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Join Date: Jul 2012
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# 14
02-24-2013, 07:51 PM
Literary Challenge #39: "Lone Drone"

Tales of Alyosha Strannik
"The Call"

Personal Log, Encrypted. Captain Alexei Ivanovich Strannik, commanding officer of the USS Chin'toka.

There are two calls that every Starfleet captain dreads having to make.

The first is the one that begins with, 'I regret to inform you that your son or daughter gave their life in the line of duty.' This was the other one. And sometimes it's hard to tell which is worse.

We'd been on patrol in an asteroid-filled system just outside the border of the Argolis Cluster in search of True Way activity when sensors picked up a transwarp conduit forming just off our starboard--its signature unmistakably Borg, preliminary mass estimates suggesting a tactical cube. The Chin'toka's systems leapt automatically to red alert.

"Warp nine--get us out of here!" I called, as if Ensign Mirrsh weren't already keying furiously at the helm controls.

"Negative, sir!" the Saurian shouted back. "We're too close to the aperture. Our warp bubble is collapsing!"

"Normal-space ingress imminent in fifteen seconds," droned the computer.

There was no way--no way--a lone escort would survive against a tactical cube. Not by conventional means, anyway.

"That asteroid!" my Aenar first officer called. "We could push it into the apert--"

I cut him off. "Do it!" Yes, I could see we'd have to go to full impulse with the tractor repulsors engaged to shove the asteroid where we wanted, and yes, the force of the impact would be severe on the Chin'toka even with full shields. I knew the risks. But if we could place the massive rock directly in the path of the Borg ship as it shot out of the conduit before they had the chance to raise their shields, it would shred through that reinforced hull plating like an enormous, armor-piercing TR-116 bullet.

Commander ch'Valek engaged the tractor repulsors just as Helmswoman Mirrsh set a collision course for the asteroid, our breakneck trajectory running almost perpendicular to the expected aperture opening and the asteroid started moving.

I punched the comm button on the armrest of my command chair, keying on the shipwide channel. "Engaging subspace field modulator--brace for impact!"

The bulkheads wavered around us as they shifted just .001 units out of phase--thinning disconcertingly for the rest of the crew, a bit more solid, more real for me--just as Thraz cut off the tractors, Mirrsh pitched the ship into a nearly 90-degree climb, and the first shockwave from the asteroid's impact with the tactical cube slammed into the Chin'toka, sending us hurtling through space with virtually no course control.

Then, just as the field modulator gave its last, the tac cube lit from within in a grand conflagration of plasma, matter, antimatter, and every form of hard radiation to which not even a Devidian would have been immune. As it was, even with our shields raised, most of the crew would surely need a round of hyronalin injections to allay any ill effects from the fallout. I gave thanks for the fact that the explosion had occurred in a lifeless system, for the ecosystem impact likely would have been catastrophic, just like what had happened millennia ago to Mol'Rihan.

As the blast subsided and Ensign Mirrsh righted our course, silence fell over the bridge as we beheld the tumbling, sparking hulk on the viewscreen.

By all rights the tactical cube should have fragmented completely upon impact. The fact that it hadn't was a chilling testament to the strength of the cube's neutronium plating. Instead, it hung together by the thinnest of twisting pipes and cables, only a few portions of the wreckage having been ejected outward and careening away at the velocities set for them by the detonation.

"Status report," I ordered. "I want a damage assessment on the cube." Given the severity of the threat, that came even before surveying the Chin'toka's own wounds.

"Large sections of the cube are without power," Lieutenant ch'Sherrin reported from tactical. "Minimal regenerative activity detected. Lifesign readings indeterminate. I recommend we blow the debris to hell while we still can."

I nodded. The thought of that thing somehow reconstructing itself even after the extraordinary amount of damage we'd inflicted on it was a monstrous one. "Do it," I ordered.

The Andorian unleashed a scatter volley from the Chin'toka's cannons, followed by a brace of photon torpedoes--archaic weapons by 25th-century standards, but with the tac cube robbed of its shields, they got the job done quite efficiently. And with the added bonus of ensuring the Collective at large would not be informed of any more technology they hadn't seen before.

