by E. L. Zimmerman
"What you’re hypothesizing," Janeway began, raising a finger to her chin, "could result in our risking an incredible gamble with this ship and the lives of every crewman on board."
Glancing around at the faces gathered on Voyager’s Bridge, Tuvok nodded back at them collectively. "Agreed, captain," he replied, again turning his attention momentarily to the colorful tactical screens before him. "But the theory is undeniably logical." He quieted a persistent sensor alarm with the touch of a fingertip. Looking up, he added, "If you will, I’ll expand on the supposition."
"We first encountered the Borg Sphere four-point-three minutes ago," he explained crisply. "Our response was immediate, if not predictable. We engaged warp engines, and the Sphere reacted similarly. Since detection, Voyager has maintained warp seven, and the Sphere has held at warp seven-point-one-five. First: while we know the Borg to possess a propulsion system greatly superior to our own, this Sphere has yet to counter with increased speed. Second: it has yet to activate any of its weaponry against us. Third: previous Borg ships we’ve encountered have utilized maneuvers to strategically coerce us into altering course, herding us into territories where they would have a tactical advantage. As a matter of fact, on one occasion the Borg forced us to grant a wide berth to a sector of space inhabited by Species 8472." The Vulcan pointed at the main viewer. "This Sphere has made no such attempt. Lastly: as Mr. Paris has already agreed, this ship appears only interested in following us, giving no outward indication of a desire or intent to capture and assimilate this crew."
"Tuvok, what else could they possibly want?"
"My apologies, captain," he answered politely, "but I must remind you that I lack sufficient evidence to support any other speculation."
"Speculation? I don’t like that word, lieutenant." Chakotay pointed at the main viewer. "I want to be certain that I understand you." He took a deep breath. "You’re saying that it is your personal belief that this Sphere may not be answering to the Collective based on the fact that its behavior doesn’t match our previous encounters with the Borg?"
Calmly, the Vulcan shifted slowly behind his console. He understood, perhaps far better than anyone else, how outlandish the theory sounded, but, ever logical, he couldn’t deny the obvious any longer. "On the contrary, commander. This Sphere’s behavior is almost diametrically opposed to every tactical response we’ve come to expect from the Borg."
"In what way is it similar?"
Simply, Tuvok stated, "They are in pursuit."
Reaching out, Janeway placed her hand on Chakotay’s arm, lowering it. "Easy, Chakotay. Let’s not waste our energies debating one another. We’re going to need every ounce of our resolve should Tuvok’s theory end up being nothing more than that: it’s only a theory."
Struggling with her next command decision, she returned to the main viewer. There, the question, the puzzle, the riddle hung on the screen before her. A Borg Sphere. Scout class. Not so much a ship as it was a lethal menace. Not so much a menace as it was a mortal enemy. Not so much an enemy as it was an end to existence as she knew it.
She couldn’t suppress the gnawing, pervasive gut instinct that everything Tuvok had said felt correct. She trusted his Vulcan ‘guesses’ like she did no other member of her crew, but was this risk worth the possible fate?
"It still isn’t enough," she finally announced. "If whoever is on board that Sphere doesn’t want to assimilate us, then what do they want?"
Not surprisingly, it was only Tuvok who spoke. "Unknown, captain."
From the Sciences Station, Ishanti announced, "Two and one-half minutes to intercept, captain."
Curtly, Janeway tapped her comm badge. "Bridge to Engineering."
"Torres here, captain."
Shaking her head grimly, Janeway stated, "B’Elanna, I need an update, and I need it now. Please tell me that you have good news."
"We do, captain. We’ll have you to warp eight in three minutes."
She brought a hand to her forehead, covering her eyes. One of the infamous command migraines Chakotay teased her about privately was setting in, but now wasn’t the time for a personal visit to Sickbay. "B’Elanna, I appreciate all that you and your crew have done, but we don’t have three minutes."
"Captain, we’re working as fast as we can," the chief engineer argued, defending the tireless efforts of her staff. "Three minutes is the absolute best that we can do."
Swallowing, the captain dropped her hand to her side.
"I only expect your best," she replied encouragingly. "Get to it. Give me a report when you’re ready. Bridge out."
The Borg Sphere couldn’t possible appear any larger on the viewscreen.
"All right, people," she announced, clapping her hands together for effect and to relieve the tightening of her shoulder muscles. "Compliments of Mr. Tuvok, we have a working theory. Considering the years of faithful service to us all, I for one am certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that the Sphere isn’t under control of the Borg. Now, what we need to do is test this theory, and – "
From the helm, Tom suddenly exclaimed, "Captain!"
Turning, she considered him. "Lieutenant?"
"Ma’am, for the record, I’m siding with Tuvok on this one," he explained, turning his chair to face the commanding officer. "You might think that we’ve both lost our senses, but it won’t be the first time I’ve been called brash and impulsive. I think I know how to test his theory."
