Vulcan by Scribe
by Scribe

Follows Fluidic


Prologue:
Seleya's Heart

TWENTY-SIX YEARS AGO
BEYOND THE EL-ADREL SYSTEM

"Reactor core overloading, sixty-seconds to catastrophic failure."

Considering the warning it was delivering, amidst the screaming of emergency notification systems throughout the cockpit, the computer's voice was rather calm. Of course, the central computer had no emotions to speak of. It could not feel the dire situation closing in on the ship called the Seleya's Heart, it only dealt in the facts of the situation and was indifferent to the fates of its passengers.

Green blood rolled off the edge of the cockpit controls, culminating in pregnant drops that splattered across the floor when it finally landed. They created an odd kind of abstract art against the duranium plating. The source of the blood was an unmoving form, slumped across the controls supported by the seat in front of it. Part of his face was charred almost black and what flesh not seared away by the energy spike that ceased his life functions nearly immediately, was raw and exposed, caked with copper-based blood.

I must not look at him. I must be logical. I must be Vulcan, now more than ever. I must not think of him as my k'hat'n 'dlawa, because at this moment, it means nothing.

The irony was not lost on T'Laren, mate of Svianek. Both had fled to the edge of the world so they could live as they wished, to not be reminded they were considered deviants. Other races lived as they wanted, why was it so wrong to desire the same things? In her heart, she felt the heat of love, lust and happiness and these were not shameful things. Yet, as she looked at him right now, her heart was screaming in anguish, threatening to override all other thoughts and she knew, there was merit in the ways of her people.

She needed focus, needed to forget the pain of his loss for there would be time enough for mourning later. Now, the imperative was to ensure the planet below became a refuge instead of a burial ground. It was little more than a rock, a scab in the wilderness of space, so far away from any civilisation that not even the Romulans, Klingons or the Federation cared for its existence or would fight over it. For two Vulcans who were V'tosh ka'tur, it was perfect.

"Mother."

She spun around in her seat where she had been struggling to fly the ship and saw her son staring at her. Not quite four years old, Svinak stared at her with those blue eyes that were so much like hers, it made T'Laren want to weep. He was small for his age, with long hair that was unruly in comparison to the neat bangs worn by other Vulcan children. Then again, he was not like them by design. He was not conceived from a marriage of arrangement, but one of love. To be together, T'Laren and Svianak had turned their backs on Vulcan law and philosophy, and he was the product of their union.

She had no reason to regret it until now.

The words of her father haunted her, reminding T'Laren the price of their defiance when she and Svianek had turned their back on being Vulcan. Now they were alone, far away from safety and if the worst came to pass, they might be stranded here for all time because they were so far away no one might have heard their distress call.

"What are you doing here? I told you to remain in your seat!"

"But I was afraid," he spoke in that tiny voice, his pouted lips quivering in distress because she was shouting at him. More than anything, T'Laren wanted to go to him, to hold him so he could feel her strength, so he could take comfort in her love. Yet to save his life, she had to be Vulcan, she could not allow herself to feel, or they would both die.

"You have been told to return to your seat," she spoke harshly, not wanting him to enter any further into the cockpit, lest he saw what was left of his father. "What is here is not for you! When it is safe, I will come for you. Do you understand?"

He jumped at her sharp rebuke but nodded somberly before retreating into the next cabin.

T'Laren faced front again, ignoring the agony of his pained expression when he drew away, choosing to focus their approach to the planet beneath them, even as the ship's computer repeated its warning of the warp core breach in the Seleya's Heart.

"Computer," T'Laren spoke, knowing there was only one choice to make. "Eject the warp core."

"Authorisation required. Please input the command codes."

T'Laren obeyed, keying in the required code as the cockpit around her continued to flash an angry red, screaming its words of doom, in a calm measured voice that infuriated her to no end.

"Warp core ejected."

She saw the warp core tumbling away from the small ship, hoping that it would not be caught by the gravitational field of the planet below. The last thing she wanted was for their arrival at their potential new home to coincide with the wake of an antimatter explosion. In the damaged view screen on the console, the brilliant blue reactor hurtled into the darkness of space before it exploded. The shockwave spread out and slammed into the ship. The force of the blast was so violent, it threw her forward and she felt her skull smash against the console, followed by excruciating pain across her forehead as blood filled her eyes.

Nauseous and dizzy, she wanted to lapse into the darkness beckoning her with all its might to accept its comforting embrace, but she could not. The ship was still in the air, and even though it was mortally wounded, there was one thing left to do before she could surrender to the pain, surrender to the cold tugging at her consciousness.

Before she died, T'Laren had to land this ship so that her little khio'ri would survive. No matter what happened to her, her son had to live.

*k'hat'n 'dlawa 'half of my heart and soul

*khio'ri - Star

Chapter One:
Orbit

"Get us into high orbit now!"

Chris Larabee's words jumped started the stunned bridge crew of the USS Maverick into animation again. For almost a minute following Vin Tanner's shock revelation of their present location, no one could quite believe it. The impossibility of it was too much and everyone, no matter how seasoned they were, were gripped with the same astonishment. Their escape from Fluidic Space had not resulted in getting them home but had instead flung them into the Federation's ancient past.

They weren't even in the Frontier anymore! Somehow, the wormhole twisted into a temporal rift and had emptied them light-years from where they were. Instead of being days away from Deep Space Five, they were now minutes away from the planet Vulcan, deep in the heart of Federation space. There was no sign of the wormhole or singularity, meaning however they got home from this point on, it would have to be by a means they had yet to fully consider.

"On it," Vin who was in better shape to react first, since he was the one who told everyone where they were, quickly tapped the console in front of him, shunting aside the conflicting emotions running through his head at present. There would be time enough to deal with the ramifications of seeing his homeworld under such circumstances. Right now, he had a job to do.

Chris possessed a similar mindset. Being Captain, he connected the dots far more quickly than anyone else on the bridge and knew what had to be done first and foremost. "Ezra, deploy the cloak immediately. We can't let them see us."

"Aye Captain," Ezra Standish, Chief of Security blinked as if the demand was the jolt to the system he needed to resume his unwavering professional mask. It was rare when Ezra showed his emotions and unknown to him, this facade provided a gauge to the rest of his comrades of how much trouble they were in.

"Alex, have they detected us?" Chris demanded as he saw his order to Vin culminating in the Maverick's ascent into the higher altitudes over the planet through the shift of the amber red world in the view screen.

Alexandra Styles did not immediately reply. She was too busy scanning the numerous displays on her science station to produce the data to answer the Captain's question. Her fingers moved across the dark screen with the skill of a pianist about to make a gala performance. When the data appeared before her, giving Alex their report, she raised her eyes to her Captain, who was waiting impatiently for her to speak.

"Not at this time," she answered and saw the relief flooding his face immediately. "This is still well before the age of multiphasic scanning. They're using a mixture of radio and microwave bands transmitted through orbital platforms. If we were visible before your countermeasures, we would have registered as little more than a glitch or an echo."

"Good," Chris nodded, mindful of the thin ice on which they were presently standing. Even the slightest fracture would cause ripples across the timeline that would affect billions.

"Chris, what about the Corrizo?"

Possibly even more than Vin Tanner, Mary Travis, Protocol Officer, recognised the danger to Vulcan. She had been married to one of its most celebrated sons and lived on the planet herself for many years. While their presence here would undoubtedly threaten the timeline, it was nothing like the danger posed by the presence of the Borg if they got loose on the planet. After all, the Maverick had come here in pursuit of the Corrizo, it stood to reason the runabout might have ended up in the same place.

"Jesus," Vin hissed, his gut clenching at how bad things might get at that reminder.

Chris was already there.

"Alex, scan for any Federation warp signatures in the area."

The Captain of the Maverick was already envisioning the worst-case scenario at the Borgsí reaction to finding themselves at this point in time. At present, the C'Kaia, the race who created the Borg in the first place, were still on their homeworld somewhere in the Delta Quadrant, nursing their grand dreams of galactic domination. They had yet to create the warrior race that would ultimately become the Borg and even so, the threat the Borg posed to the rest of the galaxy would not materialise for another thousand years.

Even if the Corrizo possessed warp capabilities, it would take them seventy-five years at maximum acceleration to cross the distance to reach the Delta Quadrant. When they arrived, they would find no trace of the Collective, just an aggressive insect species who would most likely attack them, then welcome them with open arms. No, it would be more logical to abandon such a fruitless objective, when they had all the tools they needed to begin a new Collective originating in the Alpha Quadrant.

To do that, they would have to land on the planet below and begin assimilating its inhabitants.

"Captain," JD Dunne spoke up from his navigation station. "I've been monitoring the planetary broadcasts to see if there is any local chatter about anyone seeing us and I think we're in the clear."

"That's something," Chris sighed. "At least we haven't violated General Order one."

Yet, he thought silently.

"That is true," Ezra nodded in realisation. "At this point in history Vulcans are still at a pre-warp stage of development are they not?"

"Yes," Mary answered. "We're about a hundred years from the Time of Awakening. They did leave the homeworld at this time, but they didn't get very far."

"They had yet to break the warp barrier," Alex added while continuing to search for the Corrizo, aware next to her at Tactical, Ezra was doing the same thing. "They were still operating on impulse power only. I don't think they got any further than Andoria and perhaps Tellar, and we all know how their first encounter with the Orions ended up."

"Yeah," Chris frowned. It was well known the Orions had landed on Vulcan and took a number of them as slaves, murdering others. The reaction of the Vulcan people to this attack would tear the culture apart. One half would follow the teachings of Surak and begin the journey to the civilisation that would become a cornerstone of the Federation. The other known as 'those who flew under the raptor's wings' would leave Vulcan entirely and become the forebears of the Romulan Star Empire.

"If I recall correctly," Ezra remarked, "they are also relying heavily on atomic power."

"Which means, their weapons will also be nuclear, right?" Chris saw what Ezra was alluding to.

"Unfortunately, yes." Ezra glanced at Vin in sympathy.

"Captain, I have a fix on the Corrizo," Alex announced. "I'm detecting a Federation signal at a location near the Eastern Sea. If these coordinates are correct, this is the same site where the Temple of Amonak will be built."

"Oh," Mary winced, hating that sacred space might be violated by Borg aggression. She thought of the temple sitting at the edge of a cliff, providing visitors with a view of the arid landscape and the too salty Eastern Sea. Maryís stomach clenched in outrage at the scenery overlaid with Borg technology. The future Temple of Amonak was a sacred site to all Vulcans. While the race still held fast to their philosophy of logic, they did not turn their backs on their past or on Amonak, a place deeply rooted in their history.

For Mary, thinking about the temple brought back painful memories of the time after Syan's death. During the Battle of Sector 001, she had felt him die and went to the temple afterwards, to plead with them to take from her what essence of him they could, so his katra would not be lost. Unfortunately, there had not even been enough for that.

"You know it?" Chris glanced at Mary and saw immediately the sorrow the mention of Amonak surfaced in her mind. Chris knew the look well. How many times had he displayed it when remembering Sarah and Adam? He sometimes forgot he wasn't the only one who was grieving a lost mate when he came on board the Maverick.

"Yes," she nodded. "It's an ancient sacred site. Before we joined the Maverick, Billy and I went there..." she looked away from Chris unable to finish. Even now with how she felt about Chris, Mary still had trouble remembering the dark days following Syan's death, when she felt him not just ripped away from her life but her heart and mind. Their mating bond had made her feel his absence most acutely, and even though she shared some semblance of that connection with Chris, Syan's loss still left a void in her heart.

Chris nodded, giving her a look of complete understanding, considering the baggage he carried with him at the loss of his family. Unfortunately, right now, it was the best he could manage. Their situation, though not immediately urgent, was no less perilous. "The question is, what is it at this point of time?"

"That is difficult to say," Mary who learned everything she could about Vulcan culture so she could be prepared when she became Syan's wife, admitted. "We've arrived before the Time of Awakening, which meant Vulcans at this stage of development have little control over their emotions and are extremely prone to violence. If not for Surak, it was likely they would have destroyed themselves. The records of the period are fragmentary due to the numerous conflicts that resulted. There was no central government, just several regions under the control of warlords and dictators. We have to tread very carefully Chris, any one of them could see us as a threat and attack."

"Doesn't matter, we're still going to have to go down there." While Chris did not dismiss Mary's warning, he knew that was only a minor consideration because the scenario involving the Borg's presence on Vulcan, was much worse.

"Captain," Alex spoke up immediately on the heels of that statement. "We have to be very careful if we go down there. Right now, we have almost no information about Vulcan at this period in their history. Anything we do down there could have serious repercussions on the future."

"If the Borg have transported to Vulcan, then the future is already in jeopardy," Ezra pointed out for more reasons than just wanting to recover Julia. As much as he wanted to go down there and rescue the woman he loved, he knew she would never want him to risk billions to achieve that end. If they proceeded recklessly, it was precisely what would happen. "If Vulcan does not take its place among the stars, then there will be no Federation."

"Shouldn't we already be affected?" JD asked, trying to remember all his studies on temporal mechanics and grimaced at how much it had made his head hurt, even back at the Academy. It was no different now. "I mean if the Borg have gone down there and messed things up, should all this and us be gone?"

"Not necessarily," Chris answered promptly. "The future is not set. There are focal points in history that cannot be changed. We're still here because those moments have yet to be altered and while there is still a possibility of them remaining intact, our timeline might still happen. The Borg may have landed on the planet, but they haven't disrupted any focal points yet."

"They will," Alex threw in her lot with Ezra's concerns. "The Vulcans at present may be primitive by our standards, but they have enough technology at their disposal to be of use to the Borg. Captain, the Collective still have full knowledge of 24th-century technology. All they lack is raw materials."

Chris stiffened at the terminology but knew Alex was absolutely correct. The raw material in this instance was not technology, but people. The Borgs' strength was in numbers, and right now, they were too few to be a real threat. However, if they assimilated new drones and expanded their reach, they had the power to take the entire planet and begin a new Collective in the Alpha Quadrant.

"We gotta go down there," Vin spoke for the first time.

Throughout all the discussions, Vin had been in silent contemplation. From the moment he was returned to Earth without his foster parents, the idea of visiting Vulcan never occurred to him. Among his own people, he always felt outcast because his human parents had moulded him in their own image and that image was an affront to all Vulcans. No matter how human he tried to make himself appear, from the long hair he grew over his ears to hide their points, to the shape of his eyebrows, he could never escape being Vulcan. Now it appeared, he would have to go down there to cement the philosophy that made him a pariah among his people.

"Vin?" Alex looked at her husband and felt the conflict in him touch her mind "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "Captain...Chris," he regarded his best friend again. "We have to go down there because if the Vulcans see the Borg as a threat they can't beat using their usual weapons, they're going to try something more extreme. Like Ezra said, if they got nuclear weapons, they're going to use them if they canít find any other way to defeat the Borg."

*******

HALF A DAY EARLIER

He began as One of Four, but with the change in their circumstances, he was now One of Thirteen, Primary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376.

Escaping from Fluidic Space in the stolen assimilated craft from Species 5618, they had used the knowledge of the Collective to locate the wormholes used by Species 8472 to make their incursions into normal space. Although their superior abilities were able to boost the craft's limited shield capacity, the journey through the vortex had caused significant damage. They emerged through the portal with catastrophic systems failure, with the warp engines offline and the danger of antimatter containment looming large.

Only the knowledge assimilated from Two of Thirteen, the former Chief Engineer of the Federation ship Maverick, was the outright destruction of the craft called the Corrizo prevented. After stabilising the damaged warp reaction long enough to affect a surface landing, One of Thirteen, once called Buck Wilmington, was able to draw upon the skills of his former self, to avoid a crash landing on the homeworld of Species 3259.

Still, upon landing and avoiding a fiery end in their new environment, the voices of their current Collective filled his mind with whispers of confusion and distress. Their chorus of words spoke to him with one unified voice, all having reached the same conclusion. While they had indeed landed on the homeworld of Species 3259, there were vast discrepancies in the geographical and technological data the Borg had accumulated. Species 3259 was one of the most advanced races in the collection of worlds called the Federation and yet the planet, besides its plentiful supply of drones, had little to offer the Collective.

Under any other circumstances, the Borg would not have bothered with them. They were hardly deserving of being granted perfection.

"We require more data," Two of Thirteen stared at him as they occupied the space of what was the Corrizo's cockpit. The others were waiting patiently in their alcoves, ready to receive new data to proceed further. "The navigational charts may be in error."

"We detected a temporal anomaly during our passage through the wormhole," One explained, "it may have altered our point of exit."

"What is our course?" Two inquired. "The vessel will not be capable of returning us to the Collective."

"This planet is populated," One replied having examined the data regarding Species 3259, enough to extrapolate a course of action. "There is sufficient raw materials here for us to construct a new vessel, one that is capable of taking us to a planet with sufficient technology to return us to the Collective."

"We are too few, we require new drones for such an objective."

"We will assimilate as many of the population as we need. In the end, they will exist to service us."

*******

The boy saw the ship land descend from the darkened skies and knew immediately it was not of Vulcan.

He had seen their own ships travelling through the red sky, disappearing into the stratosphere above his home and knew this vessel looked nothing like those. The design was odd, shaped like a varush beetle, with nacelles on either side that glowed with the bluish energy of sapphires glittering in the moonlight. It appeared through the night sky, shrouded in white as it descended before holding position several hundred feet off the ground, like a shavokh trying to decide whether or not it would swoop in for the kill.

When it finally moved again, it glided to the ground, without the clumsiness familiar to all the ships of Clan Phelsh't who controlled this region and its life-giving water springs. The boy watched the vessel touched down against the red sand, its landing struts digging into the ground before its engines died. As lights flickered to a minimum across the pigeon coloured hull, he wondered if this was a ship of the Andor or the Tellar.

His tutor Dalva told him about the worlds beyond Vulcan where other races lived in alien environments far different from their own. The Andor were said to be buried deep beneath the ice, their cities hugging the planetary core for warmth, far from the surface where freezing winds excoriated the great glacial plains like the breath of an ice goddess. In contrast, the Tellar lived on the surface, braving the icy cold of their world by growing fur on their bodies and taking advantage of the natural springs scattered throughout the planet.

The boy wondered which of these races were coming to visit.

He knew he ought not to be distracted from his task of completing the Rite of Tal'oth, but he couldn't help but be fascinated by what he was seeing. For the last three months, he had lived in the wilderness, staying ahead of the lematya and sa-te kru who would be more than happy to make a meal of him. Yet he had managed to evade them, surviving off the land, feeding on the aylak he'd hunted even though he did not like killing the creatures.

He was seventeen years old and on the cusp of adulthood. When he completed his task, he would be seen as a man and earned his place to stand with his father when they greeted the elders in the Great Hall. His father, a general in the service of Shi'Kahr, had told him there was no shame in failing to fulfil the obligations of the Tal'oth but the boy would hear none of it. He loved his father dearly and would not dishonour his family name or that of his clan by failure.

Besides, it was not all perilous. When he found a place that was still and safe for the night's rest, there had been much beauty to witness. He watched a flock of Sundwellers sailing across the amber sky, their great wings flapping like they were charged with providing the wind and breeze that swept across his face. At night, he saw the luminous shattarr lizards scurrying across the ground, leaving trails of colour behind them. In the mornings, he was awakened by the sweet sound of the Lara birds singing their song of mating.

No, even if he could be killed by any predator that happened along, the boy was proud to undertake Tal'oth, if only to learn more about the creatures sharing the world with the Clans. Creatures who had no say in how their homes were destroyed by countless wars and petty squabbles. It gave him an appreciation for his home and strengthen his desire to succeed so he could be considered an equal and be able to protect their land like all members of his clan.

The hydraulic hiss of the main hatch opening interrupted his ruminations about his future and focussed the boy's attention on the ship that had landed a short distance away. From his vantage point in the rocks, overlooking the small plain that provided the alien craft with an excellent landing spot, he watched as bright white light poured out of the open hatch, like a strobe in the darkness. It made him flinch staring at it but also filled him with anticipation at what type of alien would emerge from the ship.

Surely, Surak thought to himself, it must be wondrous.

Chapter Two:
The Rose

TWENTY-SIX YEARS AGO

BEYOND THE EL-ADREL SYSTEM

When the Yellow Rose of Texas, the ship affectionately called Rose by its owners, detected a distress signal, it was almost ignored.

Having just left the Sigma Tama system after an extended study of the Tamarians and their culture, the two researchers from the Academy of Science debated whether or not the signal originating beyond the El-Adrel system, was real. Aware the Rose was somewhat antiquated, the duo entertained the idea the message could be the result of a glitch in their communications system. After all, they were as far away from the core systems as they could be and another ship in the vicinity seemed unlikely.

However, if it were not a fake and somewhere out there, someone was in distress, then there was almost no chance anyone would pick up the message, and by ignoring it, they would almost certainly condemn the sender to die.

The space beyond El-Adrel was uncharted. Even the system just departed was one of the most isolated in the Alpha Quadrant with formal relations between the Federation and its natives, the Children of Tama, were yet to be established. A few uncharted systems lay beyond El-Adrel, their existence little more than footnotes in the data transmitted by passing deep space probes on the route out of the galaxy.

Anyone who got lost out here would most likely remain that way for good.

A product of Federation ethics, the husband and wife team was incapable of ignoring a cry for help, even in this distant region of space. Despite their reservations, they directed their decommissioned executive scout ship towards its source. The trip took almost a day. On approach to the world from which the signal originated, the Rose encountered a violent neutronic storm on the cusp of dissipating for good. The damage to the craft was severe but not catastrophic, and the Rose set down on the rocky terrain of the lifeless planet a short time later.

"We made it."

"Barely," Noah Tanner fell against the back of his captain's chair in the Rose's cockpit, letting out a sigh that was part relief and part concern. While he was grateful they landed safely on the surface of this desolate planet, he knew the havoc the storm had played with the warp engines. Under normal circumstances, he would have been able to direct the ship to the nearest Federation starbase and effect repairs, but right now they were almost on the edge of known space and a safe port of call if their engines failed would not be days away, but years.

"We couldn't just ignore it," Imogen Tanner reminded, staring through the cockpit window at the broken wreck of a ship lying a few hundred feet away. Even from here, the couple could see just how terrible the crash had been. The spine of the craft had snapped in half upon landing, and while it appeared intact, it would not take much for it to fall apart. The structural damage was secondary to the carbon scorching across the hull, particularly across the nose of the ship. Seeing the extent of the damage drove home to them both they might have risked their lives to rescue people who were beyond any help.

"No, we couldn't." Noah, a bear of a man who looked more like a wrestler than he did a university professor, had to agree. With deep-set blue eyes and a prominent forehead, his face revealed more empathy then one would imagine he was capable of projecting. He stared through the plexiglass window and scrutinised the ship a little further before reaching a somewhat surprising conclusion.

"It's Vulcan."

"Vulcan?" Imogen or Genie as she was called by her husband, was understandably startled by the revelation before she leaned forward in the co-pilot's seat to take a closer look herself.

"Yeah. D'Vahl class. A survey ship."

"A Vulcan survey ship?" She exclaimed incredulously. "Out here?"

"Don't look at me," Noah shrugged. "I'm as much in the dark as you, but since we came all this way, we better take a look and see if anyone is still alive in there."

"Well our sensors still work," Genie remarked and lowered her gaze to the console in front of her. Tapping the touch screen briefly, her eyes widened by the results that appeared less than a second later. "Noah, I'm reading one life sign, very faint. Vulcan."

"Come on," Noah got to his feet immediately. "I'll grab the medkit. Whoever survived that crash is probably in bad shape. We better get to them before its too late."

*******

Less than twenty minutes later, the couple crossed the rocky terrain separating them from the ruined Vulcan vessel.

Overhead, the twin suns of the system burned hot and though they had opted not to wear enviro suits for the air was breathable, the heat was barely tolerable. Even as they felt the sunshine across their faces, the familiar prickle against their skin indicated prolonged exposure to this harsh climate was dangerous. Studying the parched landscape, there appeared to be no signs of life beyond the single heartbeat inside the doomed survey ship, not even vegetation. It seemed the only crop on this planet was the sharp, brittle rocks covering the terrain.

"My God," Genie gasped as they reached the hull of the ship.

If the damage had seemed extensive from the Rose, up close, it was even worse.

There were rips through the duranium plating, with one wing ripped away entirely from the hull. Debris was scattered across the area, with cracks running across what remained of the windows. Where the main hatch should have been, was a ragged hole. A quick scan of the immediate surroundings revealed the door's presence strewn across the dirt with the rest of the wreckage.

As she raised her tricorder to scan the area, Genie felt encouraged by the continued presence of the life sign and kept walking towards the opening in the starboard side of the craft.

"I think they ran into the storm," Noah commented examining a section of hull closely, his fingers tracing the fractures in the duranium. "You saw what it did to us, and we weren't in it for that long. If they went through the worst of it, that would explain all this."

Genie was more focussed on the tricorder readings leading her through the hull. The signal still continued to pulse faintly, and she worried if they didn't reach the injured crew member quickly, it might blink out of existence altogether. "The life sign readings are coming from the rear of the ship."

"Genie, be careful," Noah warned as he watched her step through the jagged opening. "The only thing holding this ship together is the paint."

Answering him with a wave of acknowledgement, she entered the craft and quickly scanned the ruined interior. The main cabin had been left in the same state of chaos as the rest of the vessel. Equipment and furniture were scattered across the deck, with a couple of seats ripped out entirely. Wires, long drained of energy hung from open panels across the ceiling, with compartment doors hanging precariously off their hinges.

It was only when she approached the largest one, did she hear the crying.

"Noah," she halted her husband about to make his way to the cockpit.

Freezing in his tracks at her urgent tone, he turned to see Genie approaching one of the compartments and upon joining her, realised what captured her attention so completely. She neared the door like someone trying to coax a frightened animal out of its hiding place, and when she swung it open, he realised she had a good reason for such caution.

Huddled in a ball, with his knees pulled close to his chest was a child.

He was no more than four years old. Tiny, with hair grown long unlike most of the Vulcan children they'd encountered, only the tips of his ears poking through his dark brown hair, gave away his heritage. Undoubtedly traumatised by his violent arrival on this world, the child was crouched in his hiding place, hugging his knees with his head down. When he did raise his chin to look up at them, Genie found herself staring into cobalt coloured eyes moist with tears. His bow-shaped mouth was curled into a pout, and when his small frame shook with each sniffle of tears, it tugged at her heart so acutely she thought it might break from the sheer ache of it.

"Hello there," Genie smiled at him. "It's okay, we're not going to hurt you. You're safe now."

She uttered the words as soothingly as she could, thinking he looked like a fairy child, fragile and so very lost. The need to protect him, to take him into her arms and hold him until the horror of what he had seen was chased away, was so fierce she could scarcely believe it was coming from her.

"Hey there buddy," Noah said over her shoulder, not wishing to crowd the child but feeling the same need to take away the pains he saw on that small, frightened face. "You're okay now, we're going to take you away from here. My name is Noah, and this is Genie, we're here to help."

"Please baby," Genie opened her arms, and before she could utter another word, the child launched himself into her embrace, wrapping his small limbs around her neck and clutching her tight. Even as he lay his head on her shoulder and began to weep, Genie knew without ever understanding how; she would never let him go.

*******

VULCAN - NOW

"Captain, I do not believe this is a good idea," Ezra Standish reminded Chris Larabee as the Captain studied his image in the hand-held mirror. Chris was in Sick Bay, trying to wrap his mind around the fact the face staring back at him was his own. It was the ears, Chris decided. The prosthetic tips attached to them to allow him to blend in with the locals on the planet looked damned odd.

Chris lowered the mirror and glared impatiently at Ezra, who had undergone similar adjustments. "Ezra, we've been through this. I'm going down there. Buck is my friend, and I'm not sitting on the sidelines for this one."

"Captain, with all due respect," Ezra stared back at him, not about to be dismissed without being heard. "You are hardly sitting on the sidelines. At present, the ship is in hostile territory, your place is on the bridge."

Alex, who was quietly enduring Nathan's ministrations, brushed a strand of hair from her unaccosted ear and wondered how much more Ezra was going to push this before the Captain's patience reached a breaking point. She had seen them both go toe to toe before, and it was a sight she did not care for. While she understood Ezra's view, more than understood actually, in fact, she shared it, Alex did appreciate the Captain's position too.

Exchanging a knowing glance with Nathan Jackson, who was currently conducting the surgical enhancements on them, the doctor also recognized the signs of impending confrontation. Choosing to intervene before Ezra found himself facing the insurmountable wall of Chris Larabee's will, she gestured at Nathan to pause his work for a second so she could act.

"Ezra, the Captain has made his decision. We should be concentrating on what kind of weapons we need down there."

Ezra shot her a look about to interject but knew if he pressed the point, Alex could mention it was equally unwise to let him participate in the retrieval operations as well. If the Captain was placing himself at risk to rescue Buck, then Ezra was also guilty of the same in his desire to retrieve Julia. By all rights, the emotional conflict of his feelings for the Chief Engineer could be avoided if he directed a security team from his station at tactical, not going after her himself.

"Of course," Ezra nodded, recognizing Alex was trying to keep his discussions with the Captain from escalating into an argument. It took a second for Ezra to collect himself before he could formulate a response. "Their weapons at this time were a mixture of energy-based projectiles. Weapons had to be loaded with energy caps. I have asked Lieutenant Chanu to modify our phasers to resemble weapons of the period, as well as create a setting that will simulate the discharge of their weapons."

"Good," Chris nodded and flashed Alex a look of gratitude for intervening when she did. He knew she probably didn't like the idea of him going down there herself, but Alex understood what Buck meant to him. She knew it would be torture remaining on the bridge while his Senior Staff was on the planet engaging the Borg. "With any luck, we won't interact with the locals at all, and we can deal with the Borg without them ever knowing we were down there."

"According to the maps," Alex spoke as Nathan resumed working on her ears. "The Corrizo was forced to set down in a remote section along the Eastern Sea. There is a settlement some distance away. Judging by the plasma residue in the warp signature of the runabout, the Corrizo didn't come out of the wormhole in good shape. I suspect they were forced to land and therefore if they attempt to make it to the nearest settlement, it will be on foot."

"I would not put anything past the Collective at this point," Ezra was incapable of feeling any optimism after everything they had been through since they sighted the singularity that led to their engagements with the Borg, and subsequently their journey into Fluidic space. While he had recovered enough from Julia's assimilation to remember his responsibilities as Chief of Security, it was difficult to fight his natural cynicism to believe getting her back was within the realm of possibility.

Chris saw through his attempts to remain focused, aware of what was at the heart of his despair. "Ezra, for once we're not entirely disadvantaged. There are no reinforcements they can call on to endanger the ship. If we can get to them quickly, we can prevent them from assimilating anyone else and expanding their numbers. Believe it or not, as messed up as this situation is at the moment, this might actually be the best shot we have of getting our people back."

Chris didn't mention Buck or Julia specifically, but everyone in the room knew he meant no one else.

"How is Vin doing with all this?" Nathan asked wishing to change the subject because tempers and emotions were running hot between the two men, and it was a bad place for them to be before an Away mission into hostile territory.

"He's fine," Alex shrugged, noting the Captain looking up in interest at her answer. "He's managed to avoid Vulcan for most of his life. Thanks to the way he was raised, he's been isolated from them. I don't think he ever expected to come to the planet under these circumstances."

"It bothers him," Chris frowned, able to see that much in his best friend's face and needing no marriage bond to discern that.

He remembered how Vin had been when the younger man had first arrived on the Rutherford. Until that point, Vin had been able to keep to himself in a safe outpost posting, but aboard the Rutherford, he was forced to serve with other Vulcans, and as First Officer, Chris saw first hand how difficult it was for him. While the Vulcans on board did not ostracize him, there was no doubt they felt uncomfortable in his presence. It was only until Vin came on board the Maverick and form the connections he did with the rest of the Senior Staff, not to mention with Chris personally, did Vin start to accept himself for what he was.

"I know," Alex sighed, and Chris could see how much this worried her too. Next to his friendship with Chris, it was Vin's love for this woman that saw him coming into his own. From the moment they had met, Chris suspected Alex had recognized Vin's isolation because she too had come on board the Maverick with difficulties of her own. Together, they had forged a friendship that became a marriage, and Chris was glad for it.

"Where is Mr Tanner anyway?" Ezra inquired.

"He's helping Mary replicate us some clothes for when we go planetside," Chris couldn't help frowning at that. He had no desire to let Mary anywhere near the Borg, but she pointed out, quite rightly, that she knew more about Vulcan culture than anyone else on board. At present, Vin and Billy Travis were the only Vulcans on the Maverick, and neither had the expertise Mary had regarding the planet's culture or history.

Reminding himself as Captain of the Maverick, he could not play favourites no matter what feelings he had for the woman, and relented and allowed her to join the Away Mission. Of course, he did have a quiet word with Ezra about making sure the security detail accompanying them to the planet, kept an eye on Mary, without her knowledge, of course.

"So if we get everyone back," Nathan asked as he moved around Alex to her other ear. "Any ideas about how we're getting home? Are we going to find another wormhole?"

Alex and Chris met each other's gazes, but it was Alex who spoke first. "We could take a page out of James Kirk."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "I was thinking that too. Slingshot around the sun? Pick up enough velocity, and we can time warp back to our time. Although Kirk made that trip across a span of three hundred years, not two and a half thousand."

"I considered that," Alex frowned, indicating she wasn't enamoured by that idea being the only way of getting home. "We do have another option."

"Pray tell," Ezra prompted. "Do not keep us in suspense."

Alex explained

"Do you think that will work?" Nathan stared at her.

"It might," Alex met Chris's gaze. "If you make the attempt, Sir."

Chris considered the idea and agreed. He did like it, and if he was right about the person she was talking about, he suspected it might damn well work.

"Alright Commander," Chris nodded with a grin before regarding the others in the room. "But first, let's go get our people."

*******

Surak continued to watch them, having no idea what they were.

He had expected Andorians, Tellerites, perhaps even Orions, but not the things that emerged from the ship. For a moment, he wondered if they were actually life forms. They looked more like machines and moved the same way. As they emerged from the ship, swarming around its ruined hull like ants, there was something chilling about their lack of communication. For a moment, he wondered if they communicated using telepathy. His people were able to meld. Some adepts did not even need to touch to establish communication. Did these aliens speak to each other in the same way?

Continuing to watch them, Surak assumed his observations went unnoticed although everything they did was a mystery to him because they moved so mechanically, giving him no body language to read. One of them, the tallest he noted, froze suddenly in his tracks and turned in Surak's direction. His head was adorned with cybernetic implants and some type of ocular attachment, The red laser pointer of the device caught the young Vulcan in the eye, making him flinch.

Then they started walking towards him.

For a moment, Surak wondered what he ought to do. It seemed rude to be simply gaping at them and not saying a word especially after he was noticed. Remembering his manners, he emerged from behind the rocks and greeted them.

"Peace and long life," he offered them the salute of greeting familiar to all his people. On a world with so many tribes warring constantly, the gesture was the one way to bridge the gap, and he hoped it would mean the same to these strangers.

They did not answer and kept coming towards him. Even though they stared at him, Surak had the feeling they did not actually see him, and as the distance between them narrowed, he began to feel fear creeping into his heart. Chiding himself because he ought to know better, the way they were closing in suddenly struck Surak with the idea they were a pack preparing to bring down their prey.

And the prey was him.

The association was too much. Instincts that kept Surak alive these last two months during the Tal'oth were now screaming at him, and as the strangers converged on him, he understood the meaning clearly.

Run.

Without thinking twice, Surak abandoned any hope of peaceful contact and sprinted away with far more speed than the creatures behind him were capable of doing themselves. He did not look over his shoulder as he ran across the rocky landscape, knowing only as he widened the distance between them, Surak was running for his very soul.

Chapter Three:
The Forge

Vin Tanner's first view of his homeworld once the shimmer of the transporter faded from his eyes was the sky.

Accustomed to the blue of Texas, the pale reddish sky of Vulcan was jarring, and he stared at it for a second, thinking the next day ought to be good because, on Earth, that's what a red sky signified. Through the reddish haze, he saw the curve of a stellar body that might have been a moon but was in fact, a planet. T'Khut loomed large in the sky, but it was a dead world almost incapable of supporting any life. In the present day, T'Khut's primary function was a mining facility, since the world was rich with metal, unlike Vulcan.

The heat enveloped him almost immediately, and when he felt it against his skin for the first time, Vin understood why he'd survived on that savage world in the rim for so long, why returning to Texas had been so welcoming because Texas like Vulcan was hot. Fascinated and perhaps a little scared, he surveyed the landscape before him and saw the sea before him, marvelling at the birdlife that flew through the air indifferent to the new arrivals who suddenly appeared in their midst.

"Vin?" Chris came alongside him.

Vin blinked and turned back to his Captain and hid the smirk that wanted to steal across his face at the sight of Chris. "You look awful silly with those ears."

"Now you know what I have to put up with all the time looking at you," Chris returned with a similar quip. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he nodded honestly. "It just feels strange being here like this. None of it seems familiar but other things ..." he closed his eyes and felt the heat on his face, "feels like home. It's weird."

"No, it's not," Chris said kindly, "you're connected to this planet, even if you don't know it."

They had materialised on the surface in the general location of where the warp signature left by the Corizzo was last detected. The Away Team comprised of himself, Chris, Alex, Mary, Ezra, Nathan and JD, who insisted on being involved in any rescue operation of Buck Wilmington. All were dressed in traditional Vulcan clothing, which consisted of sleeveless vests, shirts, breeches and shifts of light fabric to deal with the hot weather.

Alex lowered the tricorder she was studying the instant they materialised and glanced at the Captain to whom she was grateful to for inquiring after Vin. Even though she was just as concerned about Vin's state of mind, she knew the importance of their mission here and how necessary it was for them to get to their lost crew and depart before history was irrevocably affected. Besides, their marriage bond would give him a clear indication of her love and support without her needing to voice it.

"Captain, the warp signature of the runabout ends at a location twenty-five meters from our current position, but the ship isn't here any more."

"What?" Chris stared at her. "Where is it gone?"

"I'm not sure," she explained. "It may have taken off using thrusters. It may not be space worthy, but it might be in good enough shape for it to take off, at least for travelling short distances."

Ezra who was surveying the area for any signs of trouble winced at the revelation the runabout was nowhere in the vicinity. JD who was standing next to him exchanged a glance with the Security Chief, both men finding solidarity in their frustration at the continuing obstacles in their way as they tried to retrieve the people they cared for.

"Then they could be anywhere," Ezra stated grimly.

"I don't think so," Chris shook his head, already considering where a handful of Borg would go in their current predicament. The Borg relied on technology and their ability to maintain their numbers even after devastating losses. The Borg arriving on this world would know their best chances of survival would be to assimilate as many people as they could and expand their Collective. "I think their plan right now would be to reach a population sizeable enough to boost their numbers but not too large to put up a fight."

"How likely is that to happen at this point in time?" Nathan asked, his knowledge of Vulcan history revolving mostly around treatments and the unique conditions Vulcan physiology sometimes experienced.

"Very likely," Ezra spoke, having studied the technology of weaponry throughout the ages, Vulcan included, during his Academy days when he chose a career in security. Glancing in Vin's direction, he expanded his statement. "Thanks to their discovery of anti-matter, your ancestors chose to use them in weapons of mass destruction. The resulting war between two factions, more or less bombed Vulcan back into the bronze age."

"Ezra's right," Mary confirmed. She was the real expert on the subject, not merely because of her time in the Diplomatic Corps but she had lived on Vulcan during her marriage to Captain Syan. As his wife, it was essential for her to understand his culture and the history of his people. "Historically at this point, they're still rebuilding after the wars between the Mahn'heh Protectorate and the Kingdom of Lahirh."

Vin's eyes widened at the revelation, aware his people were violent and that the philosophy of Surak was followed after much bloodshed throughout their history. Now he knew it had been a necessity to channel their rage and aggression somewhere. If not, the result would be a repeat of the history Mary and Ezra were now unfolding for them.

"The Borg aren't great strategists," Chris remarked, "they'll take the direct route to the nearest supply of potential drones. I know we're on the far side of the Forge, Mary what's in the area?"

"The Forge?" Vin asked, and then felt embarrassed because this was his homeworld and he knew almost nothing about it. After his rescue from the planet he was marooned on with his foster family, Vulcan authorities disavowing any knowledge of him had created a permanent rift between him and his homeland. Everything Vulcan in him had burned away under the hot Texas sun.

What investigation he made his people had to do with physiology, mostly because he knew Vulcans did not mature the same way humans did. While he experienced the pre-adolescent version of Pon Farr on the planet with his foster parents, the full onslaught of it was something he had to be prepared for. As it stood, when Pon Farr did come for him, Vin was utterly swept away by its fury.

"It's a large area of desert," Mary gave him a look of understanding, and as his teacher in all things Vulcan, she felt it her duty to keep helping him understand his culture, even now. "By the looks of it, Amonak hasn't been established yet so the area would be deserted. It's called the Forge for a good reason, the Fire Plains and the Womb of Fire are in this area."

"I remember," Chris nodded. "I saw the Fire Plains when I was here as a lieutenant, I wanted to see Seleya, so we flew over the plains on the way. Yeah, if the Borg wants to increase their numbers, this wouldn't be the place to find bodies. I'm guessing they probably headed to the closest settlement once they landed and repaired the runabout enough to make the trip."

"And the minute they arrive there, they will begin assimilating as many of the inhabitants as they can find," Mary reminded. "Chris, we have to get there before they damage the timeline."

"You don't have to tell me. What do you think is our best bet? ShiKahr?"

"I would say so," Mary nodded. "Although at this point, it would be just a town, not the capital."

