Azera Xi: In Memoriam
Over in this thread, which features Azera Xi's personal logs as a fledgeling Starfleet captain, marcusdkane suggested that his character Marcus, an intelligence admiral and Borg expert (among many other things!), might be a good way to explore her background in more detail, as he examines the escape pod she was found in as a child and figures out where she came from. The idea caught my imagination and, after two sleepless nights and more time spent looking up technical terms on Memory Alpha than I will ever freely admit, this story is the result. Thanks Marcus for the suggestion - and for letting me borrow your character!
Here's her original bio, which this story expands on...
Azera Xi: In Memoriam
It wasn't exactly standard procedure for the head of Starfleet Intelligence to handle a starship's personnel matters, much less an ensign's medical issues, but mysterious incidents surrounding the Borg had a way of ending up on Admiral Kane's desk. That suited him fine: he preferred a more hands-on approach to reports on the Borg than most of the admirals, to stay at the forefront of Starfleet's research rather than simply waiting for the team to come to his office with their findings. For one thing, he liked to get things done himself, to lead the investigations instead of simply ordering them. For another, he liked to think that, in some small way, his old mentor's legacy lived on in these late-night reviews of the latest data on the Borg.
It'd been almost 58 years since the Hansens vanished, and now the sensor ghosts they'd chased across the galaxy had emerged as the Federation's greatest threat. How different might things be if anyone had believed Magnus and Erin's theories all those years ago? And what other theories might still change history, if only the right person believes them in time?
A theory, that'd be a nice thing to have with this case. Right now all Admiral Kane had was a name and a Starfleet personnel file flashing on his handheld PADD as he paced around his mahogany desk. Enisgn Azera Xi. Female, species unknown, approximately 18 years old. Raised on Earth after being found in a sublight stasis pod in the Khazan Cluster, traveling from the direction of the Scutum-Centaurus arm of the galaxy at the approximate age of 7. Unusual, but not unprecedented: the Department of Cartography estimated that over a thousand refugees from unknown worlds cross the Federation border and become citizens each year. Some of them, and lately more and more of them, had been fleeing the Borg, the last remnants of yet another civilization swallowed up by the ever-spreading penumbra of Borg space.
Well, that's a theory in itself, isn't it? Azera Xi, the mysterious orphan and recent Starfleet Academy graduate who'd had a traumatic flashback aboard the bridge of the USS Roanoke during their battle with a Borg cube, whose stasis pod seemed to have originated somewhere in the Delta Quadrant... a refugee of one of the Borg's assimilated worlds would dovetail nicely with those facts. The rest of Starfleet Intelligence certainly thought so: they'd come to precisely that conclusion and were ready to update Azera's records to reflect her status as a Borg refugee. They just needed Marcus's signature as head of the department to close the case.
He hadn't signed it yet. For one thing, the reports from the rest of the crew on her flashback didn't quite make sense to him. He sat down at the desk, leaning back in his chair and lifting the thin tablet above his head as he scrolled between different files with the touch of a finger, and settled on rereading the transcript of Ensign Koja's report to sickbay.
"I couldn't make out most of it," Koja had told the chief medical officer, "she was talking so fast, and whispering it all to herself. But she said something about the 'black cubes,' and I think she said... no, I'm sure she said 'the machine priests.' She wrapped her arms tighter around herself and started whispering faster when I tried to talk to her, and then she screamed for her parents just before she passed out, like she was terrified. Is she going to be okay?"
That was as detailed a report on as anyone could offer: Azera herself had woken up two hours later in sickbay with no memory of it, or any curiosity about it. The ship's doctor had confirmed that she really didn't remember having it, and his opinion was that pressing the matter too hard could cause psychological trauma. He believed her prolonged unconsciousness in the stasis pod might have relegated her memories of everything that happened before to the same status as dreams, causing them to surface again only during altered states of consciousness. Like the one on the bridge... except what was it that altered her consciousness?
