Captain's log, Stardate 43992.6. It's been twelve hours since the cybernetic race who call themselves the Borg took Lieutenant Commander Barnes prisoner. We've finally re-located the Borg ship and are en route to intercept, but its new target is even more worrying.
"Whatever it was they used, Peggy, it cut through our hull like butter," said Steve, slumping forward on his desk and rubbing his eyes. "Eighteen dead, just like that. Engineering's still trying to figure out how they got a transporter signal through our shields, but once they got in... They were going for me, I could see it, but Bucky put himself in the way."
On the monitor, Admiral Carter winced in sympathy. "And they took him to use as a... mouthpiece?"
Steve nodded. "We spent two hours throwing everything we had at their shields and couldn't even get scanners in deep enough to find his bio-signs. Then suddenly they made contact, and they used him to order us to surrender." Steve shuddered, trying to block out the image of Bucky, deathly white and bald, impaled with black metal implants that encased him like armour, parroting the words of their enemy. "I can't describe it, Peg. It was like he was dead inside."
"I saw the recording," she said gently. "I'm sure it was hard for you."
"Yeah. Cutting the comm channel felt like abandoning him."
"I'm also sure that was their intention," said Peggy. Her posture changed slightly; she folded her hands, the admiral addressing her subordinate again. "You were right to refuse them, and I'm afraid you'll have to keep it up. Starfleet Command has confirmed your extrapolation of their course; the Borg are heading directly for Earth. A fleet is being assembled at Wolf 359 to stop them."
Steve straightened to match her, feeling the weight of the rank pips on his collar. "And my officer?"
Her eyes flickered down briefly. "Your orders are to overtake and join the fleet if possible, or else to continue your chase and provide assistance once the Borg ship has been engaged."
Provide assistance killing Bucky. He felt sick. But it had to be done; if the Borg could 'assimilate' his best friend, turn him into one of their mindless drones in the space of a few hours, the potential for what they could do to Earth was horrifying. "Tony says we're pushing our luck right now maintaining warp five," Steve replied mechanically. "Until we finish repairs, keeping up is the best we can do."
Peggy nodded. "We estimate the Borg ship will reach Wolf 359 in eighteen hours if they continue at their present speed." She paused, looking at him through the monitor and across dozens of light years and still seeing right into his soul. "Best you use that time wisely; there's only so many preparations we can make over here."
Something surged behind Steve's ribs, and it took him a second to recognise hope. He closed his mouth with a snap, nodded professionally, and said, "My crew is already on it. We'll be ready by the time we meet the fleet."
She held his eyes. "Good luck, Captain." The monitor winked out. Steve tapped his comm badge.
"Rogers to all senior staff: Report to the observation lounge in ten minutes."
Steve leaned both hands on the table and slid into a chair as his crew filed in around the long table; six of the people he trusted most in this galaxy, each looking as tired and grim as the next. "Starfleet is assembling a fleet to engage the Borg ship in eighteen hours; I want Bucky back on this ship in twelve. What have you got?"
As usual it was Stark, his Andorian Chief Engineer, who spoke up first. "I worked out their shield trick," he said. "They scan our phaser beams on impact and rephase their shields to that frequency so the next round bounces off. Takes them a second though; last time we got, what, two good shots in?"
Thor nodded; as chief of security, he was filling in for Bucky as tactical officer. He was big even for a Klingon, and his chair shuddered as he leaned forward. "Our torpedoes were more effective, but only briefly; I fear the same adaptations will render them useless in a matter of minutes, and the Borg may have already modified their defences."
"Right, so we re-modulate the frequency," said Stark. His antennae quivered a little with excitement as he looked around the table, waiting for them to catch up to his genius. "See? Every time we fire, we'll immediately swap to a different frequency. I've already got my team reconfiguring the phaser banks to randomly rotate modulations. By the time we catch up to the Borg, we'll be ready. Oh, and engine efficiency will back to normal in about... ten more minutes." He grinned. "I told Parker to comm the bridge as soon as he's done. I figured you'd want to increase speed as soon as we can, Cap."
Ignoring the nickname — there was just no point trying to bend Stark to protocol — Steve shook his head. "Maintain speed for now. I don't want us getting close enough to get their attention if we haven't got a plan ready."
To Steve's right his first officer, Commander Potts, raised an eyebrow. "The Borg have consistently ignored any actions on our part until we posed a threat," she said. "As we were unable to overpower their defences when Commander Barnes was captured, it is logical to assume our approach will not be hindered."
"Logical but not definite, Pepper," said Stark, grinning as she bristled, and Steve stifled a sigh; Potts' Vulcan mother had given her their species' talent for logic and the unfortunate name of T'Pep, and Stark never stopped needling her over either. But unless she filed a complaint, Steve couldn't do more than shut him down every time.
"Maybe not," he said firmly, "but it's worth a try. Good work, Stark." He turned to the rest of his team. "What else?"
Barton, his Bajoran helmsman, just shrugged: His victory had been finding the Borg ship back, and now he was just waiting to be useful again. "They're sticking on course."
Steve nodded and looked to Jarvis. "Commander?"
"Nothing new to report," said the android. "However, as Ensign Maximoff is quite capable of manning ops on her own, I would like to offer my assistance in Engineering for the modification of hand phasers in case we are boarded again."
Stark grinned. "Glad to have you, buddy."
"Fine," said Steve. "Doctor Banner, how is the cure coming along?"
Banner shook his head, sighing, and Steve felt his insides hollow out. "I don't know," he said. He had the pinched, weary look of someone who doesn't know how to hope anymore. "I can't determine the nature of their assimilation process; I don't know the mechanism, I don't know the extent. And I don't know if I can reverse it."
Even Stark stopped twitching. Steve swallowed. "You mean we can't save him? There's no hope?"
"No, I mean I can't say one way or another," Banner replied. "I have no viable data to work from." He tapped a panel on the table and security footage of the attack came up on the screen behind Steve's chair; he turned to look as Banner said, "This is literally all I have to work with. The internal sensors had as much trouble registering their bio-signs as the external ones, so a visual diagnosis is all I have. The Borg drones who boarded us were all humanoid, though I can't determine all the original species; one was Ferengi, this one on the left was probably Klingon. It looks like every one of them was fitted with mechanical implants the way Commander Barnes was, though these appear to be more extensive. I can't tell whether this—" a few more taps and the recording of 'Bucky's' transmission appeared, and Steve's grip tightened on his armrests "—is a unique transformation to enable him to act as a spokesperson or simply an earlier stage of a standard assimilation."
Steve held himself tightly as he turned away, smooth and even and not looking back at that dead-eyed face. To Banner he said, "What do you need?"
"Deep tissue scans will help me determine how to remove the hardware, but the neurological issues are another matter." He rubbed his eyes; Steve wondered when he'd last slept. "It's possible that the Commander's higher brain functions are simply being bypassed and his speech and motor functions are being controlled remotely, or it's possible that the brain has been completely rewired and permanent damage has occurred. I'm going to need data from other Borg drones on how information is being received and processed, and," he said heavily, "how dependent they are on that link."
"We'll get it for you," Steve promised.
Beside him, Jarvis approximated a frown. "It may be possible to reconfigure a medical tricorder to penetrate the drones' armour, but we will need to be in close proximity to perform the scans, and they will need to be in contact with their hive mind at the time."
Steve grimaced. "Unless we can modify our sensors to isolate Bucky's lifesign from here—" Stark scowled and shook his head "—we're going to have to send a boarding party. Commander Potts is right that the Borg don't seem likely to take that as a sign of aggression the way other species would. That should give us enough time to take the scans you need, Doctor."
Banner nodded, as did Steve. "Good. Mr Jarvis, upgrade two tricorders. Mr Stark, Mr Thor; you modify the phasers."
