Somewhere in the distance, drops of water were falling on rock, a steady drumbeat that punctuated an otherwise formless haze of pain. And much closer, a high-pitched squeak, and a scurrying of small paws. A rat, in all likelihood.
Ensign Mary Sue Goodheart abruptly came back to consciousness, reaching for the phaser rifle she’d been carrying over her shoulder when the rocks had started to fall. It wasn’t there any longer, and the sudden movement left her wincing. She raised a hand to her forehead, where her matted and dusty hair was firmly stuck to what felt like the edges of a very impressive gash.
Get a grip, she told herself sternly. A Starfleet officer, even the most junior communications officer on the Enterprise, does not need to use a phaser rifle to protect herself from a rodent. Besides, even if it had been a rat, it was probably gone by now.
She turned her head, more carefully this time, and tried to estimate the extent of the rock fall. Just a trickle of light came in, enough to give her some hope. Shouldn’t take long for the Enterprise’s officers to dig her out. She reached for her combadge, which appeared undamaged, and tried to call for help.
No response. Not even static. Well, this was about what she deserved for volunteering to take part in Captain Picard’s absurd little insurrection. Dumb heroics, trying to get herself noticed by the captain. Stupid, stupid. What did she care what Starfleet Command did with a few hundred worthless Ba’ku, anyway?
Chances were, Picard and his group of idiots were under arrest by now and on their way to face a court-martial. And the Ba’ku, including that tramp Anij who’d been all over the captain like a cat in heat, must all have been packed off to wherever they properly belonged.
Carrying that line of thought out to its logical conclusion, there probably wasn’t another person to be found anywhere on the planet. Because this entire solar system was about to be irradiated by that experiment Picard had been trying to prevent. Oh, crap.
At least the rat wouldn’t enjoy a tasty meal gnawing her bones; it’d be dead, too. After a while, Starfleet would figure out what had become of her and would presumably issue a suitable obituary for the most insignificant of its junior officers, whose captain hadn’t even noticed she was missing. Probably because he’d been too busy screwing around with Anij, though why anyone would want the dreadful woman was beyond Mary Sue’s comprehension.
What a dog.
Just as that thought crossed her mind, Mary Sue heard a distant yelping. At first she dismissed it as an unlikely product of her addled imagination, but it persisted. A moment later, she began to hear voices approaching from the same direction as the dog. They weren’t familiar Starfleet voices — Ba’ku, probably.
Well, that gave rise to a couple of possible inferences. Either she was dead already and about to spend eternity with the canine ghost of Anij, or else the Ba’ku had returned to their village unharmed and sent out a search party to find her. Relieved, she settled on the latter conclusion, finding it highly unlikely that any of her small sins would merit such a ghastly hell.
The dog barked enthusiastically as it approached the fallen rocks. Mary Sue shouted for help. An answering voice called out, “Ensign Goodheart?”
“We’ll have you out of there straight away.”
Of course it took hours, given that the Ba’ku were such total primitivists. There wasn’t even one piece of powered construction equipment to be found on the entire wretched planet. Her rescuers had nothing but shovels and pickaxes. It was completely dark by the time they opened a gap wide enough for her to crawl through.
At least the rain had stopped. The path was nothing but mud, though, with a few clumps of manure here and there, and Mary Sue’s head still ached. She didn’t at all look forward to the long walk back to the village. What had happened to the Enterprise?
Anij, wearing a mud-spattered shirt and trousers with a very well-worn pair of work boots, provided an explanation. “The Enterprise has returned to Federation space. Captain Picard, believing you to be dead, asked us to find and properly bury your body. We’re all very glad to find you alive instead.”
Glad wasn’t exactly the first word that came to Mary Sue’s mind. “You mean I’m stranded forever on this miserable mudball?”
“Not at all.” Anij smiled, and her voice took on a timbre that could only be described as a purr. “Jean-Luc has promised to visit me when he takes his next shore leave. The Enterprise can pick you up then.”
Mary Sue stared incredulously at the dimwitted woman.
“This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard we’re talking about. The man who loves his ship so much that he might as well be married to it. Who never takes a shore leave unless Doctor Crusher orders him to take one. It’ll be ten or twenty years before the thought of vacation even crosses his mind.”
