Cracks in the Wall
The P/T Collective

Michael Jonas was dead. Phased to infinity -- beyond infinity -- in a swirling cloud of plasma. But what a way to go, thought Tom.

"Damn," muttered Tom.

The etched glass door of Sandrine's quietly squeaked open and closed. Tom knew it was Harry without even looking up. Poor Harry. This being lost in the Delta quadrant was harder on Harry than Janeway -- than anybody -- knew. Pining for Libby and missing his family; it must really be rotten.

But not as rotten as not having anyone back home at all.

Harry collapsed into the chair opposite Tom with a sigh, and the two men sat together in a comfortable silence.

This time the door banged open with a little -- whap! -- and B'Elanna Torres marched in, surveyed the scene, and abruptly sat at the table, looking only towards the fire.

The silence became rather more uncomfortable.

"If that holographic pig of a gigolo comes over here to harass me," she finally snapped at Tom, "I'm going to smack you."

"Now wait just a--"

Yellow alert.

"Janeway to all senior officers. Report to the bridge."

Torres snarled at Paris as she headed to her post in Engineering.

"Well," Paris said, "at least it didn't stay dull here for long."

"What's bothering her?" Harry asked as he and Paris took off in the opposite direction for the bridge. "Did you say something to upset her today?"

Paris looked shocked and insulted. "Not a thing! And Harry, I'm crushed at your insinuations."

Harry Kim laughed and shook his head at Paris' mocking. Even though his recent "bad attitude" had turned out to be a ruse, you could never be sure when Paris was kidding and when he was quite serious.

Paris wondered privately if he had, perhaps, done something to annoy Torres either in Sandrine's, or sometime that day. Why did it seem that she was angry with him one minute and sympathetic and concerned about him the next?

Unlike most of the women he had known, he couldn't read her at all.

"Oh, yeah, THAT was fair," B'Elanna said to herself as she stormed off to Engineering. "Go ahead. Just walk into someone else's holoprogram, uninvited, and start insulting it. Why did I even go in there in the first place?" But B'Elanna knew why. No one else did -- not Janeway, not Kim, not even Chakotay.

Birthdays. A stupid tradition. A stupid, annoying, HUMAN, tradition.

Her gold-clad team looked up expectantly as the doors slid open and she strode in.

"What's up, Lieutenant?" Hogan asked for all of them.

B'Elanna softened. It wasn't their fault. "I guess they'll tell us as soon as something gets broken," she said. "Man your posts."

The turbolift doors opened with a woosh and both Tom and Harry came charging out heading for their respective stations. The ensign that was manning the con moved politely as Paris approached. The captain and Chakotay were already there, staring at the forward viewscreen. Paris first glanced at his conn board to see the status of the ship, then looked up.

"What the hell?" he exclaimed.

"I don't know, Mr. Paris, but I intend to find out," replied the captain. "Maintain yellow alert for now."

"Aye, Captain."

Voyager was heading for a structure that looked like a huge box. It seemed suspended in the blackness of space.

Without looking up from his station, Tuvok said, "Now, Captain."

Janeway nodded. "Full stop, Mr. Paris. That's close enough for our scanners." Hastily, Tom tapped at his board and brought the ship to a halt. Curious about the edge to the captain's voice, he looked back up at the object on the screen, studying it with interest. It was a large, metallic-looking cube, almost as black as space itself. Its dimensions were surprisingly regular, but its edges were round and its surface was pitted and scarred in many places. It looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. Overall, it didn't seem like anything special.

Except that the captain's wearing her 'one-wrong-move-and-I-shoot' look, Tom thought to himself. He took a quick glance at the rest of the bridge crew. Except for Harry, they all looked equally tense. Even Tuvok seemed more intent than usual. Tom didn't understand it. "What's so terrible about a metal cube hanging in space? We see stranger things than that every day of the week--"

"Captain," Tuvok said impassively, "I have completed comparative analysis. Despite the superficial differences in appearance, there is a 92% probability that this is a Borg vessel."

Then the image clicked in Tom's memory -- the tapes of the invasion had been shown on all channels -- and his head jerked up as a mixture of terror and adrenaline flooded through his system. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Harry pale -- apparently the kid hadn't made the connection either.

The Borg.

No wonder Voyager was on yellow alert; he was only surprised the captain hadn't called for red alert and battle stations. Of course, since a single Borg ship had slaughtered 39 starships at Wolf 359, and come within an ace of wiping out the whole Federation, Voyager was unlikely to win a fight with one, no matter how ready for it she was.

Tom swallowed hard. Suddenly, dying of boredom didn't sound so bad. Then common sense took over. The captain would never have headed towards even a potential Borg ship -- unless she had reason to think it was safe. Obviously, he and Harry had missed something.

As if realizing the same thing, the captain asked:  "Do scanners continue to show no lifesigns aboard, Mr. Kim?"

"Uh -- yes, Captain."

She nodded. "No shields, no active weapons, no lifesigns. Looks like they're dead in space." She leaned back in her chair, eyes fixed on the image, and smiled tightly. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering here, Captain." B'Elanna answered the captain's call with not-so-suppressed impatience; she hated not knowing what was going on.

"Lieutenant, we've encountered what appears to be a Borg ship."

Around her, Engineering went still and quiet. All she could think, absurdly, was, We're going to die and Tom's never going to know why I snarled at him. But the captain was continuing, ". . . empty and derelict, but basically intact."

B'Elanna's mind raced faster than warp nine. "You mean we might be able to salvage that superdrive of theirs? Get home faster?"

"It's a possibility."

Again Engineering went still, but for very different reasons this time. "As soon as we're satisfied that it's safe," Janeway continued, "I want you to lead an away team over there."

"Aye, Captain!"

"Ensign Kim, are we still reading negative lifesigns?"

"Yes, Captain," replied Harry. "Everything is deader than a doornail over there."

"All right. Mr. Paris, take us in closer, but be ready to go to warp at a moment's notice if Harry's 'doornail' shows signs of life."

"Aye, Captain."

Slowly Voyager inched closer to the Borg ship. So far so good, Janeway thought to herself. "If we could board her we might pick up some valuable knowledge."

"Chakotay, I want you, Torres, and Paris with a couple of security personnel to form an away team and beam over there. At the slightest movement there come back to Voyager immediately. Understood?"

"Aye, Captain," replied Chakotay, as he started toward the turbolift. Paris joined him and the doors closed with a soft woosh.

"Transporter room two," Chakotay commanded, and Tom felt the ever so slight drop as they descended. He knew not everyone in Starfleet could feel things like that; could be so in tune with their ship. Usually only good captains, good pilots, and good engineers.

Never ones to waste words on one another, Tom took the opportunity to ponder why he should have been chosen for the away team instead of Tuvok, but didn't come up with anything. Well, hell, I'll take it. A defenseless Borg cube! B'Elanna's going to have a major subspace fit.

The doors of the turbolift opened with a hiss and Tom's high spirits evaporated. The security team was already there, heavily armed with phaser rifles, and had phasers and tricorders ready for both Torres and the bridge officers. In another moment, B'Elanna charged in bearing a small emergency engineering supply kit. She looked up questioningly at both Tom and Chakotay.

Her eyes are exactly the same color as Tilidian chocolate, Tom thought to himself. He made a simple mental note:  Look after her. Look after them all. What else could he do over there?

"It's your show, B'Elanna," said Chakotay simply.

"Right. First, we'll simply scan around and get an idea of the layout of the cube, and try to figure out what happened to the crew. Then, if it's safe, we'll contact Voyager and get an engineering team over there. Are we ready? Energize."

B'Elanna fought off the bout of dizziness the transporter always left her with. A quick glance showed her all were accounted for. Tuvok's security team, phasers ready, were already securing the perimeter. Chakotay was busy with a tricorder. Tom stood before her, concerned.

"You okay?"

Damn the man for noticing. "I'm fine. Let's get busy."

"B'Elanna, I think you're going to have to rethink your plan to steal their superdrive," said Chakotay softly.

"What? Why?"

"Lifesigns are very limited, but they are present. These Borg are not dead."

Chakotay's words caught everybody's attention.

"Lifesigns?" repeated B'Elanna.

Chakotay, eyes still on his tricorder, nodded. "They're coming from that direction," he said, indicating a corridor that stretched off to their right.

The away team started off in that direction. As they followed the security team, a curious Paris unholstered his own tricorder and scanned the area. "I'm getting some power fluctuation readings from the same area as your lifesign readings, Commander," he said. "It almost looks like something's trying to power up but it's stuck in a feedback loop of some sort."

Instead of pulling her own tricorder out, B'Elanna leaned over to look at the readings on Paris' tricorder. She didn't seem to notice that this movement brought them rather close together. Paris, on the other hand, couldn't help but notice. Get your mind back on the mission, Thomas, he chided himself. Now's no time to be daydreaming.

Frowning at the readings she saw on Paris' tricorder, Torres straightened away from him. "Apparently this ship isn't quite as dead as we thought," she commented, not sounding entirely happy at this new revelation.

The corridor opened up into a large chamber. The away team stood at the edge of the chamber, staring. There were several Borg soldiers, all secured in nooks that were located on the outer perimeter of the chamber. They were unmoving, seemingly inactive.

Cautiously, the away team stepped into the chamber. "They're alive," Chakotay said softly. "It looks as if they're hooked into the ship's systems, recharging."

Tricorder out, Torres approached one of the "sleeping" Borg. She stood nose to nose with it, examining it closely. "I think--" she started to say before she was abruptly cut off. Paris turned to see why she had stopped speaking so suddenly and was alarmed to see that the Borg soldier's arm had shot out, its fist wrapped around B'Elanna's throat, choking her.

"Commander!" Paris yelled, alerting Chakotay. Paris leapt forward, grasping the Borg's arm in an attempt to break its grip on B'Elanna. He was frightened to see that B'Elanna's face was turning an alarming shade of red. He redoubled his efforts to break the Borg's hold. Chakotay joined him as B'Elanna lapsed into unconsciousness. Still the Borg did not release her.

As the situation became desperate, the Borg suddenly released B'Elanna. Her unconscious form crumpled to the deck. Paris, turning his attention to her, did not see the Borg's arm swinging in his direction.

"Paris, watch out!" Chakotay warned.

Paris turned back to the Borg in time to receive a solid hit across his right temple. Seeing stars, he stumbled back. His arm went up to block the Borg's next blow, but it never landed.

Chakotay's phaser sang out and the Borg fell to the deck.

"Commander," Paris heard one of the security team say, "the others are showing signs of waking up."

His head beginning to clear, Paris glanced at Chakotay before kneeling beside B'Elanna.

Chakotay tapped his comm badge. "Chakotay to Janeway."

"Janeway here."

"Captain, we've found some surviving Borg aboard. They seem to be in some sort of hibernation, but they're showing signs of waking up. Both Torres and Paris are injured."

Wanting to take no chances with her away team until they knew what they were dealing with, Janeway said, "Commander, I want you off that ship. Now."

Paris relaxed as he heard Janeway's order to get off the ship. If the Borg were waking up, he didn't want to be anywhere near them. He turned his attention to B'Elanna, checking her to make sure that the Borg hadn't been able to inflict too much damage on her. Her breathing seemed to be all right; she was no longer gasping for air. But she still hadn't regained consciousness.

"Captain!" Harry's voice came over the comm badge. "The Borg ship just raised its shields. The away team is. . . ." Harry's voice was suddenly cut off.

Alarmed, Paris looked at Chakotay as the Maquis tapped his comm badge. "Chakotay to Voyager." There was no response. He tried again. "Chakotay to Voyager." Paris tapped his comm badge and tried to hail Voyager as well, but he didn't have better luck.

"Looks like we're on our own," Chakotay said. "How is she?"

"Mr. Kim, go to red alert as soon as the away team is back on board. Let's get out of here as fast as possible. I don't want to be anywhere close to that thing when it becomes fully operational," barked Janeway.

"Aye, Captain," replied Harry.

"Janeway to transporter chief," said Janeway triggering the internal ship's communication. "Beam Lt. Torres and Lt. Paris directly to Sickbay. Have Commander Chakotay report immediately to the bridge."

"Chief Cooper to Janeway," came a disembodied response. "Commander Chakotay is on his way."

No sooner had he said that the turbolift doors opened and Chakotay appeared.

