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Starve the Borg

The USS Franscini has gone missing! The closest starship to their last known position, the USS Redding, has been dispatched to help.

Node 1: The Dilemma of the Dish

USS Redding, Main Engineering
June, 2401

Lieutenant JG al-Kwaritzmi, Personal Log, supplemental. We have exited warp in the Xi Velorum system, where we are to give support to the USS Franscini as ordered by Commodore Ekwueme. Thanks to the modification to the ventral quadrupole moment of the warp field, introduced by Lieutant Z’Xak, the collapse of the Cochrane wave function has been 0.031 microseconds faster than the benchmark value. This is an extremely impressive result, but has apparently produced a spurious resonant vibration of the Warp coils that might give rise to unwanted problems. I expect that, while an away team deals with the situation of the Franscini, we will have lots of time to analyze this problem.

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi stopped recording, downed what was left of his glass of water, and walked back into Main Engineering. He was welcomed by the gentle humming of the warp core, suspended in the middle of the large room, and by the reassuring noise of activity of the Engineering personnel.

He walked to the Warp control panel, where Lieutenant JG Z’Xak was typing away. The large spider didn’t give any sign of having taken notice of him; yet Iskander knew perfectly well that their composite eyes could capture almost 360-degrees. Z’Xak had seen him: but even on the best of days, he didn’t really care about doing anything about it.

“Lieutenant. What is your assessment of that spurious vibration?” asked the human.

The large spider hit their stomach carapace with their two small vestigial arms. Theirs was a non-verbal species, incapable of emitting or modulating air, but they used their own body as a sort of drum — not dissimilarly to how a grasshopper on Earth could sing.

“I see the pilons unprepared for the speed of collapse” the communicator translated.

“Yes. Any idea on how to fix it?”

Z’Xak didn’t answer for a certain amount of time.

“I don’t. You fix it” they drummed.

“Lieutenant. What did we say about being nice?”

The Ukarimi made a pause. Impossible to know whether they were thinking about this question or not.

“I am nice.”

Sadly, Iskander knew that this statement was true. The spider could be enormously brash and rude: they didn’t mean it, but their species had no concept of personal relationships. Their language only contained two subjects – I and you – and had no space for pleasantries.

Iskander was about to turn back to the subject of the vibrations when he heard a slight commotion coming from the entrance of Main Engineering. Indeed, Commander Vistia Xe and Science Officer Siouinon had just entered, and Commander Mir Durbus, the Chief Engineering Officer, was rushing to meet them.

“Commander! Commander!” She welcomed them.

“It’s about the Franscini” told her Commander Xe. “We’d like your opinion.”

Iskander tore his eyes away from the scene, despite being very curious. He looked back at Z’Xak, who — for their part — exhibited absolutely no curiosity in the activity of anyone who wasn’t either themselves or was working on the Warp system.

“What were we saying, Lieutenant?” asked the human.

“I am running a diagnostic” tapped the spider.

That usually meant that the Z’Xak would be concentrating on his own thoughts and not speak for quite a while. Starfleet had been very accommodating towards the Ukarimi engineer — in part owing to the fact that they were quite a genius — but their disregard for hierarchy, norms of convivial working, and social clues, made it difficult to interact.

Iskander turned and quickly evaluated the situation in Engineering. Commander Durbus and the other commanding officers had occupied a large wall panel and were looking at some scans — impossible to tell what. With her occupied, Iskander was automatically in charge during beta shift. He looked around to make sure that everything seemed normal — and it did.

He walked to Ensign Diran Koli’s console. The Betazoid, ever the sociable being, looked up to him and smiled.

“Lieutenant! How nice!” he exclaimed. Iskander sometimes wondered whether his enthusiastic way of greeting was genuine or played-up: nothing in Diran’s personality suggested deception, but even him couldn’t be this enthusiastic about such a trivial occurrence as a superior wandering to their console.

“Ensign Koli. We experienced a spurious resonance while exiting warp. Could you tell me if that was felt by the EPS grid?”

“I can certainly run a diagnostic for that!”

If anyone’s typing style could be described as lusty, it would have been Diran Koli.

They were interrupted by Commander Durbus’ voice.

“Lieutenant al-Kwaritzmi! Can you please come here?” she called.

Iskander jolted and walked to them at a controlled pace.

Commander Vistia Xe, Lieutenant Commander Therese Siouinon and Lieutenant Commander Mir Dirbus stood at precise distances from each other, as if describing an equilateral triangle with their feet; the monitor they were using shone behind them, showering them in purple light.

“Please do assist us, Lieutenant” ordered, peacefully as ever, the Vistia Xe. She was a Deltan who exuded internal harmony and whose vow of chastity was on record.

“A distortion field is making it impossible to scan the Franscini” explained Therese Siouinon. A human, she always sounded slightly aggravated, although you could never understand what had just aggravated her. “We suspect that it’s generated by a malfunction on board of the ship.”

“We are not certain that it is a malfunction” specified Mir Dirbus, the happy Bolian. “Could you tell us your opinion?”

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi suspected that they had reached an impasse and, faced with a disagreement, they had called on him to somehow tip the balance. But that was neither here nor there — his job was to deliberate on Engineering, not on ship politics.

He looked at the wall monitor. The USS Franscini was a Parliament-class starship, and was currently floating in the middle of a purple, angry-looking ion cloud. But that wasn’t the most peculiar thing: there was a signal.

Iskander neared the panel and typed to change the sensor input. Optical sensors showed the ship in the middle of the ion cloud. Coulomb sensors showed the ion cloud — no surprise there. Suboptical and superoptical sensors showed an impossible tangle of energy. Subspace, gravimetric and Cochrane sensor were a scrambled mess.

“Talk to us” ordered Therese Siouinon.

“I am not a sensor expert, but I know that subspace sensors should show us the ship’s signal clearly. There’s something in that nebula that’s interfering and masking any sort of signal.”

“Go on” pushed him the science officer.

Iskander tried a couple of settings before landing on the Cochrane redshift readings. One part of the Franscini, round and perfectly recognizable, shone like a star in the centre of the scan.

“It’s the deflector dish, Sir” he said. “It is emitting a signal that is scrambling… everything. If scans are blocked, then so are communications and teleport locking, for instance.”

“Could it be a malfunction, Lieutenant?” asked Xe.

“Not in my opinion, Commander. A deflector dish has to be pushed to operate in such a manner. And if it was a malfunction, it’d be easy to repair it.”

Mir Durbus nodded.

“The Lieutenant and I are of the same opinion, then. It is the deflector dish and it is not malfunctioning. Two to one” she said.

“Scientific truth is not a democracy” retorted Therese Siouinon.

“We are going to assume for the time being that this is a purposeful condition that the Franscini is in” said, diplomatically, Vistia Xe. “Could there be any reason why the crew did this?”

“None comes to mind” answered Mir Durbus. “It is a very effective form of communication jamming — in the same way that a monsoon is a very effective way to water your garden.”

Something came to Iskander’s mind. He changed the sensors back to optical.

“If I may” he said. “I’m sure that you have already noticed this, but… most of the ship is without power. The windows are dark. Navigation lights are dark. Yet the ship must have full power, if it can operate the deflector dish in such a way.”

“Ah” pondered Vistia Xe. “I see. Now, Commander Durbus, Lieutenant al-Kwaritzmi, I must ask a question that we have been mulling in our heads restlessly. Is there any way that this behaviour could be explained by Borg activity?”

Iskander jolted and stared at the Deltan. Borg? BORG?

“The Borg use Federation deflector dishes as subspace antennas to connect to the Collective” answered dryly Commander Durbus. “But this dish is jamming and scrambling, not communicating.”

“I must concur” added Commander Siouinon. “This wouldn’t be typical behaviour for the Borg.”

“I thank you for your opinions, gentlemen” said Vistia Xe. “Commander Durbus, you are to assemble a team of engineers. Whatever the Franscini is experiencing, be it purposeful or not, I want to be sure that we are bringing the know-how required to fix the dish and restart the power.”

Commander Durbus nodded deeply.

“Aye, Commander. We are going to meet you in… shuttlebay 1, I wager.”

Abruptly, curtly, Commander Vistia Xe and Lieutenant Commander Siouinon left Main Engineering. Iskander was still so shaken by the mention of the Borg that he barely saluted.

Yet Mir Durbus didn’t seem to notice his clear fear. She smiled widely.

“Lieutenant. We are going on the Franscini!”

