Star Trek: Fortitude - "Afterburn"

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by admiralelm11, Jul 12, 2021.

  1. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
    FORTITUDE DISCOVERED


    Fleet Intelligence Review
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition: Interstellar Fleet Yards
    Santrag IV
    14th Akaa of the Fourth Cycle



    Boring… dull… boring… Seen them before… boring… dull…

    Wait, what was this?

    A priority flash overrode his screen. It was marked with the highest encryption, which explained everything. After all, he was somewhat of a prodigy. The section chiefs kept his observational talents under wraps. With ten rows of fifteen analysts in this building alone and competition amongst the staff often became tense. Marking out a favorite would be suicide for the chiefs and a potential death knell for him. No, he just kept his head down in the darkened corner of the sprawling facility with no natural light gracing his vestigial horns. He just kept his head down like everybody else and worked.

    Still, a priority flash, eh?

    Such things were exciting to him. They stretched his talents to the maximum. Not only his analytical talents but also his talents at keeping himself to himself. Others would ask what he worked on today. Today, he would have to lie. He couldn’t tell them about this particular transmission. Eagerly, he read the new data in silence.

    Review Starship: United Federation of Planets, encountered: Grid 7-991-53-2.

    Fair enough. It would be a standard conversational review, nothing special… Wait, what?

    Possible Intelligence Anomaly: Report findings directly to the Presidential Office.

    The Presidential Office?

    Jackpot!


    * * * *


    Grand Suite of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    18th Akaa of the Second Cycle



    “There are whisperings of rebellion from a small village in the Tekegren Province.”

    “I have no time for petty uprisings. Extinguish them painfully.”

    “As ordered, Mister President. Will there be anything further today?”

    No words came from his swollen lips. Only a wave of five stubby fingers signaled a dismissal and a desire to be left alone. Accordingly, the aide bowed in accordance with custom and backed away slowly from the desk. That was if you could call it a desk. These days, the classical architecture of the Presidential Office was slowly being transformed. Already the occupant of the office was seated higher than anything else in the room. The window that framed his ample shoulders had been enlarged multiple times. It held the best view on the entire planet. It had to… Otherwise, another fit of misdirected megalomania would bring it shattered down. The aide thought it was best to keep his objections to himself. He remembered how he had got the job. The execution had been gruesome.

    President Tret Bra’Kala was soon left alone. Bulbous eyes gyrating like those of some vile amphibian glossed over the empty marble floor and the sealed wooden door. The same stubby fingers that had just dismissed his aide reached for a handheld mirror. Today had to be perfect, just like it was every 18th Akaa.

    Today, the attention of his people would be directed at him, central to the Capital City procession, and designed with the specific intent of displaying the strength and wonder that he had created. Propaganda was a beautiful thing, wasn’t it? Who cared if some of the outlying villages were sprouting the seeds of rebellion? He could just order a baryon sweep and be done with them. Starving citizens weren’t enough to derail his glory. Pleas for compassionate leadership wouldn’t remove him from the Presidential Office anytime soon.

    The handheld mirror showed two images that afternoon.

    Tret Bra’Kala saw the majesty of his leadership draped in vibrant ceremonial dress. He saw a handsome man, the product of his political savvy and at the height of power. He saw a strong jawline and a full head of wild, feral hair unchanged from his youth. Smiling at what he saw, a row of perfectly white teeth glistening in return.

    What the mirror actually reflected, however, was far from the blinkered egotism of the portly Santragan. Once-proud vestigial horns were sinking underneath layers of grease and fat. If he did possess a neck, then nobody had seen it in years. Greed drove his actions and it was political greed that had brought him to this office and, once there, physical greed had tripled his weight. This was the reflection that his people saw, from the most loyal of subjects to the most disillusioned of revolutionaries. The irony was that a revolution had given Tret Bra’Kala the chance that he needed to seize power on Santrag II. With one mounting behind his back, he suddenly didn’t seem to care. As far as he was concerned, the Santragans were just tools to expand his territory, crews to expand his interstellar fleet, workers to run his society, and pay homage to his brave foresight.

    He was ruining the very world that he had found to preserve… and he didn’t care.

    “Mister President, a message for you.”

    “Gah,” he belched a frustrated reply to the intercom,” I’m not interested.”

    “Mister President, this is a priority flash. It involves the security of the Coalition.”

    “Oh, very well… amuse me.”

    “One of our border patrol ships intercepted a United Federation of Planets starship that had illegally crossed over into our space. They claimed to be on an urgent mission and they were allowed to pass unharmed, according to the emergency clause in our treaty. However, further detailed analysis of the situation had yielded some alarming facts. To begin with, Mister President, that starship was the USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A, the very ship that was once stationed to this system and anchored to Starbase 499.”

    Tret shifted in his seat. There were ripples across his ever-expanding stomach as he finally took notice of what he was being told. The Fortitude, back in Santragan space…

    Perhaps if it were another vessel, he wouldn’t have cared. No, this couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? Why were they back? Revenge, perhaps?

    Tret’s skin flushed with a cocktail of embarrassment and terror. He hadn’t forgotten about killing Captain Llewellyn and Rear Admiral Blackmore. So why should they? Well, killing… That wasn’t technically correct. That gas explosion had never been proven to be a direct result of his actions. Oh, who was he kidding? They died because of him! After all this time, they were back for blood!

    “There’s more, Mister President,” the voice continued with the briefing. “Conversational review techniques have enhanced a section of the Fortitude command deck observed during the intercept. The enhancement appears to show a fleeting glimpse of an officer matching the physical database file of Ewan Llewellyn.

    “What?,” Tret gargled in astonishment and rage. “What are you saying?”

    “Mister President… he’s alive.”

    * * * *
     
  2. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
    OBJECTIVE


    Observation Lounge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240
    Stardate 59741.2

    “You’re having me on,” he whispered in disbelief.

    “I wish I were,” she answered curtly, turning her back on him. “Miss Hansen?”

    There was too much ground to cover in the briefing for Valerie Archer to pander to the individual incredulity of Ewan Llewellyn. Without a care to how she sounded, rude or otherwise, the Captain simply handed the discussion over to their resident Borg expert, Annika Hansen. The large wall mounted viewscreen was already displaying the results of the sensor sweep for her to narrate. Fortitude had reached out with her electronic fingers overnight to sift through the swirling ginger clouds of the nebula, the mask that settled over the Borg Transwarp Hub located just outside the otherwise-unremarkable V-47 system.

    That very nebula now hung over the Observation Lounge, bathing the senior staff with an orange hue through the expansive windows. It was dividing people’s attention. There, right outside, they could see the danger and it only added to their anxiety. Before today, the notion of the Borg Collective having risen from the grave was something to be talked about, something verbal. This morning, however, it was real.

    Brushing a lock of blonde hair away from her ocular implant, Annika began.

    “Transwarp Hubs were used by the Collective as gateways to their network of high-speed transwarp conduits. They were considered the Borg’s greatest weapon. Each Hub offered thousands of exit apertures in all four quadrants of the Galaxy. This tactical advantage allowed vessels to appear far from Borg space and assimilate hundreds of civilizations. The only risk being is that the Hubs themselves are highly unstable if they are not properly regulated. They are attached to large interspatial rifts that contain extraordinary levels of variable neutrinos, allowing for conduit formation. The process is highly dangerous and requires constant attention. Upon the death of the Borg Queen and the assumed destruction of the Collective, it was therefore widely believed that the six known Hubs collapsed.”

    “With nobody left to prop up the walls,” Tom Paris mused,” the house falls down.”

    “Precisely,” the former drone nodded, much more accepting of her former shipmate’s unique method of analysis these days. Around the sweeping table, the other three officers copied her nod towards the helmsman, appreciative of the metaphor. This was a lesson for their benefit after all. Annika knew all that there was to know about Transwarp Hubs and Tom… Well, he had flown through one! They would have to share their knowledge in the coming mission. There was no doubt about it that they would be invaluable.

    “What kept this one from collapsing?,” Sollik asked her out of curiosity.

    “Nothing, Commander,” was the surprising answer.

    “What? You’re saying it did collapse?”

    “Yes… and no. According to sensors, half of the apertures that should be in place aren;t there anymore. Another third of them are offline and have been for quite some time.” Annika began to walk around the Observation Lounge as she talked. Her hands were describing her words, a particularly Human quality that Tom had never seen before. It forced him to suppress a smile since she had certainly come a long way. “The interspatial rift’s neutrino emissions have flatlined on all but three phase variances. My estimation is that, sensing imminent collapse, the drones manning the Transwarp Hub did all that they could to reinforce structural integrity and survived by channelling neutrino power to the shield emitters.”

    “With all due respect, Miss Hansen,” Ewan grumbled,” in English, please?”

    “They used the energy produced by the collapse itself to endure.”

    Valerie Archer found herself growing restless at the science of the situation. She was only present in her capacity as Captain, and now the person in that capacity wanted to make a move. Getting to her feet, she joined Annika Hansen in stretching her legs.

    This was their objective.

    They had found the last remnants of the Borg Collective, just as the fragmented logs of Admiral Kathryn Janeway had sworn to do. SC-1 had been here before, hadn’t it? That could mean one of two eventualities. Mulling over variable neutrinos wasn’t going to find out which one was fact.

    “Look,” she interrupted quickly,” what’s the upshot?”

    “The Hub is attempting to regenerate, just as it had been for four years.”

    “And can they?”

    “Despite advances in sensor technology at that time, I am unable to determine the precise stage of their regeneration efforts. It could be another four years before they achieve full power and begin to use the transwarp conduits again… or it could be four days. However, there is one certainty. While the Borg are regenerating, the hive mind has a single focus. If we are to attempt to locate Kathryn Janeway, it must be now.”

    It was exactly what Valerie wanted to hear. Before she could speak, somebody else took over the briefing. It was the only other person present who could override her command position without argument. The uniform’s additional polished belt and gold braid kept her open mouth from making any noises of objection. Yet he could see how frustrated she instantly became. It was something that he would have to deal with later. Right now, all that Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn could think of was the words of a close personal friend, the Head of Starfleet Medical, Doctor Katherine Pulaski.

    “This is your mission, Ewan. Don’t forget that. Don’t let her make you forget that.”

    With such an endorsement ringing in his ears, he wasted no time in capturing the focus of the entire room.

    “All right, here’s what we’re going to do,” the Welshman began. “I want to limit the amount of people sent over to the Transwarp Hub. If anything should go wrong, the losses have to be minimal since Fortitude will need to beat a hasty retreat. Don’t forget that this is the Borg we’re talking about here. No complacency. Understood?”

    Everybody, except Captain Archer, nodded in agreement.

    “I want two teams. Miss Hansen, you will accompany Mister Paris. Both of you have extensive experience in dealing with the Borg, thanks to your time spent in the Delta Quadrant and I know that you’re both eager to help in the search for your former Captain. Well, this is your big chance so don’t blow it. Report to the Shuttlebay in one hour. As for who else will be going, I want Sollik over there. You’re the best damn engineer that I know, making you more than qualified to handle any unforeseen obstacles. That goes without mentioning your unique talents, old friend, which never cease to amaze me.”

    The Suliban acknowledged the nod, reciprocating the good grace of the comment.

    “Our primary objective is to determine just what happened to Admiral Janeway, but like I said, this is the Borg that we’re talking about here. As soon as we know where we stand on the search and rescue, we’ll devise a plan to destroy the Hub.”

    “I’m sorry,” Valerie had to frown. “We?”

    “Yes, we,” Ewan repeated for emphasis. “I’ll be leading the away mission.”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
    THE TRUTH WILL OUT


    Observation Lounge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A


    The table was cleared in seconds. All of them sensed the impending argument.

    Soon, only Ewan Llewellyn and Valerie Archer remained.

    Her face was a portrait of disbelief. Once again, she found herself looking beyond the rank of her former lover and looking at the wearer of the uniform rather than the uniform itself.

    The man was insane!

    He didn’t lead away missions anymore. He had no right to, and especially not into Borg-infested superstructures. Was there precedence here?

    With the analytical power of the main computer, Valerie’s mind went into overdrive. She searched rules, regulations, emergency codes, and case histories. The annoyance came in drawing a blank. Could she really stand up to his order and countermand it? How far did her authority stretch as Fortitude’s Captain? How far could she push that authority as his ex-partner?

    The answer to her final question leaped out of her mouth before she could stop it. “You’re leading the away mission?,” she blurted out at him. “That’s bullshit!”

    Valerie braced herself, expecting an equally-explosive reply and it was a wasted effort. The answer that came from Ewan was almost a whisper, so softly-spoken were his words.

    “We’ve been here before.”

    He was right.

    It wasn’t just the location that harked back into their personal history either, but the event itself too. 2379, Romulan Neutral Zone, Naketha’s bomb… and the untimely death of Edward Blackmore. That had resulted in the two of them, in the Observation Lounge, coming to verbal blows over a decision. Valerie hadn’t forgotten what had been said, the words that they had used or the outcome that they had reached. Through his unbridled grief, Ewan had won that argument. This time was different. This time, there was no grief to harness, no emotional connection to the choice to lead the away mission… or was there? The disbelief transformed to confusion as the Captain returned from her thoughts.

    “It will end the same way,” a smooth Welsh accent said.

    “Are you saying that this is some kind of penance?,” she outright asked him.

    “I’m saying that I’ve made up my mind.”

    “No… I’m right, aren’t I? This is some kind of penance. You’ve always blamed yourself for the day that Boxer died. Don’t try to deny it, Ewan, for I know you too well! So what? You think that by saving another Admiral’s life, you’ll make up for the one you lost? You’ll restore some kind of balance in the Galaxy? Listen to me, the Galaxy doesn’t give a shit!”

    The Vice Admiral’s composed exterior was starting to boil over. His lips pursed.

    “Have you quite finished?”

    “All that you’re going to do is get yourself killed,” Valerie predicted with a severe note of very real pessimism. “Then what? Starfleet loses three top brass officers instead of one? Yeah, great job. Well done. Galactic balance restored… I think not!”

    The sarcastic attack was the final straw. Ewan couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Valerie, shut up! Just shut up!”

    “Why,” she fired back at him,” because I’m right?”

    “Because you don’t understand!”

    His legs buckled, giving way underneath his trembling weight. The open chair caught him as he fell, his head buried into his open palms in some desperate attempt to hide. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was hiding from. Maybe Valerie had a point. So, maybe he was trying to escape that. Maybe the memories that she had unearthed, the memories of that fateful day when the bulkhead sealed through his arm, were just too painful and maybe he was trying to run away from them and shove them back into his subconscious once more. Whatever the reason, the urge to flee was overwhelming. It was an urge that he had wrestled with before. It was one he had always carried with him. It faded in the stunned silence of the Observation Lounge. When it had cleared enough for his misty blue eyes to reappear, Ewan saw that the starship captain he had been yelling at had taken a seat. She was just staring at him, waiting.

    It was enough. Slowly, he began to talk.

    “You don’t understand because you’ve never lost anybody like that.”

    “Loss is part of the game,” Valerie replied. “We’re soldiers.”

    “That’s funny. I thought we were explorers…”

    “I don’t mean the game of being a Starfleet officer. I mean the game of being Human, Ewan. It doesn’t matter what job you do. It doesn’t matter where you do it. People lose people all the time. It isn’t how we treat what we have that defines us as individuals. It is how we deal with losing what we have. It is how we move on with our lives and how we survive.”

    “So you’re saying that to be Human is to suffer?”

    “I’m saying that to be Human is to cope.”

    Ewan turned away. Just looking at her face was too difficult right now. The worst part of all of it was that she had barely aged a day. Her features were still sharp and her silky skin was practically wrinkle-free. Animosity had twisted the mental snapshot he had come to despise thinking about but it was all for nothing when he admitted just how beautiful she really was. Whereas he had just gotten older. Flecks of gray at his temples. Extra lines spreading from the corners of his eyes. A little more weather to his tanned skin. Such realization hardly did him any good and so he turned away to stand and stare out across space.

    Unfortunately, there was no space to stare at. Only the nebula, the swirling maelstrom that hid the Borg Collective, met his gaze. Inside beckoned the Transwarp Hub. Despite the fact that he had never been assimilated before, the Vice Admiral swore that he could hear the voices of the collective consciousness calling to him… taunting him in recognition of the self-doubt that now wracked his brains and threatened his rescue mission.

    It was enough to push him back to his former mindset. He was here to work.

    He was here to carry out a duty… his duty.

    “We can leave the sophistry for another time, Valerie,” he therefore huffed. With his hands clasped behind his back, he turned back around to face her and implemented a tone that was more suited to his rank. “My team leaves in one hour. Like it or not, we’re going in and, Captain, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

    She just had to voice her protest one last time. “Damn it, Ewan. You’re making a mistake!”

    “Objection noted. Return to your station.”

    He was right. They have been here before, and once again, he had won. Rank had been his winning weapon this time, just like the grief had been before. Valerie Archer always knew when she had been beaten. Getting back to her feet, she chose to leave the Observation Lounge via her superior officer’s shoulder. She paused, knowingly avoiding eye contact and whispering a harsh warning into his ear. It sent a chill down his spine.

    “The trust will come out… sir.”

    Ewan let her leave unchallenged.

    Whether she was right or wrong remained to be seen.


    * * * *


    CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
    CLOUDS


    Grand Suite of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    21st Akaa of the Second Cycle


    “Mister President, the weather reports for the procession should be arriving soon…”

    The aide returned, as he always did, with expectant news to deliver. It was suicide to walk into the presence of Tret Bra’Kala without something to say. With his footsteps clipping along the marble floor, he approached the amalgamation of desk/throne unaware of the horror spread across his leader’s face. The amount of grease, sweat and folded skin made it almost impossible to distinguish a mood anyway.

    “Seal the door,” growled a voice from within the throne’s mountainous occupant.

    “Mister President?”

    “I said seal the door, curse you!,” Tret cried out. Acting quickly so as to keep his head attached to his shoulders, the aide scuttled back to the large wooden door and turned the lock. It was any wonder that he could manage it. Fear smothered his senses. Could this be the end? What had he done wrong anyway?

    Mercifully, he found the problem to be something that was out of his control and therefore something that he could comment on.

    “I’ve just received intelligence from the Interstellar Fleet. The USS Fortitude was inside Santragan space and she was carrying Ewan Llewellyn aboard.”

    “That’s impossible, Mister President,” the aide scoffed. “Ewan Llewellyn is dead.”

    “Apparently not… and I intend to act to preserve my leadership.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “The Federation is back to dismantle everything that I have built! I won’t allow it, not I!”

    “Of course, you won’t, Mister President.”

    The aide stepped closer in a calculated show of artificial support. Nevertheless, despite his deceptive performance as the concerned underling of President Bra’Kala, confusion reigned as he processed the latest intelligence report.

    Ewan Llewellyn was alive? Surely not?