"Mr. Tuvok, weapon's status, please."

"Phasers are charged, photon torpedo bays are loaded and on standby, Captain," said Tuvok in that calm unemotional voice.

Janeway turned to Chakotay. "All right, Commander, let's have it. What happened?"

"Captain, we have a situation," replied Chakotay. "The other members of the away team did not return with me. When we lost contact with Voyager--"

"Captain, we are being scanned."

"Shields up. Red alert. Chakotay--"

"Captain," Kim interrupted, "we are being hailed by the Borg ship. Audio only."

"Let's hear it."

"Unidentified vessel," began the eeriest collective of voices Kim had hoped never to hear. "You will be assimilated. One member of your party has been allowed to return, so that assimilation may be facilitated. Resistance is futile. There will be no further communication."

B'Elanna's senses reeled as a fit of coughing overtook her. "What happened?" she managed to choke out.

"You got too close to a Borg and it bit you," Tom tried to joke, helping her to sit up. Anything to cover the rage that he felt, looking at the marks on B'Elanna's throat, already darkening to bruises.

The Borg that had grabbed her lay crumpled at their feet. Tom scanned it.

"I meant, what happened to your head."

"Oh. Nothing. This guy is most sincerely dead. I think--"

"Tom, hush." B'Elanna put her palms flat on the grid-like flooring. "Do you . . . Do you feel the same thing that I feel?"

"Uh, sir. Sirs. Perhaps Hudson and I should--"

Tom snorted with amusement. For a nanosecond, she had confused him, too. "Easy, Simms. The Lieutenant just means we're moving. Fast, too. Warp factor five or six, I'd say."

Janeway snapped, "What do you mean, they've just gone to warp? I thought they wanted to assimilate us! I thought there were no lifesigns! I thought they had no power signature, no weapons, no shields! Tuvok, WHAT is going ON over there?!"

Impassive as ever, Tuvok replied, "May I remind the captain of an old Earth saying:  'the best defense is a good offense'. The Borg ship is in a severely weakened state. Perhaps they are simply 'bluffing'."

"Bluffing or not they've got four of my crew," she retorted. "Hamilton, don't let them out of our sight."

Climbing to her feet, B'Elanna looked around. "Where's Chakotay?"

"Back on Voyager, I would guess," replied Paris. "When they tried to beam us back, he was the only one they picked up. It might be a good idea for us to . . ." His voice trailed off at the sound of several feet marching in their direction. "I think we're about to have company," he said unnecessarily.

With nowhere to run, the foursome turned to face whatever was coming their way. Several Borg entered the chamber, circling the away team. "You will be assimilated," the Borg told them.

"Assimilate this!" Torres snarled, firing her phaser.

The first Borg she hit went down immediately. The next staggered, but remained on its feet. Paris, Hudson, and Simms fired at the remaining Borg with no visible effect. They had already adapted to the phasers' frequency. In no time at all, the away team was disarmed and herded into what appeared to be a holding cell. It was basically a bare room with no furnishings of any sort.

Tom and B'Elanna sat side by side on the floor. Across from them, leaning against the opposite wall, sat Hudson and Simms.

B'Elanna rubbed a hand against her bruised throat where the Borg had tried to strangle her.

"You okay?" asked Paris.

Irritated, B'Elanna started to snap an angry reply in his direction, but when she turned her head to look at him, the sincere concern in his eyes stopped her retort. It was the same concern she had seen in his eyes when the Vidiians had captured them and split her into her Klingon and Human halves. Sighing deeply, she said, "What a way to spend my birthday."

Paris' eyes widened. "Birthday? Today's your birthday?"

Sorry she had even mentioned it, B'Elanna reached out to lightly touch his forehead. "You're bleeding."

Out of the corner of his eye, Paris saw Hudson and Simms trade looks as they watched the exchange between himself and B'Elanna. He suddenly became aware of how close he and B'Elanna were sitting and what it must look like from the other duo's perspective. Grinning, he held a hand to his wounded forehead as he leaned in closer to B'Elanna, saying sweetly, "Want to kiss it and make it all better?"

Placing a hand against his chest, she shoved him back. "You're a pig, Paris!"

Sighing theatrically, Paris said, "Yeah, I've heard that before."

B'Elanna shook her head, but Paris didn't miss the slight smile on her face.

The atmosphere on the bridge was tense, to say the least. Janeway paced back and forth, listening to the reports coming in. Not only had they unexpectedly encountered a Borg ship, but now four of her crew were on that ship and they were unable to communicate with them or retrieve them. Despite repeated attempts to contact the Borg ship, their hails had gone unanswered.

Chakotay joined her, standing reassuringly by her side. Quietly, he said, "The Borg ship hasn't moved beyond warp six. Based on what I saw, and the readings I took over there, I suspect their ship is damaged. That should give us an advantage."

Janeway glared at the forward viewscreen, where the Borg ship they were chasing was being monitored. "Maybe," was her only comment. Chakotay had briefed her on what had occurred once the away team had beamed over to the Borg ship, but given who they were dealing with, she couldn't help but be uneasy.

Turning to face Chakotay she said, "Call a briefing of the senior bridge officers. We'll meet in ten minutes. I'll be in my ready room."

Chakotay watched her exit the bridge to her ready room before returning to his seat and alerting the others of the upcoming briefing.

Torres paced the holding cell restlessly. She had examined every inch of the cell, looking for a way out to no avail. Her frustration level was growing, along with her anger. With difficulty, she reined it in. It wasn't Paris' fault, or Hudson's, or Simms' that they were in this situation. It wouldn't be fair to take it out on them. She returned to sit beside Paris, who leaned back against the wall as if he hadn't a care in the world. She envied him his composure.

Paris, quaking inside at the thought of being in the hands of the Borg, tried not to let it show. He'd heard stories about Wolf 359 and what the Borg had done to Captain Picard. Watching Torres pace back and forth until she came back to resume her seat at his side, he thought back to earlier that day, before the red alert, when Torres had stormed into Sandrine's. Looking over at her he asked, "Is that why you were so upset earlier today when you came into Sandrine's and bit my head off? Because it's your birthday?"

Torres sighed. She should have known Paris would figure it out sooner or later. He had an uncanny knack for picking up on little things like that and pulling all the pieces together to get the big picture. "Birthdays are a human tradition. A stupid  human tradition," she said, repeating earlier remarks she had made to herself.

"Um hmm," was Paris' only remark.

"What's that supposed to mean?" B'Elanna's temper flared.

Paris looked across the way to where Hudson and Simms sat taking this all in with interest. Like there's anything else to do here, thought Paris. Turning back to B'Elanna, he asked, "Why were you so upset? After all, it's just a 'stupid human tradition'."

B'Elanna bit back the retort she had been about to utter. Paris was trying to goad her into revealing something she had no intention of sharing with him or anyone else. She leaned back against the wall, crossing her arms defensively, remaining silent.

About to comment further, Paris suddenly cocked his head toward the entrance to their cell. "I think we're about to have visitors," he said, getting to his feet, as did the others.

The forcefield at the entrance flickered off. Torres prepared herself to spring at the two Borg as they entered into the cell, but Paris placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Now is not the time," he tried to tell her. He saw her nod slightly to let him know she had understood his message.

"You. Come with us. You will be assimilated," one of the Borg said, as he pointed a phaser-like weapon at Hudson. Hudson didn't move. Two more Borg came in. Paris moved in front of Hudson as if to protect him, but the Borg tossed him roughly to the floor as if he weighed nothing. B'Elanna started towards them but the Borg turned his phaser on her. She stopped, suddenly realizing there was absolutely nothing she could do. Watching the Borg carefully, she gave Paris a hand up, looking closely at him just to make sure all his pieces were still there. The Borg then grabbed Hudson and forcefully removed him from the cell. All three of the occupants of the cell moved towards the entrance, but the forcefield came to life once more.

"What are you trying to do? Get yourself assimilated before your time?" asked B'Elanna angrily.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time. I acted before I thought, hoping to somehow divert their attention towards me. After that I didn't have a plan," replied Tom.

"There's got to be a way out of here," said Simms, panicky.

"None that I know of," replied B'Elanna.

Tom once more sat on the floor of the cell and B'Elanna resumed her pacing. Simms sat down against the opposite wall and rested his head on his knees. All was quiet in the cell once more except for the low rumble of the warp drive. All three were thinking of the fate of Hudson and none wanted to share it. Tom sat watching B'Elanna moving up and down the cell. She reminds me of a caged lion I once saw as a kid at a zoo back on Earth. She probably paces in her sleep when she has a problem to work out. Just one time I would like to get inside her head to see how it works. It would probably be very educational, Tom thought to himself. He cracked a slight smile at the thought just as Torres turned towards him.

"OK, I give. What are you smiling about? I don't see anything funny about our situation just now," she asked challengingly.

"You wouldn't want to know," he replied quietly, for Simms had fallen asleep. B'Elanna sat down beside Paris and looked questioningly towards him.

"Maybe you should try and get some rest," he said, trying to throw her off track.

"Nice try, Tom, but it won't work. What, I repeat again, were you smiling at just now?"

I'll just bet one of your ancestors was in the Spanish Inquisition, he said to himself, thinking fast, trying to come up with something that would satisfy her.

"I was thinking that this is one hell of a birthday present," Tom responded. "I promise that when we get out of this mess, I will throw you a birthday party at Sandrine's."

"I don't want a birthday party. I've never had one in my life and I don't intend to start now," she replied testily.

Shocked, Paris said the first thing that came into his mind. "You mean you never, even as a kid, had a birthday party?"

Captain Kathryn Janeway gently laid her hand mirror back on her dressing table, fighting off the urge to smack it down, just to hear it break.

It had been late in the second shift when Tuvok had alerted her to the Borg ship; they had all already put in a long day:  checking systems, scanning files, and running diagnostics; in short, making sure the Voyager was fit after her incredible duplication and near destruction, her constant run-ins with the Kazon and the Vidiians.

Now, after nearly twenty hours on duty, the fatigue was setting in. She knew she would be late to her own meeting, but it had taken her a few minutes to calm her anger. To assuage her fear. To face her guilt.

Guilt. She had sent them, no one else. On a fool's errand? Perhaps. Torres, who needed the experience of command. Paris, who was chafing under the yoke of routine. Hudson and Simms, good soldiers, who just needed a chance to do their jobs once in a while.

Hudson. Simms. Paris. Torres. "NO. I will NOT put these names in the captain's log as 'Missing, presumed dead,'" she said softly, fiercely, aloud.

"Tuvok, report."

"The Borg ship is cruising at warp factor 5.8, in a heading that is roughly perpendicular to our previous course. Their systems appear to have been in a low energy state, thus deceiving us into believing they were harmless," said Tuvok.

"Intentionally?" queried Chakotay.

"Based on your own report, I would doubt it, Commander. The Borg seem to have been in a hibernative state," replied Tuvok. "I do not believe they attempted to fool us on purpose."

"Weapons, Mr. Kim?" No response. Kim sat staring past Janeway at the smearing images of the starfield outside the window, lost in thought. "Mr. Kim?" repeated Janeway, gently. Nothing. "Harry!" she urged.

Kim started. "Yes, Captain?"

Janeway glanced around the room, gathering up their attention, touched at their concern. Carey and Hamilton, looking uncomfortable. Kes and Neelix, tired and unhappy. Tuvok, impassive. Chakotay, guilty. Kim, grim.

"We will get them back," she said simply, emphasizing every word. "Whole. Unassimilated."

"Captain, I have an idea," said, of all people, Kes. "But it may be dangerous."

B'Elanna shrugged -- a quick, angry jerk of the shoulders. "Klingons don't celebrate birthdays," she retorted.

"But you were raised in a human colony. Didn't you--" He actually broke off the sentence at a glare from her, one so hot it would have done credit to a supernova.

"It's not important, Tom. Drop it, all right?" While she kept her voice low, she practically spat the words. 

He studied her thoughtfully, wondering if she had any idea how much information her face could give out at times. While her motivations were sometimes obscure, her emotions were an open book -- she'd never mastered the careless mask he wore as a matter of course. Just now, her face was all tense angles and bitter lines, and it made something twist in him. I want to make her smile, he realized. He'd always loved her rare, flashing smile.