Node 2: the Eye of the Ion Storm

Shuttlecraft Mesa, Xi Velorum
June, 2401

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi, Personal Log, supplemental: The USS Franscini has been found unmoving in the middle of an ion storm. It seems to be entirely powered-out with the exception of the deflector dish that is being run in such a way that no communication or scan is possible. I have been selected to join the away team, as assistence might be needed on the Franscini. We are suited-up. No matter how much I prefer transporters to shuttles, with no chance of locking, we are going to travel the old-fashioned way.

The interior of the Mesa was cramped. Every passenger seat of the Type-6A shuttle was occupied, making it eight with the two pilots.

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi sat between Ensign Diran Koli and the Arcadian Lieutenant JG Sirti-nei-Plex — the three engineers of the away team. Opposite them, inside of the Mesa, sat Lieutenant Commander Therese Siouinon, Ensign Koj and Lieutenant Jerome Friedrichsen: a science officer, and two security officers.

This oddly-balanced mix of departments probably told a lot about how the senior staff regarded the mission on the Franscini.

Iskander turned his head to the left and looked out of the viewing window of the shuttle. They were inside of the ion storm, and everything was swirly purple shades and lightning. Every now and then they could see the Sierra, the twin shuttle, that was leading the way a couple of hundreds meters in advance.

The shuttle, maybe hit by a stray lightning bolt, or maybe encountering a plasmatic perturbance, shook. Its structure made slight, strange noises.

“Are we sure that the ion storm can’t damage the shuttle?” asked Lieutenant Sirti with his nasal, high-pitched voice.

“Yes” replied Commander Siouinon. “It is not a very strong storm. It would eat through an EV suit, but it’s not going to damage a shuttle.”

“The Franscini has been exposed to the storm for a long time” remarked Friedrichsen. “And from what we know it doesn’t have shields. Any chance that the storm might have pierced a hole in the hull? Or that it might do that while we’re in there?”

“The Franscini looks undamaged” replied Siouinon. “But without scans we can’t be sure.”

“A storm of this intensity would probably need three months to eat through a duranium hull” said Iskander, who had nervously done the calculation before leaving. “They have been here for days at most — there is no risk of a beach.”

“It’s not a very strong storm” repeated Siouinon.

The shuttle shook.

“How long more?” asked Friedrichsen to the pilots.

“Hard to tell without a clear vision, Sir, but I’d expect we’ll see it within a couple of minutes.”

“What if it is a pathogen?” asked Ensign Koj.

“A pathogen?” said Lieutenant Friedrichsen.

“You know” tried to explain Koj, “one of those pathogens that produce violence and madness. You end up running around a ship with a sword or trying to teleport part of a planetary core because you want light. Or they become zombies or murderous! Maybe they’re inside of the ion storm because the pilot wend insane and decided –“

“Ensign” intervened Commander Siouinon, “we are not to speculate. We’re going to suit up if there’s any sign of biohazards.”

“I apologize, Commander.”

“There!” called the pilot.

Vague, far into the storm, a large lumbering shape was becoming visible, as if half-seen through purple fog. The warp nacelles of the USS Franscini — so similar in design to those of a California-class starship — were clearly recognizable. The Sierra had come to the full stop, maybe a hundred meters from the shuttle bay of the Franscini, and the Mesa joined it.

There was a beeping and the co-pilot opened a communication channel. Even with the shuttles next to each other, the quality of the call was dreadful — almost all noise and static. The deflector dish of the Franscini was really making it impossible.

“We have tried communications” came the voice of Commander Vistia Xe, “but there has been no answer. We are going in.”

“Acknowledged” replied Siouinon. “After you.”

The shuttles started, slowly, moving towards the Franscini: as they did, more and more of the ship appeared, large and dead in the middle of the storm.

“It doesn’t look damaged at all” commented Diran Koli, ever the cheerful optimist. “And not even a bit Borg-ified.”

“We are not to speculate” repeated herself Commander Siouinon.

Iskander thought with some dread of the mention of the Borg. None of the senior staff had even said why they’d suspect Borg presence, but had been clear that the crew should remain attentive.

The Borg had always been a presence in Iskander’s life. He could barely remember his father Adam: enormously tall (although that was probably just a reflection of Iskander being a child), always smiling, passionately devouring large quantities of hummus and carrots, with an exaggerated bushy beard (although the pictures, despite his memory, showed a well-kept short beard). He had been a security officer on an old Starfleet cruiser that patrolled the Tau Ceti system and adjacent — he would be at home almost half of the time. Shortly after Iskander’s eighth birthday, he had been out on a patrol when the ship had been called to Earth to reinforce against a Borg Cube.

Iskander had never seen his father again. Before leaving, the day before the battle, the whole family had been particularly cheery: they had invited the neighbors, played games, and Adam had read a bedtime story to Iskander: J.R. Yimanki’s Mirrors and Mice. Iskander had never finished the story, and — unconfessed to anyone — he still kept the book, with the same bookmark still wedged between the pages where his father had stopped reading almost thirty years ago.

This was, since then, probably the first time he had been this close to the Borg — with the exception of his period at the Academy, complete with “survive the Borg cube” simulations and similarly traumatizing seminars on Borg macroengineering.

“Iskander?” asked a voice.

Diran was looking at him, with a neutral expression. As was, ever attentive and less sympathetic, Commander Siouinon.

Empaths, thought Iskander.

“Hm –” he improvised. “More than the hull structure, I worry about life support, Ensign Koli. If most of the ship is powerless, then temperature and oxygen levels might be completely off.”

Diran’s expression showed that he hadn’t bought this diversion, but the Commander nodded.

“A valid concern” said Commander Siouinon.

The hangar door loomed now outside of the front viewing window, dark, ready to engulf them. The Mesa, blindly and slowly, slid into it as if it were a mouth.

Node 3: the Shadows of the Shuttlebay

Shuttlebay and Corridors, USS Franscini, Xi Velorum System
June, 2401

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi, Personal Log, supplemental: we have landed in the shuttlebay of the USS Franscini. The ship seems to be inert, but in one piece.

From the front viewing window of the Mesa, the shuttlebay of the USS Franscini looked empty and desolate. The only light was coming from the two shuttles, creating harsh shadows that made everything feel claustrophobic.

“That’s not good” said Commander Siouinon. “Everyone close their EV suit.”

The away team members nodded and complied. They had, of course, been dressed in the EV suit from the very beginning, but hadn’t raised the helmet. Now, at a touch on the wrist-mounted commands, the suit whirred and sealed.

Iskander descended from the shuttle and turned on his shoulder-lights. The shuttlebay of the Franscini was in all similar to the one of the Redding — maybe a bit larger, but it was difficult to tell in this obscurity. There were a couple of other shuttles parked, and a good number of large crates (some of Starfleet design, some not) of indeterminate origin.

“Computer: lights” called someone; nothing happened.

A stray light from the shuttles shone a moment the large red Starfleet Delta that was mounted above the shuttlebay door, and to the writing below it — USS Franscini. It looked pristine.

There was no sign of life, nor sign of damage.

He looked at the other shuttle, the Sierra, where the other half of the away team, lead by Commander Vistia Xe, was descending.

“Situation” ordered the Deltan commander in her usual placate but decisive tone of voice. She was holding her phaser and not a tricorder, like the other Security team-members.

Iskander took his tricorder and quickly evaluated the situation. To his dismay, the tricorder didn’t seem to be working properly. Once barely compensated for that, he couldn’t detect damage to the structure, nor to the EPS network. Everything except the force field was powered-down.

“Report” requested Commander Xe.

“Heavy interference in the scanner functionalities” said Commander Siouinon. “It comes from both the ion storm and from the deflector dish — from within the ship, its strong field has the effect of an EM distortion field. I expect that communication will be difficult for our badges.”

“No sign of damage of any sort to the ship” announced Iskander.

“There is minimal life support: temperature is being maintained, but oxygen levels are not being replenished. It should be stale but fine to breathe” said Sirti-nei-Plex. “There’s still artificial gravity, though.”

“There’s lifesigns, but not in this section of the ship, and nowhere close the number that we’d expect” reported Friedrichsen.

“Be more specific” said Commander Xe.

“Crew compartment of a Parliament-class ship is 450. According to out records, it had 447 on board last week. Now I’m picking up… at most 80 lifesigns all over the ship, although I can’t know where.”

“Where’s everyone else, then?” wondered Siouinon. “Bodies?”

Friedrichsen seemed to hesitate looking at his tricorder.

“Unclear, Commander.”

For a couple of minutes, the leaders of the away team — Vistia Xe, Siouinon, Commander Zekan — consulted amongst themselves while the rest of the crew searched the shuttlebay.