JD, who was silent throughout the discussion, had drifted away from the group. Instead, he was no longer facing the Eastern Sea but looking inland towards the desert.

"You see something JD?" Alex noticed his study of the landscape when she looked up from her tricorder in an attempt to pinpoint any further emissions from the runabout. JD was shifting his attention from the display on his tricorder to the terrain ahead as if he was trying to work something out.

"There's someone out there," he replied after a second, "about fifteen kilometres in a south-west direction."

"Are you sure?" She asked. "There's a lot of wildlife on this planet, even in the desert."

"It's definitely humanoid," JD looked up, unconvinced.

"Okay," she patted him on the shoulder, indicating her trust in his findings. Turning back to the others, she called out to get Chris's attention. "Captain, JD's detected someone fifteen kilometres away."

"One person? Out here?" Chris and the rest of the Away Team turned towards the duo. Chris raised a brow at the announcement, thinking despite the sea nearby, the inland reach of the area was rather harsh and no place to be travelling alone.

"Captain," Ezra spoke up animated by the idea of there being someone in the area. "We may have an eye witness if they saw the Borg's arrival. "

"They'd be pretty lucky they weren't assimilated if they saw anything," Nathan pointed out.

"We'll never know until we ask them," Chris replied, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the combadge hidden there. "Captain to the Maverick," he said, tapping it once.

"This is the Maverick," Drew Katovit's voice replied promptly. "Captain, is everything alright?"

The assistant chief of security had the bridge while they were down here and had not been pleased when their large Away Team had beamed down to the surface without more security personnel. However, with Ezra, Vin and Alex present among that number, the man was satisfied the Captain was safe.

"Everything is fine," Chris assured him. "I need you to scan the area and beam us to the location of the life sign fifteen kilometres from where we are."

"Why would there be someone out here all alone?" Vin mused while Chris waited for an answer. "I mean the territory is pretty harsh."

Even though Vin knew little about the Forge apart from Mary's description, his own observations of the area reminded him of the desert canyons of New Mexico and Nevada back on Earth. The baked ground, the craggy mountains he could see in the distance, not to mention the harsh desert winds scarifying the landscape, told him this was not a place for wandering.

Mary thought for a moment and then remembered the Forge was often used by adolescent Vulcans for rites of passage. "They might be performing the kahs-wan."

"The what?"

"Kahs-wan," Mary explained. "It's a ritual where young Vulcans go out into the wild and endure a test for survival over ten days. They do this without food, water or weapons."

"That's barbaric!" Nathan exclaimed, not liking the idea of any child out in this wilderness without any supplies to help them survive.

"Well, its a tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of their civilisation and modern Vulcans do it to ensure their philosophy of non-aggression and emotional control does not make them weak. Syan went through it when he was a child too. If Billy wants to do it when he's older, I will let him. I won't be happy about it though," Mary admitted, "but for Vulcans, it's an essential part of growing up."

"I guess I missed it," Vin frowned, chalking this up to another part of his heritage he had not lived up to.

"I would not exactly say that Mr Tanner," Ezra corrected quickly. "You grew up in a wilderness, almost as savage as this parched landscape. I believe after your foster family passed, you were left alone, were you not?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, supposing in that context Ezra was right. He had been left to his own devices for almost five years, getting by on what was left on the Rose and coming through it in one piece. "I reckon I was."

"Then you have more than fulfilled the conditions of the Kahs-wan in my opinion," Mary stated.

Vin was about to thank her for that when Chris spoke up again. "Okay, prepare for transport. The Maverick is going to put us down near the signal."

"We better hurry, Captain," Alex said urgently, "it looks like this person might be in trouble."

*******

Surak had run.

Fear was not an emotion he usually succumbed to, but seeing those odd people, who looked like machines more than lifeforms coming after him, filled him with a stark moment of terror where his instincts told him if he did not run, he would pay a dreadful price for it. Running as if he were being chased by a pack of wild sehlats, he did not look back as he bolted forward, determined to outrun the creatures who, fortunately, did not appear to move very fast.

He did not know how long he had run, only that he put almost all his energy into widening the gap between himself and the aliens. When he finally collapsed in the middle of the desert surrounded by canyon walls, he was almost exhausted. As the sharp gravel dug into the flesh of his palms and his knees, he remained bent over the ground, breathing hard and trying to process what he had seen.

Those aliens were not all the same, he realized now that he had a moment to think. They were all different, despite the machinery, what remained of their exposed faces wasnít all the same species. What kind of menace had taken them all from several different worlds and turned them into such monsters? He had to get home to ShiKahr and warn the Clan elders of the danger. What if those things intended to turn everybody into one of their number?

Whatever they intended, Surak knew one thing for sure, he had to warn everyone.

So focussed on what he had run from, Surak had forgotten to mind his surroundings and only realized his error when he heard a piece of rock tumbling down the uneven face of the canyon wall behind him. The stoneís journey down the slope, bouncing off each boulder it encountered was a reminder that while there were dangers from other worlds, there were some as equally dangerous in the Forge itself

Straightening up immediately, he listened carefully and heard the crunch of padded feet against the gravelled ground. Breathing hard, he reached for his knife and clutched it tight as he scanned the trails meandering through the rock, as well as the fissures that were wide enough for something to pass through it. Something with teeth and a keener sense of the hunt than he would ever know. He only prayed there was one because if it were a pack, he would die before he ever got home to ShiKahr to warn anyone.

Trying not to let the fear overtake him, he decided to think of a way he could escape using the narrow trail through the canyons he had unwittingly run into, paralyzed with fright. It was foolishness, pure foolishness, he should have been thinking straight. Heíd survived thus far because he had kept his wits about him, but now Surak was going to die because he allowed his fear to do the thinking for him and the end result was going to be his certain death.

As these angry thoughts ran through his head, and while he was cursing his stupidity, the le-matya made its appearance.

Surak froze as both boy and beast, eyed each other for a few seconds. The le-matya was big. Surak estimated by its powerful musculature, the thing would stand taller than him on its hindquarters. The pads of its paws were more massive than Surakís palm and each one concealed poisoned-filled claws. Its ears were pricked upright, meaning it was well aware of him long before he knew it was stalking him. Yellow eyes filled with primitive hunger identified him immediately as prey and without further delay, raised its neck to reveal jaws beneath its elongated muzzle before uttering a long, bellowing howl.

Itís calling for its pack!

After ten days in the Forge, Surak recognized that familiar howl of assembly, which usually meant some hapless creature was about to meet a grisly end. As it took one step towards him, probably intending to bring him down before the otherís arrived, Surakís nerve gave out, and he turned tail and ran.

The le-matya, more or less expecting the action, sprinted forward after him, its size ensuring each lunge ahead closed the distance between itself and the young man it was running down with ease. It could smell the scent of fear and felt its mouth water at how the meat would be salted by it. A growl from a distance signalled the arrival of the pack, though as its leader, it was its duty to bring down the prey first.

Surak also heard the howl and though he tried not to let it affect him, that cry drove needles of panic beneath his skin until he could think of nothing else but the dying to come. He considered turning to fight when he heard something in front of him. Leaping from edge to rock, another one of the beasts were descending the canyon wall, ahead of him, determined to cut him off before he could go any further. While he did not turn to look, he could hear the paws of other creatures slapping the rock as they converged upon him.

Suddenly, it was no longer fear he felt but rather anger, more than anger but fury. Fury that his life was going to end this way, outrage that it should come before he could warn his family and friends that outliers had come to their world and were planning to do, Gol only knew what. Gritting his teeth and swallowing away the terror that would have him die like an animal on his knees, Surak chose to fight for his life. If this were the end of him, he would die with honour.

Halting abruptly, he turned around and face the pack leader who was closest to him and brandished his blade, ready to fight for his life or his death, whichever came first. The creature upon realizing the prey had stopped running came to a slow stop, panting with a breath that sounds like gusts of wind as it closed in on him. Surak could see its eyes narrowing with calculation, just before it bared its long fangs, dripping with saliva and lunged.

The power behind its leap downed Surak immediately, and he fell flat on his back just as he felt the creature unsheathe its claws, its sharp nails digging into his flesh as they both landed. He uttered a cry of pain when they pierced his skin, causing warm blood to ooze down his chest as he felt the creatureís breath, rancid from the rotten flesh caught between its teeth, hovering over his face. With nothing to lose, he started stabbing at the creatureís flank furiously, determined to wound it severely before it killed him.

"Jesus Christ!"

Through the haze of pain, Surak heard the unfamiliar exclamation followed by a sound he did not recognize, like the burst from the engines of a skimmer. Whatever it was didnít matter because no sooner than the discharge exploded in his ear, the le-matya uttered a sharp yelp of agony and was flung off his body. Dizzy from the pain, he blinked to see he was no longer alone and as he tried to sit up, heard repeated bursts of that strange sound, followed by more beasts crying out in pain and snarling in indignation as they were driven off. Only the one who had tried to kill him remained. It lay on its side unmoving while the others were scaling the canyon walls to make good their escape.

"Nathan, heís been mauled. The poison in a le-matyaís claws is fatal!"

Nathan Jackson was already on the move, having done enough research about where they were going before they had beamed onto the surface. He was well aware of the effects of le-matya venom on any physiology, let alone Vulcan and was more than prepared to administer the antidote, fortunate they had reached the wounded boy before it was too late.

When it came to this particular toxin, time was of the essence.

"Youíre going to be okay," Nathan said to the young man, who was staring at him with shock. Aside from being traumatized by the attack, he was probably not expecting a rescue out here. "This is my first trip to these parts, canít start a good vacation by letting my first patient die."

"Who are you?" The boy stuttered as Mary and Chris closed in on him. Vin and the others were still chasing off the pack, making sure the beasts didnít circle back for another attack. The creatures were big and mean, and their arrival had surprised the pack into fleeing, but that didnít mean their retreat was permanent.

"My name is TíMari," Mary introduced herself, deciding there would be less pollution to the timeline if the boy knew as little about them as possible. "What is yours?"

He winced as Nathan cut open his bleeding tunic to take a closer look at his wound. "I am Surak."

Maryís eyes widened, and behind her, she heard Chris groan. So much for not contaminating the timeline, she thought silently.

"Damn it," Chris cursed as he walked away from the boy, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

If they ever got home again, Chris just knew he was going to be spending a month explaining himself to those guys at Temporal Investigations.

Chapter Four:
Harmony

When the main hatch of the Corrizo slid open, revealing to them once more the familiar red skies of Vulcan, this time over a small settlement in the distance, the processors of the drone who was once Buck Wilmington paused for a nanosecond. The disruption could have been attributed to any number of things in the fabric of algorithms, calculations and pulses of electronic data. However, One of Thirteen, now Primary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376, knew the reason was connected to his annoying organic components.

It was caused by surprise.

One of Thirteen understood why this was, of course, and supposed he could share the emotion felt by his once human self. When the human he had been was here last, this small settlement, consisting of no more than a few thousand people, was the centre of Vulcan society. ShiKahr was a bustling metropolis, home to the Vulcan Academy of Science, the Old Quarter where the best of Vulcan artisans displayed their work, with the L-langon Mountains visible in the distance.

But that was more than two millennia in the future. At present, it was a town surrounded on all sides by irrigated land dedicated to arable farming, in this case, flatroot. Although it sat at the edge of the region known as Vulcanís Forge, a sizeable treacherous desert wasteland, the community sustained itself using the water beneath the large artesian wells that lay beneath the surface of the red rock. His sensors revealed the evidence of antimatter weapons being used at some point, but as was the case with such weapons, there was very little fallout.

In any case, such considerations were insignificant.

It was all irrelevant of course, One decided as he emerged, followed by the others. Whatever, past or future history lay before them, Oneís primary objective was clear. Assimilation. Present calculations placed them at a disadvantage, they needed more drones. Once they were a true Collective again, One would determine the best course of action, whether to remain in this time and begin a new future of Borg, or attempt to return to their current temporal location. When they had failed to acquire the boy, or rather determine the presence of him was more important than his actual form, One realized as a settlement was in reach of the wounded runaboutís capability.

Their landing site was at the edge of a smaller cluster of life signs at the edge of the settlement. The mind of Buck Wilmington called it a district, with close to fifty people in the area. The technology of the time, though primitive by the standards of Borg and the future they had left behind, was still formidable enough to be utilized efficiently. All the raw material needed to expand their Collective was in their grasp, they simply needed to acquire more drones.

"This vehicle will travel no more," Four of Thirteen replied. "Without the antimatter generator, we can no longer power the thrusters."

"We can repair it once we have the materials," One began walking in the direction of the nearest life signs that was not Borg.

The other drones followed him without question, with Four walking beside him as they left the runabout, planted in the middle of a field of native flora that One identified as Favinit, a plant that was not only considered decorative but was also edible. The size of the crop told One it was most likely used for the latter purpose. They trudged through the grass, sighting what appeared to be a dwelling a few feet away.

As anticipated, three life forms emerged immediately to investigate. The leader was male, and he was carrying a somewhat primitive weapon. It took One no more than a few seconds to conduct a scan through his ocular attachment to determine the danger it posed. The gun functioned utilizing energy projectiles capable of discharging high-intensity blasts when fired, the concentration strong enough to be fatal. The Borg had encountered such weapons on a dozen worlds before, and the result was always the same. Assimilation.

The presence of the weapon did nothing to discourage the Borg as One marched forward. The male continued to approach them, brandishing his blaster, preparing to confront them. One instructed the others to erect their shields in anticipation of the attack. Under normal circumstances, the Borg were willing to sacrifice a few drones to reach their goals, but these were not such conditions. Sacrificing any drone when their goal was the expansion of their numbers was counterproductive.

"What do you want?"

The linguistic translation node in all Borg immediately converted the Ancient Vulcan into a communication form they could interpret, not that it mattered what the substance of them was. The Borg saw no reason for verbal exchange and continued on their course without engagement. The species always made some entreaty to dissuade them from their objective, but appeals were irrelevant when the maleís fate was already decided. Meanwhile, the female and juvenile continued to watch the encounter with growing apprehension.

Theyíre a family, the voice of Buck Wilmington shouted in Oneís mind, but it was a voice spoken from the bottom of a deep chasm. Barely registerable and ultimately unimportant. As if knowing it was ignored, what remained of Buck continued to scream in desperation.

Stop! Donít do this! Youíre destroying them!

We are making them Borg, One countered. Their distinctiveness will be added to our own, they will exist as something more significant than individual voices of discord. With us, there is only harmony.

This isnít harmony! Itís hell!

One was in the lead, and so it was he who reached the Vulcan first. The male was not old, perhaps fifty or sixty, although according to the species physiology, this was young by Vulcan standards despite possessing sufficient maturity to father progeny. The fear on his face was apparent, surprising One who knew this race from its 24th-century counterparts. In the future, these speciesí thoughts would be highly organized. However at this point, they had yet to develop the formidable mental intellect that made it possible to shape galactic events.

The United Federation of Planets would see its origins from Vulcan, who would find Earth and together they would form one of the most resistant forces against assimilation. If this world never took its place in the stars, then perhaps One could service the Collective after all by ensuring the Federation would never be created, and the Alpha Quadrant would one day fall to the Borg.

"Stop, or I will shoot."

One moved towards him. The Vulcanís nerve finally failed him, and he fired at point-blank range. The energy blast exploded from the barrel. Still, instead of striking down the intruders as the Vulcan hoped it would, the discharge dissipated almost immediately upon making contact with formidable Borg shields. The Vulcans expression ran a gauntlet of emotions in the few seconds it took for One to make contact. Shock, astonishment and finally fear.

Landing a hand across the Vulcanís right shoulder, the man instinctively reacted to tear the arm away, leaving his left flank exposed. It was all the opening One needed to activate the twin injection nodules from the machinery in his arm. Before the Vulcan realized what was happening, the sharp point of the tubes penetrated his skin, like the fangs of a spider.

The womanís scream filled the air as she saw her mate sink to his knees as thousands of Borg nanites invaded his system. As he dropped into the dirt, the pigment of his skin shifted into a decidedly grey as veins ran across his face in dark, ropey strands. He no longer resisted as his free will was obliterated by the nanites who were rewriting him like faulty programming to serve the needs of the Borg.

Instead of running away, the woman came towards her fallen mate, leaving the boy behind even though he called after her to not go. One allowed the others to deal with him as he tended to the male who was now very much in the grips of the assimilation process. Borg implants had erupted across his skin like metallic craters, and as Four came to a pause next to them, she looked to One for instructions.

"Return this one to the ship and complete the assimilation."

"What about the juvenile?"

Fourís single emerald eye fixed on the child who was watching horrified as his motherís ill-fated attempt to save her husband resulted in her being caught in the same trap. The woman was quickly overcome, screaming until the very last moment before the twin injection nodules penetrating her into her neck ended her fears for good.

"We do not possess a maturation chamber to make use of him at this time. We will complete the assimilation process on the others and wait."

"Wait?"

The boy did not wait to see what came next after his mother and father were both assimilated. One looked at him running away from them, no doubt hurrying to the settlement to tell others what had happened to his parents. They would come, as they always did, thinking they could win and would almost always be proved wrong.

"For the others," One replied. "They will be coming."

*******

Vin Tanner stared at the boy, trying to imagine this kid who was staring at them with a mixture of fear and worry, as the father of Vulcan society.

This kid would grow up to be a man who would change the course of history, by telling his people violence was not the answer and emotion was a mind-killer. At a time where warlords ruled over Vulcan, with so many different factions fighting each other in endless wars that placed the entire species on the brink of extinction, Surak would show them another way. If the Maverick's crew had not stopped that le-matya from killing him earlier, all that would have vanished.

How close they came to unravelling the history of the Alpha Quadrant was staggering.

Vin couldn't believe the place he found himself right now, not counting being on the world of his species for the first time. Here was the instrument that ensured he would be an outcast all his life among his people, and yet the near-miss to the destruction of Vulcan society, still left him shaken. Watching Nathan tend to Surak while Mary knelt by Surak offering him words of comfort, something the teenager was reacting to with much appreciation, Vin didn't know what to feel.

"Hey, you okay?" Alex touched his shoulder, noticing the disturbed look on his face.

"Yeah," Vin nodded still somewhat shellshocked. "That's Surak."

They were far away enough from the boy not to be heard, so Vin felt comfortable about speaking his mind to Alex now that they had a moment to themselves.

"Yeah, it is," Alex nodded in agreement, eyeing Surak who would be a philosopher, logician and scientist, trying to equate that legend with the scared teenager in their midst. "Hard to imagine."

"You know," Vin said quietly, "I was thinking of coming here not long before all this began." He swept his gaze across the harsh landscape and once again marvelled at how comfortable he was with the heat. All his life Vin resisted the pull to this world because of his disconnection from Vulcans. Yet the planet's reach around his heart was almost soothing, like a missing part of himself had been suddenly restored.

Alex knew why, of course, but allowed him to tell her. She was aware of his secret investigations about his parentage. Thanks to their encounter with Svinak in the other universe where they had retrieved Adam, Svinak had given Vin a clue to his past he never before possessed. The name of his parents. When Vin was rescued as a child from that world beyond the El-Adrel system, he was so young he was unable to pronounce his name correctly to his foster parents who simply called him Vin. Furthermore, the damage to the ship, in particular, the main computer, meant his adoptive parents were never able to learn the identity of his family until Svniak revealed the truth years later.

"Really?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I know who my parents are, and I found out with Ezra's help, that I have grandparents, at least on my mother's side."

"Who are they?" Alex couldn't resist asking even though she knew the subject could not be easy for Vin to talk about.

"My grandpa is some kind of bigshot at the Vulcan Academy, and my grandma is a musician, she plays the lute. I was thinking I might go see them, you know to tell them that I'm alive, tell them what happened to their daughter. I owe my ma that much at least. I never thought I was going to come back here like this."

Alex couldn't blame him and entwined her fingers between his, understanding the conflicts he must be feeling. "No one could ever imagine something like that, but you're right, they deserve to know."

"I just wasn't sure I want to put myself through it, you know when they saw how I am, how different I am to other Vulcans."

Logic or not, Alex couldn't imagine they would not want to know what happened to their child. From what Alex knew of Vulcans herself and from what Mary told her, they took family very seriously. It harkened back to the days when families were tribes and clans.

"Vin, if your parents were V'tosh ka'tur, then you're exactly what they wanted you to be. Free."

Vin had taken some comfort in that, knowing despite how fearful he had been that his parents may be disappointed at how he turned out being raised human and all, they were followers of V'tosh ka'tur, a sect that embraced emotions not denied it. It was probably why they left Vulcan, to live a life that way without judgement by others. He was a product of that desire, no matter how tragically it turned out.

"Yeah can't argue with you there," he gave her an affectionate look, so grateful she was in his life and how instrumental she had been to his acceptance of himself. Unique, he smiled inwardly, thinking of the word she'd used to describe him during their earliest days on the Maverick together. He had realised at that moment she'd always see him as Vin, not some Vulcan.

"Well I wouldn't," she winked at him and then added. "Vin if we get back home, we can go together. No matter what happens, I'll be right there with you, always."

Vin leaned forward and kissed her on the lips in gratitude. "Thanks Darliní."

Alex smiled at him and decided if Vin dared to meet his family on Vulcan, then for her part, it was time she looked up William Styles.

*******

"Do you have any idea, how many forms you have to fill out for those temporal department guys, not to mention the interviews and the due diligence to make sure we didn't screw up the timeline?"

Chris Larabee lamented his fate as Ezra and JD came back to the group. The duo had conducted a covert sweep of the area to ensure the pack of le-matyas or any of the other dangerous wildlife known to inhabit the Forge did not make a sudden return to the scene.

"Captain, the area is secured," Ezra spoke up, ignoring the Captain's inevitable meeting with the Department of Temporal Investigations. "We are safe for the moment. I believe we scared those creatures away for the time being, but I would not recommend remaining in the area. "

"Agreed," Chris nodded, brushing aside his petty concerns and returning his attention to the matter at hand. "We don't want to be out here after dark. We need to find shelter."

Aside from the le-matyas, the Forge was also home to sehlats, sandworms, k'karee snakes and Shatarr reptiles, all who were dangerous and nothing to take lightly, even if the crew were armed with phasers. Leaving the area would not have been a problem an hour ago, but unfortunately, now they had run into Surak no less, simple transportation from one place to another was not an option.

"We can't transport out of here with him, can we?" JD asked quietly, glancing at Surak.

"No," Chris shook his head. "We can't let him see any more of our technology than he already has. Matter transportation isn't a thing here yet, and I don't want any further contamination of the timeline than there has been already."

"With the Borg here, we may not have a choice," Ezra reminded.

"Yeah but we can clean up that mess," Chris returned. "Anything affecting Surak on a profound level is another thing entirely. We can't allow anything to alter the course of his history."

"If the Borg have gone to Shi'Kahr, we need to get there Captain. Judging by the distance, it will take us almost ten days on foot if we attempt it by conventional means."

"Ten days?" JDís eyes widened and stared at the desert in the distance. The idea of crossing it on foot made him wince.

"Well we're not doing that," Chris put an end to that notion once and for all. "JD, you get back to the Maverick and bring down one of our runabouts. Make sure that its name and registry numbers are masked. Pick us up at this location. We'll head to Shi'Kahr after that."

"Aye Captain," JD nodded in understanding, looking about for someplace discreet to make the request for transport so Surak would not see them.

"Chris," Mary called out to him.

"I'll get going now, Sir," JD replied and went off when Chris nodded in approval.

Chris and Ezra headed back to Mary and Nathan who were with Surak, noticing Alex and Vin talking privately out of everyone's earshot. Chris could only imagine what was going through Vin's head at present. He was glad Alex was helping him through whatever feelings he was experiencing since at present Chris was not in the position to.

"How is the patient?" Chris asked when he reached Mary, Nathan and the teenaged Surak.

"He should be fine," Nathan explained. "The le-matya's toxin is pretty serious stuff but by our ... I mean where we're from, we have a treatment. I've given him a shot, but he can't be moved for a few hours."

"Thank you," Surak said to Chris weakly, recognising this was the leader of the strangers who had come to his rescue. His skin was still covered in beads of sweat, and his colour was definitely off. "If you had not come..."

"It's okay," Chris said kindly, thinking he was no older than Adam. "My name is Chris, and this is Ezra," he indicated the security chief beside him. "What are you doing out here on your own?"

"He was undertaking the Rite of Tal'oth," Mary explained.

"The Rite of Tal'oth?" Ezra burst out. "You have been in this wilderness for months?"

Chris shot Ezra a look because this was a usual ritual of all young people on Vulcan and should have been no surprise to any adult Vulcan. "How long have you been here?"

"Three months," he said weakly. "I was in my final month when I saw the outliers come."

All the Maverick officer's exchanged a look. "You saw them?" Chris probed further and noted from his peripheral vision, Alex and Vin joining them.

"Yes," the boy nodded. "I watched them for a little while, but there was something about them that did not seem right. When they saw me and came after me, I grew afraid, and so I ran. I was a coward."

"The hell you were," Vin said hating as much as the others, the shame on the boy's face. "You did the smartest thing you could. You couldn't take them on, you did the..." Vin paused and then finished his sentence. "The logical thing."

Chris tossed Vin a little smile before facing Surak again. "It's not cowardice to do the wisest thing," he said to the young man. "Besides, it's worked out well, you can tell us what happened."

Surak took in Chris's words, in better spirits following that dual validation. "I did not see a great deal. When they chose to pursue me, I ran as fast as I could. They do not move fast, and I was able to escape them. I had hoped to return to Shikahr to warn everyone. My family is there, I do not wish for them to be harmed, but when I saw the ship in the sky, heading towards ShiKahr, I knew I failed."

"You didn't fail," Chris assured him, but couldn't ignore the ominous implications of Surak's words. They had to get to ShiKahr fast before the handful of Borg grew too large for them to stop. Before it became too late to save all of Vulcan from assimilation.

Chapter Five:
Assimilation

In his prison, he could not move.

Invisible shackles kept him bound in place within his glass cell while beyond its walls, were iron bars. Standing further out from those bars, were more bars, resembling some fractal design, ever-expanding into more patterns of confinement, more boundaries, more traps. Beyond the design, a chasm circled them in a ring of oblivion. On the other side of that emptiness, a wasteland disappeared into the horizon of the sunless sky.

If it were a black canvas, he would have been able to take some comfort in it, but he was given no such respite. His sky was a view of everything taking place in the world he was no longer able to affect. Buck was forced to watch as his body became a component in an engine of darkness, bringing ruination to everything around it. Buck couldn't close his eyes to hide the terrible scenes unfolding before him, nor could he block out the voices in his mind.

There was no escaping the hell Buck Wilmington was forced to occupy since the Borg had assimilated him.

Watching in despair, he saw the family encountered quickly overcome as if they ever had a chance of escape. Though he screamed and shouted from inside his cage, unable to even bang the walls in protest, he was forced to witness their terror as they became a part of the Collective. It was obscene how the Borg considered this unity, the voices they believed spoke as one, when in fact it was merely subjugation wearing a different cloak.

His only company was the machine intelligence using his body to expand the Collective. To the others, he was just another voice in the wilderness, screaming against his fate. Even though he knew he was talking to an aspect of himself, twisted into being by nanites and Borg programming, it felt like an alien presence who had robbed him of everything that was him. It listened to him like he was white noise, paying him no mind but using his life against him.

When Chris Larabee had started transporting the Borg off Deck 14, using the transporter buffers in the most brilliant way possible to rid himself of the Borg menace on his ship, it was Buckís knowledge the Borg used to escape the same fate. Compensating for the infamous Larabee hat trick, the Borg presence using him had concluded the best course of action was to leave and successfully completed the task by threatening to tear the ship apart in the process.

Now that same machine intelligence was using his knowledge to begin the assimilation of Vulcan and no matter how hard Buck fought against it, he could only watch helplessly as he saw more and more victims captured. In his prison, their terrified faces provided him with company he could not ignore as each one of them were burned into his memory. It was torture, and though he prayed hard Chris would deliver him from this hell, he was equally hopeful that someone would find a way to end his misery, even if that freedom meant death.

*******

Norath could not believe what was happening.

As she watched the unfolding horror ahead, she tried to wrap her brain around the reality occurring before her. Dark smoke billowed in thick columns towards the sky from the fires consuming the homes belonging to people who were friends and neighbours. The palms that made up the tree-lined street had also caught on fire, and as the embers travelled from one branch to another, they resembled a procession of flames.

The smoke-filled street made her eyes sting with pain, but despite the tears, she saw bodies scattered across the street. Some were dead, others were simply lying there, trapped in some catatonic state she could not understand. Their eyes were open and staring into nothingness, even as their skin became mottled and grey. Not dead, but not alive either.

Less than an hour ago, Norath was on her way home from Shi'Kahr Academy to share the evening meal with her family who lived in the outer T'hossuth district. The district was home to the agricultural belt surrounding Shi'Kahr, its farms irrigated by the water from the artesian wells beneath the city. Her father, like many of his contemporaries, grew rillian gourd, along with pel-taruk and flatroot. While the work was hard, he achieved moderate success in being able to provide for his family of four and pay for his daughter's education.

Her mother T'Aren had prepared her favourite meal of kleetanta, served with the customary forati sauce, and they sat around the table, talking about the things only families could. Her father Solkar spoke of the good filavit harvest, and how he would be able to hire a new hand to help in the fields, now she was at the Academy and no longer able to take up the duty herself.

Norath felt guilty about the sacrifices he was making to send her there, but as always, Solkar gave her a reassuring smile to tell her it was a small price to pay to see his 'little butterfly' soar. At which point, her little brother S'tash would make gagging noises and receive a reproachful stare from T'Aren who would silence his insolence immediately.

That pleasant memory felt an eternity away when she witnessed the destruction around her. When Kendrak, the only child of their neighbour Bentak and his wife Areunna had come to their door for help, they had not dreamed the child's hysterical report could prove this terrible. Violence was nothing new for Vulcans. With the warlord Sudoc having captured most of Vulcan save Shi'Kahr, her father feared the warmonger was finally making his bid to conquer the last remaining free city on the planet. Solkar, who fought all his life to ensure Sudoc never breached the city, rallied others so they could deal with the intruders at Bentak's farm.

They did not return.

Fearful of what might have happened to him, T'Aren had taken her family to seek help at the district centre when they discovered the intruders were already there. They were less than a dozen in number, but they looked nothing like Sudoc's army. In fact, they were clearly alien. Covered from head to toe in a cybernetic exoskeleton, they moved down the street saying nothing, staring at the shocked bystanders with eyes lacking all emotion. At first, none of the inhabitants of T'hossuth knew what they were witnessing. They couldn't even be sure that these intruders were the menace Kendrak had claimed, not until someone approached the leader of the group.

He was taller than all the others when he was approached by Asok, the remaining law guardian for the district who had not gone with the others to Bentak's farm. The stranger did not appear to register the guardian's presence. Then without warning, he reached out and grabbed Asok by the shoulder. Before the guardian could do anything to stop him, twin nodules were driven into Asok's neck.

Everyone could only watch as something overcame Asok, removing from him all ability to resist. He remained where he stood, a man frozen in place unable to speak or react to anything around him until the dark veins began running across his skin and the metal implants appeared through his flesh. It was the sight of the implants, clawing their way through his cheeks like some insidious burrowing insect that finally drove everyone who saw it into utter panic.

After that, things deteriorated rapidly with men armed with blasters opening fire only to discover their weapons were useless. The enemy possessed personal shields allowing nothing to penetrate to harm them. The invaders returned fire, but their weapons were not intended to kill but to incapacitate. Norath watched mesmerized as friends and neighbours tumbled to the ground after being struck by the enemy's blasts. No sooner than they had collapsed and were rendered unconscious, the cybernetic creatures performed the same procedure, infecting them with an unknown agent.

Was this what had happened to her father?

The low drone of a skimmer barge was followed by the arrival of the vehicle a few seconds later. It had come from the opposite direction away from the enemy advance and was piloted by Keloth, the local irrigation engineer who lived two farms away from their own property. When the enemy had arrived in town, the district's inhabitants had been driven to its centre, hoping to gain security in numbers, not realizing they were merely giving the invaders more fodder for their dark purposes.

The barge, customarily employed to carry machinery, was now filled to capacity with others wishing to flee the area. Norath saw fractured families, clinging to each other, traumatized by what was happening. As it came to a halt, she heard another explosion and turned to see fresh fighting as the remaining defenders of the district resume bombarding the enemy with all the firepower at their disposal. The tactic was no longer employed for victory but rather to offer enough distraction to ensure their families escape.

"Come on!" Keloth shouted. "We're going to the central district! We need to warn them about what's happening here before it is too late!"

It would only be a matter of minutes before the seemingly unstoppable cybernetic trespassers overran the district and those unfortunate enough to still be here. The desire to win had been abandoned in the face of their imminent defeat. All that mattered now was escaping to warn the rest of Shi'Kahr.

"Thank you!" T'Aren shouted at Keloth in gratitude, lifting up S'tash to the short steps leading into the barge's open deck. It was a testament to his fear that S'tash went without complaint when under normal circumstances he would be complaining that he could manage by himself. No sooner than he had stepped on board, an old man was gesturing him to sit down.

"Get on!" She turned to Norath, refusing to board until her oldest child had gone first.

"What about Father?" Norath demanded, staring at the invaders who had breached the tattered line of defenders, neutralizing them as quickly as they had done to all the others before now. Even as she asked the question, she could see them approaching like an unrelenting tide of cold doom.

T'Aren's face showed her grief briefly before her instincts to protect her children overrode her emotions, forcing away her pain to some distant place for the moment. Through their marriage bond, she could feel Solkar, but what she knew was of no comfort to her.

"He is not dead," T'Aren revealed, "I would know it if he were."

Yet she did not tell Norath, she could no longer sense his thoughts at all.

"We must go!" Keloth barked again prompting Norath to complete the journey into the barge. As she climbed on, she looked over her shoulder to ensure T'Aren was behind her. Immediately after boarding the craft, the barge lurched forward, and both women gripped the seats and rails to avoid stumbling.

"Mother!" S'tash called out to them.

Norath saw T'Aren heading towards her son, seated next to Manoth, one of the older citizens of the district when suddenly, what sounded like an explosion was followed by the barge veering sharply to one side, throwing people out of their seats as they screamed in fright. Grabbing the rail, it was all she could do to keep herself from being flung overboard as the barge tipped over, the plume of fire and dark smoke trailing the left engine of the craft indicated its mortal wound.

"HOLD ON!"

Amidst the screaming and the sound of metal tearing, Norath saw the barge flying through the air, slanting perilously to its side at a nearly 45-degree angle. Keloth was trying to regain control but the vehicle was already overloaded in its attempt to be a lifeboat and he could do nothing to stop its violent descent to the ground. It smashed into one of the shop fronts in the main street, taking out a wall before its own frame started to buckle. The rail she was clinging to broke away, and as they both tumbled away, she saw the ball of fire that followed the eruption of its power cells.

She was rolling across the dirt, aware that others had also fallen, seconds before a fireball engulfed the entire barge.

The last face she saw before she blacked out belonged to T'Aren a second before it was swallowed up in flames.

*******

"How is he?"

Chris asked Nathan when the runabout landed a short distance from where they had discovered the adolescent Surak. As ordered, JD returned to the Maverick to pilot the Cimarron back to the planet. It would be far less complicated to make the journey using conventional means than attempting to explain to the young Vulcan how they were able to cross such vast distances without a vehicle. At this time, transporter technology was still an unknown to Vulcans, and Chris had no intention of polluting the timeline any further than it was already by using it to travel across the Forge to Shi'Kahr.

"He's going to be fine," Nathan glanced at the boy who was asleep, his head cradled against Mary's lap as Nathan's treatment took effect. "I administered something for the pain while his body is metabolizing the drugs I gave him. Thankfully by our time, the Vulcans developed a pretty formidable cure for le-matya venom, derived from Ches'lintak, a native plant found around here. Still, he's undernourished, recovering from a bunch of wounds sustained over the last three months, including bruises, lacerations and some toxins. I noted trace evidence of a soporific in his bloodstream, which his body has yet to break down entirely."

"I think that might be from a S'gagerat," Mary said helpfully from where she was. Chris noticed she was stroking Surak's brow the same way she would do to Billy when he was snuggled next to her on the sofa during one of their holovid nights.

"What pray tell is that?" Ezra asked, familiar with the Ritual of Tal'oth but had scant knowledge of Vulcan wildlife, beyond the most notable being the sehlat and the le-matya.

"It's a carnivorous plant," Mary explained. "They're native to this area and remain beneath the ground, grabbing prey with its tendrils when they wander within reach. Syan ran into one when he was performing the ritual. Apparently, the tendrils have tiny spikes that inject you with something that makes you sleep, so you don't struggle during digestion."

"Lovely," Ezra made a face. "And this young man survived such an encounter?"

"Well they build us tough," Vin managed to say, staring thoughtfully at Surak and thinking how much he and this boy shared in common. He never imagined he'd have familiar ground with any Vulcan, not after the way he was raised. Then again, now that he knew of the kahswan and the Ritual of Tal'oth, it appeared he had completed the prerequisites for manhood in Vulcan culture and never even knew it.

"That's for sure," Alex brushed his arm, giving him a small smile of affection.

"Alright," Chris nodded, seeing the runabout set down not far away and returned his attention to Surak. "Let's get him on board while he's still out and head to Shi'Kahr. If the Borg is there, I'm guessing it won't be hard to track them down. They're not known for their subtlety."

"Neither are Vulcans in this period," Mary added, throwing an apologetic look at Vin for making such generalizations but it was the truth. "Chris, if the time period is correct, most of the planet is under the control of a warlord named Sudoc. He's the last tyrant before the Awakening, where Vulcans started to adopt a non-violent philosophy," she did not glance at Surak as she spoke, but they all knew he was in her mind as she made the report. "From what I recall, he's an extremely powerful telepath who used his ability to meld to control his generals. With the meld, he was able to communicate, alter behaviour and if necessary, punish anyone who got out of line."

"Christ," Vin swore under his breath, thinking this was so much like Svinak from that other universe it made his skin crawl. He had never understood how non-emotion could save a culture. Still, the more he encountered Vulcans without Surak's teachings, the more he was starting to appreciate how necessary it was.

"Would we encounter his forces if we went to Shi'Kahr?" Ezra inquired, bracing himself for the possible complications this might produced to their efforts to rescue Buck and Julia, to say nothing of halting the Borg activity in the city.

"No," Alex answered before Mary could, having studied Vulcan culture in depth following her marriage to Vin. Since he was so disconnected from his people and their disciplines, she had been investigating Vulcan culture before Surak's rise, intending to know how they controlled Pon Farr in the past. Although the event was seven years away, Alex had no wish to be caught unawares when Vin underwent the Pon Farr again. "Shi'Kahr was technologically superior, and there were enough formidable leaders to keep Sudac out. If it falls because of Borg interference..."

"You don't have to tell me," Chris raised his hand to stop her from going any further.

"Captain," Alex added. "There is one other thing. Surak's father is Stef. At this time, Stef had not become a merchant yet, so he should still be a member of Shi'Kahr's military council, even I know we can't risk the timeline, but if things get bad, we may have to consider the possibility of gaining his help to fight the Borg if they've already begun assimilation."

"Either that, or we must bring down more security officers," Ezra added and saw Chris's immediate reaction to that suggestion.

The Captain wanted no such thing.

However, Ezra and Alex were right, there was a choice to be made because the more people came down here from the Maverick, the higher the chances of polluting the timeline. As it was, there was no telling how their interaction with young Surak could affect the boy's future, and Chris didn't want to worsen the situation any more than it already was. However, the Borg had a head start on them, and the Collective could move exceedingly fast when it came to assimilation. If their numbers grew too large, Chris might very well have to acquiesce to Ezra's desire for more security staff.

"We have no idea how he'll react," Mary pointed out. "Vulcan's in this day and age are exceedingly aggressive. If we tell them about the Borg, they will want to know how we're aware of them. Our cover story had better be foolproof because if it's not, they'll consider us a threat or worse yet, Sudoc's agents."

"Maybe we ought to ask the kid when he wakes up," Vin broke in. "Look, while we're jawing about this, God only knows what the Borg are doing in Shi'Kahr. Let's figure it out on the way there. I know we're all thinking about the future, but that's a problem we can deal with later. Right now, we got to make sure he," Vin glanced at Surak. "Can grow up to become whatever he's meant to be."

Chris flashed Vin a look of appreciation for that rather timely reality check because the helmsman was correct. The future was something formless yet to come. Right now they had more significant problems to attend to in Shi'Kahr.

"Vin's right," Chris regarded his Away Team. "Let's get there first and not waste time speculating. I still want to get Buck and Julia back. We've got a lot more chances of making that happen if we can get to them before their numbers grow too large."

"Good idea Captain," Alex spoke up, her gaze lifting to the sky and seeing the sun began to vanish behind the mountains in the distance, the approaching dusk giving sharper definition to T'Khut in the amber sky. Returning her attention to the display of her tricorder, she saw the appearance of life signs, not their own, growing in number. "We need to get out of here. This isn't the place to be after dark. I'm picking up multiple signals, I think that pack of le-matyas might be on their way back."

"That ain't no surprise," Vin commented. While he might not know everything about Vulcan wildlife, he knew predators and le-matyas were nocturnal hunters. "We scared them off, but they know we're food, so they're coming back now that it's dark and they got the advantage."

"Then let's not give them one," Chris said quickly. "Ezra, give Nathan a hand with the kid. Vin, get to the Cimarron, we're leaving as soon as we're on board."

"Right," Vin nodded and headed off immediately, eager to get underway now that they were finally making a move towards Shi'Kahr.