And then there were the words she'd used. Different cultures often had their own names for the Borg, and neither Marcus nor anyone else in the Federation could claim to know each and every one of them. But the names tended to follow a pattern, and "machine-priests" simply didn't fit that pattern at all. If only there'd been a recording, a transcript of what she actually said. Starfleet Intelligence had argued for years that starship bridges, at least, should be constantly recorded for both historical and security purposes, but it'd always run up against the Federation Council and its concerns about the expectation of privacy. Still, there must be something left from the incident, some file that has at least a hint of what happened on that ship.
He suddenly had an idea.
"Computer," he snapped upright in his chair and practically slammed the PADD down as he instead began to tap the darkened touchscreen embedded in the surface of his desk, sparking the LCARS display to flashing blue life, "pull the USS Roanoke's communication records from 1107 hours, stardate 90550.35. Is Captain Taggart's call to sickbay still on file?"
"Affirmative," a pleasantly automated female voice replied.
"Okay, maybe we'll hear something in the background. Load and play it."
The jumbled interface windows dancing across his desk instantly resolved themselves into a display of a dozen different waves rolling across a timeline grid, each one a separate source of sound on the bridge. The sound clip was hardly five seconds long, though.
"Bridge to sickbay," the captain's gruff voice rang out, a beacon of authority rising above a din of murmuring worry, a single red wave dipping up and down around the flurry of smaller waves hovering closer to the middle of the chart, "we have a medical emergency."
The clip ended just as abruptly as it began. Nothing on the surface, but he didn't get into Starfleet Intelligence by stopping there. Marcus tapped a few more buttons on the desk console, scowled silently over all the different waveforms that'd rolled across the desktop screen for a moment and then highlighted one in particular, a tiny blue ribbon that bobbed to its own secret rhythm beneath the rest of the sounds. A ribbon that subtly stood out from every other voice on the bridge for one simple reason: it'd been formed by the carrier wave of a combadge's universal translator. It was the only voice on the audio file that wasn't speaking English.
"Computer," he muttered thoughtfully, "invert the phase for everything except the selected wave by 180 degrees and overlay the result with this file. Play it again on my mark."
"Acknowledged," the computer chirped, "modification complete."
Just as he'd hoped, the captain's orders, the muted voices of the bridge crew, even the droning hum of the ship's systems had all cancelled out against their inverted waveforms. Only a single childlike voice remained, whispering fearfully to herself beneath the silence.
"...are the dissenters, the apostate worlds, deniers of the perfection that they..."
And the clip ended.
That was her voice. The dissenters, the apostate worlds... it was just the tiniest snippet of everything she'd said, but it was still more than anyone on the bridge could have noticed at the time, more than Azera herself had remembered when she woke up. If he hadn't thought to check the ship's combadge records, even that fragment would have been lost forever.
It sounded quick, measured, as though she'd been quoting it from memory. A nursery rhyme, a poem, an old story? Her whisper had been a rambling monotone, but still, the way she'd paused and emphasized certain syllables almost had a sing-song cadence that struck Marcus as vaguely familiar somehow. Not that the words themselves were something he'd heard before, but the structure of it was something that he should recognize. It felt as though he'd learned something like it himself - and then he remembered his mother's voice reading to him as a child.
Listen my children and you shall hear, the midnight ride of Paul Revere...
History. She's reciting a history lesson. That made sense: practically every known civilization taught its history to children through songs and poetry. Humans learned about everything from Guy Fawkes to the meaning of Christmas from songs. Vulcan children memorized T'Plana-Hath's sayings in meter form. Cardassians gained their understanding of justice from enigma tales. Klingons measured their entire history in epic verse.
So whose history was she quoting? How does the rest of that story go?
The bridge crew said they first noticed something was wrong when the Borg ended their transmission, when they heard Ensign Azera falling back against the wall and muttering to herself. But that meant it was already happening when they noticed her. When did it actually start? When she saw the Borg cube on the screen? But she'd graduated from Starfleet Academy, she must have already seen dozens of pictures and video images of the Borg during her classes. What happened while everyone was busy looking at the viewscreen?
"Computer," he spoke again, "did anyone else on the Roanoke bridge use their combadge at any point between 1100 and 1112 hours, stardate 90550.35?"