Iskander and Diran found a computer panel and tried to access it. It was completely dead.

“Can we reactivate it?” asked Diran.

They opened it and tried to get a line with the computer, to no avail.

“My guess is that the line to the main computer core has been cut” reasoned Iskander. “No orders can be given from here, and no inter-ship communication can be established.”

Lieutenant Friedrichsen, who had overheard, looked at the two engineers with a clouded expression.

“Was this made on purpose or on accident?”

“If it was an accident, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t have repaired it” answered Iskander. “The computer core is still operational, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to run the deflector dish.”

The senior crew called — it was time to know what to do.

__________________________________________________________________________

The away team was split in two.

The pilots would secure the shuttles. Iskander’s half — grumpy Commander Siouinon, Lieutenant Friedrichsen, Sirti-nei-Plex, Diran Koli and himself — would head for Main Engineering. The rest would head for the Bridge.

“We are going to lose communications quickly” reminded them Commander Vistia Xe at the door of the shuttlebay. “If it is possible, we are to reactivate intercom and ship-wide computer systems; alternatively we are to rein in the deflector dish’ perturbation. Should the mission prove to be a critical failure, the meeting point is here in the shuttlebay. Understood?”

Everyone nodded.

“May our discipline serve us well” said Commander Vistia Xe, and she opened the door of the shuttlebay.

The corridors of the Parliament-class starship were eerie: desert, dead, dark except for the lights of the EV suits.

Everyone had kept their helmets on even with the knowledge that both oxygen and temperature levels were stable. That made Iskander nervous: while he was reasonably used to wearing one, in this environment it constrained his capacity to look around: each movement of a light, each reflection on a wall, each sudden movement alerted him, and he had to really shift his weight and his torso to get a good view and reassure himself that it had been nothing.

The corridors, except for their unnatural quiet, seemed normal, yet every now and then the squad would come across a misplaced object on the floor: an abandoned work kit, a spilled crate lying on its side, a stray phaser, a forgotten tricorder, a wall section that had opened for repairs and never closed. Whatever had happened, it had possibly left the crew of the Franscini running and scrambling.

Iskander studied his squad mates.

Ensign Diran Koli had slowly lost their usual mirth and optimism. A relative new arrival on the Redding from the Academy, they hadn’t yet seen much away team activity, and no direct confrontation with an enemy. They had become taciturn, but their youthful face remained relatively expressionless: only the eyes wondered from side to side, restlessly.

Lieutenant JG Sirti-nei-Plex looked nervous. In part because his face was moist — had set his EV suit to the high-humidity setting (Arcadians being amphibious, they often needed to be in water or in a very damp environment) — but in part because he tended to pout and to bite his lower lip when stressed. He brandished his tricorder as if it was a phaser.

Lieutenant Friedrichsen seemed the most at ease. He was the vanguard of the team, shining his phaser rifle lamp in each corridor and door that they came across, communicating with the team with gestures of the hand and sweeps of the arms. Iskander couldn’t see him through his helmet, but he imagined him focused, attentive, perfectly in his element.

Commander Therese Siouinon was looking at her tricorder the whole time and harrumphing with some frustration. One could tell that this was a puzzle to her — where was the crew, why was the ship without power, who had caused all of this — and for now all she could do was collecting readings on a crippled tricorder. Every now and then she moved a hand up as if to rearrange her hair — a gesture she was known for doing — and in doing so hit the helmet she kept forgetting she was wearing.

“Any idea of where the lifesigns are?” asked Friedrichsen.

Iskander looked at his own tricorder. He had himself too tried to run a scan for lifesigns, but the interference made it look like the signals kept jumping position.

“Could be in the next corridor, could be on the other side of the ship” answered Siouinon, terse. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

Iskander looked on the side and, just as Commander Siouinon was saying that, saw something.

“Commander” he called, and pointed.

A wall panel had been removed on their right, as they had seen already a couple until now, but its insides had been torn, cables broken, isolinear chip removed.

There were droplets of blood on the floor.

Therese Siouinon signed to Friedrichsen to take guard, and pointed Iskander and Diran to look at the panel. She knelt next to a spill of blood and pointed her tricorder at it.

Iskander and Diran studied quickly the interior of the broken panel. It wasn’t in any way special — an ODN local manifold allocated to the inertial system — and whomever had done this hadn’t had a plan, but had rather removed parts and components without proper equipment nor apparent purpose.

Diran pointed at some metallic edges that had been broken.

“This has been done by hand. Someone has torn these by hand” they said. “They have hurt themselves and bled all over the place.”

Iskander picked up a gravofluidic container — a roundish object — and looked at its edge. It had been cracked open, yet there was no fluid. And on the edge there were, oddly, a series of irregular forceful markings.

“These are… teeth marks” he whispered, loud enough for the communication system of the EV suit to pick up.

“Teeth marks?” repeated Sirti-nei-Plex. “Someone has bitten a gravofluidic unit?”

Siouinon raised, walked there, and grabbed the egg-shaped container, studying it intently. Iskander was about to remark this forceful — and a bit rude — action but he looked at her and saw, on her face, fear.

“Tellarite teeth” she assessed. “Like the blood.”

“Do Tellarites usually try to eat machinery or is this very, very, very unusual?” asked Friedrichsen.

“Yes” answered Siouinon. Iskander’s brain knew that she had automatically answered like this because Freidrichsen had asked a question with a A-or-not-A form. She shook herself with urgency. “Let’s move quickly. We are not aborting the mission — we are to get to Main Engineering. Quickly. It’s not very far.”

The squad resumed its advance, now all with phasers raised and tricorders stowed away (except Sirti). They turned a corner and saw three figures, maybe fifty meters away on this new corridor.

The three figures were next to an open panel, just like the one that the squad had just examined. Sparks flowed from the panel, probably from a recent cut, and their bright light, almost hurtful to eyes adapted to the darkness, made it difficult to focus on the figures.

Siouinon signaled to stop.

One of the figures turned their head in the direction of the squad, and then turned their whole body in their direction. Despite the figure being quite slim, their movements were too slow, as if they were moving through gelatine; their body language was uncoordinated, clumsy, hostile.

“Commander” said Diran Koli, the empath of the squad. “They — I’m feeling –”

The second and the third figure had now slowly — excruciatingly slowly — turned, as if to face the away team.

One of them had a red light mounted on their head, where an eye would normally be. For a moment this scene imprinted itself in Iskander’s mind almost violently: three dark figures standing in a shower of sparks, a red laser light inset in one of the heads.

BORG, he thought.

“Run” ordered in a whisper Siouinon.

They ran in the direction of Main Engineering.

Node 4: Conversation at the Warp Core

Main Engineering, USS Franscini, Xi Velorum
June, 2401

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi, Personal Log, supplemental: the situation on the USS Franscini is quickly turning sour. We have encountered the Borg.

The squad of the Redding ran through the dark corridors, clunky in their closed EVs, finding their way to Main Engineering by knowing almost instinctively where and when to turn. Almost sister designs, the interiors of a Parliament and a California-class ships were substantially similar.

They still wore Starfleet uniforms. Iskander keep seeing in his mind the three Borg they had seen from afar. They had been lit scarcely and irregularly by the right sparks of the panel they were dissectioning; yet he had been left with the impression that they weren’t fully assimilated: they still wore uniforms. What did that mean?

Lieutenant Friedrichsen, security officer, moved in front of the group, still the vanguard even in the middle of this disorderly retreat. As they made a turn and the door of Main Engineering came into view, Friedrichsen fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

He cried in pain.

The four other — Commander Siouinon, Lieutenants Sirti-nei-Plex and al-Kwaritzmi, and Ensign Koli — froze in place.

“Don’t get near” whispered in pain Friedrichsen, lying on the floor before them.

“Lieutenant?” asked Siouinon.

“Gravity” he managed to say.

Iskander took out his tricorder and ran a quick scan.

“Roughly four g” he said. He almost felt like laughing. “This is good.”

“It really doesn’t feel good” grunted Friedrichsen. “I’ll have to crawl out of here. My wrist hurts.”

“I mean — It’s not a Borg strategy — but it’s an effective way to keep main engineering Borg-free” explained Iskander.

Siouinon turned to Koli.

“Can you perceive anything?” she asked.

Koli, an empath, closed their eyes and concentrated for a moment. Then they smiled excitedly.

“There’s definitely someone in here! I can perceive nervousness… fear… despair… hope… not Borg!”

Commander Siouinon, for the first time since the beginning of the mission, managed to look relieved instead of contrived. She sighed.

“This is Commander Siouinon of the USS Redding” she communicated on all frequencies. “Let us in.”