"Yeah, no problem. What is a problem is finding Barnes in that fifty-thousand drone haystack over there," said Stark, antennae flaring. "I figure I can modify the emergency transporter armbands to cut through the shields—"
"How, may I ask?" Jarvis asked, curious. Stark flapped a hand absently.
"Just remodulating the beacon frequencies through the narrow-band EM range; it'll work, trust me, we'll be able to isolate his bio-sign soon as we slap it on him, but that ship doesn't have a bridge, let alone a room marked 'Prisoner Assimilation HQ; Rescuers This Way'. How're we going to find him?"
Thor said, "We will determine which is the most heavily-shielded section of their ship. No doubt they are holding Commander Barnes as securely as possible."
Potts tilted her head. "The Borg appear to place no value on individuals. Now that Barnes has served his purpose, it is unlikely they will devote any effort to keeping him."
"Meaning he could be anywhere," said Barton, fiddling with his earring. "So why don't we just ask?"
Steve blinked. "Lieutenant?"
Barton shrugged. "Like Potts said, they're not a conventional enemy. If we fly up and hail them, they'll use Bucky to talk to us again. No matter how many twists and turns they run that signal through it's got to have an origin point; keep the channel open long enough and we can trace it."
"And let the signal act like breadcrumbs," said Steve, nodding. "Good thinking, Barton. See to it. Stark, I want transporter armbands for every member of the team and another for each of us to carry; whoever gets to Bucky first needs to be ready."
"Sure. How many in the away team?"
"Four," said Steve.
"You'll have 'em in two hours."
Steve nodded. "Thor, Jarvis, Barton — you'll be with me. We leave as soon as Stark's ready." And, before any of them, Potts especially, could protest or cite protocol about missions too risky for a captain to undertake, he added sharply, "Dismissed."
Potts glared severely as she stood up, but turned away without a word. Banner and Barton looked sympathetic as they walked out, and Stark was already on the comm to his engineers. But Thor lingered; he stood slowly and stayed beside his chair, fixing his captain with a heavy look.
"I said dismissed, Lieutenant."
"Aye, Captain, but honour demands that I remain." Steve shot him a withering look, but Thor was made of sterner stuff. "As your friend, and as Commander Barnes', I would remind you that he deliberately intercepted the drone who attempted to abduct you. He was fully aware of the consequences, and would not thank you for belittling his sacrifice."
"Thank you," Steve snapped. "I was there."
It bounced off Thor. He took a few slow steps, pausing beside Steve's chair. "I lost a brother to my own foolishness," he said quietly. "I would not see you do the same. As I know you will not be deterred, I request on his behalf that your priority be the safe return of the away team."
To that painfully reasonable request, Steve could only nod.
Stark finished early, of course. Someday Steve would ask if he always doubled his estimates, but for now he had more pressing worries.
The Borg ship loomed large on the viewscreen. Steve's fingers dug into his armrests, taut like a wire, waiting... waiting...
Too long. "Hail them again," said Steve.
Jarvis did so dutifully, and they waited for the return signal, but the ugly black-green cube on the viewscreen just kept surging ahead at a steady warp six point eight, with Bucky and who knew how many other assimilated victims on board.
Steve grimaced and pushed himself to his feet. "Open a channel."
"Channel open, sir," said Jarvis.
"This is Captain Steven Rogers of the USS Avenger. You have one of my people, James Barnes. I want to talk to him."
He waited. At the helm, Barton turned slightly to glance over his shoulder, and behind him Steve could hear Thor shifting restlessly at his post. Jarvis was perfectly still. "No response, Captain," he said, muting the channel a moment. "They are receiving us."
"They just don't care," Barton muttered.
Steve glanced at Commander Potts, but her face was blank, studying the ship, no doubt adding this detail to her analysis. "All right then," Steve muttered, and straightened up; Jarvis tapped his panel and nodded. Steve raised his voice: "Borg ship, you demanded our surrender. We can't exactly discuss that if you won't respond to us."
"YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED." (Steve fought not to jump.) "RESISTANCE IS FUTILE."
There was no visual, no horrible puppetry of Bucky's face; this was the echoing collection of voices that had contacted them the first time, just before taking a three-deck sample of their hull and carelessly murdering eighteen crewmen. Bucky had pulled a face, he remembered suddenly; wrinkled nose and a glance at Steve that said, Really?
Something turned to steel inside him. "Close channel," he barked, and strode toward the turbolift. "Jarvis, Barton, Thor; let's go. Time for Plan B." He tapped his comm badge. "Rogers to Stark: Meet us in transporter room three with whatever you've got; we've got no clue on location unless you can pull off a miracle with the scanners. Impress me."
"Shouldn't be har—"
Steve tapped his badge again to shut off the link as the lift opened; the others followed him in without a word, and before the doors shut Steve turned to see Potts taking her place in his chair, chin held high. She'd protect the ship; she'd warp away and leave all five of them behind if that's what it took to protect the other thousand souls on board, but not until the last possible moment, and Steve was glad. Someone had to do it.
Stark, being Stark, wasn't waiting for them in the transporter room; when the turbolift doors opened his blue face a handspan from Steve's. "Arm," he said, and while his captain was still blinking he snaked an arm past Steve's and slipped a wide band around his bicep; the two halves of the magnetic clasp, the top of which held the control panel and circuitry for the transporter beacon, snapped together easily.
Stark jostled him on and snapped the next band on Jarvis, then Thor. "Got a few extra tricks for you, Cap," he called as he finished fixing Barton's armband and scurried past the lot of them into the transporter room. He slid to a stop in front of Steve, grinning and holding out four discs. "Automatically deployable. Once you find Barnes, just slap one of these on him and the band will deploy and activate the beacon. I would've interconnected them to beam you all back at once but that needed clearance for some reason, so yours are active and on standby. Here."
The discs were as wide as Steve's palm and fairly thin; one easily fit into the pouch on his utility belt next to his phaser, and he handed the others around. "Good work, Stark. Thanks."
"Hey, that was nothing, not like the phaser frequency modifications, that was genius, so yeah, get him back, okay?" Stark was still buzzing, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet as he watched them step up to the transporter pad, but something in his voice made Steve slow down and look back. Stark was twisting his fingers around each other and his antennae were pointing straight up, stiff and anxious. Squirming a little under their gaze, Stark overdid a shrug. "He's the only one of you who's half-decent at poker."
"We will return victorious," Thor promised solemnly, and Steve took a steadying breath. He nodded curtly at the transporter operator at the console.
The crewman nodded, activating the controls, and the twinkling light of the transporter beam filled his eyes. The room began fading, blurring—
Then it was dark.
The Borg hadn't had their shields up to begin with (and the glib assumption that the Avenger was no threat would have riled Steve if it hadn't been so chilling), but usually a surprise boarding party would have been more... surprising. The away team materialised back-to-back, four hands hovering over their modified phasers, but for all the notice the Borg drones took, they might as well have been characters from a holonovel.
"No threatening movements," Steve reminded them. "If Potts is right they'll ignore us indefinitely."
Very softly, Barton snorted.
The ship's insides were as harsh and industrial as the outside, all exposed grating and tubes, poor lighting and narrow walkways; they could see maybe three metres in either direction until coolant vapours or something vaguely resembling a wall blocked it, but the space didn't resembling a room. Six drones were around them, two making repairs to wall circuitry, the others at tasks Steve couldn't immediately decipher.
Jarvis had his tricorder out and was sweeping it slowly around. "No sign of Commander Barnes in the immediate vicinity."
That had been too much to hope for. Steve nodded once. "Start the search pattern. How much of the ship will we need to walk for your scanning radius to cover the rest?"
"Keeping to a standard spiral search pattern, approximately five point one kilometres," said Jarvis.
"That's assuming they don't move him," added Barton.
