In the Grand Hall, the master viewscreen over the One’s raised platform slowly morphed from gray to black as it flickered to life.
"Do you have any idea what this is about, ambassador?" Packell asked, turning his head and speaking softly into Kathryn Janeway’s ear.
Seated beside the Trakill, she nodded. "We’re about to receive some unwelcome visitors."
Squinting from her chair near the back, she saw that the black void was slowly being sprinkled with hundreds and hundreds of glittery stars. Along with the rest of the Quorum, she was being treated to a portrait of outer space, an endless frontier waiting to be explored.
Rising from his throne, the One ordered, "Magnification factor twenty, if you please, Cytal."
"Of course, Your Highness," the Iajohhn orator hissed.
Again, the picture flickered again.
Suddenly, the rectangle filled with the image of nine massive mechanical cubes. Janeway recognized the Borg Cubes instantly, but, by the expressions of the fellow Quorum members, she wasn’t certain if anyone else did.
"It would appear," the One began, "that a Borg fleet is paying us a visit." He sat back down in his chair, and he whirled around, finishing a complete circle, and facing his assembly. With a smirk on his own, he studied the curious faces of his senate. "How convenient this must be for Species 0001."
Janeway heard the shuffling of feet at the rear of the Grand Hall, and she, along with several senators, turned around. The sentries gathered there, in attendance, sidled amongst themselves, actually whispering to one another. Breaking away from the group, Commander Cole started toward the pews.
Confused, he inclined his head in the direction of the viewscreen. "Your Highness, we are unfamiliar with that classification," he called out.
"Keep your place, Borg!" Cytal barked from his podium.
"No, Cytal," the One ordered. "Let the drone speak."
"Your Highness!" the orator pleaded. "By your own design, the Borg do not have a voice in the Quorum!"
"I want to hear this."
Sickened, Cytal glanced toward the rear of the hall. "Commander Cole," he cried out with authority, "step forward and be heard."
Janeway watched as her attaché took several steps down the aisle, approaching the dais.
"We are unfamiliar with the designation," the drone explained.
"Is that so?" the shapeshifter asked.
"We seek to understand the origin."
A smile crept across His Highness’s face. "Cole, I would think that you would have the faculties to provide your own answer."
The drone stopped in his tracks. He understood his place in the Besarian Foundation. He knew that approaching the platform would be inappropriate. "We have been disengaged from the Collective for quite some time -"
"You’re giving me excuses, Cole," the One challenged.
"Our recollection may have been affected."
Pausing, the One tried to read the expression on the drone’s face, but he realized that there was nothing worth his exalted attention. Leaning forward, he offered, "Commander, I believe if you search your own memory bank that you will no doubt find ‘Species 0001’ is the appropriate classification for the Borg."
Motionless, Cole stood in the aisle.
"You are incorrect," he proclaimed, drawing a few gasps from offended senators.
"Your Highness!" Cytal cried, gripping the top edge of the podium. "I will have this drone eliminated at once for his insolence!"
"Cytal, silence!" the One’s voice thundered throughout the Grand Hall, and the orator shrank in full sight of the Quorum.
"The Borg are unclassified by the Collective," Cole continued. "The Borg and the Collective are one. The Borg require no species classification."
His Highness grinned wide. "Are you absolutely certain about that, Cole?"
"The Borg and the Collective are one," the drone repeated.
"Then what is Species 0001?"
"The Collective designates species classification," Cole tried. "The Borg are without classification."
"Then what is Species 0001?"
His human eye searched the limits of the room, but Cole couldn’t come to grip with any answer. "There is no species classification 0001 in my individual neural net."
Dismissing the argument, the One brushed his hand at the drone. "Yes. I suppose that’s true. I’ve been inside that head of yours, Cole, and your Borg programming is, if nothing else, flawed."
"Borg programming is optimal," he countered. "There is no species classification 0001."
