Locutus of Borg

Locutus of Borg

The Other Side of the Borg Invasion, 2366

Star Trek - The Next Generation, and all characters and technologies of the Star Trek universe are the sole property of Paramount Pictures, a division of Viacom Communications. No infringement of trademarks or copyrights intended.

The Borg Invasion of 2366 was one of the most terrible moments in Federation History. We know what it was like from the perspective of the crew of the Enterprise, but what was the view from the other side?

Locutus of Borg

Picard stared out over the huge chamber to which he had been brought by the two Borg drones. From a small balcony, he was looking out over a gigantic irregular cavern crossed by catwalks, pipes and walkways. On the scores of levels, he could see more Borg, standing passive and dormant, in their interface sockets. The scene was like one from hell.

Then the Borg spoke. Not the two drones standing either side of Picard, not the dozens in the interface sockets behind him, but every drone on the ship simultaneously. The voice blasted at Picard, reverberating in both body and mind. "You are Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the United Federation of Planets starship USS Enterprise, registry NCC-1701-D. You speak for your people."

Picard's anger at his abduction and treatment suddenly boiled over. An irrational defiance filled his heart. "I have nothing to say to you!" He yelled at the collective voice. "And I will resist you to the last ounce of my strength."

"Strength is irrelevant," the Borg calmly responded, "resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological, technological and cultural distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours."

Pride filled Picard's heart. How little these aliens understood the human spirit. As if some high technology and awesome architecture would enslave the human race. "That is impossible." He called out, confident in his advantage. "Our cultures are all based on freedom and self determination."

The Borg's response was instantaneous. "Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply."

Picard became grim. He knew his fate now. "We would rather die." What worse could they do, after all? The Borg's emotionless response chilled him to the soul.

"Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority driven. To assist our introduction into your cultures, it has been determined that we require a human voice to speak for the Collective in all communications. You will be that voice." He had not realised that they could do far worse than kill him.

Instantly the two drones flanking Picard seized his arms and dragged him away from the balcony towards an unknown destination deep in the cubic starship. Picard struggled and cursed. He attempted to lever himself up against the unyielding grip on his shoulders to kick one of the drones. Almost before he moved, another two drones suddenly stepped forward from their interface alcoves and grabbed his legs. The strange cavalcade moved on. It was useless, but it gave Picard perverse joy to struggle and heap fluent curses on the four drones in the dozens of languages he spoke.

He might as well have done nothing. The drones did not react. As far as he could tell they did not care. Not about him, not about anything. They simply continued to march onwards without pause. Picard began to get the strange feeling that the Borg drones were not aware of him, other than as an item to be transported to a set destination. It was disheartening. How do you resist an enemy that is unaware of your defiance?

Then, the journey ended. With perfect, machine-like precision, the four Borg raised Picard into the air and slammed him, hard, against a large table/slab angled at 45 degrees to the vertical. Bells rang and birds sang. Picard attempted to clear his head by shaking it. He was abruptly aware that his arms and legs were both restrained by tough manacles. Cold cybernetic hands grasped his head and held it straight forwards. Mechanical clamps slid out of the slab and grasped him by the temples, holding his head immobile.

Picard was suddenly aware of a presence. A form standing beside him. A female form. Picard strained his eyes around to see. It was a Borg female, the first that the Federation had ever encountered. Like all her kind, she was more machine than person, only her torso and head was flesh. There were four heavy cables coming out of the back of her head, curving behind her to a point on her back. Alien steel-grey eyes looked down on him. She smiled, the first expression of any kind that Picard had seen on these creatures. "Who are you?" He asked.

Her voice was warm, sensual and full of the expression that the mighty voice of the collective utterly lacked. "I am the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard. I am all, the giver of direction and the bringer of order to the chaos." Well it was expressive, but not very useful. Picard knew a need to understand his enemy.

"Are you the leader of the Borg?" He asked quietly.

The Borg woman actually laughed. "No, I am the Borg." She stepped forward, reached forward with a metal hand and caressed his cheek. "I know you do not yet understand. Soon you will have the answer to all your questions." Those words sounded ominously like a threat.

The Borg woman stood back and looked up. Picard followed her gaze. What he saw nearly stopped his bionic heart. A huge multi-pronged cutting tool was manoeuvring towards his face. "Oh no." A long, ultra-thin probe extended out towards him. Towards his right eye. Closer and closer and then inside. Picard screamed. Another probe was industriously drilling its way into his right temple.

The operation lasted longer than Picard's mind could handle. He was aware of being stripped of his uniform and of mechanical apparatus being grafted onto his human form. He soon became aware of a myriad of voices, the sound of the collective mind of the Borg, in his head. Metal plates were attached to his right temple. A cable ran off of the unit on his temples, to a junction box grafted to his spine at the level of his shoulders.

After a timeless period of forgetfulness, he became aware of himself and the passage of time once again. He was dressed in grey-black body armour. The Borg surgeons/torturers stepped back and the manacles on his wrists and ankles snapped off. Now! Picard leapt up and drove his fist into the face of the nearest Borg drone and charged down the corridor. He did not know where he was going, but he would figure that out as soon as he found somewhere to hole up. At least that was what he intended. All that actually happened was that he rose to his feet and stood there. His legs persistently refused to obey his mind's frantic commands to run. The Borg woman stepped forward from where she had been watching.

"I have to apologise for subverting your motor functions, my friend, but I want to give you a chance to think." She looked at the wall opposite Picard and it became reflective, like the full-length mirrors you still found in tailor's shops. "Now, Captain, you see what we offer. Now, I ask you to join me, to bring the power of our technology to all your kind." Picard found he could still control his head and eyes. He looked himself over. Frankly, it reminded him of an old 2D video novel he once saw. What was it called? Ah yes, Frankenstein's Monster. He had cables sprouting out of his breastbone and back, attached to various cybernetic appliances. The plate on his right temple had some kind of miniature sensor. He could see with unprecedented clarity and depth. He fleetingly wondered if this was how Geordi saw the world. He could feel the added strength of cybernetic motors in his limbs. He had never felt so strong, so perfect. The voices in his head offered information and knowledge from ten thousand worlds, from thousands of civilisations. What is more, there were answers. The Borg had abolished war, suffering, and all the evils of biological existence. Every member of their society had his or her place, and was content. At first glance, it was a utopia.

On the other hand, he could feel the pressure of trillions of minds that cried orders and commands. He could see countless numbers of drones. Alive yet unaware. In truth it was a living death. This was what the Borg offered. It was not a perfect society, but mindless servitude.

Picard looked at the Borg woman. "I have nothing to add to what I have already said. Death is preferable to living in this way."

