“Steve!” Bucky shouts.
Steve looks up from where he’s huddled along one edge of the corridor, fallen girders piled around him. The strobing lights and thick smoke are making his head ache. He looks up at Bucky approaching, and the world tilts and reels for a moment.
“Come on,” Bucky wraps an arm around him and pulls him up. “On your feet, soldier.”
Steve can barely hear him over the sirens, the rising pitch sawing through his ears as Bucky drags him along. Ordinarily Steve would swat at Bucky for carrying him around like a rag doll. He may be small and scrawny, but he hates being reminded. Steve wheezes a complaint, and Bucky grips him tighter, pushing through the wreckage.
There are bodies everywhere, crushed under the rubble, their clothes and skin blackened with plasma blasts.
Steve tries to cling to Bucky’s shoulders, but his hands are shaking too hard. He tries to suck in a breath, but can only manage a shrill, whistling gasp, as though there was a solid weight on his chest.
“Where’s your inhaler?” Bucky shouts over the noise, pulling Steve’s shirt up over his mouth.
Steve shakes his head, pressing his trembling hand over Bucky’s.
Bucky curses loudly, and picks up speed, stumbling through the debris while Steve tries to keep his feet moving, tries to keep up.
There is movement up ahead, and Steve glimpses something black-clad up ahead where the corridor curves to the right. Bucky swears again and pulls him around, stumbling down the corridor back the way they came.
The ship shakes with another impact, and Steve is knocked off his feet, half dragging Bucky down with him. Bucky doesn’t even slow, cursing at Steve to get on his feet as debris rains down around them.
They stumble blindly through the chaos, following the winking red lights of the escape pods down from Sickbay. There is a crowd gathered around the hatches, and Steve searches through the panicked mob gathered around the pods, looking for the familiar blue uniform of his Ma.
“Sarah?” Bucky shouts into the crowd. “Sarah!”
The people shift and part, and Sarah Rogers pushes her way out of the throng.
“Steven?” Her usually neat hair is in disarray, her uniform stained with blood.
Bucky pushes Steve towards her, and he stumbles into his mother’s arms, coughing and gasping.
Sarah cradles his face in her hands and makes a soft sound of distress.
“The escape pods,” Bucky shouts over the cacophony. “Why aren’t they being deployed?”
Sarah shakes her head. “Plasma blast knocked out the relays, we’re waiting on Engineering.”
There is another dull tremor in the foundations of the ship, and a soft gasp ripples through the crowd.
There is movement further down the corridor, a sharp crimson laser flare that scopes along the opposite wall. There is a heavy, rhythmic pounding of bootsteps.
“Into the pods,” Bucky says sharply, herding them both to the nearest escape hatch.
“What?” Steve struggles weakly in his Ma’s arms, but Bucky only shoves him harder, barreling him inside, and pushing more people in after him.
Steve can only watch as Bucky rushes over to a control panel, tearing off the cover and pushing his hands into the mess of wires and conduits within. The circuits spark and crackle as he works on rerouting the systems, and the lighting around the first pod switches from panicked yellow to sickly green..
Something terrible comes marching down the corridor towards them.
They almost look like men, but for their pale skin and the machinery embedded in their flesh. Where there should be arms, there are bulky laser cannons, hanging heavily down to their knees. They raise their arms and start firing.
The people scrambling into the escape pods start screaming, pulling the hatches closed and clinging to each other. The first pod jettisons in a hiss of pressurised gas.
One of the other evacuees starts to pulls Steve’s pod closed, and he lets out a shrill sound of panic, trying to climb out again. Bucky is still at the controls, bringing the pods back online one by one. Steve tries to call out to him, tries to warn him of what's coming, but when he opens his mouth there is no sound.
The monstrosities descend upon Bucky, but he clings onto the control panel, reaching in a little further to override the last remaining pod while one of the creatures grabs him by the throat and pulls.
The lights overhead flick from red to green, and the evacuee across from Steve reaches up to hammer the controls.
Steve tries to scream, pressing his face to the clear viewscreen. One of the creatures puts its plasma rifle to Bucky’s shoulder and fires.
There is a hiss of pneumatics and jet of gas that obscures the last moments of James Barnes, and the escape pod blasts off into space.
Steve’s eyes snap open, and he stares at the curved roof of his sleeping quarters for a long moment, putting himself back together piece by piece.
He sits up slowly, his shirt clinging to his back and soaked in sweat.
Just a dream.
He strips off his shirt and scrubs his fingers through his short blond hair.
“Friday?” he rasps, lingering adrenaline making his fingers twitch, his voice catch. “Time?”
When the Avenger was first commissioned, the ship's computer was a state-of-the-art confluence of Federation and Asgardian technology. Then Tony Stark had happened, and the standard Starfleet monotone had been replaced by something that only answered to the name ‘Friday’.
“Good morning, Captain,” a soft, lilting voice with a burr of artifice fills the room. “Oh-three-five-seven.”
Too early to be up, too late to go back to sleep.
“Thank you, Friday,” Steve murmurs, and stumbles into the en suite for a shower.
He turns up the pitch and presses his cheek to the patterned glass, letting the sonic pulse vibrations wash over him.
It’s been a long, long time since he’s had an asthma attack, but he feels the ghost of it in his lungs, like iron bands locked across his chest. He breathes deeply, feeling the heavy weight press down on him less and less, and shuts off the pulse.
He dresses quickly, forgoing his uniform for off-duty clothes for a few hours. The thought of lingering in his quarters any longer than necessary, where the last traces of the dream still linger, makes him feel prickly and restless. He takes his PADD from his desk and goes in search of coffee.
Steve flinches, spilling coffee on the canteen table. He glances up from his PADD and gives Natasha a half-hearted glare as she takes a seat opposite him, a large mug of raktajino in her hands.
“I don’t know how you can drink that,” Steve mutters, returning to his system reports. “Tastes like battery acid.”