"What about," he mused, running one hand back through his dark hair and then suddenly snapping upright in his seat as a thought hit him, "computer, what about when the Roanoke hailed the Borg cube? Ship to ship communications are an open channel routed through the tactical systems, so every sound on the bridge between Captain Taggart hailing their ship and closing the channel would have to be embedded in the ship's database, right?"
"Direction unclear. Please rephrase request."
"Nevermind. Just load the audio file of the Roanoke's communication with the Borg on stardate 90550.35 and play it. Security Authorization Kane 1-8 Delta Tango"
"This is Captain Taggart of the USS Roanoke," a familiarly commanding voice barked through the desktop interface, "you are in violation of Federation space and..."
"We are the Borg," thousands of cold, pitiless voices instantly cut him off, echoing out of the glowing abyss in the heart of the cube, "you will lower your shields and escort us to your homeworld where we will begin assimilating your species. Resistance is futile."
The file ended there. Taggart hadn't bothered continuing the conversation: he'd already cut the transmission to order a rotating shield modulation, and for engineering to divert power to the forward weapons. The trouble with Azera Xi began hardly more than a second later, and Lieutenant Commander McMary was sure she was fine before the Borg's response. After all, Azera herself was the one who patched it through.
"Computer," Marcus said, "invert every waveform in the audio file that doesn't have a universal translator signature. Overlay it with the existing file, just like before."
"Acknowledged. Modification complete."
"Okay Azera," he muttered to himself, "let's find out just what set you off. Proceed."
The legion of voices from the Borg ship, Captain Taggart's defiant greeting, every sound on the Roanoke's bridge had been swallowed up in silence, cancelled out by its inverted duplicate to leave a single youthful voice murmuring to herself, just like before. And as Marcus adjusted the volume and listened more closely, his blood gradually began to freeze into ice water.
"We are the Borg," her tone numb and starkly unfeeling, her words all the more ominous for coming from such a quiet voice, "you will lower your shields and escort us to your homeworld where we will begin assimilating your species. Resistance is futile."
* * *
"I don't know what that girl's parents were thinking," the shipyard mechanic grumbled as he led Admiral Kane through the twilight maze of shuttlecrafts and personal transports that filled the lower decks of the Tranquility Base shipyards, "or whoever sent her off. That escape pod of hers is a death trap! I wouldn't trust it carry my dog to safety, much less a kid."
"Well," Marcus shrugged politely, "it did manage to get her here."
"That's a testament to our ships, admiral, not theirs," his subordinate muttered, "there's no subspace radio, no database, not even a flight plan. If we hadn't found it when we did, it would have kept drifting right through Federation space and out the other side."
"How long was it out there?"
"A hundred years, two hundred maybe? It doesn't have any records, no chronometer, not even a star chart. The thing doesn't even have a warp drive, just a Bussard collector rigged to a sublight ion engine. We had to guess its age from the wear and tear on the metal."
"No navigational system," Marcus paused in mid-step and blinked in surprise, "how did it manage to go so long without falling into a gravity well if it was flying blind?"
"That's the one clever thing on the ship," the engineer conceded, "there's a sensor relay that constantly measures the surrounding graviton field and Schwarzschild metric. Basically, if it detects a star or planet that's getting too close, it reverses the pod's direction to compensate. Hell, those programming algorithms alone are a century ahead of the rest of the ship's systems. It's like they were actually trying to use as little technology as they possibly could."
"Maybe that's exactly it," Marcus answered thoughtfully, "maybe they had to keep the pod below a certain technological threshold just to have a chance of her getting away."
"From what? Who would throw a little girl adrift in something like that?"
"What species can you think of," the admiral grimly asked, "that chooses its targets based on whether their technology's sufficiently advanced? Is this her ship?"
They'd arrived at the far corner of the deck, a shadowy alcove occupied by a capsular pod hardly bigger than a coffin. A smooth white hull with a band of transparent aluminium oxynitride where the passenger's face would be visible, and a name written beneath it, an inscription carved into the ship itself. The exolinguistics branch of the Science Council had eventually deciphered the phonetics as "Azera Xi," and its meaning as a proper name. Still, something troubled Marcus about the writing. The ring-shaped characters almost felt familiar: nothing he'd ever seen before, exactly, but something just close enough to leave him haunted by a sense of deja vu.