Not even ten seconds later, the door of Main Engineering opened and a head lurked slightly in the corridor, extremely careful.

“It’s actual people!” screamed the voice. “We’re safe!”

The gravity was brought back to normal, much to Friedrichsen’s relief, and the Redding team was warmly invited into Main Engineering.

The inside of the room was… chaos. It looked like a rich assortment of materials — crates, computer parts, ODN equipment, all sorts of engineering tools, loads of weapons — had been carried and stapled in unlikely piles in every single available surface of the room, giving it a very crowded and claustrophobic look.

The warp core shone in the middle: Iskander could see that at least four large objects had been attached to it, and he knew what they were without even needing to ask. Explosives.

A crowd gathered to look at the five newcomers: at least forty crewmembers of the Franscini, with uniforms of every section. They looked terrible — tired, malnurished, almost feverish, but with a look of astonished hope in their eyes.

“Hm. Hello” said Therese Siouinon. She always looked at unease in front of a public.

A Lieutenant Commander emerged from the crowd: a youthful-looking and rather petite Vulcan woman, in a yellow uniform whose right arm had been partially burnt: she had rolled it up to hide the damage, and the skin of her arm looked alarmingly green and scarred. The doctor who had healed her had repaired the damage but not spent any resource on cosmetics. Her expression was perfectly normal, and her eyes were steely and determined.

“Please, everyone, resume your activities” she ordered quietly. “You will be updated.”

The sad crew of the Franscini dispersed slowly while the Vulcan and the Redding squad got acquainted. She was named T’Konte, and was the Chief of Operations.

“I am, to the best of my knowledge, the highest ranking active officer” she added.

They found their way to the Chief Engineering Officer’s office. It was rich in chairs, but nobody sat. On the table a bunch of EPS replacement parts had been stored inelegantly, high almost to the ceiling.

“Should we remove our EVs, Commander?” asked Sirti-nei-Plex.

“I recommend you don’t” suggested T’Konte.

Siouinon shook her head inside of the helmet.

“What has happened here, Commander?” she asked, quite aggressively. Her relief of a moment ago had left as quick as it had come.

“Our ship has been invaded by the Borg, Commander.”

“Yes, I know that, Commander.”

“I suggest I summarize the latest events, Commander.”

“Please be concise. I’ll learn of the details when I read your wonderfully-written reports — in a couple of days, after we have saved you.”

Commander T’Konte raised an eyebrow and joined her hands together above her stomach, fingertip to fingertip, palms maybe ten centimeters from each other. Despite being quite short, she commanded an imperious, cold presence.

“The Franscini had been dispatched to retrieve an xB item — a nanomolecular forge scavanged from the Artifact. As we were returning to Starbase 36 the item was revealed to have a subspace beacon. It activated and started transmitting a distress signal.”

“So the Borg came?” guessed Diran Koli.

“Please do not slow down my retelling. A team managed to neutralized the beacon before it could transmit for a long time. It is unknown whether the Collective has received the signal. However, we now suppose that the reactivation of the beacon also reactivated other functions of the nanomolecular forge, including its capacity to create nanoprobes. We are forced to deduce that, during the neutralization and removal, the team was infected with them and a process of assimilation started.”

Iskander took a moment to imagine the horrible fact. He could see in his imagination the team — scientists and engineers – scrambling around a huge, ugly, lumbering Borg machine, trying to find the beacon and neutralize it. They probably had had to put their hands into the thing and take or force cables and chips out. He could almost see the tiny evil tubes grazing their skins, finding their way to the flesh and the blood, and deposit a small load of nanites.

“The assimilation was not detected until the day after, at which point a good section of the crew had been compromised. We sent a distress signal before having to jam communications.”

“Yes! Why did you do that?” asked Sirti-nei-Plex.

“The Borg’s first instinct would have been to assimilate the deflector dish and convert it into a subspace relay!” realized Iskander. “Wait — they managed! That’s why you’re running it in such a way: it’s already no longer a deflector dish! You saturate it with energy so that whatever message it’s trying to transmit is covered by all the random statics of the dish being run histerical!”

Commander T’Konte pierced Iskander with the gaze of her gray, controlled eyes.

“Your speculation is correct. The Borg reached the dish very early and have completely converted it. They did not anticipate that we would run this much energy through it, and therefore their design can’t correct our sabotage.”

“But the Borg could just walk down there and adapt their design, couldn’t they?” asked Friedrichsen, who was still grimacing and massaging his arm through the EV suit.

“And that’s why we are inside of an ion storm!” blurted out Diran Koli. Then, very self-consciouly, they shut up.

Everyone looked at them.

“Well” said tersely Therese Siouinon, “since we are already interrupting Commander T’Konte’s narration, you might as well finish that thought, Ensign.”

“It’s… you said earlier that an ion storm of this magnitude is going to eat through anything less than a shuttle, Commander” continued the Betazoid, a bit shyly. “Any Borg drone who tries to reach the deflector dish by walking outside is going to be vaporized.”

The Vulcan nodded.

“That is also correct. The drones can’t get to the deflector dish — we also blocked the access corridors — and can’t use it to call reinforcements. The combined interference of the ion storm and the deflector dish field also make communications difficult, which inhibit Borg intra-drone coordination.”

There was a short pause.

“Please carry on with the story, Commander” said Siouinon.

“If you’ll stop interrupting me. I will not… bore… you with a chronological account of the areas of the ship the Borg have tried, or succeeded in, conquering, nor of our attempts to fight. We have fallen back and currently occupy only Main Engineering, the Computer Core and the armory. How much the Borg may have secured or built, however, is unknown. We avoid confrontation and can do very limited scouting.”

Commander Siouinon nodded.

“We didn’t come across Borg structures from the shuttlebay to here” she said. “You have been… starving them, haven’t you?”

The Vulcan raised an eyebrow.

“Starving them?”

“We found signs of teeth on a gravitofluidic manifold. That puzzled me until I remembered that the gravitofluid is rich in lithium, which the Borg need to convert the organic host into a cybernetic drone — there are even reports of Borg Queens having to eat lithium-based batteries. And, in general, a Borg drone needs a lot of metal to convert their body, or even just to grow a cortical node. You have tried to contain the assimilation process by denying them any sort of nurishment, haven’t you?”

Iskander had read that report. While the details of the encounter were heavily classified, it clearly told of a Borg Queen (no less) in an almost completely human body, incapable of transitioning to her cybernetic self until she had — somehow? — obtained all the material she needed from a deceased Borg body.

Because, at the end, the Borg were not magical. They couldn’t convert a human body into a drone with just a handful of nanoprobes: they still were, like anyone else, subjects to the laws of physics. Eating was a desperate measure, to be sure, but effective nonetheless.

“I would not use words like nurishment or starve” corrected T’Konte. “They are imprecise — the Borg’s drive to convert organics into cybernetics is not comparable to our instinct to feed.”

Commander Siouinon looked at her with little patience.

“If I must accept your imprecise metaphore, we have been starving the Borg” answered the Vulcan.

Iskander nodded. Now the presence of all the material inside of Main Engineering made sense: they had been hoarding every single ship component that the Borg might have easily used as raw metal for their cybernetic conversions.

“The Borg that we encountered were still wearing Starfleet uniforms” remembered Sirt-nei-Plex. “So that’s why! They do not have enough metal to… grow… their exoplating.”

“Couldn’t the Borg just use the walls?” argued Friedrichsen. “They’re made of metal.”

“Duralloy and carbon fiber? They can” replied T’Konte. “But they need specific metals — lithium, rubidium, vanadium, several rare earths — that are not readily available in the structure.”

“They could use the replicators maybe?” tried then Friedrichsen.

“We destroyed every single replicator on board” replied T’Konte. “Alimentary or industrial.”

That explained why the crew in Engineering had looked so… hungry. It was not only the Borg that was being starved.

“Nice” said Friedrichsen appreciatively. Both Siouinon and Diran looked at him with a certain reproach.

“And the Borg need energy, right?” remembered Sirti-nei-Plex. “That’s why the ship is almost entirely devoid of power! Everything they do needs energy. How can they regenerate for hours into their alcoves if they don’t find a power source for it? And I guess that they can’t even correctly develop their cybernetic components without energy.”

Iskander remembered reading also about the first encounter with the Borg that would later come to be called Hugh: the crew had had to build an energy port for him to recuperate, and he would probably have died without it.

“Correct” nodded the Vulcan. “They have tried to access our power grid, and we have been mostly succesfull in denying it.”