    True, he hadn’t been in this position during the event itself, but upon his promotion, all of the classified particulars of the Santragan split from the United Federation of Planets had become his nightly reading material. Indeed, the suicde of Ewan Llewellyn and Edward Blackmore was the lynchpin of the entire file. They had been kidnapped for a gaudy show trial. It was to take place, poetically, in the historical township. Rather than let themselves be paraded on the news, however, they had broken a gas pipe. Once leaked, the gas had sparked and the resultant explosion had scattered their organic residue all over the building.

    The aide knew this, and Tret Bra’Kala knew this.

    Intelligence even claimed, until today, that the Federation knew this.

    Slowly, Tret heaved himself forward. “Walk with me,” he snarled.

    The covert operations room was always on standby, and today was no different.

    Everybody snapped to attention as a familiar swollen shape lurched in through the door. In a mere second, anybody who was seated was standing, their spinal columns locked into place. These were the military chiefs. Men and women who had fought in the Santragan Revolution to secure a better future for their people, a better class of leadership… and now, look at who they were saluting. Look at who they respected as none of them dared to speak up, however, just like the uneasy aide who was two steps behind President Bra’Kala. They knew of the awesome power held over the presidency. Hell, they knew about it because they ran it. Ambition hung in the shadows of the covert operations room. Any one of the smartly-dressed chiefs would gladly plunge a knife into the back of a colleague if it meant the chance to curry favor.

    “Mister President,” the aide was pleading,” what about today’s procession?”

    “It can wait,” Tret ordered, crashing down into his specially-reinforced chair at the head of the room’s angular table. That was the cue, and slowly the chiefs resumed their own seats with a sigh. One of them, the closest sitting to the President, waited for instructions. They came in short order, with time being so clearly precious. “Get me Grak, now.”

    Nods bounced around the staff on duty. Standing alongside a towering glass interface, a junior section chief began to run his narrow fingers along equally-narrow controls. Soon an image materialized at the center of the table. It was holographic, showing the head and shoulders of a particularly-brutal Santragan male. Scars from countless battles adorned his cheeks and forehead, accompanying specially-sharpened horns for a truly disturbing effect. His face was the last seen by many enemies of President Bra’Kala so he certainly had to look the part.

    “Mister President,” the hologram hissed,” I am at your command.”

    “Grak, remember when we left the Federation? Remember that talk we had?”

    “Absolutely, Mister President. You don’t forget a thing like that.”

    “Well, it isn’t just talk anymore.”

    There was a professional pause in the conversation. The chiefs kept silent as they were all transfixed on the nightmarish disembodied head that floated before them. Many issued orders to men like Grak but few of them actually interacted with them. To be faced with an image that represented their profession turned stomachs.

    “I see, Mister President,” eventually came the considered reply.

    “How soon until your team reaches Sector 001>,” Tret asked him, eager to enable his plan.

    “We are nearby. I estimate quick results.”

    “Grak, listen to me. Our intelligence has changed. Three years ago, the circumstances for their crew led some officers to depart Starfleet service. I am therefore sending you the revised coordinates for a pair of high priority targets.”

    “The same two that we spoke of before, Mister President?”

    “The same two.”

    “You should have them as quickly as possible. Again, I am at your command.”

    The holographic head and shoulders disappeared with a flicker. From behind the bloated lips of Tret Bra’Kala, mistreated teeth made a maniacal appearance.

    That was that.

    Soon he would have the leverage that he wanted. It wasn’t enough for him to have power over the entire expanse of the Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition. No, he needed power over the enemies of the Coalition. He needed power over Ewan Llewellyn. Soon he would have that power and that just broadened his sickening grin.

    “Mister President, I’m getting a report,” the aide piped up, holding a small earpiece in place and relaying a message from it. “Meteorologists have completed the weather scan for the procession route, just as you requested. There are three isolated stratocumulus clouds drifting across the area, but otherwise perfectly clear for the scheduled sunset.”

    “Have the clouds removed,” Tret snapped at him,” at once!”

    Nothing was going to spoil his day.

    Not the reappearance of Ewan Llewellyn and not some stupid clouds.


    * * * *
     
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  3. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE
    RIGHT UP TO THE FRONT DOOR


    Type-11 Shuttlecraft Bromley
    Currently navigating the Transwarp Hub nebula
    V-47 system, Beta Quadrant
    Stardate 59741.4


    The mood was foreboding. Nobody would be blamed, but it still pushed down heavily on the consciousness of the away team. Three Humans and on Suliban, propelled themselves towards the last vestige of the Borg Collective, hunting for what in all likelihood would turn out to be the corpse of Admiral Kathryn Janeway.

    No, nobody could be blamed for the mood.

    The silence was only broken by the odd bout of nebula turbulence or the sound of Tom Paris making a course correction to compensate. Beside him, Sollik was buried in various engineering manuals provided to him by Annika Hansen. He was tapping her dry for any and all technical questions relating to the Borg. stepping forward, the former drone touched his uniform’s gray shoulder, providing him with yet more PADDs.

    Another glancing blow to the Bromley caused the deck to shudder. It was enough to bring the awareness of Ewan Llewellyn back to the cockpit. He had been lost in thought and in the words that he had exchanged back in the Observation Lounge. She had a point. Valerie… he would have never admitted it, but she had a point. What was he out here? Was it penance? Was he really just trying to restore some kind of balance in his life? With grim sarcasm, he knew that he would find out soon enough. They were only minutes away from the center of the nebula, from the interspatial rift, and the Transwarp Hub.

    The deck shuddered again. Cursing under his breath, Tom Paris readjusted his heading. “I miss the Flyer,” he jokingly lamented to nobody in particular.

    Sollik turned towards the pilot dispassionately. “Dean with it.”

    “Apologies, Commander. I’m just trying to keep a little optimism.”

    “Humor would seem misplaced at this juncture,” Annika added from behind them.

    “Well, it certainly helps me out,” Tom was quick to defend.

    “All right, everybody, settle down now.” Rising to his feet, Ewan used his rank to calm the shuttlecraft. It was nerves brought forward, thanks to the apprehension of the journey. They were all friends here, after all. There was no personal history to cause sparks to fly, but rather the history of Starfleet’s apocalyptic relationship with the Borg.

    Whatever awaited them, drones, a fight, or even a dead body, Ewan just wished that they could hurry up and find it. He had always been one to rip the bandage away as quickly as possible, and never one to slowly remove it, inch by inch. “Time, Mister Paris?”

    Tom peered forward through the gas. “We should be seeing it right… about… now.”

    The gas patted accordingly.

    All four pairs of eyes widened in awe, even those that had seen one before.

    The Transwarp Hub filled the Bromley’s window.

    Like many of the sights of the Borg Collective, it was a troubling middle-ground between impressive and chilling. The interspatial rift to which it was attached was extraordinary enough, a mammoth spherical blend of white and gold energy annihilating itself over and over again at the core of the nebula.

    Just there, covering a tiny fraction of its surface was the ugly black metal of the away mission’s target. Like cracks across the glass, it spread out from a titanic hexagonal construct. Each seemingly-slapdash arm held yet further hexagons of varying size. They were the transwarp conduits, the vital fruit of the spindling branches. What offered a degree of hope to those overcome by the awesome scale of the Hub was the status of those conduits. No ships came and went from any of them. Not a single vessel was seen attending the asset.

    Obviously, the crippled Borg were still licking their four-year-old wounds which was so much better for the Type-11 shuttlecraft and her passengers. With justified trepidation and a fleeting thought about his young family, Tom gently slowed their pace and waited for further instructions.

    “Miss Hansen,” Ewan asked, finally able to stop looking upon the Hub.

    “Bearing zero-six-zero, mark seven-six,” Annika replied, answering the unspoken question.

    “Step on it, Tom. One-half impulse, nice and easy.”

    The Bromley pitched sharply towards the direct center of the superstructure. Upon noting where the suggested course would lead them, the flyboy at the helm tilted his head and shared a nervous glance with the Suliban next to him.

    “Right up to the front door, huh?,” he pondered aloud. His discomfort was on full display.

    Nobody said anything.

    They were all too busy preparing for the next step.

    Multiple types of weapons were produced from the small ship’s armory. Attaching a phaser sidearm to his belt, Vice Admiral Llewellyn handed a large phaser compression right to Commander Sollik, who quickly slung the strap over his shoulder and began checking the transphasic frequency. With patience belying her anxiety, Annika Hansen collected her tricorder and phaser in short order, moving onto a second compression rifle for her teammate.

    The view from the forward window told Llewellyn when it was time to act. “Okay, that’s close enough,” he eventually called out with satisfaction. “Park her here.”

    “Aye, Admiral,” Tom responded. “Answering all stop.”

    Getting up from his seat, the Lieutenant Commander’s hands went from the controls of the shuttlecraft to a trigger as he took the compression rifle from Annika. The wave of Captain Photon that washed over him was quick to depart. Now wasn’t the time for his holodeck fantasies, that much was certain. Respectfully, he listened to the parting words from Ewan.

    “All right, then, everybody, you know what to do. Mister Paris, you and Miss Hansen will beam directly to the tertiary power matrix and begin your search for Admiral Janeway there. Along the way, see if you can determine the exact level of regeneration. Specifically, if you can, a time frame if necessary. I’ve had Sollik tune Bromley’s comms system into a lower bandwidth so route all communications through here. It should be enough to keep us, hopefully, under the radar of the Borg’s attention.”

    “A sound deduction,” Annika praised, her ocular implant rising slightly.

    “Sollik and I are starting in the primary regulation core,” the Welshman began to wrap up the briefing, confirming points that were well-known enough just to be thorough. Nobody minded since it was the Borg that they were dealing with, after all. “Check in, every ten minutes or if you find anything. Like I said before. No complacency… but no heroics either.”

    An understanding was made clear. There was nothing left to say.

    At the press of a button, the shuttlecraft’s transporter started to pick their molecules apart.

    Seconds later, only an empty cabin remained.


    * * * *
     
    Cobalt Frost likes this.
  4. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    Okay - I LOVE the description of Bra'Kala's mingled ennui and ambition - that is a tremendous OC!

    Nice rising action as well - and plenty of menace from Bra'Kala's mysterious ally.

    Thanks!! rbs
     
  5. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER THIRTY
    DEAD END



    Main Bridge
    USS Blackmore, NCC-82499
    Currently in orbit of Eastlea III, Eastlean system
    Stardate 59741.6



    Nothing… not a single thing.

    It was a dead end.

    Drumming out a symphony of frustration on the armrest, Commander Gabriel Brodie occupied the command chair of his partner’s starship merely because it was a comfortable place to sit and kill time. The Bridge around him reflected his lackluster disposition. The crew of the Luna-class Blackmore had built themselves up for days, reinforcing whatever bravery and resolve that they had for a possible engagement with the Borg. The ship had primed its systems and braced itself for combat.

    Has she ever seen any?

    No.

    Was the crew now wasting all of their bravery and resolve on something as trivial as standard orbit?

    Yes.

    It was as though the bulkheads containing them agreed with their sighs of boredom.

    A console alert suddenly pierced through the calm.

    “Incoming transssmissssssion, Commander,” Lieutenant Shlessshh hissed.

    “What’s the source?”

    “Encoded sssubssspaccce channel,” came the Gorn’s reply. “Decoding now, sssir…”

    Gabe got to his feet, for what felt like the first time in a week and moved forward to lean on a corner of the Lieutenant’s console. Her clawed hands were dancing across the interface with practiced skill. They were unpacking and decoding strands of data faster than the African-American First Officer had ever seen before. There was talent here beyond her current station. Visibly impressed, he waited for a few more patient seconds instead of minutes, watching the Blackmore helmsman with wide eyes.

    “How have you never been promoted beyond the helm, Lieutenant?,” he asked her.

    “Persssonal preferenccce, sssir,” the hulking Gorn admitted. “Flying isss my life.”

    Suddenly, as the task at hand was completed, the transmission’s content began to unfold across multiple windows, several parts covered for authorization clearance. Both officers scanned it quickly and immediately understood the need to encode.

    With a nod, Brodie found an empty PADD and transferred the entire file across to it. Shlessshh watched him march towards the turbolift, pausing quickly before he left.

    “I’ll take this to the Captain. You have the Bridge, Lieutenant.”


    * * * *


    Reception Concourse
    Eastlean Space Force High Command
    Eastlea III


    The transfer from the Blackmore’s transporter room to the surface was jarring.

    Nevertheless, it didn’t take Gabe long to locate Captain Erica Martinez. It was almost as though he had a sixth sense for tracking down the gorgeous Latina woman, however, busy that their surroundings were. These new surroundings presented a formidable challenge. People of all shapes and sizes, hailing from all kinds of alien races native to the sector bustled about the exterior space. The conversational cacophony that filled the dawn air nearly overloaded the Universal Translator pinned to the Commander’s chest.

    Together, all of them filled the tapering concourse with various guests and tourists admiring the impressive Eastlean Space Force for the remarkable feat of social and architectural engineering that it was. The glistening white spires towered over the landscape as though they were made by God Himself, pointing faithfully towards the heavens where the outlines of vast orbital space cruisers could be seen.

    Gabe chuckled to himself. The religious analogy was apt. If there was one thing that was praise-worthy on Eastlea III, it was the unbelievable majesty of their Space Force.

    Soon, his strong-yet-comforting grip battled the crowds and found a certain shoulder.

    Erica turned with a smile already in place. She had her own sixth sense as well.

    “I’m glad that you’ve found something to smile about at this dead end,” Gabe grumbled, returning the smile along with a quick peck on the cheek all the same. Upon parting, the two officers found a secluded corner of the concourse, aside from the main drive of people sweeping up the incline. It allowed discussion. “I thought you were coming back to the ship? Erica, how much longer are we wasting our time here?”

    “Don’t worry. I’m done,” the Captain replied, brushing her dark hair aside.

    “Just like that? You’re done?”

    “Uh-huh.” The sigh was exasperated, the smile all-but-faded. “Commander Adarak may be running a galactically-renowned center of hospitality, but he is also one galactically-annoying windbag. In the time that it took him to recall Space Force records and confirm our sensor findings, we could have been halfway home! With the best diplomatic restraint, I repeated myself over and over… important mission, security of the Quadrant, time frame, etcetera. He just kept going on and on and on…”

    Brodie seized her face in the middle of her rant and held her steady. She trailed off. “I’m sorry,” she finally whispered. “You know how it is.”

    “I do,” he gently reassured her,” and I’m not the only one either.”

    “What do you mean?”

    Erica suddenly became aware of the PADD that her partner was carrying. The African-American man spun it around to face her, watching her eyes scan the message. He already knew the words that she was reading. To that end, and given the irritatingly drawn-out nature of the Eastlea III visit, he interrupted with a brief summation.

    “The Enterprise found nothing of actual interest at Rigel X. According to this report, there were complications that arose after the discovery of some Borg technology that was being traded on the black market. However, the findings came up short of the results that we were all hoping for. Following Vice Admiral Llewellyn’s standing orders, Picard is therefore heading to rendezvous with Fortitude in System V-47. Those standing orders are for us too. If we’re done, we should leave right away… Captain.”

    The rank was used as a well-meaning tease. It worked, bringing back the smiles.

    “Right you are, Commander,” his superior officer played along.

    Gabe bowed slightly, making the most of being away from the formality of the ship. Upon their return, he would become the ever-faithful First Officer again. It was the way that she liked to keep things while keeping the crew respectful of the chain of command. Down here, given a chance away from the crew’s attention, he allowed some humanity to show.

    At that moment, Erica Martinez realized just how eternally lucky that she was to have him.

    “Brodie to Blackmore. Two to beam up.”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
    BELLY OF THE BEAST


    Borg Transwarp Hub
    V-47 System, Beta Quadrant
    Stardate 59741.7


    “Such charming decor…”

    It was an entirely strained observation. Fighting the depression that clogged his mind was difficult enough at the moment, and such surroundings hardly helped. Sollik had been through the inner workings of a Borg Cube before, but for Ewan Llewellyn, this was his first experience of seeing how the drones actually lived and it was truly disgusting. The sights and the sounds were bad enough, but what the Vice Admiral hadn’t been prepared for was the choking stench. It was like they were smelling death itself.

    According to their flatscreen tricorders, the Transwarp Hub was in a state of disrepair. It would have been easy enough to tell without the tricorder readings. Conduits hung from the walls and ceiling if you could call them walls and a ceiling. It was all just blended together, all of the various amalgamated components into one giant maze of black shadow, gray metal, and green light. Every few seconds, everything was penetrated by a powerful strobe light.

    Ewan’s eyes had taken a while to get used to the constant barrage of alternate brightness, but his nose would never get used to the smell. Borg personal hygiene obviously wasn’t on their list of things to attain perfection. Rotting flesh combined with mechanical grease and different kinds of venting industrial compounds to assault the senses. Stepping through a gushing cloud of one such compound, Sollik turned and noted the antipathy on his superior officer’s wrinkled nose. Maybe he should be given something else to focus on.

    “The primary regulation core,” he noted, pointing. “Forty-two meters, this way.”

    “You’re leading the way, Commander,” Ewan agreed, walking right behind him.

    Despite their focus, several steps later, both men froze. It was a natural reflex rather than more of a precaution. Regardless of race, age, or character, everybody froze when they saw something that represented such terrifying danger. Not only that, but it represented what could become of the Starfleet officers if they should fail. Mindless, vacant, automatons with broken spirits and crushed resolve. It was joined by another, equally morose in appearance, and equally lifeless in expression. Together, in perfect unison, they marched away from their duties and away from the observers. Both the Welshman and the Suliban sighed with relief. They had encountered their first Borg drones and they had remained unchallenged.

    “They’re obviously busy,” Ewan determined, putting his phaser back on his hip.

    “My scans show this section to be one of the most damaged,” Sollik said by way of agreement, keeping his compression rifle pointed ahead nevertheless. “The regeneration is focused quite strongly here, and at the primary regulation core. It looks like they’re getting ready for a major task. I’m just not quite sure about what.”

    “What do you mean… major task?”

    “I wish I knew, Admiral. Should I check with Annika Hansen?”

    “No. Let's not fill up the comms system with idle speculation. We’ll just have to find out.”

    Sollik toyed with the idea of a sarcastic grunt, but he decided against it.

    He knew that it wasn’t the time or the place, but a small part of him desperately wanted to ask Ewan about his motivations for leading this away mission. Nothing but genuine concern drove the desire and this was, after all, his former Captain and his current friend. That friendship hadn’t come easily to either man, though it eventually developed from a deep professional respect, and therefore it was twice as important to the Commander. If something was pushing the Vice Admiral into this situation, if something was forcing him into this peril, surely talking about it may help?