"That's it," the technician nodded, "I can power it up if that'd help."
Marcus pulled out his tricorder and began scanning the capsule as the mechanic tapped a few buttons on the wall-mounted console and stirred the ship into a faint hum. Nothing unusual about the systems: they seemed every bit as minimalistic as he'd been told. The ship didn't even have life support in case the stasis system failed: then again, with no transmitter or warp drive to guarantee any hope of rescue within her lifetime, preserving the passenger's life if she woke up would probably be more cruel than merciful. No files, no programmed trajectory, not a single computer program that had so much as a user interface. As advanced as the ship's programming seemed, it operated entirely within itself, with no way to access it from the outside.
He couldn't even find those pictograms from the hull referenced anywhere in the software: every last bit of code was written entirely in binary language. He sighed to himself, started running another diagnostic scan... and that's when he realized why they seemed familiar. They weren't really the same, any more than Sumerian cuneiform is the same as the Latin alphabet, but they bore just enough of a resemblence for him to see the connection. It seemed obvious, blindingly obvious, the moment the thought actually crossed his mind, but he hadn't let himself consider it, not even with all the clues leading him here. The mechanic must have noticed the expression on the admiral's face, because after a moment his voice hesitantly broke the silence.
"Sir, are you okay?"
"Yeah," he answered softly, and then Marcus lifted the tricorder again, typing in new instructions with a quicker, sharpened focus. Now he knew exactly what to look for, and after a few more sweeps across the pod and adjustments to his scans, he found it. He didn't even realize that he'd started thinking out loud as he studied the instrument's readings.
"The power relays use a modulating current along the upper EM band that's vulnerable to nadion particle bursts," he spoke with a quick, confident decisiveness, "the hull composition is a polytrinic alloy that's missing several elements, but the structure's unmistakable."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," the admiral answered after closing his eyes for a moment, "that we need to get this ship to Starfleet Headquarters right now. As of this moment, everything that we've talked about is classified top secret. If asked, I was never here. Understood?"
"Yes sir," the engineer hesitantly replied, "what is this all about?"
"I wish I could tell you," Marcus replied with a small shake of his head, "but if I'm right about this, both our names are going to wind up in the history books."
The admiral tapped his combadge.
"Admiral Kane to the Musashi. Stand by to transport both myself and Ensign Azera's escape pod aboard and relay a message to Starfleet Command - belay that, send a message to the following list of admirals that I'm calling for an emergency meeting at 1800 hours."
"Sir," a voice piped through the combadge as he pulled out his PADD and began putting together a list of precisely which officers he felt certain weren't sympathetic toward Section 31, "that's hardly three hours from now. And you haven't slept since yesterday..."
"True," he answered quietly, "but I doubt I'll be able to sleep until they've been briefed on the situation. I'm sending you the list of admirals now. Ready when you are."
* * *
"On stardate 90550.35," Admiral Kane began as he paced back and forth across the head of the conference room, "the USS Roanoke received a distress call from Starbase 114 stating that a Borg cube appeared to be on a direct course for the Celes System. At 1100 hours the Roanoke intercepted the Borg ship and hailed it. At that moment, Ensign Azera Xi fell into a trance-like state that gradually became more intense until she fainted. The Roanoke continued its battle against the cube and, with the aid of the USS Galaxy and the USS Phoenix, destroyed it before it could complete its attack on the starbase. At 1307 hours Azera Xi awoke in sickbay with no memory of her actions on the bridge. Starfleet Intelligence was asked to assess the situation for any potential threat it could pose, and I've been investigating it personally since then."
"Azera Xi," Admiral Quinn asked curiously as soon as the speaker paused, "you mean the Roanoke's acting captain? The one who fought the Borg fleet at Vega Colony?"
"Interestingly enough," Marcus answered with a nod, "yes, the very same one. The first sign of her trance appeared when the Borg answered the Roanoke's hail. I was able to isolate the following sounds from the ship's records: this is both the Borg ship's response and Azera Xi's voice isolated from every other sound and synchronized to the same time frame."