"Think about it, Jean-Luc," she purred, "our society offers the solutions to all your society's ills. We have defeated every biological enemy. Our people are able to share equally in the achievements of our society. We can give you everything you need, and overcome everything you fear."

Picard scowled at her. "At what price? To a humanoid, nothing is more important than the ability to determine his or her own destiny. The collective strips you of this. What value is there to your culture's technological and intellectual accomplishments when no one is sufficiently aware to enjoy it's results? Except you." Picard felt the dawning of knowledge. "You are less than the worst human dictator." She laughed. Picard knew his error. The person before him was not a leader, but an expression of the collective. She was the will and the drive that gave the collective it's ability to work as one. She was, as she claimed, that which brought order…

"You understand at last, Captain." She said. "You are as quick as I thought. I will enjoy sharing the fruits of the Borg's perfection with you." There was mischief sparkling in those silver eyes. "I think you will enjoy it too, eventually."

"Yes, but what do you want?" Then he knew. She wanted a mind to share the role of guiding the Collective. One to share her thoughts with. She was… lonely? "Don't answer that, I know. Please understand that I could never be part of this. To me, what you regard as the chaos of our society is the ultimate expression of freedom. We may progress slowly, but our progress is truly enjoyed. We are not parts of a machine grinding along forward, but living things striving to improve ourselves, striving for a goal that may be elusive, but is always clear."

The Borg Queen scowled. "We will discuss the philosophical consequences of the Collective later. Until then, I need the use of the technical and biographical information you have on your Starfleet colleagues and their space vehicles. Will you give them to me?" Picard shook his head. If she really understood him, she would never have even asked.

"We require this information." She declared. "It is likely that your people will foolishly attempt to resist us. This information will allow us to eliminate their resistance with minimum loss of life." She looked at him slyly. "Refusal to co-operate will simply lead to their deaths."

Picard nearly spat his response into her face. "Never. I will not betray Starfleet, and I will never join you as your counterpart at the core of this perverted collective." He looked right at her. "Frankly, my dear, I hope the fleet blows both of us into stray atoms!"

The Borg Queen's face became malevolently cold. "No-one refuses me," she snapped. Picard grinned. So he had won one small victory. The woman nodded to a drone, which stepped forward and plugged a cable into the panel on Picard's right temple. "That is unfortunate." She meant that too. There was regret in her voice. "I had hoped such a mind as filled with curiosity as yours would… but no. It does not matter." She drew herself up statuesquely. "I will have that information, once and never more Jean-Luc Picard. If you will not co-operate, I know Locutus will."

A cold sensation ran through Picard. It was hard to think, hard to feel. His mind was being subverted with his body. A terrible numbness passed over Picard. "Proceed to your interface unit, Locutus of Borg," the Queen commanded. Not with her voice. It was the voice of the Collective, a unified decision of a trillion minds, co-ordinated by one.

Picard strained and screamed. All his body did was turn away, and walk calmly towards an interface unit some distance from the Assimilation Chamber. All the while, Locutus was reviewing Starfleet's likely tactics and strategies in his mind, interfacing with the Collective to develop counter-tactics and counter-strategies. Locutus knew that his knowledge, combined with the technology of the Borg, under the direction of the Centre, the Borg Queen, would bring the joy of the collective to all. If, as Locutus of Borg slotted himself into his interface unit, a tiny core of his mind called Jean-Luc Picard struggled, gibbered and prayed for oblivion, there was no sign on the outside at all.

After a mindless period, he was walking once again the corridors of the Borg ship, accompanied by two Borg drones. The constant voices in his mind were telling him that the ship was under attack. A small party of humanoids had invaded a section of the vessel, destroying several power conduits. They were also equipped with weapons that did not fit any previous known frequency type. From the Enterprise-D? Picard dared to hope.

As he grew nearer to the site of the mini-invasion, he could hear the shriek of phaser fire, accompanied by a series of explosions. He rounded a final corner and saw Beverley, Data, Worf, and Shelby in a tight group, phasering down Borg drones as quickly as the mindless cyborgs appeared. Abruptly, Locutus knew they were no threat. The shield system was adapted to the new phaser frequencies. The Borg drones were abruptly shrugging off blasts that had cut eight of their number into scrap.

Run, Picard tried to shout out. For pity's sake run, don't let them capture you! He saw his crew see him, and recognise him. Beverley paled in horror and Shelby gasped out loud. Worf charged directly at him, his face grim and determined. Locutus' escort drones moved to intercept him. In one fluid motion, Worf unslung the large metal curve on his back, a Klingon Bat'leth sword. There were two dazzling flashes of steel, and the drones collapsed, neatly decapitated. Worf got within half a metre of Locutus and then bounced off a force field. More drones were closing in, and the boarding party's phasers were now ineffective.

"Shelby to Enterprise," the young lieutenant commander shouted. "Four for emergency beam-out!" In a flare of white, the four Starfleet officers disappeared; barely escaping the flailing weapons arms of a gaggle of Borg drones. Picard's relief was short-lived. He became aware that the Borg Cube was stationary in space. Like a gnat before a rhinoceros, the Enterprise-D hovered before it.

As several drones were detailed to repair the damage caused by the boarding party, the collective quickly sorted through the available facts. The humanoids inhabiting the primitive space vessel had shown a commendable level of adaptability and daring in launching their futile counter-offensive. It would be an optimum usage of resources to allow them one last chance to submit to assimilation before obliterating them. Locutus would be useful in this communication. As he stepped along the corridor, Picard renewed his mental struggles with the Borg conditioning controlling his every move. He would not be these monsters' mouthpiece. Nonetheless, Locutus stepped up to a circuit panel containing an audio-visual pick up and addressed the watching and listening command crew of the Enterprise.

"I am Locutus of Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile." Picard's soul was crying out in horror as he heard a toneless version of his own voice calmly parrot the words of the collective. A radio link projected the Enterprise's audio-visual signal into Locutus' mind. Picard's crew looked on in horror. Dr. Crusher, poor beloved Beverley, wore the devastated expression of one already in mourning. Only Data, with his lack of recognisable emotions, remained calm. Riker's face cleared of his initial shock and revulsion; his poker face was nearly perfect. If Locutus did not know better, he would have concluded Riker was feeling no emotions at all. The Borg continued their message of apocalypse. "Life, as you know it, has come to an end. As of this time, you exist to service Us."

Riker did not respond. For one long moment he looked at his feet, before looking up at his former captain. Locutus noted the information from the Collective. There was an anomalous energy build-up in the Enterprise's main navigation deflector. The deflector weapon! A concentrated high-amplitude energy burst in the high-nural band. The Collective quickly adapted their ship's shields to resist the obviously imminent attack as Picard wept and cursed the weakness of his will. Only an instant had passed, and Riker spoke. "Mr. Worf. Open fire."

