“Shields down to forty-four percent,” snapped Lieutenant Szabo at tactical, as the Hera shuddered under the savage barrage from the Borg cube to starboard.
The cube had come out of nowhere, some kind of transwarp conduit; their attackers had been right on top of the Federation ship before Captain La Forge and her crew had known anything was wrong. Szabo was returning fire as ordered, but Starfleet’s best weaponry had almost no effect against the Borg defenses.
“Captain, they’re still blocking our communications,” reported young Ensign Washington. His first mission after leaving the Academy, and it would be his last. And Starfleet would never know what had become of the ship and crew.
“Shields failing.” Szabo punched the keys on his console viciously, with no apparent effect.
“Captain, we have boarders on all decks.”
La Forge glanced toward her first officer, T’Mirith, the brilliant and beautiful Vulcan who had been with her for eight years. The best years of her life, and it would all end here. T’Mirith gave a grim nod in response.
“Computer, initiate self-destruct sequence, authorization . . .”
Before La Forge could complete the authorization code, a drone materialized right next to her chair, reached toward her and jabbed her in the throat. The bridge shimmered and then vanished as she was transported to the Borg vessel.
She found herself in a small room with five rectangular tables, coffin-shaped, she thought. Their purpose wasn’t in much doubt. Force fields gleamed at both doorways. Across the room, Ensign Washington suddenly appeared, with drops of blood beading his collar just above the pip that indicated his rank.
Such a small thing to bring about our deaths, La Forge thought, as T’Mirith was transported into the room along with Lieutenant Lorena Pascal, the Hera’s pilot. And it didn’t even hurt that much. Death. The word hovered in her mind, hard, shining, unreal.
Szabo materialized near a doorway, staring at the blood on his fingers where he’d touched his neck. He was cursing furiously, without a pause for breath, in English and what sounded like a combination of several Eastern European languages. La Forge realized that she didn’t have her combadge to provide a translation, not that one was necessary.
The drones had probably taken their combadges to prevent the officers from triggering the Hera’s self-destruct mechanism by remote control. Thorough as all hell, she had to give them that.
Standing with her back rigid against a wall, T’Mirith began to recite something that La Forge eventually identified as an ancient Vulcan death chant. That certainly showed what her logical first officer, who had also been her lover, thought of the probability of getting out of here in one piece. Or any acceptable combination of pieces.
Washington, obviously scared out of his wits but determined not to show it, glanced from one of the senior officers to another. He looked so much like her son, La Forge thought, knowing that she’d never see Geordi again.
His voice echoing from the walls of the chamber, Washington asked hesitantly, “Just what do they . . .”
Szabo bared his teeth in a grimace that almost resembled a smile. “Didn’t learn much about the Borg in your Academy classes, Ensign? Well, it’s real simple. All of us have just been collectively fucked up the ass by an extremely large biomechanical appendage, without benefit of lubricant. If there’s any more information you need, Ensign, just let me know.”
T’Mirith stopped her chanting and stared straight in front of her, the dark eyes unblinking as the dull sheen of gray metal began to spread across her forehead, her body’s cells literally dissolving as the Borg nanoprobes rewrote her DNA.
Ensign Washington gulped, reaching inside his collar for the little cross he wore on a chain around his neck. It was bloodstained. He muttered something that sounded like an extremely garbled Hail Mary. In La Forge’s opinion, he was wasting his breath. The Holy Mother wasn’t likely to be found in an assimilation chamber.
A large male drone entered one of the doorways, the force field crackling faintly as he passed through it. He picked up T’Mirith as easily as if she had been a doll and put her down on the nearest table.
Szabo, with another curse, tore a narrow metal facing from a console beside him. Testing its sharp edge against his finger with a look of grim satisfaction, he approached the drone and struck suddenly, with the quick coiling spring of a snake. The sharp metal punched through the drone’s throat, and blood streamed from the mortal wound.
