The small ship appeared suddenly on the Enterprise’s screens, where an instant earlier there had been nothing but empty space.
“Superficially the vessel is configured to resemble a standard Federation shuttlecraft,” Data reported, “but sensor readings show that it possesses cloaking technology, transwarp capability, and a full-scale interplexing communications array. One life sign is present.”
Picard already knew what the android’s next word would be.
“Shields up. Go to Yellow Alert,” Picard ordered immediately. Whatever the Borg were plotting, it had to be evil. Everything the Collective did was evil. This might be another attempt to transport him from the bridge of his own ship, to capture and assimilate him as they had before. They wouldn’t find him such an easy target this time.
“Captain, the vessel is hailing us.”
At least a shuttlecraft with a crew of one wasn’t likely to proclaim that resistance was futile. “Onscreen.”
The face that appeared on the main viewer was Borg, all right, with the usual grayish-white skin, cybernetic attachments encircling the head, and visual circuitry in one of the eye sockets. Yet there was something even more intimately familiar about the youthful features, the shape of the head, the one natural eye that regarded him steadily. Human, but not entirely so. Picard began to wonder if this had been someone he’d known before her assimilation, a Federation citizen who had escaped the Collective.
But if that were the case, she wouldn’t still be in constant communication with her captors, he reminded himself.
“Who are you?”
“We are the Borg Collective.” The proud voice was high and clear, speaking in a precise, unaccented French that brought a bitter ache to Picard’s chest. She was a child, he realized suddenly, and he did know her, although they had never met before.
“State your designation and purpose.” He snapped this order in a harsh voice, as if trying to convince himself that what he had already seen wasn’t real.
“This drone’s designation is Lucienne Picard. Her function is to assimilate information regarding human parental behavior.”
Lucienne, he thought numbly, closing his eyes against the sight of her. Without his knowledge, the Borg had used his own genetic material to construct this child. He was left wondering, and not for the first time, why the Collective hadn’t even shown enough mercy to kill him when it had the chance.
Picard opened his eyes, and of course she was still there, waiting patiently for him to decide what to do with her. This Borg child wasn’t actually his daughter, not according to any definition that made sense. He ought to tell her to go back where she came from: back to the Delta Quadrant. Where she would spend her entire life as a drone, assimilating other species in perfect, soulless obedience to the Collective’s commands.
He already knew that he couldn’t do it. Just as the Collective, when it built her, must also have known.
Deanna Troi gave the visitor her best reassuring smile and asked, “How do you feel about being aboard the Enterprise?”
Standing stiffly in the middle of the counselor’s office, Lucienne replied, in perfect English this time, “Feeling is an unproductive diversion.”
Picard was the one sitting on the couch, which he thought was quite appropriate under the circumstances. He had to be crazy to have allowed a Borg, by her own admission an agent of the Collective, aboard the Federation’s flagship. What Starfleet Command would say — and he hadn’t told them yet — wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Of course, the first thing he’d done after bringing Lucienne’s small craft into the shuttle bay had been to disable all communication between her and the Collective. Lucienne maintained a formidable self-control, however, showing no outward signs of confusion or fear at being abruptly cut off from everything she’d ever known.
Troi rephrased her question. “What do you expect will happen now that you are aboard the Enterprise?”
“The probability that this drone will become a subject of biological warfare experiments is estimated at 62.18 percent. An alternative possibility is that this body will be reconfigured to resemble an individual adolescent human.”
Beverly Crusher, sitting in a chair at right angles to Picard, immediately declared, “No one is going to conduct non-consensual experiments on any sentient life form aboard this ship as long as I’m the chief medical officer.”
The Borg child made no reply to that.
Troi probed further. “You find the thought of having your cybernetic implants removed to be very disturbing, don’t you?”
“Emotional disturbance serves no useful purpose.” As if in contradiction, there was a slight edge to Lucienne’s voice that hadn’t been there at first. “We attain perfection by increasing efficiency. The human configuration is considerably less efficient and is therefore undesirable.”
“No one here is going to force you to become human if you don’t choose to do so,” Crusher assured the child. “When I take you to sickbay, I’m just going to perform a simple examination to be certain that you’re healthy. You won’t be harmed in any way.”
Not looking at all convinced of that, Lucienne obediently followed the ship’s doctor out of Troi’s office.
Picard glanced at the counselor as the door slowly closed, leaving him alone with Deanna for the moment. “Your assessment?”
“To the extent that the Borg are capable of feeling emotion, she’s terrified. She really believes that Starfleet Intelligence is going to vivisect her at the first available opportunity.”