“That’s why I drink it,” Natasha says with a smirk.
She takes a sip, and gives Steve a gentle nudge under the table with the toe of her boot, a little firmer than necessary.
“You had the dream again?” she asks.
Steve purses his lips and taps at the screen in front of him. He could tell her to drop it, and she would go back to drinking her acrid excuse for coffee and say no more on the matter.
He could, but he doesn’t.
“It’s not a dream,” he says quietly. “A bad dream you can shake off. It’s a memory.”
Natasha taps her fingernails against the side of her mug, a gentle patter that is distracting rather than irritating. “You want to talk about it?”
“I thought Betazoids were telepathic,” Steve reaches for indifference and fails. “Can’t you just… I don’t know, dig it out yourself?”
“That would be rude,” Natasha says stiffly, twisting the odd metal bracelet she wears, even under her uniform, and Steve swipes his knuckles across his idiot mouth.
He’s the Captain, he needs to do better than this.
“I’m sorry, Nat,” he says sincerely. “I’m just tired.”
She waves it off, and settles into a companionable silence, her fingers rat-a-tat-tatting against her mug.
It’s an unobtrusive form of torture, every click of her painted nails slicing through his thoughts.
He should be grateful that there isn’t an ounce of malice in her, otherwise they would all be doomed.
“What do you know about Wolf 359?” Steve asks.
Natasha tilts her head and ceases her tapping now that she has what she wants. “The worst battle in Federation history. Thirty nine ships lost, and over ten thousand people.”
Steve nods grimly. “My mother was a medical officer stationed on the USS Marvel. We…” Steve blinks rapidly, red lights strobing behind his eyes. “We were lucky, I guess.”
Natasha’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly, Steve can see himself reflected in her black irises. “But someone else wasn’t.”
“No,” Steve pushes his PADD to one side.
Natasha waits while he takes a sip of coffee, and works out what to say. Everything around the war is a tangled mess, secrets and anger and loss, more than can be unpicked over a cup of coffee.
“I lost my best friend there. His name was James, but I called him Bucky.” Steve huffs. “Well, I called him a lot of things, none of them very charitable.”
Natasha smiles at that, and waits for him to continue, playing absently with her bracelet.
“The escape pods were malfunctioning, and he stayed behind, managed to override the system. He got all those people to safety.”
“Including you and your mother,” Natasha says.
Steve nods. “He had a place at Starfleet Academy waiting, he was going to be an engineer.”
He remembers the plasma blast, Bucky’s body slumping to the ground as the escape pod spun away.
“It's funny,” Steve sniffs and swipes his wrist across his nose. “He was fifteen when he… when it happened. I’ve known him dead longer that I’ve known him alive.” He looks down at his empty cup, but doesn’t remember finishing it. “Maybe not that funny.”
Natasha says nothing, and takes his mug to the replicator for a refill, giving him a moment of privacy to pull himself together.
“Well, that explains a lot,” she says on returning, pushing the fresh coffee towards him. The smell is muted, like all replicated foods. Not exactly bland, just doesn’t fill the senses, doesn’t linger on the tastebuds like real coffee does.
Steve makes a questioning sound, taking a sip rather than asking what she means by that.
You know damn well what she means.
It’s not hot enough to burn his tongue, and that shouldn’t be a disappointment.
“Well, you’ve made no secret of how you feel about the Borg,” Natasha wraps her hands around her cup, soaking up the heat. “You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Steve tips his head in agreement. She’s going easy on him, and they both know it.
“And you’re not alone,” Natasha adds.
Steve touches the rim of his mug to hers, a silent display of solidarity, and takes another sip.
The silence that follows is calmer, more comfortable, and Steve can admit that he feels a little better. Whether it’s from talking, or some Betazoid mind trick, he can’t say.
“Well,” Steve finishes the last of his coffee and gives her a rueful smile. “You’re a security officer, Nat. Am I cleared for duty?”
Natasha snorts. “Aye, Captain. Give ‘em hell.”
Steve salutes her with his empty cup, and takes it back to the replicator, where its matter will be taken apart and reconstituted, becoming machine parts or clothing or more coffee.
It’s miraculous, Steve knows that, but it still tastes like ashes.
“Captain on the Bridge,” Sam calls out as Steve steps out of the turbolift and into the circular room, taking in the assembled crew.
In the center of the room is the command chair, its back to the turbolift and facing a wide viewscreen covering the forward bulkhead of the Bridge. The chair is flanked by the First Officer chair on the right, where Sam Wilson is sat. On the left the Chief of Security, Falsworth, is tapping at his PADD. Between the command chair and the viewscreen is the semicircular console where crewmen work on navigation and operations.
Steve walks across to his seat, tugging at the hem of his uniform before sitting down.
“Dugan,” Steve addresses the helm. “Where are we?”
Dugan sits back in his seat and spins around to face the command. “Nowhere, Cap. Same as yesterday, same as tomorrow.”
Steve lets out a snort. “You signed up for deep-space exploration, can’t complain how so much of space is empty.”
“Yes I can,” Dugan mutters, spinning back round to his console.
Two years into their mission and nothing to show for it but a protoplanetary nebula. The science division will be happy for years with their data on stellar evolution, but the rest of the crew are starting to get restless.
Steve turns his attention to the comms. “Anything on the long-range?”
“All quiet out there,” the officer responds.
“I’m good with quiet, might give me half a chance to catch up with Starfleet reports,” Sam says, waving his PADD under Steve’s nose. “You seen these?"
Steve pushes the PADD away. “Yes, Sam. I’ve seen them.”
Sam settles into his seat and gets to work on his reports, letting out the occasional soft curse as he finds another subsection to complete.
“Captain?” Falsworth looks up from his PADD. “I’m receiving reports of a fire. In Engineering.”
Steve presses his thumb to the wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Friday, put me through to Engineering.” The computer whistles and opens up a channel. “Mr Stark?”