Red blood, La Forge thought numbly. Just like ours. She wondered whose son he had been before his assimilation, even as the cybernetic arm, flailing in the death throes, caught Szabo around the shoulders and broke his neck with a very final crack. Both bodies fell together, blood pooling around them, and the two faces shared in death a peculiarly identical expression of triumph.
Washington turned away, looking as if he might be about to vomit. He’d never seen a man killed before, La Forge realized. The young ensign sank to his knees, with his hands clasped in front of him. Then he noticed the large spot of altered cells that had begun to spread across the back of his left hand, and he started to babble in terror, calling out for his mother. Or perhaps it was Mother Mary. In either case, no response was forthcoming.
T’Mirith lay unmoving on the table, as if she were a corpse awaiting autopsy. A mechanical structure of some sort had formed across the right side of her face. The eye socket gleamed with the bright circuitry that would serve as a base for a visual input device.
Lieutenant Pascal, her long dark hair cascading across shoulders that still looked entirely human, glanced up from the grisly scene on the deck to meet La Forge’s gaze. “Captain, your computer skills are legendary. Think you could use that console to hack into the cube’s main systems?”
La Forge shook her head, not daring to admit to herself just how glad she was to hear another coherent human voice. “Not unless you can read Borg, Lieutenant. Without our combadges and tricorders, we have no translation program available. Anyway, it’s not very likely that a console in this area would have access to anything vital.”
“Just assimilation specifications. You’re probably right.” The pilot looked back toward the two dead men. “I guess we could use that piece of metal to cut our own throats.”
“Not my style,” La Forge responded in a dry tone.
“Mine neither, more’s the pity. When I entered the Academy, I made a vow to face the future without fear, whatever it holds.” Lieutenant Pascal pushed her hair away from her face, exposing a faint gray line just beginning to form above her right eyebrow. “But I never imagined it would hold anything like this.”
The room seemed to be swimming in the greenish light as La Forge blinked away the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. She could see no point to telling the lieutenant she’d put up a good fight, or any of the other ghastly platitudes for dying soldiers. What the hell could a captain say after losing a crew of hundreds to the Borg? Maybe cutting her own throat wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.
That way lay madness. Don’t think, La Forge told herself, just do. She moved toward the nearest doorway and pulled an access panel away from the wall.
“I’m going to try to short out this force field. Maybe if we can get out of this area, find out what they’ve done with the Hera, we might still have a chance. They’ve probably brought the Hera on board the cube by now.”
She knelt on the hard deck, studying the circuits, looking for familiar patterns. No matter where you were in the galaxy, the logic of electrical engineering didn’t change. Even the Borg couldn’t rearrange the laws of physics.
The force field at the other end of the room hissed as two female drones passed through it. La Forge deliberately ignored them, forcing herself to keep her entire attention on the circuits. She knew that the Borg usually focused only on the immediate task, to the exclusion of all else. If she did nothing to provoke the drones, they might not interfere with what she was doing.
“I’ll watch your back, Captain.” The pilot turned toward the corpses on the floor, put her boot on top of the dead drone and tugged the long metal strip from his throat. In her hand, the bloodstained facing with its sharp edges looked almost like a duellist’s saber. She took up a protective position just behind the captain.
Tracing the path of a likely circuit, La Forge raised a hand to her shoulder to scratch what felt like an itchy spot, without consciously thinking about it. But instead of flesh, her fingers touched hard metal.
The two drones advanced on Ensign Washington, still on his knees whimpering incoherently. They seized him and easily lifted him to a table, despite his struggles. As they began their ghoulish work, he screamed once. Only once.
Nothing she could do for him now, La Forge realized, gritting her teeth as she tried to focus only on the circuits in front of her. Whether she could do anything at all depended on if she could get this force field down. If she could find out where the Borg had put the Hera. If she could rescue the ship’s doctor, the only member of the crew who would have any idea of how to reverse the assimilation process, and get the three of them into the Hera’s sickbay. If they were still human when they got there.
Too damn many ifs.