That fear wasn’t just the result of propaganda, Picard realized. The Collective had made a logical assessment of the Federation’s probable responses, based upon Starfleet’s previous actions. Which in recent years had included attempts to commit genocide on the Dominion, the Borg, and in all likelihood other targets of biological warfare as well.
“I wish that I could be certain such things would never happen,” he said, as much to himself as to Troi.
The admiral’s face glowered from the screen in Picard’s ready room as she commanded him to return at once to Earth, where custody of Lucienne and her ship would be transferred to Starfleet’s Borg Counter-Intelligence Section.
Picard’s memories of the lengthy interrogation he’d undergone after his assimilation and rescue were less than pleasant. “What do they intend to do with her?”
“That’s none of your concern, Picard,” the admiral snapped.
I’ll be damned if that’s so, he thought. A sixty-two percent probability of biological experiments on a little girl. Over my dead body.
“Doctor Crusher has compared Lucienne’s DNA to my own and has verified a substantial similarity. By all established legal precedent, that means I am Lucienne’s father and responsible for her welfare. I’m not aware of any law or regulation that requires a father to surrender his daughter for use as a laboratory specimen in secret military experiments.”
The admiral, gritting her teeth in fury, looked as if she’d have liked nothing better than to kill him.
“You can’t seriously think that we would allow a Borg spy to remain aboard the Enterprise, you fool!”
He kept his voice calm as he replied. “If Lucienne can’t stay aboard the Enterprise, then I intend to request three weeks of shore leave on Earth for the purpose of becoming acquainted with my daughter.”
The admiral glared at him as if he were vermin and hissed, “Believe me, you haven’t heard the last of this . . . Locutus.”
A cool wind carried the scents of pine and sagebrush down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Somewhere in a grove of black oak, a bird trilled. Puffs of dust rose into the air from the treads of the two mountain bikes.
Riding always helped to clear Picard’s mind. Although he preferred horses to bicycles, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that horses and Borg wouldn’t mix well. A bicycle, on the other hand, was a device sufficiently simple to be mastered almost immediately by a cybernetic life form. Lucienne rode to his left, easily matching the rhythm of her pedal strokes to his.
Neither of them spoke as they started up another hill. Lucienne plainly considered this outing to be pointless, and Picard had absolutely no idea of what to say to her. Talking to normal children was difficult enough. He’d brought Lucienne here mainly to keep her out of Intelligence’s hands. To make it more difficult for anyone to countermand the order granting his request for shore leave, he’d deliberately left his combadge in his quarters on the Enterprise.
He crested the hill, only to find a grizzly bear in the middle of the path.
An enormous female grizzly, with two cubs behind her, less than twenty meters away. And of course Picard didn’t have a weapon. Earth hadn’t had any crime to speak of in ages, and bear attacks didn’t often occur in the California mountains.
The Borg complied, bringing her bicycle to a halt and dismounting smoothly next to Picard, without any appearance of fear.
“Bear, Earth predator, omnivorous, eats berries, fish, and several species of hoofed mammals . . .”
“They’re extremely dangerous when surprised, especially when defending their young,” Picard informed her. “Stand next to me, and be ready to pick up your bicycle to use as a shield if it attacks.”
Not much of a defense, he thought, as the bear began to growl and pace in obvious agitation. But he didn’t think there was much chance he could outrace a grizzly on his bicycle, and even Lucienne, with her enhanced strength, might not be quick enough. And he didn’t even have his combadge to call for help. If only he’d brought it with him . . .
“Highly sensitive auditory structures,” Lucienne went on, calmly cataloguing the grizzly bear’s attributes as if she were a student reading from a text file.
With a final roar, the bear charged.
Lucienne, still standing next to her bicycle, emitted a bloodcurdling howl. Amplified several times by her vocal circuitry, the sound keened upward into a range beyond human hearing.
The grizzly stopped in mid-charge, with a snarl of pain, and turned aside to follow her fleeing cubs. The bears tore off through the brush, whimpering for all the world like so many whipped dogs, going yipe, yipe, all the way down the hill. Within seconds, they were out of sight.
Getting back on her bike, Lucienne resumed pedaling at her earlier steady speed, without even a glance back in the direction of the bears.
Picard caught up to her. “Very effective.”
For just an instant, he could have sworn she smiled.
Lucienne regarded the wieners sizzling over the campfire with a look of bemusement.
“If you prefer your nourishment prepared in this manner, why didn’t you obtain it already charred from the campground’s replicator?”
“The cookout is a time-honored tradition,” Picard explained, as he put another marshmallow on a stick. He interpreted the fact that she was talking to him as a positive sign. She seemed just a bit more relaxed as she stood looking at him across the flames, although it was hard to tell.