All true, and Steve was too aware of Admiral Carter's deadline; they'd already spent too long preparing for this away mission, and there was no way to know how long the Borg would tolerate an intrusive team with a wary, well-armed ship tailing it all the way to Wold 359. Maybe Potts was right, maybe they would be ignored the whole time, but he couldn't help be sceptical. "Get started," he said, "but I want a backup plan."
Jarvis took point, striding as quickly and non-threateningly as his programming allowed, with Barton close on his heels and Thor hovering protectively behind his captain. "If the Borg truly have no concern for internal security," he mused, "perhaps there will be no restrictions on access to their main computer either."
"And what do we search for, Barnes' name and service number?" said Barton. Jarvis looked thoughtful.
"Captain, my analyses of the Borg transmissions to the Avenger should be sufficient to translate their language. I believe it would be worth an attempt."
Steve hesitated. "All right, do it. Be very careful not to make any move that could be interpreted as hostile." Jarvis nodded. "Barton, take over scanning," Steve added; the lieutenant's hands had been twitching towards his phaser a lot anyway.
Jarvis handed over the medical tricorder and approached the nearest access terminal. There was nothing resembling a standard interface, but Jarvis took out his standard tricorder and linked in remotely.
Steve gestured to Thor to go with Barton. He listen to their footsteps fade, turning slowly on the spot, watching Jarvis' back and every visible approach — including up — trying all the while to keep his arms relaxed by his sides. The drones still ignored them, even when Jarvis said, "I have access."
At the furthest point of Steve's vision, down what could be loosely called a corridor, he could see other drones moving. Some were clearly male, others female, all humanoid, all grey-skinned and cased in metal. There were more races than he could identify; one had the faint marks of a Trill, but most weren't native to this quadrant of the galaxy. How far had these Borg travelled since? How many worlds had they already swallowed?
How many best friends?
"I have found assimilation records," said Jarvis. "A drone designated 'Nine of Nine, tertiary adjunct to unimatrix zero one' was added to the equivalent of the ship's register shortly after Commander Barnes was taken."
Steve peered at the tricorder display, but the data was flashing by too fast for organic eyes to follow. "Where is he now?"
"Assigned to a regeneration alcove — like this one," Jarvis gestured to a narrow recess in the nearest wall where a drone stood upright, eyes closed and plugged into various outlets. Steve peered closer.
"What, he's sleeping?"
"This seems to be their equivalent. The particular alcove in use by the Commander is..." Jarvis tapped the controls a few more times, a few novels worth of data sped by, and he nodded, sharply tucking the tricorder into his belt. "This way."
He strode in the direction Thor and Barton went, tapping his comm badge. "Jarvis to Barton: Retrace your last eight metres and take the passage to your left."
Steve hurried after Jarvis, keeping an eye on the drones; they gave no indication they'd heard a word said, but that was unlikely too. At a junction some way down Jarvis turned right, and waited a moment until Thor and Barton rejoined them. Barton was waving the med tricorder at them. "Hope you have better luck," he said.
Jarvis took it with a nod and started tapping in some recalibrations, leading the way into more nearly identical passages. "The Borg appear to use a highly interconnected system of internal communications and data relays to maintain their collective consciousness," he said, and gestured to a roughly diamond-shaped piece of equipment that was embedded in the ceilings every few metres. "Those seem to be distribution nodes. I have isolated the frequency on which Commander Barnes is monitored, and am tracking him." He paused significantly and added, in a nonchalant tone, "Their ship's systems seem to be similarly interconnected."
Steve's eyes flicked to Thor, who returned it, but neither said anything in case the Borg were listening. "I don't care about their systems," Steve said loudly. "I just want my officer back."
He led them through what felt like a maze of smoke and metal, dull clangs and sparks and too many dead grey faces. They were still alive, Jarvis said when he muttered that aloud, and shared his tricorder readings — body temperature, brain activity, everything was there. "Their pallor appears to be due to a large proportion of metallic devices in their bloodstream," Jarvis went on, the tone of his voice coming across to Steve as a bit too fascinated for the situation. "The nanoprobes appear to be regulating their biological and cybernetic functions."
"Regulating," repeated Steve. "You mean they're dependent on it."
"I will need to study the scans in more detail with Doctor Banner," Jarvis replied.
Finally, after climbing down two sets of narrow ladders, Jarvis slowed and led them to a side passage. It was quiet, lined with alcoves, about half of them occupied. The drones were all still, with closed eyes and the hardware on their limbs linked into the alcove. They passed an Andorian whose antennae were stubs of rough scar tissue, two males of the same race with nearly identical implants, a short humanoid of a race Steve couldn't place, a Bajoran woman, another woman, and then—
"Bucky..." Steve breathed. It was worse than he'd thought, being this close; he could see the veins running over Bucky's shaved head, pulsing under his dead-white skin. There were more implants than he'd had before; a sunburst of thin metal had sprung through his cheek and his entire right eye was covered by a square optical scanner. There was a huge device built into the armour of his left arm, roughly square with sensor antennae spiking out of it, and looping tubes were plugged into his chest.
Jarvis stepped up to make a more detailed scan. Steve breathed slowly in, then out. His heart wouldn't slow.
"He has been significantly altered," Jarvis said at last, "but none of his vital systems have been destroyed. I cannot determine the extent of his neurological damage."
"We need to get him out of that thing," said Barton, stepping quickly away from the alcove with the Bajoran woman in it. "Can you turn it off?"
Jarvis tilted his head, straightened, and tapped his tricorder. "I have yet to fully decipher the Borg language," he confessed, "but I believe I can send a command on to end Commander Barnes' regeneration cycle early."
Steve twisted his fingers into his belt pouch, feeling the smooth metal of Stark's disc. "How long?"
There was a dull metallic snap and the alcove darkened. The connections on Bucky's limbs clicked and whirred as they disconnected and his eyes snapped open.
He lurched forward, one step, and stood as though waiting for instructions. Dead blue irises stared right through Steve.
"Bucky?" he said softly. "You in there?"
No response. Steve took a step closer, holding out an empty hand. "Buck?"
"Captain, I do not believe he can hear you," said Thor, tense. "We should return to the Avenger."
Steve tore his eyes away. "Mr Jarvis, do you have the data for Doctor Banner?"
Jarvis was already closing the med tricorder; he nodded. "Indeed, Captain." Beside him, Barton took a step back the way they came, keeping watch with one hand hovering near his belt; Thor was doing the same, keeping between their people and the Borg.
Slowly, Steve took the disc from his belt pouch. He stepped up to Bucky, eyes fixed on his, and reached out to press the disc to Bucky's armoured arm.
The band shot out and around, snapping closed in half a second, and Bucky jerked to life, his club-like left arm smashing into Steve's ribs, knocking him down. Around them, all the other drones disconnected from their alcoves.
His team sprung into action; Jarvis leapt forward and clamped both arms over Bucky's, android strength pinning them down before he could tear off the armband. Steve rolled to his feet behind Thor, drawing his phaser; his security chief was already firing, taking down drones while Barton was shooting at the distribution nodes Jarvis had pointed out. Steve tapped his comm badge. "Rogers to Avenger, five to beam out, now!"
From the other end, Maximoff's voice was staticky. "—e're —ving trouble r—ding yo— —aptain."
"Avenger, come in," said Steve, and then there was no time; a drone loomed close and Steve fired, the modified phaser burning through the green flicker of torso shielding that had been their upper hand while abducting Bucky. It dropped.
Behind him, Thor bellowed a battle cry and yanked his mek'leth from the back of his belt. He hooked the curved blade around the arm of the nearest drone and slashed, hauled it forward and shot it at close range. He kicked its limp body into the others, but more and more drones were marching in from other sections.
Barton was alternating between shooting the drones and the distribution node in the ceiling; he was causing damage, but not quickly. Steve shot a drone over his shoulder and snapped, "Avenger, do you copy?"
Barton fired into the chest of the Bajoran drone; her shielding flickered orange as it absorbed it. "They're adapting," he warned, and stepped back, re-tuning his phaser.