    The answer was no for many reasons. Firstly, Sollik was a Starfleet officer first and foremost. He wasn’t the type to go asking people about their feelings. Secondly, things had clearly already been discussed, back in the Observation Lounge with Captain Archer, and look how well that had turned out. Ewan was still here aboard the Transwarp Hub, wasn’t he? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he could already guess the man’s motivations anyway. After all, he had been alongside him on that day back in the Neutral Zone. he had seen the tragedy, and he had felt the pain firsthand.

    Kicking himself for getting lost in his thoughts, Sollik walked straight into a hazard. A wall of light appearing from nowhere caught him off-balance. Behind him, Ewan lurched forward and supported his reeling weight before it would hit the steel-grated deck.

    “Sollik! Are you all right?”

    “Fine, yes, thank you. Gah, a force field!”

    Regaining his composure, the Suliban chief engineer swapped his compression rifle for his tricorder and began scanning the relays of the force field. Could he deactivate it? No, not from here. It was regulated from within the primary regulation core, and that was on the other side of the accursed security measure. Peering over the gray-colored shoulder of the Commander’s uniform, Ewan shared in the readings.

    “Is there any way around it?,” he asked quickly.

    “Negative, Admiral.”

    “There’s got to be a way. There’s just… Whoa, Sollik, heads up…”

    The slow, somber footsteps of a Borg drone was approaching from down the corridor. Both men parted aside to allow it through because nobody wanted to give it a reason to notice them. The deformed gray skin and cybernetic implants of its ghastly face remained stoic as it hit the force field and effortlessly melted right through it.

    With his yellow eyes blazing with opportunity, Sollik looked to his tricorder, which was beeping with an almost happy tone of success. Okay, so there might not be a way around it, but there might just be a way through. Of course, it meant taking one gigantic risk. Slowly, he turned towards Vice Admiral Llewellyn.

    “I can send you through… alone.”

    “Let me guess,” Llewellyn realized with a frown,” because I’m a cyborg?”

    “Sir, we don't have much time. For all that we know, we could be mere steps away from our objective. You’re the leader of this away mission and so your word is final, but I would be more than willing to stay behind and work on disabling or even destroying this Transwarp Hub. I can then return to the Bromley and beam you out, whatever you may find.”

    “You’re preaching to the converted,” he said as he rolled up the left sleeve of his uniform. Far from the biological limb that it appeared to be, a tiny access panel was flipped open at the wrist in short order. “Do it, quickly.”

    Sollik got to work on the micro-machinery. It was simple work and over in an instant. “That should do it,” he finally breathed. “It’ll think that you’re a drone.”

    Gingerly, Ewan reached out and touched the force field. It was a remarkable sensation. Not a single ounce of resistance and so he pushed further. His fingers preceded his hand, his forearm, his shoulder, his torso, and soon his entire body. In the blink of an eye, he was standing on the other side of the force field, with not a hair out of place.

    Turning back, he gave Sollik what could potentially be a parting farewell.

    It made his stomach turn over.

    From now on, Ewan Llewellyn was alone.


    * * * *
     
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  6. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
    THE BORG QUEEN


    Tertiary Power Matrix
    Borg Transwarp Hub


    “My scans are complete,” she said. “There’s no sign of her.”

    Lieutenant Commander Paris had expected as much. Looking at his own tricorder and getting much of the same story, he turned to Annika Hansen with defeatism spread across his boyish good looks. The structure through which they had searched was vast, and simply too vast for a pair of two-man away teams to cover. With that said, at least, their secondary objective was entirely fulfilled. In passing, Tom and his old shipmate had discovered the main reactor of the tertiary power matrix, partially-regenerated and lacking in adequate shielding. At some stage, the time would come to kick the Transwarp Hub. If nothing else, they now knew where to kick it, and just how hard.

    Dodging a small group of lumbering drones, Annika closed off her emotions. She had found herself aboard many Borg vessels since her disconnection from the Hive Mind, but the innate claustrophobic fright never went away. She had been surrounded by such sights, sounds, and smells for eighteen years.

    She had been one of them, encased in foreign metal while told to move her arms and legs in ways that she had tried to resist. Eventually, her resistance was completely eradicated by the systematic abuse of the cybernetic implants and other people’s thoughts pressed upon her, day by day.

    She had only been a child then and yet, she could still remember, not details but rather instincts and feelings. Like shapes at the bottom of a murky lake crying out in agony. Just like every other time like today, she just suppressed the memories, the emotions, and went on with her assigned task.

    “Hansen to Llewellyn,” she said aloud, tapping her combadge.

    “Llewellyn here, Miss Hansen,” a decidedly nervous Welsh accent replied. “Go ahead.”

    “Mister Paris and I have successfully located a weakness in the Transwarp Hub that can be exploited in a potential engagement. The reactor of the tertiary power matrix is unstable, halfway through a regenerative state, and therefore volatile. However, we have failed to locate Admiral Janeway in this area.”

    “Nevertheless, good work. Return to the shuttle and regroup.”

    “State your progress.”

    The nerves in Llewellyn’s voice were slightly alleviated. He did admire her bluntness.

    “I’m advancing on the primary regulation core alone. Sollik and I were separated by some kind of security force field which tells me that I’m on the right track. He’s going to see what he can do from his position before returning to the shuttle himself too. Meet him back there and recalibrate your search. I’ll signal for beam-out as soon as I’ve done a sweep of my target and we’ll start this all over again.”

    “Understood,” Annika nodded. It was a move that Tom reciprocated. “Good luck.”


    * * * *


    Primary Regulation Core
    Borg Transwarp Hub


    “Thanks, but I’m hoping that I won’t need it. Llewellyn out.”

    Ewan immediately chastised himself for the levity and length of the conversation. He had purposefully wanted communications to be limited in the extreme, in case of the potential danger of Borg triangulation. Still, on reflection, he was only Human. Any chance to shift focus away from the unrelenting darkness that festered in every corner of the Transwarp Hub…

    It was certainly a chance that his subconscious would take before his logic center could attempt to stop it. Besides, things were much worse now. He had left Sollik behind. Each step that he now took, each corridor probed, was done so alone. The survival reflex that nagged at him to just call the Bromley for emergency beam-out was barely manageable before. Now it was the greatest enemy to his mission.

    Well, unless the thousands of drones aboard suddenly decided to find him interesting.

    Under his breath, Ewan urged that eventually to never, ever occur.

    Upon turning around a corner, he found a silvery, oval-shaped door. Normally, anywhere else, such a mundane feature would have been unsurprising to come across. The door gave the Vice Admiral pause and he fixed it with a frown. The Borg didn’t usually have a need for doors, and he certainly hadn’t encountered one so far.

    What was so special about this place? Why did it need a door and the privacy that it afforded? Quickly checking his tricorder readings, Ewan realized why.

    He had made it.

    This was the entrance to the primary regulation core, a place of extreme importance, so said Annika Hansen. The place that he had chosen to focus his branch of the search and so there was no sense in waiting around. Swallowing his apprehension, he found the door’s control and punched it.

    The inside was partly what he expected… and partly a shock to the system.

    Cloudy emerald lighting sprayed from multiple points around the ceiling in the chamber. It all came together to focus on a central pillar, bathing it in the spotlight and danced across the curved surfaces of forged metal. Embedded in the metal were countless interfaces, flashing with the standard Borg style of meandering information rivers.

    The circular pattern extended outwards from the pillar which was reflected in the construct of the walls. There was a balcony level, one deck upwards, lined with drone alcoves. Most, if not all, were occupied by the sleeping masses. Ewan chose not to dwell on them like an arachnophobe would attempt to ignore a spider in the corner of a high room. Indeed, this room was particularly high, probably somewhere close to six decks upwards. The grated floor offered a view of the primary regulation core, almost seven decks down too. While the unique stench of the Collective still permeated the air, all noise was replaced with a steady pulsing hum that reminded the trespassing individual of Fortitude’s warp core.

    Yes, this was it.

    This was the heart of the Transwarp Hub. there was no question there.

    Slowly, Llewellyn replaced his tricorder with his sidearm. He made it three steps closer to the centerpiece of the core, the interfaces of the pillar that would aid his mission when a voice called out of nowhere. It made him jump like a lightning bolt through his spine.

    “Species 5618,” it called out with a sharp edge. “I always knew that you would find me.”

    Turning on the empty spaces around him, Ewan directed his reply upwards. “Find you?,” he echoed loudly. “Show yourself! Who are you?!”

    “I bring order to chaos,” the voice responded, accompanied by a shape. Iit emerged from the other side of the central pillar, walking with undeniable authority. It was bipedal, humanoid, and yet unmistakably Borg. as it drew closer, the body assumed the graceful curves of a female. Whoever she was, her voice sounded frighteningly familiar. “I am the beginning, the end… the one who is many.”

    Her hairless head intersected one of the green spotlights as she came to a standstill.

    “I am the Borg.”

    Ewan stopped squinting. Aghast, he felt the penny drop, and his jaw dropped right along with it.

    “No, you’re not,” he blurted out. “You’re Kathryn Janeway!”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE
    STANDOFF

    Primary Regulation Core
    Borg Transwarp Hub


    “You came looking for her… For Janeway, not me.”

    It was one of the most unsettling experiences of Ewan Llewellyn’s entire career.

    Here he was, holding a phaser directly at Admiral Kathryn Janeway, and yet she wasn’t Kathryn Janeway at all, was she? Her skin was pale and her expressive features were gaunt. Her hair had been replaced with a collection of thick wires and tubes, welded to an implant on the crown of her head. Any Starfleet uniform that she had once worn would be buried beneath the form-fitting adaptations of the black armor covering her body. Ewan recoiled in the disgust of the revelation. He wasn’t holding a phaser directly at Kathryn Janeway. He was holding a phaser directly at the Borg Queen… and she was using Janeway’s body.

    The shock was making his arm weaken. He felt his knees protect against the strain. Blinking hard, he just had to focus and think of the mission.

    “My name is Ewan Llewellyn,” he boomed, eventually finding his voice.

    “I know who you are,” smirked the Borg Queen. She had been doing her own thinking, the thinking of thousands of minds running through her synaptic pathways and buzzing with the power of the Hive. moving with a disturbingly alluring swagger, she crossed the primary regulation core towards her uninvited guest. “You may cast aside your weapon, Ewan. Resistance is futile. The knowledge of your precious Admiral Janeway is part of my Collective and it has been for almost a year now. Transphasic frequencies, ablative armor… None of it will save you from assimilation. I am invincible.”

    The Welshman gave a wary glance upwards. The drones on the balcony above him had started to move, staggering forward from their alcoves with a deceptive rigidity and ungainly pace. Most of them found the balcony rail while the remaining number found small elevators carved into the bulkheads around them. Before long, four drones had descended to stand on the same level as the leaders’ standoff. The Queen was showing her hand early in the game and the odds were definitely in her favor.

    “And what about them?,” Ewan asked, turning his phaser onto the closest drone. “Are they as invincible as you? You see, I’ve been paying attention on my way here. Despite this show of force, this place is pretty weak. You’re still regenerating from the enormous effort of just keeping your Transwarp Hub up and running, aren’t you?”

    The Queen’s smirk remained. It was eerie, seeing Janeway’s face representing the enemy like that.

    “Well, let’s find out!”

    Lacking any kind of remorse, Ewan opened fire.

    The drone that he shot went into spasms before death. Sparks flew everywhere.

    “Hmm,” came the Vice Admiral’s musing as the corpse fell to the deck,” not quite invincible then, eh?”

    “But can you shoot them all,” was the Queen’s counter-argument,” in time?”

    “I don’t know. Then again, I’m not sure you even want to find out. You’re the last remnant of the Borg Collective, and right now, you’re too weak to expand and assimilate other cultures, meaning you’re an endangered species. I would be quite happy to shoot all of the drones in this chamber, but you’re holding them all back for a reason, aren’t you?”

    It was true too.

    None of the lifeless automatons had advanced closer to the Vice Admiral, not even when one of their number was taken down. They were all heeding the voice of their mistress.

    “What was the plan, Your Majesty? Use the nature of your appearance against me? Was the surprise of seeing a friend’s face as the face of the enemy supposed to make me yield?”

    The smirk became a sneer. This upstart had entered her inner sanctum and came looking for the previous inhabitant of this body. Now he presumed to stand here and mock the Borg.

    It was unacceptable.

    The concerto of voices that were regulated in her mind all agreed and they came to the same conclusion. It was time to act. No longer would they attempt to regenerate what systems that they had left. They would finally begin to consume again. They would finally begin to expand and achieve perfection once more.

    In answer to Llewellyn’s barrage of questions, the Queen jerked her head to one side.

    Directly in her line of sight appeared a small holographic interface. Projected by the central pillar of the core, it flickered into a clear resolution. There, waiting just outside the nebula for the safe return of the away mission, was the USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A. When her former Captain saw her, he involuntarily gasped. It was a threat.

    Norway-class retrofit,” the Queen said through Kathryn Janeway’s lips. “Advanced performance attributes and tactical systems. Increased range performance. Hybrid of isolinear and bio-neural circuitry.”

    “You’ve made your point,” Ewan snapped in defiance. “So here we stand. You have the ability to destroy my ship and her crew. I have the ability to destroy your Transwarp Hub and your drones. I wonder who will blink first.”

    “You have forgotten the once crucial difference. I am the Borg. I will never die.”

    “But you’re also Kathryn Janeway! You’re a Human, an Admiral, and an individual!”

    “You think in such small terms,” the Queen dismissed with an offended wave of her hand, readjusting her position in the standoff. She came even closer to Ewan this time, mere steps away from the butt of his sidearm.

    At any moment, she could lunge forward and attempt to inject nanoprobes into his neck. Accordingly, Ewan quickly targeted another one of the motionless drones. It was enough to pause her advancement but sooner or later, he would run out of things to shoot.

    The Queen knew this. One of her eyebrows rose, accompanying another self-assured smirk. It was chilling as it was one of Kathryn Janeway’s favorite expressions. “Whatever this flesh and blood might have represented is irrelevant.”

    The Vice Admiral stood his ground. “Not to be, it isn’t, and not to my people!”

    “That is why you fall so easily. That is why the Borg will always prevail.”

    “Humanity has prevailed pretty darn well so far, thank you very much. Janeway knows that and she knows why too.” As he spoke, the shaking of his nerves melted away.

    That was his moment. The moment that had dragged him all the way out there, threw him back together with his old crew and placed him face-to-face with his old demons. He had to believe it, otherwise, it simply wouldn’t work.

    “Something that you never learned, Your Majesty, despite all of those races that you’ve absorbed and assimilated. It’s the ability to grab life by the balls, to listen to that little voice in the back of your head for once… and just act!”

    Ewan took his own advice.

    Before the Borg Queen could reach him, he had turned onto a component of the central pillar and opened fire. The lance of pure energy vaporized whatever it touched. In the blink of an eye, the green spotlights were flickering wildly, threatening to go out completely. The drones around the balcony staggered as though they had been shot themselves. Above it all, a scream of piercing anger spewed from the Queen’s open mouth… with Janeway’s voice.

    Running forward, he was beside her in seconds. He grabbed her shoulder with one hand and tapped his combadge with his other.

    “Llewellyn to Bromley,” he barked,” two for emergency transport!”

    ****
     
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  7. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    Ooohhh - NICE twist with Queen Katherine I of the Borg... I'm a big fan of leading with smell and the description of the stench of the transwarp hub is classic horror writing. It only makes sense that the queen would be stored in the matrix. Some nice world-building with the borg. Thanks!! rbs
     
  8. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
    TIME TO LEAVE


    Type-11 Shuttlecraft Bromley
    Currently holding position alongside the Borg Transwarp Hub
    System V-47, Beta Quadrant


    It was uncharacteristic of her, especially these days.

    As the transporter beam finished delivering Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn and his prize into the rear compartment of the Bromley, Annika Hansen simply stood in disbelief. There, held in his grasp, was the limb body of a female Borg. it was screaming with a voice that was instantly recognizable and therefore instantly alarming. Taking a few seconds to come around, she quickly corrected herself and moved forward to help. Upon a closer inspection of the new arrival, there was no doubt.

    “I’ve seen this type of implant before,” she whispered, staring at the crown of wires and tubes on the pale, hairless head of Kathryn Janeway. Together, all three of them slumped down to the floor as the fit of hysteria coming from the prisoner continued. Annika’s round blue eyes, for the first time, showed genuine anxiety. “Llewellyn, is she…?”

    Ewan stared up at her, conveying the tragic confirmation without any words.

    Another wildly flailing limb struck out, swiping at Annika’s ocular implant. Was it an act of acknowledgement? Was it the Borg Queen, reacting to her complex past involving the drone once known as Seven of Nine? Or rather, was it Kathryn Janeway, trying to escape her forced servitude?

    Regardless of the intent, it was a dangerous move in such a confined space on such a limited away mission. Annika got to her feet and dashed across to a small compartment in the bulkhead. Upon her return, she wielded a hypospray. The sedative was just enough to bring a sleepy order to the chaos of the Queen’s tantrum.

    “They’ll be coming after her,” Llewellyn asked as he finally breathed,” won’t they?”

    “Affirmative,” Annika nodded.

    She could ask the Welshman exactly why he had endangered the shuttlecraft and the entire mission later. He had made an attempt to rescue Admiral Kathryn Janeway and that was a noble attempt to be sure. However, in doing so, he might have just sealed the fate of the Fortitude. With so few Borg remaining, they were hardly going to let their Queen be taken without a fight.

    “All right,” the Vice Admiral vowed, standing,” it’s time to leave!”


    * * * *


    Main Bridge
    USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E
    Currently heading for System V-47 at Warp Seven
    Stardate 59742.4



    It was happening again. They were back.

    Back there, whispering around in the corners of his mind, their song was disjointed and yet harmonious.

    He could hear them once more, and it meant only one thing.

    Leaving his command chair behind, Captain Jean-Luc Picard stood up and tugged at the waistband of his uniform jacket with an unusually slow speed. He was staring off into the distance. His Bridge around him was entirely tuned out. It might as well have played host to some Q-based madness or a senior officer conga line, and he wouldn’t have cared. All that he could think about were the voices.

    All he could hear were the voices.

    Closing the distance between his chair and the helm, the Frenchman’s brooding failed to go unnoticed by Commander Martin Madden. The First Officer had been keeping a close eye on his commanding officer ever since the fiasco back on Rigel X. he wasn’t the only person aboard harboring such concerns, it had to be said, but he was the only one of those present right now.

    “Captain,” he asked diplomatically, soft in tone,” is anything the matter?”

    “I’m not sure,” Picard breathed his reply.

    It was a lie.

    He was sure.

    He could hear them again.

    They were growing louder with each passing minute, building and building, each layer of the chattering buzz trying to drown out the other. It was a decidedly different experience. Before, upon hearing the Collective return to his subconscious, the voices were erratic. There had been something about them, a quality never before heard by the man who was once Locutus of Borg. it had transpired that the origin of those voices was Rigel X and the gang members tinkering with stolen technology beyond their comprehension.