As he headed towards the Cimarron, he passed JD, and the two officers gave each other a nod of acknowledgement as JD continued towards the Captain.

"Captain," JD announced himself when he reached the Away Team, urgency on his face as he laid eyes on Chris Larabee again. JD had left the engines on standby, suspecting Vin would want to assume the piloting duties once the Vulcan boarded the craft. Besides, once JD gave Chris his report, he was pretty sure the Captain would want to get moving immediately, and Vin could get them to Shi'Kahr much faster.

"Good work bringing the runabout here so quickly JD." Chris complimented as Ezra and Nathan hoisted Surak off the ground, and he offered Mary a hand to get to her feet.

"Had to Sir, we gotta get moving."

JD's taut tone made everyone pause, but it was Chris who spoke first. "What's happened?"

"I was conducting a scan of Shi'Kahr for Borg life signs when I hit the atmosphere, and I found some."

"How many?"

At last count, there had only been thirteen Borg on board the Corrizo, Chris sensed he was not going to like JD's updated tally at all.

"Thirty-five and counting."

Chapter Six:
Last Resort

TWENTY-SIX YEARS AGO
BEYOND THE EL-ADREL SYSTEM

There was only one thing to do when they discovered the child, get him away from this ship of death where his parents no doubt met their end.

At Noah's prompting, Genie returned to the Rose, carrying the small boy who was undoubtedly traumatised by the ordeal of the crash, to say nothing about being trapped on this barren world alone. The anthropologist wanted to remain behind so he could adequately conduct an investigation of the ship and its doomed occupants. He had to discover their identities if there was any chance of reuniting the child with his family. He had to before Genie got any ideas to the contrary that would result in heartbreak.

As he watched her leave, with the little boy clinging to her like she was all the life on this distant world, he could see the attachment between them forming like invisible tendrils of need binding them to each other. When she disappeared behind the craggy rock formations that separated the Rose from the crashed ship, he resumed his journey to the cockpit. He prayed he found something because the longer the child stayed in their care, the harder it would be for Genie to give him up.

Noah Tanner couldn't help but wonder if Fate was playing cruel tricks with his wife.

During an expedition to the Antares Cluster two years ago, they'd strayed too close to a solar flare and the resulting radiation leak Genie was exposed to ensured she would not be able to carry a pregnancy to term. The only way Noah was able to prevent Genie's descent into despair, was to distract her with work for the university. He accepted assignments and expeditions that took them far away from the core worlds, where the notion of starting a family had too much fertile ground to thrive.

For the most part, it worked, Genie had thrown herself into their expeditions wholeheartedly, but the sadness remained, even though she tried her best to hide it. It surfaced when she saw a mother and child, revealing to him that though she was healed, the pain remained. Seeing how she reacted to the boy, Noah decided he would go through with his plan to suggest adoption when they returned home to Earth. There was a galaxy of children orphaned by the Dominion War, and after she was forced to give up this little Vulcan cherub to his family, it would assuage her loss.

Entering the cockpit doorway, Noah paused and felt his stomach clench in horror at the carnage within. Instinctively he glanced at the compartment where they'd found the child and was grateful its view of the cockpit was obscured. Noah would have grave concerns for the boy's sanity if he'd seen was inside it. Once again, Noah was glad he made the decision to send Genie back to the Rose because this was not a sight any child should have to see.

Judging by just how much of the ship was driven into the ground, the damage was proportionate to its hard landing. From the exterior, not to mention the debris field surrounding the crater, Noah knew the damage was extensive. The cost in blood, however, could not be tallied until he entered the cockpit and determined how that terrible landing had affected its crew.

The child had survived mostly because he found himself the safest place to hide, unaware that the small compartment, usually built against the most durable parts of the ship's superstructure, and away from the outer hull, would be best equipped to absorb the impact. Of course, Noah thought silently, and with a faint smile, the kid probably wasn't thinking in those terms. He was a little boy, and when they were scared, what child didn't look for a safe closet to hide?

No such refuge was afforded to the two people who were most likely his parents.

The male was lying across the main controls, his eyes were still open as if the last thing he wanted to do when he left this life was gaze at the occupant in the co-pilot's seat. The carbon scorching across what remained of the main controls revealed what had taken his life. The displays in front of him were all but obliterated and fragments of glass, not just from the cockpit window that shattered on impact, revealed their outward eruption.

Whatever energy struck this ship, the resulting power surge had overloaded the controls, so the explosion had all but killed the pilot instantly. It took a moment for Noah to remember that Vulcans bled green and the darkening stains of emerald across the panels and pooling on the floor were in fact copper-based blood. Most of the pilot's face was no longer recognisable due to severe burns, but the blood had come from the shards of glass driven into his skin. Noah reached out and closed the man's eyes, feeling it wrong that he should be staring into this carnage for all time.

The woman was in somewhat better condition, though not much.

There was no question of what killed her, though it was not as instantaneous as her co-pilot's end. The right side of her skull was almost pulp and how she had managed to land her ship with these injuries astonished Noah. She had to be fighting every second of the trip down to the surface to stay conscious. Then again, Noah glanced at that small compartment where they'd found the child, she probably knew getting the ship to the ground was the only way to save her son.

Under such circumstances, maternal instincts could move mountains.

She was exceedingly beautiful Noah thought and felt it essential for some reason to commit her to memory for the boy's sake. With her long hair framing her face, unusual for Vulcans because the race almost always wore their hair in those unflattering bangs, her eyebrows were swept upward in typical Vulcan fashion. The most amazing blue eyes he had ever seen stared back at him in death. Noah realised her son had inherited them, recalling those tear-filled eyes that reached out and grabbed both their hearts when Genie discovered him.

Like her co-pilot and probably mate, Noah closed her eyes. Turning away from both corpses, he reached for his tricorder and aimed it in the direction of the controls. He knew what he was going to find even before the device gave up its analysis, having made an educated guess from the state of the controls what would be the result. The tricorder flashed its reading a second later and revealed the unpleasant truth. Even if he were able to power up the ship, the computer logs had been fried. What data it contained was just as lost to the world as the two people in this cockpit. There would be no revelations made today.

Continuing his analysis for anything that might provide a clue to who these lost souls were, Noah's search yielded nothing except a bronzed plaque on the wall in Vulcan lettering now pitted and covered in dust. Seleya's Heart, NSP 061947, Noah saw the translation on the tricorder display and immediately captured the data for upload to the Roseís main computer when he returned to ship.

With any luck, when they reached a starbase, they would find the boy's family.

*******

SHI'KAHR CITY
PRESENT

T'Khut stared at him through the darkened amber sky and Vin Tanner, who until this day had never set foot on Vulcan, stared back and became lost in her gaze. She seemed to look upon him as if he were a child returning to her, one lost in the wilderness for so long, had suddenly found his way home.

For so many years, Texas had been his home, and Genie and Noah Tanner had been his parents. It was the last thing she had said to him before she died, that he was a Tanner. Now, as a man, he realised why it was so important to her that he was given this identity because she understood Vulcans had a deeper connection to their world, beyond their biological origin. Their spirituality, something he was never able to grasp because none of it was taught to him, had kept him disconnected. Mary had tried to teach him, but she did so through the prism of an outsider, showing him doors but not the understanding of what lay beyond them.

As he piloted the ship through the skies across the Forge, he felt that Vulcan part of him banging down the walls of his carefully constructed persona. It was not a voice that spoke with Surak's logic, but something deeper, something so far back in time, he could almost see the verdant, lush world this had been before the Burning. For the first time, he thought of his mother and father, not the Tanners, but the two who had fled Vulcan because they wished to live a life before Surak, before chtia, before non-emotion.

What would they have made of him?

As a miasma of feelings tugged at the edge of his emotions, whispering to him in a voice he imagined was T'Khut, Vulcan's sister world, Vin felt the need to spend some time here. He wanted to run across its craggy surface and feel the hot sun burning across his back while facing the lemat-ya and wild sehlats. He wanted to endure in this harsh environment with nothing but the blade his father Noah had given him, the bowie passed down from generations of Tanners, right back to the days of the Alamo.

All this was swept away when he saw the city in the distance.

Even though it was small in comparison to the sprawling metropolis it would be 2300 years from now, Vin recognised it immediately. Surrounded by the ranges of which Seleya was its centre, the city was enclosed with a wide ring or arable land, irrigated by the ample water supply beneath the red earth. The urban centre was a collection of tall towers, constructed in shades of tan, brown and reddish stone, some of which would survive to his time. Vulcan at this stage in its development had achieved interplanetary travel, only recently reaching T'Khut to mine her surface for the precious iron minerals that Vulcan itself sorely lacked.

"We're approaching the city now," Vin announced to his comrades.

"Vin, bring her in low, we need to avoid been seen by the locals. I don't want them scanning this ship for any reason." Chris instructed as he made his way through the runabout to join him, Alex and Ezra, who was presently occupying the cockpit.

"Captain," Alex spoke up from her station at ops, "if you allow me, I can rig up the shields to generate a thoron field to give off a false signature. As far as they're concerned, they'd be detecting a ship that's using an FTL drive suited to their current technological levels."

"Do it," he gave his science officer a nod of approval. "Right now, the Vulcans are pre-warp, we do not want to give them any inkling we have a warp propulsion system."

"Captain," Ezra looked up at him, his expression grave. "I have located the source of the Borg signals and have sent that information to helm control. Judging by the activity around it, I am estimating the indigenous population may already be aware of the Borg threat already. There seems to be a great deal of mobilisation taking place around the area."

"Damn," Chris cursed hoping for a covert approach but supposed that was always going to be a long shot. "We'll just have to figure it out as we go."

Closing in on the city, Chris saw through the cockpit window, the Cimarron dropping altitude with the ground gradually rising to meet them. Even though the night was falling fast, Chris could see fields of gold, green and red, indicating the different crops being grown. He recognised the pastures of flatroot and pel-taruk that was still being cultivated, no matter how sophisticated the civilisation had become. In the future, these agricultural belts would be protected by weather shields, to prevent crop damage from Vulcan's harsh climate, but now they were exposed and subject to the heat and dust storms ruling this world.

Four short beeps from the operational station drew his attention to his science officer who looked up just in time to make eye contact.

"Captain, I've initiated the thoron fields. As far as the Vulcan authorities are concerned, if they detect us, we're just another private vessel returning to the city. I manage to tap into their mainframe to pull a local registration number just in case."

"Good work," Chris nodded in approval, grateful her Class 1 programming skills could be put to such good use.

"Hell."

Chris raised his eyes at Vin's curse and realised there was no longer any need to trace the Borg signal. Through the cockpit window of the Cimarron, they could see the columns of smoke rising into the evening sky as if signal fires had been lit to lead them straight to the Collective. While Chris could not see what was happening on the ground from this distance, he had no doubt the chaos that was being created by the Borg incursion.

"Oh my God," Alex whispered.

"Get on comms!" Chris ordered, "I want to hear what's going on down there."

Alex nodded mutely as her fingers flew hastily over the ops display, accessing the runabout's communications array to pick up all signals being transmitted at this time. Less than a second later, the runabout's interior exploded with a burst of static followed by numerous voices overlapping each other, with one thing in common. They were all terrified.

"...we need assistance! They're coming!"

"....weapons are useless! They ..... shielding... unknown weapons...!"

"Help ua please! T'hossuth district has been ..... they're moving... V'Lotelk within the hour!"

"EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY! REPEAT! WE NEED EVACUATION IMMEDIATELY!"

The cacophony of frantic voices attracted the attention of everyone on board the runabout, save Surak who was thankfully unconscious thanks to Nathan's treatment of the lemat-ya poison in his system. Mary, Nathan and JD were soon standing at the doorway, and Chris had the absurd notion they all looked like people huddled around an old fashioned radio listening to some unfolding calamity because it was the only way to receive news during those ancient times. He supposed this was no different, and his jaw clenched picturing what destruction was being wrought in the city.

In the 24th century, they were barely holding their own against the Borg, what hope could these people have against the Collective?

"We've got to get down there!"

The Vulcan looked away from the Conn long enough for Chris to catch his gaze but that second was all the communication they needed for Chris to know, that if they did not act soon, Vin was going to do it whether or not he liked it. The Captain of the Maverick couldn't blame him, if this were Earth, Chris would be no less insistent on taking action without further delay.

"Chris, we have to be exceedingly careful how we tread here," Mary warned, understanding the heated emotions running through all of them, but caution had to be exercised.

"Forgive me Mary," JD said suddenly, not one to speak out of turn but he felt compelled to. It tore him a part having to say what he intended to, but the last few seconds had unfolded a truth they had yet to grasp and while he felt heart ache with anguish, it was his duty to tell the others, to make them aware of his realisation, even if they might have an awareness of it themselves.

"We can't worry about what happens tomorrow. People down there need our help now. Vulcan was never meant to fall to the Borg. If we don't stop it here, it doesn't matter what happens to the future because the Borg will have a two thousand year headstart on us. When we get home, we may find they have gotten so far ahead of us they'll be unstoppable or worst yet, have assimilated the entire galaxy."

The possibility of such an outcome was more than terrifying, it was entirely possible.

As JD's words of doom sunk into their minds, Chris realised this situation went far beyond retrieving Buck and Julia, it even surpassed the protection of the timeline. What mattered was the civilisations that would never come to be if the Borg gained a foothold in this period, expanding outwards until finally they converged with their Delta Quadrant counterparts to create a monster no one could fight. Taking a deep breath, Chris knew the oath he had made when he became Captain of the Maverick, the oath they all took as Starfleet officers.

If the price for saving the galaxy were the one thousand lives he was responsible for, then Chris Larabee would pay it.

"JD's right," he said finally, meeting Mary's gaze. "No matter what happens to us, to the future we know, we have to stop the Borg here, by any means necessary. If we have to sacrifice the Federation and the timeline, then that's what has to happen. If we don't, the alternative will be a condemnation of the next hundred generations to Borg."

"Jesus," Nathan whispered, the number making the Captain's words sound even worse.

"Captain," Alex spoke up, glancing at Ezra who was the highest-ranking officer next to her, to gain his silent agreement, "whatever you decide, we're behind you, Sir. If you say this has to be done, then that's what we'll do. Every last one of us here," she swept her gaze across the cockpit, lingering briefly at Vin, who nodded at her in encouragement, "we'll die before we let the Borg take Vulcan."

"Good," Chris gave her a look of gratitude because what he was about to tell her, was something she would not at all like. If they failed in their efforts on the ground, he had one card to play, but it would ensure the Borg would never menace the future. "That's why I need you back on the Maverick."

"What?" Alex exclaimed in dismay. "Why?"

"Because," Chris said cooly, unable to believe the words were coming out of his mouth, "if we fail to stop the Borg on the planet, on my order, I want you to launch transphasic torpedoes and destroy the entire city, reduce it to radioactive ash if you must, but we are stopping the Borg here."

"Chris!" Mary gasped, and her shock was shared by Nathan. "You can't...."

Alex wanted to protest, unable to believe he was giving her this order. She made eye contact with both Vin and Ezra to see if they felt the same outrage, but neither showed any objection to Chris's extraordinary request and when it sunk in, Alex realised the Captain was right. If all else failed and they were unable to remove the Borg by any other means, this last resort had to be taken.

"We will try to get as many people to leave the city as we can," Chris explained further, so no one misunderstood the nature of the order. "We're not killing civilians who aren't assimilated but as much as I want Buck and Julia back, I know neither of them would want us to risk the lives of millions to rescue them. I'm sorry Ezra, I know I promised you we would get Julia back, but..."

"Captain, you need not explain," Ezra stopped him from going any further.

In the last few minutes, he had continued to listen to those terrified voices still being transmitted through the comms and knew as much as he loved Julia, she would not want to be the cause of all that fear. If there were a chance to save her, he would move heaven and earth to get her back, but if he had to let her go to save her, then Ezra could do that too. Julia would never be able to live with herself knowing her rescue had resulted in the assimilation of billions.

"If we destroy the city and the Borg," Mary spoke, still somewhat shocked that they were discussing this, but the logical part of her, the part married to Syan of Vulcan, knew this was the right choice. It was something he would have done himself if he were in Chris's shoes. "Then what? We can't stay on Vulcan, and we can't return to Earth."

Chris sucked in his breath, feeling his heart sink at what this would mean to him personally, it would mean he would never see Adam again, would never know how their drastic actions affected the timeline. Would Adam cease to be? Chris couldn't concern himself with such fears now, because it would only keep him from doing what he needed to.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, we've got to deal with the problem at hand."

"We will need the assistance of the locals Captain," Ezra pointed out. "The situation has deteriorated beyond our ability to contain it alone."

"Who can we ask for help?" Vin asked, wishing he knew more about Vulcan during this period in history to offer some constructive advice, being the only Vulcan in the group.

"We can ask my father."

The voice who spoke belonged to no one from the 24th century. Surak was standing in the rear compartment of the runabout, having heard not only the discussion being carried out in the cockpit but the frightened voices from the communication system. While much of his rescuers' words were beyond his understanding, what did not escape the young man was the terrible danger his people were facing.

"Oh hell," Chris groaned and shot Nathan a look of accusation as to why the boy was conscious.

"Hey, don't look at me, the kid's tough." Nathan returned promptly defending himself. "Sedatives and lemat-ya antivenin might have adverse effects on each other. "

"Itís alright," the Captain sighed, deciding it was boon enough that Nathan was able to save him. Besides, they had been on a collision course with contaminating Surakís future self the minute they laid eyes on him.

"We are not of Vulcan," Chris admitted, looking the young man in the eye, "but we are here to help."

This much Surak was able to determine from the conversation heíd overheard. Walking forward gingerly, still a little unsteady on his feet, he approached the cockpit and the people he knew looked like Vulcans but were not. They were Outliers. Pausing before the man who was clearly the leader, the young man swallowed and spoke with his chin raised.

"I don't know where you are from, but if you wish to help my people, then I will do what I can to assist you."

Chapter Seven:
War Zone

Darkness had settled over the city by the time the Away Team landed on the outskirts of Shi'Kahr.

The concentration of Borg activity was centred in the agrarian district of T'hossuth where it appeared the Collective was establishing a foothold to begin its spread through the rest of the city. Judging from the frantic transmissions overheard inside the runabout, it was clear the locals had no idea how to deal with the Borg. How could they? The enemy could infect them with nanites, robbing them of all will before turning them into drones.

Emerging through the tall stalks of a field of filavet, the Away Team paused at the bright bloom of amber sky refusing to be suppressed by night. Against the smoky canvas of orange, a swarm of smaller ships were flying over the centre of the district, attempting to end the Borg advance through aerial bombardment. The billowing clouds of smoke leading the Cimmaron here found its origins in the blazing inferno of buildings resulting from the artillery barrage. If there were any non-Borg lifeforms in the area, they would not be alive for much longer.

"My God," Mary gasped in horror at the destruction.

Chris shared her sentiment, his jaw clenching as his ice coloured eyes became dark with a smouldering anger.

Alex," Chris turned to his science officer, knowing she was not going to like his next order. "Get back to the Maverick. You know what I want done."

Alex's eyes widened, going so far as to open her mouth to protest until she remembered herself. As reluctant as she was to leave him or Vin down here, he was right. One of them had to be on the Maverick, and if it couldn't be the Captain, the duty fell to her. In Buck's absence, she was the acting First Officer, and to honour the memory of the friend whose place she was taking, Alex would do what Buck would have. "Aye Sir."

I'll be alright, she felt Vin's mind touch hers.

Alex raised her eyes to her husband, to her mate, and for a brief second, their gazes were locked in silent communication. She had no mental ability to speak of, but their marriage bond allowed her to feel him. She felt his assurance, his promise to be safe and to not sacrifice himself needlessly. Despite this, no matter what happened, they were still in each other's hearts for all time. A piece of Vin lived in her, just as he carried her inside him. It would survive either of their deaths.

You better be. I don't want to feel you die. Don't put me through that Cowboy.

Ain't gonna happen Darlin'.

Alex broke away first. The contact was seconds long for the others, but to Alex and Vin, it held a lifetime of promise. Facing the Captain once more, Alex decided she would do as ordered, but if it were blind obedience he wanted, he would get no such thing with her.

"Captain, I'll follow your orders without argument but," she swallowed thickly, meeting Chris Larabee with a will almost as stubborn as his own. "I am not going to sacrifice any of you while there is still the faintest chance of survival. Are we clear on that?"

Chris nodded with a slight smile, having similar arguments with Buck on numerous occasions when the Captain wanted to go where angels feared to tread. "Understood Commander, this isn't a kamikaze mission, but if worst comes to worst, we have to be prepared to risk it all."

"I understand," Alex nodded, and swept her gaze across the faces of the others, giving them a silent promise she would do everything she could to save them if she could.

Before she could reach her combadge, Chris had one more order to issue.

"Mary, you're going too."

"What?" Mary shot him a look. "Chris, you need me!"

"No," Chris shook his head, not intending to be unkind or remind her as her Captain, this was not up for negotiation. "I don't, and you need to go. Keeping the timeline safe is no longer a consideration. Making sure Vulcan remains free of Borg is. I believe this young man can help us with that," he nodded at Surak.

Surak still did not understand who these strangers were, but their determination to do everything it took to save his people was not lost on him. Even though they looked outwardly Vulcan, every instinct he had told him they were not of his world. Life beyond Vulcan was not an unknown concept. With the advent of interplanetary travel and the increase in technology, it was known the galaxy was populated, though so far, none had deigned to make contact.

"I will do what I can to help," Surak said quietly, giving the woman called Mary the same assurance she gave when she promised him his life would be saved. He had not forgotten her tender touch when he was burning with lemat-ya poison, soothing his brow and whispering words that might have come from T'Leia, his mother.

That was enough for Chris, and he eyed Mary again. Billy couldn't lose her. Adam was almost an adult, on the cusp of joining the Academy. If they halted the Borg advance today at the cost of their lives, that future could still happen. It was the other reason he needed Alex to be on the Maverick. If worse came to worse, if the Away Team could not make it back to the ship, then Alex would know how to get the crew back to the 24th century.

"Lieutenant, I need you to go. Please."

Mary's eyes glistened with tears of frustration, though they did not spill over onto her cheeks. She stared at him in accusation, hating him for pulling rank on her and hating herself because he was right. If anything happened to her, Billy would be alone, alone in a time period so far from his own it staggered belief. No, she couldn't let her son navigate such a world alone if they were forced to remain in this era.

"Aye Captain," she said quietly, averting her eyes, so he did not see how much his dismissal hurt. Starting to look away, she suddenly remembered something that had little to do with this abrupt departure. The memory made her forget her pain, and she closed the distance between them.

For a second, Chris thought she was leaning in to kiss him goodbye, which would not have been unwelcomed, but instead, she whispered softly in his ear. The words made his eyes widened, and he stared at her for a second, nodding slowly as the full implications of her statement sunk into his brain. The others looked at him in puzzlement, noting something in the exchange that was not the soulful farewell between two lovers.

"Are you sure?"

"In this era? Yes."

"If it comes to that, we'll use it," Chris answered. "Thank you, Mary."

"Be safe Chris," she replied finally, looking away before she succumbed to her emotions. Right now, she needed to be a Starfleet officer, not just the woman who loved Chris Larabee.

When it appeared, the Captain was not about to let them in on Maryís revelation, Alex decided it was time to get moving. She needed no further goodbyes to be made with Vin when their mental contact was enough to serve the purpose. Besides, Alex had no intention of allowing any of the Away Team to die needlessly if it could be avoided, and with that thought in mind, it was easier for Alex to do what the Captain asked. Tapping the combadge, she spoke following the soft chirp.

"Maverick, come in. This is Lt. Commander Styles. Lock on to my signal and Lt. Travis and wait for my signal to begin transport."

Alex saw Chris nod in approval since none of them wished to expose Surak to transporter technology.

"Aye Commander," the familiar voice of Rain filled the air.

Nathan's chest swelled at hearing her, still remembering before all this had begun, he had proposed to the lovely transporter chief. After everything that had transpired since they first saw that singularity, it felt like a lifetime ago.

With that, Alex shifted her gaze back to the Captain. "We'll be waiting for your signal, Sir, don't make us come down and get you."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Chris gave the woman a little smile and saw her turn to Vin to give the helmsman a little wink before she and Mary turned away and headed towards the ship, retreating to the field of tall stalks surrounding the runabout.

Once they disappeared, Chris turned back to his Away Team. "Alright, let's get a move on. I need to see what's happening now."

*******

What was happening was nothing less than chaos.

The aerial bombardment had levelled the district. Buildings were reduced to smouldering piles of rubble. What structures still stood, did so on their last foundations. Trees were ablaze, those that weren't already reduced to charred stumps that is, and the streets were pockmarked with massive craters, while sidewalks were fissured and darkened with blast marks. Light poles crisscrossed the road as they lay across the ground, blown free from the discharges above. Meanwhile, a cloud of grey smoke meandered through the ruined streets, making the air near toxic.

"Jesus Christ," Vin swore, staring at the destruction in a mixture of horror and disgust.

"They have no idea this assault will have little or no impact on the Borg,," Ezra remarked, studying his tricorder to pinpoint the exact location of the Collective at this point.

"Where are all the people?" Surak asked, searching the conflagration for any signs of life. He knew this area, he had friends who lived in this district. Where were they now? The idea they might still be in this place horrified him.

"They're here," JD spoke up, using his own tricorder to conduct a different kind of scan. While Ezra was looking for the Borg, Surak's question had prompted him to search for survivors who might still be here. "Captain, I'm detecting one life sign twenty meters ahead."

Chris raised his chin immediately in the direction JD indicated and saw a section of road so severely damaged, the crater left behind had exposed the ruptured mouth of an underground pipe. It stood almost four feet high and was wide enough to offer refuge to anyone desperate enough to crawl into it. Despite being constructed by some kind of light rock, Chris had no doubt it would still collapse if struck directly.

"They might be hurt!" Nathan was already running towards it, paying little attention to the aerial attack still continuing overhead.

"Nathan, hold up goddamn it!" Chris ran after the healer who lost all good sense when he thought he had a patient to help.

Clutching his phase rifle, Chris ran across the debris-covered ground after the doctor heading towards the open mouth of the drain. He skirted the edges of what appeared to be a crashed vehicle, avoiding the wreckage that was still burning and exuding the noxious fumes of burning fuel and superheated metal. Nathan maintained his lead, reaching the open shaft of the drain in a matter of seconds, allowing nothing to deter him, not even the sounds of further explosion across the district, quaking the ground beneath his feet.

"Nathan hold up!"

Chris shouted again, and this time, the Captain of the Maverick exerted enough command in his voice to stop the healer from advancing further. Even if there was someone in need within that darkness, they were in the middle of a hostile environment. Just because this was Vulcan, it was by no means the Vulcan they knew and its people had yet to embrace the pacifistic ideology of their future counterparts.

Nathan put the brakes on, realising he was forgetting himself and sometimes his need to reach a patient overrode his common sense. Halting in front of the exposed section of the drain, he could smell the musty scent of fetid water. The opening was a ragged mess of fragmented rock, with debris piles littered across the entrance. Some of the rubble still smouldered from heat. Nathan realised as a hiding place, it was not much of one. A direct blast could collapse it easily.

"Sorry Captain," Nathan apologised sheepishly and approached the shaft with caution, consulting his tricorder at the same time. The display revealed one life sign, Vulcan. Glancing over his shoulder at Chris who would have preferred to go in first, Nathan faced front and allowed the darkness to envelop him. Through the glimmer of the tricorder's display, he could make out a shape in the location the device indicated, a few feet away from the entrance.

Nathan recognised the quick pants of someone who was shaking.

"Hey now, it's going to be okay," he spoke out, hoping his voice would be enough to draw them out. Remembering he was not alone and not wishing to crowd the person obviously hiding in fear, Nathan looked over his shoulder. "Captain, hold back."

"Nathan..." Chris started to protest.

"You're not going to be helping if you dog me all the way in."

Chris's spine stiffened at the inference he was dogging anyone and wondered if it would be a bad thing if he 'accidentally' shot his CMO In the ass.

Nathan took another step in, the way one would approach a frightened animal, and tried again. "We're here to help you. It's not safe to be here right now. You need to come out, I promise, we won't hurt you."

There was a slight pause in the outline of trembling shoulders before thee shadowy figure shifted a little as if trying to reach a decision but torn between the gamble of trusting a stranger or remaining safely hidden. When Nathan saw the person starting to crawl out, he guessed the choice had been the former. Stepping back so he wouldn't frighten them, it didn't take long for Nathan to discover the person crawling out of the rubble was not an adult, but rather a child.

The boy could not have been older than Billy, Mary's young son. He wore his hair worn long the same as Vin, though Nathan suspected it was not to conceal his pointed ears, and was covered in dirt and soot. Dark eyes stared at the healer fearfully and revealed the trauma he had clearly experienced by what he had seen this day. Nathan hoped he had not seen his family taken because that was too much for any child to witness. As it was, it was a minor miracle he had not also been assimilated. However, as soon as the thought crossed Nathan's mind, he knew it was because the Borg did not have access to a maturation chamber.

"Chris," Nathan gestured the Captain forward because the man had experience with children, not just his own but especially the young, anxious Vulcan kind.

Nathan's use of his name caught Chris by surprise and only when he came up behind the healer to see what the man was staring at, did he realise why Nathan had been so informal.

"Hello," Chris said gently, aware if they frightened the kid, he was going to jackrabbit down the shaft and they'd have to go after him. Considering the situation, they could not waste time trying to find him if he got lost in that maze. "I'm Chris, this is Nathan. What's your name?"

The boy didn't speak for a moment. He stared at them as if the words were lost inside of him and needed the effort to find.

"S...S'tash."

Chris's eyes widened and he instinctively looked over his shoulder at where Vin, JD, Ezra and Surak were, wondering if history was playing tricks at his expense. Groaning inwardly, he could imagine Mary's voice in his ear, warning him about timelines and altering future events, to say nothing about what those guys at the Temporal Bureau were going to put him through when he got home.

Facing front again, Chris Larabee looked at the young boy named S'tash, the future founder of the Romulan Star Empire.

*******

Vin had been seconds away from bolting after Chris, not about to let his best friend and Captain go off anywhere alone, without him watching the man's back when Vin caught a glimpse of Ezra's grave expression as he studied his tricorder. JD was sticking close to Surak, having been given that order because Chris believed the young Vulcan would be more comfortable being shadowed by someone closer to his own age. The ships flying across the sky were continuing to rain down fiery destruction on the area, misbelieving it would halt the Borg advance.

Ezra's expression indicated they were not in the least bit successful.

Vin cast a quick glance at which direction Chris had gone and was satisfied the Captain was okay for the moment, before turning back to Ezra. "How bad?"

"Bad enough," Ezra lowered his tricorder, and Vin glanced at the display to see the growing number of blips across the small screen to indicate how many new Borg were being created. "Master Surak, how many people live in this area?"

Surak thought quickly and recalled the last time he had visited the district. It was during the Festival of the Moons. There were so many new faces; it was difficult to count. Not everyone who lived in T'hossuth were farmers. Thanks to the prosperity of the district, there were merchants, healing stations and schools to support the rural community.

"At least a hundred, perhaps even a hundred and fifty."

Vin's eyes widened at that number, and he turned to Ezra, "Jesus Christ, you don't think?"

Almost as if answering his question, a dozen beams of crimson from ocular attachments, pierced through the veil of smoke. The thin red lines crisscrossed each other as the Borg appeared through the greyish clouds, having detected the Away Team and quickly reaching the conclusion the new arrivals were materials they could use. The handful of Borg in the lead were fully assimilated, but it didn't take long for Vin to realise that the others were only half-formed because he recognised the Vulcans among them.

Of course, none of that was as bad as recognising who was leading them. Julia.

Vin shot Ezra a look and saw the Security Chief was frozen, understandable because the man wasn't seeing a Borg, he was seeing the woman he loved. The Vulcan tried to imagine what would be running through his mind if he were to see Alex in this state and abandoned it because it was simply too terrible. If it were not for their familiarity with the woman, Julia would have been unrecognisable in her Borg shell.

Ezra thought seeing her on the Maverick had been an ordeal, but it was nothing compared to this. The transformation into Borg was complete now. She was bald that glorious copper coloured hair he loved so much was gone. He could see her scalp and the thick veins of black running across her mottled skin. She had lost her forearm to the typical Borg prosthetic. Her remaining eye, the one not gouged out to make way for an ocular implant, no longer burned with green fire.

"Julia..." Ezra whispered slowly, a little part of himself dying at the sight of her this way.

Vin wished he could have allowed Ezra the time to process this latest horror, but he couldn't. They'd hope to get here while the Borgs's numbers were relatively low, but that was fast spiralling out of control. Their weapons would halt a few of them, but it wouldn't take long for the Collective to adapt. The best way to fight the Borg at present was to contain them and deny them any new drones.

"JD," Vin called out the young man who was looking to them for orders. "Get Surak to the Captain."

"Right," JD nodded and gestured for the young Vulcan to follow him. "Come on!"

Surak did not argue. The memory of what had taken place in the Forge was replaying itself in his head, and it was worse now than it was then. At the time he only suspected the peril these creatures posed to his person, now he knew.

"Ezra," Vin grabbed the Security Chief's arm. "We've got to regroup!"

Ezra snapped out of his momentary lapse, blinking rapidly as the facade of the consummate gambler and security chief descended over his face once more. "Yes, of course. I apologise. We need to get to the Captain."

As both men turned to run, Ezra knew he turned a corner. Before this, he wrestled with whether or not he'd have the strength to let Julia go if she could not be saved. After this, there was no longer any question of what had to be done.

If she had to die to be free, he would do that for her. No matter what the consequences to his heart.

Chapter Eight:
Unthinkable

There was just the tiniest fraction of a nanosecond when Chris Larabee considered doing the unthinkable.

Staring into the frightened face of the small child before him, Chris saw a boy who could have been no older than Adam, if his son had lived. Even though the course of Sítashís life had yet to unfold, Chris knew every aspect of it from the history books. Like all men given the opportunity to affect significant change, an idea flared in Chrisís mind so utterly abhorrent; he scarcely believed he was capable of entertaining such a dark thought.

In manhood, this child would become a trusted friend of Surak, a friendship that might see its origins this terrible night. When that same friendship was destroyed, the resulting fallout would see the fracture of Vulcan society for all time. To say nothing about how this boy's disastrous first contact with extraterrestrials, tonight's occurrence notwithstanding, would turn Vulcan xenophobia into Romulan superiority.

If he were ended tonight, there would be no Earth-Romulan war. Millions would be spared. One-hundred years of bitter hostility would never eventuate. The Alpha Quadrant would be a great deal safer. So many possibilities presented themselves to Chris Larabee in a second of time before he remembered himself and then the Captain of the Maverick crushed the idea mercilessly.

No, Chris was not going to sacrifice a child for all the good intentions in the world. No cause was worth discarding human decency.

If Nathan recognised the name uttered by the Vulcan survivor, the doctor did not indicate it. Even if he did, Nathan would ignore it with far more speed than Chris had just done. Nathan didn't see the history of the Alpha Quadrant, he saw a child needing help, and as a healer, it was the only thing that mattered. It was an excellent rule to follow, and Chris would do well to take the doctorís lead.

"Come on, S'tash," Chris reached out to the boy, extending his hand so Chris could lead him out of the crater. "We've got to get you out of here."

Reassured by his gentle coaxing, Sítash took the hand offered, and Chris noticed his small fist was trembling when he covered the boyís hand with his own. As he emerged, Chris saw Sítashís eyes surveying the ruined landscape around them. He reminded Chris of a frightened animal, ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.

"Do you have family around here?" Chris asked, hoping this boy was not entirely alone after the Borgís invasion of his home.

Sítash opened his mouth to speak but then remembered what happened to Norath. The last time heíd seen his sister was when she was climbing into the skimmer. After that, things had gone very bad and their mother...

Stash blinked, and hot tears ran down his cheeks, leaving streaks against his soot-covered face. His gaze dropped to the ground as if he were ashamed of being seen shedding tears like an infant.

Chris ached at the tragedy he saw in the boyís eyes, remembering Adamís tears when he fell over or was upset at something that seemed like the end of the world to a small child. Seeing Sítash weep for the family he lost, affected Chris just as strongly.

"Sítash," he rested his hand on the boyís shoulder, "if theyíre here, weíll find them."

Sítash shook his head, gesturing to the site where the skimmer carrying his mother and their neighbours had crashed. Both Chris and Nathan exchanged glances when they realised what he was staring at, the same thought crossing their minds at the sight of the wreckage. It was nothing more than a twisted hulk of burning metal, still smouldering with noxious fumes and burning in places. If anyone on board survived the initial crash, Chris doubted they would have escaped the fireball that followed.

And Sítash knew it too.

"Iím sorry Sítash," Chris said kindly, having no other words of comfort to offer and refusing to lie when it was plain as day S'tash knew better. "Weíll get you somewhere safe and figure things out later."

"CAPTAIN!"

All three of them reacted to the sharp cry, turning immediately in its direction to see JD Dunne, with Surak flanking him, running towards them. The two emerged through the smoke, leaving behind the phaser fire flaring through the grey mist as weapons fire was exchanged. Chris saw no sign of Ezra and Vin, feeling a surge of alarm at the absence of both and told himself if they did not appear in the next ten seconds, he was going after them himself.

He was losing no more of his friends to the damn Borg.

"Nathan, keep an eye on S'tash," Chris ordered and sprinted up the uneven slope of the crater to meet JD and Surak when they reached him.

Crimson beams of light pierced through the smoke, revealing the situation without JD needing to explain further. The Borg were coming and judging by the number of thin strobes, there were more than thirteen. Through the swirls of grey, Chris could make out faint silhouettes moving forward steadily, giving warning to anyone who saw them, it was time to run for their lives. While he couldn't see Vin and Ezra as he looked past JD and Surak, he could hear the familiar discharge of weapons to know they were not far behind.

"They're coming!" JD came to a halt, panting hard as he forced the words out, unaware it was a somewhat redundant report. "Captain, there's a lot of them coming. More than what we originally thought and we saw Julia..."

JD couldn't finish, but he didn't need to. Chris could see the horror on his face as the youth struggled to maintain his composure.

"Captain, she's almost all Borg."

Chris glanced back at the smoke, trying to see Ezra and wondering briefly how his Security Chief would have reacted to the sight when Surak spoke, similarly breathless.

"What are these demons?"

Demons? Chris straightened up and looked at the boy, finding such words from a Vulcan jarring before he remembered this culture still believed in a pantheon of gods at this time in their history. "Not demons," Chris answered grimly. "But just as bad."

It was not entirely a lie. Like biblical demons so prolifically described in literature and holo films, the Borg did possess a person's body, using not some satanic spirit but nanites just as coldly malevolent. They took free will and crushed it underfoot until the mind beneath it was either broken forever or lost for good. He thought of Julia, unable to imagine what Ezra must be feeling at this moment. For his part, remembering that spirited young woman who held his ship together with 'spit and baling wire' as she once put it, encased in Borg machinery was more than Chris could stand.

Another loud burst of phaser fire, closer this time, drew Chris's attention and he looked away from Surak, just in time to see Vin and Ezra emerging through the smoke. Both were alternating between running and shooting, allowing each other to widen the gap between themselves and the enemy while continuing to lay down suppressing fire. Ezra and Vin were the best marksmen on the Maverick and each shot they fired met its mark. More and more Borg tumbled to the ground, but even Chris knew their skills weren't going to be enough.

"Get back to the Cimarron!" Chris ordered JD, aware the scope of this fight had grown beyond their initial goal of securing the errant Borg from the Corrizo. They were like an infestation, growing out of control fast, but Chris wasn't ready to employ his scorched earth tactic yet. As much as he loathed to engage the locals, he needed to. They had to be told sending more forces to fight the Borg would only provide the Collective with more bodies for assimilation.

Knowing better than to question his Captain, JD motioned Surak to follow as he descended the slope to join Nathan and the newest survivor they had rescued from the rubble.

In the meantime, Chris raised his own weapon, firing at the thickest part of the Borg advance to give his two officers the breathing room needed to escape. The Collective would sweep across the entire area, capturing any stragglers not yet assimilated to continue their expansion. Bolts of energy flew past Vin and Ezra, striking the first Borg he saw in the chest. He prayed silently; it wasn't Julia because there was simply not enough time to make sure. Only when the Borg collapsed to the ground, its body jerking about spasmodically as the phaser beam fried its mechanics, did Chris see to his relief and then to his shame, it was a Vulcan he did not know.

"Captain," Ezra reached Chris first, unwittingly providing him with the same report JD gave him a second ago. "We must withdraw. By my tricorder readings, they have assimilated at least half the population of this district. That is almost seventy-five people. We need reinforcements."

"No!" Chris shook his head just as he fired again, this time allowing Vin to get himself to safety. "We can't keep sending people after them, we're only going to help increase their numbers. We've got to contain them."

The Captain of the Maverick paused a moment as he fired again, taking advantage of the rotation modulation of phaser frequency while he still could. The Borg's ability to adapt was swift, and it wouldn't be long before their phasers were no longer effective. That was precisely how long they had to get clear before they were swept up by the Collective and added to the Borg's twisted menagerie.

Two more Borg fell to the ground as he continued his assault, their machinery attached to their torso short-circuiting with the power overload. They collapsed like puppets whose strings were cut, and Chris reminded himself once again, everyone he killed was someone being trapped against their will. It was the only comfort he could take in any of this, was the hope their deaths would be a release.

"Captain, we must go," Ezra tugged at his arm, seeing more and more Borg appeared out of the smoke as if they were being born right out of the fire.

Chris agreed and was about to turn when a face emerged out of the mists. All thought drained from his mind with shock taking its place. The barrel of the gun dipped slightly, corresponding by the expression of utter horror on Chris's face.

