The Grand Hall was deserted of senators.
A long table adorned with tall, silver bowls of various delicacies, mostly Besarian fruits, rested near the edge of the One's raised platform. Was it her imagination, or had the lighting in the massive chamber been ... romantically dimmed?
‘He can’t be serious,’ she thought.
The table had two massive silver chairs, one at each end. His Highness had already chosen an open seat, furthest away.
"We're dining alone?" she asked curiously.
"That we are," he answered.
Glancing coyly over her shoulder at the Iajohhn, she asked, "You mean … Senator Cytal won’t be joining us?"
"Knowing the senator," the One began, "I’m quite certain that he has previous engagements. Your attaché will be along at the end of our meal to escort you back to your quarters, ambassador. You need not worry about getting lost in the winding corridors of Talesee Palace."
"Why, Your Highness. I didn't realize you cared."
"We have issues to discuss, ambassador."
"I’m sure we do," she replied.
"Thank you, Cytal," the One stated.
"The all shall serve the One," the senator said, turning, and he exited the chamber, pulling the doors closed behind him.
Pointing toward the open chair, the shapeshifter ordered, "Be seated."
She frowned at him, placing her hand on her hip. "Your Highness, it's an Earth custom to be asked to the captain’s table."
The One smiled. "Ambassador, as you well know, we're not on Earth, and this isn’t any captain’s table." Casually, he leaned back, considering her in her uniform. She wasn’t certain, but she thought he was studying her feminine frame, as he had earlier when she had marched into the Grand Hall wearing only a sheet. "On Besaria, you would be wise to follow my orders. This is not a recommendation. It is a statement of fact."
"That sounds like a threat," she observed.
"I’ve no need to threaten you or any member of the Quorum," he explained tiredly. "I’m merely stating a fact." Quickly, he raised his hand. "No. Consider it … advice."
She glanced at the open seat. "Is this my last meal, or does that term have no meaning for you?"
"Ambassador," he said with a smile, "if you were to ask around, I think you would find that even the Borg have grown to appreciate my civility."
With no other argument handy, she retorted cynically, "Then I guess that the all do serve the One," and took the open chair.
"Are your chambers to your liking?"
"Certainly … if you enjoy a detention cell."
"I do not require you to remain in them at all times," he explained, trying to sound magnanimous. "Within reason, you are free to roam the palace."
"Am I permitted to leave it?"
Smiling, the One shook his head.
"Call it what you must, Your Highness, but a prison is still a prison."
"Consider it … a statement of fact," she used his words against him.
Grinning, he reclined in his chair. While she knew that he was extraordinarily tall, he was almost dwarfed by the chair’s back. Pointing at her, he noted, "Ambassador, your attitude is much like your crew’s. Clearly, you must’ve provided them with an estimable role model."
She returned his smile. "I gather by your remark that you're encountering some difficulty with my people," she toyed.
"Difficulty," he repeated, savoring every syllable. "That word is, perhaps, not strong enough for the games your former crew has been putting my Borg Army through. They stop at nothing to serve as … obstacles to productivity."
Nodding, she said, "They serve their captain well."
Infuriated, the One slammed his fist down onto the table.
The thud echoed throughout the Grand Hall.
"Their insubordinate behavior will cease at once!" he bellowed.
"Or what?" she asked.
"I will have them jettisoned into space!"
She brought her hand and her prosthetic together in her lap. With an expression of curiosity, she said, "I think you've already threatened that."
"I've made a threat of it to you," the One said, calculatingly, pointing at her. "I haven’t threatened them. Perhaps they would find me more persuasive."
She shrugged. "You’re free to try it out on them. It is your Foundation, after all. However, if you’re asking my opinion, my guess is that the result will be the same."
Patiently, he chuckled. Retrieving an info-LINK and a Gallush from his end of the table, he relaxed in his chair once more. Heartily, he bit down into the fruit, and she watched the juice spray into the air around him.
