Title Graphic by Penumbra

Genre, rating: ST:Voyager slash J/7 (no established relationship, one-shot), rated R (for violence and some smoochies).
Summary, spoilers:
The Voyager crew bumps heads with a society that has more complexity than what was obvious initially -- and as always, politics tend to be a mess. No real spoilers, no references to specific episodes.
Legal yadda
: Characters not mine. Don't intend to keep them, will be returned in original packaging (though I might be tempted to do some indecent things to Seven). Not for profit.
Other words of wise
: Hopefully consistent Brit English spelling, some mild gore, live with 'em. I might also be maiming Trek canon regarding nanoprobes and common understanding of Janeway's mental stability (or lack thereof), but I'm sure you can make the leap of logic.
This story came about an idea I had one day while on the tram, and developed into the epic you see here. I also wanted to explore the idea of a J/7 relationship, but in my way, with no convenient transporter accident, inebriation, or well-timed malfunctioning of the holodeck needing to push them together…and no sudden realisations of how they are soul mates and have been madly, deeply, truly in love for all eternity without either of them clueing in on it before, despite their triple-digit IQs. In other words, a fan fic with no Harlequin novel rip-off romance. Don't know how well I did it, or if it turned out to be less than boring, but I'd love to know. Hint hint.
Thanks to Silent Bard who again infected me with the darned J/7 storytelling bug. With apologies to Iain Banks.
Email: penumbra@clinched.net

| Ch. 1-5 | Ch. 6-9 | Ch. 10- End |

Two, Three, Seven
© Penumbra 2002

Chapter VI: Dogma

The dinner was over, and apparently such formal affairs were always followed by a more informal mingling part. What had been an orderly dinner hall of about a dozen large round tables was now a seething mass of Culture people -- dodging one another with drinks in their hands, collecting in small knots to hold conversations, or ushering select people to quieter corners for more intimate discussions. The language might have been unlike the human varieties with its high, singing tone, and the drinks were served in delicate-looking pipe-like vessels that again were twisted into whimsical shapes, but it was most definitely still a party.

Janeway absentmindedly stroked the length of her glass, wondering distractedly how similar cultural patterns seemed to emerge no matter where they went. Social gatherings were a universal phenomenon, much like gravity. Right now, however, she was feeling the weight of the day on her stiff shoulders and tired eyes, and wasn't feeling much like socialising. So she had sat down back to her seat, only to have a steady stream of Culture people come and greet her. Her cheeks ached from smiling, although she was grateful the people had chosen not to assume Janeway's physical likeness, contrary to her expectations; apparently full imitation was reserved for different sorts of encounters.

"Captain?"

Janeway turned, bracing herself for another bout of diplomatic courtesy, only to find Seven standing next to her, head tilted. "Sit down," she said, relieved. Finally someone who absolutely refused to conduct small talk.

Seven did as was told, taking the seat next to Janeway and turning towards her, taking in the captain's form. "You are finding the proceedings…unacceptable?"

Giving Seven a lopsided smirk, Janeway set her glass contraption carefully on the table and leaned an elbow against the back of her chair, facing Seven. "Not unacceptable, merely tiring. I must be getting old."

That earned her a look thick with scepticism. "I must disagree with you there, captain," Seven said. "All this attention appears to have a tiring effect on all of us," she continued, indicating discreetly towards a knot that surrounded a very edgy-looking B'Elanna, flanked by a dazed Neelix.

"You're not tired?"

"No. I have considerably more stamina than the average human," Seven said, stating the obvious. As always, her matter-of-fact utterances managed to be both pompous and insulting.

"Well, I'm not average human," Janeway replied, humoured.

"I was not suggesting to the contrary," Seven countered, a ghost of an enigmatic smile dancing on her lips as she leaned towards the captain to be heard better.

At that moment, a servant chose to appear out of the thick mass of people milling around them, reaching past Janeway to collect her empty glass from the table. He was quietly polite, but Janeway noted how his unblinking eyes immediately focused on Seven. There was an unreadable look in them as he backed off with the glass, nodded, and disappeared back into the crowd.

"Species 2891, you said." Janeway murmured quietly, glancing back towards the crowd where the servant had vanished. "Why didn't we see them before we entered this tower?" she asked, focusing back on Seven.

"I would theorise that the Borg assimilation of Species 2891 left them vulnerable for cultural conquest."

"Cultural conquest?" Janeway said, her eyes suddenly sharp. It seemed the information they had received on the Culture's societal structure had been woefully lacking.

"Yes. After the assimilation of the prime worlds of 2891, the only remaining population was that residing here on Culture prime. Given the vastly diminished number left behind, it would have posed little problem for the Culture to force them into servitude."

"So you mean to say, the Borg upset the power balance of this system so that the Culture made Species 2891 their…slaves? Servants?" There was a stern note in Janeway's voice. "Even though they share a common genetic origin?"

"That is an accurate summary of the pattern I deduced, yes," Seven said, nodding. She appeared completely unfazed at the thought. "Their current genetic make-ups differ enough for them to be two separate species, so the Culture do not regard them as their own people. All knowledge I have of the development of Species 2891 post-assimilation is of course second-hand knowledge, and there is remarkably little of it."

"How about Species 2889, then?"

"Like Species 2891, they are so far removed genetically that they do not possess the mutable physiology of the Culture, so their assimilation was also inevitable. My knowledge on their subsequent history is nonexistent," Seven said, obviously disturbed by the gap in her knowledge. "But given the Culture's extremely xenophobic nature-"

"Xenophobic?" Janeway cut in again. "They have been nothing but courteous towards us so far."

"A fact I find somewhat puzzling, but it can be theorised they are willing to put their nature second to mutually beneficial trade agreements," Seven said, her head tilting as she thought out loud. "However, were they to find out that our crew complement is multi-species, the situation could change rapidly. They regard cultural coexistence as repulsive and their culture superior to all else -- hence their chosen nomenclature."

"Wait. They think we're all one species?" Janeway said, having stopped at the incredulous notion as she mentally ran through the wildly varying countenances of her away team, from Vulcan to Talaxian. Her eyes roamed over the crowd, only now noticing that several of the Culture people sported approximations of Talaxian hair, Klingon forehead ridges, and Vulcan ears, as well as assorted Human noses and lips. Janeway's eyebrows rose in amazement. "They do think we're one species, taking our differences to be nothing but…"

"Normal inter-species variance," Seven said when Janeway trailed off. "Or they could be assuming we have similar control of our appearance that they have. I did mention this point during our discussion regarding the three separate species, two days before the diplomatic dinner," Seven added.

Janeway felt a twinge of shame at Seven's admonishing tone of voice. She had been too distracted by Seven's presence that evening to pay proper attention -- a lapse quite unlike her. "It must have slipped my mind," Janeway admitted, looking around. "Great. So now we have started a new fashion trend," she said, not knowing whether she should be amused or exasperated. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a Culture person with fleshy approximations of Seven's implants on her face, and had to stifle a snort of laughter.

"Yes. Our differing species origin and genders are not apparent unless a full scan is conducted on several of us for genetic comparison; the obvious differences are minor compared to the physiological qualities we share. Also, given that equal interaction between species outside the trading of goods is a taboo for them, I do not think the very idea would enter their heads. They see us merely as visitors with excessively varying outward appearances."

"Let's make sure their misconception is not shattered, then," Janeway said.

"It is not likely under the circumstances, given that we have been granted full access to their political centre," Seven said, gesturing around the banquet hall. "Their trust in us seems implicit." She paused for a moment. "We were discussing Species 2889, of which we have not yet encountered?"

Janeway closed her eyes briefly, getting her mind back on track. "Yes, right. You suspect their fate to be similar to that of Species 2891?" she asked, gesturing vaguely towards a nearby servant collecting dishes.