Relaxing, the One chuckled. "All right, commander," he said, reclining in his throne. "I’ll give in to your wishes. There is no Species 0001 … but I still take issue with the unannounced Borg fleet bearing down on course for this planet." The One rocked from side to side on his throne, staring up at the ceiling. "Do you have an answer in that tiny Borg brain of yours for that?"
Cole didn’t answer.
"Therefore," the One continued, "I pose the question to the Quorum: is the Borg arrival a threat a coincidence? Has someone, within the membership of our Foundation, initiated contact with the Borg Collective?"
Janeway surveyed the Grand Hall. The senators – every one of them – were either staring blankly at the floor or were mesmerized by the sight of nine cubes on the main viewer. Obviously, they were distraught, emotionally torn between the fear of assimilation or the threat of retribution on the part of the One. As a whole, the Quorum remained still.
'This can't last long,' she thought. 'He's implying someone’s guilty when he knows full well what’s contained in Voyager's logs! He knows about the transmission.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘Why is he playing this elaborate game?'
Startled, Packell turned his attention from the viewscreen to the royal platform. Quickly, he reached up and ran a hand across his brow, rising from his seat in the pew. "Yes, Your Highness?"
"Was it you who struck a bargain with the Borg?"
With a feverish glance, he looked down to his side at Janeway.
"Will your tutor be speaking for you today?"
Of the membership, only Cytal snickered.
"Absolutely not, Your Highness," Packell replied, returning his attention to the dais. "On both counts. I will speak for myself, and I haven’t the means to contact the Collective."
"Your Majesty," Cytal crooned from his spot at the podium, "if memory serves, you did just destroy the remnants of the Trakill who fled Besaria. Vengeance would be an appropriate response, and cowardice, as well as insolence, does run in Packell’s bloodline."
Instinctively, Janeway grabbed Packell’s dangling arm and squeezed.
"Don’t," she whispered. "He’s trying to bully you into a fight, senator. He wants someone to blame. Don’t give it to him, Packell."
Pursing his lips, the One rocked gently on his throne, glaring down at the Trakill.
"Packell," he finally replied, "the orator raises a valid analysis."
"Your Highness," the Trakill began, his teeth grinding, his eyes focused, "I mean no disrespect to you. I mean no disrespect to this Quorum. Certainly, I mean no disrespect to Senator Cytal or the honorable Iajohh-Lemm … but my own character begs me to point out that the position of orator is little more than a puppet to your demands."
Devastated, Janeway released her hold on the senator.
"How dare you, Packell!" Cytal spat angrily.
"Indeed," the Trakill replied, immediately turning and shuffling down the row toward the aisle. "My allegiance to this body has been questioned, Cytal, and, if no one else here sees fit to defend me, then I will do so myself."
"Packell," the One began, his voice laced with condescension, "I think you’re being a bit strong."
"Am I, Your Highness, or has this body given weight to unsubstantiated speculation?"
"Packell," the ruler continued, ignoring the argument, "you are free to admit your guilt here, if you are inclined to do so. Although you’re the newest addition to the Quorum, don’t think that yours isn’t an equal voice."
Finally, the Trakill stepped into the aisle. "What is it that you would have me admit, Your Highness?"
"Admit your act of vengeance."
Angrily, the senator nodded. "You would have me lie to the Quorum?"
"Admit to the Quorum that your anger from witnessing the last, free members of the Trakill race destroyed at my command drove you to this betrayal," the One toyed with the Trakill. "It is I who drove you to this madness, wasn't I?"
Sensing the eyes of his fellow senators on him, Packell took a step toward the dais. Anxiously, he tugged at the collar of his native ceremonial tunic. "Your Highness, I’ll give you my word, pledge it to you on the very lives of those whom you so recently assassinated -"
"Assassinated?" shouted the One, rising from the throne. Countering Packell’s movements, he stepped forward as well, marching to the edge of the platform where he stood before the Quorum. "Assassinated?"