There is a crackle and burst of static over the comms.
“Nothing is on fire!” Tony shouts. “Everything is fine, we’re all fine down here.” There is a brief pause. “You don’t need to come down.”
Steve sighs and gets to his feet. “Sam, you have the Bridge.”
The fire is out by the time Steve reaches Engineering, with nothing left to show for it but a lingering odour of fried electrics and a slightly punch drunk junior ensign.
“You okay, Peter?” Steve asks, watching with concern as the boy stumbles round in a circle, clutching a blackened and smouldering data cell.
“Huh?” He looks up at Steve and his eyes widen. “Uh.”
Steve rests his hand on Peter’s shoulder, effectively bringing him to a standstill. “Peter?”
“Yes, Mr Rogers, I mean Mr Captain, I mean sir.”
“Don’t call him sir!”
Peter lets out a squeak, and Steve turns to the source of the voice, bent over an odd-looking casket tucked behind one of the turbines.
Hidden. An odd looking casket hidden behind one of the turbines.
“Tony,” he sighs in exasperation.
“Only I get to be called sir,” Tony pulls out a damaged cell from the casket and holds it aloft triumphantly. “I knew it! Look at that, nowhere near enough power. Parker, looks like you were right, this thing needs bio-neural gel packs.”
“I was right?” Peter asks weakly.
“Isolinear circuitry can’t operate fast enough, we need something more responsive.”
Steve walks over to the casket and takes a look inside. Through the frosted glass he can make out a vaguely humanoid shape, albeit a vivid red one.
“You’re building an AI,” Steve frowns and turns to his chief of Engineering, who raises his hands defensively.
“Hold on there, Cap.”
“Tony, you know we don’t have clearance from Starfleet for this,” Steve’s voice pitches up a notch.
“Hey, don’t stifle my creativity!”
“Stifle your...” Steve sucks in a sharp breath band counts to five. “This was not authorised by me or Starfleet command.”
“Oh, come on! It’s not like I’ve got a synthetic life form wandering around the ship,” Tony picks up a decoupler from the array of tools laid out on the casket. “And if I did, what’s the harm?”
“What’s the harm?” Steve snaps. “It could malfunction. It could-”
Steve bites back a curse. “Tony-”
“Think of it as a thought experiment,” Tony interrupts. “A vision. My vision.”
Steve gives him an incredulous look. “Your vision.”
“Yes! You’ve allowed me to build robotic arms to assist in Engineering, to perform tasks in the warp core that are too risky for organic lifeforms.” Tony points to Dum-E, a robotic arm at one of his work stations.
Dum-E waves, and Steve has to fight the urge to wave back.
“This is the same kind of thing.” Tony pats the casket. “It would run diagnostics when I’m not on duty and perform basic maintenance tasks.” Tony leans in closer to deliver the killing blow. “Or I could leave Parker in charge.”
Steve glances round at Peter, who waves at him nervously. “Hey, Mr Captain.”
He turns back to Tony, who is grinning widely and rocking back on his heels. “Fine, but it doesn’t leave Engineering.”
Behind him, Peter lets out a triumphant little ‘yes!’
Tony taps Steve in the center of the chest with his decoupler. “You’re cranky,” he declares. “Being Captain has made you cranky.”
Steve brushes the tool away. “I can’t imagine why.”
Steve makes his daily rounds of the ship before checking in with his senior officers. Then he steels himself and takes the turbolift down to Medical.
On paper, Dr Banner is one of the best physicians in the Federation, a pioneer in the field of advanced bioengineering and trauma surgery. In person he is anxious and easily irritated. He failed the Starfleet mandatory psych evaluation on three separate occasions, much to the annoyance of Tony, who only failed them twice. But still, Steve needed him on the crew, needed both of them, and made it happen.
He finds Banner in one of the bays checking over Parker, perched on the edge of a bed and twitching occasionally. Banner mutters under his breath, running his tricorder over the boys still smouldering hair.
“How are you feeling, Peter?” Steve asks as he walks over to join them.
“I was right about the gel packs,” Peter tells him proudly.
“Yes, you were,” Steve agrees. At least the boy isn’t calling him Mr.
“Well, I’ve run every test we have just to be sure, but it looks like nothing more than a mild concussion,” Banner concludes. “You should be fine.” He gestures for Peter to go, and the boy scrambles to his feet. “I know you want to make a good impression with Mr Stark, but try not to get yourself blown up again, kid. If something catches fire, find something big to hide behind.”
“Yessir,” Peter stumbles in the rough direction of the door.
“Not the warp core!” Banner yells after him.
Steve watches Parker wobble down the corridor while Banner puts his medkit away. The kid was never meant to be on the crew. Stark had found him on one of the last Federation outposts while they stopped for supplies and decided to keep him. Since he was a distance learning student at Starfleet Academy, top of every class and some kind of genius, Steve felt no reason to argue. The boy had no family to speak of, was slowly going out of his mind with boredom, and Stark finally had an ensign that lasted longer than five minutes under his watch.
“You think he’ll be okay?” Steve asks when the boy is out of sight.
“We’re hurtling towards the edge of known space in a big metal box, Steve,” Banner scowls. “None of us will be okay. Do you have any idea how badly space wants us dead?”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“A subspace sinkhole or a quantum singularity could be right in our path and we wouldn’t know until we’re compressed to a singularity. A solar flare could fry us alive. The hull could crack and before anyone can notice your blood is boiling out of your ears. Not to mention uncharted planets rife with diseases and malevolent life forms. And what are we out here for? Chasing the damn Borg of all things…”
Steve nods patiently, listening to Banner complain until he runs out of steam, and pats him on the arm.
“And how’s my chief Medical officer?”
“Eh,” Banner shrugs. “Can’t complain.”
Steve stifles a chuckle, and takes a couple of steps back. “Tell you what I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll keep a close watch on the crew, anyone looks under the weather, I’ll send them your way.”