Anij didn’t seem at all perturbed by that prospect. “Twenty years will pass quickly here. You’ll see.”
“He’ll have another WOMAN by then, you DOLT!”
Not watching where she was going, Mary Sue slipped on a particularly muddy section of the trail and grabbed a sapling to steady herself. It sure wouldn’t do to get her clothing any dirtier than it was, considering that she’d probably have to wash it in the lake. Well, this abominable situation answered another cosmic question that she’d have preferred to leave unknown.
It was indeed possible to spend all of eternity in hell while you were still alive.
“And it was very inconsiderate of you to melt down the village bell, without even asking permission, as a source of metal for your pointless project.”
Mary Sue, twisting another pair of wires together, didn’t even bother to answer as Anij stood with arms folded, reciting an extensive litany of sins.
“You can’t actually believe that your communications tower,” and Anij gave the hastily improvised structure a look of scorn as if to say that it didn’t deserve the name, “will be able to send a signal far enough beyond this system to be noticed. Even the Enterprise couldn’t make contact with the Federation from here. This is a very isolated part of space, and we like it that way. It’s about time you accepted the facts.”
“There may be a passing ship,” Mary Sue snapped, furious with herself for having listened to the slightest bit of anything Anij had to say.
Anij responded with disdainful laughter. “And what are the chances of that? Do you realize how far we are from the major trade routes? Face it, you’re not going to be able to contact anyone. You’ll just have to get used to living with us.”
“I’d rather slit my wrists.” Mary Sue banged her fist against one of the tower’s wretched wooden supports, getting a splinter for her trouble. “I’m rotting in hell already, after all. There can’t be anything worse . . .”
And just then, Mary Sue saw the bright, unmistakable trail of a ship descending into the atmosphere. Given that she hadn’t yet activated her makeshift communications equipment, this came as quite a surprise. Maybe the Enterprise had returned, after all, though until now she’d have been willing to take almost any bet that it never would.
She watched in rapt anticipation as the ship descended, until it came close enough for an outline to be recognizable.
It was definitely cube-shaped.
Oh, crap. Double crap.
Looked like there could be worse things than an eternity with the Ba’ku, after all.
She turned to face Anij. “Ever heard of the Borg?”
Anij gazed blandly at the gleaming vessel as it landed in a nearby meadow. “Are they friends of Jean-Luc’s?”
“Not exactly.” Mary Sue wanted to slap the fool woman, but she managed to restrain herself. It wasn’t easy. “Let’s just say they’re a race with no appreciation for the simple life.”
The unarmed Ba’ku would be the easiest pickings imaginable. Although the mental picture of an assimilated Anij almost made Mary Sue laugh out loud, unfortunately she couldn’t think of any plausible scenario where she didn’t end up sharing that fate. Maybe there’s still time to escape to the caves in the hills, she thought, as a hatch opened on the Borg vessel and several drones stepped out.
“We have no village bell to ring,” Anij observed, with an accusing look at Mary Sue and the wiring she’d been working on.
“Believe me, that’s the least of your worries right now.”
The approaching figures weren’t all drones, either. Although Mary Sue had still been a cadet during the Enterprise’s encounter with the Borg Queen, there was no mistaking the cruel smile on the face of the lead Borg as she strode toward Mary Sue and Anij like a cat anticipating a bit of fun with its prey. Definitely not a good idea to run from this one, Mary Sue thought, as she folded her arms and tried to appear nonchalant.
The Queen’s gaze passed briefly over Mary Sue as the group of Borg stopped in front of Anij. “You are Picard’s paramour.” Her tone was icy with contempt, laced with an undertone of something that sounded very much like jealousy.
Deny it, you imbecile, Mary Sue thought, but of course Anij didn’t even have that much sense. The clueless woman lifted her head proudly and declared for all the assembled Borg to hear, “I love Jean-Luc Picard, and he loves me.”
“Such a touching sentiment.” The Queen licked her pale lips and took a step closer to Anij. “Jean-Luc and I have some unfinished business. Arrogant cretin that he is, Jean-Luc actually thought he could refuse me. No one refuses me. I intend to have you explain that to him, from aboard my ship, of course. Poor, foolish, heroic Jean-Luc will come dashing to your rescue, and then I’ll have him. I’m going to make sure he spends the rest of his pitiful life regretting what he did to me.”