“The Borg are still growing in power” remarked Siouinon. “They are merely slowed down. They will find energy sources, or create them. You may have hoarded all valuable metals in this room, but a Starfleet ship is still rich in resources. You may use high gravity and bricked-up corridors to block them, but they’ll adapt. And you — the crew of the Franscini — can only grow weaker.”

“A logical conclusion, Commander.”

Friedrichsen, a security officer at heart, smiled.

“So,” he asked, “how do we defeat them?”

Now everyone was staring in disbelief.

“Defeat?” said, simultaneously, the two Commanders: one cold and logical, the other one with clear surprise.

“We do not defeat the Borg” said T’Konte.

“Not without a fleet or Picard or Hansen or Janeway” opined Siouinon. “Not without waiting for them. Not without sacrificing even more of the crew of the Franscini.”

“Logic dictates we must evacuate” added T’Konte. “The safety of the crew can’t be further compromised. Yet, the continued existence of the ship is an imperative.”

That sentence stirred Iskander. He couldn’t help but to think of his father’s old ship, called to reinforce the battle lines for the approach of the Borg Cube at Earth. Iskander didn’t know what had specifically been ordered to the ship — he could have, but he feared the answers — so he imagined that, at some point, someone had made a call that the continued existance of the ship and of its crew were not, compared to Earth, an imperative. A cold calculation, almost Borg-like, in his mind. But the determination not to sacrifice the Franscini… was that rational.

He didn’t know whether his father had been assimilated, but if he had, the odious drone that would have become him would have perished at the destruction of the Cube. That was no comfort. Either that, or a cold horrible death in the vacuum of space.

The word of the Redding chief science officers shook him out of his reverie.

“Why is it an imperative?” grunted Siouinon. “I say we leave the ship behind. The Borg are going to activate their beacon and get reinforcements, and they’ll probably just take the ship and go away without causing further problem. The loss of a ship to assimilation is a nuisance.”

“The rest of the crew must be saved” retorted coldly T’Konte.

“Right. We detect only like 80 of the crew on board. Where’s the rest?”

“More than 200 had become possibly compromised by the Borg. Anyone at suspition of having been in contact with Borg nanoprobes has been beamed.”

“Beamed where?” asked Friedrichsen.

Iskander, a transporter specialist, had no problem in connecting the dots.

“Nowhere, Friedrichsen! They are in the buffers of the transporter!”

“Correct” nodded T’Konte. “Given time, we can rematerialize them in safe conditions and prevent any assimilation. Yet the transporters must remain powered-up for the whole time.”

“How did you get 200 people into the transporter?” wondered aloud Sirti-nei-Plex.

“The Franscini specializes in humanitarian assistance, evacuations and colonial settlement” said Diran Koli automatically. “It’s got a large number of transporter rooms.”

“Hence if we lose the ship we’ll lose the 200 crewmembers you have… stored… in there” contemplated Siouinon. “This is highly inconvenient.”

“Just to be sure… with the 80 crew that our tricorders can pick up, that’s roughly 300. If the crew manifest can be trusted, there’s roughly one hundred unaccounted for” remarked Diran Koli, softly.

T’Konte looked at them with cold, gray eyes.

“The Borg tried to adapt to what we are doing to the deflector dish.”

“Yes, and?” asked Friedrichsen.

Siouinon sweared softly.

“They tried to modify again the deflector dish” she reasoned. “They walked out and tried to reach it to modify it further and send their distress signal.”

“In this ion storm? They’d have been vaporized” gasped Sirti-nei-Plex.

“They were vaporized” corrected him coldly T’Konte. “Unconnected Borg drones are not clever. We thought that the ion storm would dissuade them, but they are determined and self-sacrificial to an illogical degree.”

Hundreds of barely assimilated Starfleet crewmembers walking out into an ion storm? thought with horror Iskander. It was monstruous, yet he could see the determined, desperate, uncreative mind of the Borg directing them to this pointless action. They had ceased being trained, resourceful Starfleet members: they had one and one drive only — connecting with the Collective, calling the Collective, joining the Collective, or die pointless in the attempt.

There was a loud band outside.

BORG! BORG! screamed Iskander’s mind. He knew that everyone had the same reaction: through the helmets of their EV suit, he could almost smell the panic. He could imagine Borg drones, half-assimilated and crazed and starved, smashing through the doors.

T’Konte raised two eyebrows, looking almost concerned for a moment, and went to the door of the chief engineer’s office.

“Lieutenant Kirrinakis” she called. “Report.”

“The seal on an EPS coolant conduit has exploded, Commander” screamed Kirrinakis from somewhere in Main engineering, her voice remote.

Everyone relaxed slightly.

“You four” said Siouinon to her squad, “go and make yourself useful. There’s a coolant leak to repair. The crew of the Franscini is exhausted.”

“Aye, Commander” said Iskander, breathing hard, pretending not to have just had half a heart attack.

“While you do, the Commander and me are going to cook something up” promised Siouinon.

“Cuisine is not a priority” remarked T’Konte.

“It’s a… I… The four of you! Make yourselves scarce! Out!”

In some way, Iskander was happy to do that. He couldn’t fix the problem that was the Borg, he couldn’t come up with a plan. But he could fix coolant leaks. He was good at it. And, he might die, but at least he’d die doing something he was good at.

Node 5: Who Heals the Healers

USS Franscini, Xi Velorum
June 2401

Meanwhile, in another section of the USS Franscini.

Commander Vistia Xe closed her eyes and concentrated.

Balance and inner peace had eluded her during this mission, ever since it had become clear that the Borg were onboard the ship and that a substantial part of the crew had been assimilated. Her training as a Deltan sworn Y’tbylse celibate had worked well on the outside – she knew that her calmness and determination had helped the squad to keep focused – but she wasn’t happy with her performance.

Although their destination had been the bridge, they had not made it that far: they had stumbled upon the sickbay, which to their surprise was occupied and fortified.

“Are you here to rescue us?” Had asked the large Denobulan doctor in charge, who had introduced himself as Tlalox.“We were planning on getting to the bridge” had responded Vistia Xe.

“That’s a waste of time” had answered Lieutenant Tlalox. “Everyone had been evacuated to secure areas such as Main Engineering. The bridge is most likely empty and inoperative.”

“And you?”

“I had twelve crewmembers in critical condition and the sickbay systems are inoperative” had said the Denobulan. Vistia Xe could feel his despair and tiredness. “Four nurses and I have remained here to do what we could.”

The Deltan had performed a tactical assessment of the sickbay and knew that there were five dead bodies. Seven remained critical.

“We have two shuttlecrafts in the shuttlebay” she had said. “We are going to evacuate your patients and you to the Redding.”

“We are never going to make it” had said Tlalox shaking his head. “The Borg are relentless; they will never let us –”“May I balance you?” had asked Vistia Xe.

He had nodded.

Vistia Xe had put the palm of her hand on his forehead and concentrated. The mind of the Denobulan was there, unquiet, and dark. She sighed heavily, recalled her Y’tbylse training, renewed in her mind her vow of celibacy, and took part of the Denobulan’s pain into her.

Inchoate images exploded in the Deltan’s mind. His pain was like an acid dust that deposited in crevices, it smelled like wet metal and Borg implants, it bloomed like a flower where every petal was a dead person, it wandered like a person lonely for not having married enough people, it tried to swim in the ocean while being dragged down by the tentacles of not a squid, it cried while being followed by Borg drones, it…

That was enough. Vistia Xe had taken her hand away.

The Denobulan had looked at her with some surprise, and a more determinate look in his eyes.

“We are taking your patients and your crew and we’re extracting you to the Redding” she had repeated.

“Yes, Commander.”

And now, twenty minutes later, they were loading patients and exhausted medics in the three shuttles (the two of the Redding, and the only one of the Franscini that was in the hangar). Somehow, they had not encountered Borg – apparently, they had been drawn to another section of the ship.

The shuttles left. They’d be back in twenty minutes.

Commander Vistia Xe opened her eyes and sighed deeply. She hoped that the shuttles would be back before any Borg interfered. She also hoped that the other half of the Redding had come up with a plan, and that it didn’t require any shuttle.

Node 6: Walk in the Storm

USS Franscini, Xi Velorum
June, 2401

Personal log of Ensign Diran Koli, supplemental entry, June 2401: Commander Siouinon and Commander T’Konte of the USS Franscini have come up with a plan. We are en route. Is this a suicide mission? I am not enthusiastic about it.

The ion purple sky angrily staring them down, Diran Koli thought of the series of choice that had led them there.

It had started in Main Engineering, after the coolant leak had been repaired, after the two Commanders had finished debating the plan.

