“You are close” Helm rasped.
Lahn turned the corner and froze. The hallway ahead was wide, and all but filled with borg. Lahn aimed her pistol for a second before realizing the drones were not moving. The drones clutched at each other as if frozen in the middle of a brawl. Lahn gaped at the spectacle of what must have been almost a hundred borg and liberated frozen in motionless conflict. “Helm, what is this?” she asked, unable to hide the suspicion in her voice.
“A Battleground. Be careful.”
Lahn inched forward, and when there was no reaction from the borg, she increased her pace, pausing before a pair of combatants, then gingerly stepping around them. As she passed, she looked for motion, studying the nanite ravaged faces almost glowing in a wan, greenish light. A particular pair caught her eye -- a taller borg had lifted and pinned a shorter drone to a wall, her nanoprobes buried into the taller borg’s neck. Lahn was trying to determine which was liberated and which was collective when the smaller’s eye – normal and glassy --transformed abruptly to a metallic sphere with a small pivoting lens in the middle. Lahn gasped, staggering back, twisting to avoid stumbling back into another tangle of combatants.
“You have to keep moving. This fight is nearly over. They are lost, and then they will all be Collective.” She couldn’t tell if Helm’s tone came from frustration, resignation or worry.
“Can’t we help them?”
“Unlikely, and not without compromising our mission, which would make their sacrifice pointless. They volunteered to support Andrea because she had rescued them from Fluidic space.”
“Rescued Who? What?”
“Remember, the Undine are telepathic, and the ships were made to look as much as a federation invasion as possible.”
Lahn tried to remember to breathe. “That means having bio residue from the explosions.”
“More importantly, a moment of death. The Undine’s telepathic abilities are formidable.”
“So they faked a crew, as well. Captives?”
“Clones, but we were only able to determine so after in-depth study, and when their limited life span became evident. We expected to beam to an empty ship and get away before it was destroyed. Instead we beamed in the middle of a panicked starship crew who had no idea what was going on. We brought those that survived that first battle with us, only to discover they have a built-in life expectancy of just a few weeks. Assimilation slowed the process, but didn’t stop it completely.”
Lahn watched the floor warily as she walked. Some of the combatants had toppled from the explosions that freed the C483 from the cube. Even on the floor of the hallway, they were locked in struggle, gripping on to each other, their faces motionless. Lahn was stepping over one tangle and twisting around another when a high whine made her wince. She paused, and looked closer, her face centimeters from the combatants.
“Captain Lahn, what are you doing?” Helm’s voice scratched with concern.
“I think I can hear them fighting, all the energy they are expending…if I look close, I can actually see the battle of assimilation.”
“You should not be able to experience that.” Helm said after a pause. “Your own assimilation is happening faster than anticipated. I will jam their control signal as much as I can, but you have to hurry.”
Lahn heard another whine and glanced to a pair of combatants to her left. The whine ended in a harsh crackle and one of the pair blossomed into a flare of plasma, skin hissing and blackening almost instantly. Sheathed in ghostly blue plasma, the drone twisted and dropped to its knees. The plasma died out and the charred form collapsed fully. Lahn dully watched nanites converge and begin to disassemble what was left. The victorious drone turned its attention to Lahn, its mechanical eye focusing with a metallic iris. Lahn felt the drone’s signal, and was surprised to feel herself respond with her own signal. He tilted his head curiously, and Lahn drew her pistol and fired in one smooth motion. What was left of the drone’s head briefly looked almost surprised until it too erupted from a second shot.
Lahn had expected a quip or at least some berating from Helm. Instead, she got a stony silence, which she broke. “Which way, Helm?”
The pause lengthened long enough for Lahn to move from patient to irritated and then finally concerned. “Helm?”
Helm’s voice had sense of strain to it. “The Borg are coalescing offensive patterns, adapting to some of my defenses. I am devoting more resources than I thought would be necessary to recalibrating. I am having trouble detecting Andrea.”
“Isn’t Captain Myles trying to counter the collective?”
“An oversimplification” Helm replied. “but--”
“Shouldn’t I be able to hear her signal?”
“Your nanites would treat it as a hostile signal, and either attack Andrea, or resist you trying to find her.”
“I’m still…” she looked down at her gloved hands, glad she couldn’t see the tangle of black veins but she could feel the pulse of their energy course through her. “I’m still in control.”
“Andrea may hurt you. The nanites she cannot subvert she tries to destroy.” Helm advised. “The injury would be considerable.”
“I just need to get near her and let the pattern enhancer in my armor allow for the Grungnir to pick us up via transporters.” she winced as she felt a burning in her gut. Gods Unfortunate, I’d hoped the nanites would have gone after my primary brain first. She groaned. “Helm, I’m running out of time.”
