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Blue fire preceded a crimson flash, as one of the Borg cubes on the main viewer erupted into a cloud of blazing wreckage. The two that had followed it from the indigo fog of the Azure Nebula barreled through its spreading debris, accelerated, and opened fire on their lone adversary.
Pitched alarums of struggle surrounded Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who sat in the bridge's command chair, stone-faced and silent, watching and hearing the battle unfold around him.
Over the thunder of energy blasts hammering the shields of the Enterprise, Commander Worf bellowed, "Helm! Attack pattern Echo-One! Tactical, target the closer cube and fire at will!"
Picard tried to focus on the voices of his crew -- Worf barking orders, second officer Miranda Kadohata relaying damage reports, security chief Jasminder Choudhury confirming her targets, and the low buzz of several junior officers manning backup stations and sensor consoles everywhere he looked -- but they all were drowned out by the one voice that was many: the dehumanized roar of the Borg Collective.
Resistance is futile. You will be exterminated.
It had been more than fourteen years since the Borg's voice had first invaded the sanctum of his mind, when the Collective assimilated him. Transformed into Locutus of Borg, Picard had watched through a dark haze, a spectator to his own life, as the Borg used his knowledge and experience against Starfleet and against Earth. Even after he had been physically liberated from the Collective, he'd remained yoked to its voice, attuned to its soulless group mind.
His bond to the Collective had faded with the passage of years. He had expected to welcome its permanent absence from his thoughts, but then the Borg returned with an unprecedented ferocity marked by aggressive tactics and a disturbing new motivation. It had been several months since, in a desperate bid to understand the true nature of the new threat posed by the Borg, he had attempted to infiltrate the Collective by posing as Locutus. He'd thought he could outwit them, that experience and innovation would protect him as he dared to plumb their secrets. What a fool I was, he castigated himself.
A powerful concussion threw the bridge crew to starboard and strobed the lights. A port-side console exploded into smithereens. Glowing-hot bits of smoking debris landed in Picard's lap, and the momentary jolts of hot pain on his legs broke the spell that the Collective had held over his thoughts.
He swatted the blackened embers off his thighs as he stood and moved to stand beside Worf. The Klingon executive officer remained focused on directing the battle. "Helm," Worf shouted as Lieutenant Joanna Faur scrambled back into her chair, "hard to port!" To Choudhury he added, "Ready aft torpedoes!" As Worf turned forward again, Kadohata switched the main screen to display the ship's retreating aft view. A Borg cube loomed dramatically into sight, dominating the screen. "Fire!"
Four radiant blue bolts flew from the Enterprise's aft torpedo launcher and separated as they followed weaving, spiraling paths to the Borg ship. At the final moment they shot toward different faces of the cube. Two penetrated the Borg's shields and ripped through its hull. Within seconds, cerulean flames consumed the Borg vessel from within and broke it apart. A blinding flash reduced it to fading supercharged particles.
Two down, one to go, Picard mused as the main viewer image reverted to its normal, forward-facing perspective.
"Attack pattern Bravo-Eight," Worf ordered, and the bridge crew translated his words into action with speed and skill.
Picard heard the intentions of the Collective and saw the trap that Worf had just stumbled into. He snapped, "Belay that! Evasive maneuvers, starb -- " The bone-jarring thunderclap of an explosion cut him off, and the deck felt as if it had dropped out from under him. He fell forward and landed on his forearms. A bank of large companels along the aft bulkhead blew apart and showered the bridge with a flurry of sparks and shrapnel.
Gray, acrid smoke lingered above the shaken bridge crew. "Continue evasive maneuvers," Worf said to Faur. He plucked a jagged bit of smoking debris from the rings of his metallic Klingon baldric as he stepped behind Kadohata, who was struggling to halt the erratic malfunctions that flickered across the ops console. "Damage report," Worf said.
"Hull breaches, Decks Twenty-two and Twenty-three," replied the lithe human woman of mixed Asian and European ancestry. Her Port Shangri-La accent was just similar enough to a Londoner's inflections that Picard had to remind himself again that she wasn't from Earth. "Direct hit on our targeting sensors," she continued. Then she swiveled her chair to face Worf and added with alarm, "Sir, we can't lock weapons."
Another shot from the Borg cube rocked the Enterprise. "Break off, Number One," Picard said.
"Full evasive," Worf said, "maximum warp. Engage!"
As Worf stepped quickly from station to station, gathering status reports, Picard moved forward and stood beside Kadohata's console. In a confidential tone, he said, "Casualty report."