He tapped a few buttons on the table's glowing LCARS panel, and the file began to play.
"We are the Borg," a mixture of both the Borg's droning chorus and Azera's lilting voice rose and fell in a perfectly matched duet, "you will lower your shields and escort us to your homeworld where we will begin assimilating your species. Resistance is futile."
"Her mind linked with the Collective," Admiral Zelle murmured to herself in the startled silence that followed. After another moment, Marcus continued his report.
"Once communication with the Borg ship was terminated, the crew became aware of the changes in her behavior. They reported that she fell back against the rear consoles, hugging herself and whispering about, and I quote, 'machine priests' and 'black cubes.' This is borne out by the following sound file I isolated from Captain Taggart's request for medical aid."
He tapped another glowing panel on the table, and Azera's whispers filled the room.
"...are the dissenters, the apostate worlds, deniers of the perfection that they..."
"Her whispers reportedly grew faster and more frantic until she cried out for her parents, and then she lost consciousness. She was immediately taken to sickbay where she was found to be in a condition resembling REM sleep, but at the same frequency as a waking state. While she's not human, that doesn't match any of her baseline neural oscillations either."
"Mental synchronicity followed by withdrawal, regression and loss of consciousness," Admiral T'nae remarked with a detatched Vulcan calm that couldn't quite conceal the worried look in her eyes, " this almost sounds like the Borg telepathically attacked Ensign Azera."
"I don't think it was an intentional attack," Marcus replied, "but that seems to be exactly what happened. She has psionic abilities roughly comparable to those of an untrained Vulcan. When she heard the Borg's voice, she came into mental contact with them, something she'd never experienced and wasn't prepared for. Everything after that was her mind's attempt to hold onto itself against their collective will, until it shut down entirely as a last resort."
"That is logical," Admiral Valoth pondered from the far side of the table, "yet Vulcans themselves face no such difficulties when confronting the Borg's hive mind."
"No, they don't," their host agreed with a shake of his head, "the Borg task force speculated that their collective consciousness has a way of shielding itself from psionic contact, presumably after suffering early defeats against telepathic societies. But this isn't entirely unprecedented either. Jean-Luc Picard reported similar contact with the hive mind during the Battle of Sector 001, as did Annika Hansen in her encounters with Borg vessels. Individuals who have been liberated from the Borg often retain a psychic awareness of the Collective."
"So she was a drone once," Admiral Quinn asked skeptically.
"No, there are key changes to the genome we'd expect to see if she had ever been assimilated by the Borg. She's never been exposed to their nanoprobes."
Marcus sat down at the head of the table and tapped a few more buttons on the embedded touchpad, flaring the wall console behind him to glowing life.
"This is an archived video file of her waking up aboard the USS Columbia twelve years ago, preserved for the historical record as first contact with an unknown species."
The flickering screen showed a sickbay in shambles. The blue-lit control panels crackled and sparked as a wave of concussive force smashed across the wall, a telekinetic windstorm sweeping the hyposprays and scanners into a cyclone around a panic-stricken, salmon-haired child in kimono-like robes. She crouched atop one of the biobeds like a feral cat, dark eyes darting wildly among the scrambling medical staff, the short spiky bangs of her hair revealing the flattened external eardrums that marked her as an alien. One of the nurses tried to say something reassuring, only to quickly duck away from a medical kit sent flying at her.
"Alouric nax ti!" Azera screamed furiously through her tears, "anak nen ceasselas jetla!"
"Why isn't the translator working," the doctor shouted back over his shoulder, and then he lifted his hand up as he tried to approach the strange girl, "it's okay, you're safe..."
He suddenly slammed sideways against the bulkhead, doubling over a shelf with a pained groan as the child aimed one outstretched palm at him. Then she swung her panicked stare back toward the entrance, raising her trembling hand toward the security team gathering outside.
"Nalai kul," she shouted at them, "nalai kul orea! Zilou nax ti!"
"Look kid," the red-haired woman leading the team said slowly, keeping her phaser aimed steadily at the little girl, "we don't want to hurt you. Just calm down and..."
"Desael, desaela na," Azera shook her head frantically, "nen cil isar thussyn..."
