The hallway surrounding Janeway was so dimly lit that she couldn’t tell if it was composed of steel or granite, but it was definitely a dark shade of gray. The hall was nondescript. Plain. Empty. Absolutely void of any décor or ornamentation. Absolutely featureless. She sniffed, and a pervasive dampness filled her nostrils. Lying on the gliding antigravity trolley, she noticed Senator Packell marching along her right side while Cole kept pace on her left.
"Cole," she tried, breaking the silence, "answer me this: you were part of the Collective, weren't you?"
"The Grand Hall is a place sacred to the One," the Borg warned, not looking down at her. "Inductees are to remain silent."
Lifting her head slightly, she spat, "You can answer me, or I’ll make enough noise to have you thrown off this wet rock!"
Coughing and clearing his throat, Packell stifled a laugh. Quickly, he snuck a glance at the captive Janeway, and she noticed his innocent smirk.
"We are on the planet Besaria. This is Besaria City. The Collective is irrelevant," Cole finally indulged the captain.
"That isn’t what I asked."
"Repeat the inquiry."
"You were part of the Collective, weren’t you?"
They continued marching in silence down the seemingly endless hallway. After an inexorable pause, Cole retorted, "I served the Collective briefly."
Again, the Borg grew silent. She could sense – like before on Voyager’s Bridge when Tuvok offered himself up for assimilation – that Cole was struggling with forces internally.
"On Besaria," he explained, "the Collective is irrelevant. Here, only the One matters. As you will no doubt soon learn the One disciplines. The One rules. As is the law, the all shall serve the One." Glaring down at her, his eyepiece buzzing as it completed a full revolution, he asked, "Do you understand, Janeway?"
"Who is this One?"
His face lost all expression as he turned away. "Remain silent, ambassador. You will know shortly."
Finally, they reached the end of the long tunnel. There, a massive stone doorway parted, grinding loudly against the floor. The sound echoed back at them, and Janeway winced as its volume pierced her ears.
Suddenly, the once dark hallway flooded with brilliant light, and Kathryn Janeway found herself whisked on the gravity pad into a massive, cathedral-style chamber. Grand, sweeping arches carved in brown stone peppered with gray specks reached from the floor to the ceiling. She followed their lines, looking up to find the tops of the walls lined with hundreds of geometrical, slightly opaque glass. The plates were lit from behind, the source of the Grand Hall’s beige luster. Although the room’s walls were adorned with intricate markings carved directly into stone, she was surprised to once again find the Grand Hall lacking in the exquisite color or regal detail that would’ve befitted such a place. Stretching before her lay row after row of meticulously carved wooden benches, resembling the pews of almost any denomination’s church back on her native planet Earth. The benches were occupied by a variety of alien races, species she had never seen before, and they were dressed obviously in their respective culture’s ceremonial garb. All sizes. All shapes. All colors.
Could there be that many races in the Delta Quadrant that the Voyager and her crew hadn’t, in some adventure, discovered?
She could only suppose that there was.
Some of the ambassadors had many limbs. Some had the traditional two. Yet, in awe, she noticed that all of the delegates shared one distinct feature.
A Borg prosthetic limb where a right arm once was.
"Ambassador," Packell announced loud enough for all of those around him to hear, "I want to be the first to welcome you to the Quorum of the One."
The Quorum watched as she passed on her gravity sled, paying their respects to the new member. Each delegate curiously pressed forward or bobbed his or her head to snatch a quick glance at the passing Federation captain, their latest inductee. As the trio moved deeper into the room, Janeway noticed that the lingering headache of the Borg-induced sedative was fading, and, squinting in the direction they were headed, she made out an elevated platform at the end of the massive room.
On the dais stood a polished, silver throne.
On the throne sat a Borg.
This drone was much larger than Cole. In fact, Janeway had never seen a Borg that large. Although he was seated, she guessed that he must’ve stood over eight feet tall. His prosthetics, his wiring, his armor were all somehow more sleek than traditional drones. There was an irregular smoothness to his features that gave his appearance a touch of … cleanliness? Slowly, he stood, his movements graceful with an elegance she had never seen before in the Borg. Now, Janeway could freely tell that he stood, at least, three foot taller than any other drone she had encountered. His armor glistened under the bright lights. As she neared him, she saw that he had fewer attachments and mechanical adornments common to most drones. His exterior reminded her more of starship plating than it did Borg armor. His coloring was deeper, a rich charcoal, uniquely void of the sharp edges, metal attachments, and fragmented tubing that comprised most drone bodies.