An enormous blue-white beam of energy spat out of the Enterprise's main deflector. The beam struck the shields of the Borg ship and was dissipated harmlessly by an anti-frequency surge. The only indication of the impact was a slight dimming of the lights in the corridor as the power regulators adapted to the new power distribution. Locutus watched the humanoids look at each other in consternation, horrified by the failure of their secret weapon. When Riker ordered a cessation of the attack, Locutus spoke once again. "The memories and experiences of the human Picard have prepared us for every possible defensive strategy of which your civilisation is capable. Your resistance is hopeless, Number One."

The Borg ship's sensors confirmed that the Enterprise had, in its futile assault, immobilised itself. The collective briefly toyed with the notion of assimilating the starship here and now. No. The Enterprise could wait. On the whole, it would be more efficient to assimilate the centre of the Federation culture now and leave mopping up its space vehicles to a later time.

The communication link was severed, and, acting as one, the Collective established a path to the world known as Sol III, Terra or Earth, and departed at Warp Factor 9.6, by the humans' scale. A swift, almost childishly easy calculation, showed the Borg were approximately 45 hours 30 minutes from arriving at the capital world of the United Federation of Planets. As second calculation showed they were approximately 30 days from the eradication of that alliance's distinctive existence outside of the Collective. Locutus was detailed to an Assimilation Chamber to complete the upgrades of his pitifully inadequate limbs and senses. As that one, who was more individual than others of his race, proceeded to the commanded destination, a tiny part of his mind, all that remained of Jean-Luc Picard, begged for the mercy of the oblivion of madness or death.

Locutus lay on an assimilation array, as two Borg technicians worked at integrating the improved sensors on his right brow into his neural net processors. Another was connecting and testing the utility tool and manipulator arm that had replaced Picard's human right arm. As the work proceeded, Picard was aware of the female presence. The Borg Queen was watching approvingly as the Borg biotechnology began to erase his humanity. His body began to cool and took on a mottled grey-green colour.

The array rose up, lifting his body to the upright. A Borg drone moved behind Picard, attaching a set of cables from his left abdomen to an interface unit in the small of his back. The Queen lovingly caressed his face. "My Locutus," she breathed. "How I wish you were more than this. Well, you will be enough for aeons." She left. Picard was trapped like a fly in a cybernetic spider's web. The thought of continuing in this existence was enough to allow a part of his humanity to penetrate his body's new conditioning. A single tear ran down his cheek, which an alert drone quickly vacuumed off.

Time passed. Locutus came to full awareness in his interface chamber. Responding to the mass mind's summons, he disconnected and moved to a large newly built chamber. Locutus strode onto a premonitory over a large metal cavern. Abruptly he was surrounded by the image of space. A 3D holographic view screen, affording Locutus the capability to perceive the entirety of space around the Borg ship. Picard, too, was becoming aware after a long mindless period when his self sunk deeper and deeper into despairing insanity.

Ahead of the Borg ship, which was now moving at the equivalent of half impulse, was the distant bright red-white disc of a red dwarf star, known to the Federation as Wolf 359. In the foreground hovered several dozen Federation starships, a single Klingon K'tinga-class heavy cruiser and three B'rel-class raiders, known poetically as 'Birds of Prey.' Locutus was aware that the lead Federation starship, a Galaxy-class vessel called the USS Leslie Garth registration NCC-70985, was signalling them.

In an instant the forward area of the holographic display cleared to show the main bridge of the Leslie Garth. In the centre seat was a human named Admiral J. D. Hanson, a former associate of Captain Picard's. Locutus noted that the human was aggressive and proud. He would attack first and only fall back if pressed. That was an easy behaviour pattern to counter. As Picard cursed anew the Borg implants making him a traitor, Locutus addressed the human. "I am Locutus of Borg. I speak for the Borg. You will be assimilated. You will disarm your weapons and escort us to sector 001 to facilitate the assimilation of your technology and culture into the collective. If you attempt to intervene, we will annihilate you. Resistance is futile."

Hanson' face flushed in fury. "This Admiral Jeremiah D. Hanson of the United Federation of Planets. You are a proven hostile force at large within our borders. If you do not disarm your weapons and withdraw back to your own space immediately, we will attack you with all the deadly force available to us. And, Captain, you would be wise not to underestimate the power at our command."

A quick scan indicated none of the ships had any detectable new weaponry that could threaten the Borg vessel. Locutus decided Admiral Hanson was probably issuing a threat based on an over-confident estimation of his own tactical ability. "It is unlikely that you appreciate your situation." Locutus announced. "Your culture's defensive technology is inadequate to the task of destroying this vessel. You will surrender, unconditionally, and submit to assimilation or we will annihilate you. You have no other open courses of action. Your resistance will only serve to shorten your own existence, J. D." Locutus knew a primitive satisfaction as the human clearly raged at the insultingly familiar way the Borg addressed him. No, Picard begged, don't be provoked J. D. Run, for god's sake get your people away!

As predicted, the human responded aggressively to the insult. "All ships, fire Photon Torpedoes!" The Borg cut communications as one hundred and fifteen matter/anti-matter projectiles shot from the ships towards the Borg vessel. The Borg did not react. Locutus had already predicted this course of action, and the Borg had adapted in advance. The torpedoes struck invisible 'spires' coming off the main shields and detonated more than a kilometre away from the ship. The shields were slightly weakened in that area and there was some thermal damage to the hull, which the collective chose to ignore at this time.

The Borg cube began to advance relentlessly. A squadron of four starships, two Battle-cruisers, a light cruiser and a destroyer raced forward as the main body of the fleet moved back, trying to create a cross-fire zone. The four attacking ships strafed the cube with their phasers. The first shots were of an unexpected frequency and penetrated the shields. Several hundred cubic metres of ship exploded out into space. The collective noticed a 1% reduction in hull integrity and re-modulated the shields. The next shots were all totally deflected. One ship, an Excelsior-class starship the USS Melbourne, NCC-24389, swung across the forward port face of the cube, firing continually. The Borg targeted the vessel and activated a tractor beam. The beam connected and the ship was instantly immobilised. The other three ships came about and began to fire at the source of the tractor beam. The Borg strengthened their shields and simultaneously Locutus directed the ship away from the crossfire zone. The formation of 36 ships broke up and each ship moved to attack individually, as predicted.

The Melbourne's shield finally failed under the anti-graviton pulse in the tractor beam and the Borg activated the cutting beam, aiming for the point suggested by Locutus. The beam sliced straight through the primary hull, melting away the forward part of the saucer and collapsing the bridge area like a punctured balloon. The beam slashed directly down, through the inter-hull connecting dorsal into the engineering section, severing the power connections and reducing the entire engineering department to an airless, radioactive hell. The Borg released the tractor beam and allowed the cube's navigational deflectors to nudge the lifeless powerless hulk that had been a mighty Excelsior-class starship aside. Picard found he could only rage helplessly at the sudden death of over 500 of his fellows. Deaths which to which his knowledge had directly contributed.