The last syllable on her lips faded away into a groggy moan, her violet eyes drooping as she wobbled atop the bed and then tumbled backward into the doctor's arms. He sighed with relief and tossed away the hypospray he'd kept hidden behind his back, and then gestured for the rest of the medical team to help him monitor the sedated girl's vital signs.
Marcus paused the playback.
"The universal translator couldn't get a fix on her language at the time," he said quietly, "and by the time she'd learned English, she'd forgotten almost everything about her life before waking up on the Columbia. Xenolinguistics has progressed since then, however, and her brain activity's much better documented now. If you update the file's translation matrix..."
He tapped in a few silent commands, and the video played again.
"Stay away from me! What did you do with mama and papa?"
"Let them go! I said let them go! Get away from me!"
"It's a trick, you're trying to trick me. You're the machine priests..."
The admiral paused the video, and then turned it off again with a few more taps. For a long moment nobody dared to speak. The last two words she'd said seemed to echo silently through the conference room, weighted with each of the officers' silent thoughts.
"The original analysis of her escape pod indicated that it'd been in space between one and two hundred years," Marcus spoke quietly, "but that's not really accurate. The ship was moving at variable near-light velocities with no chronometer and an unknown trajectory. Due to time dilation effects, we don't actually know how long she was in stasis. One or two centuries is the bare minimum estimate. In all likelihood, it's been exponentially longer than that.
"I did, however, pinpoint the technology used in the vessel's construction," he continued, "the power distribution system relies on a Bussard collector for fuel, but it shows a characteristic modulation that makes it especially vulnerable to a phaser attuned a narrow range of high-band electromagnetic frequencies. Commander Shelby discovered the same vulnerability in the Borg's auxiliary generators prior to the Battle of Wolf-359. The pod's hull uses a variant polytrinic alloy that replaces tritanium with dentarium, and the pictogram language inscribed on the ship bears at least a more than passing resemblance to the Borg's alphanumeric code."
"Are you saying," Admiral Quinn asked slowly, "it's a Borg escape pod?"
"It's more than that. I think we're looking at Species 1 technology."
"Species 1," Admiral Akaar's frail voice finally asked, less out of confusion than surprise.
"The Borg classify sentient species by the order in which they encountered them," Admiral Kim answered him, "they call humans Species 5618. Talaxians are Species 218. Species 1 is, at least hypothetically... it's where it all began. The Borg's ancestors."
"Isn't it possible," Admiral Trem broke the long silence with another question, "that the resemblance comes from the Borg having assimilated her people's technology?"
"Possible, but I don't think it's likely," Marcus shook his head, "the Borg have a very modular design philosophy. They don't alter their technology so much as add more and more components to it. Their capabilities are constantly changing, but without the ability to innovate on an individual level, the underlying technological base is extremely static. Remember what they say: 'your culture will adapt to service us.' Not the other way around.
"What we're seeing in this pod is that same technology stripped down to its most basic form, with none of the enhancements they've assimilated from others since."
"She can hear their thoughts even though she's never been assimilated," Zelle said quietly, as much to herself as the rest of the admirals, "she calls them by a name nobody's ever heard before. This isn't just about the ship... it's Azeri Xi herself. She's Species 1."
"Now you know why I didn't bring my report straight to the Federation Council," Marcus nodded as he stood up again, "if this information leaves the room, it'll spark diplomatic and military chaos all across the quadrant. She'd be the target of every organization that wants to understand the Borg and doesn't have any ethical compunctions about how they do it."
"The Tal Shiar would give anything to tear her mind to shreds with their probes," Zelle agreed forlornly, "just to extract the information that might be locked in her memories."
"I wouldn't be surprised," Admiral Quinn squinted his eyes in dark thought, "if Section 31 decided to use her to design a Borg bioweapon. It wouldn't be the first time."
"The Klingons wouldn't even be that practical," Admiral Yashinov's brisk Russian accent broke in, "their judicial system may well blame her for all the Borg's crimes since."
"And what," Admiral Akaar asked softly, "about the Borg themselves?"
"I can't even guess," Marcus answered reluctantly.