"Given the Culture's xenophobic nature and their undeniable desire for conquest, it would seem more than plausible. However, I cannot say anything certain without further information regarding the subject. The only reason why I dare to suggest as much is…" It was Seven's turn to trail off, and she looked mildly uncomfortable.

"Yes?" Janeway prompted.

"The word with which the Culture refers to Species 2889 can be best translated as 'Primitives'."

"I see," the captain said thoughtfully. She was starting to see a new side to their hosts. "Is Tuvok aware of all this?"

Seven nodded, leaning closer again. "He was the one who suggested I approach you with this information. He was also of the opinion that as soon as we are allowed to retire to our room, a discussion of tactical nature is in order."

"I'm inclined to agree with him," Janeway said, a hint of ire in her voice. Discuss they would, definitely. She stood up and looked down at Seven. "Let's go see if we can disengage from the festivities right now."

---

'Right now' turned out to be slightly longer than Janeway would have wanted it to be. It had been difficult to spot N'koog, their original host, in the crowd of ever-changing faces. They all had quickly learned not to memorise faces, but instead, the decorations on the Culture people's clothes, which seemed to be unique.

Now, however, Janeway was safely outside the banquet hall doors, leaning against a window frame and eyeing the skyline that was but a silhouette as one of the suns was setting, colouring the sky in pinks and purples.

"Did you enjoy yourself, captain?" came a voice from behind her.

"Up to a point," Janeway replied to Neelix, only then taking her eyes off the landscape and turning towards him.

"They are an interesting species, to be sure, although I'm not certain their cuisine is anything to write home about," the Talaxian replied, twining his hands over his ever-growing belly. "Are you heading towards our room?"

"In a minute," Janeway said, leaning her back on the window as she opened the collar of her dress uniform. "Seven is still in there, I'll wait for her."

"I'll see you in a few minutes, then," Neelix said, gave her one of his chipmunk-like smiles and started down the hallway. Janeway looked at his retreating back, amazed that someone could think she and him were of the same species.

Turning back towards the window, she saw that the rapidly setting sun was all but gone, and the only illumination outside and in the hallway was the wan light of the second, much smaller sun. It was more reminiscent of bright moonlight than the light of a sun, and it gave everything it touched a silver sheen, throwing sharp shadows in the hallway.

At the sound of the door opening, Janeway glanced back, seeing Seven slip through a narrow opening before closing the door quietly again. Janeway turned towards her, a small smile on her lips. Not a hair was displaced on Seven's head, and her plum jumpsuit shone in the feeble light like it had been replicated five minutes ago.

"Hello, Seven," Janeway said quietly and detached herself from the shadows.

"Captain. I assumed you had already retired to the room," Seven replied, a question evident in her tone.

"I was actually waiting for you," Janeway said, omitting the fact that she had also wanted a moment of quiet time. "Walk with me?"

Seven didn't answer, merely waited for Janeway to join her before they started towards their room, through the maze of hallways.

The walk was long, but Janeway was grateful for it. The long day and the intensity of the party had all but worn down her nerves, and she had a lot on her mind. So they walked in silence for a while, the thick rubbery matting of the hallways quieting their steps to mere whispers.

"Is there something bothering you, captain…Kathryn?"

Janeway sighed and fiddled with the catches of her dress uniform to stall time. "Yes. Something. I don't seem to be able to put my finger on it."

"I'm certain the answer will come to you at some point," was Seven's noncommittal reply. "You have an innate talent for seeing…'the forest from the trees', I believe the correct colloquialism has it."

At the words, Janeway allowed a fond gaze towards her companion. While there was much Seven had yet to learn, she was quickly developing a personality that Janeway couldn't help but to fall for. "Thank you," the captain said quietly, as they reached their room.

"Captain," Tuvok greeted her. "Seven of Nine."

"We have matters to discuss," the captain said, nodding to her security chief. "Be seated," she told everyone and closed the door behind Seven and herself.

---

The morning came entirely too quickly, Janeway thought as she cracked open an eyelid. She had been woken by one of the mute servants -- Species 2891, or 'Silents' as the Culture referred to them -- who had rung a little bell at her ear. Seeing she had awaken, the servant moved towards the other beds, repeating his actions.

Some time later, when they had prepared for the day, they were joined again by N'koog, who informed them of their programme for the day. Neelix was to stay in the tower to monitor the already commenced shipment of food supplies to Voyager. Meanwhile, Paris and B'Elanna would be escorted to the Culture military space vessel docks, where they would oversee the manufacturing of the ship components they needed. After a bout of verbal arm wrestling, Tuvok had agreed to go with them, although the captain had to pull rank when she stated that Ensign Leroux was good enough a protection for her and Seven; they were to be introduced to the workings of the Culture society.

"I believe your escorts are here now," N'koog said to B'Elanna and turned as half a dozen Culture members entered. They were dressed in the more subdued, dark grey jumpsuits with swirls of muted black that Janeway had already seen on the crew of the vessel that had saved them, seeming quite colourless next to the bright splendour of N'koog's outfit.

"I am Doyen N'hoth of Culture warship Precision Point," the foremost of them introduced herself to Janeway, her appearance fluidly shifting from that of Janeway's to B'Elanna's as she turned towards the chief engineer. "I am pleased to be your host for today -- I have heard much about your adventures in the quadrant." Her voice, while calm and courteous, held a cold note.

Janeway introduced her team, all the while pondering the said implication that the information they had sent about Voyager was circulated widely in the Culture. The thought, coupled with the chilly tone N'hoth's voice held, made her a tad uneasy.

After the introductions, B'Elanna's team parted for their short flight; Neelix had already been whisked away by a Culture envoy and a number of servants. That left only Seven, Janeway, and Leroux, who were escorted out by N'koog and handed over to one of his political aides, N'dorian. Like her boss, she was clad in a colourful jumpsuit, flanked by a group of other similarly dressed Culture people. A number of them sported bumps on their faces that were reminiscent of Seven's implants.

As they started down the hallway, Janeway leaned close to Seven. "Your…special qualities seem to have started a whole fashion trend on their own," she whispered, unable to keep the smile out of her voice.

"Yes, captain. Apparently they are mistaking my implants for facial jewelry." Seven seemed mildly disturbed at the thought.

"Take it as a compliment, Seven," Janeway suggested.

"I shall endeavour to do so, Captain."

---

If it hadn't been for the over-enthusiastic curiosity of their entourage, the day might have actually been quite nice, Janeway mused. There had been an endless stream of questions coming from all the Culture people present, ranging from the history of Starfleet to Terran cooking. Keeping their story straight while making white lies to cover the multi-species construction of Starfleet was quickly becoming a nightmare, but that was what they had agreed on. Janeway sighed and looked through the window of their high-flying hovercraft towards the clear sky, vainly wishing she'd sent Chakotay to deal with this away mission after all. He had eternal patience, unlike she.

With half an ear, she listened to Seven who was giving a miniature lecture on the spatial phenomena they had recently encountered, while her own thoughts flitted through all the things she had seen. Museums, markets, monuments, whole cities specialised in goods production or power manufacturing through massive fusion reactors…it all blended in her mind. A remarkably advanced culture, they were, yet so primitive in other matters, Janeway concluded.

"N'dorian," she said, turning towards their official tour guide. When addressed, she turned, automatically assuming Janeway's appearance while still maintaining the facsimiles of Seven's implants on her face. The first time it had happened Janeway had been taken aback, only to silently conclude that Borg implants would be a fashion statement she would need to avoid.

"Yes?" N'dorian said.

"We have not yet visited any of your military installations. Are they restricted, or…?"

"No, by no means," she hastened to reassure. "It is merely that we are the political arm of Culture, not the military."

The explanation made no sense to Janeway. Registering the captain's confusion, N'dorian tried again, her forehead undulating as she thought.