Another target immediately presented itself. A Miranda-class starship, the USS Saratoga, NCC-29311, had strayed very close to the cube whilst trying to destroy the tractor beam that held the Melbourne. The Borg directed a tractor beam towards the small but powerful vessel. Almost immediately it swung away, evading the beam. Simultaneously, two Agamemnon-class destroyers raced by, loosing off a spread of photon torpedoes each. The shields shuddered but held. As the collective fired off a pair of focused plasma disruptor bolts at the fleeing destroyers, Locutus identified the evasive pattern being used by the Saratoga. With Locutus' guidance, the tractor beam smoothly locked on. There was a brief attempt to shake the lock off using a modulation of the shield frequency, but this was easily countered. As soon as the shields collapsed, Locutus targeted and fired the cutting beam, neatly slicing the starship's hull open from just behind the bridge all the way to the rear of the hull, destroying the warp and impulse engines in the process. Once again, the beam was released. The Saratoga was now permanently irrelevant.

The battle was quickly heating up. Locutus directed the tractor beam to lock onto an Ambassador-class starship and had to quickly ready the shields to handle a well co-ordinated attack from a pair of Miranda-class vessels. Abruptly the Borg ship was surrounded, and it's shields were beginning to buckle under the pressure. It was here that the collective really shone. It was possible to simultaneously engage every attacking vessel without reducing the ship's ability to deal with such damage as their weapons could cause. A blast from the cutting beam disembowelled the Ambassador-class ship, leaving her without main power. A second shot severed her port nacelle and carved a path of destruction across the primary hull, ripping open the saucer's lower hemisphere. Exit the USS Nils Baris, registry NCC-54720.

Another deadly blast from the cutting beam neatly destroyed the Klingon cruiser, slicing through the forward pod and exploding its' store of photon torpedoes. The explosion blew the pod apart and peeled the long connecting boom open like a banana. The Klingon vessel raced on blindly, slowly decelerating as its engines failed. A blast from the disruptors destroyed one of the Klingon Bird-of-Preys. The tractor beam locked onto a Agamemnon-class destroyer, while a disruptor blast punched straight through the saucer of an Oberth-class scout and smashed into its' engines reducing it instantly to a lifeless and powerless hulk. Locutus barely noticed the luckless Saratoga explode from a warp core breach.

An inverted polarity tractor beam was proving a useful weapon, compressing shield and damaging systems without causing too much damage to the hull or the crew, who would be far more useful assimilated than dead. Picard was screaming in horror, the tiny part of his self that existed was helpless in the face of what was less a battle than a technicolour massacre.

With over half their number destroyed, the starships moved away, attempting an orderly retreat and regroup. The Borg, at Locutus suggestion, concentrated their fire on the flagship, the USS Leslie Garth. A tractor beam locked on and began to drain the ship's shields. The other ships swung around to assist, and their concentrated fire penetrated the Borg shields and blew large chunks of hull into dust. Another burst severed a conduit and caused a power unit to explode. A redundant back up kicked in instantly, but the power surge caused the tractor beam to waver for a moment, releasing the starship. The Borg reduced speed and opened fire. In only ten seconds, the five attacking cruisers and destroyers had all suffered damage, and three were powerless wrecks.

As Locutus once again turned his attention to the Leslie Garth and, ignoring Picard's infinitesimal pleas, the Borg began to collect the multitude of escape pods flying nearby. The pods were brought aboard, the occupants either pacified or terminated, and the survivors processed to the ship's many large assimilation facilities. For Picard, this experience was worse than the battle. He was briefly hearing the terrified voices of Starfleet officers, crew and civilians of all ages in his head, as they were absorbed into the Borg's mass mind. Then came the sudden silence as their wills and personalities were deleted and their memories and skills incorporated into the Borg central database.

A repulsor blast swatted aside an unfortunate Constellation-class cruiser, caving in the front of its' saucer and smashing the impulse engines off their mounts and out of their exhaust apertures and into space. A long arc of fire from a cutting beam neatly sliced open the last Bird-of-Prey's engine section, causing the small Klingon warship to explode in a bright white fireball.

Now the Borg had a clear line of fire to the USS Leslie Garth. Ignoring the starship's phaser and torpedo fire, the Cube targeted the areas of weakness identified by Locutus and opened fire. Four disruptor bolts raced towards the damaged flagship. The first smashed into the rear shields, caving them in and wrecking the systems in the rear of the secondary hull. The second tore into the base of the connecting dorsal, smashing both the main impulse engines and the deuterium tanks, the third crashed into the primary hull just aft of the bridge, exploding the whole rear upper section of the saucer and instantly decapitating the fleet. Admiral J. D. Hanson died before he realised his ship was lost, but not before he realised that the thing that was all that remained of his closest friend, Jean-Luc Picard, was right. Resistance was futile. As the ship tumbled forward, the fourth blast smashed through the base of the secondary hull, ripping apart main engineering and exploding the remains through the primary deuterium tank and into space. The wreckage of the flagship joined the growing debris field that would, until it's salvage and incorporation into a future Borg vessel, be the last monument to the Federation civilisation.

The remaining eight ships began to flee in panic. More as an exercise in marksmanship than anything else, the Borg ship began to fire on them with its disruptors. One ship exploded then another. Finally, the last ships turned and attacked, a wild, uncoordinated assault, that caused some damage to the Borg vessel's hull and damaged its power system for a moment before a redundant system came on line. The Borg attacked relentlessly, knocking down five vessels in less than ten seconds. As the final ship, an Apollo-class destroyer the USS Kyushu registry NCC-65991, exploded, Locutus noted in the distance, an Oberth-class scout disappear into warp. Let them go. They would be found eventually, it was inevitable. All members of the species that made up the Federation would be assimilated or would die. To even bother to consider any other outcome was irrelevant.

The Borg busied themselves with repairing the damage the futile attempt at resistance had caused the great cube and picking up all the escape pods that were conveniently close-by. As Locutus marched back to his interface unit, the tiny core that was Jean-Luc Picard was nearly catatonic with shock. The Borg had won, and had done so largely because of what he knew and because his will was so weak. He would never forget this. He only hoped that, somehow, he would be able to avenge his colleagues. Both those who were dead, and those who had suffered a far worse fate.

