders, Lieutenant. Given the way you‘ve conducted yourself the past 24 hours, I wouldn‘t risk questioning them.” John Quigley shifted uncomfortably under Ryzal’s yellow-eyed gaze. The Saurian chief tactical officer was not pleased, and he had spent the last ten minutes letting John know it in no uncertain terms. Now, he had ordered him off the Tesseract. While most of his crewmates -- including Maren -- would be heading into the unknown for a rendezvous with Icheb and the mysterious Borg Resistance, he would be on a Saber-class auxiliary ship full of civilians, heading away from the action and toward what they hoped would be neutral territory. Ryzal’s voice was level and his manner professional, but it had been the content of his diatribe that had John red-faced and flustered. This wasn’t Irina or Sheila making flippant comments in sickbay -- this was a department head, taking him to task for leaving his post during a crisis -- to “sit by his mate’s bedside,” were the words Ryzal had used -- and, like Irina and Sheila, he had treated all of John’s protests to the contrary with irritated disbelief. John felt sick. It was bad enough that his direct supervisor was angry with him, he was now on report and reassigned away from the action, and -- given his probationary status -- could potentially even end up an ensign again due to his choices the previous day … what actually worried him even more was that sooner or later, assuming they really got him back, all of this was definitely going to get back to Icheb. Nice work, Quigley. Very smooth. Wait until your best friend is also your XO, and then move in on his girl in front of the entire crew. A well-conceived plan. With instincts this good, you’ll make captain … oh, never, he berated himself sarcastically. He was starting to wish he had never left the Titan. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to question you,” he apologized, standing stiffly at parade rest. Ryzal cocked his head and looked at the junior officer with slightly less of his unnerving reptilian intensity. “Listen to me, Terran. I understand how distracting personal attachments can be. I have family myself. You are worthless here. You’re spending every free moment in sickbay with your mate -- friend -- whatever word you are using to describe her -- and when you’re not there, your mind still is. Your tactical skills are impressive, but your commitment to duty is not. I’m familiar with your service record aboard the Titan, so I know this is not how you have conducted yourself in the past. I can only assume it is your personal attachment to Lieutenant O’Connor that has made the difference here, which is why I think everyone will be best served by your removal from the situation. I have no doubt that your tactical abilities are up to the challenge of defending the Sol.” At this, he once again increased the intensity of his gaze and added, “My wife and daughter will be on the Sol, which means you will be responsible for their safety. Likewise, I will be responsible for Lieutenant O’Connor’s. I give you my word that I will do a commendable job. Can I trust you to do the same?” “Of course, sir,” John quickly replied, locking eyes with his superior officer. “Good. Then you are on the Sol,” Ryzal repeated firmly. “Chief tactical officer. Report to the bridge by 1200 hours. Dismissed.” “Yes, sir,” John replied with what he hoped was sufficiently convincing enthusiasm, and headed for his quarters to pack. ***** Sickbay -- 1014 hours As the crew got preparations underway for the plan the senior staff had developed during the morning briefing, Adele headed for sickbay to check on her chief engineer. As she stepped into the open doorway, she saw Maren sitting up in bed and tapping intently on a PADD, looking much more alert and far less bruised and tearstained than she had the day before. “Captain,” Maren breathed anxiously, when she noticed her unexpected visitor. Adele could feel her trepidation. The engineer sat up a little straighter, as if trying to approximate standing at attention. “At ease,” Adele said. “I’m here to apologize. I still disagree strongly with some of the decisions you’ve made, but I took out some of my own frustrations on you yesterday, and that was inappropriate. I’m wanted you to know I’m sorry for it.” Maren blinked in surprise. “Thank you, Captain,” she said sincerely, sounding a little shocked. After taking a moment to regain her composure, she held up the PADD she was tapping on. “I’ve been making a list of questions to ask the drones.” Adele sighed. “I’m not sure you’re going to be asking them anything,” she said cautiously. “How much do you know about Annika Hansen’s history aboard Voyager?” “What do you mean?” Maren asked, looking slightly wary. “I mean, how aware are you of the circumstances of her separation from the Collective? And more to the point, did you know she put the ship at serious risk on numerous occasions due to her connection to the Borg?” Maren narrowed her eyes. “What are you getting at, Captain?” Adele sighed. “I’m asking you a question, Lieutenant.” Maren blushed. “I’m fairly familiar with those incidents, Captain,” she replied. “Then you know why I’m not particularly inclined to keep these drones aboard this ship unless they ask for asylum,” Adele replied. “And the less we talk to them, the less likely they are to ask for it.” Maren looked at her captain incredulously. “You’re going to send them back?” Adele held the younger woman’s gaze. “I’m seriously considering it. I’m told you’re one of the best hackers in the fleet, and you obviously have experience with Borg cybernetics that I wasn‘t previously aware of. What would be the best way to get information from the drones without having to verbally interact with them?” Maren looked at the captain with an odd expression. “You mean download their memories directly, don’t you?” It was more of an acknowledgment than a question, but Adele nodded anyway. Maren sighed. “Well, the neural processor has all the recent commands from the Collective stored in it. Getting to it is a