28 Wildfire The USS Perseus streamed into position before a double-ringed gas giant. The system erupted with silent flashes of light, and the ship navigated through clouds of decimated spacefaring architecture and ballistic debris. “Most of the fighting has descended toward the inner planets, Captain,” Grif said. “However, reading accelerated technological development on the surface installations of the moons.” Tom activated his chair's sensor panel. The data overcrowded the small readout. “Vexa, analysis.” She reflected on her scans. “Sir, the humanoid and structural atomic signatures don't match any known configurations. But the exponential transformation patterns...are clearly...Borg.” She looked at Grif. “The entire system is being assimilated. Sir. Picking up an outpost on the third moon of the gas giant. Twelve humanoids. They have fortified themselves behind a regenerative ionic field of five point two gigajoules, and have so far staved off assimilation. But their ship and surface facilities have suffered extensive battle damage. They are stranded.” “Twelve here, billions in the system interior,” Grif interrupted. “Sir, I've localized the main theater of battle. Most of the fleets are gravitating around the second planet of the system.” “On screen.” On the main viewer, several space fleets engaged in a chaotic, epic battle above a green and red-swathed planet. Cities illuminated an entire hemisphere shrouded in night. High in orbit, colossal, gray, manta-like dreadnoughts defended themselves from an onslaught of double and triple-hulled alien heavy cruisers, light cruisers and fighters. Some of the ships' surfaces transformed before their eyes with complex Borg materiel. Tom turned to his First Officer. “Seven, are you...?” Commander Seven of Nine shook her head, and went to Munich at the com station. “Commander Munich, report.” Nikhila punched through her frequencies with futility. “The chatter is broken, erratic. It's as if the crews are fighting themselves, too, Captain.” She regarded Seven, whose tense assessment of the com station interface clearly revealed consternation on a personal level. “The system belongs to the Enqar System Alliance. A loose association of several sector powers, which had lived in relative peace for over five centuries. Those dreadnoughts belong to the Alliance. The other ships seem to have been assimilated from the outer planets and turned against their fleet. I believe this all started only hours ago. But I'm not picking up any Borg communications, Captain. As near as I can tell, ships on all sides are functioning as individuals. It's Borg – but it's not Borg as we know them, sir. It's more like...” “An insurgency,” finished Grif. He punched his readout to the main viewer. The image switched to static-degraded sensor images of alien crew fighting each other onboard a ship. “You see any Borg?” “No, actually,” Tom replied. Grif called up an image of an alien crewmember and juxtaposed overlays of various sensor readings. While humanoid in appearance, internally, the scans showed an entirely different story. Technology interwove through his entire body. “According to the chatter,” Munich added, “the assimilations of crew aren't becoming apparent until too late. The technology remains hidden in infected individuals.” “Covert assimilation,” Grif said. “Allows them to move freely in their organization; probably as sleepers at first - until it was time to act. This, coupled with the fact that we don't see or hear any cubes indicates -” “A Borg adaptation of tactic, Captain,” Seven finished. “However they have re-emerged from destruction, it is clear that they are not the Borg of previous encounters. Perhaps they have also found a way to counter Federation weapon technology as well.” Captain Paris walked to the screen and took a moment to consider. “There's only one way to find out. Take us in, Ujio.” The Perseus fell out of warp and opened fire against a Borg-infested Alliance Dreadnought, drawing some attention away from a beleaguered Enqar attack wing. The Federation Prometheus-class ship skimmed over complex Borgified surface features, and fired phasers at a key installation. A wing of Alliance fighters disengaged from their sortie to regroup, and Tom heard their hails and Commander Munich's responses as so much background radiation. Ensign Shir was navigating the helm expertly through the chaotic architecture of the dreadnought. Tom resisted the urge to take over helm, confident in the Ensign's abilities – and own will to survive. Besides, as Captain now, he had to focus on the broader lay of the field of battle. Perseus shook with an energy weapon discharging against her shields. Alliance cruisers began to fall into formation around her, evoking her leadership. But the dreadnought resisted the attack, proving just too big, too tough to be slowed by conventional weapons. Perseus wove through the battling ships, evading fire and delivering devastation under her energy weapons. The crew fell, and those who could, got up to fight again, and again. “Shields down to twelve percent, Captain!” “Maintain heading! Fire all batteries!” “Captain, we've lost junctions seven through twelve! Auxiliary power is failing!” Grif shouted. “Emergency power to shields and weapons!” “It's not enough!” Just then something heavy slammed Perseus. As the crew righted themselves, Vexa said, “The dreadnought has caught us in a tractor beam, sir! Attempting to disengage!” Her hands flurried against the negative telltales. Even in the midst of battle, Tom saw, Lieutenant Vexa met a challenge with a kind of