“More work,” Banner grumbles gently. “You’re too kind.”
Steve stops by the Science division, and finds the Maximoff twins in hydroponics. The girl, Wanda, is diligent and hard-working, tending to her plants and charting their rates of growth. Pietro buzzes around her like a fly, restless and irritable.
Wanda looks up from her PADD. “Captain,” she says quietly, and glances at Pietro.
He drops the potted zinnia he’s holding, and it lands on the counter with an audible crack.
“Shouldn’t you be in Maintenance?” Steve asks him.
“Finished,” Pietro tries to push the broken pieces of pot back together, water sloshing over his fingers.
“Finished,” Steve echoes.
Pietro flashes him a sly grin. “I’m fast.”
Steve bites his tongue. ‘He’s fast and she’s weird’ Hill had warned him when he’d submitted a request for their presence on his crew. The twins were half-Vulcan, though Pietro displayed far more human characteristics than his sister. Like almost getting expelled from the Academy for illegal racing. The kid had managed to modify a stolen skimmer to reach close to warp speed before shaking itself apart. The kid had been dumped on the ground, a trail of engine parts and bulkhead leading security right to him.
Wanda, by contrast, is quiet and insular, preferring the company of her brother to the rest of the crew. Steve never sees her in the Mess or Recreation areas, and when not performing her Science Division duties, she can be found hunched over her plants in Hydroponics, her long hair obscuring her pointed ears.
He’s not worried about her, not yet.
Steve brushes a fingertip along the the striped leaf of a Spider plant. “How is the air-filtering study going?”
Wanda moves the pot out of Steve’s reach. “Chlorophytum comosum is proving effective at filtering formaldehyde and xylene from the atmosphere, but is proving less effective at removing benzene than Dracanea.”
Steve looks at Pietro for help.
“It’s good,” he says brightly. “There are many colour-coded charts.”
Steve nods helplessly, and is almost grateful when Sam chooses that moment to open the comms.
“Cap.” Sam says tersely. “Better get up here.”
Steve hurries to the turbolift, and onto the Bridge.
“Sam, what have we got?” he asks, walking down to the Command chair.
Sam silently points to the viewscreen.
There is something drifting in space. It is larger than a ship, and vaguely spherical in shape. Or at least it was before the lower quarter was blasted apart. There are the remnants of outer rings circling it, rotating in a slowly decaying orbit.
“Get the Ambassador,” Steve murmurs, walking towards the screen. “See if the Asgardians know anything about this.”
Jones sends the message while Steve stops in front of the screen, close enough to reach out and touch it. “Any life signs?”
“Not that I can see. The upper levels look secure. No breaches in the hull, and there’s energy readings.” He checks the controls. “There’s a… Hmm. That’s weird.”
“What?” Steve asks.
Sam shakes his head. “Some kind of power source? There’s faint energy traces all throughout the upper levels, could be interfering with the reading.”
The turbolift slides open and the Ambassador steps onto the Bridge, tall and golden and dressed in his customary leathers.
“Captain,” he calls out, and strides over to Steve to clasp his forearm in greeting.
Steve does his best to return the greeting, struggling to wrap even his large hands around the Ambassador thickly muscled bicep. “Mr Odinson.”
No one has suffered more at the hands of the Borg than the Asgardians, their planet was the gateway to the Nine Realms before its destruction. It was an alliance of Asgard and Federation engineering that brought about the Avenger, and a Prince of Asgard on board to speak for the interests of his people.
“Asgardians have some knowledge of this region of space,” Steve turns to the screen. “Have you any idea what we’re looking at?”
Thor nods, looking troubled. “It is a Bifrost, an outpost marking the boundary of charted space.”
“Is it supposed to look like that?” Sam asks with a sour note.
“I came here once in my youth,” Thor frowns. “It was a city on the edge of space. Merchants, laborers seeking work, travellers in search of safe passage, a vibrant and thriving community.”
“Life support systems are still operational,” Dugan points out. “You see how its still spinning? That would have been to counter the centrifugal forces of of ships constantly docking.”
“So it was recent?” Steve watches the slow turning of the dead station.
Dugan shrugs. “Relatively. It wasn't last week, if that’s what you mean.”
“And there are no life signs?” Steve glances from the station to Thor, noting the way he presses his knuckle to his mouth, his lips moving as if in a muffled prayer.
“None that I can see,” Sam admits.
Steve cups his hand around Thor’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. This must come as a shock.”
Thor hums into his fist, and lowers his hand. “There are few who live such a life that were not born to it. They knew the dangers.”
“Even so,” Steve squeezes gently, though he doubts Thor can feel it. “We’ll take a closer look, see if we can find out what happened to those people.”
Thor tightens his lips, but manages a smile. “For that I am thankful, Captain.”
Dugan plots a course to the station, the cloud of debris surrounding it striking harmlessly against the hull. On the viewscreen twisted pieces of machinery and sections of charred bulkhead spin slowly out from the wreck, drifting off into the black of space.
Steve ignores Sam’s muttering about Starfleet protocols, and elects to lead the away team. As chief of Security, Falsworth insists on coming, and where Falsworth goes, Dugan is not far behind. The two work well together, and between them they have pulled Steve out of the fire more times than he cares to recall in the years they have been stationed together. There is a scant possibility of survivors on board, but Steve asks Banner to come along.
He also invites Thor to join them, calling upon his existing knowledge of the outpost, as well as his strength. Thor agrees quickly, and it occurs to Steve that it must be a hardship for him to sit idly in his quarters while his people are without a homeland.
Sam takes the Commander's chair in his absence, wishing them luck.
They climb onto the Transporter platform, and Steve gives the order to beam across.