Anij, finally beginning to get it through her thick skull that this wasn’t exactly a friendly visit, blathered, “Maybe it was just a misunderstanding?”
The Queen’s cat-smile grew wider. “I doubt it. Your beloved, gallant Jean-Luc destroyed my ship and then tried to burn me to death with superheated plasma. Not exactly a chivalrous way to treat a lady.”
An incoherent squeak was about the only response Anij could make to that.
“But I’m not as easy to kill as he thought,” the Queen went on. “The files of my personality matrix are regularly backed up to several secure locations in the Collective. In a very real sense, I am immortal. Jean-Luc’s inept efforts only destroyed one of my host bodies. A favorite one, I might add. He’s going to pay, when I get my hands on him.”
The cybernetic hands flexed and clenched with evil intention.
Anij, staring with hugely wide eyes, couldn’t even manage a squeak this time.
“I’m not even going to allow him the satisfaction of knowing that he valiantly sacrificed himself to save his true love.” The Queen returned Anij’s stare with an unmistakable expression of lustful appraisal. “As I reduce Jean-Luc Picard to the most abject slavery and torment, I intend to make sure he knows that I had you after he did, and that you enjoyed it far more with me.”
And the Borg Queen leaned forward to kiss Anij on the lips.
To Mary Sue’s amazement, Anij didn’t flinch at all. She even seemed to be responding to the kiss. Well, maybe it wasn’t so surprising. Anij was three hundred years old, or something like that, and in all that time she must surely have slept with other women.
After a long moment, Anij, who seemed to have recovered her composure, inquired in a sympathetic tone, “Just how long has it been since you’ve had some, anyway?”
The Queen, somewhat taken aback by her intended victim’s calm response, admitted, “Far too long. Drones are useful for many purposes, but that isn’t one of them.”
“Poor thing. You’ve come to the right place, sweetums. I’ll make you feel better,” Anij crooned, raising a hand to stroke the Queen’s hairless scalp affectionately.
As the two of them started walking toward the village, the drones silently turned to follow. Mary Sue, left alone for the moment, figured she had time to get to the caves before anyone would notice her absence. The cyber-witch would probably take quite a while to finish with Anij and might even assimilate her as part of the fun. Which would serve the brainless bimbo right for being such a total ignoramus.
Just as Mary Sue gathered herself for a sprint, worse luck, the Queen turned her head and impaled the young ensign with the full force of her evil stare. “You will accompany us.”
Well, Mary Sue thought as she reluctantly began to follow, at least I won’t have to spend the rest of my life wondering what happened.
Warm sunlight streamed through the open windows of Anij’s bedroom. A bird chirped. “You’re starting to feel very relaxed. All the tension is leaving your body,” Anij cooed as she tenderly massaged the Queen’s pale shoulders.
Mary Sue, standing as far away as she could manage to get, figured the Queen didn’t have the slightest bit of tension in that artificial body. Unless it was full of springs. She forced herself to stifle her imagination, reminding herself that curiosity killed the cat.
The Queen, evidently enjoying the massage, undid the laces of Anij’s blouse and started playing with her breasts. Despite Anij’s professed dislike of technology, she didn’t seem to have any objection to the touch of those cybernetic hands. In fact, she wasn’t at all slow to assist the Queen in stripping off the rest of her clothes, revealing a well-muscled farmer’s body that (in Mary Sue’s opinion) would have been much more appealing if she’d been in the habit of taking baths more often. The Queen didn’t seem to mind, though, as her lips moved appreciatively over Anij’s body.
Just before sliding her tongue into the depths of Anij’s furry muff, the Queen turned to Mary Sue. “You will pleasure me in the same fashion.”
Damn near floored by that, Mary Sue just stood there incredulously.
The Queen’s smooth brows furrowed into a slight frown. “I assume you know how, after serving aboard the Enterprise, which from all accounts has quite a reputation.”
Mary Sue stared at the Queen’s gleaming crotch. “But it’s metal.”
“It’s configured with the appropriate sensory circuits. Now get busy.”
The taste was worse than anything that poor Mary Sue could have imagined. She might as well have been licking a slag heap. This has got to be toxic, Mary Sue thought in utter misery, and the Ba’ku don’t even have any doctors. Oh, God, I’m definitely going to puke, and then she’ll have me assimilated for sure . . .