Since this began, Chris accepted the reality of Buck Wilmington's assimilation. It was not a pill easily swallowed, but he forced himself to do so because he needed clarity to get Buck back. Buck was his oldest friend, his brother in every way that mattered. When Buck met Sarah for the first time, he'd told Chris not to screw it up because Sarah was the one. Buck was in the room with him the night Adam was born, slapping him across the back with jubilance, seconds after Chris was told he had a son. After their deaths, it was Buck who made sure Chris didn't walk out of an airlock in despair, reminding him that life went on, no matter how hard it was to live without them.

Without Buck, he would not be Captain of the Maverick.

Yet knowing Buck was assimilated was nothing like the hell of seeing it.

Standing taller than all the other drones, only Chris's familiarity with Buck allowed him to recognise the former First officer of the Maverick immediately. Gone was the dark hair. What remained in its place was pasty, grey scalp mottled with patches and running with dark veins, making Chris think of something dead left beneath a rotting log for too long. Chris imagined the nanite maggots running through his friend's body and felt his stomach curdle with revulsion. Buckís face, partially concealed by that damned ocular implant, was a wax mask, showing no expression.

Everything that was his friend was gone. The broad grin, the laugh that came from a man with a heart as big as a sun, was lost beneath Borg programming. The pain cut through Chris like a knife, and he closed his eyes mourning the brother who was the only one brave enough to tell him some truth he couldn't bear to hear, with a voice that made you believe he was a better friend than you deserved.

God. Buck, I'm sorry, Chris thought with anguish. I'm so sorry I let this happen to you.

Without any awareness he was doing it, Chris Larabee raised his phase rifle and took aim squarely at Buck Wilmington.

He didn't care what happened to him tomorrow, didn't care if Inez or JD never forgave him for what he was about to do. Chris just couldn't allow Buck to continue to suffer like this, trapped in a prison of flesh, forced to watch through his own eyes as the Collective plundered whole civilisations using his body. He just couldn't. God help him, if Chris couldn't save Buck, then he was going to free him from this nightmare.

"Captain," Ezra saw what he was doing. "What...."

Ezra never had a chance to finish the statement because Chris pulled the trigger.

Even as the blast escaped the barrel of the phase rifle, Chris felt a little part of him die. It did not help time had slowed to prolong the excruciating moment before impact. Chris did not think about the friend of his youth, the brother who shared his pain, and the loyal lieutenant who stood by him no matter what. He thought of the friend who needed to be saved by the sweet release of death.

The energy bolt struck the centre of Buck's new armour and then dissipated.

Chris uttered a frustrated cry as Buck shook off the phaser blast and kept coming. Cursing Fate for the bitch she was, robbing him of the chance to do this much for Buck, Chris was gripped with fury. He fired again, refusing to give up because Buck deserved salvation.

"Captain, they've adapted!"

Ezra grabbed his arm and tried to get him to lower the weapon, but Chris couldn't give up and continued to shoot even as the distance between them and the Borg narrowed. The phaser fire did nothing to halt the march and Buck continued to lead the charge forward, coming towards them like an army of wind up toys.

"CHRIS!"

Vin's voice so rarely spoken with such demand, made Chris snap out of his present mental state. The Vulcan had wrenched the weapon from his hand. "We have to go NOW."

"I can't..." Chris glanced at Buck and then faced Vin with anguish in his eyes.

"I know," Vin understood all too well. "But we still have to go."

This time, Vin didn't give him a choice and grabbed Chris by the arm, more than prepared and fully capable of carrying the Captain of the Maverick if it became necessary. Fortunately, such drastic action was not needed because Vin saw Chris understood this was how it had to be. Without a further word, but with misery etched across his face, Chris did the only thing they could in light of what was coming at them.

They ran.

*******

THE CITY OF JALELYL

Where they had come from, he did not know.

Within his inner sanctum, far away from the prying eyes of the generals, ministers and various courtiers who served him, his meditation had been interrupted by a new invasion, though this one was of the like he never experienced before. Usually, when he heard the voices of others, they were a cacophony of chaotic chatter overlapping each other, like the beat of a thousand drums, pounding to their own rhythm. Throughout the years, he learned to banish them to the background, so his own thoughts weren't disrupted. Their distant rumble was almost comforting, the way white noise soothed the brain.

What invaded him now was not at all like that.

The new voices his mind felt strangely mechanical. He could hear them all speaking, but they did not talk with the discordant sounds of many, but like an orchestra working in harmony. These drums did not pound against each other, their rhythm worked in concert and could almost be considered pleasing if one found appeal in the music of machinery working in synchronicity. What was even more intriguing, despite its mechanical nature, there was an organic feel to it as well. Fascinated, he stretched out his mind, moving past the wall of discordant sounds to find its source and heard one word speaking louder than all others.

Collective.

Before he could grasp it fully, to follow the consciousness floating about the aether, gaining his attention by its power and indifference, a more physical interruption penetrated his meditation. The translucent walls of his chamber solidified once more, becoming matter around him. The sound, an insistent rapping against the great bronzed door of his private sanctuary, echoed like a gong and he bristled with annoyance, making a silent promise whoever was behind it had better have a good reason for the interruption.

Unfolding his long legs, he rose to his feet above the demi-cotton rug he had been sitting on and reached for the robe draped across the back of the upholstered chair nearby.

"Come!"

The door swung open as Sudoc of Vulcan pulled the fabric over his shoulders and saw it was Basha, his chief adviser. The man always seemed fixed in position ready to grovel, making Sudoc wonder if he was born this way. Of course, Basha had managed to remain one of his advisers for a good decade without being killed, so the man must be rather good at it. Following Basha was Sorval, a trusted military aide who stayed in his employ by doing the exact opposite, telling the truth no matter how unpalatable it was. On this occasion, the emotions radiating from both men ranged from confusion to opportunity, which of course piqued Sudocís interest.

"We apologise for interrupting your meditation, but General...."

"Sire," Sorval spoke up abruptly, having no patience with Basha's prattle when the situation was urgent by his reckoning. "Something is happening in Shi'Kahr."

Sudoc's jaw clenched, feeling a surge of hatred for that name, the city and those who lived in it. His grand plan for being crowned War Master of All constantly fell to ruin because he could not conquer one city. One city!

"Explain." His tone indicated he wanted the intelligence to come to him quickly, without obfuscation or irrelevance.

"Our orbital sentries have detected some sort of battle taking place in the city. I contacted our agents in the city, and it appears all of Shi'Khar is being mobilised for combat. It started in the T'hossuth district but appears to be spreading. The Law Guardians have evacuated the area, but there are reports of casualties growing in number with each hour. At last report, Shi'Kahr air defence had mobilised and started bombarding the area."

"Who are they fighting?"

"Our agents are not certain. The reports cannot be relied upon because so few have escaped to provide accurate intelligence." Sorval eyes met Sudocs, revealing the concern the enemy laying waste to Shi'Kahr might be someone they should be wary of provoking. "From all accounts, however, anyone who goes to confront this enemy on foot does not return. It is why they resorted to an aerial assault."

Sudoc did not speak for a moment, because after long last, taking Shi'Kahr was a possibility. For too long that city had stood against it, it's clan leaders and generals adept enough to repel any attack by his forces. If Shi'Kahr was this vulnerable than it was an opportunity he could not afford to waste, and would not. His desire to claim the whole of Vulcan as his own had been prevented by one rebel city, but it seemed the Gods had chosen to help him reach his destiny.

The Gods who called themselves the Collective.

Chapter Nine:
Promise

SIX YEARS AGO

Chris Larabee woke up with his nose in puke.

The assault on his still functioning olfactory senses by the acrid stench of a partially digested and then regurgitated meal he did not remember eating, was sharp enough to force his eyelids open. Sniffing the pillow and noting the mustard coloured smear on one corner Chris tried to squint away the visual overload, as light poured through the window into his dark bedroom.

Everything was too damn bright, from the glare of the sunshine penetrating the atmospheric shield protecting Utopia Planitia colony from the harsh Martian climate, to the dance of dust particles in the air. Rolling away from the light, Chris had no intention of facing the world and prepared to return to the cold dark of slumber again. If reality could not be drowned in alcohol, then an endless sleep would do just as nicely.

The chime of his front door told him he was about to get neither.

Uttering a muffled series of groans through his pillow, the insistent chirps at the doors refused to be muted. Whoever was out there, was not going away. Well, he sure as fuck wasn't getting up. They could press that door panel until kingdom come, but Chris wasn't putting up with callers if he didn't want to. Even if his head throbbed, his mouth tasted of sick and his bed smelled like a gutter, this was where he was staying, Fuck anyone who thought differently.

When the door ceased its annoying racket, Chris felt some satisfaction knowing he outlasted his attempted visitor, and could now suffer his hangover in peace.

His victory was temporary.

The hiss of a door told Chris he had won nothing.

This time, Chris sat up groggily, faced with the unhappy realization someone was in his house. The sweat and puked stained sheets clung to his skin as he blinked a bleary eye through the open door of the bedroom, trying to see his intruder. When the shadows moving against the wall confirmed he wasn't alone, the First Officer of the Rutherford got to his feet, almost tripping over the empty bottle of whiskey lying against the carpeted floor. Clad only in his shorts, sporting weeks of growth on his face, Chris surveyed the room and tried to remember the last 24 hours.

It was a blur.

In fact, everything for the last four months was hazy. Nothing held definition since Chris learned Sarah and Adam had died. Time seemed to have lost its meaning and his days were spent in this house, the same one his family inhabited, the one he spent so little time in because the Rutherford wasn't made for families. Sarah and Adam had built a life here with friends who now mourned them, waiting for the day he became Captain.. At the memorial, the friends came to him, offering him their condolences, because a funeral required bodies and there wasn't enough of Sarah and Adam to fill a coffee cup, let alone a coffin.

He'd retreated into this house, clinging to it because within these walls, he almost tricked himself into believing they were still in the world, not gone for all time.

"Jesus Christ."

Chris looked up and saw Buck Wilmington staring at him from the doorway. Buck's expression was a mixture of shock, disgust and pity, Chris didn't know which stood out more and honestly, didn't really care.

"What are you doing here?" He croaked, his throat felt hoarse because he'd hardly spoken to anyone in weeks.

"You were supposed to report to the Rutherford a week ago," Buck came towards him, "Captain Soval asked me to come here to find out where you were before he had to put it in your jacket."

Chris blinked. The Rutherford. That's right, he was due back weeks ago. He was supposed to get to Deep Space Nine to rendezvous with the ship, but hadn't made his connection on the USS Sakharov. "I'm not going."

"Yes, you are," Buck stomped up to him and grabbed him by the arm, taking a moment to survey the room and its condition before reaching Chris.

The state of it told him just what Chris Larabee had been up to these four months, and Buck cursed he was unable to get back to the core systems before this. Serving as the Science Officer on the Nimitz kept him on the rim with infrequent trips to Earth. The last time he had been back was during the funeral with a few short weeks spent on Mars before it. Even then, Buck suspected it wasn't enough.

When Captain Soval contacted him, Buck's worst fears were realized, and he took a temporary leave from the Nimitz to deal with the situation. As it was, Buck was somewhat astonished the Vulcan Captain had opted to take this route instead of kicking Chris's behaviour further up the chain. Then again, even those logical bastards were capable of showing heart on occasion. Nevertheless, Buck wasn't about to let Chris sink his career, not when a captaincy was so close.

"Jesus, you smell like you've been living in a Klingon outhouse," Buck flinched at the reek of him, ignoring the dried crust of vomit on the man's chin.

"I said, no!" Chris wrenched free. "I'm not going!"

"The hell you aren't!" Buck grabbed his arm again and towed him towards the shower. The man's inability to stop him told Buck just how hungover Chris was.

"I don't have to do anything! Sarah and Adam are DEAD! I don't have to do shit!"

"Oh no, you don't!" Buck cut him off. "You don't get to say their names when you're stinking of puke and Christ knows what else! You don't get to use them as an excuse for your self-pity! Yeah they're gone, and none of us can imagine what you must be going through, but that doesn't give you the right to make a mockery of their deaths by turning into...whatever the fuck this is! I will not stand for it, do you hear me? Sarah was your wife, but she was my friend too, and she wouldn't want you to throw your life away like this."

"It's my choice!"

"No, it's the choice of the liquor you've been poisoning your brain with for the last four months! You're doing everything you can to avoid the pain and rotting your brain in the process. Ever since I've known you, the only thing you ever wanted to be, is a starship Captain. Thanks to Sarah, she made you want something else, but getting your own ship, that's never changed. Sarah knew that, and she accepted it even though she never wanted a life in Starfleet. She didn't follow you around from ship to ship, making a home in space or some colony world because she was so damn fond of starship travel! She put up with it because she loved you and she knew you'd make one hell of a captain someday! Don't piss it all away just because you can't face her and Adam being gone!"

Without giving Chris further chance to protest, he shoved his best friend into the shower and turned on the water, making sure it was set for cold since that was what Chris needed right now, an icy dose of reality. Chris stumbled against the tiled floor, his hangover too intense and his blood like sludge in his veins, to be able to do much else. Before he could get to his feet again, he was hit with a spray of icy cold water.

"FUCK!"

Chris just about jumped up as he struggled to get away from the water, soaking him to the bone. The sting of cold was like a bolt of electricity to the brain, awakening every sluggish nerve in his body. As he wiped the water from his eyes and struggled to get up, and not slip on the wet tiles and fall on his ass, Chris heard Buck's words through the pounding in his head, and each one spoken was another jolt to the system he could not ignore.

"I was willing to let you mourn for as long as you needed to because I knew how much you loved them, but this isn't mourning, this is self-destructing. Other people have lost their families too, but they don't go to shit like you have. They pick up, and they move on because that's life, Chris. It isn't easy, and the pain doesn't vanish, but you can't let it be the reason you break. You're the toughest son of a bitch I know, you can get through this. You just have ....."

"I DON'T KNOW HOW!" Chris shouted, furious at Buck's words, mostly because all of it was true. It wasn't fair any of it. If anyone was supposed to die, it was him! Not Sarah and Adam! Being a Starfleet Officer, death was always a risk. Space wasn't all beauty and wonder, it was dangerous. It had a dozen ways to kill you. Chris accepted that. What he had not been prepared for in any shape or form, was the possibility that his family might die first.

Chris slid to the floor of the ceiling, burying his face in his hands. The sobs he had been holding back for so long, escaped him in torrents as fierce as the spray raining down on him from above. Letting his hair droop around in soaked ringlets, he wept for the girl he met outside that teahouse, the mother of his child, the little boy who would look at him and make him feel like he was the centre of the universe with just a smile.

How would he ever do without them?

Buck lowered himself to the floor next to the shower cubicle, reaching for Chris's shoulder and squeezing hard to remind his friend, no his brother, he was here, and this was something Chris didn't have to go through alone.

"I don't know how to go on without them," Chris whispered. "I can't see life any other way."

"I know,' Buck said with a sigh, no expert at this himself. "But you start small, you take one step and then another and just keep taking them until youíre going somewhere. There's no magic cure, I won't lie to you about that, and you're smart enough to know it would be bullshit if I tried. All I can say is one step at a time, don't think about tomorrow, just get through the hour and then the day."

When Chris raised his bloodshot eyes to Buck, the big man added. "I've got ya back, no matter what Chris, I promise."

*******

Chris stared through the cockpit window of the Cimarron, thinking how Buck's promise had saved him.

As T'hossuth continued to burn beneath them as the runabout lifted off the still green field they had set down earlier, Chris tried to see through the smoke covering the district in a grey shroud. With numb despair, Chris knew he was unable to keep the same promise to Buck. Somewhere down there, the man who saved him, who raised him up from the lowest moment in his life and helped him realize his dreams of captaincy was trapped in a prison of cybernetic implants.

And Chris couldn't even save him by killing him.

"Chris, where are we headed?" Vin barked from the pilot seat.

"Raise our shields and take us out of the city for the minute," Chris answered, snapping out of his fugue because there was simply no time for him to be mired in regret. He might not be able to save Buck, but the rest of his crew needed him to pull his head out of his ass. "We need to figure out the best way to deal with this problem."

"Gotcha," Vin answered, and Chris felt the deck heave as the cockpit window showed the change in direction even as Vin's hands flew across the controls. Entering the small space of the cockpit, he leaned past JD who was in the co-pilot seat to squeeze Vin's shoulder, drawing the Vulcan's attention.

"Thanks, Vin," Chris met his eyes. "Thanks for what you did back there."

"There ain't nothing to thank me for Chris," Vin thought about the First Officer who was his friend too. He hadn't liked dragging Chris away from doing what needed to be done for Buck, but like the rest of his race, he could be pragmatic. "I'm sorry we weren't any help to Buck."

"Me neither," Chris sighed, feeling the anguish well up inside of him again and notice JD flinch a little. The kid said nothing but Chris knew JD was also grieving for Buck. The Captain patted him on the shoulder and JD responded by giving Chris a look of gratitude for his empathy.

"Captain," Ezra said quietly, understanding Chris's state of mind all too well. He'd been faced with the same horror when he saw Julia after her transformation into Borg. Even now, he was struggling to cope with the reality she might already be lost, and like Chris, the most merciful thing he could do if he couldn't retrieve her was to free her. "What are your orders?"

Chris sucked in his breath and looked up at his Away Team. Vin was facing front again, occupied with gaining altitude. Nathan was cleaning up some of the minor scrapes and bruises young S'tash sustained during his hideout in the sewer. JD was ensuring the Cimmaron was not detected by local sensors, while Ezra was dealing with Surak.

"Our objective is no longer to preserve the timeline. We'll minimize the damage if we can, but our primary goal will be the complete removal of the Borg from this planet."

Chris decided if they ever got back to the 24th century, he'd tell the Department of Temporal Investigations what they could go do with themselves if they questioned his actions today.

"We can't let the locals send any more people down there to fight the Borg. The more people they send, the more they're allowing those numbers to expand."

Surak knew these people were Outliers, but the Captain's words confused him, even if he understood the urgency of the man's warning. He did not understand the full nature of the enemy, but judging by the apparent fear in which these people spoke of them, Surak could appreciate the danger.

"Surak, your father is in authority, will he be able to help us?"

Surak straightened up and said with some pride. "He is a Council Elder and a general."

"Good enough," Chris nodded. "We need to speak to him. The beings below are called the Borg, they can infect anyone who touches them with microscopic machinery that transforms any person into one of them." Chris had no wish to go into too much detail. The less information Surak knew about the Borg, the better. He only needed to know they were dangerous. "That's what they've done to the people below. Their technology is extremely advanced, and they are difficult to stop. If we deny them new bodies, they can be contained. Otherwise, they'll overrun the entire planet."

Surak's eyes widened. "You've seen this?"

"More times than we would like to count Master Surak," Ezra admitted, recalling the state of Lysia when the Maverick first arrived at Deep Space Five and more recently, what it cost him and the Captain personally. What it might still cost them.

"We need to see your father, explain the situation to him," Chris continued. "Do you know where he will be right this minute?"

"I cannot say for certain," Surak admitted unsurely. "If the city is under threat, he would be in the Council Hall with the other clan leaders. I have not been home since I began the Rite of Tal'oth."

"Captain, our sensors should be able to locate him using Master Surak's DNA signature," Ezra suggested.

"Good," Chris nodded, "Ezra I want you to track him and bring him on board,"

All three Starfleet officers stared at their Captain in surprise, even Vin had glanced over his shoulder at the request. To do so would be to expose transporter technology, and that was not only a violation of General Order 1, there was no telling how the Vulcan would react to it.

"Captain, are you certain? It could be something of a shock." Ezra pointed out.

"What shock?" Surak looked at the four men in puzzlement. "Why?"

"Because what we need to tell him needs to be for his ears only. The more people we involve, the greater the danger to your people even after the Borg are gone." Chris approached the young man and tried to explain his reasoning. "Surak, look around you. Your people war easily. What would be the result if one faction gains an advantage the others don't have? You know your history, you know how easily wars begin. "

Surak wanted to argue that they were a race of warriors, but he could not, because there was truth to the Outliers words. At this moment, the mad tyrant Sudoc was laying waste to the rest of Vulcan, Shi'Kahr was the only safe haven left. Perhaps the enemy's weapons might protect them from Sudoc, but Sudoc could also acquire them and murder everyone who opposed him.

When Surak was in the desert, struggling to survive with only his thoughts for company, Surak had considered his situation. Surak knew it was his father's wish he became a warrior, but he knew in his heart, it was not what he wanted. He wanted to survive the Rapture, to find a mate who would love him and have children while watching them grow and simply live. When he was avoiding the sehlats and the lemat-ya, he had watched them and saw no matter how dangerous the pack, they all worked together. They survived because they shared the same purpose.

For them, the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.

"I understand," he nodded. "My father does not wish for endless bloodshed. He is a soldier because he must be. I believe he will listen to you if you can help us fight these creatures."

"Okay,," Chris gave him a little smile. "Ezra do it find him and bring him on board."

"Chris," Vin spoke up from the conn.

"Yeah, Vin?" Chris glanced over his shoulder and saw Vin had stood up from the pilot's chair, leaving JD with the flying for the moment. Joining the others in the main compartment because he was confident JD could handle things on his own, Chris noted the expression on Vin's face. The Vulcan had something on his mind, and that made Chris pay attention. Vin rarely insinuated himself into any discussion without good reason, so if he was about to do so now, they had better listen up.

"If his pa is going to trust us, we need him to know the truth."

"The truth?" Ezra stared at the helm officer with confusion until it began to dawn on the security chief what the Vulcan was proposing and concluded immediately he did not like it.

"Yeah the truth, because he's sure as hell isn't going to take our word for it. If they've been fighting Sudoc for so long, they're not going to accept the word of strangers the Borg can wipe out everyone on the planet. We can't tell him. We need to show him."

"You do not think what we just left behind is ample proof?" Ezra countered.

"No, that's not enough and not what Vin means."

Chris understood what Vin was trying to say and what a personal matter this was for the Vulcan, but Vin was right. Surak's father had to know the stakes, beyond the incident rapidly escalating in T'hossuth. Facing Vin, Chris met his eyes. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, not wanting to do this at all, but not having any choice in the matter. "He needs to see what we know, what we've been through, and there's only one way to do that."

"You mean meld?" Nathan exclaimed finally catching on.

Vin shifted uncomfortably, almost flinching when Nathan used the word. He didn't want to do this, never wanted to do this. His Vulcan mental disciplines were rudimentary at best. Sure he knew how to shields his thoughts thanks to Mary's lessons, and establish a link with Alex because of their marital bond, but he'd never actually carried out a meld with another Vulcan.

"I was there at the Battle of Sector 001," Vin said to Nathan and then glanced at Chris. "I was with you on the bridge when that damn cube nearly wiped out the entire fleet. If I can show it to him, then he'll understand why we can't let them get any further than they already have. He'll see for himself why he's gotta help us stop the Borg, or risk losing the planet."

Chapter Ten:
The Battle of Sector 001

TWO YEARS AGO - EARTH

Vin Tanner was terrified.

It wasn't the first time he was terrified, so he recognized the emotion despite its infrequency in his life. The last time he was so afraid was when he realized his mother was going to die. The fever she contracted was not a passing bug, but something insidious enough to take her away from him, which it had. Then, his terror came from the knowledge he was going to be alone in the savage world that was their home for almost twelve years, and the only voice he would hear once she was gone, was his own.

This terror was different, but he could at least take comfort in knowing he would not be afraid for long. Chances were good, he wasn't going to live out the day.

"We are the Borg. Existence as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile."

The cube loomed large in the view screen of the USS Rutherford.

Against the canvas of stars, it never looked more fearsome, not merely because it was a Borg ship, but because it looked like something unnatural shredding its way across space instead of gliding through it. Vin had never seen the Borg cube outside of a holovid, but like everyone in Starfleet, he knew what one looked like after the events of Wolf 359.

At present, the cube bore the scars of the initial and secondary defence perimeter intended to halt its advance to Earth. The Borg were met by a task force consisting of fifteen starships, whose classes ranged from the Oberth, Miranda, and Norway. The small armada pitted itself against the Borg, its commanders were perfectly aware that their goal was to buy time, and they did so in blood. While the casualty numbers had yet to be tallied, it was confirmed the Thunderchild, Yeager, Appalachia and the Bozeman were gone. What remained of that ruined fleet raced back to Earth, joining the armada for the final confrontation with the enemy.

Now twenty ships remained. The Rutherford, a sabre class frigate, held position with her sister ships, the Babbage and the Lavoisier. They joined the hastily assembled armada consisting of Nebula and Akira class vessels, led by the USS Grey Wolf, Admiral Gabriel Hayes's ship. This newer designed collection of frigates, battlecruisers and corvettes were constructed to match the growing Dominion threat, with stronger shields and multiple phasers and torpedo banks.

Even though the Borg ship showed signs of its earlier engagement with Starfleet by the visible scoring to its outer hull, the cube was still operating at maximum combat capability. The charred and blackened sections of the hull were swiftly regenerating, restored by the collective will of drones who worked unseen like a hive of ants. Despite Starfleet's strategy to marshall its most lethal vessels to meet the Borg over Earth, allowing the first and second line of defence to weaken the enemy, the Borg had gone through them with ease.

With so many ships facing the lone Borg cube, Vin thought they should have been confident of victory. What was assembled to meet the Borg, would have given other enemies pause. Even the Dominion would think twice about invading the Alpha Quadrant when faced with this formidable fleet. Unfortunately, no one could feel confident when it came to the Borg. Not when everyone remembered the battle of Wolf 359.

Forty starships perished during that fight, and while Vin had thankfully missed it because he was still a cadet at the Academy, the cost of Starfleet's pyrrhic victory was felt even there. How many classmates had lost friends, families and loved ones? How many funerals had they been forced to attend? Silently, he wondered who would show up to his. He had no friends or family, no one who would care if he died.

That wasn't true, he glanced over his shoulder at the command chair, occupied by Captain Savil, but his gaze rested on the First Officer, Commander Larabee.

At present, Captain Savil remained as always, the picture of Vulcan stoicism.

Vin had only a few interactions with the older Vulcan but always felt uncomfortable in his presence, convinced Captain Savil felt the same. While Savil was never impolite, wearing that impassive mask, Vin often wondered what his Captain thought of him, a Vulcan without the discipline of Surak, serving on his ship. Vin couldn't imagine why he had scored this assignment on the Rutherford. Why would Captain Savil want him on board when he was such an affront to Vulcan ideology?

Fortunately, the one person on board who did seem to take an interest in Vin was Chris Larabee, Savil's First Officer. Commander Larabee always seemed to have a handle on everything, no matter how dire the situation, displaying an aura of assurance that made you feel everything was going to turn out okay. Still, despite possessing an intense gaze capable of telegraphing to all comers when they put a foot wrong, the commander was capable of surprising compassion.

Vin had the sense the First Officer was looking out for him, though it was never overt, offering him gentle advice when Vin stumbled in his interactions with others.

It would have surprised Chris Larabee to know Vin felt similar empathy for him.

Vin could see as clear as day there was pain behind that icy coloured gaze, but Commander Larabee hid it well and used it to function. It hadn't taken much for Vin to learn the reason for the sadness behind his eyes. The commander had lost his wife and child four years earlier in a freak shuttle accident. Using one's pain to survive allowed Vin to understand the place the man inhabited. When his ma died and left him alone in the world, his pain was the only thing Vin could cling to help him go on.

"Why isn't the Enterprise here?" Vin overheard Chris whisper in Savil's ear. "Captain Picard has more experience dealing with the Borg than anyone else here."

"Apparently Admiral Hayes feels Captain Picard is compromised after his assimilation."

"That's a load of crap," Chris snorted derisively, and Vin had to force himself to maintain a poker face instead of smirking at the man's crude but accurate reaction.

"I would agree with that statement if not your choice of vernacular," the Captain said unsmiling.

A burst of static across the bridge caught everyone's attention as the open frequency they were using for battlefield communications, transmitted Admiral Hayes's opening message to the Borg.

"This is Admiral Gabriel Hayes, representing the United Federation of Planets. You are ordered to return to your space immediately, or we will be forced to open fire. We will not ask again."

Brave words , Vin thought, but as he stared at the cube in the view screen, he knew its answer.

"We are the Borg. We will not comply. You will lower your shield and surrender your ships. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."

Three torpedoes exploded out of the Grey Wolf's weapons banks, proving Admiral Hayes was true to his word as the quantum payload hurtled towards the Borg ship. Designed to slice through Jem'Hadar shields, the torpedo struck the front face of the vessel. The surface of the craft flared up in bright blooms of amber before the vacuum of space snuffed out the flames. While the Borg's hull appeared wounded, anyone who fought the Borg before knew this was to be expected.

The Borg did not possess shields like most alpha quadrant ships. Instead, their defences were based upon a subspace electromagnetic field capable of determining the modulation of enemy weapons. Each strike allowed the field to adapt quickly to prepare for the next attack. In other words, the first shot was free, the next one would not be.

"Why the hell are we giving them warning shots?" Vin heard Chris demand, this time not bothering to hide his disagreement with Admiral Hayes. "We need to hit them once from multiple points, with different modulations at once. Don't give them time to pin us down to adapt. We can't win in a lengthy engagement, we've got to do this hard and fast. Time is something they've got, and we don't."

"I agree," Captain Savil nodded, and Vin had the impression Savil would have liked to have stepped out of his rigid Vulcan persona to express things as bluntly as his human First Officer.

The Borg's response to the barrage was the unleashing of its own weapons in a beam of emerald.

As the Grey Wolf, accompanied by a handful of other ships went on the offensive, the Borg cube launched its counter-attack. The green cutting laser, a staple of Borg weapons, used to such devastating effect at Wolf 359, struck the Grey Wolf on its left nacelle, almost shearing a portion of it from the rest of the ship. What remained exploded like a firework, ejecting heat and plasma in all directions. Vin's stomach hollowed when he saw the tiny specks hurtling into space around the injured ship, aware it wasn't just pieces of hull plating out there, but bodies.

"ALL SHIPS TARGET THAT CUBE AND OPEN FIRE!"

Hayes's voice, spoken through the crackle of static, was filled with fury at his ship's mutilation, and with that one command, the final Battle of Sector 001 began.

"Take us in, Hanson," Chris spoke, receiving a slight nod from Savil to proceed. "Bring us in on attack vector Alpha."

"Aye Sir,"

From his station, Vin saw Lt. Hanson, the Officer of the Conn tapping the controls before him and as he did so the Rutherford's view of the cube expanded as the ship sailed forward into battle. The screen ahead was filled with the sight of ships flying around the Borg vessel, some moving to attack, other's conducting strafing runs across the expanse of the enormous ship, discharging phasers and photon torpedoes across its hull. The amount of firepower was staggering, and yet the cube continued its charge towards Earth, refusing to be deterred.

Across the view screen, Vin saw the Grey Wolf come at the cube again, this time accompanied by the Lexington and Sparta. The Collective was prepared for the assault. The Borg made no attempt to avoid the barrage of torpedoes hurtling towards it, and when they detonated, the formidable payload flared briefly against the Borg shields, dissipating into nothingness.

No more free shots , Vin thought, feeling his gut clench as the Lexington and Sparta repeated the action with a similar result. The Borg's efforts were nowhere that ineffectual. The single streak of green energy struck the saucer section of the Grey Wolf, hitting it with enough force to send the ship into a spin, with a part of the hull exploding. In its effort to right itself, it collided with the USS Indio, a smaller Oberth class ship, causing the craft to explode, unable to recover from the impact.

"Jesus Christ," Vin heard Chris gasp behind him.

"Commander Zarina," Savil said calmly, a stark contrast to the anxiety running across the bridge in the wake of the Indio's destruction. "Arm torpedoes, and fire on my mark."

"Closing in on the Borg ship Sir," Vin volunteered as the hull of the massive ship appeared before them.

"Maintain our shield modulation no matter what," Chris ordered him. "We can't afford to let that beam reach us under any circumstances."

"Aye Sir," Vin nodded and let his own fingers move across the display, his Vulcan brain capable of making computations much faster than anyone on the bridge at present. Ensuring they used every possible frequency imaginable would buy them time before the Borg collapsed their shields. Vin tried to ignore the reality that it wasn't so much a case of if, but rather when .

If their shields went down, that green laser was capable of more than just tearing their ship apart, it was also a matter transportation device. It could beam crew directly off the bridge, without anyone being able to do a damn thing to stop it.

More ships joined their advance toward the cube, each modulating their shield frequencies to inflict maximum damage on the Borg cube. However, even as they swarmed the enemy, the Borg was adapting to each shot, ensuring it would repel any weapon fired on that frequency. Eventually, they would be protected from each one Starfleet was capable of producing. Meanwhile, as it continued to take on fire, the Borg were more than capable of giving it back in kind. The smaller ships were taking the worst of it, breaking apart upon being struck, or were obliterated outright.

By now the Rutherford was almost at point-blank range of the Borg hull, with the cube's diameter taking up the entirety of the viewer. The surface was like a latticework of circuitry and machinery, without aesthetic, built only for functionality. Two other ships were doing a flyby, dropping more torpedoes against the hull which detonated spectacularly. The Borg crew retaliated by turning that deadly beam of energy upon them and Vin's breath caught when he recognized, the smaller of the two ships, being cut in half before exploding with a blinding flare of white.

"Was that the..." Vin heard Watts, their science officer, start to say.

"The Alexander," Chris answered and while Vin did not need to look over his shoulder to see the First Officer's face, he knew the man was shaken.

"Captain Dunne's ship," Savil said grimly.

Captain Jennifer Dunne had been Chris's first Captain, and last month, the lady had come on board the Rutherford. Vin hadn't spoken to her personally but knew Chris had taken the opportunity to catch up with his former commander.

"She has a son," Chris said a moment later before his eyes turned hard as flint. "Fire torpedoes the minute we get into range."

"Yes Commander," Zarina replied as the Rutherford flew through the debris field that was once the Alexander and its crew.

As the Rutherford began her strafing run along the hull of the Borg ship, Vin saw the appearance of two vessels, falling into formation alongside them, preparing to make the journey with them. All three ships were dwarfed by the enormous cube, but Vin couldnít deny it felt good to know they weren't going to take on that goliath by themselves.

"The Kilshara," Captain Savil said to Chris. "That is Captain Syan's ship."

"We got you on the left," Captain Murphy of the Babbage echoed across the bridge. "Let's take this big bitch down for the Alexander."

"For the Alexander," Savil repeated and nodded at his First Officer allowing him to give the order.

"FIRE ALL WEAPONS!"

Torpedoes escaped the Rutherford's phaser banks, tumbling through the narrow space between the cube and starship, joined by the volley fired by the Kilshara and the Babbage. Beneath them, the hull ruptured, until it seemed as if they were flying above a sea of fire. The conflagration lasted only briefly in a vacuum, but it was enough. Regeneration or not, Vin knew the Borg had taken a significant hit. It might not be enough to disable the enormous craft, but at least they hurt it.

"Direct hit!" Zarina burst out almost gleefully as the viewer revealed the extent of the damage. "I can't say for sure, but I think we took out a couple of decks."

Anything she was about to say, or would ever say ended at that moment because the Borg retaliated swiftly. Before anyone on the bridge could do anything to prevent it, a second Borg energy beam appeared from the hull of the cube, this one aimed directly at the Rutherford.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Vin heard Captain Savil shout as the craft banked sharply at Hanson's skilful hands. Hanson was trying to get them away from the cube, but Vin wanted to yell at him and tell him to head towards the enemy instead of away. In space, they were an easy target to pick off by those energy beams, like the rest of the fleet. If they got close to the hull, so close they might scratch the paint, they would be beyond the beams ability to reach them.

There was a moment of clarity when the secondary weapon fired, and the viewer and the bridge were bathed with the green glow of the Borg's shot. While Chris was still shouting orders and the attack transmissions from the fleet crisscrossed the deck, time seemed to freeze when they saw the Babbage take the hit. The beam sliced off one of its nacelles from the saucer section, causing the ship to veer uncontrollably to port. As she spun into a barrel roll, the ship slammed into the saucer section of the Kilshara. The impact was as devastating as it appeared and across the hulls of both starships, explosive venting signal the effect of core breaches.

The obliteration of both ships lit up the darkened sky like a supernova.

Vin felt a surge of agony as something screamed in his mind. He tumbled to his knees, clutching his skull in pain. Sickened because even if he didn't understand how Vin still felt them die. Their voices screamed through the cold of space for one terrible second and were then forever silenced.

"Shield your thoughts," Savil suddenly spoke. Vin looked up to see his Captain staring at him, having left his command chair. He looked at Vin with the first semblance of kindness the younger Vulcan had ever received from his Captain. Savil was reaching for his shoulder intending to make contact when suddenly Chris was shouting at Hanson to retake evasive action because something else was happening.

Both beams struck the saucer section of the Rutherford at the same time. As it caused explosive decompression throughout the ship, the combined strength of the beam overloaded almost every system on board. The viewer shorted out, the image turning black as fissures began appearing across the screen and then exploded outward violently. Sharp glass flew in all directions. Vin dived underneath his station for cover, and he saw Chris trying to reach the Captain, but it was too late. Both Hanson and Savil were killed in an instant, bathed in fire and glass.

The deck beneath them tilted precariously at a 45-degree angle as the ship began to drift. Vin didn't need to look out a window or see through the viewer to know this. He could feel it under his feet. Around him, the bridge was bathed in the glow of red alert. Panels had come loose with live wiring exposed. At least half the stations were no longer functional, and as Vin climbed out from under his station, he saw Chris examining Captain Savil. Like Hanson, whose end had come with a jagged fragment that was protruding from his neck, causing his blood to pool beneath him, Savil's end had come from a similar piece striking him in the skull.

As Vin swept his gaze across the bridge, all that remained of the senior staff was Chris Larabee and Lt. Commander Watts. Lt. Zarina had been killed when her security console went up. Two other junior officers were staggering to their feet, just as shell shocked as Vin by what just happened. In the meantime, the First Officer knelt over the Captain's body, grief appearing in his face with Vin feeling the same, recalling only a few seconds ago, the connection the man tried to make in the last moment of his life.

"Commander," Vin said to Chris, reminding the First Officer he was now Captain, and they were still in the middle of a fight.

Chris Larabee raised his eyes to Vin Tanner's and knew without the Vulcan having to say a word, what was needed of him. "Yeah," Chris nodded slowly. "I know. We got work to do."

Without skipping a beat, Chris stood up. "Watts, what's our status?"

"We've lost our shields, and main power is offline. We're drifting." Watts face was covered in soot and smoke. Communications were still functioning if the frantic transmissions were any indication. It appeared the fleet might be facing another repeat of Wolf 359.

"Tanner, take the helm!" Chris ordered.

Vin nodded, feeling like nine kinds of scum because the idea of taking the Conn thrilled him until he realized that Hanson had died for him to have the chance. Trying not to look at the dead Officer of the Conn, Vin studied the controls.

"Commander, auxiliary power is still working, I can reroute to get us thruster control."

"Do it!" Chris ordered. "We're sitting ducks here."

"Watts get our externals sensors working, we need to know what the hell is happening out there."

"Aye Sir," Watts nodded, and as he turned away, Chris tapped his com badge. "Engineering, come in."

For a second he was greeted by static, and the remaining feared they might all be dead down there when a voice he didn't recognize announced herself.

"This is Lieutenant Julia Pemberton! Chief Engineer Aeola is dead! We've got a lot of casualties down here. We had to shut down the warp reactor or risk a breach."

"Damn," Chris cursed. "We need power to get us moving faster than thrusters."

"Okay, okay, I can get you impulse, but I don't know for how long." The young woman said as if she were working a complex problem, instead of figuring out how they were not going to be obliterated. "I'm going to do a bypass using the antimatter drives in our shuttles. If I can rig at least three of them together, we might be able to bring back main power by bypassing our main drive. But warp is out of the question.."

"Rig them together?" Chris stared into space, wondering whether if the girl was high on plasma fumes. How did one rig up warp reactors?

"Oh sure, you just need to bypass a couple of safety procedures and run a ....."

"Nevermind," Chris shook his head, deciding he didn't need to know, just grateful Lt. Pemberton could. "Just do it!"

"Aye Sir," he could almost see her smile. "Give me a tick, and we'll give our girl the kick she needs."

Vin and Chris exchanged a bemused look before Watt's made a further announcement. "Commander, I've got sensors back online. Another ship is approaching the fleet."

"Can you identify?"

"Yes, Sir, Sovereign-class." Watt's said, brow arching. "Commander, its the USS Enterprise."

Chapter Eleven:
Mind Touch

"They've left T'hossuth and are spreading out to Antara."

Within the Hall of Debate, General Stef and the members of the Shi'Kahr High Council listened in silence to the report delivered by Captain Latok at the deteriorating situation in T'hossuth.

It was not the first time they received ill-favoured intelligence such as this, but there was something in Latok's eyes, none of the ministers, himself included, missed. Fear. Latok was afraid . The Captain of the High Guard was one of the bravest men they knew, who alongside Stef had defended the walls of Shi'Kahr against the mad tyrant Sudoc's countless attempts to take the city. The man never displayed fear, even in the most extreme situations. The fact he was showing it now to all of them, was far more telling than any report he delivered.

"Do we know who they are?" Minister Kelor, usually responsible for the city's public works, asked as he tried not to show he was affected by Latok's grim report. It was clear Kelor felt out of his depth since it was the first time he attended the meeting under these circumstances. Kelor was one of the newer appointments to the High Council, and until today, the sessions he attended were focused on the day to day functioning of the city. Today, the Council assembled due to the state of emergency declared over Shi'Kahr.

"Could it be they are of Sudoc?" He asked further.