Being transported is something that Steve has never gotten used to. The rush of cold air and prickling in his ears as his vision sparkles and fades. His lungs lock up, a sense memory of a sickness in him long since cured, but he still feels his throat tighten, his stomach tense in preparation for a wheezing fit that never comes. Then the lurch of rematerialisation, and the quick, furtive check that everything is where it should be. He breathes easily again, and looks around.
They are on one of the upper levels of the ruined station, a little distance from the amorphous power source. Where there should have been bright light flooding the deck, there is only the muted blue dots of emergency lighting, threading a path through the gloom. Steve turns on his flashlight, sweeping it in an arc around them, illuminating an empty hallway lined with stalls. Each one scattered with abandoned goods and covered in decaying cloth, their once colorful awnings dull and ragged.
There are no bodies, no dead hidden in the shadows.
“What the blazes…” Falsworth mutters, unholstering his phaser and setting it to stun.
They turn on their flashlights one by one and walk slowly through the abandoned market. A stall of rough hewn, handmade jewellery, the silver blackened and tarnished. A table covered with boxes and ornaments made with damaged circuitry. A liquor stall, the contents of the glass bottles long since evaporated.
Dugan picks up one of the bottles and gives it a shake. There is barely any dust settled on the glass, and were it not for the mould and the faded awnings, it would seem like the traders had left only days ago. He unstoppers the bottle and takes a sniff of the contents.
“There is no sign of battle here,” Thor murmurs, lightly touching a handful of coins lying on one of the stalls. “They are all-”
“Gone,” Steve finishes.
Banner takes out his tricoder and starts scanning. The device clicks and beeps, and he frowns at it, given it a firm whack with the flat of his hand. “Damn thing is malfunctioning.”
“Could be interference?” Dugan pushes the cork back in his bottle and sets it down on the stall. “A leak in the fusion reactors?"
“A leak?” Banner glances nervously at him.
“Are there any life signs?” Steve interrupts before Banner starts getting worked up.
“There’s something…” Banner looks down at his tricorder, and points down the hallway, leading deeper into the station. “That way.”
“Then we go that way.” At Steve’s nod the team move into position, Thor taking the lead, followed by Steve and Dugan. Falsworth takes the rear, herding Banner along while he scans the ship for signs of life.
They walk silently through the maze of corridors and passageways, venturing deeper and deeper into the station. Abandoned stalls line the walls in some areas, in others goods are laid out on mats spread out on the floor. They silently walk past grease-stained machine parts, ruptured filters and corrupted data rods arranged in neat rows.
“Have you ever heard of the Marie Celeste?” Falsworth asks suddenly. “A Earth merchant ship from the nineteenth century?”
Thor looks impressed. “I was under the impression that humans didn’t venture into space until much later. And only then by sitting in metal boxes strapped to a large amount of explosives and hoping for the best.”
Banner snorts to himself, and Falsworth shakes his head. “This was a sailing ship. Found at sea with her sails still set, well provisioned and seaworthy, but not a soul on board. The tables were laid with food and drink, as though the people had been called away from dinner and would return at any moment.”
Steve suppresses a shudder at the thought. All those people living their lives in one moment, and gone the next.
“Pirates?” Dugan suggests, his torchlight twitching back and forth.
“The cargo was untouched,” Falsworth replies.
“Bilge Snipe?” Thor asks, noting their confused expressions. “You don’t have-”
“Cap?” Sam’s voice rings out over the comms. “We’re picking up some kind of subspace transmission from the station. Might be a distress beacon.”
“Understood,” Steve responds, and glances at the team. “You getting anything?”
Banner looks down at his instrument and shakes his head. Dugan pulls out his own tricorder and checks it. “Nothing down here, signal’s jammed.”
“Sam, can you get a lock on the reading?” Steve asks.
“Sending coordinates over now,” Sam replies, one step ahead. “Looks like you're on the right track already. It’s on your deck, near the reactor core.”
“Could be the source of the interference,” Banner points out. “If we find it, we can turn it off.”
Steve nods and puts Falsworth on point, following the signal to its source.
“Captain?” Falsworth calls down the line. “I think we found it.”
Steve moves quickly to the front of the group, and Falsworth points up ahead. They are deep in engineering, crossing the network of metal gantries that pass over the reactor core. The walkways are narrow enough that they have to walk single file, and Banner frets quietly over the lack of railings, peering over the edge at the long drop to the reactor below. On the far side of their walkway is a circular platform directly over the reactor, other platforms branching out from it and disappearing into the dark like the spokes of a wheel. Steve tilts his head to one side, trying to understand what he’s seeing.
A raised dais has been built on the floor, the outer edge flared up like a satellite dish. It is covered in geometric patterns of yellow and black that radiate out in concentric circles. In the center is a ring of tubes pointing upwards, braced in their positions by support struts, each one emitting the same sickly yellow glow.
“What manner of machine is this?” Thor is the first to speak.
“And how do we disable it?” Falsworth takes the last few steps onto the platform and walks towards the device, pointing his tricorder at one of the uprights. “Mr Wilson, are you receiving this?”
There is a soft exclamation over the comms. “What the hell is that?”
There is a dull thump from the deck above them as Thor and Banner follow Falsworth onto the platform, circling around the strange object.
Steve looks up, Dugan behind him sending his torchlight along the network of walkways above them, searching for the source of the sound, but finds nothing. Dugan hums to himself and keeps moving, following Steve onto the platform with the others.
Steve glances up again, before taking a closer look at the device. Something is scratching along his skin, taut and prickling with sharp, tiny claws. It hovers on the edge of his memory, something important.
“Interplexing beacon,” Steve murmurs, almost to himself. “It’s an interplexing beacon.”
“A what?” Falsworth reaches up to touch one of the rods.
Dugan catches on first. “Son of a-”
“Sam, go to red alert. We need immediate extraction,” Steve snaps into the comms. “We found a Borg communication device, that’s what’s affecting the signal.”
There is a brief, weighted pause. “There’s too much interference to beam you out. Can you get to one of the docks? We can send a shuttle.”