The Queen unexpectedly grabbed Mary Sue by the hair and yanked her head up to face a glare of disgust.
“A nanny goat could do it better than you. That was a pathetic effort. I’ll find a more efficient use for you, though, after you’re assimilated. Now get your worthless carcass out of here.”
Mary Sue, feeling as if she’d just gotten a reprieve from execution, was beating feet toward the door before the Queen even finished her last sentence.
“If you’d prefer,” Anij offered helpfully, “I have a well-trained llama . . .”
The silent drones standing in the village made no attempt to stop Mary Sue as she crammed a backpack full of food and started walking briskly toward the mountains, trying not to look like an obvious fugitive. With any luck, she’d be hidden safely away in the depths of the caves before the Borg Queen noticed she was gone. Sensors and transporters couldn’t be used effectively in the mountains because of their mineral composition. The Borg would never be able to find her.
She chewed a mouthful of Anij’s homemade breath mints, which didn’t quite succeed in taking the vile taste out of her mouth, as she pondered her situation. The assimilation of the Ba’ku probably wouldn’t take more than a day, and she had enough food for several days. Surely the Borg would be gone by the time she started to get seriously hungry. If they left her communications tower alone, she might even be able to contact a ship and get off the lousy planet, eventually.
She glanced toward the tower, a few hundred meters to her left. The Borg hadn’t done anything to it yet. There was still a chance that she’d be able to send out a signal after they left. A chance that she could get herself rescued and go back to her life and her Starfleet career. No one would blame her for the loss of the Ba’ku. After all, what could one unarmed ensign do against the entire Borg Collective?
If Worf were the one stuck here, Mary Sue thought sarcastically, he’d probably reshape a plow blade into a bat’leth and kill every drone in hand-to-hand combat. Then he’d fly home triumphantly in the cube at transwarp speed. Yeah, right. Even if it were possible to kill or incapacitate the drones, any such flight would surely end in capture by other Borg, given that the Queen and her drones were in constant communication with the Collective . . .
As Mary Sue rounded a bend in the path, her pitiful little wooden tower came into view once more, and the solution struck her with all the imperative simplicity of the apple falling on Newton’s head. That tower might not be much use for sending a message into space, but it would be more than adequate to transmit a jamming signal strong enough to block communications between the Borg ship and the Collective. They’d probably boosted everything to the max just to be able to transmit and receive while in this unstable region of space, and it wouldn’t take much power at all to disrupt their communications channels. The Collective would likely interpret the sudden communications failure as the result of mechanical breakdown or natural phenomena, and they probably wouldn’t send any reinforcements.
The tall grass swished against Mary Sue’s boots as she hurried toward the tower, head bent over her tricorder while she scanned the nearby Borg ship. Should be able to jam these frequencies, no problem. As for what she was going to do next — well, to be honest, she didn’t have the first clue, but she’d have to do something.
Approaching the tower, Mary Sue did her best to ignore the little voice of doubt at the back of her mind that had started informing her of what a complete idiot she was. Still not too late to reach the caves, Mary Sue, it told her. Why put yourself in danger to save the Ba’ku? Did they appreciate it the first time? If you jam the cube’s communications, there’s going to be an awful lot of pissed-off Borg who won’t have any trouble locating the culprit. Might as well hang a sign around your neck offering yourself as a sacrifice. One slightly used ensign, no longer needed by Starfleet and now available for assimilation . . .
“Oh, shut up,” Mary Sue muttered to herself as she reached the tower. Although the guts of the thing consisted of her combadge’s circuitry and power cell, its control panel was the clumsiest kludge ever seen, containing parts of a mule’s bridle and God only knew what else. She reminded herself that it only had to last long enough to set the right jamming frequency, after which she’d either capture the Borg ship somehow and be on her way back to Earth, or else — oh, just shut up already, and don’t think about it. Don’t think.
Mary Sue adjusted the settings, turned a wooden crank to aim the transmitter in the direction of the Borg cube, and powered up the unholy beast. Amazingly, it worked. Checking her tricorder readings again, she was gratified to discover that there were now no coherent signals in the vicinity. Now she’d just have to think of some way to get the drones out of their ship before they managed to compensate for her interference. Easier said than done.
