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Sands of Time ***2006 ASC Award winner ***

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SANDS OF TIME

Captain Chakotay rubbed the back of his neck wearily. It had been two days of long shifts but the damage from their encounter with the Borg cube was almost repaired. The Klingon vessel monitoring the tachyon grid had not detected any cloaked vessels within a light year of their position inside the Bassen Rift; unfortunately, things had not been as quiet for the rest of the Alpha Quadrant during that time. A probe on the edge of the Rift had picked up communications indicating that the Borg had taken three more homeworlds of Federation races and were moving on Klingon space. With the older Admiral Janeway from the future as their queen, the Borg were using very different tactics; just as effective but not the overwhelming, dominating invasion that they'd tried at Wolf 359 years before. The methodical pace of the Borg incursion gave them some time; however it also made any unified defense virtually impossible. The Starfleet resistance being coordinated by the Titan and Bozeman through Deep Space Nine was barely even slowing the Borg down. If Voyager couldn't find a way to take out Borg Queen Janeway, it would only be a matter of time before the Borg completely controlled both the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.

Images from their last encounter with the Borg flashed through his mind for the thousandth time and he resolutely shoved them aside. Seeing Kathryn's shuttle destroyed was a waking nightmare and, while he was relieved to discover that she hadn't really been aboard, the hours between when he thought she'd been killed and learning otherwise still haunted him. That night, when he still wasn't sure whether he was dreaming or if she was really there, he couldn't do anything but be grateful that he hadn't lost her so soon after getting her. With the morning, however, frustration began building. Repairs had kept him busy so even though she'd called him a few times, he'd found reasons to avoid her. Two days later, that frustration had hardened into anger and he still didn't know what to say to her. He was interrupted by the sound of his ready room door sliding open. "It's customary to ask permission to enter."

"I didn't think you'd let me in if I asked first," Janeway said. "In fact, I'm starting to get the impression that you're avoiding me." She got herself a cup of coffee from the replicator and sat down across from him.

"I'm a little busy here," he replied, forcing himself to remain calm.

Janeway took a sip of her coffee and eyed him thoughtfully. "Nice try but I've been in that exact same position behind that very same desk, remember? After all we've been through together over the years, don't you think you can just tell me what's on your mind?"

"Have you gotten the subdermal transponder like I ordered you to?" he asked, his voice more terse than he intended.

"I didn't think--"

"It was necessary," he finished for her. "One order, Kathryn, I gave you one order and you just ignored it. Did it ever occur to you, did you even give it one second's thought before disregarding it?"

Janeway set her cup down on the desk and sat up straighter in her chair. "Chakotay?"

"Captain Chakotay," he corrected her. "Damn it, Kathryn, I am in charge here; this is my ship, not yours anymore."

"If we're playing rank," her jaw was tightly clenched giving her voice a hard, gritty edge, "then it's Admiral Janeway to you."

He stood up and began pacing as he talked, his voice getting progressively louder. "Fine, Admiral Janeway, you completely ignored a direct order from me--the man Admiral Ross put in charge of this mission, and don't tell me you haven't had a chance. You had two hours after we first detected the Borg cube outside of the Rift; it's been two days since then and I haven't seen any reference to the procedure being done yet."

She remained seated, picking her coffee cup back up to keep her hands occupied. "It hardly seemed necessary once my other self believed that I was dead. Obviously I'm not going to be able to negotiate with her now."

"If I didn't think it was necessary, I would have said so."

"You haven't said anything at all to me in two days," she pointed out.

Chakotay bit back in response and took a deep breath to calm himself. She was as frustrating to deal with now as she ever was. "I have a ship to look after, the same ship that you endangered with your little stunt. We had a lot of damage to repair and we wouldn't have suffered as much damage if I'd known you weren't on that shuttle. I would have stayed long enough to put up a good show without risking this ship or crew on a rescue. You didn't consider that, did you, Admiral? You never think beyond yourself--your responsibilities, your duties, your obligations. This is my mission, my ship, my responsibility and my crew; you answer to me here. You had no business running off to pull off a solo stunt like that, not to mention dragging the Doctor into it and swearing him to secrecy--he's not your Chief Medical Officer anymore. For all of your devotion to your crew out in the Delta Quadrant, it wasn't really about anyone else, was it? It was about you--you being a good Captain, you living up to whatever standards you set for yourself. Do you ever consider anything from someone else's point of view except your own? Do you even care how other people feel or is everything about you? You would have gone off half-cocked on your own to fight the new queen if I hadn't been there because that's what you do. You decide that nobody else can help you and everyone is better off if you just sacrifice yourself for the good of humanity. Damn it, Kathryn, when did you develop this martyr complex? Was it finding out that Mark's life had gone on without you? Or have you always been this self-centered?"

"That'll be enough, Captain," Janeway snapped. She slammed down her coffee cup and stood.

"You can't confine me to quarters for speaking my mind this time," he countered. "But if I think you're a danger to this ship, this crew or this mission, I can make sure that you don't see the outside of your quarters until this is over."

.....................................................................

Chakotay bounced Miral gently on his knee. Tom and B'Elanna had brought the baby over to visit and they were sitting in his ready room. "I can't believe how big she's gotten."

"Unfortunately she's also gotten mobile," Tom remarked with a rueful expression but a touch of pride in his voice. "She gets into everything and she's incredibly fast for having such short legs."

"Tom," Chakotay hesitantly touched on the subject they'd all been avoiding since they'd entered his ready room. "I'm sorry about your family on Earth. I don't know if your father was still at Starfleet Headquarters when the Borg showed up or not, he might have been home with your mother."