Steve glances at Dugan, who gives a terse shake of his head. “Too unstable, Cap. We don’t even know if life support still works out there.”
“Damnit.” Steve hisses, and pulls out his phaser. There is another dull thump from above them. “Banner, Dugan, we need that thing offline. Disarm it, find the off switch, smash it to pieces, whatever works.”
“I’m a doctor, not a mechanic,” Banner mutters, but climbs onto the dais with Dugan and gets to work.
“Thor,” Steve says sharply, as the gantries overhead start to rattle, as though with the weight of bodies moving upon them. “Tell me you brought a weapon?”
“Fear not, Captain.” Thor draws an ornately engraved rod from his clothing. It crackles with blue light under his fingers.
“Easier said than done,” Steve says ruefully, and a black shape drops down from the walkway above them.
The Borg drone lands heavily on the edge of the platform, the metal floor buckling on impact, and stalks towards them.
It is every nightmare Steve remembers, its body clad in black exo-plating, machinery jutting out of where its left eye had once been, the lens a poisonous green in the low light. Its skin is pale and mottled, its movements are slow, mechanical. Relentless.
Falsworth reaches it first, pointing his phaser at the exposed portion of its face and firing. The drone stumbles backwards, losing its footing and tumbling over the edge of the platform and crashing onto one of the platforms below, smashing through the length of metal and vanishing into the darkness.
A second drone comes crashing down, and Falsworth spins around, aiming his phaser and firing. There is a crackle of discharge as the shot is absorbed by the Borg's force field, but the blast itself knocks the drones head back.
“They’ve adapted!” Falsworth shouts out as Thor moves towards the drone. “Phasers aren’t working.”
Thor barrels into the back of the drone, knocking it to the ground. He stamps his boot down on its head until the green lense cracks and sparks out.
Steve looks around them. More Borg are coming, just a handful, dropping down from the levels above, marching along the walkways leading to their platform. He looks back the way they came, and sees another one reach the far end, and start to cross.
“Thor,” he shouts. “Get across the gantry, that’s our only way out. If they block us in, we’re done for!”
Thor nods and runs across the walkway, not even slowing down at the approaching Borg, and shoves it over the edge. He pauses at the other side to pick through the debris and pick up a length of metal pipe, swinging it like a club.
Another drone drops down from above. Steve kicks out before it can regain its footing, striking it square in the chest and sending it tumbling down. “Dugan, tell me you’re getting somewhere with that thing!”
“We’re working on it!” Dugan snaps.
Another drone comes down right beside Banner, hunched down among the upright posts. Dugan gives it a roundhouse punch and sends it staggering into the array. One of the uprights protests under the weight of it, but doesn’t break. Dugan punches it again, forcing it down between the posts that creak and groan, pinning it in place. The drone struggles to free itself, kicking and lashing out, but is wedged fast.
“Sam, what’s our status?” Steve yells into the comms.
“Still can't get a read on you, Cap.”
“Sam, we have engaged the Borg. Repeat, we have engaged the Borg.” A drone appears on the lip of the platform, climbing up from the level below. Steve kicks it in the face as hard as he can, relishing in the shattering of its glass eyepiece as it falls away. “The second you lock onto any one of us, you beam us aboard, you hear? And see if you can block the transmission, more could be on their way.”
“Son of a…” Sam pauses. “Well, it’s what we came out here for!”
The yellow lights of the beacon dim briefly, then flare up again. Banner’s tricorder sparks and the screen goes dead. He bashes it against one of the rods in frustration. “I can’t override the system,” he shouts.
A drone grabs Steve from behind, holding him in a headlock as another moves in, reaching up as if to touch his face. Two silvery wires snake out from ports in its fingers, stretching out towards him.
“Then smash it!” Steve yells, throwing his weight onto the drone at his back and kicking out. He knocks both drones down, landing on top of the one behind him and crunching his elbow into its face.
Steve looks up, and sees more drones pouring down from the upper levels like ants. He rolls to his feet, catching a glimpse of Thor across the gantry swinging his makeshift club at the advancing Borg.
Falsworth. Where’s Falsworth?
He looks over to the array, where Banner has grabbed hold of one of the uprights, and is attempting to pull it over. Dugan is wrestling another drone, trying to force its disruptor beam into the center of the array.
“Falsworth?” Steve calls, but there is no response. “Monty?”
There is a flash of green light as Dugan's drone discharges its disruptor beam, blasting through one of the uprights. A high pitched whine starts emitting from the array.
“Cap?” Banner yells.
“Sam?” A drone tries to grab Steve. He dodges out of its way and snaps its neck. “The transmitter is damaged, can you lock onto our signal?”
“Cap!” Banner yells again. “This things rigged up with some kind of booby trap. We gotta move.”
It seems to take forever for Sam to answer. “Power readings are fluctuating, you’re too close to the source. Get some distance.”
The array lights pulse, getting brighter as the whine increases in pitch.
“Fall back,” Steve shouts. “Banner, Dugan, get across the walkway. We need clearance.”
Dugan nods to Banner to get moving, but stays where he is, punching his drone in the back of its head. The remaining rods of the array strobe sharp yellow lights across the dais as the drone slowly twists around.
Banner hurries across the walkway, and Thor tosses him another length of pipe when he reaches the far side.
“Dugan,” Steve yells. “Get moving.”
The drones disruptor discharges again, and another upright cracks, spilling yellow liquid onto the array. “In a minute!” Dugan yells as the drone wrenches its disruptor arm out of his grip.
“That’s an order-”
“Cap, we’ve got a lock on two signatures,” Sam yells in his ear.
“Beam them up!” Steve shouts without hesitation. He can hear the briefest protest from Thor before his voice is cut off by the high whine of the transporters. There are twin shimmers of light in the gloom, and Banner and Thor are gone.
“Dugan, move,” Steve yells, and runs onto the walkway.