Jarvis had Bucky in an iron grip, but he was fighting, flailing, and there was nowhere else to go; they were backed into two square metres. Thor was barely holding them off. "Avenger, come in!"
"—tempting to recalibra— —ignal lock—"
Barton kicked the Bajoran drone back and took double-handed aim at the distribution node, firing a sustained burst. The casing reddened, heating up, and Steve added his firepower; the combined phaser blasts ruptured the node, and around them the power flickered. The drones, briefly, stilled.
"Transporter lock established!" Maximoff's voice came through the comm, clear and triumphant. "Transport in three... two..."
The drones closed in. Thor slashed and roared. Over Barton's head Steve saw the Bajoran woman pause, and for a second her eyes locked with Barton's.
Barton lunged and slapped a disc onto her arm. It snapped out—
The black ship faded away.
Warm light and soft greys blurred into view, layered with blue and red. Steve materialised to find Dr Banner and some of his med staff waiting, flanked by two security teams armed with hyposprays. They rushed in as the transporter beam faded, two making for Bucky and the others going for the female without stopping to ask questions; Thor's people were nothing if not well trained. Steve jumped back out of the way, pulling Barton with him.
Then the ship threw them.
Power flickered and a low boom echoed through the Avenger. Steve hit the wall, hard, and for a few seconds he blinked, shaking his head to clear it.
Bucky was unconscious and in the hands of the med team, who were stumbling to their feet. Jarvis moved to help Thor restrain the female drone long enough for the security team to inject her. Banner's sedative, whatever it was, didn't take effect instantly like it did for non-cyborgs — she flailed for several more seconds before slumping over.
Another blast rocked the ship. "Rogers to Bridge: Report!"
"The Borg ship has opened fire," Potts replied evenly. "We are taking damage. Shields at sixty percent."
"Target their weapons, disable them."
"We cannot penetrate their shields."
"Then get us out of here, warp nine!"
A third blast took out the power again, this time all of it. Emergency backups kicked in as Banner hurried his people out the door, both Bucky and the other drone on stretchers and guarded by four security officers. "You sure their implants are neutralised?" Banner was asking Jarvis.
"I detect no active transmissions on any known Borg frequency," Jarvis replied. "I cannot be sure we know them all."
Banner grit his teeth and moved out, nodding briefly to Steve.
"Rogers to Engineering: Report."
"What the hell happened?" Start demanded. "Why weren't my shield modifications online?"
"Your shield— what modifications? No, never mind: Damage report."
"The ones I finished ten minutes ago, Potts should've— Fine. Main power's offline but we're re-routing, should be up in twenty minutes. Warp engines are down, that'll take longer. A lot."
Steve sighed inside. "Get on it. Pull whoever you need from other departments."
"Already have. Stark out."
The comm cut out and Steve ignored the urge to reprimand him for presuming. It wasn't worth it.
The transporter room was almost empty now; Maximoff was still at his station, looking pleased with himself and slightly disheartened as the last of the med staff hurried out behind Thor, who was giving strict instructions on isolating the Borg technology. Steve took a moment to clap Maximoff on the shoulder and say, "Good job," because the kid deserved it — locking a transporter signal through that much interference was tough. He smiled back, proud, and for his sake Steve kept the smile on his face until he had Barton out in the corridor, and the door closed behind them.
He whirled. "What the hell were you thinking Lieutenant?"
"We were not prepared to contain two of them. You are damn lucky that Banner had backup doses prepared. Explain!"
"I'm sorry, sir."
"I said explain," Steve glared. Barton was standing stiff at attention, eyes fixed somewhere on his nose.
"I don't know, sir."
"That is not good enough. You had to have a reason—"
"I don't know! I..." he ground his teeth together, eyes darting around. "I thought, maybe, having another drone to study would help Doctor Banner figure out how to save Barnes, but that... wasn't it."
Something was at war in him, something painful, and with a jolt Steve remembered that the female drone looked Bajoran. There were no reports he knew of about Bajoran colonies being attacked and Barton's file didn't list any immediate family missing, but... "Clint, did you know her?"
He still was looking down. Steve waited, softening a little. "What happened?" he asked.
Barton shrugged. "She looked tired. Scared, maybe. All the others were dead inside, but she looked like she wanted to die. I don't know, maybe I was imagining it."
Steve sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You've just made a dangerous situation even more complicated. We're responsible for her now."
"Doctor Banner will never be able to ethically experiment on her to determine how to help Commander Barnes. He'll have to try to save her too."
"I know, and I am sorry, Captain," said Barton, finally meeting his eyes. "I'll take whatever reprimands you deem fit."
Around them, main power flickered back on. Damnit, Stark, now you're quadrupling your estimates.
Steve regarded his officer. Given how carefully worded Admiral Carter's non-orders were, and how carefully he was going to explain this entire mission to Starfleet Command later, he'd be a hypocrite to be too harsh here. Still...
"You'll be personally responsible for her," he decided. "If Doctor Banner can remove her implants, you'll be supervising her recovery. You'll attend all her therapy sessions, supervise all her rehab, and you'll use your off-duty hours to do it."
Barton nodded grimly. "Yes, sir."
Steve let him stew for a few more seconds until he was sure the weight of this had settled in. Then he said, "And if we manage to get through Wolf 359 in one piece, you'll find a way to word your mission report so I don't have to justify this to Starfleet too. Jarvis and Thor didn't see anything," he added lightly.
There was a brief silence; Barton eyed him, a cheeky smile ghosting over his lips. "Can I say it was your idea?"
"Don't push it."
Sickbay was controlled chaos. Minor injuries from the Borg attack were being treated near the main door, but according to Potts there were minimal casualties; the Borg had lost interest in them the moment their engines had failed, and were continuing towards Earth at the same pace as before. She also relayed an encrypted message received from Wolf 359: The fleet was assembled and waiting, ready to ambush the Borg when they approached, which wouldn't be for another few hours unless they changed speed. In either case, the Avenger wouldn't arrive in time to be of any aid: Stark was now estimating six hours to repair the warp drive and even at top speed they wouldn't join the fleet until long after they engaged the Borg.
Grim, Steve had left her in command of the bridge. There was nothing he could do up there. Dr Banner was fluttering around sickbay with his staff, taking scan after detailed scan of Bucky's still form on the biobed and consulting with Jarvis on the technical and mechanical aspects. Steve just hovered, watching his best friend's face slowly emerge as they disassembled and removed the external hardware and prepped for surgery on the easiest of the invasive ones.
Banner invited Steve to his office while his team donned surgical robes. He slumped into his chair, the vibrant red robe crinkling. "We have about a seventy percent chance of bringing Commander Barnes through this alive," he said plainly. "His system suffered severe trauma from the assimilation procedure and we're about to do the same thing to him again. The implants perforated most of his abdomen and compromised his digestive and nervous systems. He's going to need an artificial lung, pancreas, small intestine and a prosthetic for his left arm."
"They removed his arm? Why?"
Banner shrugged. "Jarvis is studying the hardware; he thinks the limb replacement is some sort of multipurpose repair tool and phaser canon. He's disarmed it," he added.
Steve shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. "What about his brain? Is our Bucky still in there?"
Pressing his mouth into a thin line, Banner leaned his elbows on his desk. "As far as we can tell, the damage should be reversible. The Borg implants seem to have acted like a hijacking mechanism, but at a far more invasive level than simply re-routing motor functions. We've scheduled the surgery to remove those implants third, after rest of his body is physically cleared. Dr Ross is optimistic, but we just won't know how extensively his brain has been affected until he wakes up." Banner hesitated. "If he wakes up."
Steve sat down heavily and scrubbed at his face with the flat of both hands, telling himself that was the best news he could have realistically hoped for. "And the other drone, the Bajoran woman?"