    Not this time.

    This time, the experience was different for all of the wrong reasons.

    This echo was united.

    This echo had a clear leader.

    This echo had a Queen.

    Jean-Luc’s fingers ran across his smooth cranium. There was a battle going on under there, an internal battle of willpower. His initial reaction, his Human impulse, was to simply try and shut out the cacophony of unwelcome noise. He wanted to struggle around it, to overcome it, to banish it from his life… just as he intended to do with any Borg that he ever faced. There was another factor in all of this. It was the factor that Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn had said to him, the factor that he had repeated to Doctor Katherine Pulaski, and the factor that he kept reminding himself about. He was merely another asset to this mission.

    Carefully, closing his eyes, he allowed the voices to wash over him.

    Amidst that wash, he searched for the Queen’s singular presence. If he could just…

    “Locutus…”

    “No,” he gasped in denial. “That’s not possible!”

    “Captain,” Madden interrupted him, deeply worried now,” what is it?”

    Not out of rudeness, Picard ignored his First Officer and addressed the helm officer instead. That voice… He recognized that voice! Things have changed now. This was no longer a simple rendezvous with the Fortitude anymore, not after what he had just heard. Now the stakes were far higher.

    “Ensign, increase speed to maximum warp, immediately!”

    “Maximum warp,” the confirmation came in short order,” aye.”

    Returning to the center seat, Jean-Luc was joined by Martin’s frown. There was nothing that could be said, and no question that could be answered, not right now. Just as he had done so before, upon their approach to Rigel X, he was entering a personal mode. It was the only way that he knew of dealing with the Borg, the race that had so scarred his life. Blocking out all of his other instincts, he relied on two powerful motivators alone. One of those motivators was his sense of duty and responsibility as a Starfleet officer.

    The other was pure anger, accompanied by a pang of revenge.

    “All hands… Battle Stations!”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE
    BEST LAID PLANS


    Main Bridge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A
    Stardate 59742.5


    “Captain, we’re being hailed, audio only. It’s the Bromley.”

    Well, it was about damned time. Leaning forward in her command chair, Valerie Archer interlocked her fingers in an eternal sign of prayer. They had been gone for so long. It was only natural but she had started to worry. What if they had been assimilated? Would she have to take her ship into the nebula cloud, risk her entire crew, face the Transwarp Hub, and rescue five people instead of one? Hopefully, the incoming transmission would hold only good news to banish those doubts from her mind. Hopefully, the best laid plans of Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn had gone smoothly.

    “Put it on speakers,” she ordered with a nod.

    “Valerie, this is Ewan,” a familiar Welsh accent blurted out at her. “Do you read me?”

    “Loud and clear. What’s going on?”

    “We’re under attack! Stand by to receive us!”

    Valerie pulled a face. “Sensors don’t show an engagement--”

    “The nebula is giving off interference. Listen carefully. We’ve got Admiral Janeway. She’s been assimilated into the remains of the Borg Collective and they’re using her as a conduit for the consciousness of their Queen. We’re trying our best to sever her from the hive mind because while she’s still linked, we’re still being chased. Our guess is that once she’s been disconnected, we’ll get her back and the Borg will go haywire.”

    “That’s a pretty big guess,,” Valerie snorted through her astonishment.

    “There’s no time to argue! Get those Shuttlebay doors open and prepare to run!”

    “Understood, but where are you?”

    “Just look outside of a bloody window!”

    She didn’t need to. The viewscreen was already focused on the wall of burnt orange gas that stood before the Norway-class starship. Suddenly, dead ahead, an infinitesimal pinprick of gray duranium birth forth. It ran with all possible speed, its angled nose pointing towards the safety of its mothership like a bullied schoolboy seeking the comfort of home.

    Upon giving the order to magnify, Valerie and her Bridge officers saw that the pinprick was the Bromley. Seconds later, and the magnification had to be retracted. All expressions watching morphed into utter shock, but not least the one on the Captain’s pointed features.

    Was Ewan insane? He was leading them right to Fortitude’s doorstep!

    “Holy…,” Valerie gasped, before finding her voice again. “Red Alert!”

    “Mister Paris requests a better approach vector,” the comms system continued to yell with orders being given between vessels. “Swing yourself around and prepare to jump to warp as soon as we’re aboard!”

    “Helm, get on thrusters. Show them the Shuttlebay!”

    “We’re going to need some simultaneous transports,” Llewellyn continued to dictate. “Beam myself, Sollik, and Mister Paris directly to the Bridge. Beam Miss Hansen and Janeway straight to one of the Science Labs. She’ll continue to work on disconnecting the Queen’s consciousness from the hive mind from there.”

    “Damn it! We’re going to need Science Lab energy for tactical!”

    There was a sudden outcry of static from the channel. The Transwarp Hub was unloading yet more weapons fire upon the little auxiliary craft. shields were barely holding under some inspired modifications, courtesy of Annika Hansen. They weren’t going to last forever, though, and the Welshman giving orders knew this. The additional stress caused by such factors amplified his delivery when the static cleared.

    “Stop debating with me, Valerie! If we can disconnect the Queen, he might not need to fire a single shot at those bastards!”

    It was better to be safe than sorry. Spinning around towards the tactical console, Valerie locked the crewman on station with a no-nonsense, don’t-fail-me-now stare. “Ready all weapons. Prepare to charge the ablative armor generators on my order.”

    Returning to the main viewscreen, she watched the Bromley grow ever-larger. Behind it, not a single inch of the nebula could be seen. Everything was being overshadowed by the ominous Transwarp Hub looming over them like the specter of death.

    “Helm, are we in position?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” said the officer who had picked the wrong duty shift that morning.

    “Ewan, the Shuttlebay doors are open,” Valerie called out. “We’re ready whenever you are!”

    “Stand by!”

    The Borg were closing the gap.

    Fortitude’s hull became swamped in darkness.

    Time seemed to freeze.

    Finally the words that everybody wanted to hear rang in the air.

    “Bridge, we’re in! Get us out of here, now!”

    Valerie Archer jumped to her feet, her fists clenched with unbridled tension. “Computer, deploy armor!”

    It started at the arrowhead of the saucer section. Huge chunks started to appear, having been kept in molecular suspension until needed. Smooth, flawless silver fused together with each segment blending into the next as it appeared. The saucer was covered in short order with what was rapidly forming a sleek sheath of ablative armor. It continued to spread, fore to aft, as the navigational deflector became protected by an impressive centerpiece of cobalt shell. Each piece of the puzzle locked into place with a ringing industrial clunk. At the very least, it made everybody aboard feel safer.

    The Transwarp Hub readjusted the focus of its assault. With the Queen’s mental link now emanating from Fortitude, that ship was now its target. Speed coordinated by a thousand minds, it fiercely unleashed three torpedoes towards the Federation starship. Two of them missed in the frantic pace of the engagement, but the third torpedo struck home.

    Ablative armor hadn’t covered the nacelles yet.

    With a cascade of twisted debris and burning sparks, the port ramscoop exploded.

    “Maximum warp,” Valerie was instructing on the Bridge,” engage!”

    “Unable to form a stable warp field,” the helm officer replied in panic. “Port nacelle is offline!”

    “Then give me full impulse!”

    Falling back into her command chair, she realized that this was just the beginning.

    The chase was on.


    * * * *
     
    Orbing Master likes this.
  9. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
    THE BATTLE OF SYSTEM V-47


    Main Bridge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A


    Molecules began to coalesce in the mayhem. They formed into three humanoid bodies.

    “Admiral on th…”

    “There’s no time for that now,” Ewan Llewellyn barked at the poor Ensign who had chosen to follow regulations in the moment of crisis. With a dismissive wave, he moved forward to stand beside the chair that had once been his. The current occupant fixed his dominant stare with one of equal authority, showing her place on the Bridge to be a well-earned one. Now was not the time for such power play that the Welshman ignored as he addressed Valerie Archer.

    “Status report. Why aren’t we at warp?”

    The somewhat-upstaged Captain watched as Commander Sollik manned the engineering console along the portside of the Bridge. Darting past the Suliban, Lieutenant Commander Tom Paris wasted no time in finding the helm and relieving his colleague. Warp drive or no warp drive, he was the best pilot that they had.

    “We were hit before the ablative armor could lock down,” Valerie told Ewan.

    “Confirmed,” Sollik yelled, sharing Fortitude’s injury as if it were his very own. “The port nacelle is shot to pieces! There’s no point in even trying to repair it. There’s nothing that I can do outside of a starbase. Full impulse is the best that I can give you, Tom!”

    “It’ll have to do,” Ewan concluded. “Go for it, Mister Paris, best possible speed!”

    He was miles ahead of the order. The pilot was throwing everything that he had into the ship’s impulse drive. From within her protective cocoon of silver armor like a medieval knight riding into battle, Fortitude rocketed away from the overwhelming profile of the Transwarp Hub. throwing in a few bobs and weaves, Tom was doing his best to keep the constant barrage of weapons fire from striking the hull. It was certainly a challenge. The Borg were matching speed, doing everything that they could to keep tabs on their Queen and overwhelm the advanced defenses of the Norway-class starship.

    Eventually, the odd torpedo or disruptor beam would score a point, rocking the deck into all angles except straight-and-level. Several terminals around the Bridge were overloaded. One such LCARS explosion happened over the tactical console, incinerating the face of the young Lieutenant on duty.

    Llewellyn was there in a heartbeat, going to check his pulse. Finding nothing but charred skin and grisly blood, he instead put his fingers to the tactical console and assumed the responsibility of returning fire. Valerie joined him, thrown towards his position by another torpedo impact and deciding to use the opportunity.

    “What are you doing?,” she yelled through the crimson mist of chaos.

    “Making the most of a weakness,” the Vice Admiral replied, his eyes never once leaving the display before him. “Annika Hansen reported an instability in the reactor of the tertiary power matrix. We tried to detonate it with the Bromley but the shuttle’s phasers weren’t powerful enough to punch through. The micro-torpedoes in the aft launcher… Well, we might as well have been firing holographic warheads!”

    “Ewan, Admiral Janeway was assimilated! Our weapons will be useless too!”

    That shifted his attention. He scowled at Valerie as Fortitude took another hit. “I have a shot here. I’ll be damned if I don’t take it!”

    “But it won’t work!”

    “I have to try! We have to try! Transphasic torpedoes are targeted!”

    Valerie kept silent. Despite her misgivings, she held her breath and turned to the viewscreen.

    Ewan punched the launch command. “Firing now!”

    Along the smooth surface of the armor plating, a small iris spun open to reveal the aft torpedo launcher of the fleeing Federation starship. Two blazing-yellow warheads were flung from it, shooting towards an indistinguishable destination in the mass of black circuits that was giving chase. Sparking with transphasic energy, they became a beacon of hope to all of those watching. Sollik found himself whispering that hope aloud, a very uncharacteristic act, but such was the tension of the attack.

    Nothing happened. There was no explosion, no reactor breach… nothing.

    “Son of a bitch,” Llewellyn cried aloud, reading from his tactical sensors. “They’ve adapted!”

    Valerie couldn’t help herself. “I don’t want to say that I told you so.”

    The retaliation on the part of the Transwarp Hub was tremendous. By this stage, the pursuit had reached the outer belt of the cold, lifeless planetoids that constituted System V-47. One such planetoid bore the full brunt of the assault. Thanks to some last-minute evasive maneuvers, the Fortitude dodged a brace of verdant torpedoes. Instead, they slammed into the smallest of the planets, five simultaneous detonations causing a blast of apocalyptic proportions. Right in the path of the speeding starships, a quarter of the tectonic crust broke apart and rose into space. It formed an impromptu asteroid field with pieces as large as continents and as small as combadges smashing into another. Watching the horrifying spectacle fill the viewscreen, the Bridge of Starfleet officers collectively gasped.

    Suddenly, everybody had an opinion.

    “Hard to port!”

    “No, starboard!”

    “All stop!”

    At the helm, Tom Paris ignored them all, regardless of rank.

    “Just let me drive!”

    It took every ounce of his remarkable talent but he wasn’t going to stop or turn or do anything but fly right through the rocky mess. The Borg would have closed the gap then, and there wouldn’t be anything left for him to pilot, and so he actually increased speed. Faces of shock and disbelief watched both the flyboy and the image before him as the compact Norway-class starship corkscrewed through a madcap path to safety. There were some hull impacts and not every single piece of the wounded planetoid could be avoided but they were the smaller bits that were no match for the ablative armor.

    One final weighty chuck, almost the size of Spacedock, or so Ewan thought as he targeted it, was obliterated by a well-timed flurry of phaser fire. Breaking through the cloud of dust that remained, Fortitude made it through and continued to shred across open space. Several shouts of congratulation made it to Tom’s ears but it wasn’t over yet. The Transwarp Hub, so vast in stature, had just barrelled through the wreckage of the planetoid. It was still there, still forebodingly devouring everybody’s optimism.

    “We can’t keep running like this,” Sollik blurted out from his station. His fierce yellow eyes made contact with Valerie, who was forced to agree. Turning aside, she silently pleaded with her own superior officer. If Ewan Llewellyn was going to pull a rabbit out of his hat and rescue what remained of his rescue plan, it had to be now.

    “Everything rests on disconnecting the Queen’s consciousness,” he admitted.

    Valerie knew it to be the trust. “Bridge to Science Lab One…”


    * * * *


    “... Miss Hansen, status report!”

    “I need a few more minutes,” Annika Hansen called out. She was stepping around the central diagnostic chamber. Inside, behind the transparent aluminium, stood the sedated body of Admiral Kathryn Janeway… and the sedated consciousness of the Borg Queen. Working on both of them was proving to be a definite test for the Federation specialist. The frantic nature alone wasn’t helping. Her blonde hair cascaded over her frown, concealing her ocular implant and unable to be replaced into the neat style that it once was. Her hands were full with various types of instruments and tools slotted between her fingers. All the while, the alert klaxon reverberated around the Science Lab, its pulsing red lights accompanying each electronic cry.

    She was trying to free her former Captain, the woman responsible for making her the Human being, the successful individual that she was today. In order to do that, she had to practically kill another being… The being responsible for her parents’ assimilation, for her childhood as a drone, and for her terrible past as Seven of Nine. To call attention to the emotional turmoil would be to point out the obvious.

    “We don’t have a few more minutes, Miss Hansen!”

    “I understand, Admiral Llewellyn,” Annika replied to the heated Welsh accent,” and I’m working as fast as I can! You’ll have to stand by! Science Lab One out!”

    With the conversation over, she returned to her work. A panel in the diagnostic chamber’s curved surface slid aside, allowing access to the implant that rested on top of Janeway’s skull. It was the crown of the Queen or so it was nicknamed. Despite the sedative that made the work distinctly easier, lights still flashed around it. Annika’s job was to stop those lights and to disconnect the neural processors that kept the Borg Queen’s persona dominant within Janeway’s mind. It took a few moments for frustration to set in. Damn it, she didn’t have the correct filament for this work!

    Moving quickly, Annika turned to collect the right tool. When she turned back, she almost dropped the tool in shock. Her hand went to her mouth. This wasn’t possible! The sedative was supposed to last another hour at the very least!

    Hollow gray eyes were staring back at her from within the diagnostic chamber.

    She was awake… and opening her mouth.

    “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

    The words belonged to the Queen, but the voice belonged to the Admiral. It sent a chill down Annika’s spine.

    “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”


    * * * *


    Back on the Bridge, the same words were being heard. They were flooding all of the communications channels, forcing their way to the ears of the potential future drones. Instead of a single voice, they were delivered with thousands. Those aboard who had faced the Borg before experienced a jolt of deja vu. The despair that it brought to them, the hope that it smothered, was almost enough to make them simply give up.

    Almost… but not yet.

    “Evasive pattern Kirk-Epsilon-Niner,” Valerie instructed Lieutenant Commander Paris.

    “Charging phasers and transphasic torpedoes,” Llewellyn told everybody else from tactical.

    “Armor at thirty-eight percent and holding,” Sollik reported.

    It didn’t hold for long. Somehow, the Transwarp Hub predicted the course of the evasive pattern undertaken by Tom. Several lucky shots were made, weapons fire striking at the silvery skin of the armored Fortitude and leaving behind nasty scorch marks in the aftermath. The numbers on Sollik’s screen started to fall. It wasn’t long before he had a much more somber report to make. It came from an entirely new alert siren and the realization that the tide might have just turned in favor of the Borg Collective.

    “Intruder alert!”

    “Damn,” Valerie hissed,” where?”

    “Deck Eight, Section Fourteen,” the Suliban noted. “Ten biosigns and multiplying!”

    “Activate the ETH system and divert secondary power to the holo-emitters!”

    It was a relatively new feature in starship defenses. The Emergency Tactical Holographic system was designed to create a last-ditch protection and repel force, only to be used in the most extreme of circumstances. The holographic projections themselves were, as usual, mere tricks of the light. They even lacked basic cognitive programming pathways. Given the nature of their assignment, any hint of Humanity or sentience would be unthinkable and entirely immoral. No, they were simply computer programs with a humanoid face, although giving them that face was still a matter of serious debate. Developed in the wake of the Battle of Four-Nine-Nine, they took phaser compression rifles to key intersections of a starship’s deck and resisted enemy boarding parties. This left the flesh and blood crew members to the important task of keeping the ship operations without the constant threat of an intruder’s knife in their backs while they worked.

    Twenty-five ETH programs were created on Deck Eight. They immediately encountered the lumbering, zombie-like profiles of the invading Borg drones and, with their own lifeless rigidity, took aim and opened fire. More drones beamed over from the Transwarp Hub, their first waves falling to the expert precision of the holographic Starfleet soldiers. When the two forces finally clashed, the light show was incredible. Borg nanoprobes tendrils were injected into the necks of the humanoid shapes, disrupting their matrixes and causing them to overload in spectacular fashion. Accordingly, the ETH squad stepped up their rate of fire with flashes of phased energy danced across the deck.

    It was a slaughter that no Fortitude officer wanted to witness. Luckily, they didn’t have to.

    All that it would do was to keep the drones at bay, hopefully long enough to survive.

    “We’ve lost sixteen ETH soldiers,” Sollik growled in disdain,” compared to just ten drones down! I’m refreshing the holo-emitters but given the current shipwide status, I can’t process them quicker than the Borg can beam over! I estimate five minutes, at best, before the ETHs fail to hold the line and the Borg take over Deck Eight. Captain, I don’t have to remind you that the deck above holds Main Engineering!”

    “You’re right, you don’t,” Valerie snapped at her First Officer.

    “All that I’m saying is that we need a next step and we need it in less than five minutes!”

    Suddenly, Vice Admiral Llewellyn got to his feet. He was running his hands through his dark hair, a conflict of rejection and elation displayed on his middle-aged features. Impossible… It was just impossible. This wasn’t happening! Damn… and yet it was. What the heck was going on over there? Sod it. It didn’t matter. All that mattered were the readings coming from the tactical sensors. Soon enough, Tom’s helm console started making the same noises. Soon enough, the entire Bridge saw what was happening.