"Our military is very strict about their jurisdiction. The power balance is clearly defined, both halves exercising autonomy over their internal structure. They are genetically predisposed to be the soldiers defending the Culture, while we maintain inner peace."

"Genetically?" Janeway said, leaning forward. What had started from an idle question had soon turned into a very interesting avenue of discourse. "What do you mean?"

"They are engineered to be soldiers, we to be rulers," was N'dorian's simple answer. She shrugged her narrow shoulders, as if her explanation was the most obvious thing to her.

Which explains a lot, Janeway thought. The minor but noticeable differences in appearance and dress, and the lack of military personnel in the party the previous night, for starters. I wonder…if this is how they got into genetic manipulation in the first place, to provide people specialised in different tasks? And is this the beginning of a fourth species in this system? She fell deep in thought, the significance of a seemingly small revelation so huge. I need to talk this out with Seven when we have a moment of privacy, the captain decided, making a mental note. Nothing beat Seven in logical deduction, not even Tuvok.

Her train of thought was brought to a violent halt by a loud blast followed by sudden rocking of their craft. The inside turned into pure chaos in a heartbeat, as the sharp twisting and turning the vessel exhibited threw all its passengers around like rag dolls. Janeway found herself airborne, hurtling towards the opposite wall. She was briefly aware of the pilots' panicked screams coming from the front of the craft before she hit the bulkhead, and her world exploded into white-hot pain. Screaming in pain, she was thrown around before the craft tilted down heavily, throwing her forward. Her impact on the pilot's pod was softened by two of the Culture escorts, but immediately she was punched breathless as someone else landed right on top of her, a sharp edge digging into her kidney.

Focusing on the pain in her back and trying not to bite her tongue in half, Janeway grasped to push off the weight resting on her, when it rolled off on its own.

"Captain!" Seven yelled over the noise of the screams and the ear-piercing whine of the engines as they attempted to stabilise the craft. Janeway turned her head to see it had been Seven who had landed on her. The Borg had half lifted herself off Janeway by grasping a handle on the wall. "We will hit the ground any moment!"

Janeway's mind felt electrified and the pain receded back to make room for dread. "Hold on!" she yelled to Seven and tugged her closer so that she was still holding on the wall, but so that her head was held still under Janeway's arm. She herself braced her head against Seven's torso. "Stay there and don't move!"

Seven didn't have time to answer before the impact came. The last thing Janeway remembered was the sudden darkening of the windows, before it all became very dark indeed.

 

Chapter VII: The Primitive Part of the Brain

The first thing Janeway became aware of was that her nose was itching. She sneezed, the body jerk awakening her immediately since it made a bolt of pain shoot through her arm. Her eyes flew open and an involuntary groan escaped her mouth as she instinctively cradled her left wrist.

"Captain? Are you all right?"

Janeway turned her head towards the sound, and in the semi-darkness and through the dust that had made her sneeze in the first place, she saw Ensign Leroux, seated on the floor in a position identical to hers. "Yes," was her immediate answer. "No. I think my wrist is broken."

"Same goes for my leg," Leroux said, and only then did Janeway notice the odd angle of her right leg. "Are you otherwise unhurt?"

"Aside from a bruised kidney, I think so," Janeway concluded after a moment of self-checking, which also revealed that her communicator was missing. "Are you bleeding, ensign?"

"No, the fractured bone is contained within her leg," said Seven's voice from the darkness, which suddenly became much less dark as the Borg opened a window covering in the wall. Janeway squinted against the sudden brightness. Seven's head was silhouetted against the small opening as she looked through the window. "It does not look very accessible," Seven commented after a moment, rapping the thick glass. "But manageable."

"Where are we?" Janeway said, carefully standing up. Her head spun for a moment and she leaned on the wall for support with her good hand. Her left wrist was sending white hot sparks of pain whenever she moved, throbbing to the beat of her heart.

"Imprisoned," Seven said matter-of-factly. "Apparently we were shot down and then rescued from our vessel by an unknown party, which has little liking of our hosts," she added, indicating towards the wall on her left.

Janeway's gaze followed her hand to the half a dozen of slumped figures in haphazard seating positions against the wall -- their Culture escorts. They sported various bruises, fractures and rips in their outfits, and most notably a black hole on their foreheads. Janeway covered the distance in a beat, and kneeled carefully down to investigate the closest one. It was N'dorian, her face a slack mass reminiscent of bread dough, dotted by blood sprayed from the massive wound in the middle of her forehead. She was very dead, as were the rest of their entourage.

"They were in that condition when I regained consciousness," Seven said, approaching the captain.

"Are…you all right?" Janeway said, tearing her eyes away from N'dorian's corpse.

"I am functioning within acceptable parameters," Seven replied coolly, although her hair was a mess and Janeway could see a massive bruise decorating her neck. "Will you assist me in realigning Ensign Leroux's leg?"

"Yes, of course," Janeway said, walking away from the bodies with one final look their way, to kneel down at the ensign's side.

Leroux's forehead was glistening with sweat, but Janeway noted with quiet pride that she looked otherwise as calm and alert as ever. Taking off her tunic, careful not to jar her wrist, she instructed Seven to tear the garment to suitable pieces. Holding onto Leroux's pelvis, she watched Seven pull and adjust the bone to its correct alignment, and then helped her tie the tunic strips tightly around the break point. It was not as good as a brace, but it would have to do, since they had found nothing to use as a splint. All through the ordeal, Leroux said not a word, although Janeway could clearly heard the grind of her teeth.

"Better?" the captain asked in a low voice.

"Not really, ma'am, but at least it doesn't look as scary as before," Leroux answered, her voice sounding exhausted. She offered a small smile to complement her attempt at levity, and Janeway answered by patting her shoulder in a manner she hoped to be reassuring.

Their quiet moment was abruptly cut short by the sound of an electric lock clicking. The door swung open, admitting three aliens, all brandishing energy weapons of unknown construction. Janeway stood up, ignoring the painful protest of her wrist, and pulled up her command presence as well as she could under the circumstances.

"Who are you, and with what right do you hold us prisoner?"

The lead alien stopped short and turned to gaze at her, what seemed like a smile on its lips. "You are the leader?" Its voice was pleasant, softly female, its appearance vaguely that of the Culture, but not quite. Smaller, leaner, with angular and defined features and a head full of chestnut hair.

"Yes, I am. Captain Janeway of Federation starship Voyager." The familiar litany came out of her mouth almost automatically. "Release us immediately or you will suffer dire consequences."

"Pleased to meet you, Captain Janeway of Voyager. I am N'sith, of the Primitives," the alien said. There was a healthy dose of pride in her voice as she used the Culture's pejorative-sounding nomenclature. N'sith's cheeks undulated along with her smile. "And what consequences? Nobody knows you are here."

Janeway stepped closer, only to have N'sith's companions aim their weapons squarely their way. Janeway came no closer, settling on giving the Primitive a force-ten glare. It made the smile melt away from N'sith's lips.

"My people will come looking for me," Janeway said.

"I'm sure they will. I'm also certain they will wind up as dead as your hosts -" N'sith almost spat the word as she nodded towards the dead Culture envoys, "- over there. The friend of my enemy is also my enemy."

"Why did you capture us?" This from Seven, who stepped to stand next to the captain, drawing attention to herself to shield the wounded ensign behind her.

"As said, you befriended my enemy. And also…" she said, trailing off as she stepped closer to Seven. "You are an enemy from long past." Her voice had lowered to a hiss, the muscles in her cheeks undulating like a raging sea as her skin suddenly took a dark shade of red. "Destroyer."

Seven merely lifted an eyebrow at the barely contained display of deep hatred.

"You are Borg, are you not?" N'sith demanded, the maroon colour on her face deepening still.