"No," he said slowly, "I don't think so." She actually growled, low in her throat, and flung herself up from the floor to begin pacing the small space available again. His reaction to the unconscious grace and power of her movement startled him, and he had to swallow before continuing:  "Forget Sandrine's. We'll have your party right now, right here."

She came to an abrupt stop, whirling to face him. "Are you out of your mind, Tom? We've been taken prisoner by the Borg! They've already taken Hudson to be 'assimilated'" -- her fists clenched -- "and we're stuck in here, just waiting for them to come do the same thing to us! And you want to have a stupid party?"

She would remind him of Hudson, whose face he had been trying very hard to push out of his mind. Junior officers, he knew only too well, were his responsibility, and it was one he was growing to hate. But just now he couldn't help Hudson -- and there was B'Elanna. "You have a better idea?"

"Don't you understand? We're going to die!"

"Maybe." He shrugged, grateful for the casual mask that concealed his bone-deep fear. "Maybe not; Captain Janeway has a pretty good track record for rescues. She got us out last time, didn't she?" B'Elanna's body untensed slightly; the captain's name was almost a talisman for both of them.

Almost. "That was last time. What makes you think she can pull it off again?"

"Whether she can or not, there's nothing we can do about it." She growled again, and he went on hurriedly, "Look, B'Elanna, we've got no weapons. We don't know how many Borg are on board, or if any of them are guarding this door, or the layout of the ship -- and besides, both of us are hurt. Unless you've got some technological trick up your sleeve -- you don't, do you?"

"I can't disassemble my communicator and turn it into a bomb, no."

"Then I'd say we're stuck. Either we're going to be rescued, or we're not. If we are, then there isn't any point in our sitting here worrying."

"But if we're not," he went on before she could interrupt, "then I can't think of a better way to spend the time we've got left than in celebrating your birth."

'Oh, man,' Tom thought to himself, 'did that come out as corny as I think it did?'

Evidently so, because her mouth actually twitched. "If that was a line, Tom, it wasn't too bad." She paused, then sat. "You know," she said almost conversationally, "I've always thought that being a prisoner was something to worry about. I've never understood why everyone tries to calm me down when it happens -- Chakotay, Harry, Tuvok, you. . . ."

Tom glanced pointedly at the cell's limited confines. "Self-defense," he assured her dryly. That got a real smile, even if was a little weak.

"Honestly, B'Elanna, laughter can be a defense against a lot of things. Want to give it a try?"

She took a deep breath, then nodded slowly. "All right. But Tom, I -- don't really know much about these things. . . ."

"That's okay," he assured her. "I do. Now, if we were holding this on Voyager, it'd be in some terrific holodeck setting, surrounded by all your friends and lots of presents and food. Since we're not on Voyager, we'll have to use our imaginations. Pretend we're in Sandrine's . . ." She looked a little dubious, but apparently did so.

"Now, instead of your uniform, you're wearing a long, sweeping red silk gown. It's sleeveless, but you're wearing matching gloves -- and ruby earrings, too."

"You don't think I'm a little overdressed?"

"Hey, it's your party. Now, the neckline is -- here--"


He just grinned. "Shh, I'm creating. There's music playing--" He named one of her favorite songs. "--and Neelix is catering. He's actually produced some good stuff this time; maybe he replicated it. Everybody's here, of course -- the captain, Chakotay, Harry, Kes, Tuvok, the Doctor, and everybody else you know. Now, what would you like first? Food, presents, dancing?"

"Presents," she said with a grin of her own; Tom almost lost the thread of his story at the sight of it. She really is beautiful when she smiles . . .

"Presents, right. Let's see -- the captain is first." He pretended to unwrap an imaginary box. "Ah! Free poker lessons. You'll be able to beat anybody on board in less than a week.

"From Carey -- that cyrionic converter you wanted so badly two days ago." At her look, he added, "B'Elanna, the whole ship could hear you yelling at Carey about that thing." She shrugged unrepentantly.

Tuvok's gift came next. "Hmmm -- one thousand, six hundred and three pieces of logical advice." He waited a beat, then-- "All of which you are entitled to ignore completely." She actually laughed out loud, but quieted with curiosity as he gave the next name.

"Chakotay." He paused for effect, then announced:  "A Terran eagle, carved from blue Alatiran marble." Her jaw dropped.

"How did you know about that?" she demanded incredulously. He answered with smug silence and an amused smile, and she shook her head in sheer disbelief. "Okay, keep going."

And he did, going from person to person, sometimes at her prompting, sometimes at his own. Most of them were funny, like Harry's "temporal compressor -- for when the captain wants you to do a six-hour job in three hours." Or the Doctor's punching bag-- "so you don't give him extra business." Or the note from Seska, promising to wait at least a week between attacks-- "so you have time to get everything fixed before it gets shot up again." Some were simply nice thoughts, like the plant from Kes. Some were both, like Neelix's gallon of replicated chocolate ice cream. By then she'd learned not to ask how he knew these things -- he wasn't about to tell her that he'd known it was her favorite because he'd been eavesdropping on Chakotay. But as he went down the list, watching her carefully, her body relaxed completely, and her laughter came often and sincerely. She truly was enjoying this. Come to think of it, so was he -- thoughts of the Borg were easier to push away while he listened to her laugh.

Tom was feeling very pleased with himself -- until B'Elanna looked up at him, and asked slyly, "So Tom -- what are you giving me?"

B'Elanna's mischievous smile faded when she saw the seriousness in Tom's eyes. She'd expected another joke:  some facetious, off-color remark. Something typically Tom.

But his face was so solemn, so gentle, as he considered her question, she found herself wondering if she really knew this man at all.

'When did I stop thinking of him as a 'guy'?' she thought to herself.

When did he become a man to me, a desirable one? She stopped that line of thought immediately. It wasn't easy, with him studying her so closely.

"I don't know," he said at last. "So many things come to mind -- but I've already given you what I most wanted to."

"And what's that?" she laughed, trying to lighten the moment.

"This smile," Tom said, reaching out to trace the curve of her lower lip with his thumb. At the touch of his hand on her face, B'Elanna felt an electric jolt run through her, lips to hips to toes. After that first moment, she pulled back -- he did, too. But not before they each knew that the other had felt it too.

That moment of shared desire.

Oh God, B'Elanna, say something. Anything! "So, umm -- you're a cheapskate after all."

"What?" Paris was understandably bewildered.

"My own smile is all you're giving me for my birthday? Surely you can do better than that."

Tom grinned wolfishly. "As a matter of fact, I can. Hmmm," hummed Tom, leaning back and closing his eyes. "What to get B'Elanna for her birthday. What to get, what to get, what to get. A phaser with her name engraved on it? No. A brand new hoverball, personally autographed by Q? No. A vial of antidote for Neelix's latest creation? No. Well, maybe."

With his eyes still closed, he reached out and took her hand. "I'll have to think about it. I'll let you know. Now rest. We've got some serious partying to do when we get back."

"Go ahead, Kes," said Janeway, trying not to let her surprise show.

"Neelix and Harry have been explaining to me what it means to 'bluff', Captain," she said. "I find it an odd idea. Promising to do that which you really have no intention of doing at all. The concept is totally unknown to my people."

"Yes, I should say so, in a society of telepaths," responded Chakotay.

"But these people, these 'Borg', they aren't telepathic, are they? Towards us, I mean. Mr. Tuvok says they 're in a weakened condition. They are running away from us, aren't they? Perhaps they could be 'bluffed' into returning our hostages."

"Captain," continued Kim, "we've analyzed their weapons systems. Their main weapons array seems to be damaged. Their transwarp superdrive appears to be off-line. Other than that, we just don't know. With their collective lifestyle, we don't even know how many of them there are, or the status of their life support."

"Captain," ventured Tuvok, "Voyager is no match for a Borg cube, even in a damaged state. If we engage them, it must not come down to a firefight. Unless, of course, they drop out of warp and lower their shields."

"But that, Mr. Tuvok," replied Janeway, "is all we need, isn't it? Maybe, just maybe, we can make them do it."

Simms jerked awake with a start. Lieutenant Paris still sat in the same place, but Lieutenant Torres had stopped her pacing and was seated beside him, her eyes closed, her head actually on his shoulder. Hudson, you should have lived to see what I'm seeing right now, he thought, with a soft sigh. How the mighty are falling.

"Shh, Simms," Paris murmured, not moving at all.

"How am I supposed to sleep with you two making all this noise?" said Torres quietly, also not moving.

"I thought you were asleep."

"I think you've got a thinking problem."

The peaceful moment died as the sound of footsteps approached. All three leaped to their feet.

"Tom, we can't just wait here while they take us one by one! We have to do something! Anything! We'll just grab them and--"

One by one, two by two . . .

"No, B'Elanna, wait . . ." An idea took shape in Tom's mind.


"I want you to kiss me," he said, catching her arm.

"WHAT? Now?!"

"Just play along. Simms, watch for your chance." Tom pulled her to him, holding her shoulders with both hands, and kissed her.

B'Elanna felt a rush of emotions. Anger. Embarrassment. Insult. And . . . something else? Yes, desire, she couldn't deny it. That, more than anything, caused her to put her hands flat on his chest to shove him off. She heard the forcefield disengage. B'Elanna broke away from Tom, but he held her firmly by the shoulders. One Borg entered, pointing his phaser directly at her. "You will now be assimilated."

"We are a pair," announced Tom. "You must take us together, or we will both die BEFORE we can be assimilated." That being said, he promptly ignored the Borg, firmly turned B'Elanna's face up, closed his eyes, and kissed her again.

Tom heard the whir as the Borg adjusted the focus of its eyepiece, paused, and refocused again. Yeah, thought Tom, I thought this would interest you. Never seen humans do this before, have you?

There came a thud, then another. Both Lieutenants turned to see the Borg down, dead or unconscious, Simms with its weapon in his hand, already through the portal. "Good thinking, sirs."

Tom released B'Elanna, thinking, 'Oh, boy, Thomas. Are you ever about to get "smacked".'

B'Elanna said nothing, but turning on her heel, she charged through the portal. For the moment, at least, they were free.

The trio, with Simms in the lead, weapon in hand, had made it farther into the Borg ship than Paris thought possible. The Borg didn't seem to be aware that they had escaped yet, but he was sure that was bound to change any minute. He caught up to Simms and B'Elanna as they came to a stop. B'Elanna was studying a nearby monitor intently.

"What?" asked Paris.

"Look at this," she said, indicating the monitor. It appeared to be some sort of diagram. But when Tom took a closer look at it he realized it was a layout of the ship. B'Elanna pointed excitedly at one area. "I think this is their engineering section. If we could get control of it . . ."

Paris didn't bother to vocalize his thoughts that it was bound to be guarded. She would know that already. It was, simply, their only choice at the moment. "We need more weapons," he said.

"I've got that covered, sir," spoke up Simms quietly, motioning them back into an alcove. Paris peeked around him to see two Borg approaching. They seemed unaware of the trio in their path. Simms shot them before they had a chance to register their presence.

Hurrying forward, Simms gathered their weapons and turned to hand one each to Paris and Torres.

B'Elanna cocked an eyebrow at Tom. "You were saying?"

Shrugging, Tom said to Simms, "Good job, Ensign." Bowing grandly to B'Elanna, he said, "After you, Lieutenant."

B'Elanna rolled her eyes as she headed down the corridor, Paris and Simms on her heels. Simms, bringing up the rear, grinned. It was almost worth being trapped on a Borg ship, he thought, to watch the byplay between Lt. Torres and Lt. Paris.

They had gained entry to the Borg ship's engineering compartment. There hadn't been any guards, which had puzzled them, until Paris commented that perhaps it just never occurred to the Borg that an attack might come from within. Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, they took full advantage of the opportunity. In no time at all, they had sealed the entrance to Engineering and incapacitated the few Borg who had been there.

It didn't take B'Elanna long before she had the Borg systems figured out.

"What do you think?" B'Elanna asked, turning to look at Tom.

The expression in his eyes was frank, although his tone was light. "I think we can remain in control of this ship for maybe ten minutes before the Borg break the roadblocks we've set up in the system and regain control. Let's hope Voyager is right on our tail."

Simms, who had been playing gopher for the lieutenants for the last few minutes, stood back and watched them. He wasn't sure how they had done it, but somehow Paris and Torres had managed to give them a fighting chance. They worked well together. He wondered if they had any idea how well they worked together. He sincerely hoped they  got the chance to find out.