    The viewscreen showed it. A ball of flame erupted at the heart of the Transwarp Hub.

    It was quickly joined by another and another. Like the cells of a virus, the explosions multiplied, building to a catastrophic crescendo as sections of jet-black hull were annihilated in seconds. Tiny shockwaves started to pound Fortitude, reminding the pilot at the helm to keep the impulse engines running hot.

    What was it, some kind of self-destruct?

    Nobody had been launching transphasic torpedoes, not for a while now. Tearing his focus away from the most beautiful detonation that he had ever seen, Sollik looked to the internal sensors. Sure enough, Deck Eight was no longer filled with Borg drones. They had vanished. They were back there on the Hub… and with an almighty roar of finality, that same Hub blew itself out of the stars.

    There would have been cheering, were it not for the unbridled confusion of the victory.

    “Bridge, this is Science Lab One.”

    Llewellyn was the first person to find his voice again. “Uh, go ahead, Miss Hansen.”

    “I have succeeded in disconnecting Kathryn Janeway from the Queen’s consciousness. Your presence is required immediately.”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN
    BREAKTHROUGH AND BREAKDOWN

    Science Lab One
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A


    “It wasn’t my doing. I believe that it was Kathryn who instigated the self-destruct.”

    “That’s… well… That’s a little incredible, Miss Hansen.”

    His grasp of Borg technology was limited, he had to admit. He also had to admit to the extraordinary circumstances that he was dealing with, but regardless, what he was being told was somewhat far-fetched. Shifting on his tired feet, Vice Admiral Llewellyn looked away from Annika Hansen’s stoic, yet beautiful features. He found his eyes drawn to the unconscious, assimilated body of Kathryn Janeway. Was she really able to do that? He had really destroyed the Transwarp Hub from within like this?

    “Upon reaching the final phase of disconnecting the subspace interlink frequency that was maintaining the Queen’s consciousness,” Annika started to explain, joining Ewan in gazing at her former commander,” there was a momentary spike in one of the command subroutines that govern the connection. It was an order, a single order. Self-destruct.”

    “What if it was the Queen herself,” the Welshman mused,” in one final desperate act?”

    “I had already disconnected too many of the interlink frequencies for her to correctly instigate instructions back to the Collective. When the order was given, I had already defeated the Queen. There is nobody left to blame… or rather, thank.”

    Llewellyn rocked back on his heels and let out a long, slow whistle of disbelief. “Well, I’ll look forward to your report, Miss Hansen.”

    There was a long pause. It was a moment of reflection more than anything. He had done it, admittedly with a little help from a former drone and one of the finest crews in Starfleet, but he had done it all the same. He had solved the mystery of Admiral Janeway’s disappearance and rescued her from a lifetime of servitude and abuse at the hands of the Borg Collective.

    It should have made him jump for joy, but somehow he didn’t feel joyous. The casualties were light if any! The damage to the Fortitude would be repaired, no problem! And there, standing before him was a motionless body. It no longer served as a vessel for the nefarious consciousness of the Borg Queen. It no longer suffered from the nightmare of regulating hundreds of thousands of voices. For the first time in over a year, it was the body of Kathryn Janeway, Starfleet Admiral, and individual.

    But did he feel like celebrating this unequivocal victory?

    Hell…


    * * * *


    Personal Log, Vice Admiral Llewellyn, Stardate 59742.9;


    My mission has been a success. Following the rescue of Admiral Janeway and the death of the Borg, elation has swept across my colleagues. The arrival of the
    Enterprise, and two steps behind them, the Blackmore, has given me something upon which to focus. I’m pleased with the distraction.

    For some reason, with nothing left to achieve out here, I find myself to be agitated and restless. Perhaps, simply being back aboard a starship again has finally caught up with me. I am definitely looking forward to returning to Earth, to my office overlooking the Bay… to losing myself in that view once more. There’s just something about commanding a mission after all these years that niggles at the back of my mind. I almost feel like… I don’t know, like I don’t belong out here anymore, that I don’t even want to be out here anymore.

    Maybe Valerie had a point.

    Maybe I’m just out here for entirely selfish reasons, and now these reasons have been fulfilled. Anyways, where was I?

    Right now, yes, we’re flying alongside the
    Enterprise and Blackmore as part of a convoy heading back to Sector 001 for a final debrief. Sollik had managed, somehow, to coax limited warp power out of the damaged port nacelle. Admiral Janeway, along with Annika Hansen, has been transferred to the Enterprise under the watchful care of Kate Pulaski. I’ll be heading over for a catch-up later, just as soon as I’ve made a certain call…


    “...and she believes that it was Janeway and not the Queen who gave that command.”

    There was a knowing silence over the communications system. Captain Jean-Luc Picard was letting his gaze wander aimlessly with past memories flooding back to him. On the Bridge of the USS Fortitude, both Ewan Llewellyn and Valerie Archer allowed the moment to pass unhindered. Together they stood, respectfully waiting for the image of the Frenchman’s face to shift on the viewscreen. When it finally did, the words were brooding yet satisfied. After all, he had once experienced the same thing… and from Janeway’s perspective, too. Laying that memory back to rest, he replied.

    “Indeed. Thank you for the update, Admiral.”

    “Don’t mention it. You have my apologies for rushing in with weapons charged…”

    “Please,” Jean-Luc dismissed with a wave, cutting Ewan short. “You and I are in agreement that the fewer battles that we have to fight, the better. I’ll alert Commander Madden to prepare for your arrival. We’ll await your signal when you’re ready to beam over.”

    “Thank you, Captain. I look forward to seeing you again.”

    “And you as well, Admiral. Picard out.”

    The viewscreen flickered, now showing the majestic lines of the Sovereign-class starship from where the conversation had been shared. Just beyond it was the strong outline of the Luna-class ship that made up the triad of accomplishment, soaring through empty space to return home together. All friends, Ewan thought. He never would have been able to do it without them. For that, he owed them his eternal thanks.

    “All’s well that ends well,” Valerie chipped in from just over his shoulder.

    Ewan turned to face her. “I guess I should give you back command of your ship.”

    “I guess you should… sir.”

    Her words were far from warm, but the waspish layer of ice that had previously coated their exchanges seemed to have melted away slightly. There was almost a sparkle in Valerie’s eyes as she looked at her ex-lover, waiting for the moment that he would bestow the authority of the command chair back where it belonged. The symbolism of the gesture wasn’t lost on either of them. Had they finally done it? Have they finally managed to talk to one another without it descending into an argument?

    “Valerie,” Ewan began to stammer, “I just want… I just...I…”

    “You can say it,” she encouraged him.

    “No, I… Valerie… I…”

    There was something odd about his delivery. It wasn’t just an emotional struggle.

    “Valerie, I… I can’t… I can’t move!”

    As his eyes rolled back into his head, Vice Admiral Llewellyn fell. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, every muscle went entirely limp. The Captain wasn’t fast enough to catch him, the shock of the unforeseen collapse too much to overcome quickly. His face slammed into the cold deck plating as everybody on the Bridge stood. Everybody, that was, except Valerie Archer as she lunged downwards to kneel beside his lifeless form.

    “Bridge to Sickbay,” she screamed her demand,” Medical emergency!”

    Not after what they had just survived.

    No way.


    * * * *
     
    Orbing Master and Cobalt Frost like this.
  10. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    Great rising action, a surprising twist and ending it with a cliffhanger that would make CeJay proud... The ETH was a nice touch. And it's always a rush to hear Picard calling his crew to battle stations.

    Thanks!! rbs
     
  11. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    There's more to come. Don't forget the Santragans.
     
  12. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
    TAKEN


    Armstrong Family Farm
    Inner Bluegrass Region, Northern Kentucky
    Monday, October 11th (PM)


    The day had been an unusually warm one. The shimmering orange sun was falling away behind the rolling hills of the landscape, its daily duty achieved beyond expectations. It had allowed for more work to be done than was previously planned, making the evening a particularly satisfying one. Showing signs of forgetting that awful shuttlecraft crash, the horses were bowing their heads and munching on their final blades of grass. Even the birdsong that danced across the calm breeze seemed to fade away as everything was definitely winding down. It was time for bed.

    Jason Armstrong was returning a shovel to the tool shed when it struck him. It happened every single day, usually either at sunrise or sunset. It was why he had dragged James Morgan out to see one, that same feeling that he got running through his chest, that same happiness and content. It had taken a while to return. September had been a difficult month. With his farm playing host to Starfleet Investigations after SC-1 had decided to plow a field for him, he had little choice in the matter. He wasn’t going to be a jerk about it. Hell, he had been in their smartly-polished boots once before. There was no contempt about his previous career. How could he have contempt towards the experiences that, among many other amazing things, introduced him to the love of his life? That was a good point, the Kentuckian wondered as he removed his dirty gloves.

    Where was Jim anyway?

    No, he didn’t hate Starfleet. He couldn’t. He still had friends who served aboard starships and who visited the farm from time to time or when their assignments dictated a manageable journey back to Earth. What he hated about September, however, was simply the timing. Jim had finally carved his little slot into the process of running the Armstrong Family Farm. They were finally settled as a couple. They were finally making what they wanted out of their lives, and then lo and behold, the past came galloping back at them, faster than his prize stallion.

    Those uniforms, the tricorders that they waved about. It had all been too much. It had put everything on hold and threw them backward in time by almost three years. Back to the day that Rear Admiral Edward Blackmore had died, back to the day that Ewan Llewellyn had stepped down as Captain of the Fortitude, and back to when the family had broken apart. The rest of the month that had followed and the beginning of the current one had been therefore given over to working through the unwanted nostalgia.

    Putting his hand into one of his jeans’ pockets, Jason thumbed the small box that he had been thinking about, ever since that fateful evening. Maybe it was finally time after all. Maybe tonight, he would eventually get around to popping the question.

    There was movement, just outside the tool shed in the dirt. It made the local farmer turn around.

    “Jim?,” he called out with his familiar drawl. “Is that you?”

    Frowning from underneath the brim of his fedora, his intense blue eyes found nothing out of the ordinary. Walking the short distance back out into the golden hue of the evening, he scanned the immediate area. Nobody was there. He had remembered to lock all of the paddock gates, hadn’t he?

    Shaking his head, he knew that there was no point in asking himself that question. Force of habit would have ensured that task’s completion. Oh well, it was probably nothing to worry about. A squirrel, perhaps… Yeah, that was it.

    Suddenly, he heard it again.

    It was no squirrel. It was the crunch of a footstep.

    “Jim? Quit fooling around, will you?”

    The nervous edge to his voice wasn’t faked. Sure, so they played around with one another, now and again. All couples did. There was something about this, though. Jason’s inner monologue was yelling at him to return to the tool shed and so he complied. When he came back to where he heard the footsteps, he was carrying a phaser rifle. Crouching down, he examined the dusty floor, and sure enough, there was the mark that he dreaded. From the soles alone, he could tell that it wasn’t a boot that he owned. It wasn’t a boot that Jim owned either.

    Pitching closer, Jason thought that he saw the text in the imprint. It was definitely alien… but which race…?

    When he recognized it, the hiss that escaped from his lips blew to dirt aside.

    “Santragan!”

    Everything seemed to kick off at that moment. There was a loud crash from the direction of the old farmhouse. Its owner stood up to his full height, watching as one of the rear windows shattered outwards. Thrashing through the shards of broken glass was a man that Jason’s heart instantly registered as Jim Morgan. What made that heart sink was what followed. Another humanoid shape in hot pursuit, wielding a small disruptor, and the pair of them darted towards one of the larger barns. Without a second thought, Jason sprinted after his partner and his adversary, charging the phaser rifle that he held clutched in his hands as he went. Over and over, the monologue inside his head just prepared him for any eventuality. It reopened his Starfleet tactical training and switched on the appropriate mindset.

    Turning around a corner, he brandished his weapon in full view. What he saw was the worst possible outcome of this twisted encounter.

    The Santragan male, his vestigial horns indicating a young age, had his arm wrapped around the dark skin of Jim’s throat. The bastard was using him as a Human shield, holding the ugly butt of his disruptor pistol to his sweating temple. Fierce eyes blazed and sharp teeth were bared in an impertinent growl. It was a face that meant serious business. Shifting his legs to stand ready against such an opponent, Jason braced for action.

    “Drop him!,” he shouted from alongside his phaser rifle. “Or I’ll drop you!”

    Annoyingly, the Santragan didn’t seem to react. He just growled.

    “Jay, just shoot!,” came a shaky outburst from Jim.

    “Stay calm, honey…”

    With weapons that were poised to fire, the tension was incredible and it didn’t last long. Another factor quickly broke it with the sound of a chilling click. It came behind Jason, just over his right shoulder. Slowly, not wanting to confirm his pessimism, the Kentuckian lowered his head just enough to peer backward. Straight away, he cursed aloud.

    There were two more of them.

    “Yes,” one of the Santragans whispered with delight,” let’s all just stay calm.”

    The bright flash of a stun discharge followed and darkness overwhelmed them.

    For Jason Armstrong and James Morgan, it was over.

    They had been taken.


    * * * *


    CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
    THE AWAKENING

    Sickbay
    USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E
    Stardate 59744.8


    “Oh, son of a… My head… Where., what in the…?”

    Blinking through the ache that pounded his forehead, Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn tried to sit upright on the biobed. His hands didn’t know where to go first. They wanted to seize his face, to somehow absorb the pain but they also wanted to seize the mattress and help haul the rest of his body to a more vertical position. There was no uniform covering the dark hair on his chest, but rather one of the lightest and most revealing of medical gowns that he had ever seen.

    It had to be said that the Welshman was never, ever one for Sickbays. Standing and walking around in one was tough enough, but laying on a biobed in one as a patient? Groaning with serious complaints, he wasn’t alone for long.

    “Welcome back to the land of the living, Ewan.”

    More blinking of his eyes cleared his vision before he could properly identify her. “Kate… is that you?”

    “In the flesh,” Doctor Katherine Pulaski smiled. She instantly held his bicep, offering more support to help him into a seated position. Telling him to lie back down would be stupid as she knew how uncomfortable that would have made him. “Just take it easy. There you go. You’ve had a rough time of it, and you gave us all quite a scare for a while there.”

    “How long is a while?,” Ewan asked her, groggily. “What’s today’s stardate?”

    “59744. You’ve been out for two days.”

    “Bloody hell, Kate! What happened to me? One minute, I’m on Fortitude’s Bridge…?”

    With all of the compassion and wisdom of her years, Pulaski collected a medical tricorder from one of the bedside diagnostic tables and started tapping commands into the flatscreen, her tiny smile being the only indication of no bad news. Turning the tricorder to face her patient, she allowed the exhausted Welshman to read. It took him a moment to even focus, and even when he did, the medical terminology was beyond him. The image of his body surrounded in a green hue was simple enough.

    “I’m fine?” he asked her.

    “As far as I can tell, you’re in top condition for your age.”

    “Then why did I collapse?”

    The Head of Starfleet Medical took back her tricorder and sighed. There was only one possible answer to give him, but she wasn’t sure that he was going to like it. After all, they were very close friends. Perhaps, she was the only person who could say it, and despite this, her tone was gentle.

    “Ewan, the one thing that I can’t scan is your emotional state. When I bid farewell to you at the start of all of this, in the Enterprise Transporter Room, you have no idea how worried that I was.” She had started down and so, she decided to just be blunt about it. “You’re riddled with self-doubt at a time when you’re undertaking one of the largest and most important missions of your career. On top of that, you’ve been thrown back together with people and gone to places from a past that you’ve tried so hard to escape. You collapsed because the victory over the Borg was the release of all of that stress. You collapsed because your body just had to shut down. It needed a break from all of your worries, and the battles, both physical and mental. You had a breakdown.”

    It was the most inwardly-analytical diagnosis that he had ever received from a physician. It was also one of the most accurate. Pulaski had a damned good point, Ewan admitted to himself, leaning further back on the biobed. Over the past month, the flecks of gray hair at his temples had turned to entire strands. His once-sparkling blue eyes had become faded with the burden of responsibility, and the onus of everything being his mission… a Vice Admiral. He chuckled lightly. The promotion was supposed to be a middle ground between captaincy and retirement for him. That had turned out well, hadn’t it?

    The silence lasted a while. Pulaski grew worried that she had gone too far. She was relieved to see him break out a weak smile in her direction.

    “Thanks, Kate. I think I needed that.”

    Replying with a jovial “aye, aye, sir” and a mock salute, Ewan watched her leave the main Sickbay, probably to go and write up a discreet report on some made-up reason for his dramatic fainting on the Fortitude Bridge. Her words, however, remained ringing in his ears, one part in particular.

    “You’re riddled with self-doubt.”

    He had little time to consider the full implications of such a phrase. The door to his left hissed open, and the woman that walked in to visit him was somewhat of an expected surprise.

    “Goodness,” Captain Valerie Archer stated plainly,” you look like shit!”

    “What, no grapes?,” Ewan snapped back at her. Gingerly, he tugged at his medical gown. Being revealing in front of a doctor was one thing but in front of her? Eventually, he found a position of comfort and settled down again. “Come to make sure that I’m still alive? Wait, I never gave you back command, did I?”

    “Incapacity clause,” Valerie revealed. “I was back in command yesterday.”

    “You never waste much time, do you?”

    She shook her head before stepping closer and adopting a serious tone.

    “Listen, can we, you know… just drop the hostility now? I mean, fine, much of it was down to me and I apologize for that. I guess that it took this recent assignment of ours to let me discover exactly what must have happened to you, back in Seventy-Nine. This is a big admission for me, and I’m out on a limb here… but please, let bygones be bygones, okay? I don’t know if I can manage to keep this up otherwise, biting your head off every single time that we have to hold a conversation.”

    “That’s because you kept losing,” Ewan said, taking one final swipe.

    Valerie’s face fell. Had she just embarrassed herself with that big speech for nothing?

    “I’m kidding… and I agree,” her superior officer quickly added with a nod. “I’m sorry too for the way that I behaved back then. Not to mention the way that I’ve been behaving more recently. Coming face-to-face with a couple of home truths did the trick, I think.”

    “Does that mean I was right?”

    “Hmm?”

    “Does that mean this mission was penance? For Boxer?”

    He still didn’t really know. He had asked himself the same question when flying towards the terrifying spectacle of the Transwarp Hub. it wasn’t that he wanted to avoid admitting such a personal thing to Valerie, nor to anyone anyways. It was just that he didn’t have an answer for her. He didn’t even have an answer for himself and perhaps that was more damaging than anything. All that he could process was the facts. The mission had been a success. Admiral Kathryn Janeway was safe, and the Borg Collective was beaten. And what had it done to him? It knocked him out for two days.

    What would have happened if he had failed?