From the LINK, he read, "Miss B'Elanna Torres."
"Lieutenant," Janeway corrected.
"Ambassador, there is no rank amongst Lemm Society." He chewed his fruit for a moment and swallowed. "Frankly, Miss Torres is my prime concern. Today, she beat her superior."
Smiling, Janeway plucked a meaty piece of something-or-other from one of the bowls nearest her. "B’Elanna? Really?"
"She did the same yesterday," the One added.
"Beat? Isn't that a little harsh? I'm sure she worked him over but good."
Incredulous, His Highness dropped his head to stare at the ambassador from his end of the table. "The sentry lost consciousness."
"I have to admit that even I had difficulty convincing B’Elanna to obey my orders, early on in our relationship, let alone someone else’s." Disinterested, she dropped the white meat on her plate. "I can't say I'm surprised that you’re experiencing trouble with her. If you’ve read her personnel file, as I assume you have from the crew manifest, then you’ll understand that her background is with the Maquis, a group of political dissidents who rebelled against the Federation."
"Ambassador, I do not wish to understand Miss Torres’ upbringing. I wish her to control herself!"
"Without access to my people, Your Highness, how do you expect me to make her behave?"
Raising his head, he asked, "Is this how she conducted herself aboard your Federation starship?"
"Oh, no," Janeway replied, smiling. "For me, B’Elanna became a model officer." Reaching out, she took a Gallush from the nearest silver bowl. "Perhaps I will have something to eat."
Janeway bit into a juicy Gallush.
"I did mention that she's beaten the same supervisor on three occasions."
"Three?" she taunted. "I’m sorry. I thought you said it was twice."
"No," he replied. "Three times."
"Then, I'm disappointed," Janeway added. "I guess servitude to the Foundation has softened my officer."
Realizing she was patronizing him, he shook his head. "That isn’t the answer I’m looking for," he cautioned.
"Perhaps you need better supervisors."
"Perhaps B’Elanna could train them."
Angrily, the One slammed his LINK back to the table.
"Clearly you think I’m joking!"
"No," she corrected, her voice firm. "Clearly I think you're a maniac … but we've covered that."
Sighing, the One forced himself to relax again. He slid the LINK around on the tabletop, listening to it scrape across the thick wood. Eventually, he chuckled again, his mood lifting. "I guess your Lemm aren’t all bad. In fact, I am getting some marvelous cooperation out of your Mr. Kim."
Wiping her mouth with the napkin from beside her plate, she agreed, "Harry's a good man." She took another healthy bite of her Gallush. "Don’t tell him, but he’s always been one of my favorites. And, whatever you do, don’t tell that to the rest of my crew! You think you're having problems now? Wait until they learn that I’m playing favorites!"
"Playing favorites," she repeated between her chews. "It’s an expression."
"Ah." Curious, the One asked, "Why are the others so unlike Harry Kim?"
Still munching on her mouthful of Gallush, she shrugged at the shapeshifter. "Your Highness, has it occurred to you that you could have your Borg supervisors ask them? My guess is that little thing called captivity. As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, my species doesn’t respond well to it."
"Residence in the Foundation is required," he stated, coldly, authoritatively.
"Then you can expect my people to continue this resistance. They will disrupt your tidy Foundation. Believe me, with their accumulated knowledge, they’ve just scratched the surface of the troubles they can cause you. Eventually, their behavior will inspire other Lemm. The Gallen? The Trakill? Who knows? Maybe even the Iajohhn! I give you my word that, if you allow them to continue, my people will incite every living being you've caged here to join them in a course that leads to mutiny." She swallowed, savoring the minty aftertaste of the fruit as it slipped down her throat. "Your Highness, when the inmates outnumber the warden, where can it possibly leave your Foundation?"
Briefly, the One closed his eyes.
He sighed heavily.
"Ambassador, can I share something with you?"
"There is a Borg fleet en route to Besaria."