Her back itched fiercely. They were running out of time. Another drone entered the chamber through the far door, activated a cutting device at the end of his artificial wrist, and calmly severed T’Mirith’s right arm just below the shoulder. The stump didn’t bleed at all. The nanoprobes had already formed a biomechanical linkage for a cybernetic arm.
La Forge bit her lip, which still felt human enough, and bridged two circuits. Sparks flew. The force field sputtered for an instant, then vanished.
Lieutenant Pascal, still holding the makeshift weapon in what resembled an en garde position, preceded La Forge into the corridor. To the left, nothing but another force field at the door of another assimilation chamber, with several drones busily at work. The four crew members on the tables looked too far gone for rescue, and the Hera’s doctor wasn’t among them.
La Forge turned to the right, where the bleak corridor eventually opened into what looked like a central junction of some sort. That looked more promising, she thought, even as she heard the faint echo of a scream from somewhere beyond the junction. She didn’t hesitate as she followed her pilot along the corridor. First thing, find the doctor, then look for the cube’s main bay.
Just before they reached the junction, the glow of another force field suddenly blocked their path. A drone came into view, approaching the other side of the force field. One dark eye and one visual sensor fixed themselves steadily upon the two women.
“God damn your ugly cybernetic ass to hell,” Lieutenant Pascal screamed at the drone, who made no response whatsoever to her sudden outburst. “And when you get there, why don’t you fuck yourself. It would probably just take a little reconfiguring.”
La Forge took her pilot firmly by the upper arm and turned her back the way they’d come. “He’s already in hell, Lieutenant, and yelling at him won’t improve our situation. We need to go back and try the other doorway. Maybe we’ll have better luck there.”
No time, damn it, no time, La Forge thought, as they entered the assimilation chamber once more. The drone standing beside T’Mirith’s ruined body had already attached a cybernetic arm to her shoulder and was testing its function. The arm spun and flexed obscenely as the figure on the table lay motionless.
La Forge thought about using the improvised sword to kill the abomination that had replaced T’Mirith, but that would be pointless. Already it was plain that there was nothing left of the woman she had loved. T’Mirith herself would have calmly pointed out the illogic of wasting vital time with something that wasn’t really alive, at least not by any meaningful definition of the word.
Promises of revenge swirled through La Forge’s mind as she yanked loose the access panel beside the other door. The circuits were identical, and she had the force field down in an instant. Beyond it, a corridor bent sharply to the right. On either side, alcoves held silent drones standing with their eyes closed.
La Forge knew that the regenerating drones wouldn’t attack her, but walking through them had the feeling of a gauntlet, all the same. Or a pleasant evening stroll through a pack of hungry wolves.
The corridor turned to the right again. Lieutenant Pascal, still a step ahead of the captain, glanced cautiously around the corner. Her stricken expression was enough to make it obvious what was there, even before La Forge looked for herself and found that the corridor led into the other assimilation chamber they’d passed earlier.
There was no way out of this area, except through the central junction under guard. Back through the silence of the regeneration alcoves. Her right leg was beginning to feel numb. That probably meant the Borg planned to replace it with a cybernetic limb, for some bizarre purpose known only to them. Even God, if he or she or it existed, probably didn’t know what went on in their collective mind.
Into the assimilation chamber again. By now, T’Mirith was recognizably Borg, and Ensign Washington looked like a discarded child’s toy awaiting recycling. The drones beside the tables went on with their gruesome work as if the futile wanderings of two of their captives didn’t concern them in the least.
Lieutenant Pascal lowered her pathetic excuse for a sword and turned to face La Forge. Most of her forehead was now gray with altered cells, and a starlike nodule gleamed on her cheek.
“Captain, while I’m still able, I want to tell you that I’ve never been prouder than in the time I served with you aboard the Hera. No crew could have had a more outstanding captain. What happened here wasn’t your fault. We had no way to escape the attack.”