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY
    THE START OF SOMETHING NEW


    Ready Room
    USS Blackmore, NCC-82499
    Stardate 59745.3


    “This must be quite difficult for him.”

    She took her dark eyes away from the view. Captain Erica Martinez watched as her counterpart from the Fortitude failed to respond to her musing. Valerie’s own attention was entirely elsewhere with her reflective stare lost in the distance and her brain was clearly not engaged in the conversation that they were supposedly having. She had been like this for a while now, lost in her own thoughts rather than trying to invest them in talking to her old colleague. It wasn’t out of rudeness, but it was still somewhat annoying.

    The Latina woman cleared her throat and unclasped her hands from the small of her back. It was enough to get the result that she desired, and with an honest apology, Valerie finally answered her.

    “I’m sorry, Erica. When you say him…?”

    Leading her friend’s mind back out through the window and back to where her own had previously been resting, Erica nodded towards the dominating grace and power of the USS Enterprise. The Sovereign-class ship was currently blocking the view of Valerie’s ship in the convoy’s triad, so imposing were her lines.

    “Captain Picard,” Erica explained to her. “This must be quite difficult indeed.”

    “Funny,” Valerie said, exhaustedly, slumping down in a chair before the Ready Room’s main desk. “I would have thought that he would have gained strength from the outcome of all of this.”

    “How do you figure that one?”

    “Well, Admiral Janeway had just been through exactly what he experienced all of those years ago. Remember that he was once Locutus of Borg. He was forced to do some pretty nasty things by the hive mind. He destroyed most of the fleet at Wolf 359 and he eventually fought to overcome his Borg-enforced persona. If anything, I would say that a shared experience brings people closer together. He’ll give Janeway support.”

    Erica’s jet-black hair fell across her face as she shook her head. “No.”

    “No?”

    “No. You’ve never served alongside Picard before, have you?” The confirmation came silently in a gesture from Valerie and so Erica continued. “I have. Twice before this mission. If there’s one thing that you don’t mention to him, it’s the Borg. He doesn’t just let anybody in there, you know. Many think of him as stern, unforgiving, like he’s got a titanium rod up his backside… but it isn’t all duty. He’s just private about certain things and specific things. We’ve had Admiral Janeway back with us for over two days now and I heard that Captain Picard hasn’t been to see her once. You know why?”

    “I’m betting that you’ve got a theory,” the older officer shrugged.

    “Uh-huh. She reminds him of Locutus. Right now, she’s what he once was, a broken individual, subdued by a force neither of them could control until the very end when they realized that they had to give over everything that they had to fight back. I just hope it doesn’t make things awkward for them when Janeway finally wakes up.”

    “Me too,” came a reply without any hint of care.

    “Am I boring you, Val?”

    The blame for Captain Archer’s total detachment didn’t rest with boredom. It was simply more reflection that was triggered by what the Latina woman had been speaking about. The situation was very familiar. Jean-Luc Picard would distance himself from Kathryn Janeway because of a reminder of a chapter in his life that he wanted so desperately to forget… and Valerie knew because it had happened to her.

    Three years ago in the Neutral Zone, aboard a crippled starship, she had been handed the reins of power by then-Captain Ewan Llewellyn. He had been running from her to avoid remembering. The klaxon echoed through the decks, the ticking clock of the untridium bomb, the look on the bearded visage of Edward Blackmore… All of it flooded back to him when he saw her, didn’t it?

    She wondered if it still did today. It certainly did at the beginning of this rescue mission, but now it was ove, and there was hope. This victory and this return home could be different if they wanted it to be. This could be the start of something new.

    Again, Erica Martinez had to clear her throat. Again, her friend apologized.

    “Damn it, I’m being awful company. I’m sorry.”

    “Don’t be. You must have a lot to think about right now.”

    Valerie finally laughed. “You can say that again!”

    Both Captains finally settled into their morning coffee after that. It was their first real chance to catch up since they commanded separate starships with separate assignments keeping them far apart since the days of Starbase 499. For almost a solid hour, their voices filled the Ready Room, punctuated by very real laughter every now and then. When the intercom interrupted them, it caused severe disappointment in both women.

    “Bridge to Captain Martiiinez,” the reptilian hiss of Lieutenant Shlessshh crackled.

    “Go ahead,” Erica coaxed her Gorn helmswoman aloud.

    “We’re reccceiving a sssingal from the Fortitude, ma’am. It’sss for Captain Arccher.”


    * * * *


    Main Bridge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A


    Having found his feet again, not to mention his belted uniform, Ewan Llewellyn strode onto the Norway-class Bridge with a definite purpose. The summons had been more than cryptic and he was certainly feeling it. Any longer cooped up in the Enterprise’s Sickbay would have really hammered the nail in. Okay, so he was stressed and exhausted, but he hated Sickbays. He was also, whether he liked it or not right now, a Vice Admiral in the Federation Starfleet. Quickly scanning the people on duty, he found the Captain.

    “Valerie,” he called out to her,” where’s the fire?”

    “Thanks for coming,” she answered gratefully,” and it’s good to see that you’re up and about. We’re receiving an odd transmission. It looks like a subspace signal is trying to burrow its way into our comms frequencies, and it carried an old security access override code. Ew… Sir, it comes from back when you were the Captain. I thought you should be here when we answered it.”

    “Sure. Put it up.”

    With a single command, the communications system finally gave up on keeping the incoming signal at bay. It activated the viewscreen accordingly, throwing up an image of just who was so desperate to call the Fortitude. They filled the frame with multiple chins stretching from one side to the other. Gnarled, stubby horns barely managed to be shown but the bulging eyes of almost demonic intent were unquestionably central.

    When plump lips parted into a wicked grin, Ewan shuddered in his boots. He recognized this face. He shouldn’t even be looking at this face, but it was too late to change that now. With his jaw hanging open, the Welshman stepped forward to square off against the caller.

    “Ah, hello there, Llewellyn! It seems that my suspicions were right after all!”

    “Tret Bra’Kala… What do you want?”


    * * * *
     
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  13. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    Damn those santragans... they just had to drag the boys off their farm. Nicely played with the breakdown - a rarely written (or acknowledged) human reality.

    Thanks!! rbs
     
  14. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER FORTY-ONE
    TRAGIC MISTAKE



    Grand Suite of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    8th Akaa of the Third Cycle



    Darkness. Shadows. Hands, grabbing at him. Jostling him. Darkness.

    Gah, his knees again! How long had it been?

    Shadows. Shadows and darkness. Voices. Orders. On your knees again. Pain. They cried out in pain. He had no choice. He had to kneel or there would be another hit from a rifle butt, probably to his shoulder blades. They hurt too. Cold floor. Ripped jeans, and a cold, hard floor. Pain. more jostling. Agony, even.

    Son of a bitch, they must be preparing for something big now. How long had it been? Two days? Voices preparing for something big. If only he could see! Darkness. Shadows and darkness. Get this damned hood off of him and he could see!

    At least, he was still there beside him. He could feel him. He could hear him.

    At least, Jim was still alive. That was a blessing.

    “I swear… I won’t let them take you. I swear that I’ll keep you alive.”

    Thanks to the thick material of the hood, Jason Armstrong had no idea who was listening as he made the grim pledge aloud. His throat was parched, his normally lighthearted drawl crackling under the pressure of being a prisoner. All he could be absolutely certain about was that James Morgan was within earshot, kneeling beside him. They had been held together, kept by the Santragans who had grabbed them from Kentucky in the most appalling of conditions. If the hoods weren’t on, they were inside a tiny cell that was damp and devoid of light. Neither man was sure if their eyes would even work after this nightmare. Neither man really cared. All they cared about was getting out of this at the first sign of an opportunity.

    “Jay… Jay, I think this might be it.”

    “Don’t say things like that, Sam. We’re going to make it.”

    Working roughly, more hands dragged them a few more feet across the smooth new surface upon which they knelt. The same hands then moved to the base of the hoods, and inside his, Jason prepared himself for the light. He knew that it would hurt and he called out to his lover beside him, warning him. Together, they braced for what was coming with what little energy that they had left in their tired muscles.

    The hoods were ripped away. It was worse than he had imagined. If his hands weren’t tied behind his back, Jason would have grabbed his eyes to protect them. As it was, he just had to blink his way through, squinting at his surroundings. The first thing that he made out was Jim, doing the same beside him. that was the most important. They shared a glance loaded with all kinds of potent emotions before the blonde farmer started to regain more of his focus. He tilted his head around and soaked it all in. The marble floor, the grand desk/throne thing, the gigantic window, and the picturesque vista beyond it. Santrag II. it had to be since he recognized the architecture… and then the people.

    And then the viewscreen with those displayed upon it.

    “Tret, you son of a bitch,” Ewan Llewellyn yelled loudly into the room.

    “I have your attention then, don’t I?,” President Tret Bra’Kala spat back at him from somewhere behind his hostages and out of their sight. “Welcome back to my space, Llewellyn. Not that I even recall inviting you back, that is. I must say that you’re looking well for a dead man. Tell me, how does one go about surviving a gas explosion anyway?”

    “Release them now! I’m not talking to you like this! Not like this!”

    “Okay, fine. Then I’ll have them both shot. Good day…”

    Ewan’s image looked straight at Jason. Weakly, the younger man acknowledged him with the slightest of smiles. Inches to his right, Jim did the same thing from behind his dark beard stubble. They both watched as their former Captain wrestled with the rulebook versus their friendship. It was standard policy not to negotiate in such situations, but Ewan couldn’t let them be killed, he just couldn’t. He caved in seconds.

    “Damn it, Tret! All right! All right, I’ll listen!”

    “I thought that you might.” The twisted President gave a rumbling cackle from within his amply frame before continuing with his speech. “So, you want to get straight to the point. Well, I can respect that. I always like that about you, Llewellyn. No subterfuge, no cloak-and-dagger politics. Wait, hold on… I’m sorry, I must have confused you with somebody else! You, who has violated my people’s sovereignty on multiple occasions! You’re a repeat offender, and now I find that you’ve returned to my space to repeat your crimes once more!”

    “What are you talking about? We are returning from a mission outside of Santragan space which was vital to the security of the region! Admittedly, we did cut through a corner of your territory on our way out here and for that, you have my sincere apologies. But frankly, Tret, if we hadn’t acted like this, you would have a serious problem on your hands!”

    “Lies,” Tret howled at him, all lies! You’re back to conquer my coalition! Don’t deny it!”

    “I will deny it,” Llewellyn retorted passionately,” because you’re making a mistake!”

    There was a sigh that made Jason’s blood freeze.

    “I can see that you’re not as reasonable as I had hoped, Llewellyn. Therefore, I’m going to have to prove that I’m serious about this. Your current course will skirt the outlying systems of the Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition and I cannot allow that.” His words were given a sinister accompaniment. It was the sound of a weapon being loaded. “I’m going to fill one of your former officers. If you don’t adjust your heading and keep it, at least, a lightyear’s distance from my planets, I will kill the other one as well.”

    “What? No! Tret, damn it, if you harm one of them, so help me…!”

    “I’ll tell you what. You can choose which one for me. You pick. Which one dies?”

    “You’re a monster! You’re a bastard and a bloody monster!”

    There was no way of communicating with him. President Bra’Kala was in his absolute element, so entrenched in his desire for revenge against Llewellyn, against Starfleet, and against the United Federation of Planets that he hated eternally. His total separation from his morality and his ethics that were cultivated over an extended period of corruption made his abhorrent actions seem almost fun in his broken mind.

    Tears were forming in his eyes as Jason turned to look at Sam once more. This time, there was a disruptor aimed at his head.

    “Maybe I’ll kill this one,” Tret was pondering like a kid in a candy shop.

    “Tret, don’t do this,” the viewscreen was helplessly pleading.

    Jim felt a tear roll down his trembling cheek. It had been provoked by seeing his lover who was crying too. With his hands bound together and guards standing everywhere, there really was no escape for them. They were both realists and they both had a handle on the situation. This madman was going to kill one of them, here and now. Slowly, without making a sound, the Kentuckian simply mouthed, “I love you,” and watched the transformative effect that it had on his soulmate.

    The trembling stopped. Jim straightened his back and felt the cold gun against his skull. “I’ve been dead before. Do your worst.”

    President Bra’Kala sneered as he adjusted his aim to the left. “Well, if you insist…”

    With a cruel vigor, he fired.

    The shot went, point-blank, into the back of Jason’s head.


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY-TWO
    FAMILY


    Main Bridge
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A



    Ewan Llewellyn watched in total disbelief.

    He didn’t want it to be true… but it was. Right there, on the viewscreen in front of him, the body of Jason Armstrong slumped to the floor. If anybody had wanted to speak, they wouldn’t have been heard. A piercing cry of unbridled misery nearly overloaded the communications speakers. It came from James Morgan, a man who was totally obliterated by the vindictive murder of his boyfriend. What made the cry even louder was a small box that fell from Jason’s pocket, a box that was also seen by the Vice Admiral, lightyears away. Nobody needed to see the ring inside and nobody wanted to either. It was just too damn tragic.

    One of the Santragan guards stepped into the frame and knocked Jim unconscious. The wailing stopped and the silence that followed rang in the air for far too long. A Bridge full of stunned onlookers waited for what would happen next. Ewan just wanted to be alone. He felt like he was going to throw up. That feeling was amplified by the appearance of Tret Bra’Kala, looming over Jim’s sprawled form.

    “He’s still alive,” the bloated President reminded his nemesis. “One down, and one to go.”

    “Please,” Llewellyn mumbled, staggering backward. “Please, no…”

    “Change your course heading and I’ll consider it. We shall speak again.”

    The viewscreen went dark.

    Valerie Archer stood aside, allowing her superior officer to fall back into the command chair. He missed it and just landed on the deck.

    Not that he cared.


    * * * *


    Basement of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    11th Akaa of the Third Cycle



    “You’ve got absolutely no hope, you know that?”

    The words were said with venom from curled lips that were practically touching the ear of James Morgan. They had no effect because the prisoner was elsewhere, locked in a pit of endless despair and unable to climb out or escape. He had no idea that Grak, the Santragan thug responsible for his capture was even speaking to him, not to mention standing so close and in such a menacing tone. He just hung in their grasp, loose, detached… alone. He wasn’t giving them the reaction that they wanted and so they quickly grew bored.

    “Look! He isn’t even listening to you, Grak!”

    “Screw it. Just throw him in his cell. I’ve got better things to do.”

    Down here in the basement, there was very little light. Jim’s dark features were drowned out by the unrelenting gloom of what once had been used for storing alcoholic beverages in ornate racks. Now they served as the prisons for Tret Bra’Kala’s enemies or those that he thought to be his enemies. One such small cell waited with its heavy iron door open. With the same nasty force that earned them their jobs as mercenaries and spies, Grak and his men dumped the former Starfleet ensign without ceremony. He was a dead man anyway and he didn’t deserve to be treated nicely.

    With his heavy-set frame turning around, Grak called out to one of the guards on duty.

    “Yes, sir?,” came the polite response.

    “Stand here, next to this food, and don’t move for anything.”

    The cell was sealed. Walking away with arrogant confidence, the boisterous band of thugs left the basement to indulge in their rewards. The guard turned around, mostly covered by his complicated assembly of white armor and red robes, to look at his prisoner. Unseen by anybody else, a flicker of compassion crossed his wizened face.


    * * * *
     
  15. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER FORTY-THREE
    THE SECOND RESCUE

    WindRider Airlock
    USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A



    “This is far too dangerous. Damn it, but I won’t lose anybody else!”

    “You’ll lose yourself if you’re not careful,” Katherine Pulaski pointed out, countering the objections of Ewan Llewellyn perfectly. Her advancing years gave her a wisdom that nobody could question, not to mention an air of respect that nobody dared to sacrifice, not, at least, the Vice Admiral. Despite the anger that drove him, he listened, although it didn’t stop him from seething as she spoke. His jaw clenched and his lips pursed but Pulaski continued regardless. “Ewan, I can’t stop you from doing this. What I can do is make sure that you survive it. According to the record, you’re still my patient so I’m coming with you.”

    “According to the record,” the Welshman repeated. “Kate, this mission isn’t even on the record!”

    “Don’t make me change that. Let me come with you.”

    There was no way to win the argument, but not after that threat. It was a threat made not out of malice but out of concern. Very little thinking had to be done. She was the best doctor that Ewan knew and there was no telling what condition that Jim could be in. Having the Head of Starfleet Medical with him was only logical. Besides, he relented because the danger that she wanted to be placed in was a danger that she wanted to share. She was a member of the old family. If there was even a remote chance of saving Jim, she would jump at it.

    “Okay,” Ewan allowed, his hand waved in mock-surrender. “Get in.”

    “I came prepared to win you over,” Pulaski noted, holding up her medical kit.

    She walked past him, climbing slowly down the open airlock and into the waiting interior of the WindRider beneath. Given the choice, everybody involved in the covert operation would have preferred a shuttlecraft. Unfortunately, the damage to the Bromley had yet to be repaired, scorch marks still peppering her hull from the engagement with the Borg. The only other option that remained was the cramped auxiliary vessel docked with the underside of the Fortitude’s saucer section. It was originally designed for atmospheric flight only but thanks to the retrofit performed on the Norway-class starship, this particular WindRider packed more of a punch. It also packed a tiny warp drive. It was more than enough to deliver the unofficial away team to Santrag II. Returning them… well…

    Having finished loading their supplies, Commander Sollik and Gabriel Brodie headed towards the vertical airlock after Pulaski’s last minute addition. They were both stopped by the motionless Vice Admiral Llewellyn, who shook them both warmly by the hand and patted their shoulders in thanks. He didn’t need to order them or to remind them to keep things quiet. Everything had gone unspoken but yet understood. With weak smiles and nods, they both climbed down into the WindRider and prepared for launch.

    Ewan took one final look around the interior bulkheads of his own command. Regardless of anything that the future might hold, he knew that he would never see her again. Hell, he didn’t want to see her again and yet, he still had to bid her farewell. A tear threatened to escape and he closed his eyes. All that he could see were images from the Bridge, from Engineering, and from his quarters. The image of Edward Blackmore falling… the image of Jason Armstrong being executed… So many memories. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them… were utterly tragic.

    An important voice from those memories called out to him. “Hold on!”

    “Valerie?,” he whispered. “You’re supposed to be covering us from the Bridge.”

    She reached his side and caught her breath. “I know… I know…”

    “What are you doing here?”

    “I couldn’t let you go,” the Captain said, shaking her head. “Not like this.”

    “Damn it, Valerie! Look I understand your objections --”

    “Ewan, I don’t object to what you’re doing,” she cut him off short. “Would I have given you my First Officer if I did? Hell, I would have given you Tom Paris if you should have asked! And would you be taking the WindRider? Would I be able to falsify the sensor logs, putting my entire career on the line, all because you asked me to? Just pull your head out of your ass for once and actually listen to me!”