Commander th'Valek conducted one last sensor sweep on the debris field. Suddenly his antennae shot upright, quivering with tension at their ends. "Captain! I'm picking up a single life sign near the cube's central plexus!" The shielded device that formed the dark heart of a Borg cube was darned near impossible to take out, and if it regenerated it could quickly turn into a signal platform far more powerful than anything even Project MIDAS had ever managed--

"That life sign--is it a drone?"

"Yes, sir."

"Prepare to beam him aboard on my mark."

Ch'Sherrin glowered at me from tactical; I didn't have to turn around to know his expression. "Sir, with all due respect, you cannot seriously be planning to beam that thing aboard, not while we're still too damaged to go to warp!"

I spun around on my heel, favoring him with a hard glare of my own. "We do not refer to sentient beings as things, Mister ch'Sherrin." Perhaps most captains would have considered this an inappropriate time to fight that battle...but as one belonging to a species subject to such labels, were my crew to know the truth, it just wasn't in me to casually dismiss the remark. The best I could do was move on from the subject, once addressed. "Your security concerns are duly noted, though. We'll beam the drone into a brig cell under full isolation protocols and armored security guards. The med team will have to do what they can under the circumstances. My hope is that with the drone isolated and the central plexus destroyed, we'll delay a Borg response long enough to transwarp in some reinforcements from Task Force Omega."

The Andorian returned an abrupt nod. "Understood, Captain. Notifying security teams Alpha and Bravo, and brig guard Echo."

"In the meantime," I said, "as soon as we've signaled Task Force Omega, I want us to rig for silent running. The more we blend in while we get the engines back online, the better." These light- and energy-abatement procedures would hopefully help the Chin'toka blend in with the debris--maybe even temporarily fool the Borg into thinking we'd been destroyed by our own asteroid stunt--if they tried to come through again.

I took in the panorama of the bridge all at once, though save for Commander th'Valek, they had no way of knowing just how far my field of vision really extended. So before I sat back in my command chair to hail Task Force Omega, I turned to face them'Sherrin included. "You did good work."

It took one tense half hour for a carrier group from Task Force Omega to arrive on location. Admiral N'Riuw's sleek, Caitian-built Atrox deployed a veritable armada of worker bees to help us shore up the Chin'toka's four strained nacelle pylons in record time.

Once my engineer had cleared us for warp speed, I hailed Admiral N'Riuw to express my thanks. "Commander Temm would like me to pass on the highest regard for the M'Ress' engineering teams," I told the Caitian, forcing myself to meet his intense, laser-assisted stare.

"It's much appreciated, Captain Strannik." N'Riuw returned a fanged approximation of a human grin. "You could always sweeten it by sending over a bottle of Stolichnaya. 'Alexei' is a name from your world's Clan Russkiy, correct?"

Clan Russkiy? I laughed. "Close enough, though the nation is Rossiya. Russkiy is the adjective. But anyway, sir...what makes you think I'm partial to Stoli?" I leaned closer with devilment in my eyes, enjoying the double entendre this admiral obviously wasn't cleared to recognize. "And what makes you think I even drink in the first place?"

"Auuh, an ascetic. We have a few of those on Cait. Far too straitlaced for my taste, but I guess I can forgive you, Strannik, considering you did take out an entire tactical cube on your own." The entire screen lit red in that moment, virtually all traces of the admiral erased.

Oh, to say this...

"Sir," I ventured, hoping the calm, matter-of-fact approach would work best, "would it be possible for you to redirect your targeting laser elsewhere? I'm afraid you've washed out the image on my end."

After a moment, the transmission cleared up. "Apologies. I forget sometimes." The admiral shrugged. "I suppose I could have it removed, but the truth is I find it useful. And if I can turn their technology against them--all the better."