B'Elanna bent over the control panels, ready to begin the programs to slow the Borg vessel. Still, doubt tugged at her thoughts. "Tom?" she asked, too preoccupied to remember to call him by his last name.

"What's the matter? Is there some problem?"

"No. But there should be."

Paris raised a puzzled eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"The Borg are one of the most technologically advanced species known to the Federation. They've annihilated dozens of Starfleet's finest vessels. It looks like I can just tap into this system and slow the Borg vessel. But it can't be that easy, Tom. That's what's wrong here. It's -- too easy."

Tom sighed, crossing his arms across his chest. "Trust you to find the dark cloud around the silver lining, B'Elanna. What do you think we should do about it?"

"Well," she answered slowly, "right now, I think the best thing to do would be to keep going with our plan. We don't have many alternatives, do we? But stay on your guard, Tom. There's more to this than we know, I'm sure of it."

Paris nodded, readying his phaser. The unearthly hum and grind of the Borg vessel seemed ominously louder around them. Torres took a deep breath, then punched in the code.

And they were plunged into darkness.

The darkness inside a space vessel, windowless, surrounded only by black space, is infinite. B'Elanna felt her stomach lurch in terror, and she reached out blindly. Her hand brushed against something warm -- she gasped in fright before realizing that it was Tom's face.

Paris reached up and took her hand in his own, holding it close to his chest. "That's not promising, is it?"

"Maybe-maybe we actually shut them down," Torres said. But she couldn't quite believe she'd been so successful. Instinctively, she drew closer to Tom. He slid an arm around her shoulders; B'Elanna was surprised at the touch, but welcomed it all the same. Just because this is damned scary, she told herself.

But there, in the dark, without the sight of him to distract her, she was aware of so many little things about him -- the warmth of his skin near her own, the soft woodsy smell of his skin, the sound of his breathing, smooth and controlled, no doubt by force of will. What is happening to me? she wondered.

And then there was no time to wonder about anything at all.

"Did you hear that?" Tom whispered -- and then clutched her tightly as a red light pierced the darkness.

Red light from what should have been the eyes of a Borg. His metallic voice rasped, "The biological life forms found the simulated vulnerability. Time elapsed was under estimate. Pair theory still unproven. Further tests required."

"Rats in a maze," Tom snarled. B'Elanna turned his face toward her own, resting her hand on his cheek.

"Don't lose your head now, Paris. We've got to stay sharp. Okay?"

In the dim gleam of the Borg's light, Torres could just make out the expression in his eyes as he nodded. "You're right. I'm sorry--"

"Further tests are required," the Borg rasped. "The tests will begin now."

A test! The whole thing had been a simulated test. Paris seethed, his anger coming to a boiling point. Only B'Elanna's hand on his arm held him back.

"Sirs?" Simms' uncertain voice echoed in the darkness.

"Easy does it, Ensign," soothed Paris, who longed for the feel of the weapon back in his hand, but it had evidently been as simulated as everything else around them.

They were all startled when the lights abruptly came back on. Paris turned at B'Elanna's sharply indrawn breath. She stood staring at a nearby table. On it lay Hudson, whom they had not seen since the Borg had dragged him out of the cell. He was strapped down on a table being prepared to be Borgified. He couldn't seem to speak, but his eyes pleaded with them.

Paris stepped forward, saying the first thing that popped into his head. "You mustn't assimilate him!"

"Tom," B'Elanna's voice whispered, her hand tightening on his arm, "I think Hudson's a simulation too."

"Are you sure?" Paris asked suspiciously. "How do we know? What if he isn't and that really IS Hudson lying there?"

She had no answer for him. He was right. They would have to play this out. Her hand moved to his unconsciously. He clasped it tightly.

The Borg turned to look at Paris and Torres, addressing them as one. "He will be assimilated. He will become part of the Collective."

Swallowing his fear and anger, Paris repeated, "You cannot assimilate him. He is necessary to the pair. We will not allow his assimilation." Tom spoke forcefully, surely.

The Borg, however, ignored him and moved to proceed with the assimilation.

Before either Tom or B'Elanna could stop him, Simms had darted forward and inserted himself between the Borg and the prone Hudson. The Borg's weapon centered on Simms. Of one mind, Paris and Torres both moved forward to stand protectively in front of Hudson and Simms. Slowly, the Borg's weapon lowered. It addressed Paris and Torres. "You would risk your existence for another?" Its eyes moved to Paris' and Torres' clasped hands.

Paris raised their clasped hands. "We are joined," he stated. "These two," he indicated Simms and Hudson, "are important to us."

The Borg was suddenly very still, as if processing this information. Tom squeezed B'Elanna's hand reassuringly. The Borg seemed to receive further instruction through his link with the Collective and stated, "The test will proceed. They will be assimilated."

"State the purpose of the test." B'Elanna addressed the Borg as if requesting information from a computer. "Define the parameters."

"The joined entities will be tested to verify the supposition that they are invulnerable to assimilation. The first phase is complete. Test subjects accomplished task jointly under projected time limits. Further testing is required."

"Define parameters for the next phase of testing," ordered B'Elanna.

"Test subject is not authorized to access that information. Testing will proceed." Without much difficulty, the Borg moved Paris aside forcefully. B'Elanna, who had a moment longer to prepare, stood her ground. Paris rose from the deck to where the Borg had tossed him to see B'Elanna struggling with the Borg. The Borg was quickly overpowering her. Tom leaped forward, knocking B'Elanna aside and stood face to face with the Borg, mere inches from it. Paris was angry. He had had enough of this. "Go ahead. Shoot me. Kill me. Assimilate me. Whatever you plan to do, just do it and stop playing these games."

"Tom, no!"

Paris heard B'Elanna's plea but ignored it. He stared at the Borg. "We possess something you will never have. It's called humanity. Compassion. It's what binds us together."

Paris' voice contained a hard edge that B'Elanna had never heard before. To her amazement, the Borg actually stepped back from Paris. "That is irrelevant," it said, but did Paris detect just a note of uncertainty? He pursued it.

"Is it? Why do you assimilate other beings? Isn't it because you want more knowledge? Because you're curious? If you assimilate us, you take away our humanity. That spark that makes us each uniquely special. You can't assimilate that. Leave us unassimilated and let us teach you about humanity."

"You will be--"

"Yeah, yeah," Paris waved a dismissive hand. "Assimilated. I know. Don't you guys know any other big words?" Suddenly tired, he turned his back on the Borg and looked at Hudson, Simms and lastly, B'Elanna. Giving her a weary smile, he said, "We tried."

B'Elanna came to stand beside him. She surprised Tom by placing her arms around his waist and leaning into him. Paris obligingly wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. She tipped her face upward, as if awaiting a kiss. Tom bent his head to press his lips on hers, but before their lips met, he heard her whispering softly to him. "Simms still has his weapon. Apparently, it wasn't part of the simulation. Remember, we got ours later, after we left the cell." Reluctantly abandoning her lips, he peered past her shoulder to where Simms stood behind her, still guarding Hudson. Simms gave him a slight thumbs up.

Nodding to Simms imperceptibly, Paris bent back down to B'Elanna. "Ready?" She nodded slightly.

Not knowing if they would survive what would happen in the next few moments, Tom couldn't resist. He gently brushed his lips against B'Elanna's. Sweetly. Tenderly. To his amazement, this time she returned his kiss with some passion of her own. Reluctantly, he pulled away. Meeting her eyes, he saw her acknowledgment that she was ready.

Simms was ready when Paris and Torres threw themselves to one side. In one smooth movement, he had the weapon out and blasted the Borg. It went down like a sack of rocks and didn't move. Simms whirled to shoot out the controls which he hoped were the ones controlling the simulation.

Seconds later, the simulated Engineering room disappeared around them and they were back in their former holding cell, with a few minor differences. The dead or unconscious Borg still lay on the floor, and behind Simms lay Hudson. The real Hudson. The forcefield barring the portal was, surprisingly, inactivated.

Helping him sit up, B'Elanna asked, "Are you all right?"

"I think so," Hudson replied. With their assistance, he climbed to his feet.

Simms led the way to the door, peering out cautiously. "Looks clear," he said, glancing over his shoulder at the others.

"Sirs?" Paris and Torres looked at Hudson inquiringly. "Sirs, how do we know this is real? That it's not another simulation?" Hudson had verbalized the obvious fear.

Shrugging, Paris said, "Right now it's the only game in town. We may as well play it out and see where it gets us."

They exited their unguarded holding cell, still not knowing if any of this was real or a simulation and proceeded down the corridor. Suddenly -- terribly -- BOTH Simms and Hudson blinked out of existence. The corridor itself dissolved away to reveal what B'Elanna could only assume was a holodeck. A Borg stood before them.

"Damn it! Where's Simms? When did they separate us?" Tom's frustration was palpable now.

"I don't know. I'm starting to wonder if this hasn't been a simulation since we came aboard." Torres realized even as she said it that this could mean -- Not Tom too? Her blood ran cold as she thought that she might have just snuggled up to a Borg hologram -- but Paris grabbed her hand and asked quietly, "What's Harry Kim's favorite song?"

"What a Difference a Day Makes," B'Elanna said. "What's Chakotay's favorite meal?"

"Mushroom soup. Okay, we're still legitimate."

Throughout all of this, the Borg watched them dispassionately. The pasty skin over his face remained motionless, almost statue like. It was faintly eerie, and B'Elanna realized she was clutching Tom's hand a little harder. "What do you want now?" she demanded of their captor.

"What does this mean, to be an inseparable pair?"

Damn, Tom thought. He'd been hoping that they'd accept his bluff at face value. He'd lived on the wrong side of the law long enough to know that lies are always best kept simple. Still, he could bluff with the best of them, couldn't he? "It means that we are not to be divided."

"Biological life forms are not conjoined. The Borg are conjoined. Biological units are separate."

"We're not joined the same way you are, thank God," B'Elanna sighed. "We are joined by choice."

"But it is just as inseparable as your joinings. You cannot separate us, or assimilate without assimilating the joining," Tom added.

The Borg's voice grew even more metallic, if this were possible. "Alien connections would be disruptive to the network."

Paris fought hard to keep himself from grinning. The bluff was working!

However, the smile died unseen when he heard the Borg speak again, to the countless minds surrounding them. "Pair theory testing will continue now."

The Borg reached out, too swiftly for Tom even to move, and shoved B'Elanna roughly across the room. Enraged, Paris began to charge him -- and ran straight into a steel wall that hadn't been there before.

He was enclosed in a tiny cell now -- alone.

Although he'd been scared ever since they came to the Borg vessel -- any sane man would be -- Tom had never let himself panic. Now, though, terror was dangerously close. What were they doing to her? "B'Elanna!" he shouted, more in horror than with any hope of being heard.

And yet, she was still close. "Tom! What are they doing?"

Paris realized that Torres was just on the other side of the thin wall -- he noticed that, like other Borg compartments, the walls had thin gaps between corners. Not that it would do them any good -- half an inch wasn't nearly enough to work with -- but he could hear her better in the corner. "They've called my bluff," he groaned, going walking over to the tiny crack. "They've actually separated us to see what will happen."

"And when we don't die--" B'Elanna sighed, leaning against her own wall. She could just see a little of Tom's uniform and sandy hair through the crevice, and focused on that to keep her from feeling utterly isolated. "It was a good try, though, Paris. I have to hand it to you."

"Nice to hear that."

"Hear what?"

"That tone in your voice -- what is it? Hmmm, if I had to put a label on it, I'd call it respect. Far cry from our early days, wouldn't you say?"

Tom's voice was light, teasing -- but for the first time, Torres realized that their earlier conflict had hurt him. She knew now how desperately he wanted respect, how he'd fought to earn trust after his colorful past. In those early days, he'd seemed so bullheaded -- how could she not have seen how vulnerable he really was? "You're a good pilot and a good officer, Tom. And for what it's worth, I think you're a good man. I do respect you. I have for a long time. I wish I'd told you sooner."