cool, logical inevitability. If there was a way through, she would find it. Given enough time. “Grif, phasers!” The klaxon sounded amid blasts of hits to the shields. “No good, sir! The Borg tractor frequencies keep overwhelming the phase cycle! We can't budge, sir! We're taking a beating!” “Divert power from primary hull life support! All crew evacuate primary cruiser! Head to secondary and tertiary cruisers!” Tom saw his crew stare at him in disbelief. “You all heard me! Move!” As he hit the evac sequence on his chair console, emergency lighting flashed and the crew departed the bridge. Tom rose to put his hand on Ujio's shoulder, still at helm. “No time for heroics, Mister Shir. Get going. I'll be right behind you.” “Then with or without your permission,” Ensign Shir replied, “Consider this my resignation, Sir.” He popped open an emergency panel and handed his captain a respirator, and took one for himself. Tom returned to the captain's chair on the emergency-lit bridge. “Paris to Seven. You'll take command of the secondary cruiser, and Commander Munich will take the tertiary. I want you to evacuate the system and regroup at rendezvous point delta.” “Captain, we should utilize the secondary and tertiary hulls to mount a counteroffensive; they are the stronger hulls and stand the greatest chance against the dreadnoughts.” “Which is why you will be taking them back to Federation space. You have your orders, Commander. And – good luck. To us all.” “Your plan is flawed, Cap -” “You got that right. Paris out.” Tom disconnected the com with an interpersonal regret that he could not indulge. “Mister Shir. Code Blue. Initiate M-VAM separation sequence, and divert all power to phasers.” “Aye, Captain.” “You know, you don't have to call me captain anymore. You're a civilian now.” “And you can't give me orders anymore. Captain.” With an explosive shudder, the secondary and tertiary cruisers detached from the primary hull, turned off and pulled away. Tom and Ujio watched them warp away with spectral flashes in separate directions, as enemy phaser beams scanned in confusion. Another Alliance dreadnought brought itself to bear on the Borg ship. The two great ships passed slowly above the planet, strafing phasers and volleying hundreds of torpedoes against each other. “Sir, the Perseus Secondary – she's warped to the gas giant!” Perseus shuddered under the dreadnought's phasers. “Paris to Seven, I gave you an order!” Acknowledged, Captain. We are evacuating the system as ordered. With the twelve outpost personnel. “Sir!” Ensign Shir pointed to the main viewer. “The Enqarian ship's stopped firing!” On screen, the attacking dreadnought hovered darkly. Both ships had ceased firing. Then, the dreadnoughts began maneuvering together. They both began firing on the other ships in range. “The Borg took her!” Ujio redoubled his efforts. The reduced fleet attacked the new enemy, to little avail. Ujio fought on through his sinking heart. As the second dreadnought overshadowed the fleet, it suddenly glowed from the inside and disgorged a fiery bubble outward from its core. A huge fireball engulfed it's center, as the ship's great hull split to its extremeties with plasmic fractures. The starship Voyager knifed out from the dreadnought explosion and rolled towards the Enqarian sun. “She's here,” Tom bit. “Get us the hell out of this tractor!” “I'm trying sir! The phasers are having no effect!” “Try reconfiguring the deflector for a sustained inverse tachyon burst! We'll overload their entire grid with a bellyfull of sorrows!” Both men turned behind them. Commander Barclay's hologram compiled into place on the bridge. “Just let me reinforce the warp constrictors and reroute the feedback surge to secondary phase inducers before we blow half our own hull off.” “Barclay! Nice of you to show up to our little party.” “You know me, sir. Love those fireworks.” He winked and engaged the science station. The dreadnought fired another phaser volley against the Perseus shields. “When you're ready,” Tom said. “Shield emitters overloading. They'll be gone in less than thirty seconds. Computer, report status of USS Voyager.” The USS Voyager is entering standard orbit above the system star. “Sir! Voyager's firing photon torpedoes. But...it doesn't make sense!” “Report!” “The photons. They are circling the ship. Sir, they seem to be disappearing into subspace!” “On screen!” The starship Voyager appeared on the viewer above the raging surface of the Enqarian sun. Brilliant pinpoints of light encircled the ship like electrons whipping around an atom. “The torpedoes are entering and exiting subspace at random, like small subspace vacuoles. Their paths are impossible to predict.” Several Borgified Enqarian cruisers pursued Voyager. As they entered the torpedo matrix, photon torpedoes emerged from subspace and impacted on each ship with massive detonations. “So much for plotting an attack pattern,” Ujio said darkly. The Voyager hovered over the surface of the sun, enmeshed in a web of flashing photon coronae, emerging and disappearing in a deadly web. She's out-adapting the Borg, Tom thought. “Mister Shir, status of the Enqarian sun?” Ujio checked his sensor readings, and looked back at Tom. “It's bad, sir.” “Mister Barclay, how is the tachyon burst coming?” “Just another minute, Captain.” Tom looked at Ujio, who shook his head deeply. “We don't have a minute. Computer, status of Perseus secondary hull.” The Perseus secondary hull is in standard orbit above the system gas giant. Dammit, Seven. “Barclay! I need phasers now!” “Almost ready, captain!” “Sir! The