"Are they wrong, though," Admiral Trem muttered quietly, and then he spoke up, "I don't mean dissecting her or probing her brain or anything. But we have an unimaginable opportunity. A member of Species 1 is literally serving in Starfleet. What do we do with that?"
"What would you suggest we do," Admiral Kim glared, "have Valoth grab her for a mind meld when she's not looking? We're Starfleet, not the Obsidian Order."
"We could at least try asking her," the Tellarite snapped back, "are we really going to just send her off on planetary surveys? Isn't she a more valuable resource than that?"
"Maybe he's right," Admiral Zelle hesitantly replied, "if all the other powers in the quadrant would try to use her, isn't that even more reason for us to take action first?"
"It seems likely that the Borg's cybernetic implants are designed using her species' genome as a base," Valoth mused, "if one were to analyze her body's reaction to..."
"Enough," Marcus suddenly growled, slamming both his fists across the conference and waiting until the rest of the admirals had jerked up from their growing feud into shocked silence, "this is exactly the sort of thinking that I was afraid could tear the quadrant apart! We are the United Federation of Planets. For almost 250 years we've stood as a beacon of hope in the galaxy, welcoming anyone who'll join us, promising liberty and equality regardless of their species, regardless of whatever prejudices once defined them. An orphaned child escaped from a nightmare to find a new home on Earth, she pledged herself to our ideals, she joined Starfleet to fight for them against an enemy she has every right to be terrified of - and within five minutes of finding out she has even more to offer, we're already trying to figure out the best way to exploit it. It's easy to talk about liberty when there's no advantage to doing otherwise, isn't it?
"All of us took an oath to protect the Federation and its citizens. That includes her. If she was born as Species 1, that means she needs our protection more, not less. A society where even her people can be welcomed without judgement, without fear of being hunted or exploited simply because of what she is, is exactly what the Federation's founders dreamed of. Azera Xi's entire career in Starfleet is a testament to that dream, and to everything we've done since to make it come true. Maybe you're right, maybe using her somehow really would give us an advantage. Who knows, maybe it'd even be the key to destroying the Borg. But if we did that, we'd be selling our souls for victory. The dream would be dead. We'd just be another empire.
"I don't outrank everyone here together," he sighed after a moment, "so this is really your decision, not mine. But I believe in the Federation and its ideals. And I believe in her. That her worth as a person is greater than her worth in a petri dish. But the choice is yours."
"Of course," Trem nodded humbly, breaking the long silence that followed, "war has a way of turning us all into warriors. Thank you for reminding us that we are men of peace."
"We are all in agreement with you, Admiral Kane," T'Nae replied thoughtfully, "but she could pose a very real strategic risk if she's vulnerable to the Borg's influence."
"She's confronted the Borg several times since with no trouble," Marcus answered her, "she seems to have quickly learned, at least on an unconscious level, how to keep their thoughts separate from her own. Nonetheless, Starfleet Intelligence will continue keeping a close eye on her and the Roanoke, especially when it comes to missions against the Borg."
"Do you think she should be told," Admiral Quinn asked, "as head of Starfleet Intelligence, you are the one who decides whether she should be given classified information."
"I haven't decided yet," he answered a little ruefully, "unless anyone has questions, this meeting is adjourned. Or more precisely, it never happened to begin with."
* * *
"Admiral Kane," Azera chirped in a voice somewhere between cheerful enthusiasm and wide-eyed panic, darting around her ready room to lightly pick up each one of the dozen tribbles hopping around the room and drop them onto the sofa before settling into her chair... and then jumping to her feet again to lift an indignantly squeaking tribble off the cushion, perching it atop her desk with a weary sigh before sitting down to focus on the screen.
"If this is a bad time commander," the handsome, and stern-looking, admiral began...
"No, no, it's fine," she waved her hands quickly and apologetically, "we're just having a little tribble on the Roanoke. I mean, a little trouble! It's kind of a long story..."
"Let me try to guess," he smirked, "one of your crew bought a tribble on Drozana Station. The Ferengi who sold it probably promised that it was sterile. It wasn't."