Tom half-heartedly nodded then shrugged and finally busied himself with picking up Miral's toys from where she'd tossed them on the floor. "Nobody's family will be safe if the Borg can't be stopped. Once we take out the queen, then anybody who has been assimilated can be turned back. That's what we need to concentrate on now."

"What's the plan?" B'Elanna asked. "My family on Quo'nos would have kept Miral while we came to find you, but given the Borg situation, it didn't seem any safer to leave her there than bring her with us. We do want to help."

Chakotay gently tapped Miral's little nose and smiled down at her when she grabbed his finger. "Our plan blew up along with that shuttle in our last encounter with the Borg. We're still working on a new strategy so if you have any thoughts, I'd like to hear it."

"Where's Janeway?" Tom wondered. "It was a huge relief to find out that she wasn't really dead. That was quite a show she put on."

Chakotay busied himself with handing Miral back to her mother and carefully kept his voice neutral. If there was anyone he could talk to about the fight he'd had with Kathryn, it would be the two of them, but it didn't seem right. Both Kathryn and him were private people who didn't casually discuss personal matters with others and this, more than anything, was a very private matter. "She's probably in her quarters; you should stop by and see her if you haven't yet."

Tom wandered around the room. "It's just kind of strange to be in here without her sitting behind the desk, you know?"

"Given the situation, especially the identity of the new Borg queen, the admirals felt that it would be better for someone other than Admiral Janeway to have command of the mission," Chakotay explained.

B'Elanna sighed. "Janeway, queen of the Borg; who would have imagined that?"

.............................................................................

Chakotay wandered the corridors, watching his crew go about their duties. He nodded to them as he passed by, stopping occasionally to peer over their shoulders at the display readouts. They knew more about the Borg than ever, but the Borg now understood them better than ever as well. They would likely get only one chance to take the queen out and that would be the last, best chance that the rest of the Federation had to avoid being assimilated. Every idea he'd had just didn't seem like a good enough plan and he was hoping that a walk around the ship would spark something, a memory of some incident in the Delta Quadrant where they'd gotten out of trouble in a way that might work here. He'd also been thinking back to his Maquis days and the strategies they'd used against more powerful opponents back then. Borg Queen Janeway wouldn't know most of the Maquis strategies so those were the more likely possibilities, but her Delta Quadrant days had been so much longer ago that those memories might be faint enough for something to work. A voice calling his name from behind drew him out of his contemplation.

"Captain Chakotay," Geordi jogged down the corridor to catch up to him. "The last of the repairs are done. We're all ready to go, are we still heading for Romulus?"

"Eventually," Chakotay replied. He gestured for Geordi to walk with him. "Why didn't you just call me on the comm?"

Falling into step with his much taller captain, LaForge grinned. "You were patrolling the battlements. Captain Picard used to do the same thing on the Enterprise in tense situations."

"Really?" Chakotay smiled back at his First Officer and shook his head. "I was just trying to come up with an ingenuous plan to defeat the Borg, I don't suppose you have anything like that on you?"

"Sorry, sir," he said. "Reg and I were thinking of something but we haven't been able to figure out how to use it effectively."

Chakotay stopped in front of the turbolift. Entering, he waited for Geordi to join him before giving the destination. "Main Engineering," he told the computer. He looked at LaForge. "Why don't we take a look at what you've been working on so far."

 

Down in Engineering, they found Barclay going over the repair logs. Geordi got his attention. "Hey, Reg, the Captain wants to hear the idea we've been playing with."

"Captain, sir," Barclay snapped to attention.

"Relax, Mr. Barclay," Chakotay admonished him. "What have the two of you been cooking up?"

Reg led them over to a computer terminal and brought up a file. "Nanites, sir, specifically sentient nanites. They developed as a result of a lab accident onboard the Enterprise D years ago and we left them on Kavis Alpha IV to live. Commander LaForge and I were trying to find a way to use them against the Borg--assuming they would agree to help. We'd have to ask them, of course."

"Nanites were considered as a possible weapon at Wolf 359," Geordi explained. "It was decided that regular nanites would work too slowly to be useful at that time, but they didn't consider asking the sentient nanites for help as far as I know."

Reg picked up their train of thought. "So far we haven't been able to find a way to use the nanites without it being a suicide mission for them and that just didn't seem right with them being self-aware and everything."

Geordi offered a slim hope. "It's been years since we've been in contact with them, maybe they could think of a way to outmaneuver Borg nanoprobes or shut down the cubes without allowing the ship to self-destruct with them still onboard. Of course we'd need to find a way to get them onto a cube in the first place."

"Still, it's a place to start and it couldn't hurt to ask," Chakotay acknowledged. "Good thinking--" His commbadge chirped, interrupting his instructions. "Captain Chakotay here."

Janeway's voice came over the link. "Captain, I have an idea I'd like to discuss with you. Would you come to my quarters, please?"

"I'm on my way," he replied, cutting off the signal. Addressing the two men, he noted. "Keep working on possible applications and give the coordinates for Kavis Alpha IV to the helm. Let the Klingons know where we're going, but send someone to deliver the message in person. I don't want to risk the Borg monitoring our transmissions. It's not likely here in the Rift, but let's not take any chances."

Geordi nodded. "Yes, sir."

Minutes later, Chakotay rang the door chime to Janeway's quarters, nerves fluttering slightly in anticipation of whatever she wanted to talk to him about. He chastised himself, he was the Captain of this ship not the First Officer, but at the moment he just felt like a man who'd had a fight with his significant other. When the door slid open, he stepped inside almost cautiously. "Admiral, you wanted to see me?"