Enqar sun is flaring!” Ujio indicated the screen, where a heavy swirling mass of coronal plasma began gathering to an active prominence. Sensor alarms sounded in that dreadful, familiar symphony. “Mister Barclay...” “Enqar Alliance.” The viewscreen activated. Admiral Janeway appeared onscreen, surrounded by darkness, her face a study in severity. “Despite all reason, in your quest for power you have attempted to collect and study Borg technology. In your arrogance you have underestimated its power and your ability to control it. The Borg technology has adapted to what had defeated it in the past. The new Borg threat will not be allowed to take root in this galaxy again. It will not be permitted to leave this system. You have chosen your path. Prepare for your consequence.” “Sir, the flare!” Ujio shouted. “Barclay! It's now or never!” Tom gripped his chair. “Just five more seconds, Captain!” The Barclay hologram held up a hand, and with the other hammered through a sequence of indicators like a concert pianist. “Paris to Seven, you're out of time! Evacuate the system – now!” “Sir, Voyager has opened a slipstream! Solar prominence in progress!” “Reg!” “Now, Ensign!” Barclay pointed to Ujio. Ujio fired the superenergized tachyon feedback pulse up the tractor beam. A surge of energy overloaded the dreadnought tractor emitter grid. The beam cut. Perseus pulled away free, as the dreadnought glimmered from a mass of internal plasma overloads. “Ensign! Get us out of here! Maximum warp!” “Sir, I can reach Voyager before she gets away!” Ujio activated the helm controls. Tom rose. “I gave you an order, Mister Shir!” “But sir, we can still get them! We can stop it!” Tom ran to the helm and punched in the commands himself. Ujio grabbed his arm and the two men struggled against each other. On screen, Tom could see Voyager enter the slipstream before the solar flare. Barclay grabbed Ujio and pulled him off Tom. “There's not enough time, Ensign!” Tom engaged the engines. In the seconds before the Perseus warp reactor engaged, he saw Seven's ship still hovering above the gas giant. Off their bow, the colossal Borg dreadnought imploded. “No!” Ujio cried at the viewer. The proton storm fed into Voyager's quantum slipstream and started to bleed out into open space. With a screeching sensor overload and blinding flash, it turned into a wall of plasma, burning towards them with exponential velocity. Ujio stared in horror. Then remembered his controls. The USS Perseus jumped to warp. The bridge shook in warp space as the proton storm overtook them. Tom rode the shocks in the captain's chair. All power to the engines! The Barclay hologram aided Ujio at helm control, shouting something, but he couldn't make it out over the roar of the engines and overloading systems. Perseus yawed in her trajectory. The gravimetric forces of the storm overwhelmed navigational control. The proton storm ate the space behind them, ripping through the Enqarian system, instantly destroying everything in its path – planets, moons, ships, everything - burning out all life – Enqarian, Borg, and possibly Federation too. All sensors had burned out. There had been no sign of the secondary or tertiary hulls. Tom felt the ship torquing violently as it rode the advance wave of the plasmic wildfire. He watched as the Barclay hologram flickered out of existence, along with bridge power systems. He watched a plasma overload filter through the navigation console and explode in Ujio Shir's face, light ripping through his body and tossing it to the deck. He felt the storm engulfing his ship, crashing over its plasma shields. He felt the radiating ions charge through his body like a lightning rod and throw him against the bulkhead like a piece of debris. Fire tore the edges of his consciousness. Searing pain. Tom roused into consciousness, and clutched his flaring shoulder wound. The bridge lay in darkness, burnt and destroyed. He scrabbled his way to Ujio's body and held him. The lifeless body fell limp in his arms. The main viewscreen flickered on. Admiral Janeway appeared. An emotionless carving. “Damn...you!” Tom croaked. “Whoever you are!” He cradled Ujio's charred face and closed his eyes. A boy. Only a boy. A boy who had trusted his captain; who had given up everything, even his life – for simple loyalty. As Perseus flung powerless in its trajectory, Admiral Janeway spoke: “United Federation of Planets. In your arrogance you have underestimated the power of quantum slipstream technology, and your ability to control it. You have allowed it to fall out of your control. Any further interquadrant threats will not be allowed to take root in this galaxy again.” She leaned in: “Choose your path.” The screen switched to an external view of Voyager. The ship's nacelles vectored into position, and Voyager opened a quantum slipstream and shot into the vortex, and into oblivion. Tom laid Ujio's body down and checked the sensor readout on his chair. Voyager's heading was clear: The Alpha Quadrant. Bajor System. Ujio's lifeless body dematerialized in a sputtering transporter beam. The computer crackled: Casualty autotransport engaged. Tom righted himself in his captain's seat, as the emergency lights blinked and life support winked out. The dead, burnt, decimated primary hull of the USS Perseus tumbled in its fate, a permanent part of the Enqar Civilization debris field, alone and silent in an empty cosmic drift. United Federation of Planets Starfleet Captain Thomas Eugene Paris sat alone on his dark bridge, alone in his dark judgment, with nothing left of his world to command.