She maintained a steady stride as she approached the cube; after all, there was no sense in being halfhearted about walking into the lions’ den. A hatch stood open on the near side, and she could see several drones standing just inside, with an appearance of uncertainty. So much the better. She’d read that the Borg weren’t particularly good at multitasking and that they tended to ignore intruders and focus only on their assigned task. Presumably, when she walked into the cube, they’d have other concerns more pressing than the assimilation of one unimportant human.
And then what, she thought again, as the cube loomed over her. An unarmed assault on a Borg ship, holy moly, Mary Sue, you’ve gone so crazy that it’s not even funny. Just like that old anti-drug skit: This is your brain. This is your brain on Starfleet Heroism. This is your brain tomorrow, full of Borg implants . . .
Well, maybe she could find the cube’s transporters and beam all the drones to the other side of the planet. Assuming they just stood there and let her do it, which was a hell of an assumption. Another possibility was subterfuge: trick them out of the cube somehow. Without their usual connection to the Collective, they’d feel lost and confused. Yeah, if she could come up with a good story, that might do it.
She noticed a drone standing at a communications console, evidently trying to restore the link. Better hurry up if you’re going to do anything, she told herself.
“This lowly individual has been sent to bring you a message,” Mary Sue announced in a loud monotone. “Your queen is in great peril. You must all leave the ship immediately and go to the village to rescue her. A wicked monster named Anij, who hates all technology, is attempting to destroy all her higher cognitive functions.”
Not a total lie, Mary Sue thought in smug self-satisfaction as most of the drones turned obediently toward the hatch. After all, too much exposure to Anij probably would have that effect.
The drone adjusting the communications settings didn’t budge at all. She gave him the best evil eye she could muster and declared, lowering the pitch of her voice for emphasis, “Your first directive is to protect your hive and queen. Comply.”
He didn’t move or respond in any way as the other drones began to leave the ship. You hate being alone, Mary Sue thought, maintaining her stare without blinking. You don’t want to be in here with me any more than I . . .
Finally turning away from the communications console, the drone started to walk toward the hatch, with an audible whirring of cybernetic parts. Mary Sue deliberately didn’t watch him leave as she took up her place in front of a control panel without hesitation, just as if she owned the cube. Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to configure the ship’s main computer to accept spoken commands in Federation Standard English, which presumably was already in the Borg language database.
Then she’d be on her way home, destined for medals and promotions, and leaving the Borg and the Ba’ku to learn useful lessons from one another. Smirking at the thought, Mary Sue had to suppress an impulse to whistle while she worked. The conversion of the language interface was coming along nicely. Nothing could have been easier.
RECONFIGURATION COMPLETE, announced a message on the console’s screen.
Excellent. Now to power up for takeoff and . . .
MALFUNCTION. The screen blinked again, displaying another message. SECURITY COMPROMISED. SELF-DESTRUCT COUNTDOWN ACTIVATED.
Oh, crap. Triple goddamn cybernetic crap.
“Computer, cancel self-destruct.”
SECURITY ACCESS CODES REQUIRED.
Yeah, that figured. She hadn’t been locked out of the ship’s computer, though, which meant she still had the ability to set the wretched cube on auto-pilot and let it blow itself up in space. A lovely fireworks display to mark the beginning of an eternity spent with Anij, the Borg Queen, and several hundred Ba’ku villagers and Borg drones. Whether or not that was preferable to a quick death was debatable.
“Let’s use some logic here, Mary Sue,” she muttered, turning away from the message on the screen, which wasn’t going to be improved by staring at it. How could she find the security codes to shut down the self-destruct sequence? The Queen would have the codes, obviously, but she wouldn’t just hand them over. Although Mary Sue had read that it was possible to extract information from the memory files of a dead Borg, it seemed unlikely that she could accomplish that grisly procedure in the seven minutes remaining on the self-destruct counter. Not to mention the fact that killing someone to obtain a means of transportation didn’t exactly jibe with her Starfleet code of ethics, even someone who deserved killing as much as the Borg Queen.
She heard footsteps behind her and turned, finding a sweaty Anij hand-in-hand with her Borg companion, who looked dazed and bewildered.