Another shrug, and Banner gestured through the window to the biobed where she was being kept unconscious and under guard. "We haven't studied her situation in as much detail, but her assimilation seems to be years old; her body is far more dependent on the technology, almost as if she's grown up with it. The two aren't really comparable."
"Can you save her?"
Banner just spread his hands. "We can try."
Steve nodded and forced himself to stand up. "Commander Barnes is your priority. Do whatever you have to to bring him back as soon as possible. Once we catch up to the fleet they're probably going to need us to take on some of their patients, especially if they've taken damage."
"We'll be ready. I have all personnel on standby, including the field medics. These first two surgeries are scheduled to take just over two hours, and the third under an hour, but we can't be sure how long his body will need to recover between them, or after. I'll keep you posted."
Because he, the captain, couldn't stay here and wait. Steve nodded tightly and thanked him, and took the long way to the main door, treading softly up to Bucky's bed just to watch him breathe. He was looking a little better; his skin was warming from grey to pink as the inactive nanoprobes were filtered out from his blood, but his scalp was a mess of freshly-healed lines from where the headpiece had been drilled in. Fondly, trying to be discreet, Steve reached forward to brush the skin above his friend's ear. "Don't worry, buddy, I'm sure they can grow your hair back," he murmured.
Across the bed, Dr Ross looked up from her datapadd and offered a little smile. "Follicle stimulation," she said quietly. "It's on the list, right after 'insert new organs'."
Steve chuckled, embarrassed, and ducked his head. "Do you have everything you need for that?" he asked quickly. "I know we don't keep a lot of artificial replacements, but if you need a donor—"
She shook her head, kind eyes on him. "It's fine, Captain. Eventually we'll need to rendezvous with a medical ship or a starbase to secure a prosthetic arm, but we have everything we need to repair his vital systems."
Steve nodded, eyes drifting back to Bucky. "He's going to hate losing that arm," Steve said. "He had a scar on his elbow from when we were kids, the day when..."He closed his mouth. That was too personal, and anyway, Dr Ross had work to do. "Well, he wouldn't let them heal it. Wanted to remember." He straightened up, keeping his hands hanging at his sides, and made for the door. "Thank you, Doctor. Keep me apprised."
The next twelve hours were a painful grind of hurried repairs, jury-rigged upgrades and gloomy drills on the brand-new procedures for Borg boarding parties. Stark had pulled off a miracle and got them a stable warp eight, so as they closed in on the Borg, crew from every non-vital department were pulled off their tasks, some assisting Stark's engineers, running diagnostics and testing weaponry, others preparing medkits and shepherding the children to safe zones far from the hull and near to the escape pods. Not for the first time, Steve cursed Starfleet for giving him a ship half full of civilians.
His comm badge chirped. "Bridge to Rogers."
He tapped it. "Go ahead, Maximoff."
"Sir, you have an incoming transmission from Admiral Carter," she replied. "Shall I patch it through to your ready room?"
Steve nodded, realised she couldn't see it, and gladly put aside another sombre report to activate his monitor. "Thank you, Ensign."
The Starfleet emblem on his screen blinked away to be replaced by Peggy's tired face. "Captain Rogers," she greeted.
"Admiral," he returned. "What's happened?"
For a fleeting moment, a smile tugged on her cheek. "Is it that obvious?" She sighed. "We've lost contact with the fleet."
Ice dropped into his guts. "What, all of them?"
"Our last transmission was received ten minutes ago from the Melbourne; the Borg were approaching and they were preparing to engage. Long-range sensors detected heavy weapons fire in the vicinity, then nothing. Sensors have also detected a large subspace distortion on a course for Earth."
"They might have just lost long-range communications," Steve pointed out, knowing as well as Peggy did that he was grasping at straws. "The subspace field could be one or more of our ships limping home."
"Maybe, but we need to know for sure. How long until you can intercept?"
"Less than an hour."
She nodded tightly. "We're calling in every favour we can but most Federation ships are simply too far away. Captain Hill of the Shield is on her way but is risking engine failure to maintain speed. We've also contacted the Klingon High Council, but they're reluctant to commit any vessels."
Steve stared. "We're their allies."
"Still." Peggy shook her head. "Starfleet Command is also considering contacting the Romulan Empire."
"Please tell me we're not that desperate."
Peggy winced. "Let's just hope you're right about that subspace field."
He wasn't right. He was a damn fool for even hoping for it.
Wolf 359 was a graveyard.
The bridge was silent as the viewscreen panned across the debris field. Pieces of hull, some large enough to still read the ship's name, drifted by in a cloud of shattered nacelles, sputtering power grids, and bodies.
Forty ships. Eleven thousand people.
Steve felt sick.
"There is no sign of the Borg ship among the debris," Thor rumbled from his post, his voice a crack in the stillness. "They remain undefeated."
"They're still on course for Earth," said Steve. Guilt flooded him, and he slumped back in his chair, eyes glued to the screen. "We should have been here."
From his right, gentler than he'd ever known her to be, Potts said, "It is unlikely that one ship would have made a difference."
Somehow that just made him angry. Setting his jaw, Steve wrenched himself out of the chair. "Scan for survivors. And get me the Shield on comm."
"Aye, Captain," said Jarvis. "I am detecting approximately twenty-eight escape pods and two shuttlecraft, however they appear to be damaged."
Jarvis adjusted a readout. "Sixty-two, all aboard escape pods. It appears the shuttlecraft attempted to provide additional support and were fired upon. No survivors."
"Beam the pods aboard and set a course for Earth, maximum warp. Alert Starfleet Command."
"Aye, sir," Barton nodded, and behind him Potts contacted Maximoff to arrange the transport.
Thor reported, "Captain Hill is responding."
"Open a channel."
The spiralling wreckage vanished; Maria Hill met their eyes from the bridge of the Shield, Commanders Coulson and May at her side. "Captain Rogers. What's happened?"
"Hill. We lost the fleet."
Truth be told, if the Avenger had never been commissioned, the Shield would have been Starfleet's flagship, and it was crewed to match; Bucky had served there for years before Steve managed to steal him. Hill was the best they had, and she'd picked her people to be unflappable.
All of them went pale. Hill gaped for a second before she pulled herself together, taut and angry. "And the Borg?"
"On their way to Earth. We need you to meet us there."
Hill grimaced and nodded tightly to her helmsman. "Change course, Johnson. Maximum warp."
Behind Steve, Potts reported, "All survivors are aboard, Captain."
"Barton, engage," ordered Steve. To Potts he said, "See to their medical needs and find out if they have any useful intel. We'll need to know what doesn't work when we take on the Borg."
She nodded and smoothly slid out of her seat. Steve turned back to the viewscreen. Hill had been listening. "See if they have any data on the last known status of the Borg ship," she suggested; "maybe we can target those weaknesses when we arrive."
"We will," Steve promised. "I'll also have all our current data sent to you; maybe between us we can come up with an effective strategy."
"Agreed. You should know that Admiral Fury has been in touch: the Mars Defence Perimeter is being shored up by a half-dozen science ships and Ambassador T'Challa's personal transport, but they don't expect anyone else to assist."
"The Klingon High Council turned us down too," said Steve. "We'll figure something out."
"I hope you're right. Hill out."
The screen went black. Steve gave himself one second to close his eyes and breathe. Then: "Jarvis, see to it that the Shield gets everything we have on the Borg ship and systems; include everything you got relating to assimilation and anything Dr Banner has on their neurology; maybe they'll have a biological weakness."
Jarvis nodded, but it was hesitant. "Sir, from what we have seen I do not believe that the Borg ship will cease to function without its drones. It is unlikely that an attack on organic matter will have any significant effect."
"Any effect might give us an edge, Mr Jarvis."
Steve turned toward the turbolift, but Thor said, "Captain!" and he slowed. At his station, Thor was looking outraged. "Did the High Council give a reason for this cowardice?"