She’s given up, La Forge thought. Can’t let that happen. The captain had to rally the troops, even if only one remained. Maybe the guard at the central junction had moved on to some other task. There had to be something more to be done. The word ‘hopeless’ wasn’t in the Starfleet vocabulary.
“And there’s one other thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” the pilot went on, dropping the metal facing as she reached to embrace La Forge. Her lips, still soft and human, pressed against the captain’s mouth.
She’s totally serious, La Forge realized in shock. She actually wants to make love to me, right here in the assimilation chamber, in front of three drones, two dead men, and two that might as well be dead.
La Forge drew back her head. “Lieutenant . . .”
“Lorena. Call me by my name, Lorena. While I still have a name.” The pilot turned her head to look at the still form of the Borg who had been T’Mirith. “I know that you loved her. Oh, you were both very professional, never any public displays of affection, but I knew. Maybe because of the way I felt about you.”
Although La Forge’s first inclination was to dismiss this sudden declaration of love as the product of a brain almost entirely scrambled by Borg nanoprobes, she found to her surprise that her own body was responding to Lorena’s touch in a way that couldn’t be mistaken. Great, she thought, just what I don’t need. Definitely not the time for that.
Then again, there was a strong probability she’d never have any more time. For that or anything else.
“We need to go back to the central junction.”
“That would be futile. We cannot rescue the doctor. The entire crew of the Hera has already been assimilated.” Lorena’s voice had an undertone that was definitely not human as she asked, “Can’t you hear their voices? They have become part of the Collective.”
La Forge couldn’t hear anything except the heavy footsteps of the three drones and the swish of fabric as Lorena Pascal calmly began to remove her uniform. The slim figure underneath the clothing would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been covered with gleaming metallic spots. Like some kind of medieval plague, La Forge thought, except that the Borg were always fatal.
The pilot knelt to cover the staring corpse of Lieutenant Szabo with her uniform, explaining, “We don’t have a flag to bury him in, and I don’t expect I’ll have any more need for human clothing.”
The drones in the chamber paid no attention whatsoever to the presence of a naked young woman beside them. Lorena turned her head, following La Forge’s glance toward the male drone, and unexpectedly smiled.
“May as well give him some entertainment. Kind of like the Roman Colosseum. He might learn something from it.” Lorena extended her right hand toward the drone, the middle finger outstretched. “Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you.”
He ignored her completely.
La Forge didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So much valor lost. So many young lives ended.
“You know they don’t care.”
“No. But for some crazy reason, I do.” Lorena returned to La Forge’s side and, without asking for permission, began to take off the captain’s uniform. “I suppose that I ought to be doing something more socially useful, like trying to implant the Prime Directive into the Borg collective consciousness with my last individual thought, but all I want to do right now is to make love to you.”
As her uniform fell to the floor, La Forge looked down at her naked body and immediately wished she hadn’t. She closed her eyes, shuddering uncontrollably in revulsion. What had they done to her? If only she could wake to find it was all a nightmare . . .
She felt herself enfolded into a comforting embrace. Lorena’s voice against her ear breathed softly, “I love you. No matter what.”
Yeah, La Forge thought, you love me for a few more minutes, until they start archiving our memories. Or whatever the hell they do. You won’t even remember what the word love means.
But Lorena’s body felt warm and almost human, as did the hands that caressed her expertly. La Forge kept her eyes closed as their lips met again, trying to imagine herself with a lover on a tropical beach, no sound but the waves and the wind, and maybe a seagull or two. She could almost hear their faint cries.
Except that the seagulls on a tropical beach wouldn’t have sounded like Borg voices. They had begun to hover just below the surface of her consciousness, buzzing insistently at her but not quite resolving into any coherent language.
She didn’t know quite what she’d been expecting, but the voices definitely didn’t sound like the tormented denizens of hell’s lowest levels. They were purposeful, deliberate, almost like a starship crew going about its business. Or a few trillion insects building the galaxy’s greatest hive. Or tiny cogs in a vast piece of machinery, whirring and clicking in turn.