I nodded without comment. The Borg had destroyed his last command, beaming their assimilation teams straight onto the bridge. N'Riuw had risked assimilation to get the rest of his senior officers to the safety of the turbolift--a bluff the Borg had called him on. The Borg didn't get far with him before his rescue though--his time in the Collective, and the extent of his physical injuries, had been mercifully brief, a few hours at the most, but they had kept him long enough for him to lose an eye. Rumor had it the man lived hard--partied hard--in the hope of denying the Borg even the slightest evidence that they'd touched his personality. And perhaps to forget.

Momentarily serious, N'Riuw focused his good eye on me. "I also want to thank you for taking a chance on that drone you rescued. My officers took that chance on me, and I'm grateful for it...well...most days," he admitted. "No matter how it turns did the right thing, Strannik."

"Spasibo bolshoi, Kontr-Admiral."

Someone took a chance on me, too.

"Her condition is...I guess you could call it stable," Dr. Sei reported. "She took some serious damage in the explosion. And that's not even counting what they did to her."

"How bad is it, Jiana?"

The joined Trill's lips pressed into a tight line. Then she said, "She's one of the...extreme examples of assimilation. They've literally gutted her. They at least did her the 'mercy' of building her a full exoskeletal frame around the vivisected areas--but there are so many vital organs gone that she'll rely on her cybernetics forever. It also looks like they've tried to erase her features. She was Cardassian once, but the neck ridges are gone, and you can barely see what's left of her eye ridges."

'We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.' No--it's worse than that. That's absorption. Digestion.

"Has she woken yet?"

"I think she will, very soon. We've at least disabled her assimilation tubules and neural transceiver, but too many of her Borg systems are still online for her to stay sedated for long. Once she adapts, she'll be flushing out the sedative much faster than we can pump it in. We're going to have to transfer her to the rehab center in the Draylon system as soon as we can."

"Thankfully that's not too far from here," I mused. "But if she's from Cardassia, we'll have to run this upchannel. There may be a family in Cardassian space to notify. We need to try to find her identity."

Sei shook her head, disgusted. "There's not much of her original genetics left, Alyosha. If we have a chance at gaining some insight into who she was, it's going to come from her memories. But the state she's in--" The Trill doctor turned away, coughing alarmingly in a manner suggesting she was at the edge of throwing up.

Nurse Ludjira's voice crackled over the comm. "Doctor, her heart rate's elevating! I think she's clearing the sedative!"

"On my way!" Sei called at the ceiling. She scooped her medkit off the table and prepared to head into the brig.

I tapped my commbadge. "Commander th'Valek, report to the brig on the double! Our 'guest' is waking up--we need you to observe." With luck, perhaps the Aenar's powerful telepathy would serve to discern something from the rescued drone as to who she was.

"I'll be coming with you."

"Sir," Dr. Sei warned, all military discipline now, "I can't advise that. If she gets out, we can't have the Borg getting their hands on you." She glanced around to verify we were alone. "We've never had any evidence of the Borg engaging in interphasic travel. If they were to add your distinctiveness to their own..."

"Agreed. But..." An idea took shape. "Did you find any evidence of a phase discriminator among her implants? Any chance her ocular implant would let her see me if I were already phased?"

"Her ocular implant was pretty much destroyed. She's half blind."

I nodded. "Then I'm coming. My telepathy isn't very strong, but I may be able to detect something with my other senses. Are you ready, Jiana?"

"It won't bother me."

The Tellarite nurse shouted again. "Damn it, Sei, where are you?"

"Had to grab some engineering tools," Sei snapped back, Tellarite-style, "to deal with this Perversion-of-Symbiosis."

As she moved towards the door, I ceased the energies within my body that helped me maintain phasic alignment with my crew. For Dr. Sei and everyone else aboard the Chin'toka, I was now completely invisible and inaudible without the help of a finely-tuned set of triolic pattern enhancers. I, however, still had no trouble perceiving them, though everything seemed fainter, and distinctly blue-shifted, for they moved forward towards me in time, though never quite catching up to where I was.