"You may not prefer my choice of words, Your Highness," the senator replied, bowing his head reverently. "I would humbly ask forgiveness, baring in mind that, as you so frequently make clear, I am new to this position. My inexperience is without justification."
"Assassination?" Pointing, the One asked, "Tell me, Packell, since when is defense of the Foundation considered assassination?"
"As I have already offered my apologies," the senator stuttered nervously, bowing quickly, "I see no need to do so again."
"That is not an answer to the question you were asked!"
Glancing around, Packell noticed that the other seated senators had begun to slide away from the aisle, further isolating him from the safety of the group. "Your Highness, I spoke out of turn!"
"And it should not be without punishment," Cytal interrupted.
"My own emotion blinded me!" Packell argued. "As you persisted in challenging my service, I let my anger color my choice of words!"
"You admit your anger!"
"I would be a fool to deny that which is so readily transparent," the Trakill conceded, "but I will not profess a lie by admitting that anger drove me to establish an alliance that would bring harm to the Foundation."
"Anger can blind a man to his own action, Your Highness," offered Cytal.
"Cytal, this body and certain I have heard enough of you!" Packell challenged.
Scowling, the One threatened, "Mind your tongue, senator."
"Your Highness, I have openly admit my anger to my colleagues, and I give you my word as a Trakill that I serve you! I swear it freely to all of the Quorum gathered here this morning!" Packell stammered. "I did not nor would I have any just cause to contact the Borg!"
Menacing, the One’s Borg prosthetic morphed outward, reaching toward where Packell stood, his head bowed ...
... then stopped.
"Ambassador Janeway?" the One asked, slowly retrieving his limb to its proper size and shape.
She rose from her seat. "Your Highness?"
Tapping his chin with his human hand, he said, "Your ship's logs, do they not, discuss in great detail a recently alliance with the Borg?"
She heard the collective gasp from the Quorum. Now, Janeway felt the eyes of her peers turn on her.
'Divide and conquer,' she told herself. 'He's trying to convince all of us that we’re out to destroy him, turning us against one another for no other reason than preservation of our own species.'
Stepping down row, following Packell into the aisle, she replied, "They do, Your Majesty, just as they also expose that the Borg we were working with betrayed that alliance as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The Borg turned the tables on us and intended assimilation." Gently, she reached up and placed her hand on Packell’s shoulder. Slowly, he lifted his head and glanced back at her. "One lesson that I’ve learned is that no Borg can be trusted."
Again, Cytal spoke, stepping around the podium and joining the One at his side. "Yet, there is a Borg who serves as a member of your crew."
"A former Borg," she corrected.
"Is she?" he challenged.
"Bring her here," Janeway challenged.
"For what purpose?" the One asked.
"To show the members of the Quorum that I’ve nothing to hide … as is being implied here today," she replied. "Let the senators see for themselves that Seven of Nine serves the One with as much loyalty as any being on this planet."
Sniffling, with the wave of a hand, the shapeshifter said, "That won't be necessary."
Trusting she had won her argument, she decided it was time to go on the offensive, to mend the trust broken amongst the senatorial class.
"Then may I ask why would you stand there, Your Highness, and allow Senator Cytal to not only challenge but also to openly besmirch the faith of a defenseless Lemm?"
The room fell silent as all eyes turned to the dais.
With trepidation, Cytal took a single step back toward the podium.
"An ambassador, much less a woman?" the Iajohh asked. "You would dare challenge my faith?"
"Your insults challenge mine," she replied, now freely stepping around the Trakill in front of her and approaching the dais with confidence. "Not only do your insults offend me, but you’re intentionally seeking to inflict harm on the reputation of Senator Packell." She reached the platform, and she turned to stare up at the massive changeling before her. "Your Highness, Senator Cytal’s behavior dishonors the sanctity of your Quorum. His motivations, obviously personal, should be called into question. In my opinion, he’s been derelict in his responsibilities as orator, and I feel a personal duty to point it, Your Highness."