There is a Borg blocking his way.
It stands in the middle of the gantry, clad in black exo-plating like the others, but for its left arm, made of bright, segmented silver. Wires snake out from its bare, mottled scalp, connecting to ports in its suit. The lower half of its face is covered by a muzzle, a thick, moulded plate embedded into its skin. Its eyes are obscured by red-tinted goggles. It flexes its fingers, flesh and metal, and waits for him.
Steve draws in a sharp breath, and launches himself forward.
The Borg stands its ground, and Steve rams into it, knocking it back a few paces. He tries to twist it around, to throw it off the walkway, but it shifts to the side, and Steve comes far too close to tumbling over. It raises its exo-plated arm, a laser cannon embedded in its forearm, and fires. Steve dodges the blast and aims a punch to the Borgs face, his fist impacting with the goggles and cracking the glass. The Borg strikes back, punching him in the side of the head with its metal fist hard enough to make his ears ring. He plants both hands on its chest and pushes. If he can just make it across the walkway, clear a path for himself and Dugan…
The Borg kicks out, aiming for Steve’s ankle but landing slightly too high. He grimaces and throws an answering punch, aiming for the Borg’s face again and shattering its goggles. It kicks out again, trying to force Steve back, and he lands another blow to its face, knocking the damaged goggles away and dropping it to one knee.
The drone sways, its head bowed, and Steve lifts his foot to kick it over the side.
“Cap!” Dugan yells from behind him.
Steve turns in time to see Dugan back on the platform, staggering towards the edge. The drone he had been fighting has an arm wrapped around him, clutching hold of him as he nears the edge. Two snake-like wires extend from its fingers and into his throat.
“Dugan!” Steve roars.
As he watches, Dugan pauses on the very edge. He opens his mouth, as if to speak, but no sound comes out. He takes a single, decisive step into thin air, and plummets down to the levels below, pulling the drone with him, and Steve can only watch them disappear.
There is no time. No time to process, no time to grieve. Steve pushes the horror, the guilt, down into the pit of his stomach, a lead weight that would crush him if he allowed it.
The noise from the array distorts, changing in frequency as the light flares up, painfully bright. Steve turns away, shielding his eyes, and sees the Borg on the walkway before him move stiffly, its head still bowed.
It slowly rises, lifting its head. The red laser sighted by its right eye strobes across Steve’s face as it turns towards him.
It was human, once. It’s eyes a shade of blue that Steve hasn’t seen in half a lifetime.
I know you.
Borg don’t kill, they assimilate. A dead body is a wasted body, one that could have been of use to the collective.
A plasma rifle pressed up against his shoulder. A burst of light.
And an arm is easily replaced with metal.
“Bucky?” Steve whispers.
The Borg shifts into a fighting stance, its feet planted firmly on the walkway as it raises its weapon. The lower half of its face is still covered by the muzzle, but Steve can see its eyes, and he would know them anywhere. He has seen them every night in his dreams.
“Cap, we got a lock on your signal,” Sam’s voice rattles in his ear.
“Wait!” Steve hisses, and the Borg attacks.
It, he, moves with ruthless efficiency, firing at Steve again and again. He dodges the shots as best as he can, but his movements are limited on the narrow gangway, and he feels the tug of near misses and the searing burn of glancing blows on his skin.
He darts forward, grabbing at the weapon and twisting. He feels it crack under his fingers, the jagged metal tearing his skin. His grip is slippery with his own blood, and the Borg wrenches free, aiming the laser at Steve, but it does nothing more than crackle and whine. It doesn’t even curse in frustration, just raises it arm like a club and brings it down again.
“Bucky?” Steve can barely catch his breath as the blow misses him by a scant inch. “Bucky, it’s me. It’s Steve.”
There is no recognition in the Borgs eyes, how could there be, after everything that has happened?
Steve moves defensively, dodging the strikes he can avoid and bracing for the ones he can’t. He ducks down and shoves into the Borgs stomach, and they both stumble, landing awkwardly on the walkway, half-hanging over the precipice.
Steve clambers over the Borg, pinning him down as he thrashes and tries to tip him over, eerily silent in the midst of the fight., even with the muzzle.
“Sam,” Steve calls out. “Two to beam up.”
“What?” Sam crackles in his ear. “Cap, I’m reading-”
The Borg throws him off, and for a sickening moment Steve can find no purchase. He flails, reaching out and grabbing hold of something, anything, his bloody fingers slipping against the segmented metal arm of the Borg, of Bucky. “Two to beam up!” he yells.
Steve feels the cold rush over him, chasing through his veins like lightning as he falls. For a sickening, disorienting moment he is suspended in mid-air, and then lands in a heap on the transporter platform. There is a dull thump a moment afterwards as the Borg re-materialises beside him.
Emergency lights flash overhead, the sound of sirens filling Steve’s ears. The Transporter chief looks up from his station, the controls at his fingers signalling a red alert.
“Captain on board,” he shouts, his look of relief switching to one of horror when he sees what Steve has brought with him.
There is a tremor shuddering through the bulkhead.
“Sam, get us out of-”
A pulse of energy punches through the ship, knocking it sideways, and Steve is thrown from the platform, hitting the opposite wall hard enough to leave a crater as he tumbles to the ground. Another shockwave hits, sending the ship into a barrel roll.
“Bridge?” Steve yells, colliding against something, though he can’t tell if it’s a wall or a floor.
He falls forward, throwing up his arms to protects his face, and the ship pitches back, the inertial dampers fighting against the shockwave. Steve catches the briefest glimpse of of the transporter controls above him, and doesn’t get a chance to wonder what it’s doing on the ceiling when he crashes down again, spots of bright light dancing in front of his eyes.
Steve blinks, slow and sluggish.
His vision is fading, the room getting darker, a hazy clouded red, every time he blinks. There are lights flashing, red pulses keeping time with a siren.