Paris, to his own astonishment, realized he was blushing. He hadn't expected her to take him so seriously, but it felt damn good to finally be taken seriously again. "I -- thanks, B'Elanna. I wish I hadn't acted like such a pig for so long; then you might have had reason to tell me sooner. And, for what it's worth," Tom felt his mouth go slightly dry; was he actually going to say this? Get over it, Paris! What have you got to lose? "For what it's worth, B'Elanna -- you're an amazing woman. I can't think of anyone whose respect means more to me."

There was a long, quiet pause; Tom swallowed hard, surprised at how moved and confused he felt. Desperate to lighten the moment, he blurted out, "I mean, I'd hate to have you start telling the crew I'm a terrible kisser."

"That's not the kind of respect you meant," she replied.

"No -- it's not," Tom sighed.

There was another long pause -- then B'Elanna said slowly, "You're not a terrible kisser."

"Neither are you," Tom replied. He glanced over at the tiny crevice in the wall. There wasn't enough space for him to see her, really, but maybe, "B'Elanna, put your hand up to the wall here, in the corner."

Torres frowned, but did so, and gasped as she felt Tom's fingertip brush her own. One small touch, and it electrified her as even their earlier kisses had not. Those were forced by the moment. This -- this moment of contact -- was real. She leaned her face against the cool steel that separated them. "Thank you," she whispered.

"What for?" Tom asked, his own voice strangely hushed.

"For my only birthday party." She brushed against his fingertip with her own, cherishing this one small touch they were allowed to share. Then, suddenly, she jerked her head back from the wall. "Wait, Tom, I've got it!"

"Got what?" Paris said, surprised by the sudden change in tone.

"A possible way to get us out of here," she replied.

Chakotay sat in his quarters, morosely staring at the coffee mug in his hand. Why was HE the one allowed to return to the ship? Why did he always manage to avoid the dangerous situations, while everyone else risked their lives? He, the First Officer, who was supposed to be responsible for the others?

The others . . .

He found his mind focusing on B'Elanna. If anyone was stubborn and resourceful enough to escape the Borg, it was she. And if there was anyone impulsive enough to get herself killed, it was she. I'm worrying like a father, he reflected.

The coffee was cold. Technically, Chakotay was off duty for the evening, but he couldn't stop worrying . . . and besides, the captain was probably worn out. He left the half-empty mug on the end table and headed for the bridge.

Janeway strode from her ready room to the bridge and assessed her crew. "Did you all follow orders?" she asked. "Has everyone had at least a LITTLE rest?"

Guilty glances.

"I thought not. Well," she softened, "I didn't either. Are we ready, Commander?"

Chakotay nodded. "I guess we're all about to see what kind of actors we would have been."

"Commander, I expect nothing less than a stellar performance from all of us. Mr. Kim, hail the Borg vessel."

"No response, Captain."

Janeway hadn't expected one. "Then I want to broadcast a message on all subspace frequencies."

"Go ahead, Captain."

"This is the Federation starship Voyager. Borg vessel:  you are holding four of our crew. Return them immediately, or a state of war will exist between us. You have one minute to comply."

The wall dissolved into nothingness. With the sudden loss of the wall they had been leaning against, both Tom and B'Elanna lost their balance and  toppled into each other. They stepped back, like guilty teenagers.

"Well," quipped Tom, covering the emotion again, "I don't know what you did, but you're right. Whatever it was, it was a good idea."

B'Elanna snorted. "Paris, even I can't work THAT fast."

"Ah. That must mean -- yes, here he is. Our Favorite Friend." The Borg said nothing, but merely pointed a peculiar device directly at Tom's chest. "What's that thi--" Tom uttered a small woof of surprise and his eyes grew wide.

"What's happening? What are you doing to him?!" shrieked B'Elanna.

"Your 'other' cannot inhale, and his lungs have been emptied of oxygen."

Tom looked wildly from B'Elanna, to the Borg, and then back to her. She could sense rather than see his rising panic.

She whirled on the Borg. "Stop it!!" she shouted. "He can't breathe! You're killing him!" She lunged at the Borg, but it calmly pointed the device at her, and she pulled up. She watched helplessly as Tom slowly collapsed to his hands and knees on the grid floor, making small, choked, hiccupping noises. She knelt beside him, absolutely enraged, and screamed, "I'll kill you! I SWEAR it! You let him die and I'll make you ALL suffer! I'll--"

"Will you trade his place?"

"I--" she started, but a fist gripped her wrist, so firm as to almost be painful. She forced her eyes to meet his. Those eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes.

No, they implored.

"Yes," she said defiantly.

"You risk your lives to take control of this vessel and be free. You reach for each other even in total darkness. You must touch each other. You attempt to prevent others from being assimilated, and you are willing to sacrifice your life to save the life of your 'other'. You speak of 'humanity' and 'compassion'," said the Borg.

"We have been looking for you."

The Borg calmly pointed the device at Tom again, and activated it again. Tom collapsed completely, heaving great breaths. B'Elanna stared at the Borg, mouth still agape from the shock. Tom held one hand to his chest, as if he needed to feel its rise and fall. He managed to gasp out, "You don't sound much like the Borg I'm familiar with. Don't tell me you guys have turned over a new leaf?"

The combined voices of the ship spoke again. But this time, it was not the mindless rasp of a thousand drones, but voices -- real voices, that seemed stronger and louder and yet no longer frightening. "We are not the Borg."

And suddenly, the ship was made of light--

"War will exist between our peoples." Janeway stood firm, hands on hips, hoping against hope that she looked more intimidating than she felt. What had the Borg to fear from them? Only one thing, as far as she could tell -- complications. Borg didn't like complications. This was the worst threat she had to offer.

And she meant every word of it.

"War." If anything, the voices of the Borg became more disapproving. "Biological life forms wish to destroy other forms of life."

"We do NOT wish it," Janeway said. "But we will protect our people if they are in danger."

"Scans indicate that your vessel is no match for ours."

Kathryn took a deep breath. "Maybe not. Maybe we don't stand much of a chance. But maybe -- just maybe -- we do. And I'm going to take that chance, unless our people are returned to us."

"You risk your deaths for only four individual units?"

Tuvok spoke. "For Captain Janeway, the needs of the few sometimes outweigh the needs of the many. It is not logical--" he glanced over at his captain with an expression that, in anyone else, would have been affectionate pride, "--but it is often right."

Astonishingly, the Borg smiled.

Chakotay's hand gripped her shoulder as the screen filled with light--

Tom shut his eyes hastily against the sudden blinding light. After a second, he opened them again, blinking, and looked out at the interior of a Borg ship. It seemed less forbidding now that it was better lit, but there was no mistaking the design. Especially since dozens of Borg stood there, surrounding the two officers huddled on the floor. B'Elanna squeezed his hand tighter, and he squeezed back. He could almost taste her bitter disappointment, the kin to his own. Just when it had seemed like things were finally going to change for the better. . . .

"We are not the Borg," the voices repeated, "anymore."

This is getting more confusing every -- wait a minute. Those voices sound wrong. . . . He looked around again, and spotted what he had missed the first time.

"Tom, the Borg!" There was shock in her voice...shock, and hope.

"Yeah," he nodded, "I see it too, 'Lanna."

The Borg had expressions. Not the callous, mechanical masks that Tom had come to hate in the hours since he'd come on board, but real, honest-to-God, individual expressions. They didn't seem like unfriendly ones, either, more like -- hungry? Bad image, he decided, but appropriate. They regarded Tom and B'Elanna as if they had something that the Borg desperately wanted. Maybe we do, he thought.

Beside him, B'Elanna let out a long breath, and then turned quickly to him. "Tom? Are you . . . all right?" Her eyes were dark with concern, and the previous terror in her voice -- when she had watched him dying -- ran through his memory.

"Uh -- I think so. No real harm done." He tried to smile carelessly, but he was too confused and shaken to pull it off. She nodded, but kept hold of his hand as they stood up, and wrapped a supportive arm around his waist once they were on their feet.

"Now," B'Elanna said to the assembled Borg, "since we've come on board your vessel, we've been attacked, terrified, manipulated, and nearly killed. And now you say you've been looking for us? We'll listen to an explanation, but it had better be good."

Tom's grin was genuine this time. You tell 'em, B'Elanna!

A Borg stepped forward. It might have been the Borg who'd almost suffocated Tom, or it might not have -- it was hard to tell. "My name is Kynn," he said. One more surprise. "Our . . . people were Borg before; we have no name now."

"When?" Tom interrupted. "I mean, how long ago were you Borg?"

Kynn hesitated. "I believe . . . centuries?"

No wonder the ship looks different from the ones we know!

"How did you quit being Borg?" B'Elanna asked, sounding bewildered.

"There was a . . . malfunction. The cause was never isolated, but a unit aboard this ship developed . . . an individual personality. The effect spread slowly and subtly, but by the time it was discovered, all the units aboard this ship had been affected. To prevent contamination, we were . . . isolated from the rest of the collective."

"Isolated?" Tom interrupted again. "You mean, they threw you out?" Kynn didn't seem to understand, and he rephrased it. "You were no longer part of the collective?"

"That is correct."

B'Elanna was frowning, the way she did when she was trying to diagnose an engine problem. "So you were all still connected to each other, but not to the collective. And you all had individual personalities, so you couldn't just form a miniature collective."

"That is correct," Kynn repeated.

Something like horror was in Tom's expression, he knew. To suddenly lose your entire way of life, and everything and everyone you'd ever known -- Who does that remind me of? he wondered bleakly, and moved a little closer to B'Elanna; she didn't object. And it wasn't even their fault. "What happened then?" he asked, trying to shake off his unwilling sympathy.

"We sought instruction," Kynn replied, "in individuality. The first race we located, after a year's time," he added, looking at Tom, "was named the Vyarri. We learned much from them, but their systems proved . . . irrational. Wasteful. We terminated our association with them."

"Wasteful of what? Energy?" That was B'Elanna's question, phrased like a true engineer.

"Lives," Kynn answered succinctly.

"Oh, Jesus," Tom breathed, suddenly understanding. If they'd run into an aggressive, warring race, whose members fought constantly, like the Kazon, what must the "instruction" provided have been like for a bunch of people who were all telepathically connected? The temptation to strike out at each other must have been irresistible, and the results would have been devastating. "Did any of you die?"

"Fourteen." Kynn's tone was generally hard to read, but Tom was sure he'd heard grief in it that time. He paused a minute, then continued. "The Vyarri did not possess compassion, or . . . caring. We learned of this only through its absence. It seemed to us that such traits would be necessary to an existence such as ours. But there were no teachers, and our existence was becoming difficult to bear. A decision was reached. We placed ourselves in hibernation, to wait for teachers."

"And that's . . . us? Teachers in compassion and caring?" Incredulous, he could almost hear his father's scoffing voice -- then his eyes slid sideways to B'Elanna's face, and he banished the phantom fiercely.

"That is you," Kynn confirmed.

He could feel B'Elanna starting to say something, and the look of outrage on her face told him what it would be. "B'Elanna, NO!" he hissed in her ear. Before she could go on, he said loudly, "Excuse me, Kynn. We need a few minutes alone to discuss this."

Kynn looked mulish, and Tom didn't try to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "Look, you owe us. And you say you need us. So back off, all right?" Reluctantly, the Borg moved out of earshot. Tom hoped, anyway.

He thought he saw reluctant admiration on B'Elanna's face, but it vanished as she pulled away and turned on him. "Don't you EVER try to shut me up, Tom Paris!" she hissed.

"You were going to say no, weren't you?" he hissed back.

"So what? After everything they've put us through, you want to HELP them? Give me one good reason!"

"I can't!" he nearly yelled, then stopped and tried to wrestle down his temper. Since when can she make me this furious? "I can't," he repeated more calmly, "but I can't think of a good reason for the captain to have taken a chance on me, either. But she did."

"You see yourself in them?" She sounded surprised.

"That look in their eyes. So lost, so damned uncertain. Almost screaming, 'Please help me. Please give me some purpose. Please, don't turn away from me.'" Tom's hands clenched, then opened again, convulsively. "Yeah."

The silence was endless; Tom studied the floor, feeling sick. He didn't want her disgust, or her pity.

But when her warm hand touched his arm, and he looked up, he didn't see either. Only acceptance, and understanding. "Remind me to tell you sometime," she said with a small smile, "what I was doing for a living when I hooked up with Chakotay."