Tersely, smiling, he said, "Open fire on them."
"At this speed," he began, his attention diverted back to his console, "they’re on course to intercept us in two minutes. We already know that we won’t simply match our speed?" He tapped a few keys, prepping the commands to send Voyager to maximum warp once B’Elanna signaled core readiness. "Let’s assume, for a moment, that the crew of that Sphere does have propulsion control, but they’ve chosen not to overtake us. Who knows? Maybe they’re studying us. Maybe they’re monitoring us by authority of the Collective. While it doesn’t exactly support Tuvok’s theory, what has a single photon torpedo fired at point blank range got to lose?"
Quietly, she ran her eyes across every crewmember on the Bridge. Tom. Ishanti. Harry. Tuvok. Finally, Chakotay.
"Zero Option," he said.
"What’s that, commander?" she asked, smiling.
He grinned back at her. "A paper I did at the Academy," Chakotay confessed, resting his hands at his side. "Professor Hans Quigg and I had an ongoing debate about whether the Kobayashi Maru simulation was a fair test of command ability. He thought it was. I thought that it wasn’t." Turning, he glanced at the Borg Sphere. "In the simulation, you’re presented a situation that naturally has multiple alternatives, various courses of action. Whatever choice you make, based on the data available, ultimately helps the computer determine how the simulation will play itself out." He sighed, grinning at his captain. "My argument with Admiral Quigg was that, in space, reality tends to offer fewer variables. It’s more black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun." Slowly, he moved away from the helm and back toward his chair at the conn. "Tom may be right, captain. When you’re staring down the armed torpedo tubes of an attacking Klingon Bird of Prey, you have only two choices: fight or die."
She smirked back at him. "Life or death?"
He nodded. "Precisely."
"Captain," Tuvok interrupted, "I agree with Commander Chakotay and Mr. Paris. Based on the available data, defense appears to be our only option."
"Harry?" she asked.
"I concur, ma’am."
Suddenly, the Security console pinged. The Vulcan glanced down at the ship’s scanners, and then he turned his attention to the main viewer. "Captain," he said quickly, "I respectfully withdraw my opinion."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The Sphere," Tuvok explained. He answered the Security alarm by punching several buttons. His display morphed, and he read the data scrolling across the faceplate.
"What about it?"
"It has abandoned pursuit. It has dropped out of warp."
Unconvinced, she demanded, "What?"
He tapped a few keys, retrieving a secondary stream of information to compare to his first sensor sweep. The computer chirped in the affirmative. "The Sphere has re-engaged warp engines, but its trajectory has been altered radically."
"Where is it going?" she asked.
Glancing up at the Bridge’s viewscreen, he answered, "It’s heading back in the direction of the nebula."
With a curious expression of hopefulness and confusion, Janeway met Chakotay’s eyes. She asked, "Could it be that simple?"
Frowning back at her, he cautioned, "It never is."
It made as much sense as Neelix’s recipes did to the ship’s replicators. The crew of the Voyager had been taken from the brink of despair to the edge of confusion, all within a matter of minutes, and now Janeway had no theories to fall back upon.
Now, it was pure guesswork.
"Tom, take us out of warp," she ordered.
"Surrender your post to Ensign Arelldo."
"I want you in Sickbay," she explained, returning to her post at the conn and sitting down. "Unfortunately, we had no idea of what was out there, and now we have even less. If whoever is at the controls of that ship changes his mind and doubles back on us, we’re not going to have enough time to mount a suitable defense … at least, not one that’ll give us common ground against a fully armed Borg Sphere." She glanced at her helmsman, saw his hurt expression, and she smiled almost maternally at him. "We’ll draw casualties, and that means the Doctor will have need of your assistance."
Inclined to argue about who was the better pilot and whom Janeway would want at the helm in the event of a Borg attack, Tom opened his mouth to speak. Then, he thought better of unintentionally damaging the ensign’s self esteem in front of the rest of the Bridge crew. Rising, he conceded, "Aye, captain," and nodded to Ishanti. Quickly, the ensign rose from the Sciences Station and walked stiffly to the helm. Marching toward the turbolift, Tom added, "I’ll be in Sickbay if I’m needed," and disappeared into the vestibule.
The doors closed, and he vanished from the Bridge.
Finally, Tuvok’s console broke the brief calm. The Vulcan confirmed the alarm, his eyes drawn to the defense screen before him. Expertly, he tapped a key, activating a broadband sensor sweep, and announced, "Captain?"
"Sir, sensors are detecting … a debris field off our port side."
As the impulses from the sensors were received, processed, configured, and filtered by Voyager’s computer core, they were translated and broadcast into recognizable display information. On his primary screen, Tuvok watched as the size of the mysterious field grew and grew. Not taking his eyes off the data scrolling across his console, he reported, "Confirmed. I am detecting a massive collection of wreckage to port. I strongly recommend all stop."
Janeway faced the helm. "Ensign, all stop."