"Yes, thank you for coming so quickly," she greeted him. "Relax, Chakotay, I'm not going to bite. I was angry with you earlier, but I've had time to think about what you said."

"Admiral--" he began, only to be cut off.

"You were right," she interrupted. "Not about everything but enough to give me an idea."

Chakotay acknowledged her gesture to sit and joined her on the sofa. She was calmer than he'd expected her to be and he wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Either way, she was here as an advisor so he'd hear her out.

"I am a do-it-yourself type," Janeway admitted. "That was my biggest weakness in command training. You know that part of the command officer test where you have to be able to order someone to their death? I knew what I had to do but I still tried to go myself the first time I took that test. Learning to delegate was the hardest thing for me to do."

"I'd never have guessed," he remarked dryly.

She shot him a look of amused exasperation. "She--my Borg queen self--has the same weaknesses as I do and that just may be her Achilles heel. She expected me to try to take her on face-to-face because that's both of our instinct. That was my mistake, a mistake I wouldn't have made if I'd listened to you." She shifted closer to him, her hand moving up to caress his face tenderly. "You've been trying to get through to me that I don't have to be alone, I don't have to do this by myself. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize it; I'm sorry for what I put you through. Given that my other self stole the necessary components and violated the Temporal Prime Directive to come back here herself instead of just sending a message the way the future Harry did with that slipstream incident, then it's a good bet that she's a lot like me in that regard. I think that is the key to defeating her."

"What are you suggesting?"

"Starting my own collective," Janeway replied.

.......................................................................

Chakotay was talking quietly with Janeway and Seven at the briefing table when the door opened to admit the rest of his senior staff and Captain Worf, Tom and B'Elanna from the Klingon vessel. "All right, everybody have a seat and let's get started. Admiral Janeway will explain the plan we're working on."

Janeway nodded to Chakotay and then sat forward to address the assembled group, her demeanor all business. "We know from past experience that if we can disrupt the connection between the queen and the Collective, the Borg become helpless and many of them even self-destruct. If we can separate Borg Queen Janeway even for a few minutes, that should be enough time to allow Voyager to beam her physically off the cube and our Doctor can suppress her neural transmitter to prevent her from re-establishing contact."

Geordi leaned forward, his arms resting on the table. "How did you accomplish that the last time?"

"Allowing someone infected with an anti-Borg virus to be assimilated," B'Elanna explained.

"That's what got us into this mess to begin with," Janeway remarked. "My future self was the 'someone' assimilated."

Tom piped in his two cents. "Let's not go there again."

Janeway gave a small grin. "Agreed, this time we're going to go after her on a neural level. I've already spoken to Seven and Axum about this and they believe that it stands a good chance. We'll use neural transceivers to interlink our minds and then use our combined mental strength to disrupt the queen's connection with the Borg. We won't have much time once we initiate contact, but at the very least we should be able to get the shields on her cube down long enough to beam her away and deal with her here. In essence we'll be creating our own Collective to try to overwhelm and separate her from her Collective."

"If you need volunteers to join your Collective," Geordi said, "I'm sure there are a lot of crew members who would be willing to help."

Seven shook her head firmly. "The Collective can be disorienting to those who have never experienced it. I believe that the best probability of success requires that only those who have been joined with the Collective before should participate. Axum and myself were members of the Borg for many years and Admiral Janeway has also experienced assimilation however briefly."

B'Elanna closed her eyes and reached for Tom's hand under the table. "I guess that means me, then."

"B'Elanna," Tom began.

B'Elanna sighed. "If we don't succeed here, our daughter will grow up in a maturation chamber aboard a Borg cube. I'm in."

Janeway nodded, pleased. "That'll make four."

"Five," Chakotay said. At her look of dissent he uttered only one word. "Scorpion."

Janeway tightened her jaw. "Fine, five of us then."

"Hugh!" Geordi exclaimed. "How many minds will you need to give you a good chance of success?"

Seven looked toward Janeway. "The more minds in the link, the stronger the signal will be. Do you know of other former drones?"

"A whole colony of them," Geordi said. "Of course we didn't have the ability to remove their implants back then but they're still there as far as I know. If we offered to remove their Borg hardware, I'm sure at least some of them would be willing to help. Hugh was a Borg drone who was separated from the Collective for a time and learned individuality from us. Later he left the Collective with a bunch of others who picked up individuality from him when he rejoined the link. As strange as it might sound, he's sort of been a friend."

Seven made some quick calculations. "If we could get twelve of the strongest minds among them, that would put us at the limit of the neural interface capability."

"I build up castles; I tear down mountains; I make some men blind; I help others to see," Chakotay murmured, thinking over the plan that was quickly taking shape.

Janeway looked at him questioningly. "What was that?"

He gave a casual shrug. "An old riddle about sand. One grain of sand isn't much to talk about but the more grains you put together, the more it can accomplish. Mr. Barclay, these nanites on Kavis Alpha IV--do you think they could be useful here?"

"Yes, sir," Barclay replied. "In fact we wouldn't even have to get them onto a cube with this plan. We could use them in our Collective; their sentience would add more neural strength, in effect amplifying the signal. It would seem like a Collective of millions but it shouldn't put any added strain on the neural interface."

Geordi pointed at Reg. "They may also be able to buffer the individuals in our Collective, protect them from the noise of the Borg Collective a little."

Chakotay nodded and gestured toward Captain Worf. "Voyager will continue on to Kavis Alpha IV to request help from the nanites there. It might be better if you approached the colony of ex-drones since your ship has a cloak. The less the Borg know about our activities, the better. B'Elanna, Tom and Miral will be assigned quarters here to help prepare from our end."

"Agreed," Worf acknowledged. "Hugh knows me, I will be able to make contact with him and explain the situation."