Unlike anything she had ever seen, the drone’s body was mechanical poetry given life.
The antigravity sled stopped.
The Quorum sat, as if on command.
Graciously, gentlemanly, Packell turned and extended a hand to her. Effortlessly, she took it and rose from the glider, standing before the throng.
In unison, the crowd chanted, "The all shall serve the One!"
His movement fluid, the Borg giant stepped closer and studied emotionlessly the shape of Kathryn Janeway.
Then, he smiled.
His voice projecting throughout the chamber, the One asked, "What offering have you brought me today, Commander Cole?"
Succinctly, the drone replied, "Species 5618."
"Yes," Cole answered.
"Here?" he pressed. "In – what do you call it – the Delta Quadrant?"
Janeway started to speak, but Packell quickly raised a hand to her, gesturing for her to remain silent.
"Affirmative," the drone answered.
Considering her, tracing her shape with his biologic eye, the One asked, "Designation?"
Glancing briefly at her, Cole replied, "Kathryn Janeway."
"It was my understanding that Species 5618 was virtually non-existent on this side of the galaxy, Commander Cole."
"Your Highness," Packell interrupted, taking a slight step forward, "may the ambassador speak for herself and explain what she and her crew are doing so far from her homeworld?"
Seething, the One threw his head to one side. He refused to take his eyes of the captain, visibly establishing his dominance over her.
"She had better not try my patience, Packell," the ruler finally answered.
Swallowing, Janeway looked to the Trakill Senator. He nodded back at her, and she explained, "My ship was brought to the Delta Quadrant by a weapon we had no means to defend ourselves against."
"When?" the One demanded.
"Just over five years ago," she said. "We immediately set a course for home, and we’ve been making our way – peaceably – toward the Alpha Quadrant ever since."
She studied the tall Borg before she added, "That’s correct."
The ruler stepped forward, still glaring down at her. Was it her imagination, or did his movements sound almost … liquid? The One considered her size and shape for several long moments, studying her form from head to toe with great interest, and he smiled again.
"Then," he announced, "allow me to welcome you to your final destination, ambassador."
Quickly, she asked, "You are the One?"
"What's to happen to Voyager?" she asked.
"That ship no longer concerns you."
"I'm her captain."
"You no longer serve the Voyager, I believe you call it," he explained, ignoring her interests. "To the contrary, that ship will now serve me and my Foundation." Stepping to the edge of the dais, he added, "You, as well, will serve me. On Besaria, the all serve the One."
With that, the One's form …
His outline lost cohesion for a moment, and he took on an odd, unequal radiance ... a flickering golden glow not unlike ripples in a molten pond. He lost all natural shape, melting before Janeway's eyes. The gold dribbled downward, trickling toward the floor, and then suddenly it gurgled into a glistening puddle that spilled easily over the edge of the elevated platform, crawling across the stones and stopping before her. Then, just as abruptly, the sparkling liquid blended, stirred, morphed, whirled, and finally sprang upward, took on a new color scheme, and found perfect unity in the shape of ...
"Yes," the One said, his voice sounding as if it belonged to the captain, "I can understand why so many of your kind find this form so appealing. It's relatively ... simple, but frail."
Aghast, Janeway pointed accusingly at the alternate version of herself standing within arm’s reach.
"You," she said, "you're a shapeshifter."
Cocking her head, the One replied, "That term is unfamiliar with me. Explain the origin."
Deliberately, the captain lowered her arm. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
"Pity," he taunted, again studying Janeway’s shape. "For a frame so delicate, you're rather stoic."
"I might surprise you."
"Let us all hope so."
Suddenly, the alternate Janeway blended and spun and morphed back into a golden column that leapt back up to the raised platform, the One returning to the favored guise of a Borg overlord. "Now this shape, on the other hand, commands respect. It’s intimidating in its ragged outline. It demands allegiance."
"I've already sworn my allegiance to you," she retorted, "if that's what you're implying."
Stepping forward, the drone offered, "She swore allegiance under my witness."