“Oh, Mary Sue, it’s good to find you here,” Anij babbled. “Do you know what’s going on? I was just showing Sweetums here another creative use for organic red clover honey — my llama loves it too, you know — when all of a sudden she developed amnesia. Sweetums, I mean, not the llama. And I tried asking her friends for help, but they just stared at me out of their funny eye-thingies and didn’t say a word. So I started thinking, maybe if I brought Sweetums back to her ship . . .”
Mary Sue tried her best to tune out the idiot woman’s yammering as she considered the implications of this unexpected development. Amnesia. The Queen had said that her personality matrix was regularly backed up to several secure locations in the Collective. Which presumably meant that, when the Collective had abruptly lost contact with its queen, the back-up program had been activated. Maybe this host had automatically gotten her memory wiped, which would likely include the ship’s security codes. Oh, crap. Quadruple organic honey llama crap.
She confronted the dazed Borg. “This ship is about to blow itself up. What are the security codes to shut down the self-destruct sequence?”
The Borg raised one of her artificial hands to touch Mary Sue’s hair, murmuring as if it were a wonderful revelation, “I used to have hair. Long, golden hair . . .”
“That’s nice,” Mary Sue snapped. “You can tell me all about it later. For now, you need to remember the security codes to cancel self-destruct.”
She glared in total disgust at Goldilocks, who was now gazing around the cube’s bridge as if she’d just realized where they were standing.
“The Collective destroys a vessel when its security has been breached,” Goldilocks observed, blinking in a very un-Borg-like way. “The Collective’s actions are always logical.”
“Of course they are,” Mary Sue answered agreeably, wishing that she had another breath mint. Her mouth still felt like it was full of metal shavings. “The Collective may not make logical errors, but sometimes its data is faulty. I haven’t done anything to harm this ship, and of course dear Anij isn’t a threat to anyone, is she? Destroying the ship would just be a very inefficient waste of the Collective’s resources. As a Borg, you can’t allow that.”
Goldilocks blinked again, looking totally confused. Mary Sue sighed in frustration. If she didn’t get an answer immediately, she’d just have to put the stinking cube on auto-pilot, let it blow itself up, and lose her only chance of getting home.
“Goddamn Borg computer.” Mary Sue grabbed Goldilocks by the shoulders and screamed into her ugly face. “CANCEL THE GODDAMN SELF-DESTRUCT COUNTDOWN!”
Blinking once more, Goldilocks responded in an emotionless tone as if completing the words of a litany, “Authorization code three-eight-two-dodecahedron.”
The message on the display screen changed.
COUNTDOWN ABORTED, it now read. UNRECOGNIZED COMMAND ‘GODDAMN.’ SPECIFY INTENDED ACTION.
“Believe me,” Mary Sue muttered, “you don’t want to know.”
She let go of Goldie’s shoulders; just touching the woman, if she could be described as such, gave Mary Sue the creeps.
Anij caressed Goldie’s bald head tenderly and then took her hand again. “I’ll take care of her, Mary Sue. And her people. I expect they’ll all be a lot more relaxed once they get out of that armor, put on some natural-fiber clothes, and eat a few good home-cooked meals. Give my regards to Jean-Luc.”
Picturing the captain’s probable response to this, Mary Sue decided that she’d be wise to leave a few details out of her report. Captain Picard was getting up there in years, after all, and he had that artificial heart. She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for his sudden death.
Then again, she’d heard about Vash dumping him in favor of Q, so the good captain was probably used to such twists of fate by now.
“I hope you two have a very happy life together.”
Anij smiled. “We certainly will.”
Crossing the border into Federation space the next day, Mary Sue was still finishing up her report, under the title Acting Captain’s Log of the U.S.S. Mighty Cube. If any of those desk jockeys and console cowboys at Starfleet Command had an objection to that, well, they could just go capture their own Borg cube under whatever protocols they’d prefer.
She’d decided not to torment Picard with the truth, and the report contained a glowing description of the altruistic goodness of Anij and her compatriots in their efforts to rehabilitate a group of confused ex-drones who had landed near the Ba’ku village for no particular reason. Even the llama got an honorable mention as a helpful pack animal. Mary Sue figured there wasn’t an ice asteroid’s chance in hell that Picard would ever really get back there to visit, so she might as well let him keep a few illusions.
“Acting Captain’s Log complete.”