"Yes. I am also Human," Seven replied, not even looking at the weapon mere inches from her chest. "And while the Borg assimilated 98.7 percent of Species 2889, your culture was not destroyed. You survived," she pointed out, unhelpfully.

"Survival is no life compared to thriving," N'sith ground out, and took a deep breath, the colour on her face paling to watery crimson. Turning to Janeway, she had calmed down considerably. "You see, you have sided with two of the worst enemies of the Primitives: the species that took us to near extinction," she said, gesturing towards Seven with her weapon, "and those that wish to finish the job the Borg started," she concluded, nodding towards the dead Culture envoys. "I'm sure you understand my hate."

"What has happened to you is deeply regrettable-" Janeway began, only to be cut off with a wave from N'sith.

"Do not even bother," N'sith paced around Seven, her eyes never leaving Janeway. "My mind is made up. You are the perfect bargaining chip, while the Borg will suffer all the atrocities her people inflicted on mine." She was now standing next to Leroux, who was shooting daggers with her eyes, but the Primitive didn't even seem to notice her.

"My people will not bargain for my life," Janeway said, her voice tight with constrained anger. "Never."

"Well, then, your fate will be the same as hers," N'sith said, lowering her eyes to Leroux. Before Janeway or Seven could react, N'sith had also lowered her energy weapon and casually pressed the trigger.

The bright white pulse shot from the weapon and hit Leroux squarely in the temple, the other side of her head exploding outwards in a bloody mess. The force of the blast was enough to knock Leroux's body sideways. It slumped onto the dusty floor with a thump, and for a brief moment, Janeway was paralysed, before she snapped into instinctual action. She took quick, angry steps towards N'sith and the alien actually backed a step due to the force of the anger directed at her. She stopped Janeway's advance by shifting her aim squarely to Janeway's chest.

"Not another step," the Primitive warned.

"Or what? You'll murder me in cold blood, too?"

"Yes," N'sith said solemnly. "However, that would force me to take all of my frustration on her," she continued, nodding towards Seven, who was crouched next to Leroux's prone body. The clear threat sobered Janeway up, and she forced herself to relax despite the anger seething in her. It would do no good to rile up N'sith unnecessarily, even if not doing anything made Janeway feel impossibly impotent.

"Ensign Leroux is beyond medical help, captain," Seven said the obvious in a low voice and stood up. There was something very cold glittering in her eyes.

"I'll leave you with that thought, Janeway of Voyager. I have urgent matters to attend to," N'sith said, mock-saluting her with the energy weapon, before retreating with her comrades through the door. The heavy metal door closed with nary a sound.

---

Janeway brushed off the last of the dust off Leroux's forehead and closed her one remaining eye, before standing up with a sigh. Every crewmember she lost was as if she was losing a chunk of her own flesh: it was always a pain that remained with her for a long, long time. And Leroux's death had been completely pointless, the random act of a lunatic…no, someone who had lost understanding of the meaning of life, she corrected herself. The emptiness in N'sith's eyes had done nothing to temper Janeway's anger, though; she still itched to wrap her hands on N'sith's long neck and squeeze all life out of her.

A small sound of impatience coming from behind her made Janeway pause in her homicidal thoughts and turn.

"This door presents an insurmountable obstacle to our escape," Seven pronounced, sliding her Borg-enhanced hand along the crack on the hinge side. There was a clear undertone of frustration to her words.

"Figured as much," Janeway said, finding Seven's wording oddly humorous despite the grave circumstances. "Any other ideas? The window?" As she spoke, Janeway approached the small opening, rising on tiptoes to peer through it. It opened to a metal courtyard bordered by a concrete fence, beyond which she saw little but the distant wall of the next building. The glass was thick, but not overtly so.

"The window is small, but it should be manageable," Seven said, joining her. Her height allowed her to see through the glass comfortably, and as they watched, from behind the low wall a hovercraft rose, similar to the one they had taken earlier in the day. It stopped mid-air, only to zoom off with rapid acceleration. "Nightfall will be here within the hour. I believe we should make our attempt then."

"Right. Do you have a detailed plan?" Janeway asked and turned towards Seven.

"I will break the window, and we will climb through it, cross the courtyard, and climb over the wall. It seems probable there is a hovercraft landing pad on the other side; the vessel you saw taking off now was not the only one I have seen."

"I think you are forgetting something," Janeway said, lifting her left arm with her right, carefully avoiding moving the painfully pulsating wrist any more than what was necessary. "I'm in no condition to do any climbing whatsoever. You go, and alert the others and Chakotay."

"Unacceptable," Seven said curtly, and her eyebrows knitted as she regarded the captain's swollen, red fist. "We will find a way."

"I wish I had your confidence," Janeway muttered as her eyes searched the room for insight in the waning light of the evening. In the back of her mind, there was also a niggling worry about the rest of her away team. The mission had already had one casualty, and that was one too many; she was keen on avoiding more.

---

The rest of her away team wasn't doing too well, Janeway would have been disappointed to learn.

"Well this is just peachy," B'Elanna growled deep in her throat, crouching behind a tool cart with the rest of her team, cradling her gear case like it was a newborn baby. To B'Elanna, the significance of the case's contents probably rivalled that of an offspring: it contained the necessary parts Voyager would need to continue its journey.

"Agreed," Tuvok said as he glanced around the cart. Whoever the attackers were, they had managed to create considerable confusion amidst their hosts with a barrage of well-planted bombs that had shook the massive hangar with the force of an earthquake. Tuvok had his phaser out, but given that the explosives were apparently launched from an airborne craft somewhere outside the hangar, the hand-held weapon would do little good.

Their day had been one long tour of a military installation that rivalled the space docks orbiting Earth in size -- sensible, considering the Culture's space vessels relied more on land-bound supply lines compared to those flying under the Federation flag. They had gathered enough information to keep Voyager's engineering and tactical research busy with analysis for months to come, and the operations of the massive military complex were admirably efficient. Their guide, N'hoth, had been much like her counterpart they had first made contact with in space, answering most questions at length if a bit vaguely; they had come to find that like all warlike operations across the galaxy, the Culture's military exhibited extreme paranoia.

They had toured the entire day, B'Elanna busy with the engineering staff N'hoth had brought along with them. Their pleasant day had quickly been called to an abrupt halt by the attack, however. When the first of the explosions rocked the hangar, N'hoth had quickly pushed them behind the heavy tool cart, barking to two of her subordinates to stay with them before she disappeared behind the corner.

B'Elanna's ears were still ringing from the deafening blasts, although it seemed they had paused at least for the moment. She could hear the distant sound of klaxons and the hum of what was unmistakably subsonic crafts powering their engines.

"They are sending pursuers," one of the Culture soldiers said; she had also heard the engines. "We should be safe momentarily."

"Who were the assailants?"

"Local dissidents," the soldier replied vaguely to Tuvok's question. "It is unfortunate you had to witness such an attack. They are very rare."

"Just our luck," B'Elanna growled, peeking over the cart towards the main hall of the hangar. At that moment, the klaxons went quiet and N'hoth came jogging back to them, now clutching a hand-held energy weapon.

"We should get back to the tower," she said as soon as she was close enough to be heard. "This way." The gesture had some urgency in it, but her voice was even and calm.

Tuvok, Paris, and B'Elanna started after her, still crouching down and phasers drawn, while other Culture soldiers flanked them. Rushing through the hangar in a loose formation, they weaved their way around ship hulls of various stages of completion, small knots of the Culture version of military police, and sullen-looking workers of Species 2891 -- Silents -- who apparently couldn't care less what was happening around them. After a few twists and turns in various corridors, they came to their hovercraft, which was sitting unharmed on its small landing pad. The Voyager team was ushered in and they lifted off as soon as they had seated themselves. As they slowly rose to cruising altitude, several small one-man craft whizzed above them, apparently guarding the airspace in case more attackers were on their way.