It was not an unreasonable question, Stef thought silently and saw the effect it had among the other members of the Council, even the First Minister. The possibility the Sudoc might be at the heart of this sent an involuntary shudder through everyone at the table. It was hardly the warlord's first attempt to take the city. Sudoc considered Shi'Kahr and its people the reason he was not yet crowned Emperor, and his attacks upon the city were intended to punish them for this great sin. So far, they repelled his violence, but if he was responsible for what was taking place at T'hossuth, then he might have finally found a way through their defences.

"No," Latok quickly dismissed this possibility once and for all. "What few survivors managed to escape the district, tell us the enemy is not of Vulcan."

This created a more disturbed ripple of dissent through the group, Stef included. While they were aware of other races in the galaxy, at this time, no official first contact had been established.

"You mean they're Outliers?" Endak, the minister for trade exclaimed in shock, his indigo eyes wide. "Which ones? The Andor or the Tellar?"

"Neither," Latok shook his head in answer, his younger eyes meeting Stef's as he responded, and the General knew then, Latok was scared for good reason. "We do not know what they are, nor is it a species we are familiar with."

"It doesn't matter where they're from. If they have spread so quickly from T'hossuth to Antara, we must put a stop to them. They have only been on the ground for a few hours, and already overcome one district, what will happen if more time passes? They could take the city in a day!"

Matrak, the Minister for Security concluded, turning an accusing eye on Stef. They were both the same age with Matrak viewing him as a rival. As always, Matrak was quick to use the situation to his advantage. It was no secret his ambitions lay in the direction of the First Minister's chair and never missed an opportunity to elevate himself in the eyes of others.

Despite Matrak's dramatics, this time, Stef couldn't disagree. They were dealing with Outliers who appeared impervious to their weapons. Latok's report revealed the invaders possessed some form of protective shielding that could not be penetrated by blasters, or aerial bombardment.

"We must meet them on the ground again," Matrak stated and then sneered with mild contempt at Stef, "since our aerial attack proved so woefully inadequate."

Stef refused to be baited. Over the years, he had seen men like Matrak come and go and knew how to handle himself. Ignoring the others at the table, he turned his attention to Nivara, the current First Minister of Shi'Kahr. The old matriarch had listened quietly to the discussion, but Stef knew her silence was no sign of inaction. She was the sharpest mind he knew and right now, while they were squabbling over details, she was forming a picture of their situation.

"We have lost all contact with our ground forces," Stef stated. "As Latok reported, the intelligence we've received comes not from our troops, but the few survivors who've escaped to tell the tale. Of these, there are not many. Most do not even understand what they are seeing, repeating gibberish involving demons and wraiths capable of ensnaring souls. Until we know what we are dealing with, we should not send more soldiers, or we will lose them like the others."

"But we cannot sit idly by either," Matrak countered.

"I intend no such thing," Stef eyed him with unconcealed contempt at his desire to jockey for position, even now. "Latok and I will go to T'hossuth and see for ourselves what is happening. We will not engage the enemy, merely conduct a proper assessment of the situation. Until we know for certain what we fight, we cannot defend ourselves."

"General," Latok stared at him, not at all liking the idea a General of Shi'Kahr was placing himself in danger this way. "This is unwise. If we are overcome..."

"We will approach like the le-mat-ya in the dark, carefully, beneath their notice. The minute we have accurate intelligence, we will return."

"You must do what is necessary," Matrak replied stiffly, probably hoping he did not return, Stef was certain.

For the first time, Nivara spoke, although she shot Matrak a hard glare which indicated she did not care for his self-serving agenda at this time. Looking at Stef, her expression softened, and her blue eyes stared at him with real concern. "General Stef, if you feel this is the proper course, I will not stop you, but bear in mind, if the danger is as great as you say, we will have need of your strength fighting the enemy."

"We will take all precautions," Stef assured before he rose to his feet and nodded at Latok to follow him. Raising his hand, he offered them the salute of Ta'al in parting. "Live long and prosper."

*******

"I have him," Ezra Standish announced to the Captain and the rest of the Away Team onboard the Cimarron as the runabout hovered several miles above Shi'Kahr city. The craft was in the upper atmosphere, well hidden from the current surveillance systems monitoring the local air traffic.

Chris left his seat next to Vin. Reaching Ezra, Chris leaned over the security chief's shoulder to observe the high-resolution image of a Vulcan man, standing alone on one of the many balconies attached to the tallest tower in the city. Chris recognised the structure, even in this distant past. Like all Vulcan towers, it was constructed of red sandstone, with a domed roof that blunted its reach into the sky. Whatever it's designation at this time, in the future the tower would be known as the Vulcan High Council Chamber.

"Surak," Chris gestured the teenager who was seated in one of the seats in the cockpit, staring avidly out the window at the panoramic view of his homeworld beyond the plexiglass. At the sound of his name, Surak immediately got to his feet and joined the Captain and Ezra.

Surak no more glanced at the screen both men were staring at before he exclaimed with surprise. "That is my father!"

"Okay then," Chris nodded deciding they had the right man, "Ezra you have a go."

"Aye Captain," Ezra answered automatically, and the low whine of the transport began to hum.

Chris observed the image of Stef, Surak's father, a man by human standards to be in his mid-fifties, although he could be older because Vulcans aged differently. Like most of the Vulcans they'd encountered since arriving in this time, he wore his dark hair long, except it was tied at the back. Glancing at Vin for a moment, Chris wondered if his best friend realised he was honouring his people in more ways than one by wearing his hair long. Turning his attention back to Stef, Chris saw a man taking in the view of the city, his expression pensive.

Whether or not the Vulcan comprehended what was happening, Chris couldn't be sure, but he intended to greet the General when he arrived on the Cimmaron. Stef was going to be in a state when he discovered he was no longer where he had been when the shimmer of the transport finally dissipated. "Surak, come with me. Your dad is going to have questions when he comes on board."

Surak still did not understand how this was possible, but he obeyed nonetheless, having studied this ship in greater detail since they left T'hossuth. Whoever these Outliers were, they possessed technology far more advanced than any Surak had ever seen, and now it appeared they were bringing his father on board the ship. His youthful mind struggled to keep up.

"Shall I get a sedative ready?" Nathan looked up at Chris and Surak when they entered the main cabin, taking position near the single transporter pad in the runabout.

"Very funny," Chris shot his chief medical officer a withering look as Nathan presented S'tash with a tray of food, while continuing to treat all the boy's scrapes and bruises.

"What's happening?" S'tash asked when suddenly Ezraís voice silenced them all.

"Transporting now, Captain."

As he said those words, the transporter pad came to life, and the interior of the runabout was temporarily illuminated by the glow of the transport beam. The familiar shimmer of gold captured the attention of everyone in the main compartment as the man materialised in front of them. For Chris and Nathan, this was a sight they'd seen a thousand times before, but Surak and S'tash's reaction was entirely in keeping with the witnessing of something almost magical.

" a'Tha !" Surak gasped in shock while S'tash merely gaped in wonder as Stef appeared on the transporter pad.

When the hum ceased, Stef jumped when he saw he was no longer where he had been on the balcony of the tower, but someplace entirely different. Startled, he looked around in a mild panic, until his eyes rested on Surak.

"Surak!" Stef exclaimed in shock and unknowingly stepped off the transporter pad towards his son. Surak met his father halfway even as the man bombarded him with a flurry of questions while scanning his new surroundings with urgency. "What is this? Where are we? How did we get here!"

Stef was understandably traumatised by his sudden appearance on the Cimmaron and Chris allowed Surak to calm his father down before he attempted to explain.

"Father, please," Surak spoke through the battery of demands. "Please calm yourself. We are safe but you must listen. These people brought you here because they need our help."

The words took a moment to penetrate, and Chris saw the understanding flood Stef's face even as he tried to wrap his mind around the fact that a moment ago he was someplace entirely different and was spirited away to this ship in the blink of an eye.

"General," Chris spoke when the Vulcan looked in his direction, "please allow us to explain."

Stef was trying to restrain his astonishment as he viewed the occupants of the ship, and he had no doubt it was one. His initial thought upon appearing on the deck of this craft was Surak's presence here, but now that shock had waned, was able to apply his well-honed powers of observations on the other faces present. They were not of Vulcan.

Without Stef needing to say a word, Chris knew the General noticed they were all aliens. Surprise registered on his face, a completely understandable emotion under the circumstances. Before transporting Stef on board, Chris had Nathan remove all their prosthetics. For Stef to believe them, the General needed to know who they were, so he would not mistake them for Vulcans trying to deceive him on behalf of this Sudoc or any other enemy faction presently on this world.

While the Away Team was still in local clothing, everyone except Vin was now unmasked.

"What are you?" The General, not surprising anyone with the question. "Why do you have my son?"

"Father, they helped me," Surak quickly interrupted, trying to assuage his fears that these Outliers were not the enemy. After so many years fighting Sudoc and keeping Shi'Kahr safe, Surak knew his father treated most strangers with suspicion, even if by nature he was a reasonable man. "They found me in the desert after I was attacked by the le-matya."

Le-matya ? Stef's eyes widened. If Surak was alone when this happened, he would have died. Immediately Stef took the boy's face in his hands, quickly examining his son to make sure Surak was unhurt. While the Taloth was as much a rite of passage for the parents as well as the children undergoing the ritual, it was a special kind of torture for Stef.

The General was accustomed to protecting his family, and the idea of waiting helplessly as his son went into the Forge alone, hoping he would be up to the challenge of manhood, filled Stef with dread. However, seeing Surak was still alive, filled him with gratitude and took away some of the anxiety he felt, though not much.

Facing the strangers again, Stef kept his arm around Surak's shoulder, not daring to let his son out of his reach until his questions were answered. "Who are you? "What is this place? How did you bring me here?"

"You sure you don't want that sedative now?"

Chris glared Nathan into silence before he turned to Stef. "General, I realise this is quite a shock, but we mean you no harm. We are..." he glanced at Surak, remembering the term the boy used to describe them. "We are Outliers. We come from a planet in the outer spiral arm of this quadrant of the galaxy. We came here, tracking the enemy who invaded your city."

Stef was still processing the Outlier's words when Chris's last statement impacted on him like the jaws of some terrible beast snapping shut. "You know what they are?"

Chris nodded somberly. "They are called the Borg, and where we come from, they've laid waste to thousands of worlds and killed billions. How they happened to be on this planet was a mistake, but it won't make any difference to them now they are here. They're like..." Chris struggled to find the Vulcan definition of locusts, "... akria ."

"Akria?" Stef understood the analogy immediately. Akria were a plague upon the crops of Vulcan, travelling in large swarms during the hottest periods of the year. They emerged from the Forge, riding the currents of the desert storms, destroying all vegetation in sight. It was said they could strip fields in a matter of hours and considering what happened in T'hossuth this day, he supposed the strangerís use of the word was apt.

"Yes," Chris nodded, grateful his Vulcan wasn't as rusty as he thought. He supposed having Mary here would be an advantage at this time, but he didn't regret his decision to send her back to the Maverick. She needed to be with her son if the worst came to pass. "They are cybernetic life forms, who expand their numbers by infusing anyone they find with nanoprobes. These probes turn anyone infected into one of them. Those infected have no will, they are a slave to a single hive mind."

"Are you saying everyone we have sent into T'hossuth has become one of them?" Stef exclaimed in horror, wanting to disbelieve and yet this Outlier's words fit the mystery of why there were so few survivors escaping the district, or why none of their troops returned.

"Unfortunately yes," Chris nodded gravely. "Your son," he glanced at Surak, "saw them land in the Forge. We were tracking them when we found him."

"It is true father," Surak quickly confirmed. "When I saw them, I knew they were not of Vulcan. They looked like machines but I could see flesh. They were going to take me, but I ran into the Forge. When these people found me, I was about to be taken by a pack of le-matya ."

Stef let out a heavy sigh of relief, turning to his son once more, pulling Surak close, so their foreheads touched. While he had difficulty accepting everything else he was being told, that one fact rose above all others. Looking at the leader of these Outliers, Stef bowed his head in gratitude. "Thank you for my sonís life."

Chris accepted the man's gesture, understanding his feelings all too well. If it was Adam, Chris would feel no different. "It was our pleasure. My name is Chris Larabee, but the true credit of saving Surak goes to my Chief Medical Officer over there, Nathan Jackson. He's the one who administered the antidote to the poison."

"Your boy's a good patient," Nathan smiled, continuing to repair the cuts on S'tash leg with a dermal regenerator. "Didn't give me any trouble."

Stef stared at Nathan, taking in the sight of the Outlier, who if not for the ears, could have been Vulcan himself. The child next to him, however, was definitely of the blood. "And the boy?"

"We found him in T'hossuth," Chris explained. "We went there to track the Borg, but we had to leave. Their numbers have grown too large."

"How do we stop them?" Stef asked abruptly. "We have rained fire on them, but nothing seems to work."

"They adapt quickly," Chris answered, now that they were getting down to brass tacks. "Their shields will adapt to any weapon used on them. At best, you will have maybe five minutes to put a Borg drone down, before their shields adapt. The shields will work with any energy weapon you deploy against them."

"Then we will fight them with blades and lirpas!"

"That will work, but only briefly," Chris countered, understanding the man's reasoning, "but it's not something you can continue indefinitely. If they can counter energy-based weapons, they will be able to adapt to defend against kinetic attacks too. Right now, you must withdraw your ground forces. Containment is your best option until we can find a way to end them permanently."

"You mean to pen them up like quatill?" Stef stared at him incredulously. "I cannot tell my forces to simply withdraw! The Council will think me mad!"

"General, if you send more people in there, you will only allow the Borg to expand their numbers, beyond your ability to contain them. Their greatest strength is not their technology, it's their ability to assimilate other life forms. We've seen it happen on a hundred worlds."

"It's true General," Nathan added his voice, more familiar with the assimilation process than anyone on board. "The minute they stick you with their infusion nodules, you lose all free will. You're trapped in your mind, unable to escape because the nanoprobes have grafted themselves to your blood cells, and it happens fast. Almost instantaneous."

"Chris," Vin Tanner emerged for the first time, allowing JD to take over the piloting duties, having listened from the cockpit while Chris tried to make his case to the man. The General did not understand the magnitude of the threat. Right now, he saw the danger to his city, he needed to see the full scope of it.

Chris saw Vin emerging and nodded, giving him permission to continue. He didn't like Vin having to use his abilities this way, but they needed Stef on their side.

Stef saw the new arrival and knew immediately he was Vulcan, but also not of Vulcan. There was something about him that was different, but Stef had no doubt, he was no Outlier.

"General," Vin approached him. "You gotta understand what you are facing. I can show you we're not lying and that you need to listen to us, with the ..." Vin paused searching for the word Mary used, so he could better explain what he wished to do. "The taroon-ifla ."

Stef's eyes widened. "You wish to carry out a mind touch?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, feeling supremely uncomfortable about all this, but knowing there was no other way. This man had to understand what was at stake.

The mind touch was a deeply personal affair, requiring the lowering of mental barriers so two people could share the same thoughts. It was not something Stef allowed anyone to do, yet this Vulcan was asking his permission. Stef did not know whether or not to be furious or astonished. His first impulse was to refuse until he realised he would have irrefutable truth these people were not lying to him, that these Outliers could be trusted. He wanted to know how this Vulcan had come to be among the Outliers. Stef realised then the mind touch would allow him to know all these things.

"You may proceed," Stef said after what felt like a long pause.

Chris let out of sigh of relief but then felt no victory by Stef's agreement. The Captain of the Maverick knew just how much Vin abhorred doing this but saw no other way. They needed Stef to understand. Short of involving the Maverick to take direct action, this was the only way to end the Borg threat on Vulcan, once and for all.

Vin took in a deep breath and closed the distance between himself and Stef. Remembering what Mary taught him, he placed his fingers against Stef's cheekbone and saw the man flinch slightly at the contact. Closing his eyes, he whispered the words under his breath.

"My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts."

As the warmth of connection spread throughout them both, Vin opened the memories in his mind...

*******

Inside his mind's eye, Stef was confronted with a battle.

It was unlike any battle he had ever seen in his life. Dozens of ships, not the lumbering vessels they used for interstellar travel, but vessels that were beautiful and graceful in their design, moved through space like the lovely sapphire lara birds in the Forge.

Stef watched them flying into battle against one ship, one massive ship that dwarfed them all. It was ugly and crudely built like someone had gouged out a cube from a wall of circuitry. What it did to the fleet made Stef recoil in horror. He watched the ships exploding, the bodies being flung into the vacuum of space, the explosive decompression following anti-matter detonation. They lit up the sky until it was as red as the morning in the dawn sky above Vulcan's Heart.

He saw the young man whose mind he was sharing, on the bridge of a ship that was next to ruined. He could feel the fires and the smoke, the sparks of exposed wires sinking into his skin, while bodies lay across the wreckage of glass, plasteel and fused iron. Through the eyes of the one called Vin, Stef felt his lungs sting with the stench of burning meat and noxious fumes. Staggering across the floor, he saw the leader of the Outliers, sprawled across the foot of the command chair, his skull a matted mess of red. Stef knew immediately it was his species version of blood.

Meanwhile, warning urgently in the background, were the words that did nothing but provoke fear.

"ALL HANDS, ABANDON SHIP! ALL HANDS, ABANDON SHIP!"

He was young, this Vulcan whose mind Stef was sharing, barely past thirty, not even old enough to experience his first true Rapture. Through Vin's eyes, Stef witnessed the young man pick up his commander, slinging the unconscious body over his shoulders before departing the bridge.

The scene shifted, and through a portal of what appeared to be life pod, he saw the ship they just departed explode like a dying star. As the solar winds swept its remnants away, only the cube remained, looking like Death itself.

Chapter Twelve:
Unexpected Visitors

Mary Travis was driving her crazy.

Alexandra Styles couldn't blame her of course. The present acting-Captain of the USS Maverick was herself none too pleased that her Captain, and her husband, not to mention the friends in the Away Team, were facing the Borg on the planet's surface. She understood the Captainís reasoning, knew all the arguments of why it had been a prudent decision to send her and Mary back to the ship, but it still left a sour taste in her mouth nonetheless. Still accepting Chris Larabee's unconventional orders was something she was accustomed to, and while she might not agree with his present course, was seasoned enough to follow it.

It was what Buck would do.

It surprised her how much she had taken from the man, despite their initial relationship. Buck was one of those people who just knew what others needed, not just the women. While she had no idea what sort of Captain he would be, he was the perfect First Officer of the Maverick and the thought they might have to sacrifice him, made Alex's stomach turn. She couldn't even begin to imagine what Inez was going through right now and made a mental note to drop in on her.

"Mary, he'll be fine."

Josiah Sanchez did not normally spend time on the bridge, after all, he was a ship's counsellor, but if she had to take centre seat, Alex was damned if she was going to do it with Buck's empty station beside her. It just didn't feel right, and if someone had to occupy the space, then Alex preferred it to be Josiah. Besides, with the way the crew was feeling right now, his calm voice was just what the doctor ordered.

"I should be down there with him," Mary shook her head, indicating while Chris might be okay, she certainly was not. "He doesn't know Vulcan culture or their history, I should be helping him."

Alex exchanged a knowing glance with Josiah, who without having to say a word, told her to let him handle this. Mary's precarious state of mind was too close to Alexís own, and the attempt to offer Mary counsel would only remind Alex Vin was down there too in similar jeopardy.

"You are helping him," Josiah said smoothly, "you're up here providing Alex support."

Alex nodded at Mary in confirmation. "You are. If anything comes at us, I need to know what we're dealing with. You're the expert in Vulcan history, Iíll need your guidance."

Mary let out a frustrated sigh and knew she was so irritable because Chris had sent her up here, not because it was for the good of the mission, but because he didn't want her to die with him if their last resort had to be used. He loved Billy too much to leave her son an orphan. As much as Mary loved him for that, she was also furious because he would not be making that decision if she was just another member of his Away Team.

"I know," she started to say, "It's just that things are so wild down there. At this point in Vulcan history, the culture could have gone any...."

Her words were interrupted by the shrill sound of the security station.

"What is it?" Alex turned to the security chief in Ezra's absence.

Drew Katovit's eyes narrowed as he studied the readings on the display of his console before looking up. "You wanted me to monitor all ship traffic in Shi'Kahr city?"

"That's right," Alex nodded. She wanted to know if the Borg were spreading out and whether the Captain had succeeded in convincing the authorities of the danger and evacuating its citizens. If he was, the mass exodus would show by the ships leaving the area. "What have you got?"

"I read at least seven ships on approach at high velocity towards Shi'kahr, not away from it."

"What?" Alex stood up from the command chair, feeling relief every time she vacated it. "From where?"

"From what we know to be modern, Jaleyl," Drew answered after a moment.

"Oh my God," Mary stood up just as abruptly.

"What is it?" Josiah saw the worry etched across the woman's face. "You know something about this?"

"Yes," Mary stared at Alex with concern. "Jaleyl is a region controlled by the warlord Sudoc. In this period, he was hell-bent on conquering all of Vulcan. Shi'Kahr was the only city to stand against him. No matter how many times he attacked, they always held him back, despite his being a powerful telepath. Thanks to the elders of Amonak and T'Panit who lived in the city at this point, they were able to fight him."

"They might be a bit busy right now," Josiah pointed out, "what with the Borg beating down their doors."

That was all Alex needed to hear because she understood what was happening. "The Borg has all of Shi'Kahr's attention right now. If this Sudoc wanted to launch an attack, this would be a perfect time. How long until interception range?"

"Five minutes," Drew replied. "What are your orders?"

"We can't interfere," Alex stated first and foremost. "Not until we know what's happening."

"Alex, we can't let Sudoc take Shi'Kahr," Mary insisted. "I know the timeline is in tatters right now, but it will be much worse if Sudoc conquers the city. We may end up stopping the Borg, but we will be left with a Romulan-like Vulcan Empire that would most likely consume all of the Alpha Quadrant."

"I know," Alex was aware of the stakes. "But I need to check in with the Captain first. I need him to take the gloves off us. Still that doesn't mean we can't take precautions. Engineering, come in," Alex tapped her com badge.

"Lt Chanu here," Chanu's voice filled the bridge, and no matter how much she thought herself accustomed to it by now, it still didn't feel right hearing any other voice than Juliaís.

"Chanu what's our status?"

"We're almost at full combat capability. If we ever get back home, we'll probably need some time at space dock, but for the most part, we're good to go. We've restored warp power, and the main engines are back online. We'll be able to switch to the primary sensor array soon."

"What about our cloak. Is that still operational?"

"Yes Commander," Chanu gave her the answer she wanted. "It's working fine."

"Good," Alex smiled gratefully. "Tell your engineering team, they're doing a hell of a job."

"I will Sir," Chanu's voice revealed his appreciation at her recognition of the effort the Engineering team put in to restore the Maverickís damaged systems, especially without Julia Pemberton.

"What's your plan, Alex?" Mary asked, not missing the inquiry about the cloaking field.

"Well we may not be able to interfere with those ships," Alex stated, "but there's no reason why we canít go in for a closer look. Just in case we need to act."

"Sounds like a plan," Josiah approved, glad to see there was something else to occupy the two officers other than the worry for their men.

Alex wasn't about to feel that much optimism yet. "It's something."

*******

When Vin finally withdrew from Stef, his first reaction was to keep from puking.

"Vin!"

Chris's hand was on his shoulder and when the fog lifted from his eyes, realised he was staring at the floor of the runabout, having dropped to his hands and knees after the connection between himself and Stef was broken. His head was pounding, and his stomach was all kinds of queasy. He hadn't realised how taxing it could be because until this point, the melds he had participated in were gentle affairs from those with very little or no telepathic ability. This was the first time he was forced to do it with someone on an equal if not superior footing.

"I'm okay," he managed to say when he saw Nathan and Chris beside him, looking on with concern.

"Is he alright?" Surak inquired, somewhat puzzled at Vin's adverse reaction to the mind touch. It was something Surak was accustomed to since childhood and while it was sometimes disorienting, it ought to be nowhere this affecting. Especially for someone of Vin's maturity. In contrast, his father suffered no ill effects beyond what he had seen during the mind touch.

"He's fine," Chris said quickly. "He just hasn't done this before."

"The mind touch?" Stef stared at Vin in surprise. "But he's past the age of Rapture, surely..."

"Vin wasn't raised Vulcan," Nathan explained. "He was raised by humans, and we don't have the ability to... mind touch."

"At all?" Surak's eyes widened. "This was your first time, melding with one of your own kind?"

Vin got himself under control and took Chris's hand to get to his feet. "Yeah, my parents died when I was little, and I was found by humans who raised me. We didn't have contact with other Vulcans for a long time, so I never learned any of the disciplines."

"That must have been difficult," Stef sympathised and wondered about these humans who would raise a child not one of their own. He saw what they were in that terrible battle, and it wasn't just them. The ship he saw was populated by more than just humans, there was a Vulcan captain, and the other races were ones he did not know. The possibilities of what it represented was too much for a man of his time to handle. It didn't matter, he saw what the enemy was and knew the danger they posed, not just to Shi'Kahr but the whole of Vulcan and perhaps beyond.

They were anti-life, and they could not be allowed to spread.

"It was," Vin admitted, getting to his feet. "But you needed to see what was at stake."

"Yes," Stef nodded, needing no further explanation after what he saw in the younger man's mind. The scale of the destruction staggered him and knew if he did not help these people, a similar scene would be played out, not in space but in Shi'Kahr itself. "These creatures, the Borg, that is what is in T'hossuth?"

"That's right," Chris confirmed with a nod. "Normally they come in ships, but because of the accident that brought them to Vulcan, they've had to make do. They're going to assimilate the population, and with the technology on your planet, they have the power to build the cube you saw. After that, they'll use Vulcan as the beachhead to enslave billions."

Billions. Stef thought of all those ships again, filled with so many different races, fighting to defend their homes against a near invulnerable enemy. The parallels between Shi'Kahr's fight against Sudoc was too close for Stef's liking. Before he could think to respond to the words of the human called Chris, a voice cried out.

"Captain!" Ezra called out sharply from the cockpit, "we have a situation. "

Chris's spine stiffened, and he shot a look at Vin and Stef before he turned on his heels and was striding towards the runabout's cockpit to determine what exactly was Ezra's definition of a 'situation'. Knowing Ezra's penchant for understatement, Chris suspected it was nothing good.

Not about to be left behind, Vin and Stef followed, the latter because he was a novice in this new world he was so abruptly initiated and wanted as much information as he could get on what was happening.

"What is it?" Chris asked, reaching Ezra who was hunched over the tactical station, studying the display intently. It took no more than a second for the Captain of the Maverick to see what Ezra was looking at before he understood why Ezra raised the alarm. Glancing at the approaching General, Chris spoke up, "Stef, do you have any ships returning to Shi'Kahr at this time?"

"There's always commercial traffic of course," the General said coming alongside Chris. "But we have issued warning beacons to stay away until we determined what is happening in T'hossuth. Why?"

"You have seven ships inbound," Chris explained studying the trajectory of the blips moving across the display. "Judging by their speed, they'll be arriving at the city in five minutes. Ezra, can you get us a visual please?"

"Aye Captain," Ezra replied, already in the process of activating their long-range scanners to provide them a glimpse of the intruders encroaching Shi'Kahr airspace so rapidly. With a sudden glow, the real-time images of the ships in question appeared before the three men leaning over his shoulder.

When they appeared, Ezra estimated the bullet-like ships were only a fraction smaller than the runabout. Still, there was no doubt in the Security Chief's mind these were not personal or commercial cruisers, but combat vehicles. Ancient as they were, Ezra recognised the mounted cannons and the gunnery turrets on the sides of each craft. The ships were flying swiftly across the diminishing desert, approaching the outer perimeter of the irrigated land surrounding the outskirts of ShiíKahr.

Even if the Away Team did not recognise the ships, Stef did immediately.

"Those are Sudoc's slicers!" The General burst out as the full implications of the enemy's sudden appearance dawned upon him. "They know of our troubles. They mean to attack us while we're distracted! I must return to Shi'Kahr and mobilise our forces!"

This was a complication Chris did not care for on top of everything else they had to deal with. "They'll get to the city long before you have a chance to rally your forces," Chris stated and turned to Vin. "Vin, take the helm and get us into intercept range, preferably before they get to ShiíKahr."

Mary could probably give him a historical perspective of Sudoc if she were here. Still, Chris knew to allow a mad tyrant control of the last remaining bastion of freedom on Vulcan, was not acceptable under any circumstances. The timeline might be shot to hell, but Chris wasn't going to make things worse by giving Sudoc the opportunity to take advantage of the Borg invasion, by altering Shi'Kahr's fate and more importantly Surak's.

In the future, Surak's new philosophy would have the same effect on Sudoc that the Christians would have on the Roman Empire.

"You got it," Vin said promptly, sliding into the seat at the helm as JD relinquished the duty. No sooner than he was behind the controls again, Vin was moving the ship out of his stationary position above the skies of Shi'Kahr and flying towards the approaching vessels.

"Captain, are you sure?" Ezra shot him a look, guessing immediately what Chris intended but feeling the need to ask anyway. Getting into a firefight with Sudoc's forces was going to do no favours to the timeline.

"Damn straight I am," Chris disliking any faction using this calamity to launch a sneak attack. "Ezra raise the shields. We're going in, and we're going in hot. I want those ships out of commission before they get anywhere near the city. JD, what's their distance from Shi'Kahr?"

"One thousand kilometres and closing,"

"Vin?" Chris glanced past Stef, at the Officer of the Conn.

"I'll get us there before they make it halfway," Vin didnít look up at Chris, focussed on the task ahead, "but you better buckle up, I ain't gonna be smooth about it."

"Right," Chris nodded and turned to Stef. "General, if you and your son could please take a seat. Our anti-gravs are pretty good, but not for a fight like this."

"You mean to fight them with this one ship?" Stef stared at him with disbelief. While the craft did appear impressive and the technology that brought him on board a wonder, Stef didn't like the odds. The ship was no larger than one of their long-range shuttles, and the idea it could take on a squadron of Sudoc's slicers was frankly quite preposterous.

"She's got more teeth than you can possibly imagine," Chris ushered the man towards the main compartment as the hum of the Cimarron's engines began to pulse even louder, an indication of how much power Vin was sending to their propulsion system. "Nathan, make sure everyone is secured, it's about to get bumpy."

"Wonderful," Nathan rolled his eyes, gesturing Surak to one of the seats, before beckoning the General to do the same. "Come on General, you don't want to be standing up for this."

"Thirty seconds to intercept," JD called out to Chris from the co-pilot's seat.

Sliding into the ops station, Chris looked through the cockpit window and saw the panoramic view of the Forge coming to greet them. In the distance, Seleya stood majestically against the red Vulcan sky, playing the part of an indifferent observer to the battle about to take place. It probably wasn't the first conflict Seleya had seen throughout its history.

"Vin, I want you to get behind them when we reach those ships."

Without needing to hear Chris elaborate, Vin knew immediately what his Captain and best friend intended. "I'll get us close enough to tap them on the behind."

As it was, the runabout was moving at maximum burn, and it was still faster than anything the Vulcans possessed at this time in their history. Beyond the cockpit windows, the world became a blur of red as the ship accelerated.

From his seat, Stef saw the burst of speed and felt his jaw drop in shock. No vehicle he knew could move so fast through the atmosphere. While extreme velocities were achieved when they left the gravitational field of the homeworld, these levels of speed across the surface were not possible. In a day of marvels, Stef thought again about the battle he had seen during the mind touch and wondered who these people were. They possessed incredible technology and yet were nearly destroyed by the enemy in that terrifying ship.

The same enemy now in his city.

*******

Once Vin hit the thrusters at full speed, the Cimarron closed the distance between itself and Sudocís slicers in a matter of seconds. The seven ships were just beyond the reach of the first patch of green making up ShiíKahrís agricultural belt. Knowing those fields were part of the reason ShiíKahr maintained its autonomy, Vin made sure the enemy ships had no opportunity to do any harm as he prepared to fly right through their formation.

"Hold on!" The helmsman offered a warning as he faced the seven ships, nose to nose..

"They are charging weapons," Ezra announced as the occupants of the cockpit saw the enemy vessels in front of them.

Chris checked the op station and noted Ezra had raised shields as ordered and considering runabout shields were almost as formidable as those on a galaxy-class ship, the Captain was confident they could take the fire without any damage.

"Our shields are up Vin, just keep going."

"DIdnít plan on anything else, Chris," Vin said confidently as the gap between the ships dwindled away.

"They are firing!"

Vin was ready for that. No sooner than Ezra made the announcement, the Cimarron banked hard to port and then to starboard as it weaved past the volley of laser bolts fired upon the runabout. Even if the Cimarronís shields were able to shrug off the blasts, Vin had no wish to put his ship through the abuse if it could be avoided. As the thought crossed his mind, one of the bolts struck the hull, and though it shuddered through the runabout, there was no other effect from the bombardment.

"Shields are holding," Chris stated from Ops.

"They are using old-style laser cannons," Ezra remarked, "I doubt they would even scorch our paintwork."

"Letís not get cocky," Chris tossed his security chief a look. "Ezra, as soon as you have a firing solution, take out their engines. I want them down, not destroyed."

Looking ahead, Chris could see the Cimarron flying past the phalanx of ships. Vin was riding the controls with such expertise, the Cimarron passed each ship effortlessly until the runabout had gotten behind them as Chris asked. The ships were scattered, attempting to regroup when Vin performed a tight loop that saw them all staring briefly at TíKhut before the manoeuvre completed with a corkscrew roll that placed the rear of all seven ships directly in front of the runabout.

"You got your shot, Ezra. Only thing I ainít done is paint targets on their asses for you."

"Lovely Mr Tanner," Ezra rolled his eyes at Vinís lovely phrasing. "Firing phasers."

Making sure his aim was at their engines only, Ezra was aware of what Federation phaser banks would do to these ancient ships if he made a direct hit. A single shot would obliterate the ships and Ezra had no stomach killing an enemy who never had a chance of winning.

One by one Chris saw the runaboutís weapons fire, each bolt of phaser fire striking the ships as if Ezra was aiming to scuff their paint, not actually hit them. Then again, Ezra was as formidable a marksman with the firing controls of a ship as he was a cardsharp. Each ship flared with amber as systems onboard were critically damaged and they began to fall away, one after the others, forced back into the desert.

"Nice shooting Ezra," Chris complimented.

"I do try,í Ezra flash his Captain a smirk, and Chris was glad to see it. Since Juliaís assimilation, it had been a rare occurrence.

"Captain," JD said suddenly, his expression troubled. The young man was scanning the area during the firefight and had noticed something moving extremely close to the ground. He hadnít thought it was a ship because it was moving slowly like a terrestrial craft. However, now that it was past the perimeter of the city, it was gaining altitude.

"What?" Chris didnít like the sound of JDís voice.

"I think they snuck a ship past us," JD replied. "They made it look like a land transport, but itís reached ShiíKahr."

"Damn," Chris cursed. "Vin!"

"Yeah Iím on it," Vin didnít need any more instruction than that as he guided the Cimarron towards the coordinates JD just fed into navigation.

"Where is it headed?"

"Towards Tíhossuth," JD looked up confused. "Right to the Borg."

Chapter Thirteen:
Last Thought

Sudoc did not know what sort of force would greet the ships he'd sent ahead to deal with the Shi'Kahr, but with the chaos reported gripping the city, he knew they would provide him with sufficient distraction to slip through unseen.

The voices were growing louder in his mind but continued to speak with perfect unity. Their single-minded focus fascinated Sudoc, and he was determined to learn how they achieved such harmony. So far, it required his very formidable ability to mind touch to keep control of his generals so they would work his will without question. If those bonds could be maintained in some other fashion, then Sudoc was eager to learn how.

His small craft flew beneath the notice of all of Shi'Kahr's scanners and defences, hugging the arid sands of the Forge so tightly they were not identified as a ship, but a ground transport. As they neared the city, Sudoc's shock registered as he saw the level of destruction. The tall, majestic spires were shrouded in the dark smoke billowing from multiple sources across Shi'Kahr. While it should have filled Sudoc with some measure of satisfaction seeing the ancient city in such conditions, the only emotion he felt was astonishment.

If anything, Shi'Kahr's distress only proved the formidable power wielded by this invader.

Entering the city, he saw the evacuation continuing as he and his personal guard flew neared the source of all the chaos. No one paid them any attention because Sudoc had made sure the craft he was using to make his approach would be easily dismissed as just another local transport returning to the city. Over the years, a number of his agents had infiltrated Shi'Kahr in this way, bringing him intelligence, but it was the first time the tyrant entered the city himself.

As he moved through the districts towards the source of the invasion, Sudoc watched the crowds running away in panic, ushered to safety by Law Guardians on transports or by foot. Despise them as he might, Sudoc couldn't deny the bravery of the city's occupants to stand against him on previous confrontations. To see them in such a heightened state of panic was jarring since not even ground troops appeared to be advancing toward the enemy. The aerial bombardment from above ceased, and Sudoc wondered if it was because they were engaging his ships, or were uncertain what to do against an opponent they seemed incapable of stopping.

"Sire, we are here," Aken, the pilot at the controls of the small shuttle, announced when the vehicle came to a stop.

Sudoc peered through the cockpit window and saw nothing but devastation. What buildings that remained standing were little more than unstable lengths of wall, ready to collapse at the first mild tremor. The bombardment from above turned the streets into rubble, and if there was anyone about, he could not see them. Although it was still dark, the area was lit by the still-burning fires. It never really became dark on Vulcan anyway, so he was able to see much of this without difficulty.

The landing was punctuated by a loud metal clang followed by the crunching sounds of the struts digging into the fragmented gravel of the ruined streets. Sudoc was on his feet immediately, eager to find the enemy, certain once he saw them, he would be able to connect with them in a way the Shi'Kahr were unable. Once that link was established, there was nothing beyond his reach. Not Shi'Kahr, not Vulcan, not even the Tellar, or the Andor on their icy world.

"Sire," Natok, the chief of his guards spoke up when Sudoc went to the hatch first, preparing to step through the instant it slid open. "Perhaps we should go first. We do not know what is out there. If the Shi'Kahr are so afraid of these strangers, it would be wise to exercise caution."

Sudoc shot him a warning look. "Do you think I am a fool Natok? I have taken this into consideration already, I will lead the way."

The warning was sharp enough for Natok to suppress any further comment. The warlord had killed men for less, and although Sudoc allowed him some measure of freedom to speak his mind, Natok knew he had tugged at his leash as far as it was permitted. The rest of the guards did not meet his eyes, choosing to stare straight ahead, hiding their apprehension at what awaited outside, especially after Sudoc's sharp rebuke.

"Of course Sire," he nodded and engaged the hatch door to open.

Smokey air seeped into the cabin as soon as the hatch slid open. The thick fumes made it difficult to breathe, but his guards were seasoned warriors unhindered by such things. Sudoc himself was not an armchair general. The warlord had acquired his power by fighting alongside his men. They not only feared his ferocity in battle but also respected him for it.

Following him closely as he descended the ramp, Natok's weapon was drawn, scanning the ruin that was the districtís square, illuminated by multiple fires throughout the area. Sudoc went on ahead, his mental abilities providing him with all the navigation he needed to find this Collective. While the others in his company surveyed the area, remaining alert as they prepared to face the enemy responsible for the hasty evacuation, Sudoc was walking through the piles of rubble, perfectly aware of where he was going.

It was also why he saw them first.

As they turned to him, beams of crimson crossed the space between them. Sudoc turned away from the piercing glare, robbing him of the ability to study them straight away. There were at least six of them, surrounding the wreckage of a downed hovercar. When he blinked away the spots in his eyes, he saw they were scavenging the wreckage, like carrion eaters feasting on the leftovers of a le-matya kill.

Pale skinned, they were almost entirely encased in some form of dark armour, only their faces were exposed. One eye was concealed beneath an ocular implant, and they appeared genderless. At the sight of him and his entourage, the Collective abandoned what were doing immediately and began walking towards them.

"Sire," Natok warned again, this time the anxiety in his voice was unmistakable. "Perhaps...."

"I sense no threat in their thoughts," Sudoc quickly stilled the guardsmen's fear. He could feel the tremor in the minds of the others behind him. Natok's manner was frightening the others, and Sudoc resolved to deal with the man once they returned to Jaleyl. "Remain still. This is an alliance worth cultivating if we can still our fear."

Natok didn't respond, but Sudoc could sense the discordant thoughts in his mind, the doubt that broke Sudoc's conditioning because of fear. Sudoc ignored it for now because the Collective was approaching and he wished nothing to interrupt this audience. Standing his ground, he could hear the uncomfortable shifting behind him and felt a surge of annoyance that his men were showing weakness to the enemy.

One did not parlay with a sehlat, by baring one's throat.

When they were close enough, he saw the leader of the group to be rather slight in stature, despite the intimidating armour covering their bodies. In fact, if Sudoc didn't know better, he would have sworn the leader was a woman. It was in the curve of her jaw and the fullness of her lips. Her complexion was supple and smooth, lacking the ruddiness of a manís.

"Greetings," Sudoc spoke as the leader, who he was now sure was a woman, continued her advance.

As the others followed her a few paces behind, Sudoc studied them carefully and felt an uncharacteristic surge of anxiety by their approach. Some of them were Vulcan, but others were of species he did not recognise. The woman who led the way was almost certainly not Vulcan, and Sudoc realised he had no idea what species she was. The eye not maimed by an implant was the most vibrant shade of green he had ever seen. It made him wonder what they would look like if not for the device attached to her face.

Was their unity achieve through machinery? Was such a thing even possible? As they advanced, Sudoc suddenly realised what they looked like when they walked, like beasts of burden yoked to the same wheel.