There was a period of timeless mindlessness, of being part of an enormous mind, processing and expanding. Picard saw a battle on a far-distant planet with strange aliens that could blend in with rocks. He saw a huge Borg cube attacking a small inhabited world. The images were confusing and his limited awareness could not handle all the input. Eventually he was aware of the fact that the entity that had usurped his mind and body was walking out onto the holographic viewing area once more. The display snapped on and Picard cried out in horror. The only object on the anonymous starscape was a Galaxy-class starship, one he recognised. The USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D. As Picard tried to cry out a voiceless warning to his crew, Locutus became aware of a hail from the lone starship. It was something of a puzzle. What could they be attempting? What could one ship achieve that forty could not?

The forward portion of the display changed to show the Enterprise's Battle Bridge. Will Riker sat calmly in the centre seat. "This is Captain William T. Riker of the Federation starship USS Enterprise signalling the entity known as Locutus of Borg."

Locutus activated the audio-video pick up. "You may speak."

Riker sat forward in his chair. His face and posture were unreadable. "We wish to end the hostilities. I am contacting you in the desire to negotiate a truce."

Now there was a surprise. A quick review of Picard's memories concerning Riker showed that the probability of his surrendering and submitting to assimilation was so small as to be non-existent. "It is unlikely that you have any intention of negotiating in good faith," Locutus surmised. "It is far more probable that this is some form of deception." Locutus turned away from the image of Riker and was about to recommend that the Cube should proceed to Earth immediately when Riker replied.

"Come now, Locutus," he said, the tone of his voice mildly remonstrating. "If, as you claim, you have all of Captain Picard's memories and experiences, you would know that I have never lied to him. You should also implicitly trust me."

This caught Locutus' attention. This was an unexpected conversational tack and the Collective found it wanted to see exactly where this was leading. They directed Locutus to respond. The Borg faced Riker once more. "Picard trusted you." Locutus acknowledged. The core of Picard that still remained was astounded. Number One, what are you doing?

"Then trust me now. State your terms to end the hostilities." Riker sat back and awaited a response.

Locutus responded immediately. "Negotiation is irrelevant. There are no terms. You will surrender unconditionally to us and escort us to sector 001 to facilitate the assimilation of your culture and technology. Any attempt to resist us will be an exercise in futility. Your culture's defensive technology is far too primitive to defeat us. We will punish any attempt to impede our movements and actions. You will submit to assimilation or be destroyed." Riker had walked forwards during that last speech and had apparently conferred with the crewman at Ships' Operations. When he heard this last statement, he seemed a little shocked. Based on Picard's memories, Locutus decided the impression was false and misleading. The Collective began to get the nasty impression it had confidently strolled into a massive trap. A high-intensity scan confirmed that the Enterprise had no new weaponry or systems and, apart from the fact it was ready for a Starship Separation, was apparently in textbook condition.

Riker responded. "We request time to prepare our culture for assimilation."

Locutus would have snorted contemptuously if he had that sort of emotional range. Instead he simply stated what was a self-evident fact. "Preparation is irrelevant. Your culture will be assimilated as easily as Picard was. Your attempt at a delaying tactic has failed, Number One. This vessel will now proceed to Sector 001 where it will complete the assimilation of your technology and culture. If you attempt to intervene, we will annihilate you."

Riker smiled unpleasantly. "Well, take your best shot, Locutus, because we are about to do some serious intervening. Enterprise out." The image disappeared. As Locutus watched, the upper Saucer section separated from the Stardrive section and began to move forward at half impulse power. Locutus, recognising this to be Lt. Comdr. Shelby's diversionary tactic ignored the Saucer and ordered all weapons to fire on the Stardrive section. Both sections of the Enterprise opened fire, phasers and photon torpedoes detonating against the shields in quick succession. Naturally the shields held.

Locutus directed a tractor beam onto the Stardrive section. The Enterprise's shields held without significant power loss and the ship suddenly dodged, avoiding a pair of disruptor blasts. The tactics seemed illogical. The Stardrive section lacked the firepower to significantly damage the cube, and instead of attempting to do so was dancing about space, loosing off phaser blasts to no effect.

The Saucer was now only ten kilometres away from the Borg ship. Locutus was ignoring the lightly armed Saucer as an irrelevance when it suddenly fired a series of anti-matter packets from its dorsal phaser array. The packets connected with the shields and began to interact with the shields' particle matrix. One whole quarter of the image on Locutus' display was obscured. Abruptly two phaser blasts shot through the interference and the weakened shields to slam into the Borg ship's hull. The detonations were not felt where Locutus stood, nor were any significant systems damaged but the sudden penetration of their defences put the Collective into a spin. Hull integrity stood at 97%.

The Collective immediately began cycling the cube's shield frequencies in an attempt to neutralise the antimatter. Unfortunately, the antimatter was caught in the shield matrix and interfered with the shields no matter what frequency or pattern the Borg used.

The cube's sensors picked up a much smaller object moving under plasma thrusters through the anti-matter interference. Locutus directed a portion of the collective to attempt to hit the small object with a repulsor blast. The weapons began to fire and the thruster emissions disappeared. Locutus doubted that the object was destroyed and the collective went onto intruder alert.

The Stardrive section was swinging back in and the saucer section was moving away at full impulse. The Borg fired a disruptor pulse that connected with the Stardrive section to no effect. The Borg noted the new shield frequency and fired a repulsor blast that seriously weakened the Stardrive section's forward shields. The big ship dodged and a tractor beam failed to contact. The Borg noted that the evasive manoeuvres used by the two components of the Enterprise were not part of any previously encountered patterns. A part of the collective was tasked with analysing the motions. Simultaneously, the Collective managed to hit the Stardrive section with another repulsor blast. No effect, the shield modulation had changed again.

At that moment, the saucer fired all three of its phaser banks in quick succession. The phasers were of an unfamiliar frequency. Each blast hit within a few metres of the last, blowing open a section of hull and knocking out a portion of the shield grid. A redundant unit was instantly brought on line and drones were tasked with repairing those systems that could not automatically regenerate.

In recognition of the increased threat from the saucer section, the Borg directed a whole barrage at the ship. Its shields began to buckle. Locutus was suddenly aware of two intruders on the Cube: The android, Data and the Klingon, Worf. A drone that attempted to intercept was cut down in an instant by a phaser on an unknown frequency. They were just outside the holographic viewing area! Locutus was distracted and his two guards turned to face the potential threat.

The Stardrive section suddenly dived towards the shields being affected by the anti-matter packets. It loosed off a double spread of photon torpedoes, followed by a sustained series of phaser blasts. The whole cube rocked under the impact and the lights dimmed. The shields were down and there was significant damage to a large area of hull. The Stardrive section was already past the impact point and was firing a single torpedo spread and a full phaser barrage from its rear arrays. Before the collective could react, a 200m x 128m x 135m section of the cube was blasted cleanly out of the superstructure. A power unit failed. A redundant unit snapped on, but power supply was down to 88%. Hull integrity stood at 80%. Quick regeneration and repair protocols came into action. Power supply rose quickly to 93%, the hull integrity to 85%.