Paris returned her smile, his a bit uncertain, and a bit embarrassed. He'd just revealed more of himself to this woman in the past few minutes than he had to anyone in the past year, even Harry. It left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't like leaving himself open like this, yet when he looked in her eyes, it somehow felt right that he should share this part of himself with her.

Giving Tom a look full of understanding, B'Elanna said softly, "Okay, hotshot, go for it." She turned them back toward the Borg.

Addressing Kynn, Tom said, "OK, the first thing you need to do is stop this ship and open communications with Voyager. The captain will want to speak with you."

"She is like you?" questioned Kynn, a bit suspiciously, as if he did not quite trust them yet.

Paris nodded, trying not to hold Kynn's suspicious nature against him. Given how these Borg had been living, he could hardly blame them. "If you think I'm full of understanding and compassion, wait 'til you meet her." Softening his tone, he said, "She's really the one you should be talking to anyway."

Looking disappointed, almost like a child, Kynn said, "We are talking to her. You do not wish to continue conversing with me?"

Surprised, Tom could only stare for a moment. "No, it isn't that, it's just that Captain Janeway is in a position of authority to make certain decisions that I'm not. If you'd like to talk more later," he shrugged, "I'll be around. Just ask for me."

Kynn considered them for a long moment. Finally, when he spoke, it was with the awkwardness of not being skilled at making small talk. "You have names?" he asked.

Paris nodded. "My name is Tom Paris. This is B'Elanna Torres. And the other two crewmen who were with us are Ethan Simms and Mikel Hudson, who, by the way, are still missing."

"They are safe," Kynn reassured him.

"We'd like to see that for ourselves," B'Elanna said, still not completely trusting these "new-and-improved" Borg.

Kynn turned and spoke to one of his comrades behind him. The Borg left the room as Kynn turned back to Paris and Torres. "The other two -- Ethan Simms and Mikel Hudson? -- will be brought here shortly."

Another of the other Borg whispered in Kynn's ear. Kynn looked at Paris and Torres. "You may contact your ship now. We will speak with Captain Janeway."

Exchanging an uncertain look with B'Elanna, Tom hesitantly touched his comm badge. "Paris to Voyager."

There was a slight pause, then Janeway's concerned voice came over the link. "Mr. Paris, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Captain. B'Elanna's here with me, and we've been assured that Hudson and Simms are safe."

"Tom, the Borg ship's shields are down. We're beaming you out of there."

On the Voyager bridge, heads swiveled in confusion when Paris said, "Captain, wait." After a brief lull, Paris came back on line. "Captain, one of the Borg would like to beam over with us to talk with you. He has an intriguing story to relate."

Janeway looked at Chakotay who looked as uneasy as she felt. Addressing Paris, she asked, "Does Lt. Torres concur with this?"

"Captain," came Torres' voice, "I understand your apprehension, but I agree with Tom. Allow Kynn to beam over with us. I think you'll be interested to hear what he has to say."

"Very well," Janeway agreed. "We'll beam you over shortly." Cutting the link, she looked at Chakotay. "Commander, care to join me?"

"I wouldn't miss this," he replied, joining her as she headed for the turbolift.

"Tuvok, have a security team meet us in the transporter room," she instructed. "You have the bridge."

Although he knew they were coming, Chakotay couldn't help being amazed at the sight of B'Elanna and Tom, a little the worse for wear, and a Borg. A smiling Borg at that.

He could tell by the set of Captain Janeway's shoulders that she, too, was wary, but her voice was even and warm as she said, "Welcome back, you two. Tom, introductions seem to be in order."

"Captain Janeway, this is Kynn of the Borg. Former Borg?" He shrugged as he gestured to the alien. "Kynn, this is Captain Janeway. She's our leader."

"One individual makes decisions for the collective?"

"We aren't a collective in the sense you mean, Kynn," Janeway said, not unkindly. "But I make decisions for the crew as a whole, yes."

"We have a request." Kynn was apparently ready to swing into negotiations right there in the transporter room.

Janeway held up a hand. "Wait just a moment -- before I hear this request, I need to hear this story."

Chakotay shook his head slowly as he returned to the table of the conference room; the saga of how the Borg had become individuals had astonished him. Janeway as well, to judge from the pallor of her skin -- he unobtrusively slid a cup of herbal tea in front of her before sitting down. She acknowledged him with a quick smile before returning her attention to Kynn.

"Your people have made an incredible beginning," she said, "but you still have a long way to go towards understanding compassion and humanity. Kidnapping, mind games, those tactics won't get you far."

"We realize that our tactics are poor. We needed to find life forms like you. Life forms who possessed these qualities. Now that we have found you, we can begin to learn."

Chakotay shot Janeway a glance across the table. Were they being asked to spend the next few years tutoring Borg on manners and morals? The captain frowned, but before she could speak Kynn finally made his request.

"We ask that you allow these two to be assimilated," Kynn said, motioning towards Tom and B'Elanna.

"Now, wait just a minute--" Janeway started to rise from her chair.

"No, Captain, hear him out," Tom said, as B'Elanna stared at him, slack-jawed.

Kynn resumed speaking. "We would not join with them permanently. We realize they would not wish this. We do not wish to cause any more harm."

"Temporary assimilation?" Chakotay said. "Towards what end?"

"Through joining with their minds, we can learn from their compassion. Their humanity. Their love."

Torres felt the blush begin to creep up from her collar, spreading slowly up her face all the way to her hair. Paris cleared his throat. "Ummm, you mean, you'd be one with our minds? Know our innermost thoughts?"

"To learn from them, yes." Kynn obviously saw no difficulties with this marvelous plan.

Janeway shook her head. "Kynn, this is one of the decisions I cannot make for my people. I could forbid them to do it. I'm tempted to. But something tells me Mr. Paris is determined to try this."

"Tom, are you crazy?" B'Elanna said, relieved that nobody was talking about love anymore.

He turned back to her. "Hear me out, will you?"

Janeway tugged at Chakotay's sleeve. "Let's give them a moment, shall we?" Kynn, after a few seconds, realized he was meant to follow Chakotay and the captain, and did so.

Tom and B'Elanna were alone in the room. Before he could begin speaking, Torres shook her head at him. "Oh, no, Paris. No way. You're NEVER going to convince me that this is a good idea!"

Tuvok and Kynn were regarding each other with perfect, mirror-image equanimity. Janeway had to suppress a smile. They came to this ship to learn about emotion, so let's see what they make of a Vulcan guide. Next time, ask nicely--

Chakotay was staring back at the doors to the conference room, shaking his head in amazement. "I don't believe it."

"Believe what? That Tom's considering this plan?"

"No. Well, that too, but, did Kynn say 'love'?"

Janeway smiled. "He certainly did."

"B'Elanna and Tom?" Chakotay was careful to keep his voice low, but his astonishment was apparent on his face. "They fight all the time! They've always fought. They're in there fighting right now. They can't stand each other -- right?"

It was Janeway's turn to be astonished. "And you didn't realize what all that fighting was about?"

She turned away from him, shaking her head and laughing softly. Men.

"Paris, forget it. No," said B'Elanna, rising from her seat. "No," she paused, "no, no, no, no, no."

"Does this mean you'll think about it?" But his heart sank. Ah, he thought, it's back to 'Paris' now that we're back on board.

"Paris, I will NEVER agree to this."

"What if they promise to give you free rein in their engineering system? What about that superdrive?"

"You idiotic space cowboy! This is a non-issue! NO!"

"But B'Elanna, they need us. They need to learn about friendship, compassion, and, um, other stuff."

"I . . . can't."

Now we're getting somewhere.

"Can't, or won't?" queried Tom.

B'Elanna stared down at the padd on the table in front of her. "You don't understand."

"I do understand, B'Elanna. There are things inside your head you're afraid for anyone to hear, because you're afraid to hear them yourself. Isn't that it? Why would you think I wouldn't understand THAT? Because of my sterling Starfleet career? My undivided loyalty to the Maquis? My happy family life?"

His sarcasm was not wasted on her. "Maybe it's all those warm personal relationships you have with," she paused, "others."

"Maybe with them I just hadn't found what I was looking for." He stood close. Too close. B'Elanna edged toward the door of the conference room.

"Hey, things happened over there. We were stressed out. Let's just forget it, okay? I'm going now. I want a hot shower, a nap, and something to eat." She paused by the door. "Tom?"


"Thanks for the party."

Kynn did not expect to see Tom Paris without B'Elanna Torres. Tom Paris sat alone in the empty conference room with his eyes shut. "Where is your other?" he said simply.

Tom Paris slowly opened his eyes and looked around. No one was present but Kynn. Tom stood, stretched, put his arm around Kynn's shoulder, and tapped his chest over his heart. "Maybe she's here, my friend, maybe she's here."

"Say, Kynn, have you ever heard of a game called pool?"

Stepping into Sandrine's, B'Elanna almost turned around and walked back out when she saw who was there, but she hesitated just a moment too long and Harry, spotting her standing uncertainly in the doorway, motioned her over.

"Join us over here, B'Elanna." Harry Kim sat at a table with Tom Paris and Kynn. As she approached the table, B'Elanna's eyes met Paris'. She was surprised to find no censure there -- no accusing glare intended to make her feel guilty over her refusal to assist Kynn and the others. He merely smiled at her and signaled for Sandrine to bring another ale over for her.

As Torres sat at the table, Harry said, "Paris was just telling me what happened to you on the Borg ship."

Alarmed, B'Elanna's eyes flew to Tom's face. He wouldn't--

Paris shrugged and grinned at her. "I edited it a bit," he reassured her.

Still on her guard, B'Elanna took a drink of the ale that Sandrine had set in front of her. Her eyes narrowed as Paris leaned back in his chair, loose and relaxed. He was up to something; she was sure of it. She knew him well enough to know that much about him. Her fears were confirmed moments later when Kynn spoke.

"The captain has advised me that you and Tom Paris have decided not to assist us." His voice held disappointment.

Torres bristled, and when Harry turned to her, his expression full of optimism and enthusiasm, B'Elanna suddenly saw what Tom had been up to.

"Where's your sense of adventure, B'Elanna?" asked Harry. "Here's your chance to make a difference, to help these people. Would it really be so bad?"

"Bad?" B'Elanna's voice was full of indignant outrage. They all straightened away from her, even Kynn, who had been warned by Paris and Kim of her temper, when she jumped to her feet, nearly overturning the table in the process. "BAD?! How would you like to have someone go traipsing through your innermost thoughts, analyzing them? No thank you." She addressed Kynn, her voice tight. "You've got Paris. Sift through his brain, what there is of it. What do you need me for?"

Paris, once again relaxed and smiling, seemed unaffected by her intended slurs against him, but Kynn looked startled.

"You are one," he told B'Elanna. "We require . . . we need to experience the sensation of your emotions -- more specifically, your emotions toward each other. In order to accomplish this, the assimilation requires that both of you participate."

Throwing a final glare in their general direction, B'Elanna turned and marched to the exit without another word. The doors slid shut behind her.

"I do not understand," said Kynn, looking from Paris to Kim then back to Paris again. Before either man could respond, the holodeck doors slid open and Torres stood there, her whole demeanor defiant.

But her voice, when she spoke, was quiet. "All right. I'll do it." She held up a hand as they all made to speak at once. "Not a word," she said sternly. "Let's just get it over with."

When she spotted Tom starting to smile at her she added, "I will participate in your little experiment. But when it is finished, it is finished. Understand?" With a glare in Tom's direction she turned on her heel and disappeared down the hall.

"Whew! Are you sure you were telling me everything that went on between you two while you were on your little adventure?" asked Harry looking at Tom closely.

Paris grinned at Harry and placed an arm around Kynn's shoulders and turned him towards the pool table. "I promised you I would teach you the finer points of pool," remarked Tom.

"Maybe we better call the captain, then."

"Very funny, Harry, very funny."

Harry and Tom laughed and Kynn looked puzzled as he tried to figure out what was going on. He was anxious to get on with the assimilation, but for now, he would observe how this species interacted with one another on a social level.

Damn Tom Paris! B'Elanna marched down the corridor, fists clenched. What had he just talked her into doing? And he hadn't even uttered a word, just sat there with that smug grin. And using Harry -- Paris knew she had a weakness where Harry was concerned. She was fond of the ensign. He had been her first true friend among the Starfleet crew. It wasn't fair using Harry to spout off all that nonsense about adventure and 'making a difference'. That was the stuff they taught at Starfleet Academy -- a place she had left behind long ago. She didn't need to be reminded of it.