Her blood ran cold.
Cole’s message had made it through, she realized. It had been sent through subspace, and the Collective had received word of the loss of their drones. From her experience, she knew that they didn’t take kindly to subjugation of any kind, and the One was about to have an entire Borg fleet knocking on his Foundation’s front door.
The sting of chill left her body, and suddenly a weight was lifted from her shoulders. She couldn’t remember a time in her life that she was actually pleased to hear that the dreaded Borg were coming.
In that surprise moment of elation, she couldn’t help but smile.
"It looks like you'll be having company," she replied. "You might want to consider getting a bigger table."
He opened his eyes and studied her.
"Your ship," he explained, "was used to transmit the message that drew them here."
Indifferently, she nodded. "So I've heard."
"Your Highness, would you catch the hint if I said … it's irrelevant?"
Rising, the One slammed his fist onto the table again. The bowls rattled loudly, but, remarkably, nothing clattered onto the stone floor, and Janeway managed to maintain her composure of arrogance.
"Ambassador, the Borg Army have debriefed one of your crew at length."
"Seven of Nine, I believe is her designation."
Finished with her Gallush, she dropped the rind loudly onto her plate. "She prefers to be called ‘Seven.’"
"Yes," he agreed, trying desperately to appear as at ease as she was. "Given what we've learned from Seven ... given what your own ship’s logs detail about your entanglements with the Borg ... I sincerely doubt that a member of your crew would contact them for assistance." He leaned his weight onto the heavy table. "That would be ... what is that Borg word ... futile?"
"Agreed," she offered, licking her fingertips clean of Gallush juice.
"Ambassador," he began, coming out from behind the table and striding its length toward her, "would it be fair if I were to conclude that you, personally, would prefer assimilation by the Borg … as opposed to remaining alive, healthy, and free to express your own individuality here on Besaria?"
"I prefer freedom," she answered succinctly, immediately.
"Do the Borg have that to offer?"
Ignoring his line of question, Janeway continued, "Undoubtedly, if you listened to what Seven had to say, I'm quite certain that she would have covered the concepts of individual liberty."
Tiredly, leaning against the table, the One nodded. "Yes. She spoke of it at great length."
"Then what more need I say?"
High Highness pursed his lips, tilting his head every so slightly.
"Someone aboard your ship contacted the Collective," he explained, "and a Borg Fleet will be arriving here tomorrow." Concentrating, he tapped his knuckles against the heavy table. "Let me be perfectly clear on this. I want to be absolutely certain that there is no misunderstanding between you and I."
He paused, leaning back to pick up another Gallush, but he didn’t eat. Instead, he stared toward the main entrance of the Grand Hall, where Commander Cole had pushed open one of the doors and stepped into the chamber. "As I believe I’ve made clear, these Borg are of no consequence to me … captain." The use of her Starfleet rank caught her completely off guard, an effect, she guessed, he had desired. "All I will give you is my word that I possess the weaponry to destroy them as easily as I did the Trakillian Armada, should it come to that."
Rolling the Gallush around in his human hand, he traced the shape with his thick fingers. "However, due to the mutinous behavior of your crew, namely Miss Torres, I am willing to extend to you the following offer. Your crew can elect to maintain a peaceful existence on the planet Besaria … under my watchful eyes … or I will turn them over to the Borg for assimilation."
'No!' she screamed in her head.
'No! I won't let you do that to me and to my crew!'
She stiffened, prepared to strenuously object …
… when curiosity got the best of her.
"Your Highness, why would you grant me this choice?"
Casually, the One leaned back. Disinterested, he returned the unblemished Gallush to the nearest silver bowl. "To be perfectly honest with you, ambassador, yours is not my first encounter with Species 5618. I realize that its your Borg designation, but, despite the fact that there are inconceivably dull conversationalists, the Borg are incredibly efficient when it comes to … classifying species." He gestured toward the rear of the Grand Hall, toward Commander Cole, who maintained had maintained his position there. "Captain Janeway, aren't you the least bit curious as to how I've co-opted an entire Borg Army for my own personal use?"