“Tradition,” Lucienne echoed, staring at the stick in his hand. “A ritual established by custom of long duration, with little or no logical purpose.”
Borg definitions left a lot to be desired. Picard watched the marshmallows blackening perfectly over the firepit as he considered his answer.
“In this case, the inefficiency is part of the purpose. Human activity is divided into work and leisure. When we’re not at work, we consider it beneficial to slow the pace of our lives. Most leisure activities are deliberately inefficient, to allow time for reflection and conversation.”
She accepted a marshmallow from him, raised it to her pale lips and chewed slowly. A rosy sunset combined with the glint of the flames to brighten her gray armor.
“Such as riding bicycles up a mountain,” she observed, “when one could transport to the desired location much more quickly.”
“Yes. That’s the point of it.”
The wieners were ready, and Picard busied himself transferring them to a platter. For a moment he thought Lucienne would ask what benefit a slower pace provided, but she said nothing as she took a plate and began to eat her dinner, still standing.
He couldn’t reasonably expect much more, he reminded himself. After all, the whole concept of conversation was foreign to her.
Early afternoon along the Oregon coast, cool and overcast. The morning’s fresh breeze had died down to the merest puff of wind, leaving the small sailboat almost entirely motionless.
Lucienne glanced up from the gently rolling waves to meet Picard’s gaze. “It appears that this activity will provide ample time for reflection and conversation.”
She can’t possibly intend that as a joke, Picard thought. All the same, he found himself smiling back at her.
“Actually, I brought a book that I first read when I was about your age. It’s one of our classics, called ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ Sit down next to me, and I’ll read for a while.”
Drones don’t normally sit, he reminded himself, as Lucienne took one step closer. She wouldn’t have any problem hearing him from any location on the sailboat, either. With a shrug, Picard opened the book, and the sounds of the ocean helped him to lose himself in the story.
When he finished, there was a long silence. Lucienne was staring at him with a look of intense concentration.
“Explain why the old man attempted to continue fishing when he was no longer able to perform that task efficiently.”
A strange question by human standards, but it made perfect sense in the context of her experience. That option wouldn’t have been available in the Borg Collective. Any drone unable to perform his or her duties could expect to be immediately discarded — deactivated, as they put it — like a worn-out piece of machinery.
Picard didn’t at all feel like debating Borg values, such as they were, or the relative merits of euthanasia. He considered several possible responses before settling on a more general explanation.
“It’s human nature to hope for a better outcome.”
The sky had brightened considerably behind him while he was reading, although the sun hadn’t yet made its appearance. Lucienne narrowed her eye as she stood facing into the glare.
“Hope is irrelevant. It serves no definable function.”
The wind had started to pick up again; Picard could hear the flapping of the sails. He put aside the book and stood up, wondering, as he looked down at his daughter, whether he would ever be able to communicate with her.
“Lucienne, hope is essential. It’s how we shape our future.” As Picard searched his mind for the right words, he felt as if he were trying to explain sight to someone blind from birth. He continued, “A few centuries ago, humans had no knowledge of space travel. We didn’t even know that other sentient species existed. Even so, we had the hope that we would one day explore the galaxy. Research into space exploration had few practical applications at that time, and many considered it a pointless waste of resources best spent elsewhere. But we persevered, because we hoped.”
The child’s face, encrusted with its cybernetic abominations, still stared at him without speaking.
“Without hope,” Picard concluded, “the human species would be no more than apes scratching in the dust.”
A long silence followed, and then Lucienne spoke one word.
Picard took a deep breath of the tangy salt air and reminded himself that he didn’t have to explain everything to Lucienne all at once. There would be plenty of time for her to learn about humanity.
“We should be turning back toward shore now. There’s still a lot of Earth you haven’t yet seen.”
. . . a huge slab of glacier breaking free from the Norwegian coastline, the sound echoing through the fjord with primal force as gulls wheeled and screamed at the intruders approaching their territory, and Lucienne, oblivious to the chill in the air, watched their soaring flight . . .
. . . the desert sands shimmering in the Australian outback, where Lucienne’s interest was captured by the efficiency of a frog species that spent most of its existence in hibernation beneath the parched surface and emerged only during the very brief rainy season . . .
. . . a small village in Algeria, where a camel that had carried many a tourist obediently knelt to allow the alien girl to ride, as several pairs of dark eyes watched from behind almost-shuttered windows . . .
. . . a roller rink in Marseilles, plasma strobe lights pulsing and deep bass thumping, while a crowd of small children gathered in unafraid curiosity to see just how a Borg would go about attaching skates to her feet . . .