Still unable to believe she had agreed to this insane assimilation scheme, she barreled into the mess hall, grabbed a tray, slammed it down on the counter and began slamming Neelix's various culinary delights onto it.

"Lieutenant?" said Neelix uncertainly, "can I help you?"

Glaring at the Talaxian, B'Elanna ground out, "Do you have a sharp knife?"

Swallowing nervously at her fierce expression, Neelix said, "A sharp knife? For what, if I may ask?"

"I'm going to use it to gut Tom Paris."

Sudden understanding lit Neelix's face. "Ahhh. Yes. I heard about you and Tom."

Leaning across the counter, her face mere inches from his, she spat, "Just exactly what did you hear?"

"Uh, well, that is, you see . . ." Neelix's expression crumbled. Maybe that had been the wrong thing to say. He had a sudden vision of B'Elanna dragging him over the counter and tossing him across the room. A soft voice behind him caused him to sag with relief.

"Good evening, Lieutenant," greeted Kes. "I'm glad to see you're safely back aboard."

"Kes!" squeaked Neelix. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Kes, dearest. Are you here for dinner?"

Much to Neelix's relief, B'Elanna had backed off when Kes arrived. Attempting to get her anger under control, B'Elanna picked up her dinner tray and headed for a nearby table. She was surprised when Kes joined her. She and Kes hadn't actually spent much time together and were not well acquainted.

"May I join you?" asked Kes.

Torres indicated the empty seat across from her. When Kes didn't immediately say anything, B'Elanna looked up from her dinner inquiringly.

"I understand that the Borg have asked for yours and Tom's assistance."

B'Elanna's eyes narrowed. "You've been talking to Paris."

Kes shook her head. "Actually, I haven't seen Tom yet." Her large blue eyes seemed to look right through B'Elanna. "You're upset with him. Why?"

Shrugging, B'Elanna returned her attention to her dinner, pushing the food around, but not eating any of it. "He wants to help the Borg. I don't."

Kes looked puzzled. "You've never struck me as being insensitive."

"I'm not insensitive," B'Elanna protested, "just . . ."

Kes smiled understandingly. "Scared?" B'Elanna didn't reply.

"I can understand how what the Borg are proposing would be frightening," said Kes, "but I can't think of a more appropriate group of people for them to choose to emulate. You -- all of you -- amaze me," confided Kes. "You're such a giving people, so full of life. It's no wonder the Borg are drawn to you. You exemplify the one thing that has eluded them. If it hadn't been for your willingness to go that extra step, to give of yourselves and help others, I would most likely still be a prisoner of the Kazon -- or dead. Destroying the Caretaker's Array to stop the Kazon from gaining control of it and using it to harm others was a huge sacrifice. It resulted in your being left in the this quadrant with no immediate way home. I've seen people on this crew time and time again give of themselves to help others, including yourself. Is this so different?" Kes reached over and placed a soothing hand over one of B'Elanna's. "I trust you to do the right thing, B'Elanna."

After Kes left, B'Elanna sat there, her thoughts in a turmoil. She had made up her mind before she even entered the mess hall that after dinner she would seek Paris out and tell him that she had changed her mind -- that she wasn't going to do it. He was asking too much. But was he? Kes . . . B'Elanna felt ashamed as the Ocampan's words replayed in her head. What if the tables were turned? What if she were the one who needed help and had been refused it? How would she feel?

She knew how she would feel. Her childhood had not been easy. There had been times when she HAD needed help and hadn't received it. Years later, when she had been at the end of her rope, a Human -- new to the Maquis -- had recruited her. HE had helped her. And ever since, Chakotay had never once let her down. Maybe it was time she gave a little of that back. Swallowing her trepidation, she tapped her comm badge. "Computer, location of Lt. Paris."

Mikel Hudson took a long pull on his mug of beer. Sure, it wasn't really beer, just synthehol, but it looked like beer, smelled like beer, tasted like beer, and, most importantly, it wasn't Borg beer. That, plus the fact that Tuvok had relieved both him and Simms of duty for twenty-four hours, made him a happy man. Life was good.

"Ethan, check it out. Lt. Torres just came in. Man, I would not mess with her. Tell me again what happened while I was separated from you guys."

"Mik, I've told you twice already."

Over the rim of his mug Hudson watched what appeared to be an argument developing between Lt. Paris, Lt. Torres, Ensign Kim, and the creepy 'ambassador' from the Borg ship. "But she's so . . . so COLD."

"Not when Lt. Paris was kissing her, especially the second time. She looked like one of Neelix's pots about to boil over. You should have seen it."

"I wish I HAD seen it. Jeez, Ethe, if I didn't know you better I'd say you were making it all up. I mean, I didn't even guess about those two. Why am I always the last to know anything?"

"Last? I'd say you were the second, because I was first, and I just told you. And I suggest you don't tell anybody."

"Not even--"

"No, especially not her. Remember what Tuvok said at the last Security staff meeting? About discretion? Made me feel like a campus cop, but now I think I get what he was driving at."

Hudson looked thoughtful. "Wonder if it'll last?"

"Look, she's leaving. Lieutenant Paris must have gotten what he wanted, he looks smug. When I turned in my report, Tuvok told me the Borg want to temporarily assimilate Lieutenant Paris and Lieutenant Torres. Get into their minds. Ask them questions. See what makes them tick."


"Old Earth expression. Look, now she's coming back."

There was a long pause.



"I think they did that to me."


"Before we got out. I think . . . When you said that just now . . . When I was alone with them, I could hear them thinking, 'We have questions.' I told them, 'I will not help you.' And they said something like, 'You will not remember'. But I said, 'No.' And they said, 'OK'."

"'OK'? They actually SAID 'OK'?"

"Jeez, Ethan, you know what I mean. It wasn't really words. They were thinking at me, and I just heard it."

"So if the Lieutenants do this, they may not remember anything about it."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe not 'til later. Maybe not at all."

"We'd better tell Tuvok."

Everything was quiet aboard Voyager, which was fine by Paris. He liked to have action, but there were times he longed for just peace and quiet. It was late at night, if there was such a thing aboard a starship, and the lights were in dim mode through out the ship. The only active places were Engineering and on the bridge. Those two places were always manned even in the wee hours of the morning.

B'Elanna is most likely sound asleep by now, thought Paris to himself. After their little adventure with the Borg, most of the ship's crew were asleep or at least in their quarters. Too many thoughts were racing through Paris' head at the moment for him to get a restful night's sleep yet.

So he just sat on his sofa looking out the window, thinking. He knew what the main problem was, he just didn't know what to do about it. For the first time in his life he was wondering if he could be in love, and it scared him. He felt very unsure of himself, and he hated that feeling. Get a grip, Paris! he thought to himself. Maybe I should come right out and tell her. Tell her what? 'I think maybe I'm in love with you'? Yeah, right, and she would reply by decking me, he thought.

Well, Grand always told him that it was all right to see as many women as he wanted to -- to have fun, but that it would come to a quick end when he came across the right one. So far it looked like B'Elanna Torres was that one whether she liked it or not. Whether I like it or not! Oh well, no use thinking about it any more tonight, he thought, because there's nothing I can do yet. You need to get some sleep, Thomas my boy. You have a big day tomorrow being assimilated.

Heaving a sigh he got up from the sofa and started to his bed. He was just passing the door when the chimes sounded. Who that could be at this time of night? he wondered. Aloud, he said, "Come in."

The door opened with a soft whoosh and the object of his thoughts stood there looking ready to bolt back down the hallway where she had come from. Tom closed his eyes for a second and then reopened them just to make sure he wasn't seeing things. He took a step backwards to let her pass as she walked in. She stopped in the middle of the room and surveyed the surroundings. This was the first time she had ever been in Tom's quarters and she was curious to see if the decor reflected his personality.

"Uhh, hi," Tom fumbled for words. Brilliant, Paris, he thought. That'll really sweep B'Elanna off her feet. He took an awkward step closer to her. "I thought you'd be asleep by now." Another smooth line. He gave her an offhand look, his nervousness carefully concealed.

B'Elanna shook her head, and began to pace the floor. "I needed to talk," she said, barely above a whisper. "You -- you're the only one who will understand. You know what they did to me." She folded her arms across her chest, and he swore he could see her trembling slightly.

Tom's own surprise and nervousness vanished at the sight of B'Elanna's obvious inner turmoil. It was extremely hard to resist the urge to wrap his arms around her in a comforting embrace. But Tom knew she wouldn't accept that from him, it smacked of pity. Instead, he silently watched as she paced his floor, her eyes flashing.

"I don't want to be some kind of 'experiment'. I've had enough of that." B'Elanna took deep breaths. She would NOT let him see how close she was to crying, to completely losing her composure. "I'm never going to be able to block those memories, that pain, out of my mind. What if something goes wrong. What if the assimilation is permanent?"

She stopped her pacing, and stood very close to him. "I don't want to ever be that vulnerable -- that out of control of myself -- again. They violated me! You saw them, you heard me scream with pain from the Phage. I'm . . ." I have to say it, she thought frantically. He's the only one I can tell. "I'm SCARED, Tom." She looked straight into his beautiful blue eyes. "I've never been more scared in my life than I am of reliving what I went through."

Tom swallowed hard. His heart broke to hear her talk like this. Her pain was so near, he felt he could touch it. And yet, she'd chosen to confide in him. That must mean something, Tom told himself. I have to help her, somehow ease her fears.

B'Elanna resumed her pacing. Paris watched her pace -- the same frantic pacing she had done on the Borg ship. "I understand your fear," Tom said softly. "But the Doc and Kes will be there monitoring things, and the Captain and Chakotay will be there too, and Kynn has promised not to do anything against our will. You'll be in control. Anything you don't want to reveal . . . just slam the door shut. Kynn has promised not to trespass."

B'Elanna stopped her pacing to give him a long look. She could see that he was sincere in his belief that this was the right thing to do. She was surprised by the strength of the desire coursing through her that made her want to do this for him -- even though she dreaded the whole ordeal. She didn't want to disappoint him. She resumed pacing.

Sighing, Tom said, "B'Elanna, if you're uncomfortable doing this, we don't have to do it. I don't want to force you into anything."

B'Elanna turned to him, eyes blazing. "One:  Nobody FORCES me to do anything. Two:  This is important to you. Three:  I am nervous, but I do want to help these people." People? thought B'Elanna. When did I stop thinking of them as Borg?

Paris smiled, relieved to see the fire back in her eyes. "You won't be alone, I promise. I'll be there with you all the way."

"You better believe you will." Suddenly realizing how close they were standing, B'Elanna started to back away. "Well, I better go and let you get some sleep. . . ." Her voice trailed off as Tom grasped her hand in his, not letting her pull away and his other hand reached out toward her.

Tom ran a finger down her face in a caress, surprised when she allowed it. Careful not to push things too far too quickly, he didn't pursue the brief touch, only let it linger for a moment as he stared into her eyes.

Swallowing nervously, B'Elanna pulled her hand from his and walked to the door. Turning back to him once she reached the it, B'Elanna said in a hushed voice, "See you in the morning." Turning, she exited his quarters.

Tom watched the door close behind her. "Sweet dreams, B'Elanna."

For a hologram with supposedly no feelings, the Doctor seemed almost cheerful as he bustled around sickbay preparing for Paris and Torres. The beds were set up in very close proximity to one another. This way, he reasoned, if something DOES happen, I can get to both of them quickly.

The massive doors slid open with a hiss and Kes entered.

"Back so soon?" the Doctor inquired as he aligned each table with various hyposprays. "I did not expect your lesson with Tuvok to be over for another half hour."

Kes nodded. "It wasn't supposed to, but I left early. I wanted to be here for the assimilation." She leaned forward to examine the sprays. "Aderozine?"

He nodded. "Only a mild neural suppressor. Just a precaution. If their brains become too stimulated, we may have a problem disassimilating them. The procedure will be a bit different from the disassimilation in Captain Jean-Luc Picard's case. These Borg have slightly altered their mecha-neural receptors." The Doctor moved over to his console. "It was unnecessary to interrupt your lesson. Lieutenants Paris and Torres will not begin the procedure for another hour." He gave her a dry look.