He tries to suck in a breath, his lungs burning with need, but can’t. There are burning iron bands wrapped around his lungs. He can’t breathe. His throat aches when he tries to swallow.
Something must have happened, he thinks wildly, something went wrong with the serum. It was supposed to cure him, fix his asthma and his bad heart, it was supposed to make him strong.
He tries to cough, reaching up to rub at his chest, and the back of his fingers brush against cold metal. He wraps his hand around it, feeling the segmented plates under his fingertips.
Strong. Fast. Had a metal arm.
Steve’s eyes snap open, and he looks up at the Borg leaning over him, metal hand wrapped around his throat. It squeezes, the plates shifting and settling, its thumb pressed over Steve’s trachea.
Steve tightens his grip on the metal wrist, screwing his eyes shut and trying to push it away. He hears the slightest huff of breath, and the hold loosens enough for him to snatch a mouthful of stale air.
He kicks out, his boot connecting with the Borg somewhere in its midsection, knocking one of the tubes from its port.
The Borg grunts, the sound distorted by the muzzle, and its metal fingers try to close around Steve’s throat again, the pads scraping against his bruised skin and tearing open the fastenings of his tunic. Steve dredges up a last burst of strength and slowly forces it away. The Borg frowns at him, not so much angry as irritated at Steve’s refusal to die quietly.
Steve kicks again, aiming for the already damaged port. There is a jet of pressurised gas, and the Borg recoils.
Steve takes advantage of his distraction, rolling to his feet and gasping for air. He looks around for a weapon, and sees the room in chaos, the Transporter chiefs crumpled body lying in the far corner.
“Security to Transporter room,” he wheezes into the comms. “Respond.”
The Borg lurches to its feet and stumbles towards him.
“Bucky, stop!” Steve’s voice rises, pleading. “It’s me. You know me.”
The Borg keeps coming, raising its metal fist to strike. Steve lashes out first, grabbing hold of one of the tubes leading from his exo-suit to his bare scalp and pulling. It doesn’t come loose, and the Borg reaches for his throat again. Steve grabs its arm, twisting it to one side.
The Borg lets out a yell of pain, low and guttural, and it takes everything Steve has left to not let go.
“Captain,” a voice calls from the doorway. “Stand clear.”
Steve turns to see Natasha in the doorway, holding one of the ship's phasers adapted with a frequency modulator.
“No!” Steve yells, spinning around to block her shot. “Don’t!”
“Captain,” Natasha moves to the side, trying to get a sight on her target. “Step aside.”
Steve shakes his head. The modulators are they only thing the Federation has that works against the Borg, a single shot and he’d be dead.
“It’s him!” Steve says desperately, and watches as Natasha’s eyes widen.
The Borg wrenches his arm free, and swipes at Steve’s face. Natasha clenches her empty hand into a fist and turns it to the Borg. Steve sees her bracelet glow blue and a small metal dart fires out, punching through the Borg shield and embedding into his bare scalp. There is a flash of electrical discharge and the Borg crumples to the ground, shuddering.
Steve falters, and comes close to dropping down next to him. He coughs, a sharp wave of pain tearing through his lungs, burning up his throat, and looks down at his bloody hands. The skin is already starting to knit together, leaving dark, knotted scars that will be gone by morning.
“I’m fine,” he insists. “Let’s get him to the Brig.”
The stunned Borg is a dead weight between them, but Steve gets behind him, wrapping his arms around his chest and lifting him up. Natasha hisses in concern as the Borg’s head tips back onto Steve’s shoulder, and lets out a soft groan.
“What did you do to him?” Steve asks, dragging him into the hallway and towards the turbolift.
“Widow’s Bite,” Natasha clears a path through the debris, punching the turbolift controls and sending them down to Security. “Electrical discharge. Don’t know how long it’ll last.”
The Borg shifts in Steve’s grip, weak but getting stronger. Not long.
“Engineering,” Steve swallows painfully. “Mr Stark, respond.”
“Ow,” Tony’s voice comes over the comms.
“Stark?” Steve dares a sigh of relief. Tony’s still alive. “What’s our status?”
“Our status?,” Tony snaps. “We’re screwed, that’s our status.”
The turbolift doors open and Natasha steps out first, leading the way to the holding cells. The air is thick with smoke, and wreckage from damaged consoles crunches under his feet as they walk. The Borg starts to move more determinedly in his grip, twisting from side to side, kicking its heels.
She finds a cell at the far end of the room that is still fully operational, and large enough to move around in. Steve lays the Borg down on the floor, and retreats as it struggles to his feet.
Not a Borg, he reminds himself. Bucky.
Nat taps at the control panel on the wall beside the cell as soon as Steve is clear, and the forcefield sparks into life.
The Borg, Bucky, snarls, and rips the metal dart from his scalp. He turns, his eyes fixing on Steve, and throws the dart towards him. The forcefield flares up in a blaze of yellow light, and the dart disintegrates before it can reach him. The Borg turns away, stalking to the far end of his cell.
Steve’s heart cracks, a hairline fracture that runs through the very center of him.
“Captain?” Natasha says slowly, carefully, watching the way he stares at their prisoner. “I know how much… Bucky... meant to you. But this is-”
“I want hourly updates on his status,” Steve interrupts. “I need you to keep him safe.”
“Keep him safe?” Natasha says incredulously.
Steve doesn’t acknowledge her, and turns away from the holding cell and the creature within it. Bucky is in there somewhere, he has to be.
“If you need me, I’ll be on the Bridge.” Steve squares his shoulders, and starts walking back to the turbolift.
“Steve,” Natasha calls after him. “Are you sure about this?”
Steve draws in a deep breath. His throat feels like he has swallowed broken glass, but the breath comes easily, as if the iron bands around his chest have shattered and fallen away.
“He’s alive, Nat.” Steve shakes his head. It’s impossible, impossible. “He’s alive.”