...................................................................

That evening, Chakotay was in Admiral Janeway's quarters for dinner. They still needed to talk about what had happened and traveling to speak to the sentient nanite population would give them that time. He carried the wine glasses over to the table as she set their dinner plates down. Neither of them had said more than a couple of words in the fifteen minutes since he'd arrived. He felt like he should apologize for some of what he'd said to her before, he hadn't meant to say everything that he had. "Kathryn, about earlier--in my ready room, I was angry and upset. I said some things that were uncalled for and I'm sorry. You're right about the transponder being unnecessary now, I just needed a reason to be mad at you instead of feeling like you betrayed me personally with that whole shuttle incident."

She reached out to him, resting her hand on his broad shoulder. "Let's just put it all behind us and concentrate on the future."

"All right."

Sitting down, she poked at her food. "While we're talking about the future, I'm not sure it's a good idea for both of us to be in the link."

Chakotay sat back and regarded her in quiet frustration. "I thought we settled that at the briefing."

"No, I just didn't argue with you in front of your crew at the briefing," she countered. "Voyager will have to hold its own in a direct battle with a Borg cube long enough for our Collective to take on the Queen. You should be on the bridge."

"Commander LaForge has been in battle against the Borg before, he's also been in command of a starship during crisis situations before," he pointed out. "I'll discuss some strategies with him before I turn command over, but he's an engineer at heart and if I know one thing about engineers it's that they can be very creative in a pinch. He'll do fine; I can do more for this mission as part of the link."

Janeway laid her fork down and stared at the untouched food on her plate. "You're right, of course. I'm just . . . "

"Kathryn," he coaxed her to look up at him. "Leaning on me doesn't make you weak; the whole point of your idea to form this little Collective is to draw strength from each other."

"The whole is more than the sum of its parts," she said.

He squeezed her hand tenderly. "Exactly, I realize that you're probably more uneasy about letting me, not to mention so many other people, inside your head, but isn't that what makes this a good plan? The fact that the Borg Queen wouldn't expect you to think of it is where we'll get the element of surprise."

"But she thinks I'm dead," Janeway pointed out. "And this is exactly how we disconnected Seven from the Collective so my other self might be expecting the two of you to try this. Maybe you should take the lead in our Collective, let her think that it's just you and Seven combining forces. As far as she's concerned, you and Seven are still romantically involved. You should try to keep her thinking that as long as possible; it'll be a shock to her to find out about our involvement. As soon as you've established a strong connection, I'll bring in the reinforcements and try to overwhelm her."

Chakotay picked up on her train of thought. "If those sentient nanites can provide a buffer for us without her detecting them, we might be able to bait her into a trap and catch her off-guard. That's a good thought."

"We make a good team," she acknowledged, the intensity of her expression conveying a double entendre to the simple statement.

He could tell just from looking at her that she was forcing herself far outside of her personal comfort zone to even suggest this plan. Using their romantic relationship as a weapon against the Borg Queen would mean that everyone in their link would know all of the intimate details of their involvement; something that went against every instinct she had. Once again he was reminded that there was nothing she wouldn't sacrifice for her crew and in that moment he wanted to offer her some measure of solace. Reaching for her hand, he stood up and drew her to her feet. Dinner was forgotten as the need to belong, the need to feel an intimate connection, became paramount.

It was getting easier to simply relax into the warm, comforting haven of Chakotay's arms. She tilted her head back in anticipation of his lips and welcomed their crushing force. There was no heart-pounding urgency, just a meandering tendril of desire weaving through her. Her hands rested against the broad expanse of his chest as he towered over her, her own personal pillar of strength. She felt him release her hair from its bun and bury his fingers in the tresses to hold her close. His body's burgeoning response pressed into her and she pushed herself against him, frustrated by the layers of clothing separating them. A sense of warmth slowly spread across her body and everywhere it touched, it left a pulsing need in its wake. Breaking the kiss, she met the intensity of his deep, brown eyes with a single, commanding look. Everything that needed to be said between them was conveyed in that glance; she led the way to the bed, pulling off her own uniform and hearing him discard his clothing as he followed.

He stood behind her, his hands caressing the bared skin of her back and hips while she pulled the blankets on the bed down. He was delighted to feel her arching her body into the gentle pressure of his hands, completely comfortable in their unclothed condition. Her resistance to feeling vulnerable with him at the beginning of their relationship was slowly but surely fading. Catching her hips in his hands, he briefly rubbed his own nude body against her, eliciting a whimper from Kathryn before crawling into bed beside her. The blankets were shoved unceremoniously to the foot of the bed so that he could admire the petite body next to him. His gaze traveled the length of her body, from her toes all the way up to her hair fanned out across the pillows. She met his eyes, a look of desire that implored him to come to her, but he resisted the invitation; instead he lowered his head to brush a tender kiss across her lips, murmuring soft words of assurance. His own body begged him to join them, but he shoved his own physical needs aside to indulge himself in other ways. Propped on one elbow, his hand lightly trailed down her pale skin, even paler in comparison to the dark sheets and his own tanned skin. Her body leapt under his touch, her gasps growing in urgency with every second. When his fingers had caressed and fondled each breast then continuing further down to comb through the short, curly hair at the junction of her thighs, his head dipped to follow the path his fingers had journeyed. His mouth closed over the straining peak of one breast just as his fingers delved into the heated warmth of her body. He could feel her hips buck at the erotic contact and she grasped his head with her hands to hold his mouth against her, urging him with her body and words for more.