The Borg fired at the retreating Stardrive section, but the new shield nutation rotation prevented the disruptors from having a full effect. The next instant, the saucer fired its 'chase' torpedo launcher. There followed three phaser blasts augmented by a compression wave. The Borg were familiar with this technology, but were unprepared. The torpedoes and phaser blasts struck almost simultaneously, carving deeper into the hull breach. The holographic display corrupted and the lights dimmed briefly. Locutus heard the tiny death cries of hundreds of drones incinerated in their interface units. A data transfer unit blew out, just as Worf and Data strode into the chamber. Power levels at 70%, Hull integrity at 67%. General system efficiency was reduced by a fifth.

The Collective reeled like a stunned animal. All reactions were temporarily slowed. Two blasts from a phaser carbine III blew Locutus' escorts apart. The Klingon then rushed forward and began to grapple with Locutus. The Borg concentrated all his attention on the immediate threat. Slowly but certainly, Locutus' buzzsaw attachment moved closer and closer to Worf's neck. Data destroyed two attacking drones and then attacked Locutus, too. The collective was aware of Captain Picard's cry of triumph as Data pumped a hypospray into Locutus biological half. Locutus went off-line.

The intruders disappeared with their prize. The Borg noted the firing of impulse engines nearby. A Starfleet Model 5 shuttlecraft! The Borg noted that the small utility vessel was clear of their anti-transporter field. In a fit of pique, the Borg destroyed the shuttle with a repulsor blast, knowing Locutus would already be aboard the Enterprise. Another phaser blast sliced into the hull, but no serious damage was caused.

The Collective reviewed the tactical situation. The Borg Cube's power level was now at 83% of optimum and rising. Hull integrity had stabilised at 75%. System efficiency had recovered to optimum levels. The Enterprise's Stardrive section had sustained damage to its port warp drive nacelle and it's forward torpedo launcher. Another phaser barrage from the Stardrive section scored the cube's hull. The damage was repaired quickly, but hull integrity and power generation were still both more than 10% below optimum levels. The saucer's shields were down. The Collective fired a disruptor blast that destroyed the saucer's starboard impulse engine and knocked out its main power grid. The saucer's threat potential was now reduced by 67%.

The Collective determined that continuing the engagement carried a substantial risk that the Enterprise could seriously delay the main goal of assimilating the Federation. Additionally, the crew of the Enterprise had shown an almost unheard-of level of adaptability and aggressiveness. Priority was given to find a way of assimilating the ship and crew without loosing any of these potential assets. Reserve power was diverted to the Warp Drive, and the Borg Cube resumed its course to Earth at Warp 9.6. As the Enterprise disappeared from the rear sensors, the Borg Queen let out a cry of frustration and loss. Locutus was gone.

Locutus and Picard awoke to find a face hanging over them. "Beverly Crusher, Doctor." Locutus muttered. The collective was still part of his consciousness, but at an attenuated level that indicated he was some distance from the nearest relay station. "I am on the Enterprise."

Another voice entered his awareness: Captain Riker. "That's right," he said. "We've got a few questions to ask you."

Locutus did not even bother to reply. He rose up on the bio-bed. "Faulty reasoning. An incorrect strategy, Number One. You gravely underestimate us if you believe that this abduction is of any consequence. You have risked your ship and crew for one man. Picard would not have approved." Locutus raised his tool arm. The security officers reacted with alarm and the Borg was abruptly staring down the emitters of three phaser pistol IIs. "I mean no harm," Locutus immediately said. "I will remain here, acting as a voice for the Borg while our ship proceeds, without further delay, to assimilate your culture and technology."

Locutus knew some satisfaction as Riker looked at Crusher with a worried expression. Yes it was only a matter of time until they too would be assimilated. Until then, Locutus would perform a useful function by examining the technology of the medical bay.

A short time later, several of the senior officers of the Enterprise were in the same room as Locutus. He made a show of carefully scanning the display matrix of the vital signs monitor. He then turned to face his captors. The first being to enter in to his field of vision was Lt. Worf. "Worf, Lieutenant. Species: Klingon: a warrior race. You will be assimilated."

The Klingon scowled and stared aggressively at the Borg, parting his lips in a snarl. Naturally, Locutus was not affected by this primitive threat gesture. "The Klingon Empire will never yield," Worf predicted.

Locutus gave in to a certain primitive sense of curiosity. "Why do you resist us?" he asked. "We only desire to improve all species we encounter."

Worf grinned humourlessly. "I like my species the way it is."

Locutus was disgusted and did not bother to hide it. "A limited vision," he said. "You will be assimilated by the Borg." He turned to face the other senior crewmembers, who were facing him mutely, their faces betraying no emotion beyond certain tenseness. "You will all be assimilated by the Borg." Locutus advanced on the ship's second officer. "The android Data; a primitive machine intelligence. You will be obsolete in the new order." Locutus turned to face the human female medic, Beverly Crusher. She was much closer than he had anticipated and was reaching for his neck with a hypospray. Locutus began to raise his arm in self-defence, but it was already too late for that. There was a hiss and his consciousness faded.

Picard was aware of another mind wandering the corridors of the Collective in Locutus. It was characterised by curiosity and a passionless dedication. Not human, perhaps, but also not inhuman. Data? What could be happening? As time passed, he was increasingly aware of Data's efficient mind using the Borg implants to access the Collective. Picard knew what Data was intending. For the first time in a seeming age, he renewed his attempts to get some response from his usurped body.

Locutus came to full consciousness with a jolt, an alarm from the Collective screaming in his mind. In an instant he was aware of the situation. The Cube had reached Earth, having faced only minimal and highly ineffectual resistance. Now, however, a new threat had emerged. The Enterprise was approaching from interstellar space, and the android, Data was attempting to access the Collective's command & control systems through Locutus' up-link circuitry.

Locutus understood what he had to do. With the fluid efficiency of all of his race, he instantly raised his tool arm and directed a laser beam at the circuitry bank that connected him to Data's android mind. A human in the uniform of a security officer ran to intervene. Locutus moved his arm slightly, powered up his defensive weapons and gunned the human down with a single disruptor pulse.

Locutus immediately swung his laser back towards the interface circuitry. Before he could activate the cutting beam, however, Data seized his prosthetic arm and began to relentlessly pull it away from the junction box. Spendthrift in its terror, the Collective sent a power surge into Locutus' motor systems in a desperate attempt to overpower the android. Before this could show any results, the android added a twisting motion to his grip and ripped the tool unit out of Locutus' prosthetic. There was a brief shower of sparks as Data crushed the unit and, with a final yank, ripped it's power cables out of their sockets.