And then Picard’s three weeks of leave were over, the last stop a well-regarded preparatory school in Grenoble where his good friend Bertrand Duval had been headmaster for the past twenty-four years. Most of the pupils were boarders, as Lucienne would be. Even if Starfleet Command could be persuaded to allow her to stay aboard the Enterprise, which was most unlikely, Picard had come to the conclusion that she would probably do better in a more typical human environment.
The broad path leading toward the headmaster’s office was neatly landscaped. Bees buzzed in the shrubbery. Two teenage boys leaving the building stopped and gawked at Lucienne in frank astonishment.
“Jean-Luc, how good to see you.” Bertrand, a short fellow who had become stout in recent years, stepped outside. He gave the captain an old-fashioned European embrace, with a kiss on both cheeks, and then blinked at Lucienne in poorly concealed surprise. Picard had already told him she was Borg, but he obviously hadn’t been expecting the full cybernetic configuration.
“My daughter, Lucienne.”
The headmaster blinked once more and then extended a hand in a more formal greeting. “Mademoiselle.”
Lucienne firmly shook the offered hand as she returned a response in perfect French. The two gawking students, now loitering discreetly in the bushes, snickered at the headmaster’s obvious discomfiture.
“His daughter,” one of the boys jeered, the derisive tone just low enough to avoid detection by the headmaster, who was now bustling away to lead Picard and Lucienne on a tour of the campus.
“That’s Starfleet for you.” The other student turned his head and spat into the bushes. “They’ll fool around with anything.”
And then they were gone, slinking smoothly away as Picard began recalling some of the less pleasant incidents of his school days. Lucienne, who hadn’t even turned her head to look in their direction, no doubt considered human bigotry beneath her notice.
The tour of the middle school’s classrooms went fairly well, as the teachers greeted Lucienne with professional composure. On the way to the dormitory, Bertrand excused himself with the explanation that he had another visiting family to meet. He gave directions to the single room that Lucienne would be occupying, located in a wing of the building set aside for students aged ten to fourteen.
Picard and Lucienne entered the dormitory.
Curious faces, both male and female, peered from doorways all along the corridor. Then the inevitable whispers started.
“Ugh, I hope I don’t have to sit next to that in class.”
“Can you imagine being its roommate?”
“They probably think showers and deodorant are irrelevant.”
“Yeah. Cybernetic B.O. You know it. Maybe they configure their noses so they can’t smell their own stink.”
“Doesn’t matter, though, does it? No guy in his right mind would be interested in a Borg anyway.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
“I wonder if they’re able to, you know, do it?”
“Why, are you volunteering to find out?”
“I’d rather be eaten alive by a targ.”
“Just the thought of it makes me sick. Totally.”
“Think you’d still be human when it was over?”
“Don’t make me puke.”
Lucienne walked this vicious gauntlet without the least show of response and without glancing to either side. Picard, well aware that whatever he might say would just add more fuel to the fire, confined himself to glaring coldly at the perpetrators. Some of them were sufficiently intimidated by Picard’s presence to fall silent, but Picard knew that wouldn’t last long.
He followed Lucienne into her assigned room. The door closed behind them, not that it would help much. Her Borg auditory sensors would probably pick up every whisper on the entire campus.
“Human adolescents have an unfortunate tendency to taunt newcomers,” Picard told her, knowing that his explanation was inadequate. “They usually become kinder as they grow accustomed to a new student’s presence.”
The dorm room was small, with one high window. The scant space was taken up almost entirely by a bed in which Lucienne would probably never sleep and by a desk at which she’d probably never sit. After surveying the room briefly, Lucienne turned to Picard, her expression altogether devoid of emotion.
“This drone does not require kindness.”
He wasn’t abandoning his daughter, Picard tried to convince himself. After all, he’d spent three weeks with Lucienne, done his best to accustom her to a new life on Earth. She couldn’t return with him to the Enterprise, and it was by no means certain that she would be any happier if he were to leave Starfleet in order to stay with her. She would have to attend school nevertheless, somewhere, with all of its nasty little peer cruelties.
Whatever the outcome, he reminded himself, it was certain to be a vast improvement over the dismal existence of a drone in the Collective. Not to mention Lucienne’s previous expectation of being sacrificed to Starfleet’s unholy biological warfare experiments.
He wondered why that thought didn’t make him feel any better.
“When I return to the Enterprise, I’ll beam down your primary regeneration unit and everything else that you’ll need in order to configure your room more . . . appropriately.” He had almost said comfortably, but he knew Lucienne would just tell him that she didn’t require comfort, either.
A distant gaze, a terse response. “Acknowledged.”