What had started slow and easy quickly became a sharp, aching need. When she would have pulled the covers up, he had pushed them down to leave them both naked and exposed, the lights in the room still at full illumination. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, however, she felt excited. His admiring gaze over her nude, utterly exposed body had kindled a spark that his touch heated up and it was now a conflagration of desire raging through her. Everything else was forgotten except for the wet heat of his mouth suckling her breast and his fingers intimately stroking the dripping, pulsing center of her body. Occasionally his thumb would brush against the sensitive nub at the entrance which sent electric charges racing through her. Cool air wafted through the room and she urged his mouth to her other breast to warm it as he had its twin. She could feel her body's response growing and she arched into the pressure of his hand wanting more of that delicious sensation. It became harder and harder to catch her breath as the pressure in her hips tightened to an almost painful intensity and then mercifully exploded in a burst of pleasure that radiated through every muscle in her body.

While she basked in the afterglow of her orgasm, relaxed but still breathing hard, he shifted to settle himself between her thighs and his mouth sought hers for a long, deep kiss. Her arms immediately went around his neck, hugging him close, as her legs wrapped around his hips to hold his body intimately against hers. Her body writhed sensuously beneath him; she was making no effort at all to inhibit her response which only served to fuel his body's desires. With his hands holding her hips steady, he joined them with a single, powerful thrust and began stroking in and out of her with hard, deep strokes. He broke the kiss to pull back for more leverage and felt her small, sharp teeth latch on to one of his nipples with erotic gusto. Fire shot through his body from his chest to his groin and he groaned his pleasure, his hips slamming into her harder and faster. She had her legs tight around his waist and forced him even deeper into him with every thrust. The pleasure completely consumed him, his ears roaring from the blood pounding through him. Her body spasmed beneath him, a second orgasm gripping her and spurring him even further. His movements became almost frantic, his hips jerking spasmodically against her until his own release ripped through him and he collapsed against her.

"You really are very good at this," Janeway remarked wryly once her breathing and heart rate had returned to normal. She gripped the edge of the blanket with her toes and pulled it far enough up to reach with her hands, covering both of their exhausted bodies.

Chakotay rolled to his side and drew her against his chest before helping her adjust the blankets around them. "You're not so bad yourself. Although, there is one thing I've been meaning to discuss with you."

"Oh?"

"My Captain's yacht," he said with mock seriousness. "When it was your yacht, you never touched the Aeroshuttle and yet the first chance you had once it was my Aeroshuttle, you blew it up."

She grinned against the warm, sweat-dampened skin of his chest. "Consider it payback for all of the shuttles you crashed in the Delta Quadrant."

............................................................................

Chakotay looked up from the display screen on his desk at the sound of the door chime. "Come."

LaForge entered the ready room waving a PADD which he handed the captain as soon as he reached the desk. "The preparations for the nanites are complete and we're ready to beam them up. The holding unit they transmitted specifications for is finished and Reg and Seven have designed a communications system for it so that we can communicate with them. They can help with the design for their interface with the neural link on the way to rendezvous with Worf and Hugh's people."

"Good," Chakotay reviewed the information on the PADD and then entered his authorization before handing it back. "Have them proceed, but I'd like to talk to you if you have some time."

"Yes, sir," LaForge replied. He hit his communicator. "LaForge to Barclay, proceed with transport and inform the Bridge when the nanites are safely onboard."

Chakotay gestured toward the replicator. "Do you want anything?"

"No, sir; I'm fine." At his captain's nod, LaForge followed him over to the sofa under the window. "Is there a problem, Captain?"

"No," Chakotay assured him. "At least nothing apart from the problem we started this mission with. I just wanted to talk about the upcoming battle. I know I'm putting you in a difficult position, but I also know that you can handle it; I wouldn't even consider it otherwise. Your service record shows you to be resourceful and able to rise to the most difficult of challenges--at least that's how Captain Picard and Captain Riker describe you. You'll have to keep Voyager in one piece and in range of the Borg cube long enough for us to separate the Queen from the Collective and beam her off. Captain Worf and his crew will be helping where they can, but she'll target Voyager."

Geordi nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, sir, I've been giving it a lot of thought. I've gone over the modifications made to Voyager and I found a reference to an incident where a female Q introduced changes to the ship that strengthened the shields enough to allow Voyager to safely enter a quantum singularity. Having Engineering duplicate those changes would buy us more time in the fight."

"You have done your homework," Chakotay said, impressed. "I'd almost forgotten about that. B'Elanna handled those modifications at the time; she might be able to give you some engineering insight beyond what was in the ship's log."

"I'll see if she can work with Reg on that," Geordi suggested.

Chakotay sat back and glanced out the window. "You know about modulating phaser frequencies and shield harmonics in battles with the Borg but there's also the question of handling their tractor beam. From this point on, I think you should start working up a battle plan on your own so that nobody in the link, myself included, knows about any tricks or evasive maneuvers you come up with. Once the link makes contact with the Queen and distracts her from the battle, the Klingons should be able to bring the Borg shields down the same way they did in the Rift."

Geordi interrupted him with a thought. "That's assuming they don't adapt. I've been working on other ways to get through their shields and I have a few ideas for breaking free of a tractor beam."

"Good," Chakotay replied. "Have the transporter room standing by to beam the Queen to Cargo Bay 2 the instant those shields fall so that the Doctor can disable her connection to the Collective; at that point, the cube should be virtually defenseless. Also, if I were you I'd think seriously about asking Tom Paris to take the helm during the battle. He's the best pilot I've ever seen and he's gotten Voyager through quite a few scrapes."

"Is that an order, sir?" Geordi asked. Putting a civilian at the helm of a Federation starship at any time was unusual, during a battle was unheard of.