Locutus ran a damage control protocol immediately, staring at the hole in his arm with his sensors on full resolution. The Collective reeled in surprise and temporarily lost control of Locutus' main processes. The Borg simply stood there, seeming to stare stupidly at the damaged part of his arm.

Reluctantly, the Queen decided that the Enterprise and her crew had now attained to an unacceptably high threat index. With the speed of unified thought, the Cube moved away from Earth towards the starship. A tractor beam reached out and the Enterprise dodged. Instead of continuing to move away, the ship doubled back and sent a phaser barrage tearing into the Borg ship's hull. Hull integrity was down 8%; power supply was down 5%. Quick redundant systems restored the power to full capacity and the hull began to automatically regenerate.

The Cube slowed to station keeping and directed a hail of disruptor fire at the Enterprise. The ship performed a series of evasive manoeuvres that remained stubbornly outside the parameters of the information supplied by Locutus.

Suddenly the Collective was aware of several anomalous commands in their command structure. Someone was attempting to alter the command protocols to divert all power away from the weapons systems. Fortunately, the anti-virus software in the system was enough to thwart this attempt, and another attempting to shut down the primary and secondary power sources on the Cube.

All this time, the Cube and the Enterprise continued to dogfight across the heavens. It was only a matter of time, however, before the technically superior cube wore its small, primitive tormentor down. The Enterprise's shields had finally failed under a relentless hail of disruptor fire. A repulsor pulse struck the starboard nacelle, wrecking the warp coils and sending un-burnt drive plasma gushing out, knocking the ship off course. A disruptor shot struck the saucer's lower hemisphere, disabling the ship's number two phaser bank and ripping a huge burning crater in the hull.

One last time, the Enterprise swerved; dodging the Borg's attempted coup de grace. Phaser blasts and torpedoes spat towards the Borg ship, tearing apart several square kilometres of hull. Secondary explosions raced out as the starship played its' flank and rear phasers across the damaged area. As it retired it's rear torpedo launcher flared, sending ten more torpedoes into the damaged area. The Borg had already adapted. No critical system was behind the face of the Cube nearest to the Enterprise. Despite the sudden drop in hull integrity to just 66%, the great Cube's power systems were only affected to the tune of 10% of capacity.

A disruptor shot struck the Enterprise's connecting dorsal, knocking out the ship's forward torpedo launchers. As the starship reeled away, the Collective steered the cube across its path and locked on a tractor beam. Almost immediately, the Enterprise's remaining phaser banks began to fire, tearing into the hull but causing no damage to any ship's system.

Now, at last, this persistent annoyance would be deleted. The loss of Locutus was unfortunate, but in the larger scheme of things it was probably for the best. The Collective targeted a cutting beam on the ship's warp core and opened fire. The beam cut through the outer hull in an instant. It encountered an unexpected delay in the presence of an inter-hull force shield. The Collective began to cycle frequencies and increased the beam's power to penetrate the inner hull and detonate the warp core.

As Locutus hung in an abyss of inactivity, temporarily no longer under the Collective's direct guidance, Picard struggled towards some measure of control of his mutilated body. His vital signs began to race as he forced his will into gaining control of his environment one last time. The Enterprise had been snared, possibly only seconds remained to act. Desperation finally won out, and Picard raised his left hand to grasp Data's right hand and hold it.

"It's him," Deanna Troi shouted from the corner where she had been standing. "It's Captain Picard!"

"I have made contact with the Captain," Data said, his voice filled with wonder.

Picard forced his lips to move, his lungs to force air past his vocal chords, his tongue to form words. "Sleep, Data," he murmured. "Sleep."

"He's exhausted," Beverly concluded immediately.

"Yes, Doctor," Data said. "I do not believe that he is attempting to communicate his fatigue, however, but to offer a strategy." Data began to work his control console intently. "Data to Bridge, I am attempting to infiltrate the Borg ship's regeneration subroutines. These are low-priority systems and will not be as effectively protected as critical ship systems."

"Make it fast, Data," Riker replied from the Bridge. The whole room continued to shudder. The Computer began to count down the seconds before the protective force fields collapsed and the inner hull failed. Tension mounted and seconds passed like an eternity.

Picard could feel the Collective's growing sense of triumph. They were overconfident, and a little smug, an attitude which he objected to. He got as brief image of Borg Drones being prepared to scout Earth and its' orbital facilities for any especially useful items for assimilation. They began to over-charge the weapons systems in preparation for the task to stripping the planet of its technological resources. The Collective also noted that the Enterprise's warp engines were building up for full acceleration. This was a typical desperate final attempt to resist from a target species. The Borg began to divert power to their structural integrity field to minimise the damage a ramming manoeuvre would cause.

"Mister Data," Riker said. "What is your final report?"

"Stand by, sir," Data replied, as calm as if the ship was cruising in deep space rather than about to be blown apart by a marauding alien menace.

"There's no time left to stand by, Mr. Data!" Riker shouted in return. Suddenly, the shuddering of the starship ceased as the cutting beam and the tractor beam deactivated. Crusher, Troi and Chief O'Brien looked at each other in surprise and amazement. Picard noted with relief that the pressure of the Collective in his mind was eased. It was as if the nearest portion of the great mind was unconscious. Exactly as he had hoped.

"We can't be dead," O'Brien said. "Death can't be anything like this. What the hell has happened?"

"Mr. Data," Riker said, sounding calm. "Report."

"I have successfully penetrated the regenerative subroutines, Captain," the Android replied primly. "The effect was to misdirect the Collective that it was time to allow this ship and every Borg on it to go to full regenerative mode. In essence, they have all been put to sleep."

"'To sleep?'" Riker repeated slightly unbelievingly.

Within five minutes, Will Riker had joined the others in the lab, Picard felt utterly paralysed. The desperation that had enabled him to gain fleeting control of his body was gone. Locutus had followed his crewmates into a kind of comatose state. As a consequence, Picard's friends were looking at a totally immobilised Picard with some worry as Commander Shelby reported from the Borg Cube.

"Every Borg is totally inactive, Captain," Shelby was saying. "There is only minimal computer or power system activity as far as I can see. Stand by, sir." There was a pause as she conferred with one of her Away Team. "Sir, it looks like the Borg power system was being ramped up to almost overload levels for the attack on Earth. With the Collective 'asleep,' the power system has gone out of control. We are looking at a catastrophic meltdown of the entire power grid in five minutes, maybe less. Shall we attempt to stop it?"

"Will," Beverly urgently interjected. "Jean-Luc is still connected to the Collective. I can't predict the consequences to him if the Cube were to be destroyed."

"Additionally sir," Data added, "we must consider the potential benefits of a prolonged and in-depth examination of the Borg and their technology."