Steve shook his head. "I don't know, Lieutenant. I suppose they must have, but not to me."
Thor bristled. "Sir, with your permission, I would contact the Asgard. If the p'takhs on the High Council will not heed the call of an ally, the House of Odin will."
For the first time in hours, Steve felt himself smile. "Permission granted. Tell the captain that we'd be honoured to fight beside them again."
Teeth bared in a grin, Thor nodded. "It will be a glorious battle."
Maybe, Steve thought. But who's going to live to see it end?
There's a quiet that tends to come before any battle. Steve was familiar with it, too familiar, and usually he'd end up sitting quietly in his quarters having a drink with Bucky, regulations be damned. They did it as ensigns on the Howling Commando, and during the Galen border conflicts when Bucky had been a junior tactical officer on the Shield they'd commed across eight light years to raise a glass and soothe each others' nerves before the fight they'd thought would be the bloodiest of their careers.
A few hundred dead was nothing on eleven thousand.
The last surgery was complete; Banner had commed him half an hour ago, and it had taken effort not to drop everything and run down, but Bucky was still unconscious, and there was work to do.
When finally the shields were rephased and the torpedoes augmented, the phasers recalibrated, the civilians rounded up, the saviours interviewed and the armoury emptied, when Steve felt listless and powerless and desperate for that quiet drink in a quiet room, he drifted to sickbay and hovered beside Bucky's bed.
His vitals were unstable, but Banner and his team had done everything they could; they had him on full life support and were monitoring every fluctuation, with two nurses assigned to him at all times to administer whatever drugs might help his body better accept the artificial organs. Soon they would have to leave him, to tend to the inevitable casualties of this battle, and it might all be for nothing if the Borg destroyed the Avenger too — or, worse, if the ship survived and the planet didn't — but for now Steve was grateful.
"It's going to be a hell of a fight, Buck," he said quietly. "You'll hate that you missed it. I'll tell you about it later if you want."
Bucky would have snorted. If you can survive without me, he'd have said, mocking and fond, but then he would have sobered and added, Seriously, Steve, don't do anything stupid.
"Can't promise anything," he murmured. "Sorry."
A few minutes later, his comm badge chirped. "Potts to Rogers. The Borg have broken through the Mars Defence Perimeter."
Red alert was flashing as Steve strode onto the bridge. "Report."
"Captain Hill has engaged the Borg," said Potts, surrendering his chair. "They have disabled the Borg warp field but are taking heavy damage. We are ten minutes away."
Steve took his seat. "Barton, can you push that?"
"On it." He tapped his panel. "Stark, how likely are we to blow up if I take us to nine point eight?"
Some alert went off on the other end of the line; there was a faint burst of voices and, after a moment, it shut down. Stark's voice came through: "Not too much, give it a go. I'll try to hold things together down here."
Barton smirked. "Increasing to warp nine point three... point four..."
A low, deep rattle began to thrum around them.
"...point five... point six..."
"Intercept in two minutes," said Potts, and Steve nodded.
"That's good enough, Barton, hold here. Mr Jarvis, what's the status of the Borg ship?"
"Operating at ninety three percent capacity, sir."
"What?" Steve turned. "Reports said they were down to at least seventy when they left the fleet."
"They appear to have the ability to repair their systems at an accelerated rate," said Jarvis. "Our plan to aggravate that damage is now unlikely to be successful."
"You think so?" muttered Barton.
Grimacing, Steve looked around at his crew. "Suggestions?"
Thor leaned over his console. "If the Borg are as interconnected as Commander Jarvis believes," he said, "then their ship will not fail until we have destroyed all their backup systems also. We should not choose between targeting either their weapons or propulsion but rather all of them, and fire near simultaneously."
"Do we have the firepower? The access?"
Thor considered. "We would have to circle the Borg ship very quickly."
Steve glanced at Barton, who shrugged. "We can try."
Weighing the options, Steve finally nodded. "It's worth a shot. But I want more than one shot at this. Anyone else?"
From the corner of his eye, Steve saw Potts and Jarvis exchange a glance. Jarvis dipped his head in deference, but Potts hesitated. Steve's eyes narrowed. "What is it?"
Potts met his eyes. "We could set a collision course. The destruction of our warp core should be sufficient to destroy the Borg vessel."
It should. Antimatter explosions weren't known for being picky, and with forty ships and crews lost already, one more would be a small matter if it saved Earth. But, a doubtful voice whispered, those forty ships had been fighting a devastating battle, and none of them thought to try it? It was possible the Borg had hit too fast; maybe there had been no opportunity. They would just have to hope so. Slowly, Steve nodded.
"Approaching the target," said Barton. "Dropping out of warp in three... two... one..."
The viewscreen exploded into colour. Ahead, the ugly black Borg cube spat green phaser beams at the Shield, which threw back red ones as potholes smoked on their silver hull. Smaller ships buzzed around, firing weaker weapons and trying to slip in close, but a glance was all Steve needed to see that they weren't making any difference. The Borg weren't even bothering to fire on them; they were only alive because they were too small and quick to track. Several others weren't — Ambassador T'Challa's sleek black Panther was drifting away, crippled.
"Fire at will, Lieutenant," Steve ordered. "Let's get their attention."
Their phasers shot out, taking the Borg from behind and punching through their shields once, twice, then bouncing off as the shields adapted. Thor was ready and fired a torpedo as the phasers recalibrated, then fired again, and as he did the Borg fired back, taking at least one of their phaser banks off the struggling Shield.
The Avenger rocked gently; a blast that hadn't reached the hull. "Shields at eighty nine percent," reported Thor.
"Keep firing. Mr Jarvis, keep an eye for weak spots and open a channel to the Shield."
Hill's face appeared on the screen; her bridge was dark, a plume of smoke spiralling behind her from a blown conduit, and Coulson, beside her, had blood on his face. "You're late," she snapped.
"You're just too fast, Hill. What can we do?"
The Shield took another hit and Hill clung to her chair to keep from being thrown. "Get that genius engineer of yours on the line. Fitz is putting together an antiproton bomb but we don't know how to deliver it; it's too fragile to enclose in a torpedo."
"You got it. Put Fitz through on another channel, I'll have Stark talk with him directly."
Three blasts in short succession hit the Avenger and Steve stumbled. "Shields at sixty percent!" growled Thor. "We are not having great effect!"
Behind Hill, Commander May was at the Shield's tactical station. "They're adapting faster than we can we can keep up with—" she ducked as another panel blew out above her.
Then a howling roar slammed into the Avenger and the floor fell out from under them.
For a second everything was black: Main power had failed; alarms wailed and smoke filled the air as emergency lighting returned. The viewscreen was dark. Bits of burnt panel and wiring crunched underfoot as Steve climbed to his feet. "Report!"
Thor was clinging to his console. "Direct hit — deck eleven, section four." His breath caught. "Hull breach in stellar cartography."
Steve slapped his comm badge. "Rogers to Stellar Cartography." He turned, met Thor's eyes. Silence. "Foster, report!"
Disregarding protocol, Thor slapped a hand on his console and cried, "Jane!"
The comm crackled. There was coughing on the other end. "Foster to Bridge," she said. Thor slumped in relief. "We're out of the lab. Atmosphere has vented but forcefields have sealed the breach. We lost Selvig."
Thor hung his head, but duty calls and he gave only a second to mourn, then went back to work. "Firing phasers, Captain."
Steve took stock of the bridge crew; no visible injuries, yet. "Get your team out of there, Foster. Rogers out." He tapped his badge and turned to Potts. "Evacuate that section."
"Acknowledged. Structural damage to decks nine through eleven; evacuation commencing," reported Potts. "Engineering reports the aft impulse thrusters are down."
"And the Borg ship?"
Jarvis shook his head. "Minimal damage. They appear to have increased their shield capacity."