I relinquished my human form as well--I needed every bit of focus for this. Energy rippled across my body as I activated and deactivated the microscopic arrays of photoreceptors embedded throughout my skin. This, rather than the illusion of human eyes I created, was how I truly saw.

I perceived, too, the flashing of energies between symbiont and host in Dr. Sei--their syncopated rhythms at once dissonant and aligned. No wonder she reacted so furiously to the violation the Borg imposed on their drones: seen through my Devidian neuroelectric sense the reality she lived was a thing of extraordinary beauty. To disrupt it in any way would be...unthinkable.

I followed her through the door into the brig--and there lay the drone. Even through the phasic distortion there was no mistaking the terrible, twisted form into which the Borg had wrought her.

Lord have mercy! I drew a sharp breath through my immobile mouth: erased had been putting it mildly, when it came to what they had done to her face. Her facial ridges weren't just subtle as they might be on a hybrid of Cardassian ancestry: they appeared almost melted, as if from severe burns. I couldn't shut off my forward-facing photoreceptors. I just couldn't.

Thraz th'Valek rushed in behind me, taking up a position just centimeters from my side. One of the Aenar's antennae twitched in my direction. Could he feel my presence? Now wasn't the time for me to try to reach out with my mind to his, though: the drone was stirring.

The security guard spoke firmly to the drone from outside the forcefield. "Don't move--you're badly injured. You're also under heavy guard, and if you do anything we aren't expecting, we are under orders to fire."

The drone stared back at her, motionless and without response. Worse--much worse--was the pattern of her neural energy: never in a living being had I perceived something so close to the artificial energy generator I fed from...there was something too periodic, too precise in its oscillations. Utterly predictable...devoid of that which fed a being's flights of heart and fancy. Even a Vulcan's neural output, for all they claimed it to be otherwise, was poles apart from this stunted regularity.

Is there nothing left at all? Had we--had I--made the wrong choice? Would it have been more merciful to end her life that perhaps her spirit, shackled to this mutilated body, might be freed into some sort of hope in the hereafter?

Commander th'Valek took on a much gentler demeanor. "Do you know where you are?"

"Chin'toka, Advanced Escort, Starfleet vessel designate 27421," the drone intoned. "This drone must return to the Collective."

"You don't belong to the Collective," Sei informed him. "You...come from somewhere in Cardassian space. Do you remember your name?"

"We are Borg, designation Six of Twenty."

Sei shook her head, lowering her voice. "No...not your designation. The name you had before you were assimilated. Your Cardassian name." The doctor disabled the universal translator, asking a question in a sibilant-laden tongue that sounded at moments almost like Old Church Slavonic to my auditory receptors--but I knew it to be Cardassian. I'd learned a few phrases myself during the war, and recognized Sei's question as, "What is your family name?"

For a moment the drone froze. Then her head twitched side to side in an awful, mechanical way, like a broken maintenance robot. Something--some emotion stirred within her for the first time, a primal amalgam so overwhelming that I could find no words to describe it. My claws dug deep into my palms. Her mouth worked in the same artificial rhythm--soundlessly at first, and then, finally, something emerged. "Ta--ta--ta--ss--Tassok--Tassok--Tassok--"

Suddenly her lone eye went wide and a strangled scream ripped from her throat. Her body stiffened and she fell back to the bunk with a metallic clatter. Whatever light--whatever true life--had entered her neural pattern had faded. And she herself had faded from consciousness, looking for all the world to be dead, though my senses told otherwise.

Sei and Ludjira worked furiously to stabilize the insensate...Tassok? Thraz bolted from the room, clutching his head as if it had suddenly erupted in a horrible migraine. Maybe it had.

I couldn't help it: I did the same, telekinetically throttling myself all the way out of the brig, past the antechamber, and into the hallway. There I crouched down, threw back my head, and let out a glass-shatteringly high-pitched shriek of anguish.

I sat down in my ready room, feeling as though someone had turned the ship's artificial gravity field up much too far. We had arrived in the Draylon system, where we would soon beam the tormented drone for treatment...but there was one more thing I had to do before I transferred custody to the rehabilitation facility.