"Ambassador," the One began, "ignore Cytal."
With an expression of pure terror, the Iajohh quickly returned to the protection of his podium.
"Cytal knows that everyone considers him an arrogant fool. Like any member of this body, I cannot trust him with matters pertinent to the successful management of this Foundation." The shapeshifter glared over his shoulder at the orator, who merely lowered his head and stared at nothing. "And, please allow me to alleviate your fears. I have no concerns regarding the allegiance of your crewmember … who is a former Borg."
Pleased with the fact that she had won the argument, Janeway felt the tension drain out of her shoulders. "Thank you, Your Highness."
Suddenly, the One pointed down at the Voyager’s ambassador. "In fact, I know that it was you who authorized that message to be sent to the Collective!"
Quickly, Janeway recoiled, backing into something solid.
Her attaché had followed her to the platform.
"I did not!" she argued. "I just told you that the Borg couldn’t be trusted!"
"You are lying, ambassador," the One retorted, pacing across the front of his platform, his footsteps thudding as he walked. "As evidence, I would present to the Quorum that your own ship's main deflector logs prove that your crew transmitted a deep space message -"
"Your Highness," she interrupted, "you know as well as I do that Voyager was under control of the Borg Army when those transmissions took place!" Against her will, she would serve the One, but she would not allow herself or her crew to be punished for mutiny they hadn’t instigated. Nor would she allow an erosion of support from the senators she might have earned in such short a time. "You are also completely aware of that fact, but you choose to ignore it!"
The Quorum erupted, the representatives desperately muttering amongst themselves. Slowly, they were standing, one by one, their eyes facing the front of the Grand Hall. Even the Borg sentries normally gathered at the rear had started to creep forward in all of the excitement. Still, only Janeway, Packell, and Cole filled the aisle, facing the impending wrath of the One alone.
"Order!" Cytal shouted from behind the safety of the podium. "The Quorum shall come to order at once!"
"Cole?" the One demanded. "What do you say of these accusations?"
Before the Borg could reply, Janeway stepped directly to the base of the royal platform. "Your Highness, if you’ve reviewed those logs, you know very well that Commander Cole was nowhere near the Sciences Station during the flight to Besaria. That’s when the transmission took place, so you have irrefutable proof that he didn't send the message himself."
"Ambassador, there isn't a senator among us who would dispute the fact that a ship's captain bears responsibility for the actions of his or her crew. Isn't that correct, Cole?"
"I am unaware of any transmission," Cole stated, matter-of-factly.
Janeway whirled on Cole.
'A Borg,' she thought, 'lying?’
‘He's betraying his core programming!’
The Quorum remained silent for several long moments.
Stepping back to the center of the platform, the shapeshifter kept his eyes glued to the drone. "You're absolutely certain of that fact?"
Monotone, Cole replied, "The all shall serve the One."
Without a hint of menace, the One slowly wandered back to his throne. "I can't tell you how pleased I am to hear that, Cole," he said, sitting down. "I’m personally elated, especially given the fact that you are on report for surrendering the Sphere to the Renegade Trakill." Lifting his head, the One smiled. "To reward your allegiance, I am reinstating you with the responsibility of defending Besaria from that approaching Borg Armada." He leaned forward. "Cole, I’m offering you the privilege of joining the Trakill senator in bearing witness to the near extinction of your own, pitiful race."
Carefully, the One studied the drone, reading the unemotional expression closely.
"How do you feel, Cole?"
Without hesitation, Cole repeated, "The all shall serve the One."
Shouting, furious, the One screamed, "HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL, COLE?!"
"The all shall serve the One," the drone repeated, louder than before.
Angrily, the One hissed, sounding almost feral. Turning away in disgust, he asked, "Who manned Voyager's Sciences Station while en route to Besaria?"
"Simonsen," Cole answered.
"Simonsen is to be eliminated," the One decreed.