"Damn Primitives…" Paris heard their pilot utter as she kept her eyes on the radar, to avoid collision with the small craft. He was seated in the co-pilot pod, and he'd already decided he didn't like the claustrophobic construction of the pods; Paris rather liked to be able to stretch his legs whenever the mood struck him.

He rotated the pod with a subtle body motion to shoot a glance towards B'Elanna, who was sitting on a low bench right behind the pilot. From her answering gaze Paris knew she'd heard the absentmindedly uttered comment, too. He offered a wan smile, to convey how much his head was spinning because of the convoluted politics of the situation. Apparently B'Elanna agreed wholeheartedly, if he was interpreting her vigorous nodding correctly.

Their journey back was uneventful, giving them ample opportunity to drink in the scenery as they tried to make sense of the day's happenings; while the view outside was certainly impressive, the city spreading out in all its complex glory, their minds were occupied by a sense of mild dread. It was a familiar feeling for all of them, cultivated through a myriad of away missions that had turned from dull to lethal in seconds merely because they didn't possess enough reliable information to make an accurate assessment of the situation beforehand. A healthy fear of the unknown, in other words.

B'Elanna turned, still clutching her equipment case. "Sir, do you think we should try and contact the captain?"

"I already attempted to do so," Tuvok said in a low voice. "There was no answer from either Captain Janeway or Seven of Nine."

B'Elanna's brow knitted as small alarm bells went off in her head. "How about Voyager?"

"I spoke briefly with Commander Chakotay, and he was unable to raise the captain, either. However, he informed me that interference from the extensive metal structures of the buildings," he said, gesturing with his hand towards the window, "could be very well blocking the signal."

"So we wait till we get back to the tower?"

"I would see that as the most logical course of action. Our hosts there will have the best information regarding Captain Janeway's whereabouts. Chakotay is contacting them as we speak."

"Yes, sir," B'Elanna said, and turned to face forward again. While Tuvok's words had made sense, they did nothing to dissuade the alarm bells in her head, or the sense of dread that was making her stomach knot.

 

Chapter VIII: Into the Deep

Their light was waning quickly, but it was not yet dark. Janeway and Seven had spent the better part of an hour searching every square centimetre of the cell for anything to use as a brace for Janeway's wrist, but had come up with nothing. The frustration was evident in Janeway's grunt as she sat down. The ache on her arm had grown progressively worse as the swelling exacerbated and the fracture was irritated by her constant activities.

Seven approached and sat down next to her. "Instead of attempting to find a brace, maybe we should devote our attention to finding an alternative method of escape," she suggested. Aside from the dustiness of her clothes, she looked none worse for wear, although Janeway could clearly see the way her jaw muscles were flexing. It was evident Seven was disturbed to the extreme by the situation.

"Aside from surprising our captors when they next visit us, I can't think of anything else," Janeway said, hearing the tiredness of her own voice. "And without weapons, I don't see how we can do that." She didn't add that she was also worried about the rest of the away team, and the thought of waiting for the Primitives' convenience was not appealing to her.

"Yes, the dangers there are inherent," Seven replied, a line appearing between her brows as she frowned. Switching positions so that she was sitting next to the captain and also leaning against the wall, she let her eyes close for a moment.

"Seven, is there something wrong?"

At the words, Seven opened her eyes again and offered the captain a solemn nod. "I have not regenerated in thirty-nine hours, and while usually I could continue for another sixty, the trauma I suffered during our…capture has depleted my body energy levels considerably."

Janeway's eyes narrowed. "What trauma?"

"I received some minor internal damage that my nanoprobes were able to repair within minutes," she replied evenly, folding her hands in her lap. "However, because of the expenditure of energy I require additional sustenance, either solid nutrients or energy through my regeneration alcove, within a few hours or my non-essential implants will commence partial shut-down."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Janeway demanded, her own pain forgotten as she turned to face Seven fully.

The implant above Seven's left eye rose a notch. "Considering our current dilemma, the issue cannot be helped. I considered the information unnecessary."

"I see," Janeway said, shaking her head. She would need to have a serious talk with Seven, time permitting, about what sort of information she should consider important.

"Captain…" Seven said, trailing off. She appeared deep in thought, a frown on her face.

"Yes?" Janeway prompted after a moment.

"There is an additional alternative," Seven replied, her pale gaze flickering hesitantly from Janeway's eyes to her wrist. "However, the approach is somewhat…unorthodox." Her discomfort with her idea was obvious as she drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them in an unusually apprehensive and adolescent gesture.

"Care to elaborate?" Janeway said warily, although at that point she would have been willing to eat small pebbles if Seven had suggested such an act would lessen the godawful throbbing pain in her wrist.

"My nanoprobes have the capability of repairing me. A measured dose would also heal you," Seven said, her gaze serious as she regarded Janeway.

Janeway's eyebrows flew up on her forehead. "Heal me, yes, but also assimilate me, if I'm not mistaken. Seven-"

The Borg stalled her with a raised hand. "Yes. However, my nanoprobes have been altered by the process that is allowing me to increasingly exist without the help of Borg cybernetics. The nanoprobes do not have the aggressive assimilative or self-generating quality of the regular Borg variety. So a number sufficiently low would theoretically be able to repair your wrist, while the damage done to your organic systems otherwise would be minimal." The speech came out in one, breathless burst. It was obvious Seven was as uncomfortable with the idea as Janeway was. "It is the only solution I can immediately see," she added, quietly.

"Can you elaborate on the part about minimal damage to my other organic systems?" Janeway was skeptical, to put it conservatively.

"The assimilation process would remain local and so slow it would be easily reversible once back on Voyager," Seven said, instinctively glancing at her Borg-enhanced left hand. "I have never attempted anything like this, though," she added.

"Let's just say I'm not too fond of the idea," Janeway said, her voice dark, "but we need to get moving, now. Will this not deplete your energy resources further?"

"The additional drain is negligible, and justified in the face of our lack of options."

"Right, then." Janeway exhaled, closing her eyes briefly to chase away the frightening images of herself as a drone, and all the vivid memories of claustrophobia, bone-chilling fear and dread she had collected whenever in contact with the Borg. "Proceed."

Janeway watched, eyes unblinking, as Seven took a deep breath. She straightened her legs and gently grasped the injured hand, resting it on her thigh. The fabric of Seven's outfit was cool and slick under Janeway's hand, and she could feel her palm sweating, the moisture absorbed by the high-tech fabric.

"This will hurt momentarily."

Janeway nodded. Seven gave her a reassuring smile, and shifted her gaze on her left hand. From the tip of the silver mesh on the index finger, a thin assimilation tubule emerged and latched onto Janeway's wrist, burrowing into the reddened, swollen flesh. The captain made a sound of pain at the back of her throat as she felt the sting. The sting flared suddenly into a feeling of cold numbness that spread from the contact point outward, as if she had dipped her hand into liquid nitrogen.

"Hell that hurts," Janeway hissed, her fingers digging into Seven's thigh, connecting with the sharp edge of an implant underneath the plum-coloured fabric.

"The pain disappears once tissue mutation is complete."

Seven's words were said by the way of comfort, but they barely registered with Janeway. With a mixture of fascination and dread, she watched as her flesh turned from ruddy to sickly white, veins bulging and blackening in the wake of the transformation. The change radiated from the wrist, only to slow down and all but stop half-way to her elbow, and just at the knuckles on her hand. A sharp stab of pain pulsed in her wrist as Seven extracted the tubule and its place was taken by a small starburst implant that shot through Janeway's whitened skin, fanning out and attaching itself.

"Well I'll be damned," Janeway murmured, consciously relaxing her hand and lifting it up for study. The wrist had stopped aching and all the feeling she had in her arm was a dull surface sensation when she touched it. The scientific part of her brain was fascinated, while the instinctual half was screaming blue murder.