"No, Commander, just a suggestion. You will be in complete command of this vessel during the battle and I want you to select your Bridge crew so that you're confident in your ability to work together. Use one of the holodecks for some battle simulations with your team if you'd like and use any ship's resources you need to prepare for this, you don't need my authorization. I don't even want to know how you're planning to handle the battle so that I can't take that knowledge into the link with me. One more thing, after I turn command over to you, I want you to change all of the command codes. If anything goes wrong, I don't want the Borg to be able to use me to control Voyager."

"Understood, sir," Geordi acknowledged. "And I will give some thought to the Bridge crew. I'll review Mr. Paris's service record during his time on Voyager as well as the service records for all of the experienced pilots we have onboard."

Chakotay sat forward and met LaForge's eyes. "I don't expect you to win this battle, Geordi, just keep us in the fight long enough for our Collective to take out the Queen. That's all we need."

"You'll get it, sir."

............................................................................

Captain's Log: Supplemental--We have rendezvoused back inside the Bassen Rift with the Klingon vessel carrying two dozen former Borg drones. Only twelve can be used in the link, the others came to provide assistance as well as enhanced defense in the event that the ship is boarded during the battle. Mr. LaForge has assigned the extra drones to specific regions of the ship, including two in Engineering so as to provide quick repair of any key systems that sustains damage. The neural interlink is ready as well as the interface with the holding container for the million nanites that we picked up at Kavis Alpha IV. All that's left at this point is locating the Queen and getting to her ship.

While the Cubes have ignored Voyager for the most part, we can't continue to rely on that when we penetrate Romulan space. At some point, the Borg Queen will decide to assimilate Voyager and it's absolutely essential that this ship reach the Cube or Unimatrix where the Queen is currently located without taking too much damage; there'll be more than enough opposition to deal with when we find the Queen. To that end and thanks to all of the extra brain power onboard, a means has been devised to increase the power of the Klingon ship enough to allow them to extend their cloak around Voyager. Probes at the edge of the Rift are currently scanning for the specific neural frequency that would identify Borg Queen Janeway. One small mercy to the older Admiral Janeway being the Borg Queen was that it allowed the Doctor to isolate the neural frequency of her brain based on our Admiral Janeway's brain wave patterns. As soon as that frequency is located, Voyager and the Klingons will set course. The delays have been frustrating for everyone as news of Borg dominance increases across Federation space. Time has been our enemy from the beginning in spite of the fact that the Borg incursion has been slow and methodical; the sands of time have been slipping through our fingers too quickly to catch. The resistance has been able to slow them down on a few fronts, but they are fighting a losing battle.

At this time, I am turning full command of Voyager over to my first officer, Commander Geordi LaForge, until we have succeeded in extracting the Borg Queen from the Collective.

................................................................

Chakotay and Janeway both roused instantly in response to the chirp of the communications system. Out of habit, Janeway reached across to grab the active communicator only to encounter Chakotay's hand already there. She sat back and combed her fingers through her tousled hair as she waited for him to answer it.

"Captain Chakotay here."

"It's Commander LaForge, sir; sorry to wake you but we've located the Queen's neural frequency. We've also detected probes deployed throughout Romulan space emitting a tachyon field. It seems that the Borg are using our strategy against us."

Janeway sighed softly. "Damn."

LaForge continued before Chakotay could say anything. "I've already discussed the situation with my team and if we can take the probes out of alignment, we should be able to create a passageway for the ships to travel through without immediately raising any suspicion. Mr. Paris believes he can use the Delta Flyer to nudge the probes far enough out of position to disable the tachyon grid from within the cloak. He's on his way to the shuttle bay along with one of Hugh's men. As soon as they're ready to launch, we'll set a course out of the Rift. Assuming all goes as planned, we'll reach the target in about eleven hours but you should gather your people and be ready to initiate your end of the plan. If the Borg catch on to what we're doing, we'll have to fight our way through to get within transporter range of the queen. I'm putting the ship at red alert."

"Understood," Chakotay acknowledged with admiration for his First Officer's initiative. Geordi was in command so the decisions were his and there was no question in his voice about whether or not his captain approved. He was just telling Chakotay and Admiral Janeway what the current situation was, not to mention that almost-order for them to report to the cargo bay where the neural interface had been set up.

Janeway was already out of bed and reaching for her uniform. "Stormed at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell rode the six hundred."

He slid out of bed on her side and pulled her to him, dropping her uniform on the bed so he could hold her in his arms. "The Charge of the Light Brigade?"

"It's been running through my mind," she said. "Into the valley of death rode the six hundred."

His arms pressed her petite form closer to his body. "We can do this; it'll work."

She drew strength and comfort from him, pulling his head down to hers for a long, tender kiss. "Together we can do anything."

....................................................................

Janeway and Chakotay left their quarters walking side-by-side, purposeful strides that conveyed confidence and professionalism to everyone they passed in the corridors. They didn't speak in the turbolift, everything that needed to be said between them had already been said. Entering the cargo bay, they nodded perfunctorily to the others who had already gathered and headed for the EMH who was making final adjustments to the individual neurocortical transmitters that would link their minds through the neural interface.

"We're as ready as we'll ever be," the Doctor announced.

B'Elanna entered the cargo bay just then and headed for the three clustered around the console.

"Where's Miral?" Chakotay asked.

"Sickbay," she replied. "With Tom being on the Bridge during the battle and me in the link,
the Doc here put up a playpen in his office so the nurses could keep an eye on her but she'd still be out of the way in case there are injured."

Janeway nodded and turned to the assembled group. "All right, everyone to their alcoves. Security, stay sharp; the transporter room will be beaming the Queen here as soon as their shields come down so the Doctor can disable her transceiver."