Gripping his armrest, Steve took a steadying breath. "Continue firing. Rogers to Engineering—"
"Not now, Cap," Stark snapped. "It'll WORK, Scotland—"
"You can't know that!" a faint voice replied — Leo Fitz, Hill's Chief Engineer, voice filtered through two comm lines. "I only had time to make one device, we can't risk it on a hare-brained—"
"Too late, already beamed it over, might want to focus on your shields," Stark replied. "Cap, we'll have you an antiproton bomb ready to deploy in about five minutes. It's really a pretty smart design, good work, kid—"
"How do we deploy it?" Steve demanded.
"Oh, sorted, we'll beam it aboard their—"
"At the speed they're rotating their shield frequencies there's no way we can find an EM window fast enough—"
"Bye, Scotland," said Stark, and with a beep Fitz's voice was cut off. "Seriously, Cap, I got this. Five minutes, then give me the coordinates you want it at."
The Avenger shook again and flames burst from the secondary science station until the suppression system quenched it. "We might not have five minutes, Stark. Work faster." He cut the channel.
Hazy through the smoke, Thor suddenly grinned. "I believe we will, Captain."
A ripple washed down across the viewscreen. Two blinding blasts of green sped out and smashed into the Borg cube as a Klingon battle cruiser decloaked above them, firing a full spread.
"I'll be damned," Steve smiled. "The Asgard."
The Asgard swooped in like a deadly angel, pummelling the Borg with weapons they weren't prepared for, targeting their phaser banks. The shots were aimed perfectly, deadly slices, and the Borg offensive dribbled away; the Avenger stopped rocking, and across the battlefield the Shield took full advantage of the respite to back off a few kilometres and repair their shielding.
"Good work, Thor," said Steve, fanning smoke away. "Open a channel to the Asgard."
The battlefield blinked out. The bridge of the Asgard was all dull metal and red lighting, but a warm sight compared to the Borg. Standing proud and tall in the centre, Captain Frigga cried, "Sif, continue to fire!" Turning to them, she bared her teeth in a delighted grin. "Rogers! Come watch us defeat your enemy."
"Thank you for coming, Captain," Steve said, relieved. "You may have just saved Earth."
"Thank me when the fight is over. Qapla'!"
"Qapla'!" he returned, and Frigga cut the channel. Steve shook his head. "Thor, you've got one hell of a family."
He grinned. "My lady mother will see this tale sung in the Hall of Heroes."
"I'll bring my guitar," Steve promised.
"Sir, I believe we may be counting fowl before they are hatched," warned Jarvis, and Steve's attention snapped back to the viewscreen. Jarvis gestured to the Borg cube. "Their systems are regenerating."
"These guys just don't quit," Barton muttered into the silence. "Orders, sir?"
Steve frowned. "Take us in closer. Let's try to take out the rest of those systems. Thor, coordinate with May and Sif. Keep it tight, people."
Thor was only halfway through his explanation to the other ships when the first phaser blast struck, and if Steve was right it originated from a completely different section of hull than the last Borg phaser bank: Jarvis was right, they were just building or activating new weapon systems as they needed them. If only Federation technology could move so fast...
It probably came with too many drawbacks, like a zombie crew and no carpets. "Thor, fire at will. Barton, Jarvis—"
"Plotting a course through the debris," said Barton, fingers flying across the panel. He swung the Avenger round, bringing it past the cube and the Shield to loop beneath, giving them clear shots at the underside of the cube.
Except the Borg apparently didn't believe in gravity; a phaser bank was waiting on the sixth face, and Barton had to bank hard to evade.
They were hit anyway, and Stark, halfway through a comm call to say, "Got main power back—" started swearing blue and dropped out. Steve ignored it.
"How're we doing?"
"The Asgard has taken damage," Thor reported, all humour gone. His eyes flicked across his console, taking in the readouts, and he raised his gaze to meet his captain's. "I do not believe they can buy us much more time."
Steve nodded tightly. "Find the most vulnerable spot and get the coordinates to Engineering."
They rocked again, hard. Steve tapped his comm badge. "It's now or never, Stark."
"So impatient," Stark muttered. "Fine, got it. Stark to Maximoff: Initiate transport."
A green glow tinted the room, and Steve barely turned fast enough to see the viewscreen fill with light before he dove for cover and—
Heat exploded around him, followed by the noxious smell of burning plastic. Flames licked the nearby wall and Steve automatically rolled away, hitting a soft body that turned out to be Potts.
She hauled him aside and wrenched a fire suppression pack out from behind a panel. The automatic suppression system wasn't working. Potts efficiently snuffed out the flames, but more smoke was hanging in the air now and several lights had shorted out entirely.
The viewscreen was flickering, static, showing only part of the battle. The only up was that their hull seemed not to have been breached — yet.
"Direct hit!" Thor cried. "Captain, our weapons are down. Shields at ten percent."
A calm sort of quiet settled into Steve's bones; the noise around him faded. "Evacuate the ship. Tell Hill and the Asgard to keep a safe distance, and to tractor as many of those disabled ships as possible clear of the blast radius."
Stepping across the mess of his bridge, Steve settled into the captain's chair and let out a breath.
His crew hesitated — for a moment.
"Potts to all hands: Evacuate. Repeat: All hands, abandon ship."
Barton twisted in his chair, took one look around, and settled back. "Yeah, no," he said. "You need me here."
"I really don't want to write that report, Captain."
There was a lightness in his face as he looked round, and Steve felt it reflected in his gut. He nodded. "Thanks, Barton."
Jarvis hadn't moved either, and he knew better than to expect it of Thor. He turned: "Potts, see to the crew. Direct all escape pods to the Shield."
She nodded slowly, solemn respect filling her face. "It has been my honour to serve with you."
The remaining junior crew filed out, most glancing at their captain as they went, a mix of grief and admiration on their faces. Steve took heart from it.
The Avenger rumbled again. "Hull breaches on decks four, seven, nine and twelve," Jarvis reported. "Escape pods are launching."
Steve nodded. "Computer, prepare self-destruct sequence. Authorisation: Rogers four seven one nine one eight."
"Acknowledged," the computer replied, and projected through the comm to all decks: "Self-destruct sequence initiated. Breach imminent. All personnel to escape pods."
The bridge was quiet, the crackling of burnt plastic faint. The Borg were ignoring them now, more concerned with those who could still fight back. "Bridge to Stark," Steve said. "Any chance of getting the torpedoes back online before you go?"
"Don't know what you're talking about," Stark said blithely. "My crew, sure, but why the hell should I go? This is my ship."
Steve chuckled, shaking his head. "Whatever you say, Stark."
"About time," Stark chuckled. "Torpedo tubes are slag but the transporters are still operable and I've got Fitz's shiny bit of genius sitting here ready to go. One shot, Cap, but if it works it'll be a hell of a blow."
"Good. I need you to get it as close as you can to the warp core and—"
"GodDAMN it, Steve!"
Steve whirled around. There, stumbling out of the rear turbolift, in a crinkled medical robe and spiky half-grown hair, was Bucky.
Two steps in, he dropped.
Thor lunged for him, catching him before his head could hit the floor, and Steve scrambled up to them. "Bucky, what the hell...?"
Bucky clawed weakly at Thor's shoulder, scrabbling for grip. "Don't you dare," he warned, eyes on Steve. "Do not kill yourself—"
"Buck, we've got no choice."
Grunting, Bucky hauled himself upright; Thor took most of his weight, tucking a shoulder under his arm — his right arm. There was nothing but a flapping sleeve on his left.
"Wait, what's going on?" Stark's voice demanded. "Cap? Jarvis, buddy, talk to me."
Bucky lurched for the tactical console, fingers sliding across the familiar controls as if he'd never left his station. "What's the status of the cube?"
From his seat, Jarvis glanced at Steve, then said, "Heavy damage to its outer hull. We are reading fluctuations in their power grid."