"Good as new," Seven said quietly, keeping her eyes on her finger that had already re-absorbed the tubule. There was an odd undertone to her voice that made Janeway's attention snap from her transformed limb to her companion.

"No need to get all maudlin about it, Seven. It worked," Janeway said, consciously injecting a light note into her voice.

"It is still…disquieting," Seven replied, still not meeting Janeway's eyes.

The captain sighed and, using her newly repaired hand, grasped Seven's jaw firmly and turned her head to face her. "Believe me, I know. It feels more than disquieting to me, too, but it worked," she said, slowly and with much emphasis. An imperceptible nod from Seven made her release her jaw. "Now, we have much work to do."

"So we do," Seven said, nodding, and stood up. Offering the captain a helping had, she hauled her up with little problem.

"Thank you, Seven," Janeway grunted, dusting off her trousers. "The sooner we're out of here, the sooner I can take you on that date I promised," she said with a wink and a weak grin to Seven, and headed for the window.

---

"Tuvok to Voyager." His voice was calm, betraying none of the urgency he felt.

"Kim here," came the somewhat muffled reply, but the signal was understandably suffering from the interference created by the complex metal girding of the building.

They had returned safely to the tower and had gathered into their room, clustered around Captain Janeway's impeccably made bed in the centre of the room. Left of Tuvok, B'Elanna was fingering a plasma relay matrix that she was obviously keen to install the second they would return to Voyager, while on Tuvok's other side, Paris was leaning against the edge of the high bed, arms folded tightly across his chest and worry evident in his eyes.

"Still nothing from the captain, I assume."

"No, sir," said Kim, regretfully. "We have also conducted extensive scans of the area she was scheduled to visit at the time of the shuttle's disappearance, with no results. Commander Chakotay is talking with the Culture leaders as we speak."

"Very well," Tuvok said, although it was obvious it did not sit well with him at all.

"We'll relay any information we get immediately. Do you wish to halt the supply shipments?."

"If Commander Chakotay feels they pose no additional danger, I do not see any need to do so. Please ask the commander to contact me at his earliest convenience."

"Yes, sir. Voyager out."

Tuvok's comm badge chirruped softly to mark the termination of the communication, and the sound was immediately followed by a growled Klingon curse from B'Elanna that made even Paris jump. In one quick sentence, the chief engineer managed to doubt the purity of the family lineage of the Culture representatives, suggest what they might want to do with blunt projectiles, and propose an altogether new manner of procreation.

"Damn. For once, I agree with you, B'Elanna," Paris said, shifting to rest his hands against the bed and leaning forward. "So what're we going to do?"

"Wait for Commander Chakotay to contact us, and meanwhile, try to discover Neelix's whereabouts."

Paris nodded at Tuvok's words. "Yeah. The same communicator problem could be jamming Neelix's badge, too, but the coincidences are starting to pile up."

"Agreed," Tuvok replied, his eyebrow rising perceptibly. "Especially considering he was merely to remain here in the tower to acquire supplies."

Their musings were cut short as the door to their room abruptly flew open. All three Voyager crew members instinctively shrank back to a defensive position as a large group of people streamed into the room. They numbered at least three dozen, all dressed in the dull grey clothes of the tower servants and ushers they had seen the previous night, and they quickly surrounded the Voyager team. Although they were bearing no weapons, the newcomers' countenance was threatening.

"You will come with us," one of them said and stepped forward, not giving Tuvok's drawn phaser even a glance. His clothing was not the same as the others': a loose blue overall was covering his lanky frame and a complicated-looking electronic device was attached to his right forearm.

"I thought you were called the Silents for a reason," Paris said, his eyes unblinking as his phaser tracked the ones nearest to him.

"I am an exception amongst my people," the spokesperson said, his voice neutral and free of any traditional gender-specific tones or cadence. "We do not have much time. Come," he said, gesturing towards the door with one seven-fingered hand.

"Why should we do so? You are unarmed," Tuvok pointed out the gap of logic.

"Because if you do not, you will never see your crew member again."

B'Elanna's grip tightened on her phaser. "Neelix?" She was not too fond of the Talaxian, to say the least, but he was still her crew member and nobody messed with her comrades in arms. Even if they wielded only a spatula, and even that badly.

"That, I believe, is his name," the spokesperson replied, his voice still as calm as oil on water. "I also do not believe you can take all of us, despite your advantage in firepower -- we are many. You can come in peace, or in pieces. Now, if you please…" He made the gesture again.

Disarmed and stripped from their communicators, with a fuming B'Elanna watching as her equipment case was confiscated and searched, they were led into the hallway and through a hidden door into a narrow passageway that took them deep down into the bowels of the tower.

---

"Shield yourself," was her only warning, and Janeway had barely time to raise a hand to protect her face before Seven put her hand through the thick glass of the window. It gave way with a sharp crash, and Seven ran her hand around the small opening to remove the shards still stuck to the sides.

"No alarm connected to it, thankfully."

"No. The courtyard is still deserted," Seven said, her eyes fixated on the view outside as she unwrapped the cloth she had wrapped around her Borg-enhanced hand. Small pieces of the glass tinkled onto the floor. The window pane had been thick enough to deter the escape attempts of any normal unarmed prisoners, but the strength Seven possessed was not exactly normal for organic humanoids.

"Seven. Hand me that cloth," Janeway said as an idea struck her.

"Captain?" Seven said, but handed over the strip of Janeway's uniform top she'd been using. She watched as Janeway picked up a large shard that had been broken off the layered glass, wrapping the other end into the cloth and grasping it carefully around the cloth to feel the weight.

"Primitive, but better than nothing," the captain said, giving a lopsided smile and waving her makeshift knife in the air.

"Quite so."

"All right, let's get to it," Janeway grunted. She gave Ensign Leroux' body -- now but a shadow in the darkness -- one last glance, sad and angry at the same time for having to leave her behind. With an imperceptible sigh, she turned her head away and focused on Seven, still keeping an eye on the thankfully quiet outside world. "I go first."

With Seven's help, Janeway squeezed through the window head first, bracing her fall with her hands and rolling in a somersault, carefully avoiding the sharp edges of her glass shank. Scooting back to crouch next to the wall, she watched as Seven came through silently, feet first, to land in a position mirroring Janeway's. With a nod, Seven rushed to the next corner, peeking around it, Janeway her close shadow.

"Nothing." Seven's whisper was barely audible over the sounds of hovercraft engines and wind howling in the twisted canyons amidst the buildings.

"Good. Get to -"

Janeway's equally whispered instruction was cut off not by a sound, but the sudden glare of floodlights illuminating the small courtyard, followed closely by footsteps on metal that were approaching quickly. With a sharp curse, Janeway bodily yanked Seven from the corner and behind her, gesturing her to be still as she listened. The footfalls drew nearer, and just as they were at the corner, Janeway stuck out her leg.

With a muffled oomph, a Primitive with an energy weapon tripped and stumbled onto her face. From behind Janeway, Seven shot forward, jumping over the downed body as the captain kicked the loose energy weapon farther away. Seven caught the second Primitive by surprise, grasping the outstretched hand with its weapon in a steely grip while sinking the other fist into the Primitive's stomach so hard her feet came off the ground. The Primitive made a wet, gurgling sound and slumped to the ground.

Janeway, momentarily distracted by Seven's sudden lunge, was surprised by the first Primitive, who jabbed her at the knee with a fist. With a groan, Janeway sunk to one knee, her hand grasping the suddenly numb leg as she tried not to fall down completely. With horror, she watched the Primitive stand up and reach for the weapon, only to turn it towards Seven who was prying the energy weapon off the other Primitive's limp hand.

"No!" Janeway yelled, distracting the Primitive taking aim for just long enough for her to lunge and sink her shank into the attacker's thigh. It went in all the way to the cloth hilt, and the Primitive screamed in agony, her shot going wide by at least two metres. Before she could attempt another shot, Seven had jumped in, yanking the weapon from the Primitive and sending her sprawling with one backhanded slap.