"But they'll be here soon for the prep," she countered lightly.

As if on cue, the doors slid open again, and Tom Paris strode through. He looked around the Bay a little anxiously. Where's B'Elanna? he wondered. The Doctor, ever oblivious to the body language of his patients, ushered Tom onto one of the beds.

The medical tricorder hummed as it relayed information to the Doctor. "Wonderful. You are perfectly healthy," he announced. "We may proceed."

"Gee, thanks, Doc," Tom said. Kes patted his arm with a smile. He didn't even hear the doors open, but when Tom turned around, B'Elanna was surveying the room quietly.

"Splendid," the Doctor said. "You're early too." Like Tom, B'Elanna was ushered to a bed and scanned.

"Why is he so cheerful?" she muttered. The Doctor turned to beam at her.

"I am testing a new program to improve doctor-patient relations," he told her. "Mr. Paris, I am told, mentioned something about my bedside manner needing a little work. So I have created a program compiled on all the data I could find on being pleasant and happy. What do you think? Would you like to hear a joke? Well, it seems that a Telerian on a journey to Algos Prime . . ." His voice trailed off, and Tom swore he could hear a slight growling sound coming from B'Elanna's throat. Tom grinned to himself.

Tom was surprised that B'Elanna had withstood the Doc's stand-up comedy routine as long as she had, but he had the feeling she was nearing the limits of her tolerance when the door to sickbay slid open and Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay entered, escorting Kynn. Finally, thought Paris, we can get on with this and get it over with. Although he wouldn't admit it out loud, he was also nervous about this whole assimilation thing. He was glad the captain and Chakotay would be here to keep an eye on things.

Captain Janeway smiled as they entered sickbay. "How are your patients, Doctor?"

"They are ready to begin anytime."

"The sooner the better," growled B'Elanna, glaring at the Doctor.

Janeway approached Tom's and B'Elanna's biobeds. "Are you ready?" she asked quietly. "No last minute qualms? No doubts that this is what you want to do?"

"Doubts, Captain?" joked Paris lightly. "I've got a bunch of 'em." He sobered. "But no doubts that this is the right thing to do."

Janeway looked over at B'Elanna. "Anything to escape the Doctor's newfound sense of humor," she growled. Janeway looked confused -- until the Doctor clarified.

"Ah, yes, Captain," said the hologram. "I am aware of the complaints regarding my bedside manner. I have added a program on being happy and pleasant. Would you like to hear a joke?"

Janeway looked at Chakotay, who quirked an amused brow.

Paris groaned. "Don't let him get started, Captain," he warned.

"Maybe later, Doctor," replied Janeway. "Right now, I think we should proceed with the assimilation."

Kynn stepped forward. Tom's and B'Elanna's attention was immediately focused on him. He held a pair of devices that looked similar to some of the Borg implants. They were small, about an inch square. "I will place these on your forehead," Kynn explained. "They are a form of neurotransmitter and will help facilitate the assimilation. They will cause you no discomfort."

"May I?" asked the Doctor, holding out a hand.

Kynn handed the transmitters to the Doctor, who examined them closely. "These are similar to some of my medical instruments. Kynn is correct. They should cause no discomfort. If anything, it should make the assimilation easier for you." He handed the transmitters back to Kynn, who turned to Tom and B'Elanna.

"May I attach them?" he asked.

They both indicated their agreement. As Kynn attached the transmitters to their foreheads, he said, "When I activate them, you will experience a desire for sleep and will enter a light meditative state. We will enter into the assimilation slowly so as not to overwhelm you. Are you prepared to begin?"

Tom looked over at B'Elanna. She was staring fixedly at the ceiling, her whole body tense as a coiled spring. Their biobeds were close enough to allow him to reach out and take her hand in his. Startled, she looked at their clasped hands then met his gaze. Looking into those concerned blue eyes, she felt her tenseness melt away. She squeezed his hand reassuringly.

"Let's get on with it," B'Elanna said. Instead of releasing Tom's hand, as he had expected, she kept a tight grip on it. He didn't mind.

Janeway and Chakotay stood side by side watching as Kynn started the assimilation. Tuvok had wanted to have security present, but Janeway had vetoed that, having a strong suspicion that their presence would only have added to Tom's and B'Elanna's discomfort. She had reassured Tuvok that she and Chakotay would be present and prepared to act should their intervention become necessary.

Tom felt himself drifting off to sleep, only he was just skimming the surface of sleep, never quite achieving a deep sleep. He was still vaguely aware of the sounds of sickbay around him and B'Elanna's hand clasped in his. He slowly became aware of the Borg Collective. They beckoned to him -- nothing malevolent in their intent. If anything, the Collective's overall attitude was anticipatory of this union. Their desire to learn and expand their horizons was addictive. Tom joined them.

B'Elanna knew she was resisting going under, still fearful of losing control of the situation, but then she felt Tom give her hand an encouraging squeeze as he urged her in the direction of where the Collective waited. And they were waiting. No rushing forward to assimilate them. They were waiting for Tom and herself to move forward to meet them, like long lost relatives, eagerly anticipating seeing their brethren again. B'Elanna took a firm grip on Tom's hand and stepped forward to meet them.

Chakotay, saw a smile crease B'Elanna's face. That, more than anything else, convinced him that the assimilation was proceeding as planned. Paris had a similar smile on his face. Both looked peaceful and relaxed. Chakotay stared at their clasped hands. He noted how tightly B'Elanna had seized hold of Paris' hand. Chakotay winced. Paris would be lucky if his hand wasn't badly bruised, given B'Elanna's Klingon strength. "Everything seems to be proceeding as planned," he said softly to Janeway.

Janeway nodded thoughtfully. She had been watching Kynn. He stood between Tom and B'Elanna, eyes wide open, staring straight ahead, his gaze seemingly turned inward. Ever so slowly, a smile had been forming on his face. A smile full of joy and enlightenment.

Following the captain's gaze, Chakotay saw Kynn's expression and caught his breath. It was . . . he couldn't find the words to describe seeing the spark of life burst into being in the seemingly lifeless Borg. He became aware that Janeway had placed a hand on his arm. He looked down to meet her gaze. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" she said, her voice full of wonder. "I feel as if I'm present at the birth of a new life form."

Chakotay agreed, and watched raptly as Kynn was transformed by the vitality of life seeping into the Collective. . . .

"What?" said Captain Janeway, astounded. "You wish to assimilate MORE of my crew?"

"Captain, we are grateful to B'Elanna Torres and Tom Paris for helping us begin to learn about being human. Through them, we now have a better understanding of your people. We learned about loyalty, pride, gratitude, and honesty. We did not understand their feelings of love and physical attraction, which seem to be, in their minds, intermingled with . . ." Kynn struggled for the word, ". . . doubt? They were both reluctant to let us into that part of their being, and we respected their . . ." again he struggled, ". . . privacy."

Janeway could feel Chakotay's surprised gaze settle on her. She was glad she could count on him to be discreet. But the Borg was continuing.

"Your crewmen were not entirely honest with us on board our ship, Captain, but we understand the need for the ruse, if ruse it was. They were attempting to save themselves from termination as individuals. We begin to understand why.

"However, their assimilation showed us only how much we do NOT know, for we learned a little of guilt, shame, loneliness, and jealousy. Are these universal emotions?"

"Let me assure you, Kynn, they are quite universal. ALL humans have doubt and regrets. It is a part of what we are. I'm sorry, but I cannot give my permission for any further assimilations. Lieutenant Paris and Lieutenant Torres both experienced some minor physical reactions. They are still sleeping, even now. Our doctor was concerned."

Kynn looked disappointed. "I understand, Captain. And even that is progress for us."

"Are you sure, B'Elanna? Absolutely?" Janeway didn't want to pressure her, she looked so tired, but she had to know.

"No, Captain," sighed B'Elanna, "their transwarp technology just cannot be modified to help us. You've seen how different their ship is from ours. With our dynamics, we'd skip through space like a rock on a pond; even our hotshot pilot couldn't control it. I'm afraid we're back where we started."

"Not entirely, I don't think," mused Janeway. To herself she thought, Something has changed. She has changed. But she didn't press any further. Leaning back in her chair, Janeway picked up her teacup and watched B'Elanna over the rim. "I'm proud of the way you handled your away mission. The circumstances were extreme, to say the least."

"You don't remember anything at all about the assimilation?" queried Janeway gently.

"I remember feeling . . . well, I don't know how to put it. Surrounded by warmth and caring. I felt safe. Absolutely safe. And exhilarated. There was a presence there. It seemed to be saying, 'Anything is possible. Anything you want.' Captain, the irony of the situation is not lost on me, I want you to know that. That sentient beings would ask ME for help to learn about being human."

Janeway smiled. Lieutenant Paris had said almost exactly the same thing to her. And he had also mentioned a supportive 'presence' as well. This could not, then, be put down to chance. But had he and B'Elanna felt Kynn and the Borg? Or each other?

"I hope you warned the Borg about the Kazon and the Vidiians, Captain."

"They knew about them already. I don't think you have anything to worry about on that score. Go to your quarters and get some rest, B'Elanna. You look like you need it."

"Computer, location of Lt. Paris," requested Torres.

"Lt. Paris is in Holodeck 3."

"Of course. Where else would he be?" she retorted. The computer made a confused noise as her comm badge chirped.

"Paris to Torres."

"Forget it."

"I need to go over some navigational reports with you."

"At Sandrine's?"

"That's where I do my best navigating. How did you know I was at Sandrine's?"

"I know everything."

"Then you know I won't take 'no' for an answer. Paris out."

B'Elanna hesitated outside the door to Sandrine's. Please, she thought to herself, If there is a God on the other side of the River, don't let there be some big party in there.

Sandrine's was empty and dark; no one jumped out at her or yelled anything. She sighed with relief. Tom was behind the bar pouring coffee.

"Surprise," he said, reading her thoughts. "Have some coffee."

B'Elanna  pointed at the several small white cylindrical objects on the bar. "And? Just what are these?"

" Birthday cakes. I made them myself."

"Those are just marshmallows."

"Hey, I slaved over a hot replicator making these marshmallows; don't knock them," he replied, coming around the bar.

"Just what are we going to do with them? Throw them at each other?" A ghost of a smile crossed her features.

"Keep it civil, Torres. Now watch. First, we're gonna impale them on this transductor coil I straightened out, like this. Second, we're gonna roast them in the fire until their little skins blister and their insides turn to mush. Then we're gonna assimilate them. See? We're worse than the Borg."

She couldn't help it. She laughed. "It wasn't so bad, I guess. They seemed satisfied. Do you remember anything?"

"I sure do. You jumped up and started singing the Academy fight song. I can tell you, Commander Chakotay was NOT amused."

"Ha, ha."

B'Elanna took her impaled marshmallow and knelt before the fire. "You know, I've never done this before."

Tom made himself comfortable beside her. "I think there's quite a few things you've never done before," he said softly. "I could help you out there, you know."

B'Elanna could feel a blush creeping up her face. "And just WHAT is THAT supposed to mean?" she snapped.

"Nothing in particular," said Tom coolly. "So. Just how old are you?"

"Old enough to know better," she quipped.

"Young enough not to care?" he asked, eyes dancing.

"Don't smirk at me, you egotist." She tried to sound harsh, but she knew he wasn't buying it this time. "You never gave me anything for my birthday."

Tom got serious. "I know what I want to give you. I just this moment figured it out." He reached out to touch her face. "But I don't know if you'll accept it or not. It requires a little cooperation on your part."

"Tom, I don't think we should."

"I don't think we should either, but I still want to."

B'Elanna hesitated. "Do you know what you're getting yourself into?" she asked.

"Probably not," he said simply, putting his arms around her. "Resistance is futile. Now, let me give you a kiss."

Their kiss was warm and full of promise. B'Elanna felt her desire for him blossom like a  rare night-blooming orchid. She still felt very unsure, but he was right. Resistance was, well, not futile, maybe. But it sure was difficult at the moment. Maybe later.

"B'Elanna?" he murmured. 


"You're on fire."

"What? OH! My marshmallow's on fire!"

"I just can't take you anywhere, can I?"

"Hey, maybe I like them this way."

"I thought you said you'd never had one."

"Maybe I lied."

"Hey! Don't douse that in my coffee! Stop it, Torres!" . . .

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