“The Borg are starving” had said Commander Siouinon, “but we’re going to feed them what they want.”

T’Konte, standing next to her, had raised her eyebrow at the repeated use of a food-based metaphor.

They had called the Redding away team (Lieutenants al-Kwaritzmi, Sirti-nei-Plex and Friedrichsen) and an equal amount of personnel of the Franscini to receive orders. Diran hadn’t really memorized the names of the Franscini personnel, but their minds could be empathically felt: tired, spent, hungry, and despite all determined to sacrifice anything to save what was left of the crew.

The Redding squad was doing better — still in their sealed EV suits, but relatively fresh, their minds nervous, active. Relatively empty in Friedrichsen’s case, relatively morose as far as al-Kwaritzmi was concerned.

“Since we are in much better state” had added Commander Siouinon, her tone determined, her eyes looking down at a padd in her hands, “it is us of the Redding who are going to take care of the dangerous part of this. If nothing changes, Commander T’Konte and her people are going to remain sealed here.”

T’Konte’s mind was perfectly still, harsh, logical, but even a not particularly skilled empath such as Diran could feel a bit of annoyance at that statement.

“What are we to do, Commander?” had asked Iskander — calm and controlled despite the sullenness projected by his mind.

Before she could answer, a loud bang from some remote part of Main Engineering. Shouting. Phasers. Minds engulfed in cold terror.

“Borg” had whispered Diran.

“The Borg!” had screamed a voice from far away in Main Engineering. “We have a breach!”

Commander T’Konte’s mind remained controlled and placate — a testament to her self-control. The Vulcan looked at Commander Siouinon.

“We accelerate the plan. Variant C.”

Commander Siouinon had to take a deep breath before answering.

“Yes.”

“Assimilation of Main Engineering is going to be swift. We have less than 20 minutes” had said T’Konte. “If we fail, the ship and the 200 crewmembers who are in the transporter buffers are going to be lost. We act.”

The Franscini‘s crew had been ordered to evacuate from Main Engineering and make their way to the bow of the ship — presumably a Borg-free area. al-Kwaritzmi had been assigned to a “reattach the beacon” mission, and T’Konte told him to follow her to the shuttlebay. Friedrichsen and Sirti-nei-Plex had been dispatched to the impulse engine control room.

Commander Siouinon and Diran Koli had entered a Jefferies tube and started descending throughout the ship, as fast as possible.

“Where are we going, Commander?” had asked Diran Koli.

“You will not like the answer” she had grumbled.

That was quite an understatement.

They had descended, deck after deck after deck, until they had reached the hull. Then they had exited the ship.

And now, boots magnetized and attached to the duranium hull of the Franscini, they stood outside, on the lower side of the saucer section. Above them, the small secondary hull that was connected to the saucer by a pair of curved pylons; and in the middle of the small secondary hull, the shiny deflector dish, running mad on energy.

Therese Siouinon had pointed to it, above their heads.

“That’s where we are going” she announced.

Above them, the ion storm — purple, full of lightning and of energy.

They started walking, encumbered by their EV suits.

“And once we are there?” asked Diran.

“You tell me.”

Diran thought for a moment.

“We can assume that the Borg will soon be undoing what the crew did to the energy grid. The deflector dish is going to stop malfunctioning. They’re going to call reinforcements.”

Siouinon nodded inside of the helmet of the EV suit.

“We can’t allow that” she said. “But we have no way to stop the Borg in Main Engineering.”

They were walking in the direction of the pilons.

Diran could recall quite well what Commander Siouinon had said about the intensity of the ion storm when they were on the shuttle; and what Commander T’Konte had said about half-assimilated Borg drones being vaporized by the hundreds trying to reach the deflector dish by walking on the pilons.

The Betazoid felt, consequently, quite nervous. On the screen that was built inside the visor of the helmet, he toggled until he found the status of the EV suit. It had 96% energy supply, but registered a constant amount of ionizing radiation from the storm.

As if to prove a point, a thunder hit the ship maybe twenty meters away from the two: blindingly bright, purple, angry, yet perfectly silent. The electric charge spread through the hull at light-speed, and the suit registered it. Its integrity was still perfect, but the energy had fallen to 94%.

“I was a scientist in my previous career. Did you know that?” asked, abruptly, Commander Siouinon.

The question came completely unexpected.

“Eh? Sorry, Commander? You are still in the scientific section.”

“Oh. Don’t be mistaken. Looking into a scanner and recognizing something isn’t being a Scientist. A Starfleet science officer is a person who has two minutes to look at a couple of scans and datapoints and give a four-word answer to a Captain. A scientist is a person who studies a problem for months, or years, and tries to elucidate a principle of nature or something like that.”

Diran Koli considered this point for a short moment.

“I… see.”

“i worked as an exogeologist. I don’t expect that you know much about what we did, but there’s a planet, out there, where crystals grow to be mountain-sized. I’ve seen emeralds as large as a California-class starship. We didn’t know how it was possible. So the Federation established an outpost, and I became part of the Starfleet crew complement. We started with a thesis, and you know what happened to it?”

“You proved it?”

“How dull that would be! How simple! No, of course not, Ensign. Something much more exciting happened — we disproved it.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Science isn’t an engineering problem that has to be fixed, Ensign. Having to restart from square one means that there’s more to be learned than you thought, that you’re going to gain more than what you suspected. Nothing is as invigorating as having to clear the field and look somewhere else. So we came up with another working thesis, and you know what happened to it, Ensign?”

“You… disproved it too?”

“Yes!”

They had now reached the base of the pilons. They started the climb. Diran had a momentary vertigo when the magnetic boots attached to the curve of the pilon, bending the saucer section beneath them to an impossible angle.

“Disproving a thesis is also informative in itself” continued Therese Siouinon. Her mind felt… focused, energized. “Sometimes it forces you to learn more about the phenomenon you’re studying, laying the basis for the next iteration. Sometimes it leads to serendipitous realizations. Sometimes it becomes a new field of study. But we had a goal — and eventually, we found a theory we couldn’t disprove.”

“So you found the truth, Commander.”

“Science can’t be fixed! We are not engineers! The truth is immaterial, is abstract, is a word I do not trust and do not like. We found something better than the truth: a good model. And it wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t been wrong, consistently wrong, and had taken such joy in realizing how wrong we were!”

There was a pause. For almost five meters, nobody spoke.

“That was all to say that I remember, Ensign, aboard the shuttle, having said that anything less than a shuttle would definitely be vaporized by the strength of this ion storm. And we are only wearing EV suits.”

“So… you hope to be wrong?”

“As a scientist, I so wish to be wrong.”

A thunder hit the pilon. Diran could feel the magnetized boots losing for a moment contact to the hull (probably an effect of inductance), and the energy dropped to 92%.

“We are to, as fast as possible, dismantle the Borg modifications to the deflector dish” said Therese Siouinon. “Before the Borg fix it from Main Engineering, and before the ship exits the ion storm.”

“Are we flying out of this purple cloud of death?”

“Friedrichsen and Sirti-nei-Plex are going to the control room of the impulse engine to drive us manually out of here.”

“Couldn’t we have waited to be outside of the ion storm before coming out here?” asked Diran, more and more nervous.

“That was Variant B. We picked Variant C. Are you afraid of death, Ensign?”

Diran Koli pondered the question for a moment.

“Only on the good days, Commander.”

“And on the bad days?”

“Much more afraid of life on those days, Commander.”

She, inexpectedly, laughed, her mind amused.

“Why have we never spoken before today, Ensign? Oh! You should join my book club!” she exclaimed.

They had finally reached the deflector dish. Large, blueish, filled with enough energy to electrocute anyone with a touch, and covered in ugly clumps of Borg technology: a crude subspace beacon, black and green but bathed in blueish energy.

Diran assessed quickly the damage with his engineer’s eye. It was… bad.

“That’s a lot to be removed” he said. “And with so much energy running through the deflector, we’re almost sure to get electrocuted. If the ion storm doesn’t get us in the meantime.”

Therese Siouinon grinned and opened her engineering kit. Her mind was an impressive maelstrom of fear, awe, and determination.

“Let’s prove you wrong, Ensign” she said brandishing a decoupler.

Diran, despite himself, smiled.

Node 7: Needle in the Storm

USS Franscini, Xi Velorum
June 2401

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi, Personal Log, supplemental: after deciding that the USS Franscini should be evacuated, our squad has been assigned to different tasks. The deflector dish has to be cleared of Borg machinery, the impulse engines must be manually reactivated to bring the ship out of the ion storm, and Commander T’Konte is explaining me my task.