"Aye," Ishanti replied curtly. Immediately, she blanked Tom’s warp commands from the drive queue and, instead, punched the sequence into the helm console that would bring Voyager to a complete standstill. Beneath her feet, she sensed the quivering change to the ship’s propulsion. Ishanti checked her own instruments before affirming, "Reading all stop, ma’am."
"Mr. Tuvok," Chakotay began, approaching the Tactical Station, "how is it that, in the middle of a ship-wide emergency, our sensors failed to register a debris field?"
"Harry," Janeway said, "I have the distinct feeling that we’ve been led to the slaughter. Divert any auxiliary power to the defensive shields! Now!"
Following her orders, Harry nodded, touching the shield support activation queues. "Aye, captain."
Studying the scrolling data, Tuvok directed Chakotay to the Tactical Station’s primary monitor. "There appears to be a large influx of particles I’ve yet to see catalogued by either this ship or all of Starfleet Sciences. Perhaps they served as a cloak."
Tapping her comm badge, Janeway said, "Bridge to Seven of Nine."
The comm circuit chirped. "Seven here, captain."
"Are you in Astrometrics?"
"Take a look outside. Tell me what you make of it."
Glancing at the Vulcan officer, Chakotay asked, "When were the sensors last calibrated?"
"They were attuned at the start of this duty shift," Tuvok explained. "I completed the diagnostic myself. I found nothing unusual in the results."
From her chair, Janeway ordered, "Put the debris field onscreen."
Before her eyes, the starfield vanished. As quickly, Tuvok replaced the image with the scene of drifting space debris.
"Oh, my," the captain muttered in awe.
Hundreds upon hundreds … perhaps thousands upon thousands … of jagged and charred pieces of starships floated before her, spiraling at a rate barely perceptible to the naked eye. To her dismay, Janeway searched the field for signs of life … a space-suited survivor jetting between the wreckage … the glimpse of a whole ship parked and waiting … but she found no hope in the heart-tugging lifelessness. The wreckage stretched on forever, appearing to be without end. The view reminded her of the Starfleet Intelligence images she had reviewed of the Federation’s first stand against the Borg in the Battle of Wolf 359 … only this destruction was far worse.
"Oh, my," she repeated, rising and taking a few steps toward the viewscreen. "This must have been the site of one, bloody battle."
"It’s a good thing we didn’t come along earlier, captain," Ishanti offered.
"Negative," Tuvok announced from his post after rechecking his sensor data. "While these readings are inconclusive, I have isolated scans of several dozen individual pieces within the field itself. There are residual traces of weapons’ fire signatures, but they are widely varied. I would estimate that to imply that we are not seeing the aftermath of any single battle." He glanced up at the main viewer, pointing toward the debris. "Rather, this is the aftermath of many battles. Based on the scans, I have determined that a portion of the wreckage is relatively recent, but the majority of these remains are several years old. It appears as if these remains have been stored here for quite some time."
To everyone’s surprise, the comm system chirped again.
"Seven of Nine to Bridge."
"Go ahead," Janeway replied.
"Captain," the former Borg drone announced, "I have been following your dialogue, and I believe I have an explanation for the reason as to why the debris field was not detected until last moment. This sector of space is showing massive fluctuations of radiant Grembion particles. To my knowledge, Grembions exist only in the farthest reaches of the Delta Quadrant, where Species 828 utilize them to generate weapons and cloaking technology."
"Cloaking technology?" Chakotay asked quizzically. "What purpose would a cloak serve on a galactic junkyard?"
"Perhaps whatever race maintains the field is a scavenger breed protecting their bounty," Tuvok theorized aloud. "Or, perhaps they are simply collectors of such refuse."
Over the comm system, Seven interrupted the Vulcan, "Captain, I strongly advise caution. Grembions are not found naturally in space. Nor are they found within any planetary system that the Borg have classified. They are the product of manufacture from a Grembionic Generator." She paused, considering what would be efficient to say next. "As we have happened across this debris field, that can only mean that someone in close proximity has disabled the Grembionic Generator, thus deactivating the cloak."
The Tactical Station pinged with alerts. "Captain, particles existing in the phaser burns on isolated pieces of the debris are consistent with the Grembions identified by Seven of Nine," Tuvok declared. He tapped a few keys, retrieving a broader spectrum of information for his review. "Furthermore," he said, "while the debris field cloak is clearly disengaged, I am detecting a what clearly appears to be a Grembionic surge escalating exponentially."
A mobile cloak?
‘A cloaked ship!’ she realized.
Quickly, she returned to her command chair. "Where?"
"Disturbing," he announced. "The surge has altered course and is approaching our starboard bow."
Quickly, Chakotay glanced toward the conn. "Captain, that may well be an entire cloaked fleet!"
Whirling toward the helm, Janeway shouted, "Ishanti, get us out of here! Maximum warp!"
But it was too late.