"You've got to target here," said Bucky, fingers slipping as he stabbed at a point on the grid display of the cube. "Everything you've got, everything anyone's got."
Banner burst out of the forward turbolift, frantic and breathing hard, a medkit in hand. He rushed in. "Commander, you're not fit for this, you have to lie dow—"
Steve steadied him, looked over the target area, then at Thor. "This doesn't look like a vital system—"
"Steve, you idiot, just trust me."
Their eyes met. "To the end of the line."
Faintly, Bucky smiled.
"Thor," Steve barked, "transmit those coordinates to the Shield and Asgard and tell them to prepare for a synchronised assault. Stark, still there? New plan."
"Heard it all: Get me the target and a countdown."
Under Banner's glare Thor eased Bucky down to the floor, and Steve knelt next to him, holding him steady and trying to watch on the viewscreen. Banner crouched, running a tricorder over Bucky and jabbing a hypospray into his arm. "Don't die on me, Commander."
The Borg were making short work of the Asgard, but Frigga kept swinging them closer and darting away, evading target lock; they'd last a minute longer. He hoped.
"The Shield standing by, Captain," said Thor, "and Sif awaits your word."
"Stark, you ready?"
"All ships, this is Captain Rogers: Fire."
The Asgard barrelled in, ducking the Borg shots and firing a dozen torpedoes alongside steady, sustained bursts of phaser fire, leaving a crater that carved deep into the cube. The Shield slid in above them, throwing everything left in their arsenal, and a breath after Jarvis said "Transport complete" a white light bloomed from the centre of that crater, silent and beautiful.
The shock wave hurt like hell.
Steve saw it coming in time to anchor himself on a beam and wrap a bracing arm around Bucky; everyone else hung onto their consoles (or, in Banner's case, Thor's leg). Inertial dampers were overwhelmed but artificial gravity held, and Jarvis kept himself still enough to wrestle control back from the damaged systems. Five long seconds later, the stars stopped spinning.
"Did it work?" asked Barton.
"Checking," said Jarvis.
Steve looked down. Bucky was meeting his eyes, pale and sick, but there and himself and suddenly that realisation hit so hard that Steve couldn't breathe. He held out an arm and clasped Bucky's at the elbow, carefully pulling him to his feet, staring.
Jarvis reported: "The Borg have been obliterated, Captain. Approximately eighty percent of their ship has been vaporised. The remaining debris is inactive."
"WAAAAHOOOO!" Stark cheered, thin and shrill through the comm line. "Scotland, I'm buying you a drink!"
"Pretty sure he can't hear you, Stark," Barton said, grinning.
Steve shook his head, grinning too. "Good work, everyone. Thor, get on the comm with Captain Frigga and Hill, ascertain their status. Jarvis, Barton: Start locating escape pods. Stark, I want every system on this ship checked—"
It was quiet.
He drifted, unaware of time. He was warm, finally, and comfortably numb. All around it was dark and soft and safe. Simple. Peaceful.
He could have stayed that way forever.
Faint voices were echoing in the distance; he turned away, but moving changed things, and cracks of light stabbed at his eyes.
His face felt stiff. He winced, scrunching his eyes closed and feeling it pull at his skin. Pains that had been buried suddenly woke and started screaming, and Bucky's groggy, grumpy mind stirred enough to swear at it.
A dark shape moved beyond his eyelids. Distantly, he felt a weight on his wrist. A voice burst against his ears: "Buck? Bucky? Can you hear me?"
"Doctor Banner! Doctor Ross, he's awake!"
A panel beeped overhead as someone tapped it and cool metal touched his neck. The pain faded. The stabbing light didn't, but it wasn't so bad now. Cautiously, carefully, he opened his eyes.
Steve was leaning over him, his stupid face full of big grins and relief. A hand in a dark blue sleeve crept up towards his face; Dr Banner, standing on his other side, holding a tricorder over him. Other faces crowded in a mass near his feet: Stark, of course, antennae perked up and chuckling; Commander Potts, who greeted him with a nod; and Thor, tall and grinning. The Maximoff were hovering and Barton's voice was coming from somewhere beyond... wait, Hill?
He wasn't still on the Shield, was he? That— No, he'd been transferred. Years ago. He remembered. It was scattered and hard to focus on, but he remembered. He was Bucky Barnes, Second Officer of the Avenger, and 'Nine of Nine' was...
He shoved it away. He couldn't, not now. But that was definitely Hill, and Simmons consulting with Banner behind her, and Coulson, hovering beside Steve. He blinked. This was definitely the Avenger's sickbay, so — "What're you doing here?" he mumbled.
Hill raised an eyebrow and shook her head. "Good to see you too, Barnes," she drawled.
Thor and Stark chuckled. Steve was too teary-eyed to do more than smile even wider, and he gripped his hand tightly.
"The Shield's upper decks lost containment when the shockwave hit," Coulson explained. "The Asgard is towing both of us back to drydock. We thought we might as well share the ride."
Bucky squinted, forcing his eyes to focus until he could count Coulson's rank pips. The faces around him were tired and more than a few of them had cuts or bruises or burns.
"It's over?" he asked. His voice trembled, cracked, but he couldn't help it. The green light, the slivery stabs of cold and hard and gut-deep terror shot up through him, freezing, paralysing—
"They're gone?" he breathed. "Really gone?"
Steve squeezed his hand and nodded.
The icy hold loosened; he could feel his heart beat. Exhausted like he'd never known he could be, Bucky slumped into the softness of his pillow, wondering if he'd ever move again. "Good," he mumbled.
"Captain Frigga's crew are celebrating in their mess hall," Stark said from the end of his bed; faintly, Bucky could feel the blanket over his feet shift as the Andorian leaned on it. "They say it'll be one for the songs, but they always say that. Gotta go find out, though." He winked.
Bucky chuckled. It felt strange, but good. "Save me some blood wine," he said.
"You bet, Barnes," Stark laughed and slapped Thor's shoulder. "C'mon, big guy, let's go see your mom. You think Sif'll dance with me this time?"
"I doubt she will ever concede to your advances, but it will be a valiant battle," Thor replied. To Bucky he said, "It is good to see you well."
Potts, Hill, Coulson and the Maximoffs followed them out one by one, wishing Bucky well and assuring him that everything was well in hand, not to worry, and that they were sure he'd be back on duty soon. Coulson flexed his false hand and promised to send over his logs from when he was adapting to the prosthetic, optimistically hoping it would make the transition easier. From across the room Barton waved, smiling, but he was busy helping a blank-faced redhead Bajoran woman sit up, and didn't come over.
That was fine, really; even thinking was an effort right now, and all their words were already blurring together as sleep tried to pull him back under. Only Steve, a rock by his side, and Dr Banner, with his tricorder, stayed clear.
In the quiet their friends left behind, Steve pulled up a chair and leaned closer, never letting go of his hand. "You scared me, Buck," he said softly. "I thought I'd lost you. You never should've tackled that drone for me."
Weakly, Bucky tried to bat him away. "Idiot. M'supposed to protect you. What'd you expect?"
"You're calling me an idiot?" Steve replied fondly. "I'm not the one who almost killed himself climbing to the bridge when you could have just commed."
"No," Bucky mumbled, "you're the one who was gonna blow himself up like some kind of martyr."
"You're both idiots," Banner declared, and finally closed that noisy, beeping, flashing tricorder. Faintly, Bucky vowed to space the entire stock as soon as he got near an airlock. "You've aggravated your injuries, Commander, but you'll recover. I'm going to keep you under observation for the next three days—"
"—and that's not negotiable," Banner finished, green eyes staring him down. "Understood?"
Frowning (Steve would call it pouting), Bucky nodded. Banner walked quietly away.
And Steve, who tallied up more sickbay time than the rest of the senior staff combined, throwing himself into rescue missions at every stupid chance he got, looked down and smirked. "Want to go dancing?"