“Let’s go look at the tennis courts,” Picard suggested next. Anything to get out of this godforsaken dormitory. “That’s a game I expect you’ll enjoy. Having a cybernetic arm should prove to be quite an advantage.”
He finished walking through the campus with Lucienne and then, mercifully, took his leave of her and contacted the Enterprise. This would be for the best, he told himself again. As little as he knew about human children, he definitely wasn’t qualified to take care of an adolescent Borg.
The familiar shimmer of the transporter beam took Picard, bringing him back to his ship and his duties.
As he materialized on the Enterprise, he realized at once that he wasn’t in the transporter room as he’d expected. Instead, he found himself in sickbay, quarantined behind a force field. He knew this to be the standard procedure when the transporter’s bio-filter detected a dangerous pathogen. But what, Picard wondered, could possibly have triggered such a response on Earth, where there had been virtually no infectious disease for centuries?
From the tight frown on Beverly Crusher’s face, he surmised that it wasn’t a simple glitch in the program, either. He forced a smile as he looked at her.
“How long do I have to live, Doctor?”
The corners of her mouth turned down even farther, almost as if she were fighting back tears, and Picard knew his quip hadn’t been a good idea. She deactivated the force field and touched a hypospray to his arm, all in one quick motion, before she spoke.
“The bio-filter detected the presence of a Borg assimilation virus. I’ve already neutralized the infection, and you won’t experience any symptoms from it. But . . .”
Crusher didn’t finish her sentence. She didn’t have to; Picard already knew what she was going to say. Starfleet Command would have to be notified immediately.
The thought of it almost made him physically ill. “You know what Intelligence will do to Lucienne.”
“I can’t see that we have a choice in the matter,” Crusher responded, her practical mind trumping her emotions, as usual. “That little girl is perfectly capable of assimilating the entire population of Earth if something isn’t done to stop her. She’s probably establishing a communications link with the Collective at this moment.”
Picard could hear the ring of truth in the doctor’s words. All the same, he couldn’t bring himself to accept them. “Maybe the Collective implanted the virus in Lucienne before she left the Delta Quadrant. She might not even have known it was there.”
Beverly returned a look of understanding and pity that left him, once again, wishing he were dead. “Jean-Luc, she knew.”
He remembered the expression on Lucienne’s face in the dormitory, the total suppression of all emotion, and he couldn’t deny it any longer. He spoke again, in a voice that he barely recognized as his own.
“Fifteen minutes, Beverly. Just give me fifteen minutes.”
A group of crewmen in the corridor gave Picard curious glances as he dashed out of sickbay, but he paid little attention to them. The turbolift seemed to take forever. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the stark white image of Lucienne’s face staring back at him.
“I am about to aid in the escape of a dangerous enemy agent,” Picard informed the young lieutenant on duty in the transporter room. “Anyone involved will unquestionably be court-martialed. For the sake of your career, you may find it prudent to attend to other duties for the next few minutes.”
The lieutenant took a step back from the control panel, but he didn’t leave the room. “Whatever you’re doing, sir, I’m sure you have a good reason for it. Just let me know if you need any help.”
Although Picard didn’t anticipate needing any help, the lieutenant’s display of personal loyalty did leave him feeling somewhat better. The Enterprise had always had a good, solid, loyal crew. He hoped they wouldn’t suffer for what he was about to do.
The transporter had no difficulty locking in on the target; Borg life signs weren’t exactly thick on the ground in Grenoble, after all. A moment later, Lucienne stood on the transporter pad, regarding him with the same proud gaze she’d shown when she first came aboard the ship.
“We are the Borg Collective.” Her tone made it plain that she considered any further explanation to be irrelevant, as indeed it was.
Picard reached for Lucienne’s hand and led her into the hallway. A child’s hand, warm in her father’s grasp. A drone’s hand, with its assimilation tubules literally at his fingertips, a precise instrument of destruction. She had already tried to assimilate him once, by means of the virus. He hadn’t brought any security guards to the transporter room. If she decided to abduct him in her shuttlecraft, he’d be a drone in the Delta Quadrant before those desk jockeys at Starfleet Command even got finished with their reports.
But he didn’t let go.
Lucienne spoke again as they entered the shuttle bay. “To release this drone is illogical. We are enemies.”
She stood beside her small craft, staring at Picard with one Borg visual sensor and one human eye that looked just like his mother’s.
He finally relinquished her hand. “I hope that will not always be so.”
A spark of understanding began to glow in that human eye, sudden and entirely unexpected.
“As do I.”
Picard remained standing in the bay, the stars reaching to infinity before him, until long after the little shuttlecraft had vanished from his sight.