Reciprocating his quiet discretion, she replied, "Four dead in engineering, several dozen wounded. Still waiting on official numbers from sickbay, sir."
"Understood," he said.
Worf finished his circuit of the bridge and returned to Picard's side. "Captain, the transphasic shields are starting to overload. Lieutenant Choudhury estimates -- " Cacophonous booms resonated through the bulkheads. When the echoes had faded, Worf continued, "She estimates shield failure in nine minutes."
"Commander," Picard said to Kadohata, "we need those targeting sensors. Devote all free resources to their repair. Mister Worf, help Lieutenant Choudhury find a way to target our torpedoes manually."
The XO nodded and said, "Aye, sir."
As Worf walked back to the tactical console, Kadohata confided to Picard, "Sir? The damage to the targeting system was major. I doubt it can be repaired in the next nine minutes. And manually targeting transphasic torpedoes is almost impossible. Without the targeting computer, we'll never adjust the phase harmonics quickly enough."
"What do you suggest, Commander?"
"With all respect, sir...a distress signal."
Picard frowned. "To whom? Our nearest allies are several hours away, at best."
Kadohata mustered a bittersweet grin and shrugged.
"You have your desperate measures, I have mine."
He had to admire her ability to smile in the face of danger. "Make it so," he said. Then, dropping his voice again, he added with grim resignation, "And prepare the log buoy."
Captain Ezri Dax was seated and steady, with her hands relaxed on the ends of her command chair's armrests, but in her mind she was pacing like a caged beast, feverishly circling her anxiety.
"Time to intercept?" she asked.
Lieutenant Tharp answered over his shoulder, "Two minutes, Captain." The Bolian conn officer returned to his controls and faced the main viewer, whose image was dominated by the retreating mass of the Borg cube that was pursuing the Enterprise.
Her first officer, Commander Sam Bowers, returned from his hushed conference with Lieutenant Lonnoc Kedair, the Takaran chief of security for the Aventine, and stood beside Dax. "I feel like a dog chasing a shuttle," he said, watching the Borg ship. "Even if we catch it, what do we do then?"
"Sink our teeth in, Sam," Dax said. "As deep as we can."
Kedair looked up from the tactical console. "We've just been scanned by a Borg sensor beam," she said, her deep-green face darkened half a shade by concern.
"So much for a surprise attack," Bowers said.
"Lieutenant Mirren," Dax said to her senior operations officer, "signal Enterprise. We need to coordinate our attack."
Mirren nodded. "Aye, sir. Hailing them now."
"Sixty seconds to firing range," Tharp said from the conn.
The cube was large enough now on the main viewer that Dax could discern the layers of snaking machinery and the haphazard network of grids, plates, and crudely grafted pieces of alien machinery that this ship must have assimilated in its past. She couldn't tell by looking how long ago each component had been acquired, or even guess at how new or old the cube might be. Every Borg cube, from the raw to the battle-scarred, had the same weathered, dull look, the same drab utilitarian aesthetic.
"Incoming signal from the Enterprise," Mirren said.
"On-screen," Dax replied. A blizzard of visual noise and twisted images danced on the main viewer while banshee wails and the crackle-scratch of static muffled the words of Captain Picard, who Dax could recognize even through the storm of interference. "Mirren," she said, "can we clean that up?"
Mirren jabbed at her console and grimaced in frustration. "Trying, Captain. The Borg are jamming us."
Lieutenant Commander Gruhn Helkara, the ship's second officer and the head of its sciences division, called to Dax from one of the aft bridge stations. "Captain, I might have a way to bypass the jamming!" The wiry Zakdorn moved toward one of the starboard auxiliary consoles. "The Klingons use a super-low-frequency subspace channel to stay in contact with cloaked ships." He keyed commands into the auxiliary panel at furious speed. "I'll interlace an SLF signal on a subharmonic fre -- "
"Less talk, Gruhn," Dax said. "Just make it work."
"Aye, sir," he said, and then he tapped in a few final details. "Channel ready. Try it now."
Dax waited while Mirren reestablished contact with the Enterprise. After several more seconds of garbled images and sounds, the visage of Captain Picard snapped into shaky but mostly clear focus. "Captain Dax?"
"At your service," Dax said.
"I thought your ship was in the Gamma Quadrant."
She was about to explain, then shook off the impulse. "Long story. We're coming up fast on the Borg. How can we help?"
"We need you to b...