Casually, the One strode back down the length of the dining table and, whipping his body around, took his chair. Leaning back, he glowered at her. "You see, I'd been happily going about my own business. The Gallen are very useful when it comes to interstellar flight. I had fashioned a crude restraining collar for them to wear, and I would send them out into space whenever sensor control in the Generatrix detected any craft approaching Besaria. So, there I was, successfully assimilating species of my own, for many, many years." He hazarded a glance toward the drone standing in the distance. "Then … one day … a Starfleet vessel drops neatly out of a cycling wormhole very near this planet." Waggling a finger at her, he warned, "Now, now, Janeway. That wormhole isn’t stable. There’s no need for you to escape and go looking for it. Besides, using Generatrix technology, I had the effect sealed. In any event, the Tesla appeared in my space. It served the United Federation of Planets, and I believe that you've met it's former captain, Santiago Cole?" He gestured towards the drone, who remained completely still at the hall’s door.
Denying him any compassion, she looked back at Cole.
"Ambassador," the One continued, "if you think for a single moment that you and your crew have wrecked havoc with my Foundation, then you should’ve seen the trouble Mr. Cole and his company stirred up! They were … I believe the word is … cowboys! They were ruffians! Cossacks! Every last one of them!" Sighing, His Highness turned toward the ceiling, enjoying a momentary lapse into fond memories. "Unfortunately for the crew of the Tesla, I was young. Inexperienced. Perhaps … naïve." He smiled. "I wasn’t quite as forgiving back then … well … not like I am today.
"So," he droned on for his own entertainment, "I bargained with that brash Starfleet captain, much like I'm bartering with you this fair evening. I offered Mr. Cole and his crew the chance to live out their lives in peaceful residency here on Besaria … or I would return the Tesla to him, along with his crewmates, to take their chances against a Borg Sphere that had suddenly appeared on my defensive screens." The One drummed his fingertips along the table’s hard surface. "Of course, Mr. Cole was unfamiliar with the Borg, so he chose the latter, innocently and ignorantly assuming that his choice was the lesser of two evils.
"Well, needless to say, the Borg caught his ship," His Highness explained. "They overtook the Tesla within moments of its release, and they readily assimilated every member of the crew aboard." He shifted in his chair, more for dramatic effect than any other purpose. "However, the Borg then made their fatal mistake. They decided that the crew of the Tesla wasn’t enough, so they came here … for me.
"I sunk my teeth into them. When they tried to assimilate me, I used my shapeshifting abilities to actually enter the Borg’s consciousness." He lifted his hand, closing it into a fist as if to crush whatever he held in his grasp. "I slipped into their core programming, and … if I may be so bold … I heard the whispers of the Collective, calling out to the sentry, trying to instruct it in alternative methods of self defense. But … as I’m sure the scientist in you would agree … there is no defense against destruction at the molecular level." He dropped his heavy hand back to the table, and his plate and utensils rattled for a brief second. "Imagine their surprise to find another species that they couldn’t assimilate?"
"Another?" she asked.
"Oh, there are several," he contended, sounding quite pleased with himself. "Species 1227. Species 1569. Species 2144. Species 5473. Those are just a few, mind you. There are others. Apparently, your species isn’t one of them. But, for these unique beings, their genetic make-up is so frail or so complex – I cannot honestly tell you which – that it actually resists assimilation at the molecular level! When assimilation is attempted, the immune system activates. Their bodies believe that they’re fighting off an infection! Can you imagine that? Can you see the irony? You have the DNA to resist the Borg, but the price for such a precious gift is forfeiting life itself?