La Forge eventually gave up on trying to find Earth equivalents to describe the sounds of the Collective; there just weren’t any. For just a moment, she found herself wishing she had some way to explain it to Geordi and the others she’d left behind. She could sense that a place was waiting for her among the precise harmony of the voices, and a part of her wanted to be there.
Don’t give up, La Forge told herself again. But the words meant almost nothing to her, a faint echo of a distant and dying past.
By now her right leg had lost all feeling, and if she hadn’t been holding Lorena, she probably would have fallen. And her emotional responses had been numbed as well, La Forge noted in a quiet part of her mind that was taking a precise, clinical inventory of the changes. Some part of her mind that didn’t belong entirely to her.
Lorena lifted herself to the nearest table as casually as if she’d been sitting at the helm on the Hera. She reached to give the captain a hand up.
The bizarre absurdity of the situation struck La Forge all over again, just for an instant. “You have got to be kidding.”
“Sorry, I tried to reserve the honeymoon suite, but it wasn’t available.” Hysterical laughter overwhelmed the young pilot and subsided, just for a moment, into choking sobs. “Say my name. So that I can remember who I am.”
“Lorena.” Another kiss quieted her, and La Forge’s lips moved gently over her face and along her neck. The right half of her chest had turned almost entirely to metal, but the other side was still soft, with a small nipple standing erect. La Forge kissed it as well. “Lorena.”
The lieutenant responded with a shiver. “They feel so cold, these cybernetic whatever-the-hell-they-are. I suppose one doesn’t notice, after . . . Oh, God, the voices, I can’t shut them out.”
“Lorena, stay with me. Hold on.” La Forge clasped both of Lorena’s hands in her own. She could feel the hard outlines of artificial structures forming under the skin.
“So cold,” Lorena murmured.
In contrast, La Forge’s body wasn’t cold at all, but itched and stung as if she’d been bitten all over by fire ants. Exactly like a nest of ants, these worker drones, acting in single-minded concert with no thought for anything but their duties. Damned waste of natural resources, La Forge thought, as her mouth touched Lorena’s pale thigh.
The scent of her was both musky and metallic at the same time. La Forge’s tongue explored the soft mound with its neatly trimmed hairs before sliding into the damp cleft below. There was a faint metallic taste to her juices, as well.
But Lorena’s soft sigh of pleasure was entirely human, as was the instinctive arching of her hips in response. Her fingers tightened around La Forge’s hands.
“It’s so good, oh yes, just like that.”
Could get used to the taste, La Forge thought, licking harder and faster as Lorena responded with shuddering moans. They say drones don’t have sex, but then again, how the hell would Starfleet know?
Lorena’s hands clutched hers with an unexpected and painful intensity as the younger woman reached her climax. No bones broken, at least La Forge didn’t think so, but those hands definitely had something inside them that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. Extricating her half-crushed fingers, La Forge moved up to lie beside her lover, their arms around one another. Some cybernetic component whirred loudly. By now, it wasn’t possible to close her eyes and pretend they were somewhere else.
“That was the best . . . I think. It’s becoming hard to remember.” Lorena paused for a lingering kiss before continuing, “I could feel the resonance through three sub-command domains. Must have blown at least a dozen of their main circuit pathways. But no vital systems, I’m sorry to say.”
Yeah, too bad, La Forge thought, briefly picturing the entire Borg Collective brought to a standstill by a very pleasurable infinite feedback loop. Wonder if Starfleet would give medals for Lesbian Cybernetic Sabotage. Doubt it.
Lorena’s hand moved along the length of the captain’s body, stroking her hip in small but widening circles. La Forge breathed deeply, turning to her back as the exploring fingers traced a blisteringly hot path across the inside of her thighs. There was a time and a place for leisurely lovemaking, and this definitely wasn’t either, but the caresses felt so good, she couldn’t bring herself to tell Lorena to get on with it.