problem, though; it’s deep within the abdomen of a drone. The designator interface circuit stores all the data collected by a drone since its last regeneration cycle, but if you remove it without first separating the drone from the hive mind and doing some reprogramming, the drone self-destructs. The cortical array contains an index of memory engrams, but the sheer amount of data there would be staggering, and most of us wouldn’t understand how it’s organized, and it’s impossible to access without brain surgery.” “Something tells me you would understand how it‘s organized.” “I might.” “Can you come up with a plan ?” Maren looked at Adele levelly. “To mind-rape the drones? Sure, I can come up with a plan for that. But let’s call it what it is. And in that case, it might make more sense to just have Doctor Sarik do a mind-meld or something. You know, more efficient,” she said snappishly. Adele maintained her composure, despite the engineer’s insolent tone. “These drones aren’t individuals, Lieutenant. They’re part of a collective mind hell-bent on assimilating the galaxy. Do you really not understand that, or are you simply going out of your way to be difficult?” “I assure you,“ Maren replied, “I understand it perfectly. I also understand that if we sever their link to the Collective and give it an honest try, we might have half a chance at giving three innocent people a second chance at life.” Maren’s voice was beginning to rise slightly, and Adele could sense her frustration, along with a healthy dose of anxiety about opposing her captain. “Your concern has been noted, and noted again, Lieutenant,” Adele said in a tone that invited no further comment from the engineer. “Come up with a plan anyway. I’m going to wait until we learn more about these Resistance Borg before deciding what course of action to take, but I want every option ready to go, including this one.” “Yes, sir,” Maren assented quietly. “Thank you,” Adele replied with a terse nod. “That also brings me to the other reason I came here -- do you think you would be able to tell if Icheb’s cortical implants have been manipulated or altered in any way if we can get him back on board?” Maren nodded. “Probably. I take it you want me to look at him?” “Yes, for two reasons. First, you’re obviously the most familiar with the technology inside his head, and second, he trusts you the most. He’s going to be behind a level ten forcefield and under armed guard if we get him back, at least until I have reasonable assurance that he hasn’t been compromised in some way. I‘d like to do what I can to make that bit of unpleasantness as comfortable as possible for him.” Maren raised her eyebrows at this, but said nothing. “I’m sure he won’t be happy about it,” Adele continued, “but I don’t trust these new, sneakier Borg in the slightest, even if they say they need us. Trust me, I hate to have to treat my own XO with suspicion, but …” “I get it, Captain,” Maren assured the captain, blushing as she realized she was interrupting her. Nonetheless, she continued, “I do understand your concerns. I may not share them, but I do get it. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can to reassure you that you can trust him.” “The truth is the only thing I’m interested in, Lieutenant,” Adele told her pointedly. Maren sighed and closed her eyes. “Understood.” ***** Resistance Vessel 1473 -- 1121 hours Icheb sat in his makeshift quarters aboard the resistance vessel, staring absentmindedly at the gleaming white walls while lost in the internal debate that raged within him. He was tired. Not physically -- regeneration had taken care of that, for now -- but emotionally, he was exhausted. He was tired of being everyone else’s pawn; tired of feeling like his destiny rested in everyone else’s hands but his own. He couldn’t decide if Malik was being honest about his intentions, or was simply a masterful manipulator. The Borg he was familiar with weren’t feared for their skill with treachery or deceit, but this was a new kind of Borg, free of the hive mind and operating under stealth, and they had offered him everything. All they wanted in return was him. Their case had been so persuasive that he might have considered it under different circumstances. He still wasn’t entirely convinced his refusal had been the right decision. But he was the first officer, his crewmates needed him, and then there was Maren. He had left her once. He wasn’t sure he could do it again. There had to be another way -- a way for everyone to get what they desired out of this situation. If he had learned anything from Admiral Janeway in the nine years since she had recovered him from the Borg, it was that there was always another option. He eyed the forcefield on his door wearily. He suspected that convincing either side to really hear the other might be easier said than done. There was absolutely no trust, no good will here, on either side. He felt in over his head. Diplomacy required social skills he had never fully developed. However, he reasoned, his captain was a diplomat -- or at least that had been her specialty before she had moved into Command. If he could make her understand all that was at stake, and how responsible for all of this the Federation truly was, perhaps with her expertise, they could bring the two sides together under different terms. My terms, he suddenly clarified to himself, feeling strangely resolute. More than anything, he simply wanted to be done being an object for other people to covet and use -- valued only for his potential as a weapon, a database, or a source of intelligence. No -- he was done with that, he promised himself solemnly. Somehow, he was going to engineer a resolution to this conflict, and it was going to be his choice how he participated. As he set his brilliant mind to work in concert with its cybernetic enhancements, trying to figure out how to repair the damage he had unwittingly participated in inflicting on an entire galaxy, he checked his chronometric node. Five hours, twenty six minutes to rendezvous. It would have to be enough.