The woman did not reply and closed the distance, now merely a few feet away from him.

"Sire," Natok spoke up again, his voice indicating he no longer cared for the consequences for speaking out of turn. "I think we should withdraw. They may see us as the enemy."

"Nonsense," Sudoc dismissed it, mostly because the idea he could be wrong was unimaginable. Facing front again, Sudoc made another attempt to communicate, convinced the Collective was reaching out to him. "We have come a long way to see you. I heard your mind touch and believe we seek the same things. I too wish to speak with a single mind, to lead my people without the voices of others sowing the seeds of discord. I wish to make an alliance."

"Sire..." Natok warned again, his discomfort rising to the extreme at the sight of that expressionless face staring at his master with indifference.

Without warning, her hand shot out, gripping Sudoc's bicep with such force, he could feel cold fingers digging into his skin.

"Alliances are irrelevant," she spoke for the first time. " You are irrelevant."

*******

At the same time, Sudoc's understanding of the Collective was undergoing serious adjustment, the Cimarron descended from the sky to set down a few meters away from the warlord's transport. Leaving the seven slicers they had shot down to languish in the heated dunes of the Forge, the runabout returned swiftly to T'hossuth once again, hoping to prevent Sudoc from inadvertently increasing the Borg's numbers by their incursion.

After hearing what Stef had to say about the warlord, Chris could guess Sudoc's plan quickly enough. No doubt Sudoc, who probably kept Shi'Kahr under surveillance, was intending to use the city's crisis to his advantage. Sudoc perhaps believed he could use the weakened state of Shi'Kahr's defences to make his covert entry, so he could take the city or contact the enemy responsible for the trouble. Sudoc's monumental arrogance, Chris decided, was just misguided enough to keep him from seeing the danger was not only to Shi'Kahr but the whole of Vulcan.

In any other situation, Chris would give Sudoc some credit for coming up with such a devious idea. After all, Sudoc's previous failures to take Shi'Kahr had proven the city's defences would be difficult to breach without some out of the box thinking. The Borgs' unexpected arrival in Shi'Kahr revealed the existence of an enemy, the city could not overcome and probably made Sudoc think he could use the opportunity to finally conquer the city. Whatever his plans, Chris knew one thing and one thing only.

Sudoc had no idea what he was dealing with.

"What's their location?" Chris asked as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Ezra, as JD took over operations and was preparing to disengage the hatch door so they could leave. Chris wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible before the power-hungry son of a bitch got himself and his small force assimilated, and expanded the Borg ranks even more.

Ezra was already checking his tricorder for an answer, not entirely happy to be back here again, especially with the Borg's numbers what they were. However, there was no way he was allowing his Captain to go out there on his own.

"If I have read the readings on the tricorder correctly, I believe they are twenty-five meters, west of our direction."

"Good," Chris nodded, glad they didn't have far to go. "Nathan, if they're implanted, can we stop the nanoprobes from going any further?"

Behind him, Nathan Jackson was securing his phaser onto his belt, leaving it the last bit of equipment to be fastened since he was more interested in preparing his medkit for the excursion outside. The healer looked up at the Captain's question and replied promptly, having worked on the problem of assimilation long before he arrived on the Maverick as its CMO.

"I can put them in a medically induced coma. Cybernetics or not, they still require organic function to complete the process of assimilation. If I can disrupt the nanoprobes functioning, I can keep it dormant long enough for us to get back to the Maverick and do a proper extraction."

The idea of bringing any of the locals back to the Maverick did not sit well with the Captain, but at this point, they had little choice. Hopefully, they could do this with some finesse and ensure their visitors saw nothing than the inside of Sick Bay during their treatment.

"Alright, that's something at least."

Meanwhile, Chris saw Vin giving the General a quick lesson in how to handle the phaser Stef had been provided with. Although Chris would never usually allow any non-Maverick personnel near one of their phasers, it was necessary to establish some trust between them and the Vulcan commander. Besides, there was no way, Stef was accompanying them without one.

Chris had forgone the attempt to advise Stef to remain on the runabout with his son because he knew it would be ignored. If this were his home where he raised his family, Chris would expect to be involved in any activity engaged in protecting if not leading it. As it was, Chris was somewhat surprised the General was taking his orders, but then remembered Stef was no fool, the Vulcan understood he was a novice when dealing with this enemy.

"You're going to get no more than half a dozen shots," Vin explained as Stef held the weapon in his hands, testing the feel of it against his palm. "They adapt quickly. We'll have just enough time to reach Sudoc and his people if they haven't been assimilated, and get away from them before they swamp us."

"We should let them take him," Stef grumbled, hating the conflict he felt between wishing to keep Sudoc from receiving his just punishment, and the desire to let the man rot for all the pain he caused to so many across Vulcan. "He will not be grateful."

"You're probably right," Vin could not disagree, especially with what he learned about the man. Sudoc was nothing short of a mass murderer, but the warlord had a part to play in the future of Vulcan. It would be Sudac's cruelty that would turn the people of Vulcan to a different way of thinking, one not so steeped in bloodshed. Surak's path of logic or chtia as Mary called it, would offer Vulcan the lifeline it needed to survive its impending self-destruction. "But he'll just become a different problem if he becomes a drone."

Stef let out a sigh, as if he agreed begrudgingly, even if he did not like it. He had seen Sudoc's barbarism first hand to be moved by any idea of mercy for the tyrant. However, Stef was not about to sacrifice his own moral centre for vengeance. Too much of his people were already ruled by such passions.

"You are right I suppose. One does not defeat the enemy by becoming them. It makes the fight pointless."

Vin glanced at Stef a moment, wondering if Surak's developing philosophy would be seeded by the influence of his father. The General didn't behave like a hot-head who was ready to slaughter everything in sight, to hear the way Vulcans described their ancestors.

"Father," Surak came up to them, "I should go with you..."

"Hell no," Vin stated before he could stop himself.

The vehemence of the refusal made Stef look up at him with some surprise. Vin swore under his breath, aware his reaction would only deepen Stef's curiosity on the subject. So far, the General knew they were from another world, he had yet to realise they were also from another time. Since arriving on Vulcan, Vin had begun to understand his people were not the cold, bloodless automatons Vin thought they were. For the first time in his life, he felt a kinship to his species and even if he would never embrace Surak's philosophy, Vin was determined to protect it.

"Vin is right, my son," Stef shook away Vin's reaction for the moment. However, when the opportunity arose, he was determined they would revisit the subject. "You must stay here for now." He placed his hand on the boy's shoulder before glancing at the rear of the runabout, where S'tash was seated, staring through a window at the ruined tableau outside. "S'tash may have lost his family, we must show him he is not alone. Sometimes, a warrior can do his best, by not fighting but helping."

Surak glanced at the frightened young boy and nodded, too conditioned to obey Stef to protest. "I will take care of him, father."

Chris and Vin exchanged glances at Stef's words to his son and though neither Captain or helmsman said it, their unspoken agreement to ensure Stef survived this affair became set in stone.

"JD," Chris called out to the navigator who was at helm control "Keep an eye on our guests and leave the engine running. We might need a quick extraction if things go to hell."

"Aye Sir," JD nodded, having received his instructions directly from the Captain earlier on. While he did not like the idea of remaining behind, he knew the task the Captain assigned him was equally important. No matter what, Surak had to survive. If anything went wrong during their Away mission, then JD's orders were to get out of here with Surak.

"Alright," Chris regarded the landing party, "let's do this."

The hatch slid open, and the fumes of smoky air immediately flooded the inside of the runabout. Outside, the scene greeting them was no different than what they found when they landed in T'hossuth and found S'tash in that sewer, and Chris had seen Buck and almost killed his oldest friend. Leading the way, the Captain descended the ramp and was no more than a few steps past the doorway when he heard the discharging bursts of energy through the air.

There and then, Chris knew Sudoc's hopes of forging some kind of relationship with the Borg had gone to complete and utter hell.

The repeated bursts of energy, no doubt from Vulcan blasters, told the Away Team the meeting between Sudoc and the Borg ended up the way they expected it to. Judging from the intensity of the blaster fire, the weapons were having little or no effect on the Borg. As the strength of the barrage continued, it was clear Sudoc's party was descending into a panic because the Borg were closing in.

"Come on!" Chris shouted, breaking into a run as he waved the others to follow, so they could reach Sudoc and his people before it was too late.

*******

Her grip was like iron.

Her fingers dug into his skin, and Sudoc thought for a moment, they felt like sehlat claws. Before he had time to register this, her other hand reached out. This time the pain was not the death grip of the first, it was sharp and piercing, making him cry out by the surprise of it. It was as if the same sehlat clutching his shoulder had finally sunk in its sharp nails into his skin. However, instead of poison, something else was invading his body, something whose trajectory took it straight to the brain.

It swept across him like the desert winds of the Forge, burning down his will with little or no difficulty. Only his mental abilities provided some kind of resistance, but it was being eroded quickly. He could feel it spreading throughout his body, tiny mechanical invaders who moved through his bloodstream with the same mechanical locomotion displayed by the Collective when they approached. As the infestation moved through him, Sudoc understood at last how the Collective achieved its unity and even he was horrified by the idea.

Not unity, he managed to think. Slavery.

As the horror of his mistake thoroughly impressed itself upon his mind, he saw her staring at him, with no expression on her face, no triumph, no gloating or even pleasure. She was like he was soon to be, empty of all thoughts that were her own. What she did was driven by some unseen force, some bit of programming she could not escape. Like him, she had been raw material.

In that second, Sudoc realised he was seconds away from becoming the same monstrosity she was.

No! He would not let it end this way! He was Sudoc! He rose from nothing, with blood under his nails and the mind touch with no equal on all of Vulcan. He would not fall to these soulless creatures. With the same will Sudoc used to claim all of Vulcan, save this city he was in, the mad tyrant lifted his heavy arm, fighting to maintain control as his fingers extended out for the only exposed part of her body he could touch, her temple.

The connection was immediate, and it was enough.

Concentrating hard against the black tide sweeping over his mind, he ignored the pull into the darkness and knew that if he did not prevail, all of Vulcan would be swallowed by this same nightmare. For the first time in his life, Sudoc acted not just for his sake but out of fear for his people and used the only weapon he had at his disposal.

*******

Ezra Standish froze in his tracks when he heard the scream.

Everyone stopped moving, albeit for different reasons. Chris stopped running too, not because of the familiar scream or the voice Ezra would know anywhere, but because Vin who had been keeping pace with him, suddenly collapsed to the ground. So complete was Vin's debilitation, the Vulcan was on his hands and knees, the phaser in his grip having dropped out of his palm, creating a small cloud of dust when it landed on the ash-covered ground. While one hand was propping Vin up from landing face down in the dirt, the other was clutching the side of his head, his face contorted in agony as if someone had driven an ice pick through his skull.

"Vin, what's wrong?" Chris dropped down beside him, uncertain what was happening but convinced whatever it might be, was nothing short of excruciating by the way Vin was shaking as he struggled to control the pain.

"Sudoc!" Stef grunted, approaching both men. While the older Vulcan was wearing a grimace, he was nowhere in Vin's state. "Sudoc has used the Last Thought!"

"The what?" Nathan blurted out as he skidded to the ground next to Vin, ready to help.

"The Last Thought!" Stef managed to say, obviously in discomfort but nowhere to the degree, Vin was suffering.

Chris's eyes widened. "Nathan put him under now!"

"What?" Nathan stared at him in confusion.

"DO IT!"

The intensity in Chris's voice made Nathan jumped, and without argument, the healer snatched up a hypospray from his medkit and pressed the device to Vin's neck. No sooner than he'd depressed the trigger, the Vulcan slumped unconscious to the gravel without another word.

"You know of the Last Thought?" Stef stared at Chris.

"I know about the Killing Gift," Chris nodded, recalling what Mary had said to him before she transported back to the Maverick. "But not that Sudoc had it."

"What is it?" Nathan demanded, not liking anything referred to as the Killing Gift.

"Some Vulcans," Chris explained, "who are extremely powerful telepaths, can produce physical reactions in neurological functions. In other words, they can use it to kill."

"Your friend," Stef added, uncertain how he felt about this Outlier knowing so much about their ways, "has no discipline to fight someone with Sudoc's mastery. Sudoc has gained the power he has because he uses the Last Thought to kill. The reason he has not taken Shi'Kahr is that the Elders of Kolinahr and Amonak also have the gift and have taught us how to shield against it."

"You think Sudoc used it against the Borg?" Nathan looked at Chris as he ran his tricorder over Vin to ensure the unconscious Vulcan suffered no ill effects from his ordeal.

Chris was about to respond when he noticed something else.

"Where the hell is Ezra?"

*******

Ezra arrived to find who he was sure to be Sudoc, kneeling on the ground, surrounded by more than a dozen bodies, Vulcan and Borg. He was clutching his skull with both hands and as Ezra rounded him, with phaser drawn, saw the rivulet of dark green blood running down his lips from his nostrils. Sudoc was shaking, but Ezra didn't imagine it was from the cold, not with how dry and warm the air was blowing across his face.

Lying in front of Sudoc was a Borg, and it took only a fraction for Ezra to realise it was Julia.

Ezra bolted forward, forgetting the Vulcan entirely because, for the first time since this nightmare with the Borg began, he was finally able to get close enough to her. Ezra had no doubt the other Borg were on their way, and they would have to move fast, but he was going nowhere without her, not now she was within reach.

Julia lay on her back unmoving, her undamaged eye closed, while the ocular implant that covered the rest of her lovely face, was dark. Somehow, she had been disabled, and Ezra had no idea if her connection to the Collective was permanently or temporarily severed.

"JULIA!" Ezra reached her, and his presence snapped Sudoc out of his disoriented state.

"Who are you?" The warlord demanded.

"What did you do?" Ezra ignored Sudoc's question as he rolled Julia onto his lap and saw no signs of life. Like the rest of the Borg, she was unmoving. A surge of fear ran through Ezra thinking he might have gotten to her too late. If Sudoc had killed her, then Ezra was almost certainly going to return the favour.

"She was in my mind," Sudoc tried to explain. The fog in his mind was clearing, allowing him to see he was not speaking to another Vulcan, but an Outlier, whose species Sudoc did not recognise and was similar to the unconscious woman. Sudoc was weak and was in no condition to fight. What he had done almost crippled him by the effort, but the alternative was worse. "I had to stop her."

Ezra was no longer listening. He ran the tricorder over her body because the Borg machinery made it difficult for him to tell if she was alive. For the millisecond before the tricorder offered him its findings, Ezra prayed to every god that was ever worshipped since time began, for her life.

The display flashed its readings and Ezra exhaled loudly, almost afraid to breathe. She was alive, almost in a coma, but nevertheless, still among the living. In fact, all of the Borg seemed to be in the same state. The Vulcans however, were not. Whatever Sudoc had done, he'd killed his own people to free himself. The Borg, no stranger to telepathy themselves, probably realised what was happening and ordered the shutdown, saving the drones from death.

It saved Julia too and gave Ezra for the first time in too long, hope.

Chapter Fourteen:
Designation

"NATHAN!"

Chris did not know what shocked him more, the jolting cry from one of his officers, or the realisation it was coming from Ezra Standish.

In all the years they served together, even before the Maverick, there was one constant in his universe, nothing could shake Ezraís composure so thoroughly, he could be reduced to the raw panic Chris now heard in his voice. While Stef exhibited the natural reaction of surprise to the outburst, both Nathan and Chris exchanged a quick glance of astonishment at the fear they could hear in Ezraís voice. It sent alarm through them both and Chris could see Nathan was poised to react, waiting only for his permission to proceed.

"Go!" Chris ordered immediately, his words sending Nathan into a sprint towards the source of Ezraís frantic cry.

Vin Tanner was still sprawled across the floor, while Stef was kneeling over him, the Vulcan generalís fingers pressed against his temple, making sure the younger man was not harmed permanently after his brief brush with the Last Thought. His best friend was still unconscious, thanks to whatever concoction Nathan had administered to him under Chrisís order when he understood what it was Stef was warning him against.

"Is he alright?" Chris asked, wanting to go after Nathan and Ezra, but needing to deal with Vin first.

"He is well," Stef raised his eyes to Chris. "Your actions saved his life. If the Killing Gift had been allowed to run its course, he would be dead by now."

Chris suspected as much. Mary had warned him some Vulcanís had extreme mental abilities which could be used to such effect, but until he saw Vinís reaction to it, Chris had not really believed it. In the 24th century, Vulcans would find it obscene to use their telepathy in such a fashion. Thanks to Surakís philosophy, the mind touch as Stef called it would be used for mating bonds and spiritual enlightenment, not a ruthless if not a somewhat elegant weapon of murder.

"We have to keep moving," Chris said quickly, mindful of the fact they were in Borg controlled territory and drones could be advancing upon them at any minute. "Can you go on ahead?" Chris looked to the General. "If Sudoc is present, my people may not be able to deal with his powers. It appears you can."

"Yes, of course," Stef nodded. "Although my ability is limited. I can keep him out but little more than that. He is the most powerful adept of the mind touch there is on all of Vulcan. It is how he controls his armies."

Chris didnít like the sound of that, but in hearing it, an idea began to form in his head. Setting it aside for the moment, because the immediate situation needed attendance, Chris regarded Stef again. "You need to go, and I need to deal with Vin. Iíll be right behind you."

Stef nodded in understanding, sensing the Outlier needed privacy and stood up quickly, before jogging away in the direction Nathan had gone.

Once Stef rounded the street corner and was out of sight, Chris tapped the combadge heíd had hidden in his clothes.

"Captain Larabee to the Maverick."

The response was almost instantaneous.

"Captain!" Alex Stylesís voice responded immediately, and Chris knew she had most likely been waiting anxiously for his signal since he ordered her and Mary back to the ship. "Are you and the Away Team alright?"

"Yeah weíre fine, more or less," Chris replied, glancing at Vinís unconscious form. "Alex I need you to lock onto Vinís com badge and transport him back to the Maverick immediately. Even without seeing her, he imagined she was tensing with worry by that news. "Heís not hurt, but weíve had to sedate him for his own good. I need him somewhere safe until he comes out of it."

"Aye Sir."

Although she maintained her professional air, Chris had no doubt she was probably burning with curiosity to know why such an action was necessary. Fortunately, for now, she appeared ready to take him at his word Vin was not injured.

"Captain, weíve raised the cloak and have entered the upper atmosphere. Weíre currently holding position above ShiíKahr awaiting your instructions."

Chris glanced upwards on reflex, trying to see the Maverick through the amber Vulcan sky and only saw TíKhut staring back at him, instead of his beloved ship. Yet it felt comforting to know she was there waiting.

"We are also tracking a lot of Borg in the area. At present, theyíre about 200 metres away from you and closing. Itís a good bet they know youíre there. You need to leave the area immediately."

"Understood," Chris surveyed the place with a quick sweep of his gaze, trying to see if he could gain a visual of any Borg through the dancing flames engulfing the ruined buildings and smouldering streets. The sudden hum of the transporter made him return his attention to Vin, and the helmsmanís form was briefly awash with gold glitter before the transport beam took him back to the Maverick.

"Weíve got Vin now," Alex informed him a second later.

"Good," Chris said with relief. "Alex, Iím going to keep an open channel. Monitor my transmissions and await further instructions."

*******

When Nathan reached Ezra, he almost froze in his steps at the sight of drones scattered across the ground like the place was an open graveyard. In the middle of them, Ezra Standish was cradling in his lap one of the drones who Nathan knew without having to look was Julia. Not far from him, a Vulcan was kneeling down on all fours, looking quite green, well greener than usual, and Nathan presumed this was Sudoc. His healerís instincts kicking in, Nathanís first act was to use his medical tricorder to scan the unmoving drones. He prayed Ezraís panic had not been because they were all dead.

Nathan needed to know if any of these Borg could be saved. To him, the Borg werenít the enemy, they were a mechanical virus trapping its victims in a living death. Nathan viewed every drone he encountered, not as enemy combatants, but victims of a malignancy. They were screaming for help beneath a nearly impregnable cocoon of nanoprobes and technology. When the display revealed life signs in the green, he relaxed a little but not much. These drones were offline, but Nathan had no idea for how long.

Among them, were not just the Vulcans assimilated in the last day, but also Maverick crew. He recognised familiar faces and realised with a sudden burst of insight, in this condition, there was a chance to save them. If he could get them back to Sick Bay quickly enough, there was a chance he could remove the Borg implants before the Collective exerted control of the drones again.

"Can you help her?" Ezra demanded as soon as he made eye contact with the Chief Medical Officer.

"Captain!" Nathan ignored him and tapped his own combadge. "Captain Larabee, I need authorisation for transport back to the ship immediately."

"Iím almost to your location, whatís happening?"

"Captain, weíve found several drones offline. If I can get them back to the Maverick right away, we can disconnect them from the Collective permanently."

"Are you absolutely sure about that?"

Behind him, Stef appeared on the scene, similarly shocked by what he was witnessing, as this was his first glimpse of the enemy who invaded his city. The Vulcan General surveyed the area before he turned to Sudoc, who was still recovering from the mental grenade he had flung at the Borg to neutralise them as he had.

"Yes Sir," Nathan said, not about to tell Chris it was not at all an easy procedure and he had no idea how much time he had to get this done. Nevertheless, it was the best shot they had of retrieving their people and freeing them from Borg captivity.

"Alex, are you listening?" Chrisís reply echoed not only through the combadge but from behind them. The Captain was running to catch up to them.

"Aye Captain," Alexís voice replied promptly. "Weíre locking onto their signal now."

"Good," Chris paused briefly to survey the scene he was entering, taking note that Stef had overcome his shock at what he was seeing to approach Sudoc, the phaser provided to him, drawn and aimed towards the tyrant. "Beam them directly to the brig, with a level one force field erected and an armed security team on hand. If any of them so much as twitch, I want the cells flooded with anaesthesine gas."

Nathan wanted to protest and demand they be sent to Sick Bay until he realised that allowing these drones onto the ship risked the rest of the Maverick and the Captain could be pragmatic when it came to the lives of his crew.

"Aye Captain," Alex nodded. "Iíll have security on standby and if necessary, shut down all power to those areas if theyíre revived prematurely."

"Outstanding," Chris nodded with approval and knew if Ezra was in any mind to comment right now, he would probably take the same precautions. "Initiate transport now."

Mary was going to give him hell about using their technology in front of Sudoc and Stef. Right now, Chris was beyond taking note of how many regulations he had violated since this mission to Vulcan began.

"Chris," Nathan looked at him. "I gotta do this myself...."

"I know," Chris expected nothing less. "Alex, Nathan is coming up. Beam him directly to Sick Bay, we donít know how long the drones are going to be offline, but Iím guessing with the Borg it wonít be long."

"Who are these Outliers you have allied yourself with?" Sudoc who had recovered enough to find his voice accused Stef who was standing guard over him.

"They are here to help us you fool!" Stef bit back, not forgetting just how Sudoc managed to infiltrate his city, by sending fighters against ShiíKahr while they were distracted by the Borg enemy. "What did you think you were doing? Striking an alliance with an enemy, you know nothing about?"

"You have done no better," Sudoc returned sharply, regarding the aliens who were in their midst. "What of these strangers?"

All of a sudden, a low hum filled the air and right in front of Sudoc and Stefís startled eyes, Nathan and the Borg drones vanished in a shimmer of gold. Only Chris and Ezra remained behind after the transporter beam dissipated and Nathan, Julia and the drones disappeared from sight. Chris had no desire to let either of the Vulcans see this, but time was of the essence, and they had too little of it to waste time trying to mask their technology. Ezra was staring into the sky, and Chris wished he could let the security chief leave with Nathan, but Chris needed him here for now.

Meanwhile, the effect of transporter technology on the two Vulcans was profound. While Stef managed to contain his shock a little better, possibly expecting the presence of advanced technology with what he had seen during the meld with Vin, Sudoc was nowhere as silent. The mad tyrant as he was called gaped in shock as the sudden absence of the Borg as well as Nathan Jackson.

"What power is this?" Sudoc demanded, whirling around to study Chris in a new light.

"Itís a form of matter transference technology," Chris explained quickly and hope that would suffice for the moment.

Sudocís eyes narrowed in calculation, and without possessing any ability to mind touch, the Captain of the Maverick could guess the thoughts running through the manís head.

"Weíre not here to make alliances with anyone," Chris said firmly before the idea was fully seeded in Sudocís mind. "The enemy you came here to see, is trying to create a foothold in this quadrant of space, starting with Vulcan. Now I know you two are enemies right now, but for the sake of your planet, you need to put aside your differences because this enemy is greater than you can possibly imagine. We have seen it destroy billions, on countless worlds. If they arenít stopped, every living thing in this sector of space becomes like them. Do you understand?"

Sudoc balked at the idea of forming any kind of alliance with the ShiíKahr until he remembered what he saw in the mind of the female during their mental connection. The insidious creep of minuscule machine invaders rampaging through the skin, intending to turn him into something barely human, incapable of feeling, individual thought. He saw in her mind, the terror of the faces taken, the great ship that hurtled into space like a piece of space flotsam, resembling some ancient dark beast, youíd pray would pass you by because if it stopped, existence would end with three words.

Resistance is futile.

No matter what he thought of the ShiíKahr, how repulsive the idea of mutual cooperation was, he had to concede wisdom of the Outliers words.

"If this enemy is so great, what is it you think we can do?" Sudoc asked the words felt bitter in his mouth.

Chris Larabee did not speak, because the idea seeded earlier was now starting to grow, a seedling in his mind growing under the heat of the sun. For the first time, since this began, he wasnít reacting to the situation. He had a plan.

Without another word, he drew his phaser and fired.

Sudoc collapsed to the ground with one burst of energy.

"What have you done?" Stef burst out, baffled by the Outlierís actions after his rather convincing speech, they needed to work together. Not that he was terribly sorry to see Sudoc dispensed with, not after the cruelty the man exhibited across Vulcan.

"Heís not dead," Chris explained. "Merely rendered unconscious. I do not want him awake for what weíre about to do next. I trust you, but I donít trust him."

The General almost smiled, but like all Vulcanís, his amusement showed in the eyes. "I suppose that is one way to do it."

"No kidding," Chris grinned and spoke up, addressing not Stef or Ezra who had moved away from them, scanning the area and probably collecting himself, but to Alex on board the Maverick.

"Alex, four to transport from this location immediately, straight to the conference room. Tell JD to bring the Cimarron home, and I want all the Senior staff present ten minutes after I get back."

"Captain, are you sure?" Alex inquired, probably because she knew two of the signals at his location were not Maverick crew.

"You heard me," Chris repeated himself.

"Aye Sir," the science office replied.

"Captain!" Ezra hurried back to him. "Your timing could not be better, we need to leave immediately. The Borg are converging on our position."

"How many?"

Ezra stared at him. " All of them."

*******

Her designation was Two of Twenty-Three, Secondary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376.

No, that wasnít right. She was something else before. In the dark place she inhabited, she knew there was more, that the designation Two of Twenty-Three, was a new thing. There was something else before, something elusive that remained just beyond her grasp. She tried to move towards its, but something that felt like black treacle made her movements sluggish as if it were trying to force her to remain in place.

Yo u are Two of Twenty-Three, Secondary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376. The cold, mechanical voice that spoke with her voice stated this adamantly.

Except she couldnít hear the others. If she was Two of Twenty-Three, why were the others not speaking? Why was it so quiet in this dark place. Their voices ought to be filling her world, reminding her, she was not alone, but part of a Collective. If she wasnít Two of Twenty Three, then what was she?

*******

"Hurry!" Nathan Jackson barked at Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu who at that moment was working hard at an open power relay within the confines of Sick Bay. Across the Maverick, in the brig and in Sick Bay, the Borg Nathan had transported on board were still unconscious and restrained. The entire medical team had gone to work immediately, hastily fitting each drone with a neural relay that connected directly to their cortical implants.

"Almost there!" Chanu bit back, ignoring the doctorís impatience as he tried to complete this intricate work. If he was anything but precise in what they were attempting to do, there wouldnít be any reason to worry about whether or not the Borg came online again, the mistake would kill them all before that happened. "A few more seconds."

Nathan was never one to rush anyone in their task when it came to the life of a patient, but instinct told Nathan they were running out of time. The Borg were highly resilient, and while the mental assault by Sudoc might have rendered them unconscious for a while, Nathan was not foolish enough to squander that time.

"A few more seconds and you and I are going to be on Chris Larabeeís shit list for the next millennium if he comes back and finds his ship ass deep in Borg!"

"Alright!" Chanu gave the doctor a look. "Initialising now!"

*******

Her name was Two of Four.

Even as she settled on that as her designation, it still felt wrong. Once again, she was overcome with the sensation there was more. She was more. Once again, she tried to move, tried to break through the barrier keeping her from enlightenment, and the more she struggled, the thick her it became. Where were the voices that told her she was Two of Four? They were oddly silent, save one.

Your designation is Two of Twenty-Three, Secondary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376.

No, it wasnít, she thought defiantly, it was something else, and she wondered where this burst of stubbornness was coming from because it was not the way of the Borg to sow disharmony. Yet, the more she heard the machine telling her who she was, the more she fought against it until a sudden spike of white-hot pain lanced through her. The pain had come so suddenly, there was no chance to fight it, and when it ripped through her mind, all she could do was scream.

Yet as that agonising shriek escaped her, so did the black curtain around her memory shred like paper. Suddenly, it wasnít just the pain that was making her cry out, but the onslaught of so many images. It crushed her mind with its weight, and as every corner of her psyche flared with colour, the way the void must have been when the universe was born, she knew something else too.

Her designation was not Two of Twenty-Three, Secondary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376, or even Two of Four.

It was Julia Elizabeth Pemberton, and it never sounded as sweet to her hearing as when it was spoken with a pleasing charm of a southern accent.

Chapter Fifteen:
The Rods of Kel

For the first time since all this began, finding themselves on Vulcan, 2500 years in the past, struggling to maintain the timeline, defeat the Borg and retrieve their comrades, Chris Larabee had a plan. It was risky, insane, and a flagrant violation of orders and anyone who heard it would think he was crazy, but he was all those things right now. He just had to be. To save the future, Chris was going to have to pull another Larabee hat trick.

Twenty minutes after the Away Team returned to the Maverick, Chris faced his bridge staff, except for Nathan who was participating through coms from Sick Bay, and Josiah who was keeping an eye on Surak and S'tash while they were on board.

Vin was at his usual spot at the Conference table, still looking a little groggy despite being revived after being brought on board the Maverick again. Even the quick shower he'd taken before getting into a fresh uniform didn't erase the bleariness in his blue eyes. Meanwhile, Ezra maintained his usual poker face, but Chris could tell he was fighting the urge to go down to Sick Bay to see how Julia was doing.

Nathan, with Chanu's help, successfully severed the connection between the drones and the Collective. Now it was a race to remove all the Borg implants, so they were able to function on their own. Although it had come about unexpectedly, Sudoc's actions had given Chris a plan, because it was now possible to disable the drones, and Chris had an idea on how to exploit it.

Since he would need the assistance of both Sudoc and Stef to put his plan into effect, Chris had the mad tyrant transported directly to the conference room and then revived, having no wish for Sudoc to see more of the Maverick than necessary. Furthermore, with Dr Li Pong's help, Sudoc was injected with a neural suppressor designed to keep his telepathic abilities inert for a few hours, less the man attempted to do to the Maverick crew what he had done to the Borg.

Fortunately, Chris did not need to be so ruthless with Stef, having escorted the man through the ship and ensuring he saw nothing that would give away their technology any more than Stef had seen so far. While he was understandably shocked by the size of the starship, Stef's meld with Vin gave him insight into what stakes were at risk if he did not cooperate with the Outliers. Meanwhile, Surak and S'tash were at Four Corners with Josiah. Chris didn't feel right about keeping them locked up, but he wasn't allowing them free run of the ship either. At least Josiah would make them comfortable for their brief time on board.

Mary had been none too happy having Sudoc or Stef on board the Maverick but understood the situation was out of their hands now. The priority was not to save the Federation but preventing the Borg from getting a two millennia head start on their conquest of the Alpha Quadrant. Besides, it was her suggestion to him, Chris was using to put his plan of resolving this crisis into motion.

Everyone save their guests were in uniform, and Chris felt infinitely better being back on his ship, even though the situation had not changed, and Buck's empty chair still tugged at his heart. Nevertheless, if his plan worked, then they had a better chance of restoring Buck to them than ever before.

"How dare you bring me here!" Sudoc demanded, now fully revived thanks to Li Pong's efforts. He'd awakened to find himself surrounded by unfamiliar faces, on a ship the likes of which he had never seen before. Furthermore, it appeared there was something wrong with his mind. His thoughts felt clouded and his ability to hear his generals were gone. The blindness terrified him more than anything else and he knew without a doubt, the Outlier the others referred to as the Captain, was responsible for it. Hating to feel helpless and under someone else's power, Sudoc's temper had reached its limits, and he jumped to his feet, ready to attack if he did not get his answers.

"What have you done to me?" He demanded, glaring at the Captain.

Behind his seat, Lt. Drew Katovit and Kate Stokes were armed and keeping watch on the warlord, as per the Chief's instructions. If Sudoc made one move towards Chris Larabee, they would ensure he did not get to make another.

"Please sit down," Chris said calmly.

He could tell the rest of his senior staff did not appreciate their Captain being spoken to in such a manner even though Sudoc's ire was somewhat warranted. As it was, he could see Alex and Vin tensing, while Ezra and Stef who flanked the warlord were similarly poised to react. Glancing at Mary, he saw her frown and knew she still had her reservations about Sudoc's presence here. Chris ignored her for now, prepared to accept the reminder about General Order 1 at a later time.

If he wasn't brigged by those guys at Temporal Investigations first.

"Not until I know what you have done to me!" Sudoc demanded again, his eyes enraged. Chris had no doubt if it were not for his surroundings, the man would have already launched himself across the table.

"We've administered a neural suppressor," Alex spoke up for Chris. "To make sure you don't try to kill us, during this meeting."

Sudoc's eyes blazed in fury about to retaliate but turned to Stef instead. "You, allowed them to do this to me? I am one of your own kind! You would help these Outliers against another Vulcan?"

"It was not I, who attempted to seek an alliance with the enemy for your own personal ambition," Stef bit back, not about to be accused of anything and somewhat outraged at the man's hypocritical stance. "If it were not for the Killing Gift you would have become one of those soulless creatures, like the rest of our people in T'hossuth!"

"Gentlemen," Chris interrupted before the situation got out of hand. He wanted this discussion over and done with so he could return both warring factions to their respective places on Vulcan. "We don't have time for this. While we're here arguing, the Borg are quickly assimilating your planet."

"The Borg?" Sudoc turned to him. "I thought they were the Collective."

"The hive mind which you probably sensed," Mary spoke up, "is called the Collective. If it was your intention to reach some kind of alliance with them, we can assure you, it is futile."

Mary suspected Sudocís formidable mental powers had drawn him to the Collective, except the man had no idea what he was dealing with.

"Why not?" Sudoc countered. "I have..."

"You're raw materials," Chris cutting him off bluntly. "That's all you are to the Borg. Raw materials. They don't care how much power you have, what territory you control. They exist to perfect themselves, that means absorbing any race they encounter. We followed them here from the other side of the quadrant," Chris explained, leaving the details vague because he had no intention of letting Sudoc know they were from the future, even if he suspected Stef might know from his meld with Vin. "We've seen them lay waste to thousands of worlds and turn billions into the drones you saw earlier. It's how they improve themselves. Nothing else matters except assimilation."

Just to drive the point home, Stef addressed his enemy directly because the Captain was right, this threat could not be fought in isolation. No matter how odious it might be for the moment, they had to work together to save Vulcan.

"Sudoc, I saw it when I mind touched with Vin over there," he glanced at the younger Vulcan before facing Sudoc again. "I saw these Outliers fighting the Borg in dozens of warships, so advanced it staggers belief, but they were being destroyed by one single Borg vessel. We cannot allow this power to be unleashed on Vulcan, none of us will survive."

Sudoc regarded Vin after that plea, eyeing the helmsman curiously. The attention made Vin uncomfortable, especially after what Vin felt when this Sudoc was in his mind. Vin never thought it was possible to feel his mind die, but Sudoc made him experience it and the power this man wielded both horrified and astonished Vin at the same time.

"How does one of us come to be with the Outliers?" Sudoc asked when he realized Vin was Vulcan.

"I was found by..." Vin decided to use Sudoc's words for expedience, "Outliers when I was little. I've been raised by them. What Stef saw in my mind is the truth, several of us here were in that battle. We were barely able to stop one ship without losing hundreds of people and most of our ships. Believe it when I say, you don't want them getting loose on Vulcan."

"The Borg have been on your world for less than a day," Chris took up the reins of the conversation once more. "They've already proved to be more than a match for you. They will continue to grow until they have the entire city and then they will come after the planet. They're relentless."

"Then why are we here?" Sudoc asked. "You did not bring us here if the situation is hopeless, I presume."

"No," Chris answered and then met Mary's gaze. "We have a plan."

The Protocol officer stiffened, not liking the idea she was forced to bring up such a subject of taboo in Vulcan culture back in her own time, but there was little choice under the circumstances. The Vulcan of the future would not exist unless they stopped the Borg here. Sudoc's ability with the Killing Gift gave them proof her suggestion to Chris might very well be the solution they needed to end the Borg threat in this time for good.

"Sudoc, your ability with the Killing Gift revealed the Borg can be temporarily neutralized by a telepathic attack," Chris explained. "Because of what you did, my officer was able to disconnect them from the Collective. Once disconnected, we can remove the implants permanently."

"I planned to kill them all," Sudoc said without hesitation.

Chris's jaw tightened, seeing both JD and Ezra's reaction to that statement, aware both men had a vested interest in recovering their comrades. While Julia was safe, Buck was still out there, and JD like Chris had a problem with any solution capable of getting Buck killed.

"Fortunately for us," Chris replied after a moment, "the Collective probably initiated a shutdown when it detected the imbalance in the drone's neurological function. It's probably a failsafe to ensure their drones are not compromised. Shutting down brain functions, the way we were able to sedate Vin," Chris glanced at Vin, who had already heard this explanation when he was revived, "prevented you from killing them. While the Borg programming is formidable, it cannot survive without a living host."

"So to prevent the death of the 'drones' as you call it," Stef spoke up, "it chose instead to render them inert, rather than risk losing them entirely."

"Exactly," Chris nodded. "Now if we can do that on a larger scale, we can get them all to shut down at once, wherever they are in the city."

"My abilities are formidable," Sudoc snorted, "but even I have my limits."

"True," Chris agreed, "but that is not your only weapon using the mind touch, is it?"

Both Sudoc and Stef's eyes widened, but it was Stef who spoke. "You mean the rods of Kel? "

"Yes," Mary answered for Chris. "We know they are now used for healing, but it was not always that way was it not?"

"No," Stef shook his head. "It was not."

"Forgive me," Ezra spoke up for the first time. "What are these rods of Kel?"

"The rods of Kel," Mary glanced at Chris who nodded at her to proceed, "were psionic based weapons harnessing the telepathic energy of the user to attack others. In the beginning, the rods were used as weapons. Later, after the clan wars, they were used as a tool of healing."

"How many of these rods still exists?" Alex asked.

"I had them destroyed in Jaleyl," Sudoc returned promptly. For healing or war, he would not tolerate any challenge to his telepathic powers or give any insurrectionists in his territory, the idea of using the weapons against him.

"Stef?" Chris looked at the Vulcan general who had not answered as quickly as his enemy.

"We have at least thirty of them."

"So," Sudoc stared at him with a hint of sarcasm. "You Shi'Kahr are not as civilized or spiritual as you will have us believe."

"We will do what we can to protect ourselves from you!" Stef bit back. "If we have to use such weapons on every last one of your barbarian army, we will."

"Enough!" Vin snapped, tired of listening to this because they had more pressing problems to deal with. "This ain't getting you anywhere. The future of Vulcan for the next hundred generations is at stake here. If you don't pull your heads out of your asses, all life on Vulcan will end with this one. There won't be any future for either of you and once the Borg is done with this planet, they'll move on to the next one and the next, until this entire spiral arm of the galaxy is Borg."

Until today even though he never set foot on Vulcan before, Vin Tanner felt her call. For the first time in his life, standing on the sands of his homeworld, looking up into the amber sky and seeing T'Khut stare back at him, Vin felt like a lost child who finally found his way home. After so many years, resenting Vulcans, Vin understood his people, realized they weren't just cold, lifeless logicians, who denied their passions because it was easier to not feel. They did so to save themselves, to preserve their culture and most of all, to protect their future.

Vin intended that future to unfold because he had a great deal of catching up to do.

"Well said Lieutenant Tanner," Chris gave Vin a little smile of admiration, especially after the two Vulcan leaders who looked rather admonished by the sharp rebuke. "If you can use the rods of Kel against the Borg in the city, attack them as Sudoc did earlier, it will prompt the Collective into shut down. The minute that happens, we can do the rest. "

"Captain," Alex spoke up, not wanting to dampen a good idea, but the truth was the Borg's numbers were growing, and they were growing fast. "At last count, there were at least one hundred and fifty of them down there now. Thirty rods may not be enough."

"She's right," Mary agreed. "If I am correct, the rod can only be used once by each user. The energies required to render one Borg is too much for it to be attempted multiple times."

"I can do it more than once," Sudoc admitted, remembering the images he'd seen when he melded with the drone who tried to take his soul. Without examining how he knew, Sudoc was sure it was billions he saw in slavery. Billions. No matter what he felt about Shi'Kahr and its people, the revelation convinced him the Collective could not get a foothold on Vulcan, or no one would be safe. "My ability to mind touch far exceeds those of most adepts."