Iskander and Commander T’Konte walked fast in the direction of the shuttlebay.

Iskander had been ordered to take an advanced engineering kit (quite a voluminous item, but the EV suit had servomuscles), while the Vulcan chief of operations had retrieved a box from Engineering before evacuating.

“The assimilated crew of our ship are trying to build a beacon to call reinforcements” was explaining the Vulcan. “It is a primary drive for them. They will not desist until they achieve communication and are retrieved.”

“Hm, yes” agreed Iskander, nervously. He kept looking right and left. No sign of Borg in the dark corridors.

“However, Commander Siouinon postulates that, if a beacon was active, they wouldn’t try to use the deflector dish of the Franscini.”

“Hm, probably not” agreed Iskander again. “Are we going to build a beacon for them?”

“That would be an illogical course of action. We want the beacon to not be aboard the Franscini. And it is not necessary to build one when we can reassemble one.”

The thought stroke Iskander.

“All of this started when an xB horror you were transporting — a nanomolecular forge — started transmitting a distress signal! Your crew came into contact with nanoprobes while deactivating its beacon!” he remembered.

T’Konte raised the box she was carrying.

“That is correct. The antenna of the beacon was deactivated and is safely preserved in this tech stasis unit. I estimate that, when reattached in the appropriate fashion, it will reactivate the forge beacon.”

“And then? The Borg will come!”

The Vulcan walked steadily. Nothing in her expression or posture suggested unease.

“That is correct. If they interpret this as a salvage mission, they will retrieve what they perceive as belonging to the Borg and will leave.”

“… and if the Franscini isn’t in advanced state of assimilation, you’re hoping that they’ll leave the ship alone!”

“We are not hoping. There is a historical probability of 28.4% of the Borg interpreting this as a simple salvage and retrieval mission.”

They walked ten more minutes.

“If they do, they will still take every member of your crew who is partially assimilated and extract them” remarked Iskander.

“Yes” said the Vulcan with perfect control. “This is a logical conclusion.”

Iskander tried to add something, but couldn’t. He guessed that Commander Siouinon had insisted on this course of action. It was horrible — sacrificing friends and colleagues who had been assimilated, in order to guarantee that no other person fell — but he couldn’t find anything different.

“So, where’s the nanomolecular forge?” he asked, eager to change topic.

“We couldn’t leave it on board. The drones would have found it and used it. It would have sped up the rate of assimilation by 381%. It was an unacceptable risk.”

“So, where is it?”

Commander T’Konte took out a PADD and pressed a button on it.

The screen on the inside of Iskander’s helmet lit up with the information that was been transmitted to it. He could see coordinates and instructions.

“It’s… oh… OH! It’s in the middle of the ion storm” he said.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“You pushed it out of the ship and let it drift.”

“It couldn’t be risked to remain on board. It’s a nanomolecular forge.”

“Right. And now you want me to go out there, in the middle of the storm, and reattach the antenna to it.”

“You are to take a shuttle. It can get close to the coordinates. For a short time the shields of the shuttle can be extended, protecting your extraveicular activity.”

Iskander nodded. It wasn’t a bad plan. Drive to the forge, get out for a couple of minutes while protected by the shields of the shuttle, get back inside. Easy.

They entered the shuttlebay and there was no shuttle.

THERE WAS NO SHUTTLE.

Commander Vistia Xe of the Redding stood there with the rest of their away team.

“Lieutenant al-Kwaritzmi” she greeted him. “Commander.”

“We require a shuttle” said T’Kelme brusquely. Her self-control was slipping.

The Deltan commander nodded.

“They are evacuating part of your sick and needy. They will be back in twenty minutes.”

“You took our shuttles too” said the Vulcan.

“You had many sick and needy” explained the Deltan.

Iskander looked at the Vulcan. In her eyes he could read, for the first time, pain and panic.

“Is that too much?” he asked.

“We are going to start moving out of the nebula at any time now” said T’Konte. “The Borg will take control of Main Engineering even sooner than that, and will try to use the deflector dish as a beacon. If the Collective receives a message from the beacon, they will want to retrieve the Franscini. This can’t be risked. The nanomolecular forge’s beacon must be reactivated before we are out, before the drones on board manage to –”

“Siouinon and Koli are at the deflector dish and are undoing its modifications” said Iskander. “The Borg won’t be able to use it as a beacon.”

“Out of the ion storm, they will be able to reach the deflector dish. They will reassimilate it unless a distress signal is already active.”

Iskander breather deeply.

“When does the nanomolecular forge beacon have to be operational at the latest?” he asked, forming a plan in his mind. He hated this plan. It was the worst plan.

“Four minutes, twenty-one seconds” said T’Konte. “If the beacon isn’t transmitting by then, the Borg will try to use the deflector dish, and the likelihood of the Collective taking the Franscini rises to 94.2%.”

Iskander set a timer of four minutes, twenty-one second in his EV suit. He moved it to the top right edge of the screen inside his helmet. Now he knew.

“The shuttles won’t be back in a useful time” remarked coldly Vistia Xe. She couldn’t have known.

“No” agreed Iskander.

He took the stasis container from T’Konte’s hands and started running.

“What?!” gasped the Vulcan.

“Lieutenant!” raised her voice Vistia Xe.

Iskander picked up pace. His engineering kit was firmly attached to the EV suit. He held to the stasis container with all his force and ran towards the force field at the end of the shuttlebay. Past it, the purple, angry ion storm.

“LIEUTENANT, STOP!” screamed voices in his helmet. It was impossible to know which of the two commanders had given the order, or if both, but that wouldn’t be a problem for long. Soon he’d be out and any communication would be lost to static.

The force field would let him through, he knew. He had already set the EV suit to interface with it — just like a shuttle, he would pass through like thin air.

He reached the force field and he jumped.

He was flying into the ion storm.

———————————————————————

He needed a couple of seconds to breathe deeply to forget the absolute stupidity and recklessness of what he had just done. He was utterly terrified, and yet astonished that he had found the courage to jump.

He looked up the coordinates of the nanomolecular forge and set a course for the navigation system of the suit. The EV suit, obedient, started moving using its limited plasma engines.

Deep breathes as the suits starts accelerating.

The plan was simple. Use the EV suit’s limited capacity for space travel to reach the nanomolecular forge. Try to get there with at least one minute to spare on T’Konte’s estimate. Attach the beacon’s antenna. Hope that the nanomolecular forge starts transmitting a distress signal, that the drones on board of the Franscini don’t assimilate the ship further, that the rescue ship from the Collective only teleports Borg technology and drones and leaves the Franscini behind. 200 people saved in its transporter buffers.

Failure would have meant that the Borg assimilate the Franscini further, reshape the deflector dish into a subspace beacon, and possibly get their hands on remaining Franscini crew or Redding away crew. A Collective rescue ship arrives, finds a Federation ship sending a Borg distress signal, and takes it back to wherever Borg nightmares are made. Half the crew, frozen in transporter buffers, either assimilated or dead.

Iskander increases the power of the engines of the EV suit. He could feel them getting hot against his skin.

The ion storm was around him, terrifying. Static electricity accumulated on the suit. The screen of the helmet sometimes flickered. The annoyingly scientific part of his brain informed him that thunder in space can move in all directions, not necessarily from the sky to the ground. Yet the silence was eerie, because Iskander had deactivated the sound conversion function of the suit.

He inventorized. The Borg antenna was still in his hands. He trusted his instincts as an engineer well enough to know he could correctly reattach it. The suit had still 82% energy — quickly dropping due the engines. T’Konte’s timer was now 3:21. ETA to the coordinates of the nanomolecular forge was 2:02.

He silently cursed his stupid bout of heroism. But his hand had been forced. He had been the only engineer already in an EV suit in the shuttlebay. There was no other mean of transportation — no time to look for a worker bee or an evacuation pod (both would have also been extremely inadequate). T’Konte had communicated that the beacon had to be reattached, that 200 lives depended on it, and… the need of the many…

He closed his eyes and breathed. The suit could handle driving itself to the coordinates.

He thought, as he often did, of Orsos. Iskander’s ancestors had believed in a thing called an afterlife — a place where a hypothetical noncorporeal version of a person’s consciousness would be somehow transferred upon death, a sort of katra for non-telepaths. His ancestors in Egypt would have thought that Iskander, in the case of death by ion storm, would have been rejoined to Orsos in some sort of feather-equilibrated utopic resting place.