"But I don’t want to bore you with scientific hypotheses … not when I’m weaving so interesting a tale. It’s actually one of my favorites. Yes, the Borg were defenseless against me, so I assimilated them for my own personal needs. Now that I had an army of Borg, I wouldn’t need the Gallenians or any of the other races to carry out the primary function of expanding my Foundation. That duty fell to the Borg, and, thus, I created the Lemm Society to concentrate of maintaining Besaria City, a worker class to perform any and all necessary labor to keep this world alive." Chuckling, he sat easily in his chair. "So you see, Kathryn, I couldn’t have Cole one way. I simply took him by another means ... after the Borg had destroyed the very individuality that had plagued our earlier time together."
Again, she peered over to where Cole stood, but he had no expression on his face.
"In any possible scenario," he concluded, "I win."
Leaning forward, he rolled his visible human eye. "Oh, come now, ambassador. It’s simply what I do. You can call it cheating. I call it my destiny. In the end, I always win."
She fixed all of her hate on him.
"As I said before, extinction is the nature of the universe. Everything, inevitably, must end. Mr. Cole and his company came to an end. You and yours will meet your untimely demise."
She wouldn’t play his game. She wouldn’t give show him the rage that he so badly wanted to see. Unlike her crew, she’d avoid making trouble for him. She’d sit here and behave in the most professional manner.
"Frankly," he yawned, "although you may be denied the experience, I'm quite certain that I'll live to see the day your precious Federation ends."
Fuming inside, she forced herself to remain silent.
The One raised his head into the air, and he laughed heartily.
"No, no, no," he said, finished with his joy. "These blathering drones are not the greatest threat to the universe. Honestly, there are fates far worse those offered by the Borg."
Puzzled, Janeway asked, "What does that mean?"
"Exactly what you think it means, ambassador," the One taunted.
"Explain it to me … Your Highness."
"Like all things in the universe," he stated, "even the Borg answer to a higher power."
"Yes," she agreed. "They answer to the Borg Queen."
"Oh," the One teased. He leaned forward, opening his hand and placing it solidly on the table. "You don’t mean to tell me that you personally believe it stops there, do you? Ambassador, you are far more intelligent than that. If I were you, I’d think again."
She squinted at him. "I don't believe you."
"You don't have to believe me," he replied.
"That doesn't make it any less true."
"Who?" she asked.
Laughing, the One rose from his chair and closed the gap between the two of them. "Consider the information privileged. Ruling class only." He lowered his head and smiled at her. "But I will say that, were you to somehow find your way out of this Foundation, you do have the means to know so very much more about the Borg than you currently do."
Finally, she reasoned, "You’re talking about Seven of Nine?"
He shrugged. "That's a question for her, don’t you think?"
"You’re playing a sadistic game, Your Highness."
"In any event," he continued, ignoring her observation, "I'm willing to give you the same choice I gave Santiago Cole. You can remain here, on Besaria, where the all serve the One … or I will give you a very brief head start on that Borg Fleet bearing down on us."
"To say that you're a madman," she surrendered, "would be redundant."
"I may be," he agreed, "but I’m a madman who watched the crew of the Tesla sacrifice their individuality while still inevitably succumbing to my rule." He slapped his hand to his thigh. "You may either do the sensible thing … and, in case you’re wondering, that would be for you to order your insubordinate crew to stand down their destructive efforts … or you can use that comm badge to sentence them to an even greater Hell. That is, after all, what you believe, isn’t it? Heaven or Hell? Either way, the choice is yours."
Finished with the talk and the meal, the One nodded politely at her. Without hesitation, he started for a private exit at the rear of the Grand Hall.
"Ambassador, those communicators on your uniform are disabled on the planet," he said over his shoulder as he walked. "However, I’ve seen to it that they will function for one hour, effective immediately. I give you one hour, ambassador, but not a minute more. Please use the time wisely to communicate your decision to your crew.
"And do have a pleasant evening," he added. "Our planetary sensors tell me that, far above these dreary storm clouds, the stars are crystal clear tonight."