"Okay," she admitted sheepishly as she hastily set aside a purring little furball that she'd suddenly caught herself petting, "so it's not such a long story."
"Don't worry about it," he chuckled, "tribble infestations are practically a rite of passage for new captains. Have you decided what you're going to do with them yet?"
"I've set up a rendezvous this week with each of the 17 Federation-approved tribble handlers in this sector, and we'll be dropping off about, oh, three dozen per handler. We should have the ship cleared out and the tribbles going to good homes in just a few days."
"You're not just jettisoning them," Admiral Kane tilted his head a little, "I admire that. Anyway, I was calling about your report on the Devidians and Franklin Drake. You've handled the situation well. Unfortunately Drake has connections in Starfleet that make challenging him with your testimony alone a dangerous proposition, but he's already placing a remarkable amount of trust in you. Give him enough rope and he'll hopefully tie the knots himself."
"Understood admiral," she responded more seriously, artfully dodging a tribble that'd tumbled off one of the shelves behind her and brushing her rose-pink ponytail back again before leaning closer toward the screen, "what should we do about his orders in the meantime?"
"So far he's talked a big game about Section 31, but he hasn't really asked you to do anything that Admiral Quinn or I wouldn't approve. The Devidians are a major threat to this region and Starfleet did authorize the Enterprise-D's visit to the 19th century to stop them. We have ample precedent for likewise authorizing your trip to the 23rd century, though we don't need to share that approval with Drake. We'll let him think he's winning your loyalty for now."
"Ugh," Azera muttered to herself in disgust, and then flashed a tight-lipped smile, "as long as it ends with me waving to him through the force field of a brig, it'll be worth it."
"It will," he reassured her, "we just want to make sure you're on the right side of it."
Azera had already started to straighten up and reach for the console when she realized that the call wasn't actually finished, that the admiral had simply grown silent for a moment, as though lost in his own thoughts. She waited politely and curiously until he began to speak again.
"Commander," he said, "I also wanted to talk to you about the Borg."
"Oh," she said after a long pause, and she realized only as the word crossed her lips how apprehensive her voice must have sounded, "how can we be of service?"
"No," he shook his head quickly, "it's not a mission. It's just... it must be hard, fighting them after the Vega Colony attack. And after your experience in the Celes System before that."
"It's fine," she tried to offer nonchalant shrug, "I'm just glad to be part of the fight, that's all. All of us are. This is our home, admiral. We're not going to let them take it."
"I know you won't," he nodded, and then, after another hesitant pause, "Azera, have you ever wondered about what happened when you first encountered the Borg?"
"Oh that," she asked with a small laugh and a nervous gulp as she tried to swallow her pounding heart back down her throat, "telepathy, the doctor said, just one of the crazy drawbacks of being a telepath. Don't let the Betazoids fool you - it's not worth the hassle."
"I suppose not," Admiral Kane agreed, and then, "you really don't like the Borg, do you?"
"No sir," she answered with a grimly frowning honesty, "they're everything we were afraid of as children. They're the bogeymen, except they're real. We'll keep the lights on, we'll push them back into their shadows and make this quadrant safe again. I promise that."
"I'm glad to have you on our side," he said thoughtfully, "well, good luck with your tribble adoption run, and try not to step on any butterflies in the 23rd century, okay?"
"Aye aye," she saluted with a cheerful smile again.
Back at Starfleet Headquarters, Admiral Kane closed the channel and leaned back in his chair, his fingers clasped together as he stared up at the ceiling in frowning thought and replayed the conversation again and again with all the things he might or should have said. Then he sat up straight again, fingers tapping the smooth black desktop faster than the LCARS display could light up. In another moment it showed the list of files he'd called up, a personnel record of every officer kept by Starfleet Intelligence. A simple, unassuming report lay hidden halfway down the list: "Biographical Analysis of Azera Xi, 1st Revision." Only a handful of people in the Federation would even be able to see that title on their screen. He highlighted it, brought up the miniscule list of officers with viewing access and then began to type in one more approved name.
Azera Xi, Starfleet Serial Number 361-4752-118
"It'll be here," Marcus said quietly as he saved the file, "whenever you're ready for it."
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