Seven and Axum were calibrating the neural transceivers already in the former drones to the proper frequency to establish their connection with the interface.

Hugh grinned at Axum as his transceiver received an adjustment. "I can't wait to get these things out of my body when this is over."

"I know exactly how you feel," Axum replied, sharing a moment of camaraderie.

Seven was waiting for Axum at their alcoves. She reached out to attach his transceiver and paused long enough to brush a kiss across his lips. "Do not allow yourself to be harmed," she whispered to him.

Axum pulled her in to a deeper kiss, reminiscent of their past relationship in Unimatrix Zero. "I ask the same of you."

Chakotay and Janeway were the last two to take their positions. They each attached their own transceiver, taking a moment to share a tender gaze with one another.

"We still have a few hours before we're in range," the EMH announced. "That will give us time to stabilize the link and for all of you to become accustomed to your connection with each other. Once we make contact with the queen, Admiral Janeway, I'll keep your neural pattern in the buffer as planned. I'll give Captain Chakotay and the others two minutes and then I'll integrate you into the link."

"Let's do it," Janeway said.

The influx of other thoughts into Chakotay's consciousness was disorienting, but he managed to keep his own thoughts focused on their objective. The other neural patterns aligned themselves with his as planned; he could pick out B'Elanna's voice in his head as well as Seven's. Axum, Hugh and the other former drones provided a low backdrop for the more familiar minds in their link. There was a sudden surge in the link and he realized that the nanites had entered the interface. The feeling of all the minds circulating around his thoughts was immensely powerful and for the first time in the mission, he felt completely inadequate for the task.

'You're not in this alone,' Janeway's voice rang in his head.

'Together,' his thoughts echoed back.

..................................................

"What's your status, Doctor?" LaForge called down to the cargo bay for a quick update.

"The interlink is stable, our little collective is doing fine and ready for the next step," the EMH replied.

LaForge double-checked the sensor readings. "So far, so good up here. We'll be in communications range momentarily but it'll be a bit more for transporter range."

"That's fine," the EMH said. "They'll need the extra time to make contact and fully engage the Queen. Preparing to transmit interlink signal now."

....................................................

Chakotay felt Kathryn's mind leave the collective and he realized that they were preparing to initiate the connection with the Borg queen and concentrated on Seven's thoughts. When they made contact, the queen had to believe that Seven and he were doing this on their own so their thoughts had to be foremost in their small link. The nanites masked the thoughts of the others to help with the deception. The clear, strident thoughts of the queen startled him.

'I've been waiting for the two of you,' the Borg queen almost cooed. 'You should have taken Voyager and gone away somewhere, lived out the rest of your lives together. Now you're forcing me to assimilate you sooner than I'd intended.'

Seven was the first to respond. 'Your behavior is inconsistent with the values of the Kathryn Janeway I know. She would never assimilate anyone.'

'She spent sixteen more years in the Delta Quadrant than you did,' the Borg queen countered. 'Kathryn Janeway was powerless, I am powerful. I can protect and guide in a way she never could.'

'Can you love?' Chakotay thought quietly. 'Can you feel anything for those you guide except power and control?' He thought he could feel a rocking, buffeting sensation but he couldn't tell if it was coming from Voyager or the Borg cube. Their neural connection was sending messages from both ships back and forth and he was glad he'd ordered Geordi to shut them out of Voyager's systems before they'd initiated the link.

Borg Queen Janeway laughed, a harsh sound even in the abstract realm of the mind. 'Your ship is under fire. I commend you for the foresight to isolate yourselves from Voyager's computer core, but once we disable the ship, it will not take long to shut down everything--including you.'

'You didn't answer my question,' Chakotay pointed out. 'Can you love?'

'I watched love destroy you after Seven died,' the queen replied. 'Love means nothing, it is irrelevant.'

'Love is relevant,' Seven argued.

Waves of negative emotions, impossible to describe with words, blasted across their connection from the queen. Chakotay tried not to think about how long they'd been in contact with the queen and instead focused on Axum, bringing him to the forefront of the link.

Seven's mind found Axum and the two shared images of their lives in Unimatrix Zero as well as memories of their recent reunion. Behind the memories, she sent a thought to the queen, 'even as Borg we found love with one another. We lived a lifetime together during our regeneration cycles that you cannot take away and if you assimilate us, those memories will be shared with the entire Borg collective.'

'Oh, but what about your poor Chakotay?' the Borg queen asked, her thoughts a little shakier, but not enough to overwhelm her control of the Borg.

'My Chakotay,' Janeway's thoughts barreled through, her mind going straight to Chakotay and revealing the intimacy they shared. With Janeway in the link, the nanites allowed the other minds to come through, boosting their neural energy and allowing the full force of their neural interface to flow through in concert with the revelation about Janeway and Chakotay's relationship.

The queen was taken completely off-guard by Janeway's appearance in the link and she couldn't conceal her reaction to the images as the life she could have had--should have had--swirled through her mind. Visions of her body entwined with Chakotay's, being held and comforted by his strong arms, just laying in bed beside him talking quietly about their respective days; she felt herself experiencing all of those things. For an instant it was almost as if she were re-living those scenes from her own memories.

That split second was all they needed to swarm over her consciousness and disrupt her connection to the rest of the Borg collective. Hugh and the other former drones focused on dampening signals from the queen to the cube that Voyager was currently engaged with while B'Elanna, Axum and Seven tried to isolate and shut down the queen's cortical node. Janeway and Chakotay kept the queen's attention, forcing her to see and feel every bit of the physical and emotional intimacy they'd shared with each other.