"Captain, are you unharmed?" The urgency of Seven's tone was plain.

"Yeah, nothing permanent," Janeway said through clenched teeth; her leg was tingling painfully as feeling returned to it. A few limping steps and she was good as new. "You?"

"I suffered no damage," Seven replied, flexing her right hand while eyeing the weapon she held in the left one. The steel grey metal gleamed dully in the wan light.

Janeway picked up the other energy weapon, testing its weight. "Doesn't look too complex. Now let's get going before they get reinforcements."

They jogged quietly to the outer wall, keeping an eye on the direction where the Primitives had come from. Seven drew herself up onto the foot-wide wall and, with negligent strength, pulled Janeway up to join her. Taking careful footing, the captain turned and looked down -- the drop onto the hovercraft pad was about one and a half floors. Not too much for her to accomplish, but dangerous nevertheless.

"I will go first," Seven said, and jumped down with negligent grace. Standing up, she lifted her arms to brace the captain's fall as it was her turn to jump. Janeway landed with an oomph, grateful of the help in breaking the fall; she was not keen on getting any more broken limbs that day. So far, it was going relatively well, except for…

"Damn. No hovercraft." Janeway valiantly resisted the urge to utilise some choice expletives.

The vessel that they had tracked had been landing and taking off at regular intervals, but apparently they had missed a take-off, since it was not on the landing pad or stored in the open garage on the other edge of the pad.

"Wait, captain. There is a vessel approaching," Seven said, cocking her head towards the sky.

Janeway nodded and drew them into the shadows. It was not much of a hideout, but it was the best they had.

A hovercraft whizzed into view from around a nearby tall tower, which was at least twice as tall as the already dizzyingly high building they had been imprisoned in. The vessel did a graceful circle around the pad and landed with nary a sound, the liquid coolers of the landing gear blowing vapour into the air. The craft had a large side door, and as it begun to slide aside, both Janeway and Seven readied their weapons to surprise whoever was inside.

Instead of the expected one or two Primitives, the door slid aside to reveal a dozen Silents, all clad in blue overalls and brandishing energy weapons, their business ends pointing squarely at the captain and Seven. There was nothing subtle about the message they were projecting.

"Well if my day just isn't getting better and better," Janeway grunted, lowering her weapon and shaking her head as she stood up. In fact, save for a freak meteor shower coinciding with an invasion by Species 8472, she couldn't see how their day could get any worse than what it already was.

 

Chapter IX: Principles and Practice

Janeway was feeling genuinely mussed and dirty. Dust still clung to her clothes and her hair, and there was a number of small cuts where she had scraped herself during their escape. However, all that paled away every time she glanced at her left arm.

The starburst implant that had popped up at her wrist was cool to the touch as she carefully traced the petals that had clamped down onto her flesh. Her skin was as smooth as before, but as she brushed down the arm, the hair she had on her forearm flaked away -- with a start, she realised the follicles had died, too. Every vein was bulging black, the colour fading as they neared the point where her skin became human again. That edge was itching mildly, and Janeway resisted the urge to scratch. And…damn if she didn't get the feeling the area of the white skin had expanded minutely since she last looked.

"Seven, the Borg tissue is expanding." Janeway's voice was uncertain, but considering she was more than uncomfortable with the idea of the slow Borg-ification of her body, she had to ask. Her eyes flickered to the three Silents keeping an unblinking watch over them in the hovercraft, before she focused on her companion, sitting very still next to her.

"Yes. The implant here," Seven said, brushing Janeway's left wrist gently, "is producing additional nanoprobes which cause the tissue transformation to expand."

"At what rate?"

"I am uncertain. However, projecting from the current rate, the effect should not reach your shoulder for several hours."

"And what happens when it reaches my shoulder?" Janeway continued, impatiently. She reminded herself that next time, she should ask more questions before the operation.

"A second implant is produced, accelerating nanoprobe generation."

"Great," Janeway murmured, eyeing the seemingly short distance between her elbow and shoulder with some alarm.

Without looking, she could also sense that their captors' eyes were riveted on her arm. Snapping her head up, she gave the closest Silent a glare withering enough to peel paint off a ship's hull. "Something you want?" she asked acidly, gaining momentary satisfaction as the Silent jerked back at her glare and words. However, he chose not to react in any other way besides shifting gaze from Janeway to Seven, a combination of dread, hate, and unadulterated fascination plain in his eyes. Seven seemed oblivious to the scrutiny she received, choosing instead to stare into the distance, a blank look in her eyes.

"Seven, are you all right?" Janeway got the distinct feeling she had been asking the same question a lot recently, and despite the grave circumstances, felt slightly foolish for playing the mother hen.

"Apart from my depleting energy levels, I am functioning within acceptable parameters," was the answer. Janeway was sure she could have mouthed the words in sync with Seven. So familiar was the phrasing, despite all her efforts to teach Seven to say just I'm fine.

"When we get to, well, wherever we're going, let's try to scare up something for you to eat." And for me, too, Janeway added in her head as her stomach growled at the mention of eating. "All right?" she added, resting her hand on Seven's shoulder, momentarily marvelling how its strength was belied by its apparent normalcy. The shoulder was solid, narrow, and warm under the plum-coloured outfit that had seen better days.

"All right," Seven said, turning her head to give a wan smile, her eyes lingering on Janeway's Borg hand on her shoulder. The emotions behind the gaze were unreadable.

---

Their flight was not long, and the mood in the cramped cabin of the hovercraft electrified as they slowed down and started the landing cycle. The craft touched down quietly, and as the side door opened, Janeway and Seven were ushered out. They were close to the ground, judging from the endless walls of steel rising all around them, and the tower they were being taken into seemed tallest of them all. Behind them, the hovercraft was taking off, its running lights flashing off the dully gleaming metal as it turned in the air before joining the traffic above them.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" Janeway asked quietly as they were escorted towards a door. The words earned her a painful shove in the back from a Silent's weapon -- no words were needed to translate the meaning of his gesture. Rubbing her aching spine, Janeway fumed inside.

"The place bears resemblance to the tower the Culture took -" Seven started, but she was silenced when another Silent smashed its weapon's butt end between her shoulder blades. A startled gasp was torn from the Borg as she staggered forward due to the force of the blow.

"Stop that," Janeway said between clenched teeth, her rage finally reaching boiling point. She stepped in front of Seven's attacker, not giving the energy weapon he brandished any notice. "Or I'll kick your teeth in."

"Please, no violence."

The new voice made Janeway's eyes dart from the sullen-looking Silent towards the door, where another of its species had appeared…and apparently spoken. The captain's eyebrows rose in amazement.

"N'hadar, put down your weapon," the newcomer spoke to the Silent Janeway was facing off, admonishment plain in his voice. Cowed, the Silent lowered its weapon, confusion evident on his face as he regarded the speaking Silent. "Yes, I know -- but they're not the enemy," the speaker said to the guard, finally turning to face Janeway. "Captain Janeway, I presume?"

"You have me at a disadvantage," Janeway replied tightly, her left hand still squeezed into a fist.

"I apologise for that, and for the harsh behaviour of my companions. The weapons were a necessary precaution, should you have resisted," the Silent said. "I'm N'shaah, the de facto leader of this rag-tag group of mine," he continued, making a sweeping gesture to encompass the dozen or so Silents surrounding them.

"Why did you -"

"Please," he said, cutting her off with a raised hand. "We need to go inside. I'm also sure you would like to see the rest of your team?" he added casually.

"What the hell?!"