After a few minutes of this slow, tantalizing torture, she was so wet and slick that two of Lorena’s fingers slid easily inside her. They didn’t feel human any longer, but by now La Forge didn’t care.
Where the thumb had been, some kind of ridged metal component vibrated rapidly against her clit as Lorena’s fingers continued their rhythmic plunging deep inside her. She didn’t want to speculate on just what Lorena’s hand was turning into, but whatever it was, it sure could give a hell of a good fuck.
She could feel her orgasm building, and at first she tried to stifle her cry of pleasure. That had become an ingrained habit after so many years of enforced discretion aboard the Hera. But here at the gates of hell discretion was irrelevant, and for once she could let herself cry out, the sound of her delight echoing triumphantly through the chamber.
And damned if there wasn’t some kind of resonance to it, an impression of sparks crackling and cables breaking. As Lorena had said, nothing vital. Trillions of voices still buzzed insistently at the back of her mind, and the drones in the room didn’t even look up from their vile duties.
There was some movement atop one of the tables, however. T’Mirith, or whatever now inhabited her reconfigured body, sat up and surveyed the room with a blank stare before stepping down to the deck. Another Borg conscript reporting for duty.
La Forge held Lorena just a bit more tightly before asking the next question that came to mind, which turned into two questions.
“If drones aren’t supposed to have sex, why didn’t they stop us? And why are they just leaving us alone like this when they’ve already assimilated the rest of the crew?”
She didn’t really expect an answer. To be honest with herself, she was just talking to hear the sound of her own voice, for what little comfort that gave.
“The Collective doesn’t normally interfere with the spontaneous behavior of its captives, unless there’s an immediate threat to the safety of the ship.” Lorena’s response was totally calm, as if she were reading from a data file. “A behavioral assessment is part of the assimilation profile that’s utilized to assign each drone to the most suitable task.”
La Forge thought she understood that. “So as long as we kept them interested in our behavior, gave them more data to analyze, they were willing to let us stay alive. Like Scheherazade.”
The brief reprieve seemed to be over, though. The male drone who had performed the assimilation of T’Mirith now approached the two women, picked up Lorena and moved her to the next table. He broke La Forge’s grip on her lover as easily as if her arms had been made of bubble gum.
Not likely they’d give us a few more minutes if we started tap dancing on the tables, La Forge thought. Although whatever Lorena’s feet had become looked like they’d be ideal for tap shoes.
“I wonder what task . . .”
La Forge hadn’t even finished the sentence before both women were laughing with manic intensity.
“Cybernetic marital aids,” Lorena suggested.
The drone who had been T’Mirith now approached La Forge and stood looking down at her, with no trace of recognition or feeling. Well, this is it, La Forge thought. The end of my life. She felt faintly disappointed that she had no brilliant insights into the meaning of existence, no cloud of angels hovering, no sparkling vision of the afterworld.
Nothing but Lorena on the next table, laughing into the face of death.
It was enough.
“Borg porn stars,” La Forge proclaimed grandly.
“Sex education instructors for impressionable little drones.”
“Or maybe they need a couple of biomechanical secret agents to seduce Starfleet officers . . .”
Lorena was still laughing when the drone standing beside her cut open the top of her skull.
T’Mirith, moving with efficient precision, neatly amputated La Forge’s right leg above the knee and began to attach a cybernetic replacement. La Forge felt no pain at all, and very little emotion. She remembered a Vulcan proverb she’d heard long ago, to the effect that no two views of Mount Seleya were identical. It had approximately the same meaning as the Zen observation that one cannot step twice into the same river.
But the Borg expressed the same truth in its most concise and efficient form, La Forge thought. The past was irrelevant.
Then she found herself vaguely wondering just what she’d been thinking about a moment ago. Half-formed thoughts drifted away from her, as if she were falling into sleep. Or death.
A final imperative rose, unbidden, to the surface of La Forge’s mind.
To face the future without fear. Whatever it holds.
And the Collective, as it took from her even this last fragment of her individual consciousness, approved.