Outside the interlink, the EMH monitored the readings with concern. From the wild rocking and sparks flying from exploding conduits, Voyager was taking a pounding; based on the neural output levels, the individuals in the link were taking a pounding on a more cerebral level. He activated the comm system. "Doctor to the Bridge."

"What is it, Doctor?" Geordi answered, his voice tense but measured.

"I'm concerned about the link, at the current rate they'll start keeling over with aneurysms in the next two minutes, three at most. I need to--"

"No, Doctor," Geordi ordered. "If they lose their battle in there, we don't have a chance out here. Get a med team down there if you need to, but don't interfere in the link; that's an order. Keep me posted, Bridge out."

The EMH watched as trickles of blood began seeping from B'Elanna's nose as well as several of the former drones. "Doctor to Sickbay, send a med team to Cargo Bay 2, bring several cortical stimulators and hyposprays of cortolin."

Inside the link, the pressure was almost overwhelming. The nanites were keeping the voices of the Borg Collective down to a dull roar, but the pressure felt crippling as they all tried to stay focused on their tasks. Janeway and Chakotay were relentless in their attack on the queen, forcing her to see how her actions had changed the people from her reality and given them all new lives to live. They found dreams buried deep within Borg Queen Janeway's mind, dreams of Mark, Mollie and her puppies, babies being cradled in her own arms and children playing. There were also distant memories of Jaffen and Kashyk; some thoughts were of Chakotay but mostly they were dreams of sharing a life with someone. As soon as those images began to surface, Janeway started focusing on the life of solitude that both of them had experienced, using that as a wedge to find other memories and feelings of loneliness that Borg Queen Janeway carried and force them into the open.

A sense of panic began spreading out through their connection and Chakotay frantically tried to find the source. Some of the minds from their small link were silent, B'Elanna's mind was barely a whisper clinging desperately to images of Tom and Miral, but she was still there as was Seven and Axum. The panic became a scream that felt ear-splitting and he tried to shelter Kathryn's mind with his to protect her. They were so close, they couldn't afford to falter now. Suddenly the panic was gone and so was the queen's presence in his mind.

'She has been temporarily disabled,' Seven announced. 'If Voyager's transporters are still online, they should be able to transport her to the cargo bay now.'

Chakotay was the first to rip away the neural transceiver and look around, a little disoriented but ever the commanding presence. Seven, Axum and Hugh stepped out of their alcoves, each moving to help with others who had not fared so well during the interface. Janeway and B'Elanna were slow to come around; the toll that the link had taken was obvious in both of their expressions as was their resolve and determination. The whine of a transporter beam cut through the cargo bay and left behind the still body of the Borg Queen. It was hard to look at her; he was reminded of how his Janeway looked after their experience with Unimatrix Zero and the long road to physical and mental recovery that she, as well as B'Elanna and Tuvok, had faced. He gestured for the Doctor to disable her neural transmitter to prevent any communication with the Borg Collective.

Janeway moved to stand over the queen's body, looking down on herself and unable to force her gaze away. Vaguely, she was aware of the security team that had moved in with their weapons ready just before Borg Queen Janeway had been transported in.

"The battle has stopped," Chakotay noted, feeling the stillness of the ship. He activated his communicator. "Chakotay to LaForge, what's our status?"

"Good to hear your voice, Captain," LaForge answered. "We still getting damage reports in as well as injury reports but so far it doesn't look like we took any fatalities. We lost communication with the Klingon ship several minutes ago, but sensors say they're intact with functioning life support. I'll get you a complete assessment as soon as possible."

"Take your time, Commander," Chakotay said. "The Borg shouldn't be any threat now. Good job and my compliments to your Bridge crew."

As if on cue, Tom's voice came over the comm. "B'Elanna?"

"Right here, flyboy," she responded with a touch of her usual spark.

"Man, this was an incredible battle," Tom raved, relief evident in his tone. "I mean it was really one for the record books; you should have seen it."

Without warning, Janeway grabbed the phaser rifle from the security officer next to her and began firing point-blank into the Borg queen's body. Barely a second later, weapons fire rocked Voyager, throwing most of the others in the cargo bay to the floor. It subsided almost as quickly as it began, but she didn't stop shooting until she felt Chakotay's hand cover her fingers and pull them away from the firing pad.

"She's dead, Kathryn," his voice was soft and calming as he gently took the rifle out of her hands and handed it back to the security officer.

"Most sincerely dead," the EMH echoed. Nonetheless, he knelt back down by the body and scanned for any distant neural energy in the cortical node to be sure.

Over the still-open comm link they could hear chaos on the bridge with reports of a hull breach and LaForge's calm order to seal it and evacuate the area. Janeway wanted to say something, make her usual acerbic comment, her voice just wouldn't cooperate. She didn't know how she'd known that the Borg Queen had re-established her connection to the Borg, but she had; somehow she'd felt or heard the Borg Queen revive in the instant before the Borg cube had been able to act on her command. She leaned against the solid warmth of Chakotay's chest, trying not to shiver with revulsion and disgust as she eyed herself, now a smoking, charred corpse. If she tried to speak now, her fear was that she'd just start crying and that was something she would not do in front of anyone. Oddly grateful that the ship wasn't her responsibility, she listened as Chakotay took command of his ship back and just enjoyed the feel of his arm around her.

"Chakotay to LaForge, the queen is dead. Send a message to the rest of the Fleet and then set a course for Earth. Let's go home."

**FINIS**
(Really and truly, this ends the Time trilogy of 'A Stitch in Time', 'The Time of Her Life' and 'Sands of Time'. The wicked queen is dead and everyone can live happily ever after.)