”What happens if your symbiont is assimilated?” Helm asked in an almost conversational tone. Just the thought caused Lahn to clench her teeth tightly.
“I-I’m not sure. Nothing in any way, shape, or form good. I definitely don’t want to know.” The idea of losing her symbiont to the borg pushed her decision. She closed her eyes, listening carefully. The immobile battle among the borg in the hallway became anything but immobile, with streams of nanites, waves of signals and energies swirling about. War at the nanometer level became more part of her world than the rumblings and explosions throughout the cube. She could feel the sides of the battle. One side matched that of the nanites assimilating her, while the other was alien and wrong.
She followed the wrong and it reacted. The nanites evaded her listening, and even attacked. Her head ached from the cacophony of signals, but she persisted, following the countermeasures even as they tried to deceive her. Part of her even found the move and counter-move grimly satisfying and she staggering toward Andrea’s signal, which pulsed at her with a partisan hostility.
Lahn lurched down the corridor, unable to hide from an approaching drone. She fumbled for her pistol, and saw the biomechanical bloom erupt from her hand and push through the back of her glove. A fresh wave of terror surged through her as the pistol fell from a hand not really hers any more. The drone shuffled by with a brief acknowledgement signal. You’re one of us now, or soon will be. Lahn struggled on, her legs mechanical, struggling not to hear directive that where coming from the assimilated comms. Orders she knew if she listened to, she’d obey.
At last she found Andrea at a console, looking every much the borg queen, her nanoprobes buried into the a panel. She hadn’t changed from Lahn’s memory, her face ashen and held in a netting of black spidery veins, framed by green hair. Around her, Lahn could see the cascades of energy and the battle of nanites. At least half the hallway was hers, even as Lahn felt her own nanites joining the fight against Andrea. Lahn concentrated hard to call them back, but they were not really hers. Nothing was. She was collective.
Andrea looked over, and her eyes, blank silver orbs, regarded her for a moment as just another drone until her mouth went slack in shock. Every part of Lahn screamed to destroy the enemy approaching her and watched herself deploy her own nanites to assimilate Andrea . Lahn dropped to her knees, shuddering, as with each gasping breath she tasted something metallic and bloody at the same time. She tried with all her fading will to call back her nanites. She could barely hear her own voice.
I promised I wasn’t here to kill you, and here I am, trying to kill you. I can’t stop them. Forgive me.
Andrea seemed oblivious to the assaults of Lahn’s nanites. Lahn tried to speak, but her tongue was heavy, metallic. Andrea knelt, and regarded her tenderly, the black lines along her grey complexion shifting. “Lahn. Oh, Lahn, I’m so sorry.” She placed her fist a Lahn’s jaw, to inject her with her nanoprobes, but Lahn gurgled a protest, desperately clawing at Andrea’s fist, her other hand weakly slapping at the pouch at her waist. She couldn’t – wouldn’t -- replace the collective for the liberated.
The battle that would have been invisible to Lahn was clear to the drone in Lahn’s body, even if Lahn was helpless to influence the outcome. Andrea’s nanites assimilated those of Lahns sent to attack her, and in a moment nodded to Lahn with understanding . She buried her nanoprobes into Lahn’s armor to free the transporter enhancer. Inside the armor Lahn felt the eruption of the transponder signal, punching out of the cube. But Grungnir was not there to receive.
Andrea as she examined the purge she pull from the pouch. She pressed the stage one button and trio of three centimeter needles to snapped upward into place, their points forming a triangle pattern. Andrea swallowed as she considered the wicked spines glumly. She swallowed. “Are you sure?” Lahn nodded frantically, tugging at her arm. Lahn checked the transponder, which registered a response. It wasn’t Grungnir, but Paladin.
Andrea saw the response through her nanoprobes and used the armor communications. “Paladin, this is Booster. Captain Andrea Myles and Captain Evlyn Lahn. It is good to receive you, Paladin.”
“This is Captain Emery Quint of the Paladin. Things are not a picnic up here. We’ve taken on most Coll- C-483’s crew, along with a whole lot of damage. I hope you’re not expecting tea cakes and doilies.”
“Anywhere is preferable than here. Two to beam up.”
“Two? Are you sure? The transponder says you have a drone right next to you.”
“Quite certain, Captain. Beam Captain Lahn directly to sickbay.” Andrea said as she placed the trio of needles around the puncture wound on her thigh, pausing. “Lahn, if I took over your nanites, you’d—“
Lahn forced her hand upward, over the purge, and let it drop, a small part of her mind surprised at how painlessly the needles slid in. Then the world exploded in light and Lahn discovered she had enough control over herself to scream.