"And what of her crew?"
"A Federation captain speaks on behalf of her crew."
For the first time, the One took his gaze away from Janeway and planted it on the Borg drone. "Is that so?"
Cole didn’t answer.
"I’ll take your word that a Starfleet captain speak on behalf of those she represents, commander," the One cooed, an obvious challenge in his tone. "If that is the case, then the ambassador should have no difficulty repeating her pledge here, where it can be celebrated by those who have also sworn the service of their respective races to the One."
Cautiously, Janeway cautiously looked around the Grand Hall. Although she wasn't familiar with these species, she could reasonably assume, by their long faces, that there were few intelligent lifeforms here of their own volition. Even Packell had lowered his head out of deference to the One.
In defiance and on their collective behalf, she challenged, "I've said it once. I see no reason for me to repeat myself."
Slowly, the One laughed. Stepping backward until his legs met with his throne, he reclined, comfortably crossing his legs. "Ambassador," he began, his tone civil, "you will do as I say, and I am ordering you to repeat the pledge for all of these senators to bare witness."
Simply, Janeway replied, "You heard what Commander Cole said. I’ve already sworn my allegiance to you. In doing so, I’ve sworn the allegiance of my crew. I think these senators understand and appreciate my position. I’ll not repeat myself."
"Ambassador Janeway," the One chimed, shifting in his chair, "allow me to underscore the finer points I'm quite certain these Borg failed to explain to you and your crew. This cybernetic army? They serve me. They enforce my law. On Besaria, there is a single law that defines the entire Foundation, and it is this: the all shall serve the One.
"You and your crew constitute only one single component of the all," he continued, placing his hand firmly on the armrest. "I, on the other hand, constitute the only component of the One. Thus, you and your crew shall serve me. These people?" He gestured with his Borg prosthetic toward the seated Quorum. "These races surrounding you? These senators that you know nothing about but choose to defy me before their very eyes? They serve me, as well. As a consequence, their respective races have been spared. Every man, every woman, every child on this planet serves me with unerring devotion and obedience. As I said, it is the only core principle of my Foundation.
"Now, as the captain of your species, you will be granted ambassadorship to the Quorum of the One. This body. The members of your crew, however, shall become Lemms. The Lemms are our worker class, and I give you my assurance: they are expendable. Lemm Society is comprised of all of the species you see represented here. Ambassador, there are one hundred and twenty-seven species living under my rule, to be exact. The Quorum, therefore, consists of one hundred and twenty-seven ambassadors. Should you pass your ambassadorial training with Senator Packell, then you will become the one hundred and twenty-eighth member, with all rights and privileges thereof. Once your species is inducted into the Foundation, there is no decommission. Service to the One is for life."
Relaxing, he tapped the arms of his throne. "So, in short, when I ask for you to pledge your allegiance to me in front of this Quorum, you will do it, without question, without restraint, without hesitation … or your crew will die as a result."
He pointed at her. "As I speak, your crew is being assigned the proper positions of servitude within Lemm Society, based on their skills and knowledge. Should you disobey my order to repeat your oath of celibacy here, in this chamber, I will gladly stop your crew dissemination in favor of their execution for your insolence." Smiling, he added, "Extinction is, after all, the way of the universe. Species who defy the One have no place in the Foundation. Consequently, they’re eliminated from the universe."
Finished, he sat back in his throne, glancing around the room. "The choice is yours … ambassador."
Biting her lip, Janeway spat, "You're mad."
"And you're wasting my time."
"If you harm one member of my crew, I’ll –"
Bellowing, the One shouted, "Cole, have her crew brought here at once!"
"No!" Janeway shouted, reaching out and placing a hand on the Borg drone near her.
"Then … you have your order."
Quietly, she glanced around at the solemn faces that made up the Quorum. She found no friends here. No allies.
"On behalf of myself and the crew of the Starship Voyager," she began, "I pledge my allegiance to the One."
A silence fell over the chamber.
"The all shall serve the One," she said.
The One nodded. "How pithy."
Infuriated, she shot him a glance that she hoped he wouldn’t forget anytime soon.
"Fix her, Cole."
To her surprise, Janeway felt the Borg tubule kiss the back of her neck.
Once more, she slumped into unconsciousness.