    That calmed him down to a degree. Embarrassed, he leaned back slightly, sizing her up. “But you still don’t like it, do you?”

    “Deep down,” Valerie had to admit, running her hand through her blonde hair,” no, I’ll be honest and say that I don’t like it. Breaching the territory of another race… This isn’t just covert. This is illegal. You’re doing exactly what Tret accused you of doing.”

    “What? You mean the right thing to do?”

    Heavy sighing punctuated the area. “I didn’t come down here to debate the morality of your actions. I know that you’ll go with or without my help. I would rather you had my help. Mostly because it will help me sleep at night but mostly because of Jim. Whether I like it or not, your plan is his best chance of survival. You had better bring him back, Ewan, and he had better be in one piece. Most importantly though, you had better not get caught.”

    He forced another weak smile to the surface. This one grew beyond what he thought that he could manage in his present condition. Valerie Archer, starship captain, putting everything that she held dear in jeopardy… and for a plan that she didn’t even support. There were no doubts that she was a remarkable woman, and regret suddenly struck Ewan’s core. What had he been doing without her, these past three years? What was the point of all of this bluster, and all of this stupid fighting that they had been doing? He knew the answer, of course, and there was no point, of course, that it was his own foolishment that made him run away. He had been scared to face her. That was all it was, just childish fright.

    Well, fright and self-doubt. Inside, he knew that he didn’t belong here. He never had.

    It was finally time for him to leave. She deserved to know.

    “This is my mess,” he admitted softly. “This is my fault. It was my idea to cut through that corner of Santragan space and if we hadn’t, none of this would have happened. I have to fix this if it’s the last thing that I do.” He paused. “There’s every chance that I won’t be coming back, Valerie. And even if I do make it, and successfully rescue Jim, I won’t be coming back for long. If you really know me that well, then I don’t have to tell you why. So there’s not much left for me to say except thank you for everything… and goodbye.”

    Now she was crying. It physically hurt him but he watched her all the same.

    “You said before,” she managed to recall. “In the Observation Lounge, you said that I have never lost anybody… but I lost you. I lost you, Ewan, and for a long time, I hated you for doing that to me. Don’t make me lose you again. In whatever shape or form that you come back in, uniform or no uniform… Just come back, okay?”

    He nodded. It was a promise that he would try his utmost to keep.

    Before he could turn away and leave, Valerie wrapped her arms around him. They kissed for the first time in three years. A kiss that they had been longing to share, regardless of whatever words that they had exchanged. Yet it wasn’t a renewal of their love, nor was it the first page of a new chapter in their relationship.

    No, it was a parting gift that was more than anything.

    It served to mark their final farewell.


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR
    OBLIVIOUS


    Main Engineering
    USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E


    The repairs had been going very well. Even while sustaining warp speed, the engineering teams had done a fantastic job of bypassing the port ramscoop of the Norway-class starship and they were beginning to restore systems. In the space of two hours, they had managed to coax an entire additional warp factor from the damaged nacelle. Folding his arms across his chest in a satisfied manner, Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge tilted his head towards a schematic of the USS Fortitude, NCC-76240-A and sighed. She was one fine ship. There was no argument there but she was small but fine.

    She was no match for his ship. Working over there had been interesting. A great change of scenery and a great challenge to the chief engineer. Thanks to her retrofit, the Fortitude was a fascinating blend of older technology and newer innovations. The impulse drive alone had taken him back to his Academy days and yet turning to the EPS taps had caused his eyebrows to rise with sincere impression. It wasn’t like it was over here. The heart of the Sovereign-class flagship was a reassuringly advanced organ of which he had little day-to-day maintenance to perform. Back here now, all that Geordi was worried about were the weekly status reports and wrapping up his engineering teams’ return. Sorting which tools went in which boxes, who owned this hydrospanner… that kind of thing. He even considered putting his feet up on the master systems display.

    The sound of approaching colleagues, their footsteps falling between the steady hums coming from the warp core, stopped him short. Turning away from his work, his artificial eyes locked onto and analyzed two people. One of them was familiar, identified quickly as Commander Martin Madden. The other person was new. Tall, blonde, strikingly beautiful… and with small reminders of her Borg heritage on her face, she had certainly warranted an introduction despite her identity being obvious.

    “Mister LaForge,” Madden said, doing the honors,” this is Annika Hansen.”

    “A pleasure,” Geordi grinned, standing and shaking her hand.

    “Miss Hansen has a few requests that she would like to make of you,” the Enterprise First Officer told him, concluding his part in the meeting. “I’ll let you two get on. Oh, and make sure that you get that resource checklist to me by zero-seven-hundred tomorrow.”

    “We’re on it, Commander,” Geordi reassured him with a nod. Moments later, the chief engineer stood alone with the former drone. Spreading his fingers along the top of his PADD, the one in uniform gave a friendly shrug. “So, what can I help you with? Does this have something to do with Admiral Janeway’s recovery?”

    “Indeed,” Annika told him.

    “How’s she doing, by the way?”

    “Her progress is slow but there is progress nevertheless. I should be able to revive her around the same time that you will be delivering that checklist to Commander Madden. However, I cannot proceed without disconnecting her biradial clamp and I require a plasma microfilament specifically calibrated to an intersecting frequency of point-three-nine-three. Replicating such a device would appear to be outside of my security clearance aboard the Enterprise.”

    “Don’t take it personally,” Geordi chuckled. He moved away from the flat surface of the master systems display, heading for a bank of industrial replicators on the far wall. Annika joined him as he requested the precise tool. “Security is pretty tight around here. This thing could be used as a weapon. Computer, one plasma microfilament.”

    Naturally, the computer objected to this request. “Please enter security authorization.”

    “LaForge-Echo-Four-One.”

    “Authorization confirmed. Replication in process.”

    It took longer than a cup of hot chocolate with the microfilament’s size being deceptive against the complexity of its inner workings. Allowing his specialist guest, the freedom that her clearance wouldn’t, Geordi returned to where he had been working and just let her collect what she needed from the replicator once it was complete. Casting a synthetic eye over the evening’s slow pace and thinking about calling it a night, the chief engineer remembered his manners and caught Annika’s attention before she walked away.

    “Is there anything… uh, anything….”

    He might have had her attention but something else entirely had a hold of his.

    “Mister LaForge,” Annika frowned, the new microfilament in her hands,” is there a problem?”

    “Weird,” he whispered absently. He was hunched over a LCARS display of the ongoing background sensor information and there was a discrepancy. It was coming from the vicinity of the Fortitude, from just underneath her saucer section and it was moving away at great speed. Wasting no time, Geordi tapped his combadge. “Enterprise to Fortitude. This is LaForge, please respond.”

    “Paris here,” answered a helpful voice. “What’s up, Geordi?”

    “Tom, you’re at the helm, right?”

    “You don’t really know me at all,” laughed the flyboy. “Of course, I am!”

    “We can bond later. Eleven-Forward, my treat. Right now, however, I’m detecting a mysterious sensor fluctuation over here, coming from right underneath you. It could just be a fault on my end though. Are your own sensors showing the same thing?”

    “Hold on,” Paris warned, doing his own calculations and coming up dry. “Nope.”

    “There’s no fluctuation?”

    “There’s nothing at all. Sensors are clean. Should I be worried?”

    “Not yet. I’ll get back to you. LaForge out.”

    Nothing showing up on anybody else’s sensors meant that it could be a minor problem with the Enterprise’s own detection grid. So much for calling it a night, then. Rubbing his forehead and his short, neat hairline, Geordi prepared himself to go hunting for the cause of the discrepancy and chalk it up to a random system error. The presence of Annika Hansen precluded that hunt. She had moved to just over his shoulder and she was staring at the same display. Her intensified frown caused the Lieutenant Commander to pause. There was a definite recognition on her face.

    “Miss Hansen,” he asked her,” what is it?”

    “Refractive shielding…,” she muttered to herself.

    “Excuse me?”

    “These readings aren’t a fluctuation, Mister LaForge,” came the revelation from within the experience and knowledge that she had gained after a lifetime linked to the Borg Collective. “They’re caused by refractive shields, a type of stealth technology used on small vessels. Something or indeed, somebody is trying to hide from us.”

    “You’re sure about this?”

    Her no-nonsense expression said it all. “Call Security… now.”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE
    EMOTIONAL REACTION



    Basement of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    24th Akaa of the Third Cycle



    He had been languishing in here for what felt like an eternity.. It could have been hours or it could have been months. He simply couldn’t tell. Everything had been disconnected from his awareness. The passing of time, his growling stomach, the distinction between light and dark, his sense of smell, and even his hearing… It had all just shut down. His tirade of anguish had overloaded his body and drained his energy reserves. He hadn’t lifted a finger ever since the death of his boyfriend, his lover, and soulmate.

    Despair had claimed James Morgan. There was nothing left for him, and nothing optimistic to cling onto, not even a single glimmer of hope. It was unsurprising. Jason Armstrong was his entire reason for existence nowadays. Oh, sure, many people said that about their partners and many people knew that it was hyperbole. The tragedy was that for Jim, it was completely true. There was nothing left to live for. There was no future together. No farm to manage together. No goals to attain together, and… there would just be no more… together.

    That very thought was slowly eating the prisoner from the inside-out. With each passing moment alone, and each passing drip from the ceiling of the dank cell, he was physically deflated. His thick dark hair, melting into the shadows of imprisonment, lowered as his neck muscles caved in. His arms, once struggling against the jostling of the Santragan thugs, were limp.

    Only his mind remained active. While his senses may have been dying away, his memories were flooding back to him stronger than ever. Each memory contained the gorgeous, playful grin of Jason Armstrong. They were running in sequence, acting like some morbid recap of his life alongside Jim. From that first night at the Six-Oh-Two and that unexpected bar fight with Jay swooping in to rescue him, only to be beaten back, Jim dragged him to safety and tended to that bruise. It had been the start of something that Jim could never have imagined beforehand. He had joined Starfleet Academy to serve, to explore and to represent the United Federation of Planets. He hadn’t joined to fall in love.

    That was why he counted himself to be eternally lucky. Not to belittle the nobility and honor instilled in every other Starfleet officer, of course, but Jim had found something valuable than any degree of patriotism. Throughout the Academy years, and during those first two years serving aboard the first Fortitude, the balance had been altered. To begin with, Jim was like the majority of the other cadets and ensigns. He was young, eager to serve, and ready to throw himself into the unknown for all of the right reasons. He was career-minded.

    Slowly, however, after meeting Jason Armstrong, his career had lowered and his personal life had risen in importance. Yes, they were serving together aboard a starship but that was the day job. It was a particularly special day job and they were particularly privileged men but what made each day worth living was the end of the duty shift. What made each day special was the dinner, shared whenever. What made each day exciting was trying out new holographic programs together, not meeting new cultures. That realization was a long time coming, but when it finally arrived, fate had intervened.

    For three years, they had been separated, and for those three years, they had suffered.

    What had kept Jim alive during those three years was hope. Hope of escaping from that Klingon prison camp, and hope fueled by his determination to see Jason again… and it had worked. He still couldn’t remember all of the details. Mainly just sensations came back to him, rocking him back and forth as he was in the crushing depression of the Santragan basement. These memories didn’t contain Jay’s cute blonde hair or his even cuter smile so his mind automatically skipped over them and continued. It was doing whatever it could to sidestep seeing that image again, the image from upstairs in the Presidential Office. The image of blood, of bone, or a small box clattering along the marble floor. No, that image wouldn’t haunt him and he wouldn’t let it. He had to remain strong.

    Then again, what was the point?

    Why continue?

    Why carry one with living?

    Jason Armstrong made him feel alive and now he was gone. Now he was dead, shot at point-blank range with no chance of survival. It was Starfleet. Could he really place blame? The evidence was surely there. Their Starfleet service had caused their separation for three years and now Starfleet had a hand in this catastrophe too. The duty and honor didn’t seem to be enough, not now.

    The despair returned.

    The warmth of the happy memories was coldly extinguished. All that remained for him was a desolate future, a future without him, and so Jim returned to his destroyed state. His dark eyes gazed blankly towards nothingness. They would have cried if they retained any energy… but it was all gone.

    It was then that the cell door made a noise. It barely registered with the prisoner.

    Light poured through. That forced Jim to react and such a contrast that it was.

    A figure moved inside. It was a Santragan guardsman, tall and thin. He knelt beside Jim and gently reached out to place a gloved hand upon his shoulder. It was unreal. Perhaps it was unreal. Perhaps the depression and shock was creating hallucinations. Words started to be said, but words that couldn’t be ignored. Slowly, with an innocent expression trying to comprehend it all, Jim turned his head.

    “Mister Morgan?,” whispered the guard. “Mister Morgan, can you hear me?”

    There was a very slow, and a very weak nod in response.

    “Mister Morgan, you remember me, don’t you? It’s Veth Ka’Gerran!”

    The registration was faint. Barely… Yes, it was him with that wizened face, that calm grace and those kindly eyes. They looked out-of-place inside of a military uniform but it was him, the deposed Prime Minister of Santrag II. His slender fingers reached around Jim’s arm and started to lift him up. All of the questions of how and why were brushed aside. This was really happening and he could really feel it happening. He was here to assist in an escape attempt and to save him from the overused trigger of Tret Bra’Kala.

    “Come on,” Veth instructed him,” follow me!”

    They made it halfway to the cell door before Jim made his move.

    His hands were balled up together into a club and he struck his rescuer across the back of his neck. It was a precision strike, another type of memory from the Academy that he called into practice. One hit was all that was needed and one hit was all that he had in him anyways.

    There was no regret and little concern. As Veth Ka’Gerran clattered to the floor of the cell, his disruptor rifle was scooped up and loaded with instinctive speed. Energy had returned to James Morgan, as well as purpose. Rather than run from the tragedy of the situation, he was seizing an opportunity. Whether he lived or died didn’t matter. Not in the end anyway. Right now, there was a reason for staying alive. There was an objective and one last goal to attain with or without Jay at his side.

    Leaving the unconscious former leader behind, Jim started to move towards the Presidential Office.


    * * * *
     
    Orbing Master likes this.
  16. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER FORTY-SIX
    RENEGADES FOR A RENEGADE


    WindRider
    Currently masked over Santrag II’s magnetic pole
    Stardate 59747.6



    “Cycling the refractive shields,” Gabriel Brodie said aloud as he worked.

    “New frequencies confirmed,” Sollik responded. “Back up in three… two… one…”

    “I’ve got it. We’re back to being hidden.”

    The efforts of both commanders were much appreciated. Standing over them inside the cramped cockpit of the WindRider, Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn patted them on their shoulders as a way of thanks. If they could keep the local trouble away, they would only have the surface to worry about and they weren’t even ready to beam down yet. The plan was unfolding carefully. Behind enemy lines aboard a tiny vessel, there was no room for snap decisions and no room for mistakes. Gabe and Sollik had been selected for good reasons and they were proving those reasons true. Ewan owed them so much.

    Ducking underneath a low bulkhead, the Welshman turned away from the controls and headed towards the main rear compartment. The short journey through the single deck of the WindRider was loaded with a torrent of thoughts and calculations. He was overloading his mental talents for this, feeling the damage that it was causing. Constant headaches attacked his temples, making each new thought a retaliatory battle against the pain.

    None of it mattered, however. He didn’t care if he burned himself out. This would be his final mission, regardless of the outcome and so he devoted each ounce of his focus towards it. The three fellow crew members who had joined him knew this. Those back aboard the Fortitude and the Blackmore who were in on the subterfuge also understood.

    At least, he hoped that they did.

    Stepping through the hatch into the rear compartment, Llewellyn found Katherine Pulaski. She was one remarkable lady. A technophobe, a physician, and here she was, hunched over the exposed relays of the communications system. Tools were littered over the scant floor space around her, many of them completely unsuited for the task at hand, but then it was mostly trial-and-error. Wasting no time, Ewan crouched down and offered his assistance.

    “Thanks,” Pulaski smiled. “I would make a blind joke if it weren’t for Geordi LaForge.”

    “How long until we’ve isolated the frequency that I gave you?”

    “If the technical schematics that I found in the computer are accurate, not long. My apologies.”

    “Pardon me?”

    “Well, I’m hardly the most valuable addition to this cobbled-together crew.” She paused to find her tricorder. It wasn’t a medical one, helping with the reflection on her services. “I’m sure that Commander Sollik would be better-suited to this task. Part of me wonders whether I was really all that wish in tagging along.”

    The Vice Admiral allowed himself a moment. He had to clear aside all of the focus, the tactical knowledge, and technical details of the rescue mission to even start to think about his friendship with the doctor. With that said, he knew what she was doing. Her self-doubt was infinitesimal compared to his overarching lack of confidence. She was just flagging it like all good doctors do, keeping the patient aware of the stakes. Hanging here over the magnetic pole of Santrag II, crammed aboard an auxiliary vessel, already breaching several pages of the Prime Directive, and about to breach it a good deal more… no, now wasn’t the time to launch into a psycho-analytical question-and-answer session. Pulaski knew this more than anybody, but Ewan appreciated her lighter approach all the same.

    “I’m glad that you’re here,” he told her. “Besides, there’s nobody else to do this. Sollik had to maintain the refractive shields and Gabe’s tactical experience is invaluable. I would be doing this myself if you hadn’t convinced me to join us so don’t worry. It’ll take as long as it takes, Kate, no longer and no shorter.”

    “In that case, let’s get back to it. Who are you calling anyway?”

    “It’s probably better that you don’t know,” Ewan dismissed.

    She didn’t want to add pressure so Pulaski just accepted that factor of this unusual venture and continued to tinker with sub-systems that she never knew existed. Surprising even herself, she made some headway and with the help of her high-ranking friend, she soon had the communications system tuned to the frequencies that had been requested. Ewan asked her to leave and she did so, quickly, quietly and without fuss. He was zoned back in with everything about his persona and mannerisms forced to be professional and curt. This was a call that he never wanted to make. This was a call that he wasn’t allowed to make.

    “Veth, this is Ewan,” he spoke clearly into the open channel. “Veth, please respond!”

    “Ewan, you made it here alive,” a static-riddled voice came back. “I wish I had better news.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I was successful in retrieving Mister Morgan from his cell but he attacked me. He stole my rifle and went deeper into the building. I came around, about ten of your minutes ago and realized what had happened. I’m running as much interference as I can but the sounds… I can hear chaos up there, Ewan. you don’t have much time.”

    “Bugger,” the Welshman swore. “Clarify your mention of interference?”

    “All communications from the central area of the building have been diverted through my station. Many personal communicators have gone offline and several more even as we’ve been talking. I’ve intercepted several requests for additional security and backup. They were blocked but sooner or later, my efforts will be discovered. That’s mostly due to the fact that I've also taken down the defensive grid for an early maintenance routine. People will start asking questions and they’ll start asking them soon. Whatever you’re going to do to get Jim out, you’ve got to do it right now!”