"He is correct," Stef begrudgingly admitted. "But there are many warriors under my command, willing to march into battle and take their turn using the rods as needed, enough for the enemy to be vanquished. "

"I was hoping you would say that," Chris grinned. "If your people do that, then mine will be there right alongside them. We have weapons that can slow down the Borg long enough for you to use the rods. Ezra?"

Ezra was already thinking, his mind a great deal clearer now it was no longer distracted by thoughts of Julia. She was safe on board now, but Buck Wilmington was not, and Ezra intended to use his very formidable expertise to ensure they brought the First Officer of the Maverick home.

"Captain, I suggest we bring down both projectile weapons and phasers set for modulating frequencies. When the Borg adapt, which will not take very long, we can use projectile weapons to incapacitate them. Mr Tanner, Mr Dunne, I will need your skills down there."

Both Vin and JD exchanged glances. Thanks to the duo's time in the Magnificent Seven holodeck program, playing gunfighters who wielded six-shooters, both men would be capable of using projectile weapons with deadly accuracy. In this instance, that precision shooting was going to be needed to incapacitate instead of killing the drones attempting to stop them once the Borg realized what they were doing.

"You got it, Ez," Vin nodded.

"Whatever it takes to get Commander Wilmington back," JD stated firmly.

"Okay," Chris gave JD a little smile, sharing JDís sentiments more deeply than he was displaying at present. "That takes care of how we get them to shut down, now we have to deal with how to sever them from the Collective."

"Captain, I can answer that," Nathan's voice was heard from the viewer on the wall panel. All chairs turned in his direction as Nathan addressed the room from down in Sick Bay. The healer was still in scrubs, and there appeared to be a great deal of activity behind him, no doubt from the medical personnel working hard to remove the implants from the drones recovered. "Thanks to Lieutenant Chanu, we're able to construct a neural relay which will transmit a massive electrical charge to their cortical implants. It will work on a ten-second timer, starting as soon as the connection is made.

"Is it safe?" Chris asked, not liking the idea of any kind of power discharge to anyone's brain cortex.

"There are always risks," Nathan replied, "but we've been monitoring how much of a charge it takes to disable a cortical implant, and we're confident we've got the levels right. Captain, we attach this to drones when they're down, it will allow us to sever the connection to the Collective far quicker than it will take the Borg to re-initialize."

"How long will it take you to construct these things," Chris asked, deciding he would take whatever advantage they could get. If this meant recovering all the Maverick crew, not to mention the Vulcans taken over the Collective, then so be it.

"We've already started building them," Nathan said confidently, more than familiar with his Captain to have been able to give Chanu the go-ahead needed to begin the work.

"Good, let us know when you're ready," Chris replied. "The sooner we get them down there, the better."

*******

When Chris brought the meeting to a close, with Security escorting Sudoc back to the cargo bay via site to site transport, only Chris and Stef remained in the room. The rest of the Senior Staff had been dismissed, and Chris made a mental note to drop in and see Mary after he finished with the Vulcan General. Stef had taken the opportunity to admire the view of Vulcan from the large window of the conference room, providing him with a panoramic sight of not just his homeworld, but of T'Khut and space beyond.

"I always wished to go to space," Stef remarked, admiring the glittering canvas of stars. "But my calling was as a soldier, and it is never wise to make such a long journey when we could be attacked by Sudoc's forces at any time."

Chris came alongside the man, thinking he would miss Stef when it was time to go home, that is if their mission succeeded and there was a home to go to.

"I understand. This is a ship of exploration, but too often we're going into a fight. We've been so busy keeping up with the Borg, there's been no time to catch our breath and take stock of how many we've lost."

Stef surprised him with a gentle touch on the shoulder.

If not for his friendship with Vin Tanner, Chris would have been jarred by the little smile Stef was giving him, the way someone far wiser did to a young charge. It was still taking some time to get used to seeing the Vulcans of this era, exhibiting all the emotions humans lived with every day. It was so different from the giants of logic they would become in the distant future. That thought reminded Chris why he asked for Stef to remain behind.

"I wanted to speak to you privately, while we have a little time because I think you know where we come from."

Stef didn't answer and faced front again. "I was able to guess from the mind touch with Vin Tanner. You are from the future."

"Yes," Chris sighed, surrendering to the fact he would have to answer for all this later. "I won't give you specifics, but this conversation is about your son."

"My son?" Stef eyed him sharply. "He's just a boy."

"He is," Chris agreed. "But he will become a man with an idea, and that idea is going to change Vulcan."

Stef's brow furrowed. "How so?"

Chris met his gaze and saw the man understood without him having to say it, he couldn't reveal too many specifics. "Letís just say, without your son, this ship would not be possible. The alliance you saw coming together to fight the Borg would never have been, if not for Surak. He will show your people a different way, and that way will change the galaxy. It will ensure his name is never forgotten."

"Why are you telling me this?" Stef asked, feeling a surge of pride knowing his son would achieve great things but guessed these were not matters this Captain wished to tell him without good reason.

"Because our being here was an accident. We shouldn't be here, and I'm worried we might have done something to alter your son's future. All I can say is, he is destined for great things, let him find his way. Let his ideas flourish because it will save more than just Vulcan, it will save everyone."

Chapter Sixteen:
Sub-Routine

Under any other circumstances, the idea of taking a few minutes for a personal matter would have gone against the grain of Ezra Standish's code of professionalism. Except this wasnít just any ordinary situation. Since he saw her at the end of the corridor on Deck 14, in what felt like a lifetime ago, Ezra tried to imagine what horrors Julia experienced as an assimilated drone. When he saw her on the planet, fully Borg, a little bit of him died, and his despair came from knowing his inability to save Julia, meant she'd remain trapped in a hell he couldn't even begin to imagine.

Now through some miracle, she was recovered, and until he knew she was free of the Collective and their insidious implants, Ezra couldn't think of anything else.

Leaving the Conference Room, assured Drew and Kate would deal with Sudoc appropriately, Ezra didn't waste time and headed towards the turbo lift. None of the others attempted to talk to him, or get in his way, aware Ezra was a private person and sharing his anguish was something he was incapable of doing. Instead, they let him go, and as he stood in the Jeffries tube, waiting for the doors to slide close, he saw Vin offering a subtle nod of luck, which Ezra returned with one just as slight, but conveyed his gratitude in volumes.

Arriving at Sick Bay in a matter of minutes, the doors slid open to a corridor bustling with activity. Medical personnel were moving up and down the corridors, stepping through the doors from one room to another. They retrieved at least a dozen drones from the surface of the planet, including Julia. Each one of those drones needed extensive surgery to turn them back into individuals once more. They moved past him, each with their own tasks to perform, oblivious to his approach as he strode towards the main Sick Bay doors.

The activity was no less when he stepped through them and saw the medical staff hunched over the numerous beds on the treatment floor. The clinking of metal against metal revealed the extent of the work they were undertaking as they removed cybernetic implants attached to their patient's bodies. Even with the circulated air of the ship's sophisticated environmental controls, Ezra could smell the stench of blood and ignored the revulsion as he saw amputated limbs free of Borg prosthetics and faces devoid of their ocular implants.

Nathan was hunched over one of the beds and without needing to ask, Ezra knew it was Julia he was attending to personally. Ezra thought of the evenings he and Julia had spent with Rain and Nathan, where the two would exchange recipes and talk about 20th-century pop culture, while Ezra and Rain would voice their boredom with the subject. The dinners were part of Julia's list of things for couples to do in her relationship bible, Cosmo. Now more than anything, he wanted her to put him through one of those silly quizzes to determine their supposed compatibility.

Approaching them, he saw her prosthetic limb was removed, and winced at the sight of her right arm, amputated just below the elbow. It was now covered with regen packs, no doubt a prelude to reattaching her arm once Nathan got around to growing it in the organ replacement tanks. Julia's skin was no longer its pasty colour, and her skin was regaining its natural pigment. He could still see her bare scalp, and while one of her eyes remained intact, the other was being uncovered by the ocular implant, Nathan was dismantling a piece at a time.

"How is she?"

Nathan straightened up and looked over his shoulder. "Ezra, you shouldn't be here."

The healer's expression was not one of annoyance for Ezra's intrusion into Sick Bay, but out of genuine concern for the Security Chief having to see Julia in this way. Nathan had hoped to repair the mutilation done by the Borg before Ezra laid his eyes on her because no one should have to see someone they loved in this condition. Nathan knew it if it were Rain lying there instead of Julia, Nathan would feel just as horrified by her present state. Then again, if it was Rain, nothing could keep him away either

"I had to see her," Ezra spoke through clenched teeth.

Placing his hand on Ezra's shoulder, Nathan led him away from the bed, not wanting him to see Julia until he could restore her a little bit more. It was grisly work they had to do, not for the faint-hearted or for a loved one to witness. Leading Ezra to his office away from the primary treatment floor, Nathan made Ezra sit down and poured the man a drink of water. It was understandable, seeing Julia in her present state shook even Ezra's formidable poker face, and he appeared somewhat shaken.

"Ezra, she's going to be fine," Nathan said first and foremost.

"Every time I see her like that," Ezra started to say before the fury and anguish overcame him and silence was the only way he could cope.

"I know," Nathan squeezed his shoulder. "I know, but it's worse than it looks right now. We've irradiated the remaining implants with a low-level polaron beam to ensure they are deactivated for good, so there won't be any chance the Borg can reinitialise them. Now itís just a case of removing them all, which will take a few hours. Once that's done, we'll get to the business of treating the amputations. If all goes well, in a less than a week, she'll be fully recovered."

"Physically," Ezra pointed out, aware that it was not merely a case of fixing the flesh, the mind could be just as wounded. "I am certain there is a great deal of trauma left after freedom from assimilation, am I correct?"

"Yeah," Nathan couldnít deny it, "but we've got one hell of a Counsellor on board. If anyone can help her through this, it's Josiah."

Ezra nodded, grateful for Nathan's revelation, aware the man was probably busy and didn't have time to waste it with Ezra. Ezra took a sip of the water, because seeing Julia had left his throat dry. Draining its contents, he set the glass down and regarded Nathan once more.

"Thank you, Doctor," Ezra said with a nod. "I shall let you get back to work."

"Thanks," Nathan said once again, squeezing his shoulder once more. "You sound like you got a bit to do as well."

"We do," Ezra's jaw tightened. "We have retrieved Julia, now it is time we did the same for Commander Wilmington."

*******

While the Borg were extremely adept at adaptation, absorbing the skills and knowledge of the races they conquered, there was a recognition even through its hierarchical structure that their ability to improvise was sorely lacking. Engagements with inferior races, specifically the United Federation Of Planets and its starship Captains, proved that superior technology was often ineffective against a wily foe capable of thinking outside known parameters.

When One of Twenty-Three realised Captain Chris Larabee more than prepared to terminate his existence, despite the belief their human connection would prevent the Captain from committing such an act, One realised their enemy had also adapted. Reaching that conclusion added disturbing possibilities to what Starfleet might do to end the danger to Vulcan.

Until sighting Chris Larabee, One had not anticipated the presence of the starship in this time period. Further analysis led One to believe the Federation ship had pursued them through Fluidic Space, possibly through the same anomaly bringing the Collective to this era. It was the only logical conclusion after the Borg detected the presence of a small warp-capable ship entering the area they designated Section 19 of Grid 1, what the indigenous population identified as T'hossuth.

No doubt, the Starfleet crew intended to interfere with the Borg assimilation of this world. One was aware of the historical importance of Vulcan to the formation of the Federation alliance represented by Starfleet. If Vulcan was assimilated, there would be no Federation and the Collective would rid themselves of a troublesome enemy. Until this threat was dealt with, there could be no assimilation of this world.

Furthermore, if Chris Larabee was capable of killing a drone who wore the face of his friend, and One's memories of his human mind were correct, then it was likely the Captain was willing to take more extreme measures to neutralise them. Throughout several engagements with Starfleet and more specifically, starship captains from Species 5618, the Collective concluded they were extremely formidable. The encounters with Jean-Luc Picard and Kathryn Janeway taught the Collective to never underestimate them, and One knew the Captain of the Maverick was no exception.

While the USS Maverick was by no means a Borg cube, it was still an advanced, warp-capable ship with weapons capable of destroying the Collective from orbit. If Chris Larabee was willing to sacrifice his friend, would he also be willing to sacrifice the entire city to end the threat of assimilation to the whole planet? One calculated the probabilities and realised the answer was yes.

Thus to assimilate the planet, the Borg had to adapt to deal with the threat of the Maverick. Without the connection to the greater Collective, One of Unimatrix 376 was forced to initiate a sub-routine in his core processor, allowing him greater access to his human mind. While Borg programming still dictated his actions, One was able to use Buck Wilmington's knowledge to deal with Chris Larabee.

One also saw an opportunity in confronting the Federation starship, no doubt in high orbit above the planet, that might facilitate their return to the Collective. While the technology of this world was useful, it was still primitive by Borg standards. While it could be adapted to service their needs eventually, their objective would be achieved far swifter with a Federation starship. It would only require minor modifications to enable the Collective to generate a temporal rift and return them to their proper place in time. One calculated this was an advantage too good to ignore.

Unfortunately, the successful completion of the new course faced some fundamental obstacles. Achievement of this new directive faced some significant difficulties. They needed a ship.

The vessel used to reach this world was no longer capable of space flight and even with superior Borg technology, there was no way to repair it. Space travel was limited at this point in Vulcan history. It would require extensive modifications to confront a galaxy-class warship with multiphasic shields, triphasic quantum torpedoes and formidable phaser banks. A direct confrontation would see them obliterated before they even reached the hull. Whatever method they employed to approach the Maverick, it had to be done with extreme caution.

Requiring regeneration, One had assigned the task of locating a vessel to Two of Twenty-Three before he began his cycle. As the former Chief Engineer of the Maverick, she possessed the skills and expertise to modify any craft found to service their needs. One was confident, as much as any Borg could feel the emotion, she would have successfully carried out this task by the time he awoke from regeneration.

Except when One emerged from the newly constructed alcove in one of the still-standing structures in Section 19, he knew immediately something was wrong.

As his neural transceiver uploaded the bytes of data collated from the others following his ten-hour sojourn, his hive mind became privy to everything taking place during his hibernation. First of all, One discovered Two had vanished. Not deactivated, but disappeared without a trace. He could not hear her voice in the orchestra of the Collective mind and knew this could only be the result of a deactivated neural transceiver.

Further analysis revealed Two had detected the signs of a ship, along with new life signs were detected in Section 19 Grid, leading her to complete their secondary objective, assimilation.

Despite the presence of Starfleet, the directive to assimilate the world of Species 3259 was progressing as expected. After numerous attempts to subdue the Borg using primitive weapons using energy-based projectiles and equally ineffective aerial bombardment, Species 3259 chose to withdraw to avoid suffering further losses. This was to be expected, and while it halted the acquisition of new drones momentarily, One knew this delay would be temporary.

Two had delayed the acquiring of the ship for the more immediate directive to investigate and assimilate. But they did not return.

Eight of Twenty-Three, no not Twenty-Three, One realised, but of Seventeen, was dispatched to locate Two and the drones with her. If they were offline, their neural nodes would need to be retrieved. Instead of finding the bodies of dead Borg, they found instead several corpses belonging to Species 3259. What was more perplexing, was the cause of termination. Eight was unable to determine what killed these individuals with such surprising speed. It was as if their neural pathways suffered some kind of catastrophic failure.

Still, the absence of Two and the others led One to one conclusion. If Starfleet was here, they utilised their matter transport technology to acquire Two and the other missing drones of Subsection 1. No doubt, they sought to sever the drones' link to the Collective and appeared to have partially succeeded since One could no longer hear their voices. While One assessed the situation to determine a solution, Eight of Nineteen had discovered something else other than the bodies of Species 3259.

Eight had found a ship.

The vessel was primitive but possessed a stardrive capable of being modified for interplanetary travel, certainly enough to reach a starship most likely in high orbit above the planet. After the data regarding its existence was transmitted to One's mind, he concluded the vessel could be adapted to suit their purpose. With the means to reach the Maverick, the First of Unimatrix 376 then considered how it was to be done. The sub-routine permitting One to think outside the parameters of Borg programming began to formulate the strategy to deal with the USS Maverick and its Captain.

For this assimilation, One had to adapt. After all, he was Borg.

*******

Surak felt as if he stepped into another world, and supposed in light of where he was, he had done precisely that. When he saw the ship from a distance, he never imagined any spacecraft could be majestic. It resembled the lara birds he saw in the Forge, their beautiful blue bodies sailing across the desert, a stark contrast to the red sand and amber sky. He was captivated, and for the two months he undertook the Taloth, Surak always made sure he watched their flight at dawn and at sunset. Seeing the Maverick told Surak when the ship was gone, he would still remember it in his dreams.

Now they were in this tavern, a tavern on board a ship, he thought with amusement, surrounded by so many different Outliers, he was almost overwhelmed. Beyond the glass, he could see his homeworld and T'Khut so close he could almost touch it. Surak marvelled at the sight of the activity taking place on the surface, with the miners going about their business, unaware the strife taking place on Vulcan with the Borg threat. Turning away, he returned this attention to his new surroundings.

Surak knew he should not be surprised by what he was seeing. Through his studies in school, he was aware of extra-terrestrial life like the rest of his race. Upon achieving interplanetary travel and sending out probes capable of interstellar explorations, scientists proved there was a wealth of life beyond Vulcan and T'Khut, life far different from their own. While they had yet to meet them face to face, there was limited contact with the peoples of Andor and Tellar, through deep-space transmissions and messages. But this was only the beginning, there were meant to be a great deal more in the great beyond. When manned interstellar travel was perfected, Vulcans would meet them all.

A thrill of wonder raced through him as he observed all the faces before him, knowing he had achieved this first contact long before anyone else on his planet. There were not just the Andor or Tellar here, there were Terrans or humans as Captain Larabee described himself and others, he couldn't even begin to name. These Outliers, though different, laughed and talked with each other, behaving like the people one would see in a market place at home. They were a community breaking bread with each other, sharing a sense of purpose that did not see their differences at all.

Just like the le-matya, he thought to himself. Surak remembered his wanderings in the Forge during the Taloth where he had a chance to observe a le-matya pack from a distance. No matter how fearsome and aggressive they were, the beasts worked together, oblivious to their differences, caring only for a single goal - to survive. Why couldn't his people be the same way?

"What kind is he?" Surak heard S'tash ask their escort, a human called Josiah Sanchez whose calm, soothing voice reminded him of his grandfather Steh. He was a large man, with broad shoulders, deep-set eyes and hair turning grey but his grin was as wide as the horizon and just as bright.

Josiah smiled faintly at the young boy who was gawking at everyone with just as avidly and regarded Lt. Tamar, one of the ship's engineers presently at the bar getting lunch. Tamar was Bolian, with light blue skin and a prominent crest that ran down his nose and ended at his chin.

"That's Lt. Tamar," Josiah explained. "He's Bolian, he comes from the planet Bolarus IX. It's a wet place, lots of oceans and storms. Never go there without an umbrella."

"An umbrella?" S'tash stared at him with puzzlement.

"Something to keep the rain away," Josiah replied, taking note of how the two boys were examining the goings-on at Four Corners with much interest. Although there were probably a dozen regulations citing why they should not be here, Josiah knew Chris Larabee was a great deal more insightful than anyone might suspect. It was not for nothing the Captain suggested the two boys be brought here, because of all the places on the ship, this one embodied what it meant to be a part of the Federation.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.

Before their arrival here, this idea would come to the adult Surak during his wandering across Seleya, one he would teach to his followers and would spread across the planet. It would be the cornerstone on which the Federation was built and was an ideal they would all die gratefully to defend. As he watched this truth unfold before the adolescent Surak, he wondered if IDIC would begin in this room.

"Why would you wish to keep the rain away?" S'tash asked, tilting his head in puzzlement. On Vulcan, it rained so infrequently, it was a joy to feel raindrops against the skin. S'tash thought of how he and his friends would splash in the puddles forming briefly on the ground, enjoying the feel of cool water before it disappeared into the dry baked earth.

"It only rains for a short season at home," Surak explained, suspecting the world Josiah came from was water fat. "Only a few weeks and when it does, it dries quickly."

"A few weeks?" Josiah raised a brow at that, and supposed people didn't use the phrase 'Hot as Vulcan,' for nothing. "On Earth, it rains throughout the year, in some places, every day. On Bolarus IX, there is so much water in the air, it drifts around you in clouds. If the heavy fog doesn't get you damp, the gale drags the ocean along with the wind, and you get sprayed."

Both boys, even Surak, stared at Josiah in wonder at the idea of so much water and Josiah found it hard to imagine, the older of the two was destined to be the father of modern Vulcan. Right now, he looked like the teenager he was, full of life and ready to face whatever the future had waiting for him.

"Look," S'tash noticed another transport approaching from Vulcan to land on T'Khut. "There's another ship!"

Only a small section of T'Khut was colonised by occupants of its sister world. T'Khut was a planet gripped with violent seismic activity, with volcanic eruptions so fierce, it could be seen from Vulcan. Due to its harsh, volatile climate, life never managed to flourish here, and the entire planet was a barren husk. Tidal locked in place, it was always a visible presence in the night sky, earning it the name 'The Watcher'.

However, where Vulcan lacked in minerals, specifically metals, T'Khut possessed it in abundance. As a result, the colonists who came to T'Khut were miners. More followed and soon enough, a new industry had grown on the barren world, bringing with it, more colonists.

Everyone at the table watched the small transport penetrating the atmosphere, utterly oblivious to the galaxy class starship cloaked out of sight. In the last hour, they'd seen several vessels crisscrossing the space between Vulcan and T'Khut, and this one was just the latest to make the journey.

"They are lucky," Surak sighed as he turned to Josiah. "They do not know what is taking place at home."

"Perhaps that isn't a bad thing," Josiah said sympathetically, "If we can help your people wipe out the Borg, they may never have to know."

"It cannot be good to be ignorant," Surak pointed out.

"There is plenty of grief to go around, no matter what planet you're from," Josiah advised. "It will catch up to you sooner or later. If it can be held at bay for a little while, then it gives us time to prepare your people for whatever comes next."

What came next arrived far sooner than either Josiah or Surak could have anticipated, when suddenly, without warning, the surface of T'Khut flared brilliantly with what was not a volcanic eruption but was almost certainly an anti-matter explosion.

Chapter Seventeen:
The Warriors of Kel

"Shields up!"

"Captain, if we raise shields we're going to have to drop the cloak!" Charlotte Richmond countered on the heels of Chris's urgent demand.

"DO IT!" Chris barked at her, not caring whether or not they were visible to the Vulcans. Not when he understood at last why T'Khut was attacked.

"Chris, what is it?" Mary rose to her feet, seeing the concern on his face and realizing something terrible had just unfolded following Kate Stokes's disjointed transmission from the surface.

Chris didn't answer her. Instead, his gaze was fixed on Charlotte, who was quickly complying with his request. As the light flickered across her console, Chris prayed he'd given the order in time, cursing himself for not foreseeing this possibility. Then again, he wasn't dealing with Borg, was he? He was dealing with Buck Wilmington, whose memories of their friendship was being used by the Collective to gain a foothold on the Maverick.

"INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT! UNAUTHORIZED TRANSPORT TO CARGO BAY 2!"

Chris swore as he heard his worst fears realized by the ship's stern alert. The Maverick entered red alert and considering the nature of their trespassers, he and the ship's computer were in agreement at the urgency of the situation. Alert panels flashed across the Maverick as the intruder warning klaxon whined through the decks of the ship. Without even needing to see what was happening in Cargo Bay 2, Chris knew if he did not act immediately, he would lose his ship. If it was not already too late.

"Computer! Initiate complete mainframe lockout of all stations on Deck 14, access permitted by voice pattern verification code!"

The dulcet tones of the computer responded in kind. "Authorization?"

"Larabee, Christopher Captain!" Chris barked, perfectly aware he might only have seconds before the ability to secure the ship's computer was lost. "Authorization code Ė Nimrod. Initiate lockdown now!"

"Deck 14 mainframe lockout initiated by Captain Christopher Larabee of the USS Maverick, verification by voice pattern recognition and authorization code." The computer confirmed his order a second later. Unless Chris authorized it, no one on Deck 14 would have access to the ship's mainframe without his permission. He hoped it was enough.

"Security, get to Cargo Bay 2 immediately! The Borg have beamed on board! Repeat, the Borg have transported on board!"

"Oh my God," Mary gasped as she understood at last, the reason for the battery of orders Chris issued the instant Kate Stokes revealed the danger on T'Khut. "How?"

Even as she asked the question, she knew the answer without having to hear Chris explain. Buck Wilmington's knowledge was being put to spectacular use, in particular his familiarity with Federation ethics and Chris Larabee.

"They weren't trying to distract us," Chris replied, his eyes shifting briefly to the monitor displaying the view of the shuttles returning from the surface of T'Khut, as per Alex's orders. Thank Christ, Chris thought. "They were trying to get us on the planet. By destabilizing T'Khut and risking the deaths of all the miners, they knew we'd have to intervene to avoid more damage to the timeline. They were waiting for us."

Proximity alert warnings began beeping from the Science Station. When Chris turned to Charlotte, wondering what else was going to happen next, he saw her grave expression and knew he really shouldn't be tempting fate like that. "What?"

"Captain," Charlotte met his eyes, clearly disturbed. "We're visible to all the tracking systems on the planet and in orbit. They know we're here."

No sooner than she made that statement, the communications panel began chirping excitedly prompting Jewel's fingers to fly over her console, analyzing the incoming transmissions bombarding the Maverickís communications array. "Confirmed," she glanced over her shoulder at Chris briefly before facing front again. "We're receiving multiple transmissions from numerous sources across Vulcan making contact. Shall we respond?"

"Absolutely not," Mary blurted out before she could stop herself and winced at forgetting her place. "Sorry, Captain," the protocol officer apologized, her cheeks turning red.

Chris hardly noticed the slight because he had more significant concerns on his mind, the least of which was any perceived slight to his authority. "Jewel, maintain radio silence. Wo Chin get us to the far side of T'Khut, that will keep us out of sight for the time being."

"Aye Captain," the helms officer moved quickly into action, anticipating the order ever since he heard Charlotte announced the Maverick's visibility due to their lowered cloak. Slowly, the Maverick began sailing forward at a speed that would still allow the returning shuttles to continue their docking procedures.

"Security, what's your status?" Chris was pacing the floor of his bridge, wishing his Chief of Security were on board.

"Captain, this is Lt Nichols. Cargo Bay 2 has been sealed off with an emergency forcefield, we can't get through!"

"Of course it has," Chris hissed in exasperation. "How many of them are there?"

"According to our tricorder readings,. "One."

Without even needing to see for himself, Chris knew immediately who it was. For a few seconds, he stood there rooted to the spot, and though the rest of his bridge wanted to know what was on his mind, they knew better than to ask. When the Captain retreated into his thoughts this way, it was best to let the moment run its course, because when it was over, Chris Larabee usually had a solution.

"Captain?" Nichols interrupted, unaware of what was happening on the bridge to know better. "Captain, what are your orders?"

Chris blinked and answered in an almost detached tone. "Lt. Nichols, you and the Security Team are to hold position and do nothing. I'll take it from here."

"Chris?" Mary stared at him, speaking not for herself but for the entire bridge crew, who was starting to become a little unnerved by the Captain's demeanour.

Chris turned to Mary, wearing the look of a man who had just about enough of everything and was about to do something about it. "It's Buck down there."

Mary didn't have to ask Chris how he knew, she trusted his instincts enough to believe it to be true. However, the expression on his face made her nervous, and she wished Vin was here. The helmsman always seemed to read the Captain with far greater understanding than she, who was his lover, could manage. Right now, Mary that insight.

"What are you going to do?" Mary asked.

Chris started towards the turbo lift. "I'm going to get him back."

*******

It did not surprise One of Nineteen, Primary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376 when he discovered the shields were raised when he transported to the Maverick. He knew he had a narrow margin of time to act before security came charging into Cargo Bay 2 in a futile attempt to engage him. Possessing its own transporter pad, separate from those in the eight transporter rooms across the Maverick, the transporter here was used mainly to beam bulk cargo on board. One knew the instant the ship detected the unauthorized transport, it would sound an intruder alert, and the Maverick's Captain would raise the shields, preventing any further intrusions.

This concerned One of Nineteen little, because Borg programming was capable of obliterating any firewall or mainframe lockout Starfleet Engineers could put into place. It might take longer, but One was confident that with enough time, he could take the ship. Thus while Chris Larabee's first action was to lock out access to the ship's computer, One's first task was to lower the emergency force fields used in the event of a hull breach, to seal off Cargo Bay 2 from the rest of the ship.

Once this was done, and security was unable to enter the bay, the former First Officer of the Maverick retreated to the near computer panel to gain access to the rest of the ship. Pressing his hand against the glass screen, the same twin assimilation nodules allowing him to transport to the Maverick from the Sumner, began its swift hijacking of the computer system. As anticipated, the initial attempt was held at bay by Chris Larabee's mainframe lockout.

One was unconcerned by this as the Borg interface began drilling through the formidable defences of the lockout to gain access to the rest of the ship. It would take a little time, but One was confident that eventually Chris Larabee's safeguards would be obliterated. It was just a matter of time.

The low hum of a transporter filled his ears before his ocular implant registered the presence of a matter transport beam. One immediately turned, thinking the cargo bay's transporter had been accessed, but logic dictated it was improbable. The Captain had disconnected the cargo bay from the rest of the ship, including the transporters. If One could feel emotion, it would be puzzlement.

The transport beam appeared a few meters away from the Borg drone, and One realized it was a site to site transport. Preparing to activate his defences, One anticipated the imminent arrival of Starfleet security officers. Making no attempt to desist in his usurping of the Maverick's mainframe, One prepared for the attack. Except when the golden shimmer formed the pattern of the new arrival, it was not a security team, but rather one lone figure.

Once again, if One could experience the emotion, the one that would most suit the occasion when he realized who was in the cargo bay with him, would be astonishment.

"Hey Buck." Chris Larabee greeted.

*******

Returning to T'hossuth for what Vin Tanner hoped would be the last time, a few hours away did not lessen the impact of the destruction caused by the Borg invasion of Shi'Kahr or its citizens attempt to halt their advance. According to Stef, T'hossuth district had been before this day, a thriving community consisting mostly of the farmers who worked in the agricultural belt surrounding the city. Now, it was nothing but another ruined wasteland, like so many other civilizations the Borg had annexed.

Leaving behind the safety of Antara, it was still night, though on Vulcan it was difficult to tell. According to Mary, it was never really night on Vulcan, the amber sky simply turned a darker shade during the twilight hours. For all the connection he felt to this world now, he still missed the brilliance of Texas blue sky.

Breaching the barricades surrounding T'hossuth, with Vin walking beside Ezra, who was unrecognizable behind his Breen disguised armour, along with Stef and Sudoc. They were flanked by the troops Stef brought in to fight the Borg. Joining the Vulcans was the security team from the Maverick. More reinforcements had come at Stef's order, but they were holding back for now. If this plan worked and the Rods of Kell neutralized the Borg as they hoped, those troops would be needed to continue the fight since each soldier could only use the rod only once. And there were more Borg than there were rods.

"I can hear them," Sudoc spoke with a hushed voice as they travelled across the road, fractured and covered with debris from the ruined buildings flanking them. No trace of the tyrant's arrogant manner was present, just an expression of grim foreboding.

"You can?" Vin said with some surprise. As far as he knew Vulcans were touch telepaths although Mary did say, the more adept of them could sense others without it.

"Yes," Sudoc nodded, his eyes stared past what remained of an intersection, at one of the few structures still standing. "There's more of them. So many voices, yet they all speak as one."

Almost on cue, Vin's tricorder and those belonging to the other members of the Maverick crew began chirping simultaneously. The chirps overlapped each other until they sounded like the cacophony created by swallows returning to roost at night. The sudden alerts did little to lessen the growing anxiety of the Vulcan troops who were still a little wary of the strangers in the all-concealing suits who claimed to be allies.

"The Borg have detected us," Ezra announced to no one's surprise.

"Where?" Stef asked, revealing himself to be very much the general, while Sudoc had no need of that question being answered. Despite being a bloodthirsty creature, the tyrant was still the most powerful telepath of the day. If he could hear the enemy with his mind, he would already know how far away there were.

"Fifty meters and closing," Vin replied, glancing at his own tricorder and lifting his eyes in the direction of what appeared to be some kind of silo, which made sense since T'hossuth's trade was in commodities. "From over there."

"How many?" Latok stood over Vin's shoulder, peering into the tricorder in fascination. While they had their own sensor equipment, their technology was nowhere advanced enough for it to be as portable as the devices carried by these Outliers.

"Difficult to say," Ezra spoke up, his voice sounding odd to Vin through the helmet. "The Borg shields can disrupt our equipment, a tactical advantage they use to conceal their numbers, especially during a ground assault. We can extrapolate their position by the null field they generate around themselves to determine distance, but nothing so specific as to how many there are."

"It don't matter," Vin told the trio of Vulcans. "They know we're here, and we're raw materials they're not going to waste."

"I do wish you would put that differently," Ezra frowned beneath his helmet but knew Vin was right of course. The Borg would be coming and judging by how quickly the gap between the two factions was narrowing, it would be soon.

"Sorry, Ez." Vin apologized but didn't think there was any way to say it that would sound any better.

"Then we must be ready for them," Stef stated, deciding the time to act was now. If these creatures were coming, they needed to be prepared and furthermore, see if this gamble they were taking was worth the lives at risk. Casting a brief sidelong glance at Sudoc and wondering how in a'Tha he had come to be in a situation where he'd be fighting alongside the warlord, he addressed his troops directly.

"Sudoc and I will wield the Rods of Kell first," Stef said as Latok took that as his cue to step forward and opened the case handed to him by one of the soldiers. Opening it, the General nodded at his trusted Captain in thanks before retrieving two of the rods, giving one to Sudoc before he resumed speaking. "If we succeed, and we know for certain this will indeed disable the enemy, the rest of you will follow suit. Do not attempt to use the rods more than once, its ability to exhaust the mind touch is extreme."

Across the faces of his troops, Stef saw their anxiety at going into battle with an untested weapon. For most of them, the Rods of Kell were a tool of healing. It was their ancestors who used them as weapons. Nevertheless, Stef had confidence in his men. They had fought the tyrant standing beside him for years to keep Shi'Kahr safe. This time the enemy was different but their loyalty was not.

"Security Officers," Ezra spoke up taking the opportunity to remind the Maverick's crew of their role in all this. "We will provide cover fire while our Vulcan allies use the rods. The minute any drone is down, apply the neural relay. It does not matter where you fasten the device, according to Doctor Jackson, the surge will be enough to completely fry their neural transceiver."

"Aye Commander," a voice replied, and Ezra knew it was Drew Katovit.

Meanwhile, Vin watched in fascination as both Stef and Sudoc slipped the psionic weapon over their hands. It was nothing like what Vin imagined, and he wondered how it worked. The rod was a smooth shaft of copper-like metal almost two inches wide and ten inches long. Its length was covered in red crystal gems, and ornate designs in Vulcan text, surrounded by a spherical frame of delicate lattice. An opening just large enough to fit a hand allowed the wielder to reach inside and grip the rod firmly.

"Here they come!"

The alarm was raised by one of the Maverick crew, and the entire group turned towards the silo where they saw at least five Borg drones moving towards them. The drones as always, travelled at the same brisk pace, their heavy exoskeleton-armour made it impossible for them to do anything else. The ones who approached the Vulcan/Maverick group were fully transformed into Borg, from the pasty skin to the bald scalp and single eye. Wearing the same blank expression, Vin could understand why Ezra and Chris were so rocked to find Julia and Buck in this condition.

"Let us get this over and done with," Sudoc said impatiently and strode forward to meet the enemy face on.

"Wait for us, goddamn it!" Vin snapped as he and Stef hurried after the tyrant across the gravel-covered ground. In the background, he heard Ezra telling Drew to standby for orders before the security chief came after them. Knowing Ezra, there was no way he was going to allow his people to confront the Borg without leading the charge himself.

Sudoc did not answer, concentrating his mental energies on the weapon before him. Fighting alongside the Shi'Kahr felt odious to him, but after what he saw in the mind of the female 'drone' as these Outliers called her, Sudoc knew this enemy had to be put down. The only one who was going to sit in rule over Vulcan was him. He would share that with none of these soulless entities. As he held the rod in his hand, he could feel the heat of it against his palm. Sudoc wondered how much of this was an illusion of the mind.

Vin watched Sudoc closing the distance between himself and the lead Borg. Instinctively, Vin reached for the mare's leg at his hip, preparing to fire if Sudoc was in danger of being assimilated before he could use the rod. Choosing the rifle meant Vin would just wound the drones, instead of killing them which a phase rifle would do until the Borg shields adapted and rendered the weapon ineffective.

Meanwhile, Vin noticed Stef was doing the same and noted the Borg on approach were all Vulcan. Only a pointed ear gave any clue of their race since the rest of them had been twisted into Borg, following assimilation.

All of a sudden, the gems on the shaft of the rod began to illuminate, bathing Sudoc's hand in an angry red glow. The lead Borg stopped abruptly in his tracks, and the rest of the Borg followed suit, their mechanical movements making them appear like toys that needed winding up to keep performing. The drone jerked back a step, and Vin realized the mental assault by Sudoc and the rod had begun. Still wearing that expressionless mask showing no sign of fear, understanding or acceptance, the Borg drone suddenly dropped to the ground, knees first, his body spasming.

In contrast, Sudoc appeared perfectly calm, and Vin knew everything he heard about how callously the warlord used his mental powers to kill was true. Sudoc watched the Borg collapse to the ground and turned promptly to the next drone in line and concentrated. The second Borg jerked about like a marionette puppet as its neurological functions came under attack. Like the first drone under assault, this one fell face-first against the debris-covered ground, sending a cloud of dust into the air.

Realizing the danger somewhat belatedly, the remaining three Borg converged on Sudoc, intending to assimilate him when Stef stepped forward and used the rods himself. However, unlike Sudoc, Stef could only use the weapon once, and Vin saw the grimace on his face as the general focussed his mental powers to activate it. When the third Borg stumbled, he saw Stef stagger in pain, his free hand clutching his head. Ezra grabbed him before he could fall and Vin saw the remaining Borg closing in on Sudoc.

Vin took aim and fired. The bullet struck the Borg closing in on the warlord at the knee. Energy sparked from the ruined machinery, and the drone dropped down, but Vin gave it no chance to get up, firing again. This time, he aimed for the drone's shoulder. The force of the bullet drove the Borg back, and the drone landed on his back. For a few seconds, the Borg remained on the ground reminding Vin of a turtle on its back, struggling to get up.

The final Borg, driven by the imperative of the Collective, still continued to advance. The drone never had a chance to activate the assimilation tubules in his prosthetic hand because Sudoc concentrated again and rendered him just as unconscious as the others. With all five down, Vin raced forward as the tyrant stepped back, the effect of taking down four drones on his own showing across his face.

"You okay?" Vin asked concern.

Sudoc looked up at him in surprise, not expecting compassion. "I will survive," he grunted, wrenching his hand free of the rod for now. "It is...draining, even for me."

"Okay, take a breather while I deal with these guys," Vin advised and moved towards the drones on the ground.

Reaching for the neural relays tucked away in his jacket, Vin quickly attached them to the drones lying unconscious on the ground. The one he'd shot stared at him with that blank expression and when he raised his prosthetic arm, no doubt to make an attempt to inject Vin with assimilation tubules, Vin used the butt of the mare's leg to slam the drone's hand against the ground, holding it in place. At the same time, Vin's free hand slapped the relay against his cheek.

As Nathan promised, the relays took seconds to work, and Vin watched the small discharge of energy across the drones' skin. Spidery tendrils of blue made them jerk even in their unconscious state before the neural transceiver, fixed against their necks short-circuited with a burst of energy that sent sparks in all directions. The Borg he shot, uttered a cry of pain before he too was rendered unconscious.

"Did it work?" Sudoc asked. The man was bent over, catching his breath.

"Damn straight," Vin nodded, running a tricorder across them to be sure. "They're alive, but I can read them as clear as day. Their link to the Collective is gone! Come on!" He waved at the Maverick security team, "we've got to get them to Nathan to get this crap off them."

"That is fortunate," Sudoc said, lifting his gaze to Vin. "Because the rest of them are on their way."

Chapter Eighteen:
Confrontation

When Kate heard the shimmer of a transporter, she knew exactly what took place and cursed herself for not following orders.

Commander Styles wanted her to remain onboard the Sumner for just this very reason. As she backtracked to the runabout upon realising she wasn't alone, Kate knew she couldn't afford to make the mistake again. Fighting the urge to go after the Science Officer, Kate could not permit the Borg to gain any more access to the runabout than they already had. Worse yet, in her haste to leave the ship, she hadn't taken her tricorder, preventing her from scanning for Alex.

As it was, she could see the faint silhouette of bodies moving through the smoke and knew instinctively, they wouldn't be miners. She wondered if there were any of them left or were they assimilated long before the Maverick's rescue party arrived. Either way, she retreated to the ship hating it that she was forced to go without knowing for sure. Unfortunately, the peril to the Maverick was too high. The Borg could not regain access to the ship. Not in this time period.

Arriving at the Sumner, Kate crept cautiously up the ramp, cursing herself again for not taking her tricorder so she could tell if there were any Borg on the ship. Then again, as the Chief often said, 'instrumentation makes one lazy' and Kate shook her head, dismissing thoughts of Ezra Standish from her mind. He was a distraction she did not need right now. Peering over the hatchway, the runabout was streamlined enough for Kate to survey the length of the craft for intruders. The lack of movement prompted her further, and she immediately secured the hatch behind her, the metal door sliding into place with a resounding thud.