But he, obviously, didn’t believe in Osiris and Maat. He thought of Orsos, the man he had loved, the man he had seen dying. Iskander didn’t care much about dying himself — he no longer loved life as he had — but he couldn’t tolerate the thought that, when he died, so many memories of Orsos would also cease to exist. He, Iskander, had been exclusive witness to a side of Orsos that had been shared with no one else. There was so little of Orsos left, aside from precious memories, and so many of them in his head and nowhere else. Iskander couldn’t tolerate the thought of the memories of Orsos being lost to this cruel, insensitive universe.

He opened his eyes. He would survive.

He could now see the xB molecular nanoforge, floating in the ion storm, an ugly blob of metal, uncaring, meaningless, hateful. Energy: 58%. T’Konte’s doom prediction: 1:35; ETA 0:16.

The EV suit decreased its speed and maneuvered to the nanomolecular forge: the longest 10 seconds of Iskander’s life. And then, frenetic action.

Engineering kit. Extracting the beacon antenna from the stasis holder. Checking for connectivity. Repolarizing. Finding where it belonged in the nanomolecular forge. Socket found. Serious burns, probably due to the ion storm. Relaminate to repair some of the damage. Add a sigma-sigma fluid in the socket. Motivator and coupler. Beacon antenna in position. Push it in. Coupler. Virtual extruder. Reenergizer.

Kick the ugly xB machine and scream.

The screen inside the helmet of his EV suit alerted him that it was detecting a strong Borg distress signal coming from a source about one meter away from him.

T’Konte’s doom timer: 0:23.

“Yes!” screamed Iskander. “YES!”

He added a couple of celebrative words that were, in hindsight, rather insulting to the concept of Borg motherhood and fatherhood.

He looked at the energy reading of his suit. 41%.

Not enough to make it back to the Franscini. Especially if it was moving.

Thunders suddenly danced in his vision field.

He knew why the ship was being moved out of the ion storm: so that transporters could be used to evacuate it. The ion storm interfered with transporter locking. In the case that the Collective decided to retrieve the Franscini, the non-assimilated crew would have been already gone.

Transporter locking.

Iskander hadn’t spent years at the Lisa Meitner Research Facility for nothing. He hadn’t specialized in transporters and worked at a leading transporter research institution to die in this ion storm. He didn’t carry the memories of kissing Orsos just to give them up in a stupid purple nebula.

He took the engineering kit and found what he needed: a signal amplifier.

Insufficient, of course. Without even thinking, he started working. Dismounted its base. Demotivator. Decoupler. Optronic extruder.

In a blinding shower of violet light, he was hit by a thunder.

For a moment the pain was like nothing he had ever felt. But fortunately an EV suit was almost like a Faraday cage: most of the electric shock had not been communicated inside. Most.

The screen had cracked, but held.

Injection — 20 cc neuropralzine, 30 cc tinofen-D, 15 cc ematocytic solution, informed him the flickering screen of the EV suit. Of course it had a first aid automatic system and could partially medicate him. Please seek medical assistance.

“Double the amounts” he whispered, surprised that his vocal chords could still work. He couldn’t afford not to be lucid. The suit alerted him, and he overrode the objections. Drugs in that amount could kill him, but so would have the next thunder.

The EV suit complied and Iskander’s mind was flooded with a thirsty energy and lucidity. His heart beat like crazy. The EV suit energy level had dropped to 9% — most certainly from the thunder.

No time.

Extruder. Optronic rescambler. Open the dataport of the EV suit. Forcefully remove the Y-S junction, replace it with a G-J manifold. Quantum collimator. Synchronizing the primary and secondary readers. Locking the modifications. Recoupler. Motivator.

He had connected the signal amplifier to the internal systems of his EV suit in record time. He had made his EV suit into a signal amplifier.

He was almost without breath, and knew that his heart was probably about to stop beating. 8% energy remaining in the suit.

When the deflector dish of the Franscini stopped its perturbation, when it stopped blasting energy and distortions in all directions, then the Redding would be able to scan inside of the nebula. They’d be able to see Iskander. Thanks to his signal amplifier, they could beam him on board.

He just had to power the signal amplifier. He transferred all power to it.

Everything inside of the EV suit went dark. He could only see the purple ion storm through the cracked glass of his EV suit.

When the deflector dish… stopped… then… they could beam him… through the storm… signal amplifier…

Iskander al-Kwaritzmi closed his eyes and could see Orsos.

Node 8: Mend

Sickbay, USS Redding, Xi Velorum
June 2401

Consciousness came back to Iskander in degrees. For a long time, he felt like he was being suspended in an amorphous, gelatinous space, bathed in beige light, hearing nothing but people speaking light years away, yet his skin raw and sensitive.

After that he fell into a dreamless sleep, from which he re-emerged for what seemed to be his quantum mechanics exam. He sat, nervous for he had forgotten to study, but fortunately the exam was interrupted when the faceless professor started showing signs of having been assimilated by the Borg — her skin growing white and pale, decorated by black veins and by emerging bioimplants.

We are starving, said the Borg teacher in what certainly didn’t feel like a dream.

We gave you back the nanomolecular forge, answered Iskander. I died reattaching its stupid antenna. Take it and eat it.

Our hunger is never sated, said the Borg teacher. Why do you think we assimilate yet? Hunger is our only drive. And you starved us. We can’t be stopped. We can’t be denied. We will come for you, and we will devour you.

Iskander was about to tell the Borg teacher that he would have loved to discuss, but the quantum mechanics exam was more important. But he fell again into a thoughtless slumber.

Then, after a time that might have been one second or one week, he opened his eyes.

His body felt… hot and painful. His skin still felt coarse, his throat hoarse. There was no mistake where he was: on a bed in sickbay. Above him floated Nurse Trinxi, smiling, a hypospray in his hand.

“Well here you are, Lieutenant!” said Trinxi. “You had us worrying for a moment. How do you feel? Name, rank.”

Iskander had to try twice before he could actually say something.

“Iskander al-Kwaritzmi, Lieutenant Junior Grade.”

“Are you? So, what’s Perseval’s identity?” asked Nurse Trinxi.

“Eh… an infinite version of Pythagoras’ theorem for Fourier transforms?” answered Iskander wondering if this was a continuation of the quantum mechanics exam and a Borg teacher would manifest now. That had to have been a dream.

“I have no idea whether that’s true” said Trinxi, “but I think there’s no brain damage.”

“Am I healed?”

“Do you feel healed? No, your body is still a mess. But you’re stable and we’re going to take you into surgery in twenty minutes. Do you want to sleep until then?”

Iskander considered for a moment the question.

“I’d rather stay conscious, if that’s all the same.”

“Certainly! Just… don’t move. Don’t do nothing. We do not want to have to reattach your skin.”

Iskander nodded and Nurse Trinxi seemed to float away.

Another face appeared in Iskander’s field of vision. Vulcan, female.

“Commander T’Konte?” he recognized.

“It pleases me that you have not perished” she said. “What you did was unconscionably dangerous.”

“Wasn’t it logical? There was no time to wait, nor to explain it to someone else, nor to put you inside an EV suit. I was the logical choice.”

“It was, but I am not here to debate logic” she said, expressionless, emotionless.

“Did it work, Commander?”

“Your repair, Lieutenant? Yes. It was adequate. The beacon was repaired and attracted the attention of the Borg.”

“And your plan? The one that had a 27% chance of working?”

She raised her eyebrow.

“It worked. A Borg sphere appeared shortly after all the non-assimilated personnel had been beamed to the Redding. It retrieved the nanomolecular forge, and any partially assimilated drone, but did not take the ship.”

“So all the 200 crew you had put into the transporter buffer…”

“They are safe.”

Iskander closed his eyes and breathed deep (which hurt).

“Can you put on record that I’m doing a small celebration dance? It would be a factual lie, but emotionally it would be true.” he asked the Vulcan. She raised her eyebrows and didn’t say anything. “I have been instructed not to move.”

“I wanted to thank you personally” she said instead. “As I have thanked all other members of your away team. Without your assistance, we would all have been assimilated.”

“So there is hope, right?” said Iskander. “Against the Borg, I mean.”

The Vulcan seemed pensive.

“Your Commander Siouinon has been using eating-based metaphors this whole time to describe the Borg” she said. “I’m going to try. The Borg are ravenous. They can be starved but they can’t be stopped from wanting to eat. The only hope is not to be on the assimilation menu tonight.”

Iskander smiled faintly.

“Was that a rational use of a metaphor?” wondered the Vulcan.

“It was perfect” answered Iskander.

She saluted him and left.

In the brief time before being brought to the surgery theater, Iskander thought of his father, killed in the Battle of Sector 001, and never stopped smiling.