    “All right, I’m on it,” Llewellyn reassured the old leader with some conviction. “Please, if you can, continue your efforts as long as possible. Whatever happens, though, don’t get captured or detected. The rebellion won’t survive without you, Veth.”

    “I’ll stay as long as I can.”

    “One last thing, my old friend, and that’s thank you.”

    “Just make sure that we haven’t done all of this for nothing, Ewan.”

    Closing down the comms system and wiping away all trace of the conversation, the Vice Admiral adapted himself to the new information. They were now renegades searching for a renegade, rather than renegades picking up a prisoner. It was difficult, yes, but not impossible. Veth Ka’Gerran had delivered on his promise of assistance as best that he could. He had risked himself and his rebellion movement to infiltrate the Presidential Office and wear the uniform of a reviled guardsman. His part, his incredibly selfless part, was over. Now it was up to those aboard the WindRider. Now it was up to their sensors, their cunning, and their discretion. On that note, he tapped his combadge.

    “Commander Sollik,” he ordered,” report to the Transporter on the double!”


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN
    SLAUGHTERHOUSE



    Grand Suite of the Presidential Office
    Santragan People’s Freedom Coalition Capital City
    Santrag II
    27th Akaa of the Third Cycle



    He didn’t know what to do next. He didn’t know what would become of him.

    He didn’t even care.

    Standing over the ornate desk of President Tret Bra’Kala, his entire world had come to an end. The last reason to exist, the final objective after the death of his soulmate, had been completed. In a visceral orgy of primitive destruction and violence, he had stormed the office and slid through the rivers of blood that he had created. Without a care or remorse, he had seized guards by their uniforms and watched the life drain from their eyes as he blasted them point-blank with his stolen disruptor rifle. He had thrown enemies into approaching enemies, used several of them as living shields… and then finally, he had reached his target.

    Between the stationary, well-worn boots of James Morgan lay the lifeless, mountainous body of Tret Bra’Kala. Three shots had been delivered to his head, right where he had shot Jason Armstrong in his cruel display of arrogance and evil. There would be no more such displays. Blood was everywhere, across the desk, across his clothes, across what remained of his face, and across much of Jim’s own attire. It was still warm.

    Once more, with grim determination shaking across his dark features, Jim took aim with his disruptor rifle and fired at the carcass. Nothing happened. The energy had completely drained away by the flurry of blasts that he had used. He squeezed the trigger again. With each passing click, with each passing misfire, the tears in his eyes grew larger. Why wouldn’t it let him continue?

    Click.

    Why couldn’t he continue?

    Click.

    His hands started to tremble.

    His entire body started to tremble.

    Soon enough, he turned the rifle around and fell to his knees with a verbal cry of his torment. Over and over again, he slammed the rifle’s butt into Bra’Kala, striking his head, his chest, his back, his arms, and his legs. The tears fell and he tried to stop them, screwing his eyes tightly shut but he couldn’t. His howling grew louder and louder, an eternal testament to what he had lost.

    He had lost Jason, but he had also lost his humanity.

    Across the expansive office, a pair of military-style boots made a noise. A lone Santragan guard, somewhere in his thirties with slender features, entered the scene and gasped at the carnage on full display. It took only a few seconds for Jim to notice him. Turning around, he opened his eyes and gritted his teeth. His howl of despair became a snarling declaration of war. On his feet, ignoring the slippery blood threatening to stop him, he launched towards the Santragan. He wanted him dead. He wanted all of them dead.

    Halfway on his journey towards him, the guard’s skin color began to change. It was becoming green.

    Within a few more steps, the transformation was complete. It made Jim skid to an abrupt halt, his mistake understandable but a mistake all the same. The Santragan enemy was now a Suliban friend, compassion emanating from those blazing yellow eyes and sympathy etched onto the mottled green complexion.

    “It’s all right!,” Sollik called out to his enraged friend. “Jim, it’s me!”

    Cautiously, the two former colleagues came together in the middle of the office.

    “I’m here with Admiral Llewellyn. We’ve come to take you home.”

    Jim looked at him. His tear-stained cheeks began to twist into a delicate mixture of relief and sadness. He had been saved but not before he had done such awful things. He was returning home, but home was the Armstrong Family Farm, and he was returning without the namesake, the comfort, and the love that he provided. It was all too much. He broke down, collapsing forwards into the kindly arms of Commander Sollik. There was nothing left to do, and nothing left to say. They just had to get out of here before anybody came looking for their President and found, in his gargantuan place, the site of a massacre. Reaching around Jim’s shoulders, Sollik found his combadge and made the call.

    WindRider, I have him. We need to leave right now. Two to beam up.”

    As the transport kicked in, the rescuer gave one final look to the bodies around him.

    He simply had no idea what to think.


    * * * *


    WindRider
    Currently breaking orbit of Santrag II


    “He really did that? All of them?”

    “Yes, all of them, including President Bra’Kala,” Ewan Llewellyn told the communications system. He was having a difficult enough time believing it himself but the state that Jim was in told the story far better than Sollik’s description ever could. “Listen, Veth, I knew that this wasn’t the outcome that we planned. There could be some serious retaliation against your rebellion down there. Are you going to be all right?”

    “I doubt there will be any retaliation, Ewan. You and I both know that Tret wasn’t a much-loved leader. He won’t be a much-missed leader either. I’m just sorry that this had to happen the way it did, involving Mister Morgan and the loss of his partner.”

    “We’re still within transport range. We can get you out of there.”

    “No, no, you cannot… and you should not. I’m keeping the alerts to the Santragan cruisers on patrol subdued, providing you with a clear flight path out of our space. Besides, no matter how it happened, we are now free of a tyrant. I’ll have my work cut out for me, but there’s still important progress to be made here. Something lasting, something beneficial should be crafted from this nightmare.”

    Ewan was nodding along the entire time. “Agreed, old friend.”

    There was static on the line. For several tense seconds, not a word was spoken. The fear that something had happened, that he had been discovered by the real guards that was working alongside was instantaneous. The Vice Admiral called out accordingly.

    “I’m all right,” the reassurance came. “I have just lifted the blocks on communications.”

    “So… this is it for you, then. Showtime, as we say.”

    “It would appear so. Good luck to you, Ewan. May your journey home be safe.”

    It was another of the final partings that he would be making, that he had been making ever since undertaking this second rescue mission and that he would be making as the fallout from such a reckless disregard for the Prime Directive came crashing down around him. It was painful to make each one but Veth Ka’Gerran was something special. He had no obligation to help, other than the obligation of friendship, and Ewan respected him more than anybody. Slowly he reached across to terminate the comms system’s power and swallowed hard before speaking his final words to the former, and possibly future Santragan leader.

    “Good luck to you too… and thank you. Llewellyn out.”


    * * * *
     
  17. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    Well - that's a satisfying ending for Broccoli... Nothing like a MacBeth-style bloodbath - Or perhaps Hamlet is a better analogy. Speaking of rot in Denmark, have we heard the last of the Borg? After all, it was the King of Sweden who showed up at the end of Hamlet... I'm hoping we at least get an epilogue about Janeway..

    Thanks!! rbs
     
  18. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    Broccoli? You mean, Bra'Kala?
     
    Robert Bruce Scott likes this.
  19. Robert Bruce Scott

    Robert Bruce Scott Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Jun 18, 2021
    That's what my wife says when she wants me to cook broccoli and cauliflower. He's a great OC - especially the description of his eroding state of mind just before he discovers Llewellyn didn't die. He just oozes and bubbles off the page.
     
  20. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT
    THE LOST AND THE FOUND



    Main Bridge
    USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E
    Stardate 59747.9


    “Captain, long-range sensors have picked up the WindRider.”

    The report was delivered softly. All additional care was unfortunately ignored by the brooding presence of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He just sat there in his command chair with a scowl affixed to his forward-facing bald head. The Enterprise just wasn’t moving fast enough or space was just too large today.

    That additional care added to the report was for his benefit but nothing could break the feeling of betrayal that he had been nursing. He had called them all into his Ready Room and demanded the truth. They were fellow starship commanders, fellow Starfleet officers, and yet they were willing to admit to flagrant breaches of conduct in order to cover up the illegal actions of Vice Admiral Ewan Llewellyn. The Frenchman was so stranger to such things, such concepts of loyalty but something had shocked him about this particular example. It involved those he respected like Doctor Katherine Pulaski and those that he admired like the Vice Admiral himself. None of the factors sat well with him.

    Perhaps it was the turmoil of recent events, he tried to inwardly reflect. Perhaps it was the stress of facing the Borg Collective once more. Perhaps he still hadn’t recovered from the emotions involved with his visit to Rigel X and perhaps those same emotions were now being imprinted onto this entirely-different scenario. Whatever the reason, he still felt what he felt… and what he felt was betrayal. It was as though Jean-Luc Picard was Starfleet itself, and as if his own rules had been broken, rather than the rules that he merely served.

    He had met with Ewan Llewellyn at the beginning of this mission. He had looked at him, shaken his hand, seen the next generation of Starfleet’s upper ranks, and that had pleased him. It had comforted him, knowing that the future was safely on the shoulders of responsible men. Now, that next generation lay in ruins. It was corrupted by irresponsibility, reckless abandon, and a question mark of disrepute hung over everything. They deeply unsettled Picard.

    “Alter our heading to an intercept course,” he finally ordered with his eventual reply to the report of detecting the WindRider. “Go to Yellow Alert and standby with the tractor beam. If they try to resist, we’ll have to use all necessary force.”


    * * * *


    WindRider
    Currently heading out of Santragan Space at Warp Six


    Pulaski got to her feet and put her tricorder aside. “Medically, he’s fine.”

    “Are you certain?,” Ewan asked her with concern.

    “The Santragans roughed him up somewhere, and I’ve reduced the swelling on a few bruises, but considering what happened back there, he is surprisingly injury-free. All that remains is the damage that I can’t treat.”

    She was right. The Welshman stepped forward. Maybe he could.

    Pulaski left them alone in the rear compartment. With as much sympathy that he could muster, Llewellyn sat down opposite James Morgan’s motionless form. Throughout his medical examination, he had just been slumped there, staring vacantly at nothing in particular. It was as though he was an empty shell of a man, and to a certain extent, Ewan knew that he was.

    The image reminded him horribly of Jim’s return from the Klingon prison camp and of his apparent return from the dead. Back then, three years of systematic abuse and torture had created that end product. Today, it had been barely three days, and he had been tortured in a way that the Klingons could never manage in a way so terrible and so shocking that the effects would be nearly impossible to overcome. All the same, Ewan found himself placing his left arm around Jim’s lifeless shoulders. He responded, leaning in for comfort.

    The older man was biting his tongue. If the younger man wanted to talk, he would. It took a few minutes, long minutes loaded with only the background hum of the WindRider’s systems and the drone of the warp engines but finally he found his voice again. He hadn’t formed a sentence in days which made his voice shaky.

    “I’ve lost my humanity.”

    Ewan hesitated somewhat as he tried to think of a reply. “What do you mean?”

    “Revenge,” Jim quantified. “Whatever was left of me after they took Jason away, I corrupted with revenge. My furious angels have become… placated demons. I enjoyed pulling that trigger. Does that make me a monster?”

    “No,” Ewan answered immediately without thinking, wanting to comfort Jim.

    Then he paused to think about it for a second. Oddly enough, all that he could think about was the day he lost Edward Blackmore aboard the Fortitude. People had tried to compare and contrast that day with the first rescue, the rescue of Admiral Kathryn Janeway from the clutches of the Borg. They were wrong. This was the real mirror, wasn’t it? In both cases, the Englishman had been mistaken for an invader of worlds. In both cases, the enemy had jumped to a mistaken conclusion and in both cases, somebody had ended up dead. Sitting here with his arm wrapped around the former ensign, Ewan suddenly felt closer to James Morgan than he ever had before.

    It also meant that he had an answer for him, a proper answer.

    “No, Jim. you haven’t lost your humanity. What you did back there, how you channeled your reaction… You shouldn’t be proud of it. Nobody should be but what you did makes you flawed, yes. It makes you emotional, yes… and it makes you Human. Of all people, I understand that.”

    There was a tiny sigh from Jim.

    It was the best reaction that Ewan was going to get.

    Over the next few minutes, they sat in more silence, this time welcomed by both. Ewan decided not to reveal his original plan of how he was prepared to sacrifice himself, exchange himself for Jim’s safety and become the helpless prisoner of Tret Bra’Kala. It wasn’t necessary at this point or any point for that matter. Nobody knew of it and nobody ever would except Ewan. He had prepared himself for death. Now that death wasn’t forthcoming and he felt exhausted, both physically and mentally. He just wanted to sleep. He just wanted to forget everything and escape into his dreams, hoping they wouldn’t be nightmares, thanks to this roller coaster of recent events.

    After feeling the muscles relax in Jim’s neck and body, Ewan realized that his friend had beaten him to it. Gently, he returned him to a solitary position. The entire time, he was blinking through cloudy eyes. Everything was wiped away, though, just in time for the arrival of Commander Gabriel Brodie. He opened his mouth to speak before noticing the sleeping Jim and so he leaned forward to whisper his report.

    “We’ve detected the Enterprise,” he told the Vice Admiral. “They’re hailing us.”

    Acceptance spread across Llewellyn’s face. He simply nodded at the news.

    It was all over for them now. It was all over for him.


    * * * *


    CHAPTER FORTY-NINE
    JASON ARMSTRONG


    Armstrong Family Farm
    Inner Bluegrass Region, Northern Kentucky
    Sunday, November 7th (AM)


    It rained.

    Part of the Earth’s surface still required a natural weather cycle, especially those parts responsible for crop production and farming. There was no weather control system hanging over Northern Kentucky, and so it rained.

    The water rolled down the sides of the coffin and into the freshly-dug hole that waited patiently to embrace it. James Morgan had been digging for hours. He was adamant that nobody else would violate the land that once belonged to the man they were all here to burg, all here to honor and remember. He had barely enough time to shower, replacing the cold drizzle with a hot blast of water, and changing out of his muddy working gear for the ceremony. Just like the farm itself, everything seemed like a step backwards in time. Most people had replicated umbrellas especially for the day and never to be used again.

    They were all here.

    Not a single one of them wore a Starfleet uniform. It was a request of Jim’s, being the one to know that his lover the best and therefore knowing that he had never had wanted so much as a combadge near her funeral. It wasn’t out of animosity towards that great institution, but rather out of a lifestyle outlook. Jason Armstrong had always seen the individual, not the career. He would have the individuals, not the ranks or the positions that they represented to bid him a final farewell at his graveside.

    At the head of that grave was a single fence post. It was the very same fencepost that had started all of this, the same fencepost that Jason had dragged Jim to stand beside on the evening of September 21st. They had watched a sunset before narrowly escaping the crash of SC-1, the trigger that had brought back so many old faces and caused so much suffering. It was the last perfect moment Jim could remember sharing with his partner. At that point in their lives, everything was set. Everything was calm. Everything was being played out on a level field, no upsets or dangers or deaths… but then the farmland had been damaged. Then those thugs from Santrag II with their guns. Then they had been taken to be executed by an intergalactic madman and then only one of them had returned.

    There was no headstone. Jim had carved three simple letters into the fencepost.

    Jay.

    Handfuls of words were bandied about from underneath umbrellas. Jim stood alone, the only one not under shelter and dripping wet with his head constantly bowed. The coffin was lowered and the grave left open. Jim would return to bury it, to bury him later. It wasn’t time yet. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet.

    When everything had finished and the service was over, they had all filed past him and squeezed his shoulder or patted his hand or kissed his soaking cheek. They came to him first before moving towards Barbara and Dietrich Armstrong. They all knew him better and all of them shared in his heartache. Slowly the single group became multiple conversations. Some of them were muttering about where they were going next. Others were quiet remembrances like the time he had saved a microscopic lifeform from a dying sun or the time that he had stuck inside a malfunctioning holodeck simulation from Earth’s 21st century. Eventually even his parents departed, leaving Jim to stand alone.

    Alone… Forever now would he be alone. Nobody could compare.

    His friends would try their best, and he loved them for that but it wasn’t the same.

    It rained and he stood alone.

    Turning away from the solitary mourner, Erica Martinez displayed woeful dark eyes to the man that she shared her umbrella with. Gabriel Brodie had been quiet ever since the WindRider was intercepted by the Enterprise. There were no Enterprise personnel present, meaning there was nobody else to ask but the Latina woman knew better than to push Gabe. He would talk about it when he was ready but something about the grief of the funeral was making her eager to maybe just attempt one small probe.

    “What happened back there? Was it really that bad?”

    “I’ll tell you,” the African-American First Officer whispered,” one day.”

    “Okay. That's enough for me.

    Together they paused with Gabe finally facing his partner in both work and life. The kiss that they shared was a mutual supportive gesture, though necessarily brief. With gray clouds overhead and the steady beat of raindrops hitting the canopy above them, they didn’t dare linger in the somber atmosphere. Before they moved away, planning to head back to the Blackmore and back to their duties, something caught Erica’s eye. It made her sigh, deep in regret for the scene she was witnessing. It was unrelated to the funeral, instead happening amongst the guests that were walking away.

    Partially hidden by his own umbrella, Ewan Llewellyn was standing still.

    The object of his attention, Valerie Archer, was ahead of him. She was sharing her shelter with her own First Officer, Sollik. All that she could manage, all that she could afford to give, was a single glance over her shoulder. Anything more would have caused too much heartache for both of them. Erica saw Ewan acknowledge the glance.

    “I wonder,” she mused aloud.

    “You wonder if they’ll be all right,” Gabe sought to clarify,” or something else?”

    “Nothing, really… I just wonder. That’s all.”

    He wanted to run after her, to catch up to her and ask Sollik to give them five minutes in private. That was all that it would take, all the time that he needed to say what he wanted to say. But now, it was not proper. It wouldn’t be right, not now and not here. All he could do was acknowledge the look and let her go. Echoing Jim’s reaction to his loss, Ewan Llewellyn bowed his head and relented to his mind’s desire to shut down. He thought that he had experienced the saddest day of his life before, back in Seventy-Nine when he had lost his best friend, but today was fast becoming a serious contender for the title.

    Footsteps approached him through the rain. Manners, rather than curiosity or eagerness to converse, forced him around. When he raised his head and saw who wanted to talk, he instantly wished that he was somewhere else… anywhere else but here. This was a discussion that he desperately wanted to avoid, yet equally understood was inevitable.

    Her hair was restored, full and thick. Her skin was pink and rosy once more. The eyes, once dulled by oppression and racked with evil, now held a sincerely compassionate hue. Thin red lips parted in greeting.

    “Ewan. It was a difficult service. I’m sorry to ask but do you have a moment for me?”

    “I suppose I do. Go ahead, Admiral Janeway.”


    * * * *