Admiral ch'Harrel and I had put in a request to one of my fleetmates, a Cardassian exchange officer who might have the connections to locate a Tassok somewhere in the former Cardassian Union who was missing a mother, a wife, a daughter. He had found one--and now I instructed the computer to open a channel to the CDS Ari Otarrak, Gul Selim Tassok commanding.

The Cardassian onscreen was one of the young guls--a man who had never served in the pre-war Cardassian Guard. He wore the simpler armor favored by many guls who stood against the True Way.

Gul Tassok leaned forward, eyes wide, as if hoping to relieve a parched tongue in the desert. I tried to imagine, as I beheld Gul Tassok's visage, what his child might have looked like once. "What news do you have about my daughter?"

I hadn't even had a chance to introduce myself, so I did, buying myself just one more moment before I dropped the bomb on him. "My name is Alexei Ivanovich Strannik, commander--" I paused. How could I name my ship before this man--its name that of a victory against Cardassia in the Dominion War? "Of the ship that found your daughter."

Oh, Lord, how would he react? I'd heard the stories of families that disowned the victims of assimilation outright--even demanded their deaths. "She was taken by the Borg," I said, "and she's in very serious condition."

Gul Tassok's reaction was swift--and utterly heartbreaking. Berat had warned me about this: as much as Cardassian culture claimed to disavow emotion in favor of pragmatism, when it came to their families, Cardassian men were far more demonstrative than socially encouraged in many human cultures. "My baby--my Minda! Ten years...don't tell me it's been ten years with them..."

Tassok broke down. Just as Berat had said, the man made no effort to hide his tears. And why should he? I could make myself appear to weep if need be...but to hide my natural reactions until I was alone--it tore at me sometimes, to never 'laugh' or 'cry' as instinct compelled. I would ask the same of no one.

So I sat quietly, my gaze respectfully averted, and allowed Gul Tassok to compose himself when he felt ready. Once the gul looked up at me again, I confirmed the bad news. "By all indications...yes, it's been years. The physical and psychological trauma are extensive. We are transferring her to our rehabilitation facility in the Draylon system--"

Tassok slammed his palms into his desk and shot to his feet so fast the camera almost didn't keep up. "My daughter will not go to some facility! She belongs at home! The Borg had her for ten years and there is no way in the freezing tundra that I'll let the Federation keep her from me too!"

Oh, the terror in his eyes--how could he fear what would give her the best chance of survival and some degree of psychological recovery? And then I comprehended the root of his fears. "Gul Tassok...I can't say I understand in the same way you do, but in the part of Earth where I grew up, there was a time when the state and the intelligence apparatus corrupted the medical profession and used it for political purposes.

"I give you my personal assurance that your daughter will be treated with dignity. I know you want her at home. I want that to happen as soon as possible. But I...have seen her. And there's a great deal of work that will have to be done before she can make the transition into society, even with the best home care." And I had no doubt that with the Cardassian family ethos, the services available for in-home treatment were quite a bit more extensive, and more often used, than those on Earth. "She won't be a prisoner. But she'll need her family to make decisions on her behalf until she's ready."

"I will be there in two days," Tassok declared. "Tomorrow! I will put in my retirement application at once! I am not going to spend another moment away from my girl!"

I focused a somber expression on the Cardassian gul. "'s going to be very, very difficult for you, especially in the beginning. But..." I debated whether or not to tell him. But I had to give the distraught father some sort of hope--something to sustain him through the painful weeks, perhaps years, ahead. "She doesn't seem to remember much of who she is...but she did remember her family name. That's something not everyone in her situation has."

Gul Tassok nodded. "I...understand. Still--family is all. More than my career. More than my life. I will be there. Thank you, Captain Strannik, for bringing back my daughter."

"You are welcome, Gul Tassok."

But I only brought back her body, I thought as the grieved Cardassian closed the channel, and I leaned back into my chair, exhausted. It would take the love of a father to bring back her soul.

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Last edited by gulberat; 02-25-2013 at 09:40 AM.