"Given the circumstances, Cole, I cannot afford to execute the entire Borg Army. See to it that Simonsen’s death will serve as an example to those who are contemplating defying me."
"The all shall serve the One," Cole agreed.
"See to it personally."
"I serve the One."
Leaning forward, the One concluded, "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, COLE?" He paused, studying the drone’s expressionless face. "I’m not asking you to phaser Simonsen from existence! I’m ordering you to take that remaining human hand and throttle the life from that drone until he begs FOR YOUR MERCY!"
"Such behavior conflicts with Borg programming," Cole explained.
"YOU WILL DO AS I SAY OR YOU WILL DIE WITH HIM!"
"Stop it!" Janeway demanded, physically inserting herself between Cole and the One.
"That Borg serves me, ambassador," the One threatened, calming somewhat. "He’s only your attaché. He isn’t your ... personal pet. You already have the Trakill for that. You would be wise to stay out of my way."
"He’s also my personal bodyguard, Your Highness," she countered. "While I may not trust a Borg, I have no doubt that Cole will do as you've ordered. He will do as you command."
Seething, the One glared at her.
"Given this welcome change of behavior, ambassador, I am pleased to announce that the Voyager will be under Cole's command when it greets that approaching fleet."
'My ship!' she thought, wanting to scream.
If the One’s campaign were unsuccessful against the Borg, she and her crew would have no practical means of getting back to Earth.
"Absolutely not," she replied.
"It will be done."
"I forbid it."
"You haven't the authority."
"I will not have you sacrifice my ship -"
"This will be no sacrifice!" the One shouted, turning his throne around to face the master viewer. "My Pulse Cannon will make 'short duty' of that Borg Fleet. It will tear those cubes into infinitesimal pieces before the mindless cowards know what hit them."
To her, it was suicide.
"Then, I request assignment to the mission," she insisted.
"On what ground?"
"Who better qualified to ensure the safety of my ship and whatever crew you have stationed aboard?"
"If you’d read your daily briefings," the One chided, "you’d be well aware that Mr. Harry Kim is already serving in that capacity."
"Harry is an ensign," she argued. "He has far less battle experience than I."
"Request denied. Cole will suffice."
"Cole has never piloted -"
"Absolutely not," the One announced. "Ambassadors and senators are not free to mingle with the Lemm, and your ship is now manned with Lemm. Harry Kim has trained a crew." He stared down at her. "You would be in their way."
"Your Highness," she tried, appealing to his graces, "Mr. Kim is a member of my crew. While he’s a damn fine ensign, you said yourself moments ago that a captain is responsible for her crew. While I’ve accepted my role as ambassador, I am still Harry’s captain, and a ship and its crew mean everything to a Federation captain. What I ask of you, I do as a courtesy." She inhaled quickly, realizing that she had been holding her breath with anticipation. "Please. Let me join the Lemm in engaging the Borg Armada."
He opened his mouth, and, from his expression, she knew he was going to refuse her request.
Tactically, she played politics. "Your Highness, it would demonstrate my allegiance to you."
Turning back to the Quorum, he considered her.
"You would do this ... you would risk your life, as you contend ... as a show of service to me?"
Smiling, she nodded.
Laughing heartily, the One rose from his throne.
"Very well, ambassador. I will allow this display of servitude. However, an ambassador does not take orders from a drone. Therefore, I am granting you a temporary service reduction back to your captaincy. You will command this mission, and Cole will report to you. He will serve as ... how do you say ... your first officer? Is that proper Federation rank?"
Gravely, she nodded. "It is."
"Then make haste," he ordered. "I expect the Voyager spaceborne within the hour." He raised his prosthetic, gesturing at the viewscreen still filled with the image of the Borg Cubes high overhead. "This," he proclaimed, "will be a great day in the history of our Foundation, and I wouldn't want either of you to be a moment late."
Smiling evilly, he concluded, "Quorum dismissed."