To Janeway's angry utterance, N'shaah merely smiled and gestured for them to join him inside. Chewing on her lower lip, Janeway complied, still uncomfortably aware of the number of armed Silents around her and, more reassuringly, of Seven's presence right behind her. Once inside in a dim hallway, they were led through a maze of doors, rooms and corridors, all manned with eerily quiet Silents. Some stood still, giving them long looks as they passed, others were conversing in an alien fourteen-digit version of sign language. A few others spoke, their voice as neutral and without strong intonation, not unlike N'shaah's.

Finally, they reached a small room at the end of a hallway, and inside, they found the rest of the away team. B'Elanna was conversing quietly with Tuvok, while Neelix had sat down with Paris, the latter relating an embellished war story of sorts, judging from his exaggerated gestures. They all froze as Janeway and Seven stepped inside.

"Captain Janeway," Tuvok said first, his voice registering as much warmth as it was possible for a Vulcan to have. "Seven. I am glad to see you unharmed."

"Same goes for me," Janeway said. "Unfortunately, Ensign Leroux was not as lucky as we were."

Tuvok's eyebrow rose. "That is very upsetting news, captain." Leroux had been one of his most valued staff members.

He was joined by Neelix and Paris who had jumped up as soon as they had caught a glimpse of Janeway. A brief moment of confusion ensued as all tried to speak at once, before the captain silenced them all with a sharp snap: "Quiet, all. There will be time later for all that. Now, however…" she said, turning towards their Silent keepers. "N'shaah, right? Care to make those explanations now?"

The Silent smiled perceptibly. "Of course. And as I've told your companions, you are here as my guest, not as my prisoner. I am more educated about you than my Primitives counterparts."

"Explain." Seven was apparently exasperated by being out of the loop, too.

N'shaah turned to the edgy Borg. "We are…Species 2891, am I correct?"

"Correct."

"How unpoetic," the Silent murmured, turning to face the whole contingent again. "So. What would you like to know?"

"Start with your ability to speak," B'Elanna said, before anyone else could get a word edgewise.

---

It turned out N'shaah was an exception amongst his people -- a genetically defective Silent who could talk, unlike most of his species who were naturally mute. All Silents with the power of speech were labelled as outcasts, unwanted specimens, by their Culture masters; only those that obeyed quietly were deemed worthy of servitude. The speakers were cast out, or in some cases, executed outright.

However, N'shaah's unusual talent had made him not weaker, but stronger. As the unofficial leader of the Silents underground liberation group, he had the power to communicate with his people, as well as with those who did not know their sign language -- such as visitors from other planets.

"During all the years of slavery under the Culture, our spirit has merely grown stronger…and made some of us bold enough to try and change things. However, unlike the Primitives, we are not violent. We are everywhere in the Culture's society, as the silent observers," he said, gesturing to a nearby Silent who wore the dull grey outfit of a servant they had seen many times during their stay.

The Silents and Primitives rebel groups had a pact of mutual coexistence: they did not get into one another's way unless absolutely necessary.

"This time, it was necessary for us to intervene. We discovered part of your team had been captured by N'sith, who is not the most cool-headed of the Primitives leaders," N'shaah said, clasping his hands in front of him. "I could not risk her hurting you…and unlike N'sith, I had read the information package on you. I knew you to be a truly multi-species society, a fact that would certainly have made her look you in a new light, despite some of the more, hm, dubious species you choose to associate yourself with," he said, nodding towards Seven.

"So you were going to…rescue us?"

"Yes," he replied to Janeway. "But it seems you would have not been in need of my help, after all," he added, giving a lopsided smile. "I also decided to take the rest of your crew to safety, in case the Primitives got the idea to nab them, too. However, they apparently have more pressing business -- they conducted an air raid on a Culture military facility today and are busy avoiding retaliation."

"So that's who it was," Paris said, stepping forward. "We were touring a military facility today but it was cut short because of an attack by…what was the word our host used?"

"'Local dissidents'," B'Elanna supplied, snorting at the description.

"Yeah."

N'shaah shook his head. "I can't say I agree with tactics the Primitives have chosen, but it is in their power to fight the Culture however they want. And they have more reason to hold a grudge than we do. We are only enslaved," he said, and the irony in the words was all but tangible, "the Primitives are hunted down by the Culture so much like wild game."

Janeway opened her mouth to ask another question, but before she could get any words out, she was knocked sideways by Seven, who had suddenly gone limp. The captain stumbled and turned to catch Seven, but only managed to slow down her fall. Crouching down, Janeway felt Seven's pulse. It was steady, but her skin was dangerously cold.

"She needs sustenance immediately," Janeway said, turning towards N'shaah. Her eyes were blazing. "Food. Now."

"I thought the Borg consumed energy directly?" he asked, obviously confused.

"And I thought by now, you would have realised that being a Borg is not all she is. Even N'sith could see that she is human," Janeway snapped back. "Now, something liquid with a high energy content, please."

N'shaah barked at the nearest Silent, who rushed out of the room, only to return with a container full of what looked like fruit juice. Propping Seven to a seated position, Janeway and Neelix forced some liquid down her throat. After a moment, a shudder went through Seven, and her eyes snapped open. She tried to stand, but Janeway restrained her with an arm on her shoulder.

"Stay there. Drink the rest of this."

Seven downed the juice and set the container down. "I…my body went into regeneration mode." She sounded disturbed at her lack of bodily control.

"In other words, you passed out," Paris said from next to the captain.

"Yes," Seven said. She blinked a few times and stood up, her feet steady this time. Janeway followed suit.

"Next time, give us a bit of warning, OK?" Janeway said quietly, giving Seven a stern look.

"Yes, captain," Seven replied, chastised.

Another Silent entered the room, tapping N'shaah on the shoulder and gesturing rapidly. There was urgency in N'shaah's voice as he turned back towards the Voyager team. "Unfortunately I have something I need to attend to. Stay here, rest, you are perfectly safe. If you need anything, just ask N'kinne here," he said as his parting shot, pointing towards a Silent.

The whole group of Silents that had crowded the room with them left after N'shaah, leaving only their guard, N'kinne, with them. He took a position in front of the closed door, his energy weapon still drawn as he folded his arms across his chest.

"Not prisoners? Right." B'Elanna said disgustedly, flopping back onto the metal floor.

"The term seems to be flexible," Janeway agreed, before turning to Tuvok. "Now, would you care to fill me in on your side of the story?"

"I will, captain, as soon as you enlighten me regarding the history behind the Borg implant on your wrist." Tuvok's voice held as much turmoil as it was possible for a Vulcan to express.

"I was wondering how long it'd take for you to ask me about that," Janeway said wearily.

---

After Janeway's quick explanations regarding her newly created Borg enhancements, it was Tuvok's turn. His account of their adventures was short, while Neelix's more florid, but both told a similar tale: they were nabbed by the Silents, quickly and without hassle, and kept in the dark ever since.

"So how much weight would you put on N'shaah's words?"

"I wouldn't know, captain," Tuvok replied evenly. "However, I do not see any specific reason why he would be lying to us about his intentions."

"Right," Janeway murmured, deep in thought. "My only worry is what our hosts will do in our absence."

"I'm sure Commander Chakotay is laying down the law for them as we speak," B'Elanna commented. "I wouldn't be surprised if he was insisting on sending a rescue team."

"You're probably right," the captain said, lifting an eyebrow. Chakotay could be extremely persistent when he wanted to. "Our first priority should be contacting him, and then figuring a way to get off this planet without detection."

As if on cue, the door to the room opened suddenly, forcing N'kinne to jump quickly aside to avoid getting slammed by it. N'shaah, flanked by several sombre-looking Silents, came in, his eyes searching for Janeway until he found her, partially shielded by Tuvok who had instinctively stepped forward to protect his captain.

"Captain Janeway. I have received some disturbing news regarding your ship." The alarm in N'shaah's voice was clear as he handed over their phasers. "You must come with me."

Continue to Chapters 10-End

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