Once inside, Kate conducted a more thorough search and was satisfied no Borg hiding on board. Going to the transporter controls, she swore under her breath upon noticing its recent use. If there was any consolation to be had, there was only one transport beam. Tapping her combadge, she hoped the Maverick was aware of the problem and was able to deal with one Borg before it caused too much havoc on board the ship.

"Maverick, this is the Sumner, please come in."

The response was immediate. "Maverick, this is Lt. Richmond, what's your status, Kate?"

Relieved because it was a voice she was familiar with, Kate replied promptly. "I've lost Commander Styles, and I'm pretty sure a Borg transported to the Maverick using the Sumner's transporter pad. Furthermore, we've got Borg down here."

"Are you safe?"

"Yes, for now. I've secured the Sumner, but Commander Styles is still out there." The admission felt sour in her mouth.

"The Captain is dealing with the Borg on board the Maverick. Take off before the rest of the Borg get to you. The Maverick raised its shields to prevent more Borg from transporting on board, but it meant we had to drop our cloak. We've moved closer to T'Khut so I can probably scan for her using our sensor array."

"Do you think she might have been..." Kate couldn't bring herself to say assimilated because losing another senior officer the way they'd lost Buck Wilmington was too much to handle.

There was a noticeable pause before Charlotte spoke again. "Until we know otherwise, Commander Styles is still in one piece. Take off immediately and begin scanning the surface. At the range you're at, the Sumner's sensors should be able to find her. I'll do the same up here."

"Sounds like a plan," Kate headed towards the cockpit, determined to find Alex Styles one way or another.

*******

"Come on!" Vin pulled the soldier named Jann to his feet after the Vulcan used the Rod of Kell and disabled yet another Borg. Like the others around him, the effort to neutralise one Borg was mentally exhausting, and Jann remained on his feet long enough for Vin to attach the neural relay to the droneís neck and sever the connection to the Collective, but the moment was fleeting. His knees buckled beneath him, and Vin managed to catch him before he hit the gravel.

"I am alright," he said breathlessly, "I need a moment."

"Ain't doubting you there, but you need to get off the field to do that," Vin replied before seeing calling out to anyone who could hear him. "Hey, we got another one!"

One of the Shi'Kahr heard his cry and followed the ritutal they'd performed since the Borg converged on them on mass. Those who'd recovered after using the rods, returned to the fighting to act as stretcher-bearers to carry the disconnected Borg away from the scene until they could be treated by the Maverick's Sick Bay team. As Vin ferried Jann away from the main square where the fighting was the fiercest, he saw a Shi'Khar soldier retrieving the Borg.

After engaging the first five drones, the rest of the Borg had converged on the joint Shi'Kahr- Starfleet team to eliminate the Borg threat from T'hossuth. Working in concert, Ezra and his security team provided valuable cover to the Vulcan soldiers using the rods to disable the drones with their psychic blasts. As predicted by Stef, each soldier had only one use in them and was left somewhat drained after making the psionic discharge. Fortunately, it didn't take long for them to recover and they soon return to the battlefield, freeing up Security from the chore of having to remove the disable Borg from the area.

For once, it felt good to have an edge fighting the Collective, and until this occasion, Vin had no idea how powerful Vulcan telepathy could be. Thanks to Mary's lessons, Vin knew his speciesí telepathic ability was strong but weaponised, it was something else entirely. Nevertheless, despite the advantage, it had not gone as smoothly as they liked. There were losses, with some drones being killed because there was no other way to subdue them in time, while some of the Shi'Kahr and Maverick crew had fallen prey to assimilation. Thankfully, the neural relays proved an effective means of deactivating the nanoprobes in their systems when caught early enough.

"Watch out!"

Vin looked up just in time to see a Borg drone approaching him. This one was female and judging by the look of her, couldn't be any more than twenty years old. Through her mottled skin and ocular implant, Vin saw she might have been beautiful once, but the Borg took that away from her too.

There was no point telling her to desist. A few of the Shi'Kahr learnt that lesson the hard way, and Vin was not about to bother now. Taking aim with the mare's leg, he pulled the trigger. As predicted by Ezra, the guns of the Old West had proved surprisingly effective against the Borg who probably thought these ancient weapons too primitive for them to bother with. As a result, when fired upon, had no defence against the kinetic assault.

Vin put a bullet through her shoulder, aiming as always to wound, not kill. The drone jerked back sharply from the force of the rifle fired at close range, staggering two steps backward. Giving her no time to recover, the second shot went into her knee, immobilising her completely. She dropped to the ground in a heap, her face registering the injury but not the pain. It was downright creepy, Vin thought silently.

"I got this one Lt Tanner!" Vin recognised Lt. Opa Loca from her voice because she was unrecognisable beneath the suit. Bending over, she placed the relay on the downed Borg's neck. The drone was flailing about, reminding Vin of a turtle of its back. The Borg armour was sparking from the assault by gunfire, and the drone seemed too preoccupied with its predicament to stop Opa's actions. The security officer waved Vin to keep going as the relay did its work.

Vin gave her a look of thanks and continued a little further ahead, leaving Opa behind when he saw at least three more drones converging on them. He raised his gun to fire and knew instinctively, that he wouldn't be able to stop all of them.

"Use this!" Jan shoved the rod at Vin.

"I can't!" Vin exclaimed exasperated and knew if he didn't make a decision in the next few seconds, it wasn't going to matter. Both he and Jann would be assimilated. Sure he was going to fail, Vin slipped the odd device on his hand and aimed it at the three Borg in approach. If he could get one, then he had enough bullets in his Winchester to deal with the other two. In the background, he heard Jan telling him to concentrate, focus his mind on doing what was necessary.

"You can! You are one of us, not them!"

The sensation was nothing like the melds he'd performed in the past. Then, the feeling of connection spread over you like the heat of the rising sun across your face, slow and gradual. Instead, the rod drew it out of him like balled lightning, and his head ached from the effort. The crystals on the shaft came alive, like the lights across his console, and what happened next stunned not only Jann but Vin too.

All three Borg collapsed before they could take another step.

As they tumbled to the ground, Vin almost joined them. Icicles of pain stabbed his mind and Vin thought he was going to throw up. Instead, he doubled over, barely managing to stay on his feet until he heard Jann's startled exclamation.

"You have the Killing Gift?"

Vin stared at him with eyes wide, horrified by the idea. "No!"

However, Vin did not know for sure. He'd never harmed anyone mentally, or intentionally that is. When Vin first came on board the Maverick and his feelings for Alex was so new, he'd inadvertently melded with her, much to her outrage. Then again, when he was in the grips of the Pon Farr Vin melded with Julia to find the coordinates leading to Alex. Even then, he hadn't killed anyone. Releasing the rod of Kell, the device dropped to the ground.

"Vin, are you alright?" He heard Ezra and realised the Starfleet officer in front of him was the Chief of Security.

"He has the Killing Gift!" Jann said excitedly and wondered how Sudoc would take this news. At present, the tyrant believed he was the only one who possessed this power and would be none too pleased to learn otherwise.

"No, I donít!" Vin shook his head and stared at the three Borg. "Are they alive?"

If he had killed them...

Ezra glanced at Vin, ensuring the Officer of the Conn was alright before he went to examine the three unconscious drones. Running his tricorder across their bodies, Ezra looked up at Vin a moment later and allayed the helmsman's fears.

"They appear to be alive," Ezra answered.

Vin let out a sigh of relief at that, deciding this was going to be something he'd have to deal with later. "What's happening? How are we doing?"

Ezra stared at Vin a little while longer, concerned by this ability and hoped it was just the Vulcan weapon that allowed Vin to manifest such power. "We appear to be successfully ridding T'hossuth of the Borg menace. Most of the drones are subdued, there is only a handful of them left now."

Vin let out a sigh of relief. At least that was something.

*******

In the end, it was always going to come down to this.

Chris Larabee stared across the narrow space between himself and Buck Wilmington, or rather the Borg drone his oldest friend had become, never hating the Collective more than he did at this moment. Somewhere beneath all this technology, was the roommate who'd introduced him to the girl who was his first lover, who dragged him out of the doldrums and told him to stop being a dumb ass because he had not quite aced that exam. When Buck met Sarah, his advice to Chris had been not to screw it up, because she was the one.

Buck was there for the best moments of his life and also some of the worst. No matter how this day ended, Chris intended to free him from the Collective one way or another. Having read Jean-Luc Picard's account of what it was like being a drone, he knew beneath all those implants, his friend was tearing at the walls of his prison, desperate to escape. Now that Buck was in front of him, there was no way in hell, Chris was allowing him to suffer one more moment of this torture.

"Buck," Chris spoke, ignoring the drone with its ghoulish appearance, determined to reach through the Borg machinery to the friend he knew was watching helplessly while the Collective used his body. "I know you can hear me. Just hang on, I'm doing everything I can to get you back. Do you hear me? We're going to help you, I promise. I'm not going to give up on you Buck, not ever."

"Your attempt to appeal to my humanity is pointless," the drone spoke for the first time, almost irritated by the attempt to reach the mind trapped within its Borg machinery. "We are Borg."

The voice might have been Buck's, but it sounded all wrong. Chris shuddered at the hearing of it, and once again, remembered the Battle of Sector 001, where he heard for the first time the cold demand for the Starfleet armada to surrender. "I don't care about the Borg or the goddamn Collective. You have my friend trapped in there, and I am going to get him free even if I have to tear every implant out myself."

"Your species is emotional and reactive, imperfect and erratic," One continued to speak even as the assimilation modules continued to break the chains of Chris Larabee's authorisation over the main computer. "Your presence here proves your imperfection. When you are assimilated, you will understand true harmony and order."

"Good luck with that," Chris returned, holding his ground. "I'm giving you one last chance to stop what you're doing or else I'll do it for you."

"You will not harm us because you still wish to save your friend," One replied with what was almost a sneer.

If Chris didn't know better, he would have thought the son of a bitch sounded smug.

"Captain," JD Dunne's voice came through his combadge. "The Borg will breach your lockout in less than two minutes."

"Standby to cut all power to this deck on my order," Chris answered, taking note of the images flashing faster and faster on the screen of the console the drone was using to access the ship's computer. He could very well believe within two minutes his lockout would be rendered ineffective. Chris had no intention of allowing this drone to get that far. "I want everything on Deck 14 to go dark. Not one iota of power is to be generated everywhere, do you understand me?"

"Aye Captain," JD said promptly. "Engineering is on standby."

The drone shot Chris a look, perfectly aware even with Borg superiority, it would not be able to access a system devoid of power. Still, thanks to the Captain's presence here, the opportunity to gain control of the ship was within One's grasp. Typical human arrogance and the futile hope Buck Wilmington still existed brought the Captain here, without even a weapon.

"You will be assimilated," One discontinued the penetration for the moment because once Chris Larabee was assimilated, there would be no need for it. The Captain's own authorisation would give One total access to the Maverick. "We will take your ship and bring the Collective on board. This ship is inferior, but it can be adapted to suit our needs for the return to the 24th century. "

The drone approached Chris, but the Captain of the Maverick held his ground, making no move to retreat. Once again, if One could feel the emotion, he would be revisited by the feeling of puzzlement and the overwhelming sense something was wrong. Usually, humans did not merely wait to be assimilated. Their abhorrence to the purity of Borg existence was well-recorded in the Collective's hive mind. So why did Chris Larabee not run?

The reasons were irrelevant, One decided. His course was clear. The Captain of the Maverick would be assimilated.

"I'm giving you one last chance to surrender," Chris spoke, watching the drone close in on him. "Comply."

"You are illogical," the drone closed the gap between them and clamped a hand on Chris's shoulder. "You will be assimilated, and your lockout will be meaningless. This ship will be adapted to service us."

Chris knew he was seconds away from the nightmare Buck was presently enduring, but this was always a gamble with deadly stakes. Before arriving here, he'd given JD Dunne strict instructions of what to do if this plan of his went to hell, and prayed the kid didn't have to end up blowing them both out of the airlock to save the ship. However, as Chris prepared to roll the dice on his Hail Mary pass, he stared into the face of the friend who was a brother and knew no risk was too high.

"Not a chance in hell," Chris hissed when he saw those assimilation tubules shoot out of the drone's prosthetic hand. As he felt the penetration of the metal through his uniform, Chris used all the strength he possessed to carry out what could possibly be his last act of free will. Grabbing the drone's other hand, the one unencumbered by Borg technology, Chris pressed the neural relay against One's bare skin and let the device do its work even as he felt the infusion of Borg nanoprobes into his own body.

Not that they would be there for long.

As Chris stared at his hand, seeing the skin becoming mottled as the nanoprobes found fertile ground in his bloodstream, he braced himself for the pain that would soon be asserting itself in response to the invasion. The same neural relay Chris used on the drone was hidden beneath the collar of his uniform and upon detecting the nanoprobes, discharged their payload. He didn't see the energy light show taking place within his body, but he sure as hell felt it.

It came upon him so swiftly, Chris thought he'd stuck his hand in an open plasma conduit. Every cell in his body screamed in pain and Chris was driven to his knees, barely able to remain conscious. No sooner than he'd fallen to the deck, the doors to Cargo Bay 2 slid open, and both JD Dunne and Nathan Jackson bolted into the room.

"Chris!" Nathan cried out in worry when he saw the Maverick's Captain on the floor. Even though Nathan had warned him this would happen, it still did not alter the fact the healer liked seeing none of his friends in pain.

It was nothing compared to the cry of agony that tore through the air when the relay did its worst on the former First Officer of the Maverick, now One of Nineteen, Primary Adjutant of Unimatrix 376.

JD could only stare in horror as the relay initiated the power surge through the drone's neural transceiver in a single tendril of blue-green energy. The effect to the Borg was extreme as he tried to reach for his neck, his face etched in agony before that pain became a scream. If there was any comfort to be had in the terrible scene, it was that the drone's suffering lasted only a second before the transceiver exploded on his neck, flaring up like a tiny firework, spitting sparks and embers in all direction before becoming dark for good.

"BUCK!" JD was there in two steps to grab Buck before he hit the deck hard. The youngest member of the bridge crew caught Buck before he could fall, but even so, JD had a hard time keeping him upright. Buck was not only bigger than JD in stature but due to the Borg technology encasing his body, twice his weight. The best JD could do was give Buck a softer landing as he slowed the First Officer's descent. "Nathan!"

Nathan Jackson was leaning over his Captain, administering pain relief as well as something to get Chris on his feet. They couldn't afford for the Captain to be unconscious right now. Fortunately, the presence of the neural relay was able to obliterate the few nanoprobes in his system and prevent them from replicating. Even as Nathan ran the medical tricorder over Chris, he could detect the residue of their disintegration n Chris's system.

"Chris, are you okay?"

Chris blinked and felt consciousness flood back into his brain even though he felt like he'd been hurtling through an asteroid field without a suit. Focusing his gaze, he saw the healer's worried expression and managed to croak.

"Oh, I feel terrible."

"Well take it easy," Nathan said relieved until JD's cry snapped them both to attention.

"Buck?" Chris forgot about his present state and managed to get to his feet, though his legs felt wobbly and the chicken sandwich Casey brought to him on the bridge, threatened to make an unwanted appearance.

Nathan hurried to JD who was looking at him anxiously while kneeling over Buck. Chris was right behind him, needing to know that their gamble had worked, that this was not for nothing.

"Is he going to be okay?" JD demanded, barely able to tolerate the sight of Buck in his current state. JD was spared the horror of seeing Buck like this earlier on Vulcan, but staring at his friend and mentor now, he could well understand why the Captain was willing to risk assimilation to save Buck. Given the circumstances, JD would have been more than willing to do the same.

Nathan ran the medical scanner over Buck, feeling the same disdain for seeing Buck like this. It had been just as odious when the healer had to treat Julia. After a second, he looked at both Chris and JD, who were waiting in anticipation of his answer.

"Yeah," Nathan uttered a taut smile, "he's going to be fine. The link to the Collective is gone. I got to get him to Sick Bay, but yeah he's going to be okay."

That remained to be seen, but at least they had gotten Buck back. For now, Chris was grateful for that much.

Chapter Nineteen:
Aftermath

"Warning, oxygen level at ninety-eight millibars and falling."

Alex opened her eyes and then swore because the side of her head felt like someone had stomped on it. And then got really mean. Looking through the visor, the odd, gravelly texture in front of her made her blink twice. As she moved her head, the top of her helmet scraped something hard, and she pulled back, only to feel a corresponding bump behind her. Her body ached, and when she tried to move, she found her space limited. Raising her eyes upward, the hellish sky of T'Khut stared at her with indifference.

Where the hell was she?

"Warning, oxygen level at ninety-one millibars and falling."

The warning that woke her up now jerked her to full alertness with that troubling report. Alex took a deep breath and calmed herself, aware her heart rate was starting to rise, and that was not a good thing when she was surviving on a rapidly dwindling oxygen supply. As her breathing slowed and she examined her surroundings, her last memories returned to her in a kaleidoscope so vivid, it made her head swim.

Buck, she'd seen Buck.

Alex remembered Buck hitting her and the confusion of flying through the air and hitting something really hard. After that, there was just darkness, and she came to the unhappy conclusion she'd been knocked out cold. Indeed the kettle drums she could hear beating inside her skull like bad Klingon opera (really, was any of it good?), seemed to indicate a mild concussion of sorts.

"Commander Styles to the Sumner," Alex spoke, her voice little more than a croak and her throat felt dry. Worse yet, the temperature was exceeding her suit's ability to keep her comfortable, and she could feel the sweat forming on her skin. "Come in."

The response was static.

Probably interference, she realised with exasperation Looking up again, Alex realised she was trapped in a narrow fissure and somehow had to get out of it, before her oxygen supply ran out or she died from rising heat. Either way would not be pleasant. Uttering a soft groan, she pushed herself against the wall behind her and used it to stand up. Slowly, she rose her feet, her gloved hands bracing her ascent, and soon Alex found herself upright.

The fissure was not very tall, in fact, it came to an end just below her shoulders. However, the edge beyond it was a drop she would not have survived. Alex stared into the clouds of toxic smoke rising from the crater below and noted the pumice being carried by the wind. Her scientific mind immediately grasped what was happening, and knew she was exceedingly lucky to have been wedged where she was. The alternative was certain death at the bottom of a crater belonging to a volcano she was sure had been dormant until the Borg's antimatter explosion.

"Commander Styles to the Sumner," Alex tried again, deciding if she didn't get out of here right this minute, she was going to die here, and quite unpleasantly.

Another burst of static followed, but this time, she was met with a little more success.

"Commander Styles?" Kate's voice was almost euphoric. "Is that you?"

Alex felt a flood of relief hearing Kate's voice. "Kate! Am I glad to hear your voice."

"So am I Commander," the woman's relief was evident. "We thought we lost you."

"Nah, I'm too stubborn to kill, but my oxygen supply is draining, so I could use a ride."

"Keep talking Commander," Kate's voice took on a tone of urgency. "I'll find you."

Alex looked down at the crater below and at the dark sky above. "Better be soon, I think things are about to get really ugly down here."

*******

T'hossuth was free.

The nightmare that began for the district a day ago ended with the coming of dawn. The amber sky overhead had brightened, unleashing sunlight upon the ruined buildings and fractured streets. Even in the face of so much destruction, the glow of the new day peering through cracked walls and burned out buildings, managed to look in its way, beautiful. Yet, in all the devastation, there was life. Stef's soldiers were now moving across the ruined square, sifting the debris for survivors or corpses, taking the first step to restoring this community again.

Vin Tanner sat on the seat of a stone bench that amazingly enough, survived all the bombardment and fighting the night before. The area was still cordoned off from the rest of the city under General Stef's orders since discretion was needed now. The fallen Borg were discreetly taken to the Maverick where Nathan would remove all Borg technology since none of it could be left behind. Vin guessed while there was still a chance to save the timeline they knew, Chris Larabee was allowing none of it to remain.

"Vin."

Vin was drawn out of his thoughts by the sound of Ezra's voice. The security chief was still wearing his suit and more than anything Vin wished he could see the southerner's face. His head was a storm of conflicted emotions, especially after what happened with the Rods of Kel. Whether or not he would admit it, what happened had shaken Vin to the core. After encountering Svinak in the alternate universe and seeing what his mirror version was capable of, Vin never wanted to allow that kind of darkness to exist within him. The idea he might possess the Killing Gift, he snorted at that kind of power being considered as a prize, was more than Vin could stand.

"Hey Ezra," Vin greeted as Ezra took the seat beside him.

"Just thought you would like to know Alexandra is recovering well in Sick Bay."

"She is?" Vin asked, having learned Alex had gone missing for a short time on T'Khut when the Borg had laid their trap for the Maverick.

Fortunately, Kate Stokes had found her and returned her to the Maverick for treatment. However, little could be done for the Borg on T'Khut. While their trap had not caused the planet to break up, risking Vulcan too, it generated enough seismic instability to destroy the mining facilities when a previously dormant volcano became active. By the time they were aware of the situation, all the Maverick could do was watch helplessly as the place was engulfed by lava.

"Yes," Ezra nodded. "According to Doctor Jackson, she suffered some bruising and a mild concussion and at last report, was more irate at being told she needed to rest."

"Well, no surprise there," Vin shrugged and felt a pang of longing for Alex. After what happened, he wanted nothing more than to feel her touch to soothe the conflicted emotions inside of him. "It's like being married to a Klingon."

"Which is almost as challenging as being married to a Vulcan from Texas," Ezra couldnít help but tease before his voice became sober when he saw Vin's pensive expression. No doubt the helmsman was still somewhat overwhelmed by what he had done using the Rods of Kell. "Are you alright, Vin?"

Vin looked ahead, trying to decide how to answer. "Honestly, I don't know Ez. What I did scares the hell out of me."

"It was an accident," Ezra countered quickly, "and what you did, saved your life and that of Jann's, I would not berate yourself over the action."

"Every time I think I gotta handle on being Vulcan," Vin shook his head. "Something else happens."

"I know," Ezra patted his shoulder kindly, remembering the distraught young officer who came to his quarters seeking help, just before the Pon Farr ripped Vin's mind apart. Ezra had counselled him then and since that day, Ezra knew Vin was receptive to whatever advice he had to offer. "But you have not harmed anyone since I have known you and the only reason your abilities manifested on this occasion, is because you wielded the rods. Do not censure yourself for an occurrence unlikely to recur."

"Thanks, Ezra," Vin said gratefully. "I just hope I'm not related to Sudoc or something."

The possibility, however remote horrified him. After Alex's miscarriage some months ago, Vin and Alex had talked seriously about children for the first time. While both agreed they didn't intend on expanding their family any time soon, the idea of passing on this trait to a child was something Vin didn't like to entertain at all.

"According to Stef, it does emerge from time to time in a family line, though not generationally. It may be your descendants that possess the trait, but if you and Alexandra choose to have progeny, that will further dilute the genetic pool, so the chances of this being passed on would be remote."

"Thank Christ," Vin shook off the lingering doubts in his head for now because there would be time enough to ponder this later. "So what's happening?"

"All the Borg have been transported to the Maverick," Ezra explained. "Thanks to Stef, we were able to do it discreetly to avoid more people than necessary needed being aware of our technology."

"And Sudoc?" Vin knew the tyrant could not be allowed to remain in the city now the hostilities were over. The tyrant was persona non grata in Shi'Kahr, and now the danger was over, Vin had no doubt the possibility of ending the threat he posed crossed some minds.

"I ordered Drew and two armed officers to return our mad tyrant to his territory in Jaleyl. The General accompanied him, just in case Sudoc made an ill-advised attempt to steal our runabout for its technology."

"Good call," Vin agreed, and knowing Sudoc, he might just do that. "How are Julia and Buck?"

They had just finished dealing with the Borg on T'hossuth when word reached them that Buck Wilmington had been recovered. Vin couldn't help but suppress a little smile at the blue streak Ezra cursed when he realised how this came about and what personal risk the Captain took to see it done. Vin honestly didn't think Ezra knew how to swear like that, but then Ezra was always affronted whenever Chris took dangerous risks with his life.

"Nathan is still working on Buck, but Julia has emerged from the surgery in good condition," Ezra answered, feeling more himself now he knew she was on board the Maverick, recovering from the ordeal of assimilation. "Still, the entire affair will have quite traumatic effects on all those who have been freed from the Collective. I am afraid the only true healer in this instance will be time."

"Iím glad she's okay Ez," Vin said offering Ezra a pat across the shoulder.

To that, Ezra could not disagree.

*******

The next three days were busy ones for the Maverick.

Once the Borg threat was eliminated, the Maverick activated its cloak and returned to its original position in high orbit above the planet. There was much work to be carried out in the aftermath of the Borg's arrival on Vulcan, and now the immediate danger of the Collective was ended, the first order of business was damage control. Chris wanted to minimise the disruption to the timeline in the hopes the future they remembered would still be there when they returned home.

Nathan and his medical team continued to work around the clock, removing all the Borg implants from the drones severed from the Collective and then brought on board the ship. Once freed of the nanoprobes and Borg implants, the Shi'Kahr victims would be returned to the city, to be attended to by the community's own healers. While not as advanced as Starfleet medicine, Nathan was convinced Vulcan physicians would be able to handle the victims' convalescence.

While Nathan treated the Shi'Kahr victims for their eventual return home, Chris focussed on ensuring no traces of Borg technology remained on Vulcan after their departure.

According to Mary, the next five centuries would be turbulent ones for the planet, with a tremendous social upheaval taking place with the rise of Surak's philosophy of c'thia or non-emotion, and the subsequent fracture of Vulcan society with one faction taking to the stars. Those years did not need the added complication of Borg technology contaminating events already steeped in blood and violence. With General Stef's help, Ezra's security team was able to conduct a thorough search of T'hossuth for any traces of Borg technology escaping detection by the Maverick's sensors.

In the midst of all this, Buck Wilmington woke up.

*******

Sick Bay was a hive of activity when Chris arrived. Other than the obligatory acknowledgement of his presence, Nathan's staff moved briskly across the floor, attending patients that occupied every bed in the place. At the same time, others stood behind sterilisation fields performing the surgeries needed to remove implants and reattach freshly cloned limbs and organs due to amputations. Chris headed directly to the CMO's office, sighting both Nathan and Josiah in the room.

The Counsellor had worked just as tirelessly as the rest of the medical staff the last three days, dividing his time between all the Maverick crew freed from assimilation. From his reports, Chris learned most of the survivors were still traumatised by their ordeal, gripped by feelings of helplessness and horror at what their Borg selves had done. Those who dedicated themselves to Starfleet lived by its code of tolerance and service, concepts utterly alien to the Borg Collective. To be forced to commit acts so contrary to those core beliefs had shaken the affected crewmen and Josiah believed for some, the effects might be permanent.

"How is he?" Chris asked when he entered the room.

"I've removed all the implants," Nathan explained, pouring Chris a glass from the bottle on his desk. It appeared the two physicians had been taking a well-needed break. "Fortunately, like the rest of the crew assimilated, the implants didn't have time to get fully entrenched, so I was able to get all of them. I've replaced his arm and eye so the physical damage at least, is corrected." Nathan glanced at Josiah as he handed Chris the glass.

"And the emotional?" Chris asked before taking a sip of his drink.

Josiah let out a heavy sigh, "don't expect much Chris. Like all the others, he's shaken, probably more so because he was apparently in charge of the drones."

Chris expected that. "I'm not surprised. Cut off from the Collective, he was the most senior ranking officer they assimilated. When they took Jean-Luc Picard, they did it for that reason. Can I see him?"

Nathan and Josiah exchanged a quick glance before the doctor answered. "Sure."

*******

As Chris was led to the private room where Buck was resting, the Captain saw Ezra through the glass door of the room occupied by Julia Pemberton. The couple were locked in an embrace, with Julia appearing clearly distraught as she clung to Ezra. Chris dropped his gaze, feeling a little embarrassed for peeking but also grateful they managed to get her back. For his part, his affection for Julia made him hope this terrible experience did not shatter the bubbly, spirited young woman who could make him smile even on the greyest of days.

"How is she?" Chris asked Josiah beside him.

"Like the others," Josiah shrugged. "She's pretty broken up. You know Julia, she rarely sees the dark in anyone, even in herself. What happened to her while she was assimilated let her be nothing but that. It's going to take time to shake it off."

Chris cursed softly and wondered what state Buck would be in when he saw his oldest friend. Didn't matter, Chris told himself firmly, whatever Buck's condition, Chris intended to be at his side. If it wasn't for Buck, Chris wouldn't be Captain of the Maverick. Hell, he might not even be alive. Chances were, he'd be at the bottom of a bottle somewhere, rotting his liver in grief.

"Damn those sons of bitches," Chris swore under his breath. "You know, we fought them because they were enemy, I expect to feel that hostility as a natural product of war, but I've never hated them until now."

"I know," Josiah patted Chris on the shoulder, understanding. "He's in there. Go on."

"What about you?" Chris stared at him.

"I think he's had enough talks with a Counsellor for today," Josiah replied, stepping back and letting Chris go on alone. "I think now he needs a friend."

Chris met Josiah's gaze, "he's not a friend Josiah. He's family."

*******

Buck was afraid to sleep.

Last night, he woke up and realised he was back on the Maverick, in a bed, he recognised immediately was one found in Sick Bay. Through the window, he saw stars outside and because he was thirsty, was able to reach for the jug of water beside his bed to pour himself a glass, with a hand that was not a mechanical prosthetic but flesh and blood. For a few seconds, he'd merely sat there after taking a sip, feeling the cold water run down his throat and savouring the cold spreading across his body on the way down.

Then he wept.

He wept because Buck still didn't know if he was dreaming and this would all fade away in a blink of an eye, some cruel illusion perpetrated by the hive mind to keep him sane so he could continue to function in their Collective. Even when the exhaustion forced sleep upon him, Buck was not at peace. In his slumber, he heard them, heard the chatter of so many who spoke with one voice but devoid of any sense of joy that ought to come with communion. Instead, it inflicted upon them mental slavery and called it harmony. Plagued with the memories of his assimilation, the Borg wouldn't even spare its victims that, Buck was forced to relive his ordeal in his sleep.

Now he was terrified to close his eyes.

Inez had come to see him this morning, and though he felt immeasurable happiness to see her, to take in her perfume in his lungs and feel the silk of her lips on his skin, there was a tiny part of him that couldn't accept she was real, and he was home. All he remembered was the walls surrounding him, the one that allowed him to see outside himself but nothing else. What if he snapped inside his prison? What if all this was just a way for his mind to cope with his incarceration? What if the Collective found him here and tore him away from this sanctuary too?

"Buck."

The sound of Chris Larabee's voice made him turn sharply to the Captain, and he stared at his friend, the same friend whose words had reached him in the darkness, who somehow managed to give him hope even when he wanted to die.

"Buck, I know you can hear me. Just hang on, I'm doing everything I can to get you back. Do you hear me? We're going to help you, I promise. I'm not going to give up on you Buck, not ever."

Chris would tell him the truth. Chris would never lie. If he had faith in anything, he had to have faith in that. If not, they might as well take his sanity, because there would be nothing left to cling to anymore.

"Chris," Buck stared at him and Chris came up to his bed.

"How are you doing?" Chris saw his friend and knew immediately Josiah was right, Buck was anything but fine.

Buck looked around the room and stared at Chris a moment before answering in a quiet voice. "Is...is this real?"

Chris blinked, feeling a fresh surge of fury at the Collective who had done this to his friend. He could see Buckís desperate need to believe just like Chris recognised the fear and the uncertainty there. The Captain swore on his life, he would burn the whole goddamn Collective to ashes if he had the chance. Swallowing thickly because the emotion of anguish for his friend was affecting him too, Chris reached for Buckís hand and gripped it tight.

"Yes," Chris nodded. "This is real. You're home, Buck. We've ripped every trace of them out of you, they're gone. I promise."

"I can still feel them Chris," Buck met his eyes, barely holding it together. "I can feel them crawling around in my head."

"I know," Chris did not have the heart to tell Buck in his fragile condition, he would probably always feel the Collective. Picard had said as much in his report about assimilation. "But they're just voices you can ignore."

Buck nodded and drew in a deep breath, blinking slowly as he brought himself under control. "Thank you for not giving up on me Chris," he said after a moment. "I heard what you said when I was..."

"You never gave up on me," Chris spared him having to say the word 'assimilated'. "Be pretty bad manners if I did the same."

Buck eased back into his bed, accepting Chrisís words and the weight of them on his mind. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head against the pillow and felt the strength drain out of him with Chris's hand still in his.

Chris didn't move, pulling himself a chair and suspecting Buck would sleep no other way. The Captain didn't know how long he could stay in Sick Bay with so much to do, but one thing was for certain, five years ago, Buck Wilmington saved his life by being the best friend he ever had.

It was time for Chris Larabee to return the favour.

Epilogue:
Homeward Bound

It was time to go home.

Or at least try to get home, Chris Larabee thought as he sat in his command chair, preparing to leave Vulcanís orbit for good.

Although Buck was absent from the First Officerís seat beside him, Chris felt a sense of hope his old friend would retake his position once sufficient time passed, and Buck came to terms with what happened to him. The same went for Julia whom Nathan had agreed to release from Sick Bay into Ezraís care. The Chief Engineer was spending her convalescence with Ezra who intended to help her through this trauma by being present when she needed him.

Chris had no doubt every member of his crew who was assimilated by the Borg would be suffering the same distress and required gentle handling for some time to come. While he was confident Nathan and Josiah were up to the task of caring for their mental welfare, Chris knew as Captain, the best he could do for them was to get them home to the 24th century.

"Captain, Iíve set the coordinates as requested," JD Dunne announced from his usual station and Chris had to admit, it was good to see the kid there. Even if his bridge felt incomplete right now, at least some semblance of it was returning to normal. "With the course plotted and at maximum warp, we should reach Bajor in under a week."

"You think this is going to work?" Mary asked Chris from her customary place next to him.

"I think so," Chris answered, confident Alexís suggestion as incredible as it sounded when the Science Officer first proposed it, would work. "The Celestial Temple is ten thousand years old, so it should still be there."

"I know that," Mary answered, "the question is, will they help us?"

"I think thereís a good chance," Alex spoke up from her Science station. "The last time we were on Bajor, I had a chance to talk to Colonel Kira. Before he vanished, Captain Sisko was able to make contact with his wife, explaining he was being taken by the wormhole aliens because he was the Emissary. The species does not exist in normal space-time and have no concept of linear chronology, so if heís in their dimension, thereís a good chance heíll hear us."

"While I adore a good gamble," Ezra commented, wishing their only hope of getting home did not rest on such uncertain ground, "I would prefer better odds."

"So would I, but weíre out of options," Chris added, appreciating Ezraís concerns. "Besides, when we fly into the wormhole and cut our engines, thatís bound to get someoneís attention, and if Ben Sisko is one of the Prophets now, I donít think heís going to want us messing up the timeline either."

"True," Mary could not disagree on that point.

As Ezra implied, it was a gamble. However, Chris was also preparing for the worst if they failed. Bajoran space and what lay beyond was distant enough to ensure the Maverick would not interfere in the development of the Alpha Quadrant if they were forced to remain in this era.

On that note, Chris turned to the Security Chief. "Ezra, raise our cloak before we hit warp. I donít want anyone seeing us en route."

"Aye Captain," Ezra nodded, more than happy to comply. After the last few days, the entire crew could use a nice, uneventful trip to Bajor.

In the view screen, the view of Vulcan and TíKhut began to shrink as Vin took the Maverick away from the twin worlds at half-impulse speed. "Vin, the minute we clear the system, take us there at maximum warp."

"You got it, Captain," Vin replied, tapping the helm controls with the ease of someone glad to be in his rightful place again. After his time on Vulcan, Vin was happy to be back at the helm of the Maverick once more.

Chris stood up from his command chair and walked over to the helmsman, remembering Buck wasnít the only friend who was in turmoil during this trip to the past. Vin too had been battling some rather personal demons himself.

"You okay pard?" Chris asked quietly.

"Yeah," Vin looked up and saw his Captain and friend staring at him with a hint of concern. "I reckon I will be. You know, you were right."

Chris raised a brow. "I was?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded as he saw Vulcan and TíKhut grow smaller in the view screen the further away from the planets they travelled. "You said I ought to go to Vulcan one day, see for myself what it was like. You were right, I should have."

"If we get home," Chris gave him a little smile. "You still can."

"I might just do that," Vin nodded, aware he had some business to conduct on Vulcan that would make this a certainty.

"Provided our future is still there," Chris shrugged and turned back to his command chair. "What are our chances of that?" He threw the question at Alex.

"I say pretty good," Alex smiled. "Weíve made sure there are no traces of Borg technology left behind on the planet and thanks to the efforts of our Chief of Security, weíve managed to erase any records of our existence from the planetary surveillance records."

Ezra gave her a look, "a feat I could not have managed without you, my dear."

Chris smiled, aware the two had managed to run a focussed baryon sweep across all surveillance systems on Vulcan, erasing any recordings collected by the planetís tracking devices when the Maverick was forced to lower its cloak. "Well, good work either way."

"What about Stef and Surak?" Mary stared at Chris, aware the Captain had a final meeting with the General and his son before their departure. "You think theyíre going to be okay?"

*******

"Itís time for us to go."

Chris transported down to ShiíKahr once all the crew was on board, waiting to begin the journey home. The Captain wanted a final audience with the General whom he quite liked and felt a little sad knowing when they returned to the 24th century, Stef would be long dead, a footnote in the history of his sonís legacy. Without Stefís invaluable leadership and help, they would never have cleansed Vulcan of the Borg or restored the future to its rightful course.

Their meeting place was in the deserted square of Tíhossuth, where the Away Team found Sítash hidden in the drain pipe. Since his and Surakís return to ShiíKahr, Chris knew Stef had taken the boy and his sister Norath, one of the drones Vin had shot with his mareís leg, into his home. Sadly, their parents had not survived the Borg invasion of their district.

"You are returning home?" Stef asked, not revealing the truth he knew about where in time these Outliers originated.

"We hope so," Chris nodded.

"And the one called Vin, he would go with you?" Surak inquired.

"Yes, heís a valuable member of our crew and my friend. Besides, his wife would never let him stay." Chris remarked with a little smirk.

"His future is with them Surak," the General said goodnaturedly, patting his son on the shoulder. "He came home to us when he was needed, that is enough."

Sítash came forward and said meekly. "You are leaving now?"

Chris lowered to his knees so he could see Sítash at eye level, still unable to believe he considered for a brief moment, to leave young Sítash to his fate. Even if this boy would become the founder of the Romulan Star Empire, the young eyes staring at him with admiration and gratitude was an innocent. Sítash was not so different than Billy and that moment of doubt was something Chris would crush ruthlessly if it ever surfaced again.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "You gonna be okay, kid?"

"He and his sister are welcome in our home for as long as they need it," Stef answered for Sítash, seeing the genuine concern in this Outlier for the young boy.

"I have always wanted a younger brother," Surak added, having grown quite fond of Sítash since they came into contact with these Outliers and the strange circumstances they found themselves. "And it appears this is the only way to acquire one since my parents will not consent to having another child."

The General rolled his eyes in exasperation, prompting Chris to laugh because it appeared even Vulcan teenagers could be smart asses. It made him miss Adam, and suddenly Chris decided, he was eager to get going, because he didnít just need to get his crew back to their own time, but Chris wanted to return home too. If the Fates were kind and the timeline remained intact, their families, including Adam, would be waiting for them in the future.

"You take care Sítash," Chris brushed a hand against the young boyís cheek.

"Will we see you again?" Sítash asked quietly. After being saved by this Outlier and seeing the ship this man commanded, Sítash knew he would never forget the Captain of the Maverick.

Chris met Stefís gaze briefly and shook his head. "Iím afraid not Sítash. My world is very far away, and it will take a long time to get there."

Sítashís face registered his disappointment, and once again, Chris felt a pang of sadness at having to say goodbye to this child but was grateful Sítash would be in good hands at least.

"Hey, youíll see me in here," he tapped the boy on the forehead. "Just like Iíll see you in mine."

Sítash smiled sadly as Chris stood upright. Looking at Surak, Chris found it hard to equate this teenager with the giant of Vulcan philosophy he would someday be. In some sense, Surak reminded him a little of Vin when the Vulcan first came on board the Rutherford. Unassuming, bursting with potential and more thoughtful than anyone gave him credit.

Stef regarded the Outlier, and though they did not speak when their eyes met, their wordless exchange spoke volumes. The Captain had given him hope the future for his people would be bright, even if it had to be hard-won. Furthermore, his son would have a crucial role in building that future.

Breaking contact with Stef, Chris turned to Surak. "Have a good life Surak. Be true to yourself always. Despite what youíve seen these last few days, weíre more alike than you can possibly imagine."

"I believe so," Surak nodded, still holding in wonder, the place Josiah Sanchez had taken them on board the unseen ship in the sky. "I will always dream of you."

Chris knew he would, and as he tapped his combadge to return to his ship, he took in the sight of Surak, suspecting he would never be able to see the Vulcan philosopher in the same way again.

To him, Surak would always be this young man, on the cusp of changing a galaxy.

*******

Chris turned to Mary and smiled. "Yeah, I think theyíre going to be fine."

As the view screen revealed the Maverick leaving Vulcan, Vin took a last look at the red planet and knew he would never think of it in quite the same way again. A part of him would always feel the call of the desert, and the need to stand on the red sands of Seleya to feel the Watcherís eye on his back. If there was one consolation to be had in all this, it was finally discovering his connection to his homeworld.

And no matter how things might be in the future, that would never change.

THE END
Continues in Religion

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