Riker looked thoughtful for a moment, then made his decision. "Mr Data," he said, looking at Picard's abused half-human body, "I think the potential cost far outweighs the benefits." He stood up a little straighter, regret lighting his eyes. "Disconnect yourself from the Captain. Commander Shelby, return to the Enterprise immediately. Ensign Crusher, set a course radially away from the Borg ship. Engage at full impulse power as soon as the Away Team is aboard." Riker turned to Dr. Crusher, who was looking at him in mute accusation. "The chance of the Borg becoming active again is just too great, Doctor. I'm sorry."

The Enterprise swept away from the Cube as massive explosions tore through its structure. Huge green-tinted pyres of flame ripped through the chaotically assembled hull and into space. For a long moment, the Cube held its basic shape as it explosions tore through it. Then, with one final immense detonation it blew apart, sending building-sized lumps of wreckage tumbling through the night.

The Collective screamed in agony as a portion of its' self was torn apart. Locutus' tensed all over and bent double as his systems were forcibly disconnected from the Collective. The Borg's power system failed. Sensors and servos fused and the organic portion of his body staggered with sudden weakness. Disused organs suddenly fired back to life. A tiny part of the Borg tried to activate a redundant self-destruct system, but it was too late. Cut off from the Collective and designed for semi-autominous action, Locutus was unable to complete the operation before it ceased to function. Awareness collapsed, motor functions failed.

The pale form in the upright examination chamber staggered, suddenly jerked like an epileptic, then relaxed, almost falling to the floor. The whine of Borg implants faded, replaced by tortured, agonised breaths from a human. Picard held on tight to the railing of the enclosure, using the suddenly inactive prosthetic as a prop against the wall. There was a long pause as Picard concentrated on willing his heart to beat, his lungs to draw breath and the myriad autonomous systems of his body to keep functioning despite the withdrawal of the cybernetic assistance that they had relied upon for five nightmarish days.

Will Riker helped him to stand upright, then opened the gate of the examination chamber to let him out. "You'll make it Jean-Luc," Beverly said, finishing her examination and pocketing her tricorder. She paused, embarrassed, then darted forward to give him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.

"How do you feel, Captain?" Deanna asked, genuine concern visible in her black eyes. No doubt, Picard thought, I'm going to spend quite a bit of time with you over the next few weeks, Counsellor. Picard replied cautiously, how strange it was to have a voice again. "Feel, Counsellor? I feel almost human," he said, grimly looking at his prosthetic arm with its cruel pincers and disruptor gun before continuing with a wry smile: "with just a hint of a headache. And a definite longing for a good cup of tea."

Beverly smiled and took him by his human hand. "Come on," she said, "let's get to sickbay. Now those implants are inactive, there'll be no problem getting them out of you."

"How much do you remember, sir?" Riker suddenly asked, his expression concerned.

Picard looked up, his eyes haunted, his voice filled with pain and terror. "Remember?" he said quietly. "I remember everything. Including," he added with a wry smile to Captain William Riker of the USS Enterprise, "some brilliantly unorthodox tactics from a former first officer of mine, who has made a damn fine starship captain."

Riker grinned a little at that and Picard let Beverley lead him towards sickbay.

Six hours later, Picard was in his ready room. No-where could have been more welcoming. He was sipping Earl Grey tea and examining a PADD that carried the full damage report. It made frightening reading, two massive hull breaches, one of the Saucer's impulse engines shot off and damage to hundreds, if not thousands, of ship systems that ranged from reduced operating efficiency to having been blown cleanly out of existence.

Picard himself felt as battered as the Enterprise was. The first stage of the surgery was now complete. All the prosthetic implants in his limbs, senses and organs had been removed. Nerve links had been reattached and he was just beginning to feel human again. One thing, however was definitely different. His right lower arm was gone; the Borg had totally amputated it to make way for the prosthetic. Beverly had airily assured him that a force-cloned arm would be ready for grafting within a day and he wouldn't notice the difference. Frankly, it was too permanent a reminder for his liking.

The door chimes interrupted these less than welcome thoughts. Picard called for his visitor to enter. It was Captain Riker. "The ship is ready to manoeuvre, sir," his former first officer announced. "I have set a course for Earth Station McKinley. Starfleet has scheduled us for repair and a full refit."

"What is the anticipated repair time?" Picard asked in a distracted tone.

"Between six and eight weeks, sir," he said. Picard looked up in amazement. In this age of replicators and using transporters to swap out entire sections of a ship without even the need of a dry-dock, such a lengthy lay-up for repairs was nearly unheard of. This was final proof of the deep wounds the mighty starship had suffered at the hands of the Borg.

After a few moments of silence the door chimes sounded again. It was Commander Elizabeth Shelby. She faced Riker. "Permission to disembark, Captain?" she asked formally. Riker smiled warmly and directed a significant glance at Captain Picard. She grinned unrepentantly, then looked at Picard. "Captain?"

"Granted Commander," Picard replied warmly. "I have no doubt you'll make a fine officer for the recovery task force."

Shelby straightened in pride. "We will have the fleet back at full strength in eighteen months, sir," she assured him. She cocked her head at Riker, her smile lovely. "I'm sure you will have your choice of any command in the fleet, sir," she said admiringly.

"Everyone seems so interested in my next job," Riker said, feigning annoyance. "Well with all due respect, Commander and Captain, the next step in my career is my business, no-one else's."

Shelby shrugged airily. "Whatever," she said. "In any case, I hope I have the privilege to serve with you again, sir."

Picard smiled at last. He relaxed back into his chair as the two younger officers exchanged good-natured banter. He was glad that Will had decided to stay on as his first officer. Frankly, Picard was uncertain of his own strength and moral integrity after the Borg had turned him so easily. He needed a strong man to keep him up. "Number One," he announced. "You mentioned that the course to McKinley Station is laid in. If you please, engage at one-quarter impulse power."

Riker nodded to his captain and walked out, Shelby a moment behind him. In seconds, Picard could see the movement in the star field through his ready room's window. After a moment he walked to the window and looked out over the Enterprise's scarred saucer. Beyond the saucer hung Earth, beautiful, blue and intact. He knew only too well how close that blue-green jewel had come to being turned grey, poisoned and tarnished for all time. They came too close he thought. How long do we have? How long do I have before I must face them again?

As if in answer, across tens of thousands of light years he heard an elusive feminine whisper, carrying with it the vague memory of the cold touch of metallic hands against his face. Locutus whispered the voice. You will always be part of us now. Picard's eyes closed in terror. With an effort he opened them and drank in the sight of his beautiful and hideously vulnerable homeworld once more. He knew that nothing would ever be the same for anyone in the Federation ever again.

Not the end. Nor the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning…