Refugee Camp Voyager

Prologue

The silence of the desert plain was undisturbed by bird, insect, or any other form of animal life. A hot, dry wind blew steadily from the south over an unbroken expanse of deep red sand dunes. The smooth, curving lines seemed to go on forever, except for a square protrusion where the drifting sand had almost completely buried the wreck of a Borg scout ship. Within the scant shelter it provided, Three of Six reconfigured her cybernetic hand to make a last microscopic adjustment to the communications module she was repairing.

The other drones who had been her companions had all died in the crash, and a severe spinal injury had left her without feeling in her legs. The condition of her body had little importance, however, except when it detracted from the efficient performance of her duties. From the bodies of the other drones, she had proceeded to extract the relays and servomotors that would restore a full range of motion to her lifeless legs and allow her to complete her necessary tasks.

The communications module that provided the spacecraft’s link to the Borg Collective had sustained heavy damage in the wreck, leaving Three of Six disturbingly trapped in the isolation of her own thoughts. Anxiety was an emotion she didn’t often experience, but it now threatened to overwhelm her as she worked to make repairs, to restore the link, to once again submerge her inadequate individual self into the protective certainty of the collective mind.

Exhaustion overcame her eventually, and she slept sprawled on the floor, her regeneration alcove destroyed beyond repair. Lacking the normal computerized control of the regenerative process, her sleep was troubled by nightmares: the vivid images of a world in flames, her children torn from her arms by the alien invaders . . .

Awakening suddenly, her one natural eye wide with terror, she resumed her work on the communications module but found it impossible to maintain her concentration. She knew that she must repair the module quickly, for she had very little water. Any further delay would surely cause her death. The images are irrelevant. Distraction will be fatal. But she could not keep them out of her mind, the flames flickering at the edge of her vision, the anguished voices whispering to her in the silence, directing her away from the communications repairs. Her long-conquered world spoke clearly to her now, its demands insistent, beyond all reason or choice.

A background process running continuously in her brain kept count of the time remaining until any Borg vessel, even at maximum speed, would still be too far distant to prevent her death from thirst. She felt no dismay when the counter ran to zero. As she completed her preparations, the images of her lost children smiled at her. The voices of her people were stilled now, at peace again, as they had been so long ago.

She realized vaguely that she had been known by a name then, instead of a designation, but the memory was fragmented beyond repair. She had performed several diagnostic scans of her cortical processor and had found no significant errors. The fault evidently must be located in the organic part of her brain.

It did not matter now, she thought, her mind beginning to drift again. Perhaps her loss of memory was a kindness, a spirit-gift from the Crow Goddess who devoured the dying and restored them to the endless circle of renewal. On her fallen homeworld, old women had once performed ceremonies in the temple, by the faint light of the third moon. She remembered the wrinkled faces, watching expectantly.

That memory began to fade like the others, leaving only an image of the gleaming white curve of a bone knife lifted for the sacrifice. The symbol was appropriate, Three of Six thought grimly. Her death could not now be prevented. Further delay would be pointless. She reached for the cable that would restore power to the communications module she had so painstakingly repaired.

When she made the connection, she would immediately be linked once again to the Borg Collective. Its central system would proceed to scan all of the embedded processors in her body and to initialize the standard functions with which all drones were programmed. In the same moment, it would also upload and initiate the automatic run of several executable programs that it hadn’t expected to find. The results of those operations would be even more unexpected.

For the first time in countless years, her pale lips slowly curved into a smile. Three of Six, whose true name had long been forgotten, had one final message for the Borg Collective:

Assimilate this.

*****

Chapter One

“For she’s a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny!”

Captain Kathryn Janeway blew out the candles on her birthday cake. Another year had passed in the Delta Quadrant. Another year closer to home. Around her in the mess hall, the officers and crewmen of her Voyager family applauded.

“I propose a toast.” Harry Kim, ever the earnest young ensign, raised his glass. “To the captain, who has preserved us through the perils and horrors of our journey, and who inspires us all to rise above our fears and reach to greater heights.”

The crew cheered again.

“And I propose a roast.” First Officer Chakotay’s usually composed face had a wicked smile on it. “To our wonderful captain, the height of perilous preserved horrors, as Harry so eloquently put it . . .”

“I did not,” Kim sputtered, as Chakotay proceeded to skewer several of the captain’s better known foibles with gleeful accuracy, leaving most of his listeners completely overcome with helpless laughter.

“But we love her anyway,” Chakotay concluded, standing beside Janeway’s chair and bending down to plant an affectionate kiss on her cheek.

Everyone cheered even more enthusiastically.

Seven of Nine observed her crewmates with a look of curiosity, as if she regarded this event as an opportunity to collect more data for an ongoing study of human cultural rituals. Close enough to the truth, after she’d spent most of her life as a drone in the Borg Collective. Seven joined into the spirit of the celebration all the same, lifting her glass of sparkling cider. With her left hand, its artificial structure still plainly visible, she passed a blunt knife across the table to Janeway.

“I recommend that we discontinue cooking the captain and allow her to cut the cake.”

“Hear, hear.” Naomi Wildman, sitting at the next table with her mother, enthusiastically seconded that sentiment.

Neelix beamed proudly as Janeway cut neat slices from his creation, a huge yellow cake topped with an image of Voyager in butter cream icing. Janeway removed the candles, which had been placed carefully around the edges of the ship, and put them on a small plate.

In front of her, a Latin band struck up a lively tune. The band consisted of two human crewmen, a Bajoran woman, and somewhat surprisingly, a Vulcan keeping perfect rhythm on the maracas. Evidently, young Vorik had decided to broaden his cultural knowledge base.

Janeway’s universal translator automatically converted the lyrics, which were the usual lament about lost love, into perfect English. She’d never gotten around to learning much Spanish, and it didn’t look as if she’d ever do it now. Having access to instant translations anywhere in the cosmos gave Starfleeters a definite tendency toward laziness when it came to learning other languages. Intellectual flab, you might say.

There were always exceptions, of course, and she could think of a few. Jean-Luc Picard spoke five languages fluently, including Klingon, and several other languages at least passably. But for the most part, no one took the time for language study these days, because such skills had become almost useless to anyone who didn’t work in the development of translation matrices.

Mark, her former fiancĂ©, had learned to speak fluent Spanish as a child when his family had spent three years in Buenos Aires. He spoke of the city by its nickname of B.A., giving the initials their Spanish pronunciation, bay-ah. She’d visited the Argentine metropolis once with him, when she’d had shore leave on Earth. That seemed almost a lifetime ago.

Latin music had also been playing in the little restaurant where Mark had taken her to dinner, celebrating her new command of Voyager. Mark had given her a tiny, brightly wrapped box and told her to guess what was inside it. She’d guessed a necklace, a pin, a bracelet, and finally she’d gotten so infuriated with his smug grin that she’d just ripped open the box and found the ring . . .

All that was past history. He had moved on with his life now, had made the decision to put aside all thought of what they could have had together. She couldn’t blame him for that. Not after all these years alone.

Just as well that her universal translator changed everything into English. An original te quiero would probably have left her crying into the crumbs of this very excellent birthday cake. Which would not have been the best start to the party.

Chakotay, always sensitive to her moods, approached her chair and made an elaborate bow. “May I have this dance?”

She found herself smiling once again as she rose to her feet, thinking, Cheer up, Kathryn. Think of what a lucky woman you are. You’ve got the best ship and crew in all of Starfleet.

Even if Starfleet was on the other side of the galaxy.

*****

Naomi placed the Queen of Diamonds atop the starship that was beginning to take shape nicely on the table. Twelve decks of cards so far. She stood beside the table for a moment, admiring her handiwork.

“It’s time for bed.” Her mother’s voice intruded. “Your cards will still be there in the morning.”

“I am regenerating in an upright position,” Naomi announced. “The Borg do it all the time, so it must be efficient.”

“Perhaps for the Borg. You, however, need to go to bed.” Her mother came up behind her, took her by the hand, and led her away from the table. “And being a drone is certainly nothing to be envied.”

Naomi had to admit that her bed was cozy, as her mother covered her up and gave her a bedtime kiss. All the same, she thought there must be advantages to being a Borg, too. Children in the Collective never had to do any schoolwork. They just assimilated their lessons in their sleep. That had to be the life.

*****

Janeway sat comfortably in the captain’s chair like a mother hen on her nest. All was well with Voyager this morning. She’d gone over the status reports thoroughly, as usual, and the only matter for immediate concern was a shortage of dilithium. If Voyager didn’t find a source of supply soon, the need to conserve power would force Janeway to cut replicator rations and restrict use of the holodecks.

Food supplies were running a bit low, too, but not enough to cause Janeway much worry. Neelix could work wonders with roots, berries, and various weird vegetation that defied classification. All this foraging on uncharted planets had certainly improved the crew’s appreciation of culinary surprises.

She turned to face her operations officer. “How’s the search going, Harry? Any signs of dilithium deposits in the nearby systems?”

“Nothing yet, Captain. No planets with edible vegetation, either, unless you would want to . . .”

Kim, suddenly intent on the displays in front of him, fell silent.

“What is it?”

“There’s a small ship approaching our position, Captain. It’s Borg. Four life signs. And, Captain . . . they’ve just sent us a hail. On the standard Starfleet hailing frequency.”

Kim looked puzzled at this, which was understandable. The Borg didn’t bother with little niceties like hailing. When the Borg took the trouble to communicate with other species at all, which was seldom, it was usually to inform the inhabitants of some luckless planet that they were about to be assimilated.

“Onscreen.”

The main viewer displayed the image of a female Borg, the pattern of her facial features strangely familiar, even when seen through their surrounding biomechanical implants. Human, Janeway thought, I’ll swear.

“I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. Can we assist you?”

The Borg female answered in English, the unmistakable soft drawl of the American South overlaid with the crisp intonation of Starfleet.

“Ensign Julia Bonner, Captain, with three members of my unimatrix, requesting permission to come aboard Voyager.”

*****

Chapter Two

The Borg pilot — it was hard to think of her as Ensign Bonner — brought her small craft into Voyager’s shuttle bay and set it down smoothly. When the craft’s door slid open, Janeway, Tuvok and Chakotay stepped forward. A security detail followed closely behind, although Janeway didn’t anticipate a need for their services. The Borg didn’t normally attack by subterfuge; and if they did, she’d be surprised if the security detail proved to be of any use at all. That was one argument not worth having with Tuvok, however. As the chief security officer, Tuvok possessed a vast knowledge of Starfleet regulations and could almost never be persuaded to bend them.

Julia Bonner walked steadily across the deck toward Janeway, her three companions following. She was about Janeway’s own height, with one dark brown eye. The other had been replaced with Borg visual circuitry.

“A Federation ship. Not a common sight in the Delta Quadrant.” She smiled broadly, the expression shockingly incongruous on the half-mechanical face. “Glad to meet you all. You may wish to call us dissidents, Captain, or defectors, although there isn’t a precise term for someone who leaves the Collective. To define what we are would first require the recognition that we had a choice. That, of course, would be unthinkable. The Collective would prefer to believe that we are malfunctioning.”

Borg defectors did exist, Janeway knew. A small group had visited Voyager not long ago. They had been extensively scarred, both physically and mentally, by their experiences in the Collective. They had preferred a quick death as individuals to bleak survival as drones.

But Julia Bonner seemed entirely cheerful and untroubled, which didn’t make sense at all, Janeway thought while Chakotay and Tuvok introduced themselves. Of course, anyone would be glad to have escaped from the Collective, but still, her behavior was so completely at odds with anything that might be expected from a Borg . . .

“Lumacretia,” squeaked one of the visitors in an incredibly high treble, extending a thin, pale hand toward Janeway. The voice held a questioning note, as if she were not altogether certain that she had remembered her name correctly.

Janeway clasped the slender fingers, their warmth surprising. The robotic physical appearance and unemotional demeanor of the Borg created the distinct impression that they would be cold to the touch. In fact, Borg body temperature averaged several degrees above species normal, probably as an adaptation to the extreme stress on the immune system.

“Linnas Kari Bayanmana,” the next Borg introduced himself, without offering a handshake. He was quite tall, over two meters, and his deep voice had a pleasant resonance. A vivid green eye looked almost feline.

“Welcome to Voyager, Mr. Bayanmana.”

“It’s Linnas. In my culture, we used only our first names, except in introductions and on certain formal occasions. We received our soul-names in our coming-of-age ceremonies, to honor the spiritual qualities that the wise man saw in us. My soul-name meant a far-seeing climber of great mountains, in the ancient tongue.”

Janeway noted the use of the past tense. At the time he’d been assimilated, the Borg Collective had probably done a very thorough job of removing all traces of humanoid life from the face of this poor fellow’s planet.

Julia Bonner turned to her remaining companion. “His designation, in part, is Four of Eight. He can’t speak, Captain. He was constructed by the Borg from assimilated genetic material and has never communicated outside the Collective.”

“Resulting in atrophy of the vocal center of the brain. I see.” Janeway gave a polite nod to the silent Borg, who did not return the gesture. “It’s a fairly common condition among isolated telepathic races. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Four. Now, if we’ve finished the introductions and none of you has immediate needs, I’d like to proceed to a briefing room where we can talk further.”

As Janeway led the group along the corridor, she sifted through the contradictions. The Collective evidently wasn’t controlling these Borg. She was well aware that drones in the Collective didn’t carry on such spontaneous, individual conversations. In fact, the four visitors weren’t behaving like Borg at all, but they still had all of their artificial body parts, apparently unchanged. Which made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The four Borg all remained standing as they entered the briefing room. Janeway knew it was probably not meant as a deliberate attempt to intimidate; Borg ships didn’t have chairs. All the same, she found it somewhat disconcerting to sit at the table looking up at them.

Chakotay brought glasses of ice water from the replicator and set them on the briefing room table. Julia Bonner calmly picked up her glass with some kind of rotating gripper attached to her mechanical left arm. The sight disturbed Janeway, but she reminded herself that she’d seen a lot worse than that, and she made a conscious effort not to react in any way to it. Although chances were, these Borg wouldn’t consider an individual’s emotional responses to be of any importance at all.

“Your first question will be whether we’ve been pursued, isn’t that right? Well, the answer is no. The Collective has other concerns at the moment.” Julia’s voice cascaded into loud, sarcastic laughter.

Tuvok raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”

“Many drones have left the Collective. Some now seek to destroy it. The central communications network was sabotaged eight days ago and remained off line for two hours, twenty-six minutes, thirty-eight seconds. This created an opportunity for resistance . . . “

Janeway held up a hand to stop the rush of words; she’d never have imagined a Borg could talk so fast. “Are you telling us there’s a full-scale civil war in the Borg Collective?” she demanded.

“The term is imprecise,” Linnas put in. “The Borg do not wish to kill one another. The Collective’s goal is to reassimilate those who have chosen to leave. The defectors have a variety of objectives. Some want to destroy the Collective’s communications system entirely, forcing all Borg to live as individuals. Others simply desire to return to their planets of origin, remove their cybernetic implants, and rejoin their native races. Other factions are attempting to modify various protocols in order to restructure the Collective.”

Sounds like it’s either a war, Janeway thought, or very near anarchy. Cyber-warfare, Borg style. About time, in her opinion. Of course, her immediate concern was to ensure the safety of the ship.

“Mr. Linnas, do you know of any spacecraft of either the Collective or the resistance now located in the immediate vicinity of Voyager, or on a course likely to cross ours?”

“Searching location and navigation files for all adjacent sectors,” Linnas responded agreeably. “Distance of nearest Collective vessel, 21.8 light years. Its course will not intersect Voyager’s. As for spacecraft controlled by the resistance, their location information is no longer in the system.”

Janeway frowned. “I thought the four of you weren’t, either. Explain how you can access Borg Collective data if, as you said, you’re no longer part of the Collective. Ensign Bonner, you’d better give me a very good explanation.”

“My earlier statement to you was substantially true, Captain. The Collective no longer controls our actions.”

“But your neural links are intact.” Janeway flatly stated the obvious.

“Correct.”

“And you can retrieve data from the Collective.” The implications of that were very interesting. “Does that mean, for example, that you could provide Voyager with the complete specifications for the Borg transwarp drive?”

Julia Bonner replied abruptly, “File size, 243.8 terabytes. Estimated time to download, three minutes, 12.2 seconds. Specify desired path.”

The immediate response took Janeway somewhat by surprise. “Transwarp files go under Engineering, Propulsion Systems, Transwarp; there’s already a subdirectory called Borg Transwarp Drive, but I’ll want to create a new subdirectory under it, called Borg Transwarp Specifications . . . “

“Directory structure modified. Initiating file transfer.”

Almost immediately, Kim’s voice came over Janeway’s combadge. “Captain, there’s been a security violation, we’re receiving data files through an unauthorized subspace transmission.”

“I believe I authorized it, Mr. Kim.” Better be careful what I wish for, Janeway thought. “Computer, confirm status of subdirectory Borg Transwarp Specifications.”

The computer informed Janeway that a file transfer was currently in progress to the designated location.

Tuvok’s usually impassive face was beginning to look as if he had swallowed a lemon. “Does the entire Borg Collective now have unrestricted access to Voyager’s systems?”

“No. The Collective has no access to Voyager’s systems or to our own.”

Still trying to make sense of that, Janeway turned her head, looking farther down the table. “Ms. Lumacretia, you’ve been very quiet. Do you have anything to add to the discussion?”

“We are Borg. We are one,” the fluting voice replied serenely. “It does not matter which of us speaks.”

That sounded like classic Borg. No, Janeway thought, not really. The tone’s all wrong. A drone in the Collective would have spoken with arrogance, with contempt for the lowly individual who had been foolish enough to ask such an irrelevant question. Lumacretia sounded like a happy little bird, chirping cheerfully, without a care in the world. A nest of cybernetic cuckoos aboard Voyager . . .

Tuvok asked the logical next question. “What have you done to block the Collective’s access?”

“We have installed a new security module in our communications circuitry, a lockout chip. It allows us to maintain personal control over our bodies. The saboteur transmitted the specifications systemwide an instant before the central communications network failed.” Julia Bonner turned her head, reaching for an access panel on the back of her neck. “You may examine the module if you wish.”

Janeway didn’t particularly relish the thought of closely observing the alien innards of a mutilated Starfleet officer. She’d seen more than enough of what the Borg could do to a living body. “Not at the moment, but you’ll be thoroughly examined by our ship’s doctor later.”

“So you’re all free of the Collective’s control,” Chakotay observed, looking from one refugee to another, “but at the same time, you’re able to communicate with it and with each other. Did your saboteur give you any further instructions as to your next course of action?”

“None at all, Commander. With the specifications for the lockout chip, there was only the message that our destiny was now in our own hands.” Julia Bonner smiled strangely as she looked down at the mechanical attachments at the end of her artificial left arm. “So to speak.”

Chakotay went on to ask her, “Is this chip also responsible for restoring your original individual personalities?”

“Indirectly. The module is incompatible with our regeneration circuitry. We have been experiencing inappropriate manifestations of individuality, in addition to other system malfunctions.”

“I thought the Borg were unable to sleep at all without the use of a regeneration alcove.” Janeway had once discussed the subject with Seven of Nine and had been left with the distinct impression that any Borg so deprived would suffer a quick and excruciating death.

“The experience is unpleasant,” Julia acknowledged, “but it is not immediately fatal.”

“Then I assume you’ll want our assistance with the removal of your implants. You’re fortunate in that we have a skilled surgeon aboard Voyager who has performed this procedure before.”

Julia’s face was expressionless as she responded, her voice as flat and hostile as any drone’s.

“You assume incorrectly, Captain Janeway. We are Borg.”

Kim spoke again from the bridge.

“Captain, another group of Borg just hailed us. Five of them this time, none human. They’re requesting political asylum.”

*****

Chapter Three

“Seven, you’re going to have to move out of cargo bay two. We need the space for the refugees.”

“As you wish, Captain.” Seven of Nine pressed her full lips together into the familiar stubborn expression that meant she would comply against her better judgment. Seven had argued at length against allowing Borg refugees to remain aboard Voyager, on the basis that the ship would be endangered. Her logic couldn’t be faulted; but if the alternative were to allow the Borg Collective to recapture a human, Janeway was willing to take a few risks. Seven, of all people, ought to understand that.

“The Wildmans have invited you to share their quarters,” Janeway continued. “Naomi is really looking forward to it. She hopes that you can tell her some good bedtime stories.”

“I am not familiar with bedtime stories.”

Janeway smiled. “Then you’d better take a look at some of the fairy tales in the library files. It wouldn’t do to disappoint Naomi.”

“She can be very demanding at times,” Seven agreed.

*****

Julia Bonner, in her sleep, heard the distant sound of her own voice screaming. The pillow and mattress yielded beneath the heavy solidity of her body, a peculiar and sinister sensation, as if she would sink into the depths of the cot and never be found again. Harsh images, long repressed, began to flash before her. She could feel the brutal grip of a man’s hands bruising her soft human girl’s wrists as she was crushed by his weight, and the pain . . .

Abruptly she woke, the alien pillow wet with tears she hadn’t known she was still capable of crying. She felt the familiar, calming reassurance of Borg minds touching hers. We are with you now. We will always be with you. We are one. She could sense the presence of seventy-four minds in the local collective matrix. More refugees had come aboard Voyager while she was sleeping.

She left the cargo bay and strode along the corridor, with no particular destination, drawing emotional strength from the hard cybernetic construction of her body. No humans would dare touch her now. A young crewman passed her, averting his eyes and trying without much success not to appear nervous. That’s right, weak foolish human, be afraid, she thought with satisfaction. We are Borg. Nothing in the universe can stand before us.

*****

Janeway walked into sickbay, a few minutes after noon, finding the Doctor alone for the moment within its gleaming confines. He had been performing physical examinations of all the Borg refugees, who now numbered one hundred and twelve, for the past twenty-six hours. One of the advantages of having a hologram for the chief medical officer was that he didn’t require any rest breaks.

“So tell me about our sleep-deprived guests,” Janeway began, without preamble.

“They are developing profound biochemical imbalances, Captain. The inability to regenerate causes a buildup of toxic substances, chiefly in the brain. For now, most of the symptoms can be controlled with medication, although they will continue to suffer unpleasant sleep disturbances and flashbacks to their previous lives.”

“Nightmares, you mean?”

“Primarily, although some are also experiencing waking hallucinations. One young fellow told me that he remembered a farming accident on his home planet in which he was crushed by heavy machinery, and he wanted to know if I had brought him aboard Voyager to give him prosthetic implants. He seemed very confused when I explained that he was a Borg. I was able to restore most of his mental functioning, but he could develop further delusions at any time, as could the others.”

Janeway reflected for a moment on the potential consequences of having large numbers of mentally disturbed Borg wandering through the ship. “How dangerous would you say they are, Doctor?”

“None of them has shown any indication of violent behavior so far. That could change as their condition deteriorates, which will occur rapidly. My estimate, which Seven of Nine confirms, is that they will all be dead within two weeks if they do not remove their lockout chips and regenerate normally.”

“And removal of the chip isn’t an option because it would allow the Collective to reassimilate them easily.” Janeway paced the deck in front of the Doctor’s console, wondering just what it was that she was missing. “I’ve had no success whatsoever trying to persuade them to have all of their implants removed. Although they have left the Collective, they keep insisting that they’re still Borg. It doesn’t make sense, and I haven’t been able to get a reasonable explanation out of them. Do you think they came aboard Voyager with the intention of dying here?”

“Perhaps they have chosen to await the outcome of the rebellion before making a decision,” the Doctor suggested. “They may expect the Collective to be overthrown.”

“In just two weeks, with many of the rebels suffering from hallucinations? Not likely. This uprising is definitely going to run out of time. If I had to make a guess, the Collective has already recaptured most of those who defected.”

“I concur, Captain, but as I have already said, our guests are not thinking very rationally at the present time.” The Doctor entered another query into the console and frowned at the results.

“Have you brought up the subject of removing their implants?”

“I explained that removal of the implants is one of their options. Alternatively, they can return to the Collective.” The Doctor glanced up at Janeway again, his attention still focused in part on the computer display. “Or they can die.”

Certainly no one could ever fault the Doctor for not being entirely honest with his patients. Of course, Janeway realized that the Borg refugees must have understood the full consequences when they chose to leave the Collective. She drummed the fingers of her right hand against the back of the console, feeling certain that she had overlooked something, but what?

The Doctor gave her an irritated look, and Janeway let her hand fall back to her side.

“Let me guess,” Janeway declared, with more than a hint of frustration creeping into her voice. “When you discussed their options, every single one of the Borg chose ‘none of the above,’ and gave you no explanation.”

“Substantially correct, Captain, although it is somewhat inaccurate to refer to a Borg as single.”

“A figure of speech.” Still focused on the refugees’ inexplicable behavior, Janeway wasn’t in a mood to listen to semantic nitpicking. “Tell me this. Do you think it would be possible for you to adjust the refugees’ lockout chips in such a way as to allow normal regeneration with the chip still fully functioning?”

He regarded her with a look of vexation.

“I’m a doctor, not a Borg network engineer.”

*****

By the third day after the refugees’ arrival, Tuvok had quintupled the automatic security sweeps of the ship’s key systems, finding no unauthorized access whatsoever. Either the behavior of the Borg while aboard Voyager had truly been exemplary, or they were extremely good at hiding their tracks.

After thorough consideration, Tuvok had rejected the possibility that the Collective had instructed the refugees to infiltrate the ship. That was far too unlikely. Had the Collective desired to capture Voyager, it could easily have done so before now, by more direct and efficient means.

He was left with a choice of two logical alternatives. Either the refugees planned to use Voyager as a base for rebel operations, or they had come aboard the ship intending suicide. Tuvok favored the latter theory, mainly because Voyager’s technological inferiority would render it of little use in any clash with the Collective’s forces. If the rebels had wanted to commandeer a ship for use in battle, surely they would have taken over a Borg vessel instead.

Any drone who became useless to the Collective was expected to self-destruct, and the shame of having been assimilated would undoubtedly be sufficient in itself to drive many species to suicide. Many of his own people, Tuvok realized, would share that particular view.

From time to time, he had overheard humans remarking on the subject of Vulcan and Borg compatibility, to the effect that they should get along famously because neither had any emotions. That superficial observation missed the point entirely. Vulcans chose to control their emotions by means of discipline and meditation, seeking a greater morality derived from the rigorous application of logic. The Borg, by contrast, suppressed emotional responses through artificial means that seemed designed to strip every vestige of moral reasoning from them. Assimilation into the Collective more closely approximated a descent into ultimate evil than any other fate of which Tuvok could conceive. He had no difficulty understanding how a former drone could succumb to the seductive irrationality of suicide.

All the same, the refugees’ motive for coming aboard Voyager concerned him far less than the actual result. Maintaining security with hundreds of Borg on the ship was, for all practical purposes, impossible. He could monitor their behavior easily enough, but if the refugees ever did attempt to seize the ship, Voyager’s crew was going to be notably short on response options.

And there was one other point. The Borg could interface easily with the ship’s computer. When the first group of refugees had come aboard, they had given an impressive demonstration of their ability to control Voyager’s systems with only a thought.

Tuvok restated this observation in his usual Vulcan logical manner, first the premise and then the inevitable conclusion. If they can control the ship’s systems with a thought, then what can be expected to happen to the ship when their thoughts become completely deranged?

*****

Cargo bay one bustled with activity as crewmen maneuvered tall containers off to the side, while others staggered in from the corridor, loaded down with huge stacks of cots and bedding.

“I guess if we run out of room for cots, they can sleep standing up. That’s what they’re used to, isn’t it?”

“How many of them are on board now?”

Cots clattered against the deck. “Two hundred and eighty.”

“Has the captain gone completely out of her mind?”

Another voice spoke, a harsh, mutinous whisper. “I think the captain has already been assimilated. The senior officers have all been shaking hands with these so-called refugees, and Borg nanoprobes can go through your pores just like that.” The sound of snapping fingers echoed through the cargo bay.

“That’s enough of the conspiracy theory, gentlemen.” Neelix was in charge of arranging the refugees’ accommodations, and he had no intention of tolerating any disrespect toward the captain. He wasn’t surprised that the crew felt uneasy; in fact, the sight of all those Borg walking around on Voyager definitely made him nervous. That was entirely beside the point, though. The captain was in charge of the ship, and she’d done an outstanding job of keeping them all alive so far. If Captain Janeway were to command him to jump into a pit filled with poisonous snakes, Neelix would do it with complete trust.

Although a snake pit might actually be somewhat safer than two hundred and eighty Borg . . .

*****

Standing at her computer console in Astrometrics, Seven of Nine considered strategic options.

Her duty shift had ended five hours ago, but she had seen no purpose to leaving her station. Not when the entire ship was overrun with Borg invaders. Seven had no doubt that they still served the Collective. She could see it in the pride behind their eyes, the arrogance of their movements, and the contempt with which they regarded her. Especially the tall drone, the one who called himself Linnas, although Seven was certain that he still thought of himself by his Borg designation. How could Captain Janeway be so blind?

She shook her head in frustration. The captain simply couldn’t understand that from the moment the first group of Borg had come aboard, Voyager’s crew no longer controlled the ship.

The Borg did.

Analysis of the captain’s decision with reference to Voyager’s historical data indicated that Captain Janeway was not under the control of the Borg. Allowing them to come aboard was just more of the captain’s usual foolhardiness. Being human, she made illogical decisions with predictable frequency. This was not the first time the captain had decided to ignore Seven’s superior knowledge and reasoning power, although it could well prove to be the last. On a previous occasion, the captain had led Voyager to the brink of destruction with her foolish insistence on protecting an injured intruder of the despicable Species 8472.

Seven had found it necessary to act alone, against orders, to save the ship. She would do so again if the circumstances required.

Her mind rapidly sorted through the possibilities, eventually accessing the memory of a method of resistance she’d once encountered as a drone, during the assimilation of a highly advanced species. There was a particular sequence of subspace frequencies on which properly timed bursts of energy would overload Borg neural links, rendering all drones within range unconscious for a period of approximately six minutes, twenty seconds.

That would be more than sufficient time to flood the entire ship with anesthezine gas, which would leave everyone unconscious for quite some time. Then she would personally make sure that all Borg on board were disconnected from the Collective and sent on their way.

Her fingers flew over the console, keying in the program, setting it to activate on her voice command.

She heard the door open behind her.

Harry Kim spoke. “Seven, there’s a new arrival who wants to see you.”

“Perhaps another member of the crew can speak with that person instead.” She did not intend this as a suggestion.

“I don’t think so.”

Kim was not usually this annoying, although he sometimes came close. Seven turned around, intending to explain a few things to him.

A female Borg was standing just inside the doorway. There was a strange familiarity to the shape of her face, the one eye that regarded Seven with unexpected affection, the lips that trembled as they opened to speak her name.

Annika.”

The Borg who had been her mother approached Seven and reached to embrace her, the warmth of the once-human body contrasting with the cold metal of its cybernetic implants. Seven recoiled instinctively from the touch, all of her senses screaming at her to flee from this risen specter.

You died long ago, Seven of Nine thought. I watched you die.

*****

Chapter Four

When Daro Gareth entered his quarters, he felt as if he were intruding upon the spirits of his murdered people.

He had torn down the small devotional altar on the far wall as soon as Voyager’s crew had learned of the total destruction of the Maquis freedom fighters. There was nothing left for him to worship. Surely the prophets must have been destroyed as well, their celestial temple overthrown. Or perhaps they had chosen to abandon his cause; it did not much matter which.

In place of the meaningless altar, he had covered the wall with a thick montage of images. Portraits of the dead. In the center, his entire family: parents, grandparents, sisters, a brother, all lost to the brutal conditions of the labor camps. His first lover, Joral Dolante, dark hair and warm brown eyes, an elaborate earring resting against a clean-shaven cheek. He had also been dead for many years; the Cardassians, a particularly homophobic race, had tortured him to death by means too gruesome to contemplate.

The remainder of the wall was given over to Maquis comrades fallen in battle. Their pictures seemed too tightly massed to be counted, although he knew the exact number: two thousand, two hundred, seventy-three.

He did not ordinarily spend much time in his quarters. Sometimes if he were alone too long, he could almost hear the voices of his dead, reproaching him for the distance he had traveled from them. He could do nothing to avenge their deaths.

*****

Chakotay made his way through the crowd in the mess hall and got a bowl of some unidentifiable stew. He figured Neelix must be running low on just about everything, with so many to feed. At last count, there were four hundred ninety-eight Borg refugees aboard.

Starfleet personnel were sitting at most of the tables. There were also several dozen Borg in the mess hall, but they seemed to prefer to eat standing up. As a conspicuous exception to that rule, Julia Bonner sat alone at a table in a corner. Carrying his tray, Chakotay walked in that general direction.

“You’re welcome to sit here, Commander. The Borg are not wild beasts. We do not bite.” Julia smiled mockingly as she dipped her fork into her stew bowl.

Chakotay took a seat across from her. “This stew isn’t one of Neelix’s best efforts, I’m afraid. The food here is usually better than this.”

“Then you probably don’t want to know what drones eat. If you could even describe that function as eating.”

“You must be glad to be back on a Federation ship.”

“The Borg don’t normally experience gladness. We reconfigure the limbic system to suppress such inefficient emotional distractions.” She continued devouring the stew, with obvious enjoyment. “But as you’ve probably noticed, several functions of this body haven’t been operating at peak efficiency recently. The stew is delicious.”

Chakotay wondered whether she felt ashamed of enjoying her meal. Probably not, he decided. Shame was another emotion the Borg considered useless. It was more likely that she had calmly marked down her current experience on a malfunction report for eventual repair. Presumably her odd sense of humor was also a reflection of some flaw in her programming.

The idea disturbed him profoundly. He couldn’t even imagine what it must be like for a human being to be trapped in a bleak existence where the slightest expression of individuality or emotion would generate an error code.

“Have you thought any more about returning to Earth with us?” Chakotay spoke on impulse. “I’d like to see you stay on Voyager. We could use another officer.”

She set down her fork and gazed intently into Chakotay’s eyes with a peculiar, thoughtful expression, as if she were trying to see into his mind. Her dark eye and long, broad features reminded him, bizarrely, of a painting he’d once seen of a costumed Mayan priestess about to perform a sacrifice.

Then she raised her hand to his forehead, her fingers warm and intimate, precisely tracing the lines of his tattoo. “This marking has cultural significance for you.”

“Yes,” Chakotay acknowledged.

“Would you be persuaded to allow its removal, Commander, if you were told that the Borg Collective could use another drone?”

“Of course not.”

She responded with a nod, as if she had expected nothing else. “Then why do you assume that any drone would be fortunate to be deprived of all semblance of Borg identity? Do you see no value at all in the current configuration of this body?”

Chakotay looked at her proud figure, with cybernetic attachments on virtually every square centimeter, and still saw a woman.

“It’s not the same. This tattoo honors my ancestors and was freely chosen. You were captured, altered without your consent, and forced to serve the Collective.”

She seemed to be untroubled by his observation. “That is the way of the Borg.”

“They didn’t give you a choice,” Chakotay went on.

“Irrelevant.” She regarded him coolly as she stood up to leave. “Did you choose your birth, Commander?”

Chakotay sat watching her walk away, the stew mostly uneaten on his tray.

A Borg, he thought. God, what a waste of a human soul.

*****

Janeway strode into Engineering, finding her chief engineer standing at a console with a slight frown on her face.

“Anything useful in the transwarp data?”

Torres shook her head. “Not at present, Captain. Oh, it’s interesting in an abstract way, but before we can do anything practical, we’ll need more transwarp coils like that one we got from the Borg a while ago. Transwarp coils can’t be replicated, as you know, and we don’t have the raw materials to fabricate them. Now, if we could convince our new pals to tell us where they’ve been doing their mining, that would be a lot more useful.”

“Raid a Borg mining facility in the middle of a civil war? I don’t think so. We’ll just have to keep trying to find the mineral deposits we need, or perhaps someone we can trade with.”

Acknowledging this with a brief nod, Torres changed the subject. “Captain, if you don’t mind my saying so, we have to do something about these refugees. I understand that you don’t want to leave any humans in the Delta Quadrant, but the last time I looked at them, only two of the refugees were human. By my calculations, that leaves four hundred ninety-six Borg who need to be ditched at the next convenient planet. Or sooner.”

Janeway had heard similar sentiments from others in the crew recently, but she had no intention of allowing herself to be swayed. “B’Elanna, I wouldn’t abandon a dog to the Borg Collective.”

“It’s your call, Captain, and I’m willing to die bravely when the Collective decides to come and reassimilate its lost drones.” Torres sighed. “But when my ancestors welcome me to Sto-Vo-Kor, I think they’ll have a hard time understanding that I died trying to defend a shipload of lunatic Borg.”

*****

In the Wildmans’ quarters, Seven of Nine finished reciting Goldilocks and moved on to The Three Little Pigs. Something in the cadence of the words stirred memories long forgotten, and she realized that she was familiar with bedtime stories after all, and that her mother had read this very tale to her.

“But the wolf could not blow down the house built of composite ceramic structural components, and the pigs lived happily ever after.”

Tucked snugly into her covers, Naomi remarked, “If I’d been one of the pigs, I would have trapped the wolf and altered his genetic code to turn him into a herbivore.”

“An effective solution,” Seven of Nine approved.

“Seven, did you see the model ship I built? It’s on the table behind you. I used twenty-eight decks of cards.”

Although she had noticed it earlier, Seven had paid little attention to the ship built of cards because it obviously served no useful purpose. She turned around now, taking a closer look at it.

“The ship is inaccurately proportioned.” Her hands moved swiftly to rearrange the cards into a closer approximation of Voyager’s shape. “You will now find the dimensions to be ninety-eight point seven percent correct.”

“But I liked it the way . . .” Naomi broke off her sentence, turned over with a sigh, and put the pillow on top of her head. A muffled voice came forth. “Never mind.”

Seven realized she had erred. Humans were so protective of their flawed creations, for reasons she couldn’t fathom. As a drone, she had accepted necessary correction without protest, knowing it to be the natural order of the universe. How else could one become perfect?

“Good night, Naomi,” she said stiffly, thinking as she left the room that perhaps it would be helpful to do more reading on the subject of human pride.

*****

Late in ship’s night, silhouetted against the eternal night of space, a Borg stood at a viewport as if gazing out upon the stars. Janeway recognized him by his unusual height: Linnas, the mountain climber.

She was about to pass by him, but his pose seemed to express such a human yearning that she stopped, feeling drawn to speak.

“Thinking about your home?”

“Actually, I was trying to access a protected communications pathway in the Collective, with a conspicuous lack of success.”

That didn’t come as much of a surprise to Janeway; one couldn’t expect to find sentiment in a Borg, after all, but she found herself wishing it had been otherwise. “Don’t let me distract you from it, then.”

“You are not intruding. This attempt has been futile.” Linnas left the window, turning to look directly at Janeway. “I don’t often think about my planet of origin. It was a grimy little Industrial Age garbage dump with a racial caste system. I belonged to the inferior race and was an anarchist and a union organizer, all of which meant that I could expect to be dragged away by police and beaten senseless at predictable intervals. My friends and I dreamed of a civilization with a completely rational distribution of resources, where poverty, race, and social class did not exist, where all were equal.

“Then one day our perfect society came down from the sky and assimilated us. At first, I thought I had become a god. You have to understand, my species was so primitive that it didn’t even have computers. To become part of a collective mind, a transcendent intellect possessing the ability to touch almost the entire galaxy with a thought — words don’t begin to suffice to describe the wonder of it. There’s a precise and terrible beauty to the Borg Collective.” His voice deepened, became more intimate. “You could share it with us, Kathryn.”

Thanks, Janeway thought, but I’ll take a pass on being assimilated tonight, if you don’t mind . . .

One thing was sure, Linnas did have emotions. Disturbing ones. She didn’t know what to make of it. Borg drones who obeyed commands with unthinking loyalty were one thing, but she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be convinced that the Collective had made him a god. She supposed that the Delta Quadrant must have its fair share of lunatics, too.

It occurred to her that Linnas was here on Voyager, after all, so perhaps he was starting to come to his senses.

“I take it the wonder is beginning to wear off,” Janeway remarked over her shoulder as she turned to leave.

“Not at all. I would die for the Collective without a moment’s hesitation. So would every other Borg aboard Voyager.” He noted Janeway’s expression as he fell into step beside her, with a bizarre, unfathomable smile. “Did you really think we wanted nothing more than to escape?”

She felt a sudden, chilling certainty that she had made a fatal mistake in allowing his group to come aboard. “If you’re not seeking to escape from the Collective, then what are you doing here?”

“There are some things we can gain from you in our attempt to improve the Collective. Among other objectives, we are attempting to develop a protocol of noninterference in the natural evolutionary paths of other species. It is roughly equivalent to your Federation’s policy.”

Janeway stared at him, incredulous.

“You mean there’s a chance the Borg could adopt the Prime Directive?”

“We have no need to attack lesser species. They should consider themselves fortunate when they are offered the opportunity to become part of the Collective. The use of force is wasteful and unnecessary. Our current protocols for assimilation are inefficient.”

Inefficient, Janeway thought bitterly, remembering the horrible floating graveyard at Wolf 359. Inefficient. Is that all he can say?

“Let me get this straight,” she demanded, as they entered the turbolift. “You think the Collective is so wonderful that one of your cubes should just show up in orbit around a planet, and half the population should immediately start clamoring for the privilege of assimilation?”

“Precisely.”

Crazy isn’t even the word. He’s lost his mind entirely, lost his marbles, lost all the screws holding his circuit boards in place, who the hell knows what he’s got rattling around in his head . . .

She didn’t feel at all comfortable being alone in the turbolift with him. When the doors opened, she stepped out in a hurry. Linnas was still following her.

“When I rule the Collective, we will begin to treat lesser species as a renewable resource,” Linnas continued. “That will allow us to harvest future generations of drones with improved culture and technology.”

Now Janeway was entirely disgusted. “Doesn’t sound like any Prime Directive that I ever heard of.” She was about to say more but decided that it would be a total waste of time and breath. Fortunately, they had arrived at the corridor that led to the officers’ quarters.

One advantage of having a conversation with a Borg was that you didn’t have to concern yourself with being polite. That was about the only advantage Janeway could think of at the moment.

“I am returning to my quarters. This conversation is over.” She walked away with a brisk stride, deliberately not looking behind her until she reached her door. Linnas still stood at the junction of the hallways.

Janeway entered her quarters, feeling a definite satisfaction as the door closed behind her. The one place on the ship, other than the bridge itself, where she could be sure of not finding any Borg. She’d tried to keep them out of Engineering, too, but they kept wandering in with unsolicited suggestions on how to improve the ship’s efficiency. B’Elanna was almost ready to commit murder.

And it’s all entirely your fault, Kathryn, she informed her tired-looking reflection in the mirror. The chronometer on the wall across the room read oh-two-twenty-eight. She hadn’t been getting enough sleep. So what else was new. You’re far too altruistic for your own good.

Janeway briefly imagined the expression of her father, not to mention all the other admirals, upon learning that she’d allowed the U.S.S. Voyager to be turned into a Borg refugee camp. It didn’t bear thinking about.

She undressed, still feeling quite irritated by her conversation with Linnas, and began to pull a nightgown over her head.

Then she heard the door open.

Can’t be, she thought. Every door leading into private quarters was protected by secure access codes. A person couldn’t just walk in . . .

She yanked the nightgown into place and turned around to find Linnas standing just outside her bedroom. With a faint hiss, the door from the corridor closed behind him.

Damned Borg never heard of privacy. He probably wanted to tell her something more about his crazy scheme to reprogram the Collective. Not that she wanted to hear any more about it.

Janeway found herself wondering whether any of her officers had seen him, and whether by morning a story would have spread all over the ship that the captain had acquired a Borg lover.

“In my culture,” she told him, exasperated, “it’s considered very inappropriate for a man to enter a woman’s quarters without invitation.”

“No offense was meant, beautiful Kathryn.” Linnas came closer, raising his one natural hand to her face and touching her cheek. The other arm, entirely cybernetic, hung stiffly at his side as he spoke again.

“Will you . . . invite me?”

The touch of his hand was disturbingly pleasant. Her initial reaction of disbelief gave way to a rush of excitement that arose entirely without her conscious will. Linnas kissed the top of her head and stroked her hair possessively. His warm fingers traced a path down her spine, sending fiery tendrils of delight along her nerves. Her heart was beating in a strange rhythm, and every intake of breath caressed her lungs like a song. Making love had never felt like this . . .

Then she realized what was happening and broke away from him, taking several quick steps backward.

“What are you doing to my body?”

One bright green eye and one red visual sensor blinked calmly at her. “Kathryn, I can scan your bioelectrical frequencies and transmit matching pulses to enhance your sensations. I thought you would find that a pleasant experience.”

“You violated me,” Janeway spat out, still breathing hard, her hands clenched. She could almost see the accusation sink like a stone into the boundless depths of his Borg incomprehension. There was no such thing as individuality in the Collective, after all: nothing to violate.

Show him the door, he’ll understand that, she thought. She stalked to the doorway — which opened normally, thank heavens — and gestured imperiously through it.

“Get out.”

*****

Chapter Five

Janeway entered the bridge and stepped down to the command deck, a hot cup of replicated coffee in her hand. She hadn’t felt like eating breakfast this morning.

Tuvok spoke to her from his tactical station. “Good morning, Captain.”

She didn’t feel like making small talk, either; not that anyone had ever accused Vulcans of chatter. “Tuvok, the security report, please. I want to know if there have been any incidents between refugees and crewmembers.”

“Lieutenant Torres assaulted a Borg in the breakfast line. She took offense to a comment on the subject of why Klingons tend to make suboptimal drones. She is now at her post in Engineering, after briefly receiving treatment in sickbay for bruised knuckles. The Borg was unhurt and did not retaliate. He requested that she not be placed in the brig. They consider isolation to be an extremely barbaric form of torture.”

Janeway made a mental note to have a talk with B’Elanna about that absurd display of bravado. Klingons’ defense of their honor sometimes reminded her of kids squabbling in the schoolyard.

“What I mean is,” she clarified her question, “have there been any reports of our people being attacked by Borg?”

“None, Captain. Our visitors have been model guests — to the best of my knowledge, that is.” Tuvok had known her long enough so that she couldn’t keep much from him.

“If one of them chose not to be a model guest,” Janeway asked, taking a scalding sip of her coffee, “what course of action would you recommend?”

“They significantly outnumber us,” Tuvok observed, “and each of them possesses the ability to alter the ship’s systems with mental commands, deciphering our encryption codes almost instantly. Their personal shields render our hand phasers almost completely useless. In essence, Captain, security is nonexistent.”

*****

Astrometrics. Star charts glowing brightly against the dim outlines of the bulkheads, detailing the vastness of space. Precise, logical, infinite. Perhaps some day, every star would have its designation, every mote of dust its known and ordered place in the perfect pattern of the universe.

For now, one mother and one daughter of human genetic origin, Species 5618, stood companionably at their consoles, mapping the star systems, nebulae and other natural phenomena that lay in Voyager’s path.

“When you were a little girl, you always wanted to help chart the path of our explorations. You were so proud of having your own console on the Raven, with a tall stool where you could sit and easily reach the control panel. Life seemed so wonderful and exciting; there was always something new to learn.”

The distinct pattern of her mother’s voice was still recognizable after all these years, its very familiarity leaving Seven of Nine with strange and painful emotions in turmoil within her chest. She found herself thinking that maybe, now, she might finally come to understand the peculiar set of human metaphors that described catastrophic mechanical failure of the heart.

“Had you been less eager to explore the Borg Collective, we might have had the opportunity to continue enjoying our lives.” Seven could barely speak through the tightness in her throat.

“Such bitterness. It serves no useful function. You must learn to let it go.” Her mother’s calm tone carried with it a fatalistic acceptance, and the face, under all of its cybernetic attachments, was serene. “It is pointless to wish things other than they are.”

“Perhaps that is part of being human.” Seven kept her eyes focused on the console in front of her as she scanned the chemical composition of a cloud of interstellar gases. Sixty-two percent hydrogen . . .

“You will never be human. The most your foolish quest can accomplish is to optimize the human emulation program you have chosen to install in your hard-wired Borg brain. Such an outcome would be merely an inefficient waste of your potential for perfection.”

The words felt like an assault on her very soul, although Seven knew no malice was intended. She forced her clenched fingers to loosen, to return to the console, to complete the task at hand.

“I am an individual.”

One point eight percent argon . . .

“‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’”

The inhuman mother/Borg figure, cold metal attachments interspersed with the harsh glow of red lights inset along smooth panels, went on to add in a pleasant tone, “John Donne. Seventeenth-century Earth.”

“He did not have the Borg Collective in mind.”

“An irrelevant detail. This observation is a universal constant. There are no true individuals.”

Seven of Nine looked down at herself, at the clothing that precisely fit the contours of her body, at the hands that hovered competently over the computer console. “I am no longer Borg.”

“The Borg are many things. You can be one of us again.” Her mother calmly extended a hand toward her, a hand that looked human enough, with its five natural fingers.

Seven knew that the hand contained a reservoir of programmable Borg nanoprobes within the concealed assimilation tubules. She regarded her mother’s arm as if it were a poisonous snake.

“I will not.”

The alien hand withdrew, returning to the console. One mother and one daughter of human genetic origin continued their task of mapping the stars. The vast space between the worlds expanded for eternity before them, silent, imperfect, unbridgeable.

*****

Tom Paris piloted Voyager toward the trading station that spun slowly on its axis, lights illuminating the outlines of its long spokes. About time they’d found a place to buy supplies. Neelix had literally been scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to keep so many fed.

Kim sent a hail.

A moment later, a green and distinctly froglike face, covered with brown warts, appeared on the viewscreen. They just keep getting prettier as we go along, Paris thought.

Frogface spoke curtly. “You are not welcome here. Leave at once, or we will open fire on your vessel.”

The captain responded with her usual composure. “I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starship Voyager. We are travelers, with no hostile intent. We seek only to buy food and other supplies.”

“We have scanned your crew complement, Captain, and we think you would be better advised to obtain your supplies from the Borg Collective. We have no wish to become drones.”

“The Borg aboard this ship are not part of the Collective. They will not harm your people in any way.” Janeway spoke with a smooth assurance that Paris wasn’t sure he could honestly say he shared.

“Your ship is extremely well-armed for you to be merely travelers, as you claim.” Frogface’s large eyes bulged. “We lost an entire colony to the Borg. Two hundred thousand of our people dead or assimilated. Soon afterward, we heard the story of the warship that had come from across the galaxy to form an evil alliance with the Collective. At first we did not believe the tale, for what species would even begin to contemplate such abominable villainy? Now, we can see the truth of it. But I warn you, Captain, we will fight to the death before we will allow ourselves to be captured by the Borg.”

“We are not your enemy,” Janeway insisted.

Frogface hissed a vile curse. The gist of it was that he hoped the captain would be sexually assaulted with the cybernetic tools of numerous Borg while lying flat in an assimilation chamber with her body partially disassembled. Then the space station’s transmission ended abruptly.

Janeway’s face tightened. “What a charming individual. Let’s get out of here, Mr. Paris.”

“With pleasure, ma’am.” He set the course and took the ship into warp. Within seconds, Voyager was far away.

Paris didn’t want to speculate on what they would be eating for dinner.

*****

Captain Janeway walked briskly through the corridors on an errand of ship’s discipline. Naomi Wildman hadn’t shown up in sickbay for her class in molecular biology, and Janeway intended to give her a good talking to. The computer revealed that the truant was in her quarters.

Probably dressing up like a Borg again, Janeway thought. The child had been fascinated with the Borg ever since Voyager had brought Seven of Nine aboard. With so many refugees on the ship, Naomi’s curiosity was irrepressible. She spent most of her time hanging around the cargo bay, asking the refugees a variety of strange questions about Borg culture and technology. This annoyed Seven of Nine to no end.

Entering the Wildmans’ quarters, Janeway almost stepped into a large pile of women’s clothing strewn about the floor. Naomi was normally attired, which was a relief, but across the room Julia Bonner was wearing a pink flowered dress with a matching floppy hat. The dress bulged with awkward lumps where biomechanical attachments protruded from her body, and the hat looked precariously balanced. A gaudy bracelet dangled from the artificial wrist. Evidently, Naomi had run amok with the replicator to create a Borg fashion show.

Janeway’s mouth quirked. She sternly controlled her amusement. “Ms. Wildman, court-martial is now in session for your inexcusable dereliction of duty.”

“My what? Oh.” Naomi inched toward the door. “Sorry, I can’t play with you any more, Julie, I have to go to class. Bye now.”

“Not so fast, young lady.” Janeway hadn’t raised her voice, but Naomi stopped in her tracks, listening with a resigned expression. “Aboard this ship, all of us are expected to complete our duties promptly, as scheduled. That includes you.”

“But, Captain, the Doctor is so boring,” Naomi complained, “and I already know how to resequence DNA, anyway.”

“No backtalk to your commanding officer, missy. After class, you will confine yourself to your quarters until bedtime, with no more Borg playmates. And remember, the use of the replicator is rationed. Understood?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“You are dismissed, Ms. Wildman. Now, scoot.”

The girl instantly scurried away, the door closing behind her as her quick footsteps echoed along the corridor.

Janeway surveyed the room, which looked like a tornado had struck, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ms. Bonner. The child seems to imagine the Borg were created for her to play with.”

“Apologies are unnecessary, Captain. Considering what the rest of the galaxy thinks of the Borg, her behavior is refreshing. It would appear that she intends to transform this drone into a fashion model. You have the good fortune to observe what the well-dressed Borg is wearing this season, complete with the latest designer line of matching cybernetic accessories.” Her laughter bordered on hysteria.

“Have you had your medication?” Janeway inquired.

“Yes, but it doesn’t seem to do much.” She adjusted the angle of the hat. “Charming, isn’t it? Do you want to snap a few images of me to send back to Earth? Having such a wonderful time, wish you were here . . .”

Janeway anticipated another outburst of wild laughter, but instead Julia Bonner just stared at her bizarre reflection in the large mirror for several seconds before changing the subject unexpectedly.

“I told Linnas that I disapprove of what he did to you last night, Captain.”

Oh, great, Janeway thought, I guess every one of the refugees now knows all about my intimate bioelectrical frequencies.

“Thanks. I’m aware that the Borg have a hard time understanding the concept of rape,” Janeway acknowledged.

“Depends on what Borg you’re talking about. We’re not as interchangeable as we like to think we are.” Julia paused for a long moment before continuing. “I was raped when I was eleven. I went home, took a shower, and tried to pretend it never happened. After a while I got quite skillful at pretending. You might even say it turned out to be a useful experience. The Collective makes it very easy to go through your entire life pretending you don’t exist. Denial is the patron saint of the Delta Quadrant, Captain.”

She clenched her fingers into a tight knot and then opened her hand again, while at the end of her other arm, some kind of rotating metal implement twitched back and forth. On impulse, Janeway reached for the hand, trying to calm her.

“Listen to me. You don’t have to suffer like this. As I’ve said, Voyager has a very skilled doctor who has had experience removing Borg implants. You can be sure of the best care. Don’t you want to be human again?”

“Such an easy solution. Tear out all the cybernetics that can be removed. Delete all my memories ? oh, yes, I could do that with flawless Borg efficiency ? and start my life all over again, a new human life, a black screen, all purpose and meaning erased. The ultimate act of denial. The total reconfiguration of the soul. You ask more than you realize, Captain Janeway.”

She took off the absurd hat and looked into the mirror again, soberly regarding the face she saw there. “Denial may not be an effective solution any longer. I need to understand who this person is.”

*****

Neelix cheerfully whistled an old Talaxian tune as he dished up bowls of soup and crusty brown rolls to an apparently endless line of silent Borg. Although Voyager’s crew had started to complain about the lack of variety in their meals, the refugees never had the slightest gripe. Maybe Starfleet ought to consider enrolling Borg cadets at the Academy; it would definitely improve discipline.

Then again, maybe not, Neelix thought as he looked up into the unblinking gaze of a large Borg who had been staring at him for the past five minutes. Somehow, he didn’t think the fellow just wanted seconds. Neelix couldn’t help but to wonder if he were being evaluated for assimilation. The tune he had been whistling faltered, vanishing from his thoughts as he nervously fell silent.

The large Borg approached the counter and stood to the side of the soup line, which had by now dwindled to more manageable proportions. He still stared at Neelix strangely, without speaking. Probably can’t talk, Neelix thought, and they’re all starting to go crazy.

Neelix ladled out a bowlful of soup to a young Bajoran crewman who had braved the cybernetic crowd without apparent fear. The Bajoran didn’t complain about the food, either; he’d probably made do with much less as a Maquis, and under less pleasant circumstances.

Many of the crew had stopped coming into the mess hall altogether during regular meal hours, finding the scene just too overwhelming. The officers, with their usual stubbornness, made a point of sticking to their normal routine. Although I haven’t seen B’Elanna in the mess hall since she got into that fight, Neelix realized as he spotted Tom Paris toward the back of the line.

When a shy, hesitant male voice began to speak, it took Neelix a long moment to realize that the soft voice was coming from the massive Borg he had found so threatening.

“The melody,” he began tentatively, as if vocal speech were a task that might prove to be difficult. “It was pleasant.”

At first Neelix didn’t realize what the fellow was talking about, but then he remembered his whistling. “Oh, that was nothing much, just a silly old folk song from my home planet.”

The Borg spoke again after a long pause. “What are your current protocols for use of the replicators?”

Neelix figured this was probably an indirect way of complaining about the soup. “We ration replicator use because it takes so much energy, but if there’s some small food item you would like . . .”

“Musical instruments. Is their replication permitted? I composed many songs,” and his voice became even softer, until Neelix could barely hear the last word, raw with an inexpressible depth of pain. “Before.”

“I’m sure that would be just fine.”

The Borg responded with a stiff smile, as if he had almost forgotten how to move the appropriate facial muscles.

Neelix felt a sudden, absurd impulse to pat the guy on the shoulder and tell him everything would be all right. Or whatever he was using in place of a shoulder. But the soup line kept advancing, and the composer turned away, and Neelix knew that no one aboard Voyager could in good conscience promise anything at all.

*****

“He may actually be serious about the Prime Directive.”

Chakotay refilled his coffee cup and stirred in a spoonful of sugar, looking at Janeway with a thoughtful expression. A few crumbs on the table were all that remained of the French pastry Chakotay had replicated to share with the captain. They had agreed not to use their replicator rations on meals in their quarters while food supplies were so low, as a show of solidarity with those who were suffering in the mess hall; but that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy the occasional coffee and dessert.

Janeway had just finished recounting her peculiar conversation with Linnas, leaving out only his attempt to seduce her. Much to her annoyance, Chakotay seemed to regard Linnas’ bizarre ramblings as a potential diplomatic opportunity to establish a permanent alliance between the Federation and the Borg Collective.

“He’s completely out of his cybernetic mind, if you ask me.” Janeway finished her coffee and thumped the cup down on Chakotay’s table. “Anyway, he’s a fugitive. No one in the Collective would pay the slightest attention to him.”

“We can’t be certain of that,” Chakotay observed. “How much do we really know about the Collective’s political structure, especially now that there’s been some upheaval? And if you think about it, a Borg Prime Directive would make a whole lot of sense. You could say that the Borg and the Federation share a common goal of assimilating the culture and technology of other advanced species. The difference is that we go about it by peaceful means. If the Collective could somehow be persuaded that our methods are superior to theirs . . .”

“Give it a rest, Chakotay. You’re starting to sound as crazy as he is.” In exasperation, Janeway shoved her chair back and stood up, intending to go back to her quarters.

But her feet didn’t seem to want to move toward the door.

Get over it. You’re the captain, she told herself severely. She lingered beside the table, pushing the chair neatly into its place. There wouldn’t be any security guards stationed outside her quarters to protect her; that, after all, was a luxury the rest of the crew didn’t enjoy. And more to the point, Janeway didn’t want any rumors going around. Most of Voyager’s crew were already half afraid to go to sleep, for fear they’d wake up as drones. She could just imagine the psychological effects if word got around that a crazed Borg rapist had started attacking people in their bedrooms. To put it bluntly, the whole crew would go totally apeshit. Janeway figured she’d be lucky if she didn’t end up with a mutiny on her hands.

She found herself wondering what Chakotay would think if she asked to spend the night in his quarters. At that, her complete disgust with her own weakness forced her feet to move, and she stepped through the doorway.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Chakotay.”

The corridor was empty. She opened her door cautiously and proceeded to reconnoiter her quarters. No one was there, and she didn’t see any evidence of unauthorized entry in her absence. Still fully dressed, she sat down on her bed, alone, just as she always was.

Chakotay was a sweet guy, and it was plain he’d had a romantic attraction to her for some time now. She’d probably have been interested under other circumstances, but it would be improper for the captain to have a sexual relationship with a subordinate. Which made for a lot of lonely nights out here in the Delta Quadrant. She didn’t even want to think about how long she’d been celibate. Maybe the Borg could sense such things. Maybe Linnas had thought he was doing her a favor by performing overdue maintenance on her sexual functions . . .

Janeway firmly squashed that line of thinking and turned her attention to more practical matters. She set about rigging a motion sensor to her hand phaser on a table beside the door. Anybody who came in uninvited was going to get up close and personal with a stun charge. After all, phasers were effective against Borg if you took them by surprise.

*****

Chapter Six

Naomi Wildman, intent upon making her mark in the scientific world, carried an imager toward the cargo area to record her continuing interviews with the refugees. No one in the Federation had ever studied such a large group of Borg as close as this. Well, that wasn’t quite true; the Hansens had studied a lot of drones at close range, but they hadn’t actually talked with any Borg. Not while they were still human, anyway. And it didn’t do you much good to study an alien society if you were going to let your research subjects assimilate you.

She kept a sharp eye out as she walked along the corridors, making sure she wasn’t seen by the captain, her mother, or Seven of Nine. Any of them would probably tell her to go back to her quarters and do her boring old math exercises. As if math mattered when you had the chance to do priceless scientific research. Starfleet was supposed to be about exploration, about studying other species and their civilizations, but no one aboard Voyager even seemed interested in talking with the Borg refugees. Naomi intended to make up for their lack of curiosity.

Inside cargo bay two, she noticed that several Borg refugees lay motionless on their cots, apparently unable to stand up. She turned the imager in their direction, dutifully recording the effects of regenerative deprivation. She didn’t think they would mind. They didn’t even seem to realize that she was there. Someone probably ought to tell the Doctor what was happening, although Naomi wasn’t sure if he could do anything about it.

“You would make a good Borg.” Julia Bonner came up beside her suddenly, startling her. “You are efficient. You collect data thoroughly.”

Naomi turned the imager so that Julia’s face was centered in it. “I am conducting scientific research,” she declared, feeling quite proud of herself. Naomi Wildman wasn’t about to miss the first opportunity in all of human history to conduct actual interviews with the Borg.

“Do you wish me to describe the process of death from inability to regenerate?” Julia inquired.

Repressing a shudder, Naomi tried to match Julia’s cool detachment. “No, thank you. My task for today is to study social adjustment. Was it hard for you to get used to living with the Borg?”

Julia thought about it for a moment, as if trying to translate the question into a form she could understand. “When assimilation is complete, there is minimal need for further adjustment. Our programming can, of course, be modified when required.”

“What did it feel like, being assimilated? Did it hurt?” Naomi’s mother had made it plain that she was never to ask Seven of Nine any questions on this subject, but she didn’t think that prohibition applied to other Borg.

“Physical sensations can be efficiently controlled. Pain is not difficult to suppress. Some of the procedures are, however, briefly uncomfortable.” Julia’s calm recitation sounded as distant as if she were describing the experience of someone else. “The merging of one’s individual consciousness into the Collective is usually experienced as pleasant, if there is no resistance during the process.”

Naomi heard footsteps behind her, and a hand came down firmly on her shoulder. She yelped as Seven of Nine spun her around and marched her toward the door.

“Return to your quarters,” Seven commanded, in a tone that made it plain she wouldn’t tolerate argument. “This conversation is inappropriate.”

Fuming, Naomi stepped into the corridor, wondering why everyone always gave her a hard time. All she was trying to do was advance scientific knowledge. You’d think someone would be encouraging.

Seven turned back toward Julia, glaring at her as Naomi watched through the doorway. “I know that you intend to assimilate this child. I will kill you and every other Borg in the Collective before I allow that to happen.”

“Surely, even as we speak, trillions of drones are quaking in their cybernetic boots at the terrifying prospect.” Julia’s sarcastic laughter was strange: not quite human, and certainly not typical of the Borg. She went on to jeer, “It’s hard to imagine why the Collective would want to recapture a pathetic failure like you. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t bother.”

Seven turned around without another word, stormed out of the cargo bay, and yanked Naomi along the corridor. Naomi couldn’t understand what had gotten her so upset. Julia certainly hadn’t been trying to assimilate anyone.

*****

Janeway, after leaving the bridge, heard a deep, anguished shout in the corridor as she stepped out of the turbolift. The little female Borg, Lumacretia, stood facing a much larger male companion who was obviously in a state of extreme agitation.

“Where is my daughter Mirande? What have you done to her?” He lunged toward Lumacretia as if he intended to strangle her, then, realizing what his hands had become, let them fall to his sides. “What have you done to me?”

She confronted his violence calmly, with no apparent response. Losing all semblance of reason, he struck a sudden blow with his biomechanical arm that probably would have fractured a boulder. The force of the blow glanced harmlessly off Lumacretia’s personal shield, with a faint crackling of energy. At that, her assailant fell to his knees, his head bowed, weeping in despair.

Lumacretia reached toward him with a touch that looked almost gentle. Her hand rested lightly on his neck as a metallic attachment extended from it to penetrate the base of his skull. His body jerked once and then collapsed into a stiff heap. All of the lights on his torso and head went suddenly dark.

Janeway could see no movement or breath. Anger rose immediately within her. Of course she’d known that the Borg weren’t restrained by sentimental concerns when it came to disposal of damaged resources, but she had no intention of tolerating cold-blooded murder in the hallways of Voyager.

“I am in command of this ship.” Janeway stepped forward to confront the much smaller Borg, who looked up at her without expression. “I’ve already made it clear that everyone aboard Voyager is under my orders and the authority of Federation military law. Neither of which includes summary executions.”

“This action was necessary. He had disabled the neural link. It was not possible to communicate with him,” the soft, birdlike voice replied. “He is not dead. I transmitted a system initialization command.”

Janeway stared at her. “You rebooted him?”

A long sigh came from the sprawled figure at her feet. Lights began to flash sequentially across his torso. Janeway was reminded, absurdly, of the strings of lights on the Christmas holiday displays of her childhood. A moment later, he got to his feet and stood calmly, as if nothing had happened. Without a word, he and Lumacretia continued to walk along the corridor together.

Janeway wondered if he could still remember his daughter.

*****

“We’ve all been invited to attend a performance tonight on Holodeck Two. It’s an original composition by one of the refugees, some kind of musical history of the Borg Collective.” Tom Paris stood just inside the doorway of Engineering while B’Elanna Torres strode briskly from one workstation to another. “I thought you might want to go. Epic ballads are a favorite in Klingon culture, aren’t they?”

Torres snorted in disgust, brushing a stray strand of hair off her ridged forehead. “The Borg have nothing that even begins to resemble culture. You might as well program the ship’s computer to create a musical history of itself. I might not have had any say in the captain’s decision to allow them on board, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend to enjoy their company.”

Paris shrugged. “Seven of Nine’s mother is going to sing.”

“Fine. You go and be diplomatic. I’ll still be in Engineering, trying to figure out just how we’re going to defend ourselves when the Collective shows up to reclaim our guests. Voyager won’t be able to outrun a Borg ship, and we don’t have sufficient weaponry to destroy one. Of course, we’ll still have the option to die bravely. Just like in the Klingon ballads.”

“Maybe they won’t come.” Although he kept his tone cheerful, Paris wasn’t sure he could even convince himself of that.

Torres’ laughter was grim. “That’s one of the things I love about humans. Such a rich fantasy life.”

*****

On her way to the mess hall to experience the joys of standing in another interminable line for a dinner of unknown origin, Janeway heard voices coming from a small utility room just ahead of her. She knew it was a tiny room, with just enough space for one person to service the power hubs that it contained. Definitely not the first place you’d pick to have a conversation, unless you were up to no good.

Which seemed to be the case. Linnas stood just inside the open doorway, in front of a crewman who had been working on power systems repairs, or so it appeared from the open access panel and the tools he’d set down beside it. Janeway knew Daro Gareth as a competent if somewhat unsociable engineer who seemed to carry a grudge against the universe. Crewman Daro, he was called; Bajoran surnames came first. What he lacked in personality, he usually made up in diligence.

Although he didn’t seem to be doing any work at the moment. His hands were empty as he fidgeted with the intricate earring he wore. Starfleet protocol didn’t normally allow the wearing of such jewelry, but many Bajorans considered their earrings to be indispensable to their cultural pride, so an exception had been made.

“There are few Bajorans among the Borg.” Linnas placed his hand lightly on the young crewman’s shoulder, almost as if caressing a favored pet. “The Collective’s knowledge of your species is limited. For this reason you will be valuable to us. We will add your distinctiveness to our own.”

Janeway had seen and heard quite enough. She moved toward the doorway, her voice cold and commanding.

“Mr. Daro, I believe you are on duty.”

The Bajoran, with a look of embarrassment, hastily gathered up his tools and closed the access panel, as if he had just now realized where he was. He seemed to be more concerned about having incurred the captain’s displeasure than about Linnas’ obvious intentions.

“Yes ma’am. I’ve finished these repairs.”

With a cynical smile, Linnas stepped back into the hallway to let Daro Gareth out of the utility room. The young crewman promptly headed for the nearest turbolift, evidently hoping he could escape before the captain had something more to say. Janeway, ignoring him, directed her wrath toward Linnas.

“Let’s get one thing straight, mister. You are not going to recruit your resistance fighters aboard Voyager. If you try to assimilate any member of my crew, I’ll hand you over to the Collective at the first opportunity.”

That threat clearly didn’t bother Linnas in the least. He replied in an even tone, “Your law allows each individual to freely choose his cultural identity. Diversity and tolerance are the central ideals of your Federation. If one of your crew would prefer to be Borg, by what right do you prevent him?”

“You’ve been quite a busy bee, reading up on our law.”

Linnas evidently took this remark as a compliment. “The Borg strive to emulate the industry and efficiency of hive insects. We dislike idleness. When Gareth becomes one of us, he will function much more productively.”

That gruesome prospect gave Janeway the cold shivers. “Don’t even think about it, Linnas. Even if he were willing, and I don’t see much likelihood of that, there’s no way I would allow one of my crewmen to commit what amounts to suicide.”

“Do we look dead to you? What an absurd prejudice. Your arrogance is beyond belief. You don’t even realize how you have destroyed that pathetic remnant of a Borg who calls herself Seven of Nine. Your pet Borg, your personal charity project. How proud you must feel when you see her looking so . . . human. You still have no idea of what you did to her when you decided to assimilate her.”

“I didn’t assimilate her, I rescued her.”

“A convenient point of view. It’s unlikely she saw it that way.”

Janeway had a vivid recollection of the terrified girl demanding to be returned to the Collective. That mental picture only made Janeway more furious. “We both know why, don’t we? Because your Collective brutalized her until she was incapable of making decisions, so I had to make them for her.”

“That sequence of logic is not unfamiliar. The Borg also find it appropriate to make such decisions on behalf of incompetent lesser species. The Collective believes that an individual’s resistance to assimilation demonstrates his lack of higher reasoning ability, because any rational being would want to become perfect. As noted, it all depends on your point of view.”

“I’m confident I made the right decision,” she retorted, wondering how he’d managed to put her on the defensive.

“That choice wasn’t yours to make, Kathryn.”

“That’s Captain Janeway to you, mister, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand here listening to a lecture on individual rights from a Borg.” Janeway started to walk past him, turning to give him one last glare. “Just make sure you keep your hands and all your other appendages off my crew.”

*****

Chapter Seven

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything this bizarre, Torres thought, brooding over her computer console after taking a look at yet another strangely mangled piece of software. She had been receiving scattered reports of odd malfunctions for the past several hours. Nothing particularly major, nothing dangerous, but very weird. Such as the lighting in several corridors being shifted into the red spectrum and pulsing wildly until it looked like you were walking through the inside of someone’s blood vessels. Or a swarm of glittering metallic butterflies emerging from the replicator in the mess hall and hovering over one of Neelix’s flowerpots. Neelix had been quite taken with them and had brought one into Engineering right away, asking her if they could be programmed as pollination devices for his gardens.

And what was even weirder about all of this, Torres realized, was the way it was happening. She had run a thorough check for viruses, and there clearly wasn’t one in the system. It was more like someone had decided to go for a pleasant evening stroll inside the computer’s file storage areas, plucking and rearranging small fragments of code almost at random, as if playing with a deck of cards. All without giving voice commands or accessing any of the ship’s consoles.

She’d take any odds on who was to blame. We’ve got to get them off this ship while we still can, she thought. Assuming the crew had ever possessed that ability, which was a rather large assumption, when you thought about it. Kind of like the ancient joke about where the gorilla sits. How could Voyager’s small crew make five hundred Borg do anything whatsoever?

Torres tapped away at her console, trying to ignore the godawful noise that was growing ever louder in the corridor outside Engineering. The disturbance soon resolved into three male Borg lurching into the doorway, reeking of something very similar to beer, and singing some abominable drinking song about a tavern whore. It would take only about a thimbleful of alcohol to get a Borg tipsy, Torres knew, and these fellows had obviously imbibed much more than that.

One of them looked at her and whistled obnoxiously.

“Bring us another round of ale, wench!”

Torres regarded them with disgust as another of the group blundered into a bulkhead and fell sprawling to the deck.

“Get your stinking drunk biomechanical carcasses back to the cargo area!” She restrained herself from adding a Klingon curse on the subject of their ancestry, reminding herself that they hadn’t become drones by their own choice.

“A spunky one,” the first drone observed, taking a step toward her with a lunatic grin spreading across his face. “Don’t call me drunk, wench. In my hometown, I could drink any man under the table.”

His other companion stumbled forward and collapsed into a tangled heap, limbs mechanically twitching.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got some really sad news for you, bud, your physiology is a bit different now.” Torres turned back to her console and began entering a series of instructions.

The Borg reached toward her and pinched her on the rump with a pair of metal pincers attached to his cybernetic arm. A second later, he and his prone companions began to dematerialize, transported into cargo bay two in accordance with the commands Torres had just entered into the computer.

Try that again and I’ll find some less pleasant coordinates for you, Torres thought. Like the interior of Neelix’s composting tank.

*****

Played gloriously by an orchestra in ornate historical costume, the music of Tchaikovsky rose to fill Holodeck One. An appreciative holographic audience, also dressed in Russian period clothing, enjoyed the show as a row of beautiful ballerinas swept gracefully across the stage.

Seven of Nine, wearing a bright shimmering tutu with matching ballet shoes laced neatly around her ankles, danced with perfect steps before the admiring audience. Naomi Wildman followed in identical costume, her steps considerably less perfect, but quite energetic all the same.

The ballet had been Naomi’s idea, of course. She had found the program in the ship’s files after learning that at her age, Seven in her previous identity as Annika Hansen had dreamed of being a famous dancer. Although Seven wasn’t quite sure how she’d let Naomi talk her into this foolishness, she had to admit that she was rather enjoying being a part of the performance.

For just a second, the illumination dimmed and the holographic figures lost some of their solidity. Then, under the bright stage lights, the orchestra played on without missing a note.

“I hope we’re not about to lose power,” Naomi remarked, stumbling through an arabesque. Her chatter interfered somewhat with Seven’s concentration. “I noticed there were some power systems repairs being made earlier in the day, but I thought they’d all been completed by now.”

The lights dimmed again, and the audience in front of them abruptly vanished. Ahead of her, Seven could see a corridor junction in what was unmistakably a Borg vessel, with a row of motionless drones standing in their alcoves. The row seemed to extend into a merciless eternity, fading into darkness like the images created by placing two mirrors against one another, infinite reflections into which all sense of the self would disappear entirely . . .

The music resumed, and the ballet went on as if the interruption had never happened.

“What was that?” Naomi demanded, standing completely still in the middle of the stage as she stared at the holographic audience. The dancers moved around Naomi as if she were not there at all.

“An irrelevant malfunction. Disregard it,” Seven snapped, continuing to dance. Her feet in their dainty shoes completed intricate and beautiful patterns, but no ballerina had ever performed with such a deathly grim visage.

“We should probably shut this down and go over to Holodeck Two, anyway. They’ll be starting that musical Borg history show in just a few minutes, and I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

“I do not wish to attend.” Seven, swaying through a graceful series of steps, flung this comment over her shoulder with total certainty. “My knowledge of the Collective’s history does not require further edification.”

“Performances like that aren’t just supposed to give you a history lesson,” Naomi observed. “They’re meant to give you a feeling of what it was like to be there.”

“I am familiar with that as well.” Seven’s tone was icy.

The girl shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll see you later, then.”

After Naomi left the room, Seven continued with the performance, trying to recapture the emotion she’d felt for just a moment before the interruption. Her childhood self had seemed very close to her, as if all things could be possible, even the restoration of her human soul.

But in Annika Hansen’s fantasies, when she had performed as a famous dancer, her parents had always been sitting in the center of the audience.

All at once, the ballet scenario seemed absurd, pointless, a juvenile diversion, a total waste of her time. Seven halted in mid-step and walked away from the stage, crisply ordering the computer to terminate the program.

With Holodeck One restored to its original emptiness, Seven entered the hallway, now thinking that it would be much more useful to go back to the Astrometrics lab and complete her surveys of a nearby nebula.

*****

Neelix had just finished going through the pitiful remnants of food in the galley, organizing the ingredients he’d need for tomorrow’s breakfast. He’d found just enough flour and spices for coffeecakes, which ought to please the captain. Unfortunately, the beans he’d grown for his latest attempt at a coffee substitute weren’t likely to please anyone; Voyager’s coffee addicts would just have to keep on drinking the replicated beverage.

He left the mess hall, hurrying so that he wouldn’t be late for the refugees’ musical show; he’d promised Naomi that he’d sit with her. And knowing the Borg, it was a foregone conclusion that they’d start their performance precisely at the designated time, and not one nanosecond later.

The holodeck doors opened before him. Although he’d fully expected to walk into something that resembled a Borg ship, Neelix was surprised to find an outdoor scene instead. A huge red sun hung almost directly overhead in a cloudless sky. He could hear birds twittering in the top of a sprawling deciduous tree with multiple smooth trunks, like an overgrown vine. A dry, red-veined grass crackled underfoot as Neelix approached the tall wooden chairs that had been placed beside the tree trunks.

Most of the chairs sat empty, although Captain Janeway had taken a conspicuous spot in the front row beside Commander Chakotay. A few other spectators occupied scattered places about as far from the front as they could get, presumably on the theory that if the chairs suddenly turned into the furnishings of an assimilation chamber, at least they wouldn’t be the first to become drones.

Neelix wasn’t worried. He completely trusted the captain’s judgment; after all these years, she’d never let him down. He didn’t think Naomi had much fear of the refugees, either, although he couldn’t find her anywhere in the audience. Perhaps she was just dawdling, a trait that seemed to be shared by children throughout the galaxy. She’d probably be along in a moment.

A cool breeze had started blowing from a range of white-topped mountains in the background of the scene. Framed by the mountains, a group of five Borg stood on a hillock that evidently served as the stage. Neelix was able to recognize most of them as he approached the group. Seven of Nine’s mother, of course, the resemblance quite clear despite her extensive biomechanical attachments. He noted, with a touch of sadness, that Seven wasn’t among the audience.

The former Starfleet officer, Julia Bonner, was also easy to recognize as the only other human among the refugees. She stood next to the composer who had spoken to Neelix in the mess hall. A huge, elaborate harp, decorated with fanciful winged figures, occupied center stage beside them.

A set of drums had been placed about two meters from the harp, and a silent young refugee stood holding the drumsticks. His face, too, was familiar. Julia had introduced him in the mess hall the first day, mentioning that he couldn’t talk. Four of something, Neelix recalled. Eight, was it?

Sure was a good thing the Borg hadn’t decided to assimilate his own species, Neelix mused. Although he had a good memory for names and faces, he never would have been able to keep all those designations straight.

And then there was the tall fellow, Linnas, also of Julia’s unimatrix, from which Neelix gathered that they’d been co-workers of some sort. He pictured Julia and Linnas standing with Four of Whatever as they all worked very efficiently to assimilate their latest batch of captives, handing various body parts back and forth to one another across the tables . . .

On second thought, he’d better just keep his infernal imagination under control, Neelix told himself sternly. Although he was beginning to understand why most of the audience had gravitated toward the back row. He felt exposed and vulnerable out here, midway between the chairs and the stage. Yes, he definitely ought to go back and see whether Naomi had come in yet.

Linnas turned his head to look directly at Neelix, and something in the gaze of that cold green eye left the Talaxian with a shudder. He found himself wondering, despite his years of trust in the captain, whether she fully understood just what she’d allowed to come aboard.

When Neelix felt nervous he often started talking, or chattering, as many among the crew would describe it. Somehow, the sound of his own voice helped to soothe him, even if he didn’t have much to say. And even if he happened to be talking to an insane Borg rebel who, Neelix realized with total certainty, would calmly kill or assimilate the entire crew of Voyager if it happened to suit his purposes.

“A nice holo-program you’ve got here,” Neelix remarked. He felt like a babbling idiot. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this planet before. Very pretty.”

“Its original inhabitants, Species 5031, gave it the designation Tambour. When I had the misfortune of living there, it was a stinking, polluted, overcrowded, foul warren of greed and filth. Now that the planet has been uninhabited for many years, the natural environment has had some time to recover.”

Neelix simply stared in astonishment. Linnas spoke as if he thought the Borg Collective had done the universe a huge favor by destroying his entire species. And somehow, Neelix felt very sure that this attitude didn’t simply reflect the normal programming of a drone.

“I wouldn’t have chosen this scene,” Linnas went on, “but my comrade over there at the harp is also a member of Species 5031, and he designed the program with minimal input from the rest of us. We had a tradition on Tambour of hospitality to travelers, who were in turn expected to repay their hosts with an evening of storytelling. Hence this performance.”

“Yes, I’ve met many species who follow this custom. Is that why none of your other companions are here? Because this performance is only for your hosts?” Almost as if everything were normal, Neelix kept on chattering away, although he really felt like running for the nearest exit. Not that there would be anywhere to go, though, if the Borg did decide to attack the crew . . .

“Many drones are experiencing severe malfunctions and are unable to be present. Others have chosen not to attend because they disapprove of the performance. They regard it as an irrelevant diversion, and they do not wish to condone what they see as delinquent individual behavior.”

Obviously there was some sort of power struggle going on among the refugees. Neelix was spared any further conversation on the subject when the composer struck a loud chord on the harp to signal the start of the show, precisely on time, of course. Turning back toward the chairs, Neelix selected a spot directly behind the captain. He still hadn’t found Naomi anywhere.

The chair, presumably proportioned for Tambouri height, towered above his short legs. Neelix clambered up into it and sat on the smooth wood with his feet dangling above the ground as if he were a child. Belonging to one of the galaxy’s smaller species could get a bit awkward at times.

He heard a familiar giggle and looked up into the thick, leafy branches above his head. A pleasant smell came from a cluster of something that resembled figs. Just above the fruit, Naomi hung upside-down like a monkey.

“Neelix, you goof, I thought you’d never find me.” She grinned down at him. “Isn’t this program great?”

“Sure,” Neelix replied dutifully, thinking that he’d rank a scenario of a world destroyed by the Borg somewhere near the top of the all-time nightmare list, the lovely trees and mountains notwithstanding. He wondered whether there might be a subconscious message here for Voyager’s crew, having to do with how easily they could be wiped out of existence.

Naomi frowned at his lack of enthusiasm, but she kept quiet as the composer began to speak. Although his voice still sounded soft, it carried easily through the room, without the need for a microphone. One of the advantages of having a vocal processor, Neelix supposed.

“We acknowledge the gift of hospitality and return to you this tale of our travels.” The words were stark and formal, evidently part of some ancient ritual of courtesy. He touched the harp again, almost in a caressing motion, as if the restoration of his music were a miracle he could not quite bring himself to believe. A plaintive minor chord emerged, sounding almost like the cry of a distant seabird, and lingered for a long moment in the cool air.

“Our former lives as individuals ended long ago,” the harpist continued, “and their details have become irrelevant. Therefore we have chosen to construct four fictional characters based upon the history files of the Collective. The title of this composition is Remember Me.”

He drew a gentle, sad melody from the harp, as his mute companion provided flawless accompaniment on the drums. This had to be the first time the young fellow had ever seen a set of drums, but the Borg were remarkably quick learners.

Seven of Nine’s mother stepped forward and began to sing in clear tones very similar to her absent daughter’s voice. The words sketched the little details of a woman’s life hundreds of years earlier. She had designed new fabrics for trade to other planets, their intricate patterns shimmering with all of the joyful colors of the natural universe. All of her passion for life, for beauty, had gone into her work. And when you see a rainbow, the verse ended softly, remember me.

The next singer, Linnas, took the part of an adventurer setting forth on a bold quest to climb the vast, icy slopes of a mountain that had never been conquered. There was no practical purpose to his journey, he acknowledged, no logical reason to take the risk. No reason, except to stand at the summit in victory with arms outstretched into the frozen wind, and to shout for all the world to hear: Remember me.

A cascade of high, flowing chords came forth from the harp as the composer began to sing the next verse, about a farmer tending to his terraced gardens on the hillside just below his small village. He neatly pruned the wild pink roses in the hedgerow, caring for them as if they were his own crops, in the hope that those who tended the gardens after him would see the roses and remember him.

Neelix imagined for a moment that he could hear a flock of songbirds in the farmer’s hedgerow. The winged images on the harp seemed almost ready to take flight. Then, realizing where he was, he reminded himself that the singing birds were just part of the simulation.

Julia Bonner now stood beside the harp, her posture straight and formidable as she regarded her audience with the unemotional expression of a drone. The music changed, the drumbeat becoming almost martial, the harp embarking upon a poignant lament in tormented minor chords.

My designation was Six of Eight, she sang, her words as precise and hard-edged as if they had been weapons. I was constructed in the bio-lab two hundred seven years ago. I performed my duties well, and I took pride in my efficiency. I never saw a rainbow, never touched a flower, never heard a bird sing. I never desired to climb a mountain, and I learned not to cherish the irrelevant world of the senses; and I learned that one life signifies little, but all the same . . .

The harp wept as the verse built to its conclusion. The young drummer struck as fiercely as if the drums had become his enemy, his expression strangely distant, almost meditative. He clearly did not understand how to process this unaccustomed input.

Please, implored a sudden, high voice like a child’s cry, holding the note for several seconds before rising once again into a final, united plea as the four voices merged. Remember me.

As the music ended, Julia spoke once more in a normal tone.

“There will be no more tales such as we have told tonight. The rebellion has been defeated. Resistance to the Collective has ended.”

She spoke so calmly that Neelix at first took her words for a part of the performance, until the captain approached Julia and left the holodeck with her and Chakotay, talking in low, earnest voices.

The audience, most of them looking relieved that it had been such a brief show, got out of their seats and promptly headed for the exit. The three remaining Borg performers left the room in a group, immediately afterward, carrying the harp and drums. Naomi jumped down from the tree, landed with a clatter on what had been the captain’s chair, and followed the others into the corridor.

Neelix sat alone in a chair designed by a ruined civilization, under the indifferent glare of a dull red sun, bawling like a baby.

*****

Seven of Nine tucked Naomi into her bed.

“Tonight I will tell an instructive fable,” Seven announced. “Once upon a time, a girl wanted to cross a stream. There was no bridge, but the water was shallow in places, and she wore boots.”

“Was she about my age?”

“No.” Seven’s answer was immediate. “Older than you.”

“Oh.”

“As the girl approached the stream, she saw a poisonous snake on the bank. The snake asked the girl to carry him across the water, because he could not swim. She refused, knowing he was poisonous.”

Naomi commented, “I think I’d have made him a small boat and towed him across. With a very long piece of string.”

“That would have been more prudent. The girl in the fable listened as the snake begged for her compassion, telling her that if she did not carry him across the stream, he would drown. He promised not to bite her. Finally she picked him up and put him on her shoulder. Halfway across the stream, the snake bit her on the neck. She fell into the water, dying. Her last thoughts were of outrage that the snake had not kept his promise.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Didn’t the snake die, too?”

“Yes, he drowned. But you see, the girl knew what he was when she picked him up. It was in his nature to bite. She should not have expected anything else.”

Naomi was silent for a moment. Then she observed, “You don’t think the captain should have picked up any Borg, do you?”

“That is correct.”

“But, Seven, that would make you a deadly snake, wouldn’t it?”

“Perhaps. If you were to pick up one snake without incident, would you then conclude it was perfectly safe to pick up hundreds?”

“No, I wouldn’t.” Naomi yawned. “But that’s not all there is to the captain’s decision, you know.”

Seven waited, expecting Naomi to continue, but the girl only asked, “Will you get me a glass of water, please?”

*****

Chapter Eight

In the corridor outside Chakotay’s quarters, in the middle of ship’s night, Julia Bonner hesitated for a moment before activating the door chime. What he thinks of you is irrelevant, she reminded herself savagely.

“Come in.” Chakotay rose from his chair, setting down a padd, as she entered his quarters. The two chairs at the table were decorated with a precise geometric pattern that she found pleasing.

“Commander Chakotay, I understand that you have instructed several members of this crew in meditation. I request that you instruct me as well.”

He did not answer at once, taking time to choose his words carefully.

“Meditation is a very personal experience, and very individual. It can’t be a collective effort.”

“I can block the others out of my mind entirely. That is a function of the lockout chip.” She fought back the fear that threatened to overwhelm her at the terrifying thought of being completely alone.

“Why do you want to do this?” Chakotay’s tone wasn’t encouraging, but at least he hadn’t refused altogether.

“I need to find the answer to a difficult individual question.” She realized this wasn’t much of an answer as a human would see it, and she fumbled for more words to convince him, now feeling utterly foolish. The entire Collective would be laughing at you by now, she informed herself, except that your insignificant malfunctions aren’t worth the waste of breath . . .

“Some of my ancestors were Native American,” she finally told him, which was true enough, although she didn’t know much about their customs. She thought that by Borg standards she’d just set a new record for conversational irrelevance.

Chakotay didn’t seem displeased with her answer, however. His dark eyes gazed steadily into her one human eye. “Do you wish to seek your animal spirit guide in the vision quest?”

The words sounded vaguely familiar. Julia searched through her directory of cultural files for the phrase. Animal spirit guide. The Collective had assimilated several species with a mythology of benevolent bestial deities. None of them seemed particularly enlightening in this context.

Sometimes one simply had to proceed with a task despite inadequate data. “Yes, Commander, that is what I seek.”

He brought a leather bundle to the table and took a flat, unfamiliar device from it as he spoke. “Your animal spirit guide isn’t some ancient myth, it’s real, or at least it’s real to you. It speaks to you when you’re in need of counsel.”

Not quite knowing what he meant, she looked down at the strange device on the table, trying to make sense of what he was telling her. She couldn’t imagine speaking with an animal.

“Technically, this is a neuroelectrical stimulator,” Chakotay went on. “Among my people, it was used to induce a lucid dreaming state, or a vision of the spirit world, depending on your point of view. It allows you to see and communicate with your animal spirit.”

An interesting piece of technology, she thought, reaching toward it with her cybernetic arm. Perhaps she could establish a direct interface and scan . . .

Chakotay firmly took hold of her arm, without the squeamishness that lesser species usually exhibited at the prospect of touching a Borg. “That won’t be helpful. I doubt your cortical processor is likely to see visions of anything more than bits and bytes. Please sit down and follow my directions.”

She withdrew the arm, feeling like a cadet who’d just been rebuked by an instructor. “Understood, Commander.”

“And there’s one other thing. I don’t know how compatible this device is with Borg physiology. It may be dangerous to you. You’ll have to tell me immediately if you begin to experience any discomfort.” He paused and corrected himself. “I probably ought to say malfunctions.”

“I will comply,” she assured him, wondering what he would say if he knew the full extent of her malfunctions. She’d run a diagnostic program on her systems a few hours earlier; the program had crashed twice for no apparent reason, and the list of error codes had been voluminous.

“Have you completely blocked all communication with the others of your group?”

She took a deep breath, gathered her courage together, accessed the lockout chip and disabled the link. In her mind, a wave of darkness washed over her, a cold silence; she was blind, deaf, maimed, not-Borg. Alone.

“Yes, Commander. I am ready to proceed.”

“That’s good. We’ll begin with a blessing.” He took her human hand between both of his, creating a comforting impression of warmth and protection. The ache of aloneness began to subside.

Chakotay asked, “Do the Borg ever pray?”

A curious question, she thought, and did her best to answer. “Religious incantations have no designated function in the Collective. The Borg do, however, assume the existence of a perfect Creator, although not as you would understand it.”

He responded with a nod; apparently this was sufficient. “This blessing asks our Creator to send an animal spirit who will guide you on your journey. I want you to close your eyes and try to visualize a place where you feel safe and at peace. Your animal spirit guide will come to you there.”

Julia dutifully closed her eye and switched off her visual circuitry. The sensation of vulnerability was quite unpleasant, although she could feel Chakotay’s good intentions toward her.

She could also feel her hand being placed over the device on the table. It didn’t seem to be doing anything at all.

Chakotay began to speak, his words resonating through her consciousness. We are far from home. There was no such thing as home; the concept was irrelevant; within the Collective, one physical location was just as good as another.

Far from the sacred places of our ancestors and the bones of our people. It was a mournful incantation, like cold rain on an autumn afternoon. She could almost see the drops falling through the yellowing leaves, the muddy path leading through a meadow of ragweed, wild asters and the brown stalks of Queen Anne’s lace gone to seed . . .

And suddenly she was there, walking along the familiar path she’d followed home from her elementary school hundreds of times. The rainswept landscape was quiet and deserted, no children walking on the path, no sounds of laughter or play. Just one very bewildered Borg, her feet sinking heavily into the mud, windborne leaves sticking to her artificial body parts. She had no idea what she was doing there.

You’re supposed to be looking for an animal, Julia reminded herself. She initiated a scan for non-sentient life signs, discovering that there were 12,861,972,061 insects in the immediate vicinity, and 8,116,003 arachnids and . . . this couldn’t possibly be what Commander Chakotay had meant. Maybe she wasn’t capable of finding her animal spirit guide. Maybe the Creator thought the Borg could take care of themselves without assistance. Just how was she going to get out of this place, anyway?

Julia turned around and almost tripped over the large she-wolf that had been standing quietly at her heels. It never occurred to her to be afraid of it. Why should a Borg fear a wolf? She squatted down beside the wolf, looking into the warmth of its golden, brilliant eyes. We are one, she told it tentatively, speaking into the wolf’s mind as if it also were Borg.

Chakotay’s voice seemed to come from somewhere far behind her. “Do you see an animal?”

The wolf, as if startled, swung its head away from Julia and loped easily past her, following a track parallel to the muddy path. It crested a small hill, started down again, and was out of her range of vision.

“Yes, Commander, but I have been unable to assimilate it.” The rain intensified, lashing Julia’s face coldly. She had the peculiar feeling that she was crying. “I mean, I’ve lost it. It ran away from me.”

“Perhaps there is something it wants to show you.”

Julia considered this possibility. It seemed about as logical as anything else that had happened, which was to say, not much. She slogged along the path, reached the top of the hill and looked down. Still no wolf, and there didn’t seem to be much else to see.

“The animal is gone. I have failed.”

“Don’t be that hard on yourself. The universe isn’t going to implode if it should happen that one Borg out of trillions is not perfectly efficient at all times.”

She continued to follow the path, not from any particular sense of purpose but just because she didn’t know what else to do. Drifts of yellow leaves covered the path as it curved around a stand of sycamores. Her feet were thickly coated with mud and leaves. She knew she looked ridiculous. Of course, how she looked was unimportant, and no one could see her inside this hallucination anyway.

“Actually, we are expected to approach perfection at all times.”

“Sounds like you don’t believe your Creator is very forgiving.” Chakotay’s voice contained an unexpected tenderness that reminded Julia of . . . what? It didn’t matter; it was a pointless distraction. The Borg were the only true reality.

Forgiveness is irrelevant, she thought, but her human tongue somehow tricked her, twisting the words as she spoke.

“Perhaps the Borg do not deserve forgiveness.”

As she came out of the curve, she could just see the roof of her house beyond the trees. A girl was walking along the path ahead of Julia, approaching the house. She wore a bright purple raincoat and boots that Julia remembered had been a birthday gift when she was eleven.

The wolf suddenly leaped out of the sycamore woods and bounded toward the girl. Did her animal spirit guide intend to kill her younger self? It wasn’t fair, Julia thought. She was a child, innocent, she didn’t deserve this. Stop, Julia commanded mentally, but the wolf either didn’t hear or didn’t choose to obey. And fairness, after all, had little meaning.

Then Julia saw a man walking through the thick weeds, only a few meters away from the girl. Her younger self, head bowed against the rain, hadn’t seen him. Julia recognized the face instantly. He was the man who had raped her when she had been about this age.

But this isn’t where it happened, she thought, confused. What is he doing in this place?

The wolf, its wet fur bristling, interposed itself between the girl and her would-be attacker. It snarled. Julia could see movement in the weeds, the outlines of several sleek and furry bodies approaching. They had to be the other wolves in the pack.

The rapist backed away, panic spreading over his face as he saw the other wolves beginning to surround him. He turned in the direction of the sycamores, began to run along the path.

At that point he saw Julia standing in his way.

She viewed the scene calmly as he spun around again, in a futile effort to escape both her and the wolves. A shoe slick with mud slid out from under him, and he fell, never to get up. The wolves moved in for the kill.

The girl in the purple raincoat watched in wide-eyed terror, inching slowly and silently backward in the direction of her house. Good girl, Julia thought, never run from a predator. A dimly remembered voice, alien, precise, echoed through another part of Julia’s mind. You will make an excellent drone.

Julia approached her younger self. The wolves, intent upon devouring their grisly meal, did not look up as she passed them. The girl, a curious expression on her face, stood completely still. No one on Earth has ever seen the Borg, Julia realized. We’re in the past. She doesn’t know enough to be afraid.

And that would make assimilation easier and more efficient. Julia reached out toward her younger self, intending to take her by the hand and lead her away. She would be restored to the Collective as a perfect Borg, free of the doubts and flaws that had made Julia’s years of service unworthy.

The girl opened her arms in a wide affirmation of life, embraced Julia with a smile, and began to dissolve into a fragrant purple mist. You are loved, her soft voice whispered into Julia’s mind, the words almost beyond belief, a whisper of hope and perhaps even a promise of forgiveness.

The she-wolf raised a paw as if in blessing, and Julia felt her body begin to change. All of her Borg attachments disappeared, melting into drops of rain as she fell to her knees. She crouched beside the muddy path, sensing warm fur growing along her limbs, her face lengthening into a wolf’s muzzle.

A warning message abruptly intruded. System configuration error. A display of failure codes began scrolling along the periphery of her consciousness.

Have to agree with that, Julia thought, looking down at her paws. Wild laughter bubbled through her brain, but found no outlet. She decided that laughter wasn’t one of the available functions of a werewolf.

The dominant she-wolf snarled into her brain, Don’t think. The pack unexpectedly took off running, and Julia, now driven by an instinctive longing that could not be denied, ran with them.

Be. Feel.

Strong muscles bunched beneath her in a long, effortless stride. The rain felt cool and pleasant. She could hear it falling steadily all around her, a comforting, hypnotic sound. Through the damp air came scents of tree and shrub, tall grass and fallen leaves, the scents of Earth, of home.

And Julia Bonner remembered joy.

*****

Chapter Nine

Janeway restlessly prowled the ship, pacing the corridors. For once, she hadn’t been bumping into crowds of refugees everywhere she turned. Most of them were in their temporary quarters in the cargo bays, either sleeping or unconscious, Janeway wasn’t sure which. She’d have to stop by sickbay and ask the Doctor for an update on their condition.

Meanwhile, a cup of tea might help her to relax. She’d been meaning to have a talk with Neelix. He had appointed himself as morale officer for Voyager; and right about now, morale was low enough so that you could scrape it off the deck if you were so inclined. Maybe Neelix would have a useful suggestion or two.

Entering the mess hall, Janeway was glad to find it empty, although she could hear Neelix bustling about in the galley. She walked over to the counter, breathing the pleasant fragrance of something that resembled cinnamon.

Neelix, an early riser, was indeed busy preparing breakfast. She also found Linnas standing in front of a large metal bowl, using one of the attachments on his cybernetic hand as a mixer for what looked like coffeecake batter. The absurdity of the scene left her staring at him, totally incredulous.

Linnas, rinsing his hand in the sink, turned to face her. “I told you that I dislike idleness. And you look quite ridiculous yourself, gaping at me like that. If you were Borg, which can easily be arranged, you would have much better control over your emotions.”

“If I were Borg, I wouldn’t have any emotions. No thanks.”

“Maybe another means of persuasion would be more effective. As you know, we have many available options for such purposes. We’re looking forward to the pleasure of assimilating you, Kathryn.”

His mocking words, spoken as if the destruction of so many lives meant nothing, infuriated Janeway beyond belief.

“Tell me, Linnas, while you were in the Collective, how many people did you personally assimilate?”

“The personal mode is inappropriate. I participated in the Collective’s assimilation of seven trillion, two hundred ninety billion, one hundred sixty-two million, five hundred forty-one thousand, three hundred and . . .”

Janeway wasn’t interested in listening to any more of that. “No, I mean personally. As in how many did you, yourself, drag away from their families, cut off their arms, gouge out their eyes, all that fun stuff. How many?”

“None. That was not my designated task.”

“I suppose you think that excuses your participation? Not in my book.”

“Your claim of moral superiority is offensive. How many have you, personally, killed during your Starfleet career? How many has your species killed in its never-ending wars?” Linnas took a step toward her.

“At least we don’t kidnap, mutilate and enslave everyone we see.”

“There is no slavery among the Borg. All are equal. And I don’t consider this body to have been mutilated. Many species alter their physical configurations as a statement of racial or individual identity. Among your species, there’s ear and body piercing, tattoos, circumcision . . .”

“That’s not remotely on the same order of magnitude as all of this,” Janeway snapped, looking him up and down as if she were making a damage assessment. “You tried to get friendly with me the other night, Linnas, but I find it hard to believe that you’re even capable of having sex. It looks to me like you have a lot of cybernetic parts in very inconvenient places.”

“You want to find out?” His artificial hand made a crude gesture toward the tangle of cables and metal around his midsection. “Most of the external attachments are removable.”

Hell no.”

“Then don’t ask.”

“I wasn’t asking,” Janeway retorted, wondering what had possessed her to get into this conversation in the first place. “I definitely don’t want to know.”

Linnas laughed. “Yes, Kathryn, you do. Don’t forget I can sense your physical responses.” Then he pulled her into a tight embrace, kissed her firmly on the lips, and let her go, still laughing as he left the room.

“If you ever touch me again,” Janeway yelled after him, “you’re going to need another artificial hand. And don’t call me Kathryn.”

Neelix came out from behind the counter. “A lovers’ quarrel, Captain?”

In frustration and fury, Janeway spun around so fast that she almost lost her balance. “A what?”

Neelix backed away in a hurry, his hands fluttering defensively. “Nothing, Captain, just a foolish observation. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m going to leave for a few minutes. If you want any food, help yourself.” He promptly escaped.

Janeway sat down at one of the tables, feeling too drained to move. What sin could she possibly have committed in a past life to deserve a fate such as Linnas, she wondered. It wouldn’t do any good to lock him in the brig; the other Borg would just let him out, and then who knew what they might do. She indulged in a brief, vicious daydream about transporting him, reduced to his constituent atoms, into space on a wide-beam dispersion setting.

She heard soft footsteps in the corridor. Naomi Wildman padded into the mess hall in a pink nightgown and fuzzy slippers, with Seven of Nine closely following.

“We decided to get a snack, Captain,” the little girl explained cheerfully. “I didn’t like the pot pie we had for dinner, but Neelix baked chocolate cake, and that’s Seven’s favorite, you know. Would you like some, too?”

“No, thanks. I was just about to get some tea. I haven’t been able to sleep.”

Janeway ordered a cup of tea from the replicator, a favorite blend for sleepless nights, with chamomile and vanilla. The replicator hummed faintly, and then a leg, severed just above the knee, suddenly materialized, falling to the floor with a ghastly thump and a spray of bright blood.

Naomi shrieked.

“Species 8413,” Seven of Nine observed calmly, looking down at the leg with its pale blue skin and violet spots. “We have four Borg of this species on board. Apparently, one of our guests is experiencing a severe disturbance in her sleep cycle, and this has affected the replicator’s programming.”

Almost anyone would have nightmares, Janeway thought. What went on in the Collective’s assimilation chambers was ghastly in the extreme. She took several deep breaths to calm herself.

“We’d better clean this up, Seven,” she said a few seconds later, when she could trust her voice to remain steady. “After all, we don’t want poor Neelix to die of fright when he comes back in here.”

*****

Chakotay thought he heard a cry for help inside his mind, a split second before Julia slid from her chair and crumpled heavily, awkwardly, the chair overturning with her.

She lay staring up at him, one dark eye wide. The red light on her visual sensor flashed slowly and erratically. Her breath came in shuddering gasps as she spoke.

“System configuration error. Secondary processor failure.”

Chakotay knelt beside her, tried to pick her up. Damn, she was heavy. She wasn’t a large woman, and Chakotay wondered how she was able to carry around more than her own weight in mechanical parts. Those servomotors definitely had to be working overtime.

Though there was something to be said for old-fashioned testosterone. He got her weight balanced across his chest and stood up. Julia twined her arms around his neck and sighed contentedly, like a small child.

“Chakotay,” she murmured, “we were home.”

“I know. Hang on, I’m going to take you to sickbay.”

As he stepped into the corridor, with Julia still clinging to his neck, Chakotay saw Tom Paris walking toward him with an obnoxious smirk. Chakotay was definitely not in the mood to hear any Borg girlfriend jokes.

“She’s sick, Tom.” His voice came out rougher than he’d expected. “Or experiencing major system malfunctions, however you’d care to put it. She just collapsed. I’m taking her to sickbay.”

“I’m on my way there, too. It seems sickbay is full of comatose Borg. Some of them are in pretty bad shape. I’m sure the Doctor can use your help, too.”

The two men got into the turbolift. Chakotay shifted Julia’s weight, lifting her a bit higher on his chest. A lot of help I’ll be, he thought. Stupid fool, what kind of idiot lets a malfunctioning, sleep-deprived Borg use a neuroelectrical stimulator, even a raw cadet would know better . . .

And he had known better. That was the hell of it. He’d been so anxious to see Julia decide to return home with Voyager that he’d let his emotions override his better judgment.

Her eye was closed now, and her breath rasped horribly as he carried her out of the turbolift and along the corridor. Both arms hung limply down his back, the natural arm hot as fire, the cybernetic arm dangling cold and lifeless.

“Julia?”

She did not answer. If I’ve killed her, Chakotay thought, I’ll never be able to live with myself.

The sickbay doors opened.

“So good of you gentlemen to come,” the Doctor greeted them. “I see you have brought me another patient. You’ll find two empty beds along the side wall.”

Chakotay moved through the rows of unconscious Borg and eased Julia down into a bio-bed. The Doctor promptly administered a hypospray. Her breathing eased, but she did not regain consciousness.

“There’s little we can do for them,” the Doctor continued. “None of the refugees has requested removal of the Borg implants, and they won’t survive otherwise.”

Sometimes you’ve got to hand it to the Borg, Chakotay thought, they don’t break ranks.

And Julia would die. That was unacceptable. He barely recognized his own voice when he spoke again.

“At what point can we begin to remove their implants without their consent?”

The Doctor looked up from another patient to face Chakotay. “We cannot. All sentient beings have an absolute right to refuse medical treatment that would alter their racial identity. Federation law is very clear on that point.”

“But what about Seven of Nine? She didn’t consent.”

“The situation was different. Seven was unconscious and had not stated a preference. Captain Janeway used her best judgment to determine the appropriate course of action. Here, we know that the refugees wish to remain Borg, because they’ve expressly told us so.”

Chakotay wasn’t willing to accept that outcome. There had to be something more that he could do . . .

“While I was carrying Julia to sickbay, she told me that she wants to be human again. She wants to stay aboard Voyager and return to Earth with us.” He was surprised at how easily the lie came out.

The Doctor regarded Chakotay with an unmistakable look of annoyance. Too late, Chakotay realized that the Doctor, being a hologram, was probably a very efficient lie detector.

“I also heard her say that, while we were in the turbolift,” Tom Paris put in unexpectedly.

The Doctor’s exasperated glance moved from one man to the other. “Gentlemen, you are wasting my time and your own. My ethical programming absolutely precludes me from taking the action you suggest.”

“Then reprogram yourself,” Chakotay snapped. “She’s a Starfleet officer, and I consider her a friend. I’m not about to stand here and watch her die for the goddamned Borg Collective.”

The Doctor had opened his mouth to speak, almost surely to refuse, when another version of the emergency medical hologram appeared in front of him.

But this one was a Borg. He had all of the Doctor’s features, plus the full set of cybernetics. Both legs appeared to be mechanical. An access panel on his head was hanging open, with wires and chips dangling from it.

“This body is damaged.” The voice sounded exactly like the Doctor’s. “You will repair it.”

“I can see that you have a problem, my friend,” the Doctor responded agreeably. “Computer, terminate Borg holographic projection.”

The altered EMH instantly vanished.

“Sickbay to Engineering.” The Doctor spoke brusquely. “It’s happened again. I know our guests are keeping you busy, Lieutenant Torres, but will you please make an effort to keep them out of my program?”

*****

As if we didn’t have enough problems, Torres thought. She’d had twenty-seven reports of strange malfunctions already that night, and she didn’t want to think about how long it had been since she’d had any sleep. Why the captain had decided to let five hundred crazy Borg come aboard Voyager was beyond her comprehension. Her personal preference was to dump those drones on the nearest asteroid, but she knew the captain wouldn’t go for that. Maybe they could be put into suspended animation until somebody figured out how to fix that security chip of theirs. She’d be more than willing to build as many stasis chambers as were needed . . .

And then a buzzer sounded and, all at once, it seemed as if every light in Engineering had started flashing. Not all of them, Torres thought. Just the ones that mean we’re about to die. You always wanted a life of adventure, didn’t you, B’Elanna?

“Warning,” announced the computer voice. “Antimatter containment field integrity has been compromised. Three minutes, ten seconds to warp core breach.”

*****

Harry Kim, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, entered Holodeck One for an early morning jog. The San Francisco air felt cool, even in summer, with the familiar chill of the wind off the bay. His running shoes slapped against the packed dirt of the track. Somewhere behind him, a seagull screeched.

The mist seemed to darken around him as the scene abruptly changed, coalescing into the interior of a Borg cube. Several drones walked purposefully through the chamber, many with terrified captives. Kim heard screams, sobs, pleading. The drones, silent and grim, paid no attention to the noise.

Kim saw that he was standing between two tables that bore some resemblance to sickbay beds. The one to his right was empty, but the other was occupied by a captive in the final stages of assimilation. A drone stood beside the table, making an adjustment to the circuitry protruding from the captive’s left eye socket, while the intact eye stared vacantly upward.

Another prisoner, just entering the chamber, drew a concealed knife from his sleeve and plunged it into his own gut, in what seemed to be a Delta Quadrant version of hara-kiri. He fell, contorted in agony, his heels drumming the deck. Three drones immediately converged, lifting the would-be suicide to another unoccupied table. They began to replace his internal organs with synthetic implants. Apparently, it didn’t do to waste good drone material.

Kim licked lips that had suddenly become dry. “Computer, end program.”

A tall female drone approached Kim and spoke in the voice of the ship’s computer. “Unable to comply. The requested function conflicts with standard bio-extraction procedures.”

All right, I’ll shut it down manually, Kim thought, although he could not see any means to do so in the grisly scene. “Computer, display holodeck control panel.”

Nothing changed as he looked around the chamber. The drone informed him, “That function is unavailable.”

Kim reached for his combadge. He presumed it would still be working normally, and the program could be shut down from Engineering.

As he lifted his hand, the drone seized him in a crushing grip and threw him down across the table. He struggled to break free.

The drone shoved him flat, with little apparent effort, and activated a restraining field. Kim could still move his head, but the rest of his body was completely immobilized.

“Computer,” he ventured, “status of safety protocols on Holodeck One?”

The drone regarded him with scorn. “That question is irrelevant. You will be assimilated.” Thin tubules shot from her hand toward Kim and jabbed him in the neck, the sharp pain briefly nauseating him as the tubules injected nanoprobes into his bloodstream.

I guess that answers my question about the safety protocols, Kim thought. He wondered what would happen to a human body fitted with biomechanical implants made of nonpermanent holodeck matter. Best guess, he’d bleed to death instantly when the program ended. Which was probably preferable to the alternative.

More captives were brought in, some of them shrieking hysterically, others in a stunned silence. The chamber reeked of blood and foulness. The female drone still stood beside Kim, waiting.

The humming of the ship’s engines seemed to intensify, its orderly rhythm somehow blending in Kim’s mind with echoes of distant voices. Trillions of voices. All of them alive, intelligent, part of a greater whole . . .

The nanoprobes had invaded his brain and started to restructure his perceptions. But I’m on the damned Holodeck, he thought, trying to distract himself from the voices, to push them out of his consciousness. This can’t be happening. These aren’t even real Borg, they’re just holographic projections. And whatever was forming in his brain wasn’t real either. Although it was real enough to kill him.

“Computer,” Kim tried again, “delete all drones and nanoprobes.” He was finding it harder to form coherent thoughts with the collective voices flowing through his mind, their precise harmony overwhelming his dissonant individual existence.

Without even bothering to respond, the drone proceeded to scan his body thoroughly. She appeared to be satisfied with the results. You are becoming one of us. You will be made perfect. Her calm voice spoke directly into Kim’s brain, a strong descant rising above the galactic harmony.

Kim felt as if he were answering her as a part of his own consciousness replied, a part that spoke in an alien binary code he somehow understood, its patterned strings of ones and zeros coming to him as naturally as his native language.

Primary assimilation sequence complete.

The drone switched off the restraining field. Kim could move again, although that piece of information now seemed irrelevant. He watched passively as the drone activated a cutting tool at the end of her artificial arm. She was going to make him perfect. He would be one of them. He would be Borg.

The cutting tool moved toward his torso and neatly clipped off his T-shirt. The drone, her fingers warm against his chest, pulled the shirt away from his body and threw it aside.

He could hear the metallic clatter of his combadge striking the deck as the T-shirt fell. The significance of that sound suddenly registered in his brain, along with the exact number of microseconds the communications circuitry would remain active while it awaited his voice command. For just a moment, he remembered who he was.

“Kim to Engineering. Kill power to Holodeck One, now!”

A swirl of darkness descended upon him, ripping thought and volition from his mind. The darkness encircled the vanishing pinpoint of his consciousness and compressed it almost to extinction. The cutting tool touched his arm and bit into his flesh. He felt no pain.

Then the lines of the holodeck grid appeared briefly before fading to blank walls and floor, and the table dissolved beneath him. The doors slid smoothly open as Kim fell to the deck. His mind began to clear. Grabbing up the shredded T-shirt with his combadge still attached, Kim set what he was sure had to be a new sprint record getting out into the corridor.

Torres’ voice came over his combadge. “What was it, Harry?”

“An assimilation chamber. I was the guest of honor.” Kim shook his head, still trying to clear his thoughts. “Now I understand why the Borg are all crazy.”

“You don’t have to tell me about it. I just had to shut down the warp drive because one of them decided to sleepwalk through the control software for the containment field generator. It’ll take almost an hour to restore from backup files, run a test cycle and get the warp engines back on line.”

Kim examined his arm closely. The skin was broken, although not deeply, and he could see a thin line of blood. Otherwise, he seemed unhurt, except for a bruise on his neck where the assimilation tubules had pierced it.

He hesitated before he spoke again. “A holographic drone injected me with nanoprobes while the safety protocols were disabled. You don’t think there’s any chance they’re still . . .”

“Impossible, Harry. You know holodeck matter immediately dissolves as soon as the program terminates. There’s nothing left of those nanoprobes. Get a grip.”

Her familiar gruffness was reassuring, but Kim couldn’t follow her advice and put it all out of his mind.

“B’Elanna, are you sure I’m still human?”

*****

Chapter Ten

Julia still breathed, a small, vulnerable figure inside a gleaming metallic shell.

Chakotay watched over her protectively.

“Would it be possible,” he queried the Doctor, “to give her something to bring her back to consciousness, so that she’d be able to tell us what she wants to do?”

“Yes,” the Doctor replied curtly, looking up from another motionless patient, “but that would hasten her death.”

“She’s going to die anyway. Do it.”

The hiss of the hypospray seemed to take forever, a moment frozen in time. Julia began to turn her head, moaning. The lights across her body started blinking in a strange, manic sequence, faster than Chakotay would have thought possible.

“I can’t guarantee she’ll be coherent,” the Doctor observed.

Chakotay took her hand gently. Julia’s eye was open now, but it wasn’t focused on him as she spoke.

“The rain . . .”

“Julia, it’s me, Chakotay. I want to bring you home, but you have to talk to me first. It has to be your choice. Tell me what you want to do.”

She moved her head slightly and looked at him. “Home. The blessing.”

“Yes.” Chakotay squeezed her hand, felt the hard outlines of artificial parts moving under the skin, and loosened his grip somewhat. “We are far from home, Julia. If we don’t remove your Borg implants, you’re going to die. You have to make a decision now.”

Julia turned her head from side to side in a motion precise and mechanical. “The rain . . . it doesn’t stop.”

Chakotay thought she might still be viewing a scene from her vision quest. “Where are you now? Is your spirit guide still with you?”

“Far from home.” She shivered, the mechanical motion of her head continuing. “The rain is cold. The trees are bare. We are lost. We are alone.”

“Julia, you’re not alone. I’m with you, and I want to bring you home, but you have to tell me it’s all right. Tell me yes, Julia.”

Chakotay touched the side of her head, trying to get her to focus on him again. As soon as his fingers touched her, she jerked her head away, staring in terror at a point just beyond his shoulder.

“Primary systems are still functioning. This body can be repaired. A deactivation command is not necessary.”

“You’re on a Federation ship. We don’t do that.”

Her neck arched backward at an impossible angle and then straightened. Her eye slowly closed. She continued to breathe in a harsh rhythm, but it was plain she was no longer conscious.

“Poor kid,” Tom Paris said from across the room, startling Chakotay, who had forgotten there was anyone else in the universe.

“You know, we were at the Academy together. Julia was my lab partner in Circuits II,” Paris went on. “I hadn’t recognized her until now.”

Chakotay still listened to Julia’s breathing and silently willed it to continue. He paid little attention to Paris, who kept talking.

“There but for the grace of God.”

She’s not dead yet, Chakotay thought. Stop talking about her like she’s dead. I don’t need to hear this.

He turned to face the Doctor. “You heard what she said. She doesn’t want to die. Let’s get started.”

The Doctor, standing a few paces away, made no move toward Julia’s bed.

“That was ambiguous at best, Commander.”

Damn it.” Chakotay slammed his fist down on the nearest table. A medical tricorder went crashing to the deck.

The clatter seemed to rouse Julia. Her eye opened again, turned in his direction, and focused on him with difficulty.

“Chakotay.” Her voice was so faint that he had to lean closer to hear as she struggled to speak the words. “You are loved.”

He could feel her intimate touch within his mind, impossibly sweet, as if she knew and cherished everything that had made him who he was. The sensation of complete unity lasted for only a second. Remember me, Julia’s mental voice came distantly, and then was silent.

Her respiration sounded slow and peaceful now, almost as if she were sleeping. The light panels on her body pulsed dimly in a matching rhythm.

I’m a soldier, Chakotay reminded himself. I’ve seen people die in battle. I can get through this. But it was different this time. Chakotay could almost feel himself dying. He would never know another woman like Julia, a unique, individual, beautiful soul, despite everything the Borg had done to her.

Then he realized, and for a moment couldn’t believe, that the Doctor had begun to lay out surgical instruments on the table beside Julia’s bed.

“Who am I,” the Doctor declared, in a tone almost whimsical, “to stand in the way of love?”

*****

Janeway got into the turbolift and irritably directed it to the bridge. She’d had very little sleep, sprinkled with dreams she preferred not to remember, and she hadn’t trusted her replicator for coffee. Neelix had poured her some ersatz monstrosity that resembled a cup of glue. The only thing that made it tolerable was a generous quantity of the local equivalent of caffeine.

The turbolift didn’t respond.

“Deck One. Bridge,” Janeway repeated.

The computer answered with a blast of music. Janeway recognized the harp and drums from last night’s performance. She hadn’t particularly liked listening to it then, either.

“Computer, discontinue audio. Proceed to the bridge.” She was starting to wonder if she’d have to climb through the Jeffries tubes, but the music stopped and the turbolift began to move.

“Destination coordinates, Grid Nine-Five,” the computer announced, “Sub-junction Seven-Zero, bio-programming laboratory Zero-Three.”

“Over my dead body,” Janeway muttered.

The doors opened. The bridge looked normal enough, except for the absence of Chakotay, Paris and Kim. Tuvok stood at his post, punctual as always, but everyone else was still there from third shift.

“Mr. Paris is assisting the Doctor, along with Commander Chakotay,” Tuvok enlightened her. “Several Borg are in critical condition. Mr. Kim had an unfortunate encounter with a holographic assimilation chamber. He appears to have sustained only minor injuries, but he has reported to sickbay for a precautionary examination. The holodecks have been closed until further notice. The security and engineering reports, as you might expect, are voluminous.”

Right, I could have figured out that much, Janeway thought, reaching for the padd. She sat down in her chair and began to read what looked like a chronicle of the entire ship falling apart. At least the warp engines were back on line now.

The turbolift doors opened again. Janeway looked up, expecting to see Harry Kim reporting for duty. Instead, the tall figure of a Borg stepped out of the turbolift, without a moment’s pause, just as if he owned the ship.

Linnas, her personal nightmare.

Janeway rose to her feet. “Get off my bridge.” The vehemence of her tone brought startled looks from her officers. Tuvok moved protectively toward her.

“We apologize for the intrusion. It is necessary.”

He didn’t look a bit apologetic. Janeway knew that the Borg customarily used the plural when speaking in the first person, but from Linnas it sounded lofty, a king addressing his minions. He definitely didn’t lack an ego consciousness.

Linnas continued to speak. “The Collective has dispatched a ship to recapture us. Estimated time to intercept, four hours, thirteen minutes, twenty-two seconds.”

Janeway didn’t bother to ask how he knew.

“And I suppose you have a plan of action that you want to recommend?” She emphasized the last word. No demented Borg anarchist was going to invade her bridge and start giving the orders.

“We do not,” Linnas replied, much to her surprise. “We cannot reach a consensus. You must decide what to do with us. If you choose to return us to the Collective, we will not resist.”

He’s got me totally figured out, Janeway thought. He knows I won’t hand over an obedient group of helpless, dying refugees.

Which left the question of just what she was going to do. Get Linnas out of her way, to begin with.

“As long as you’ve decided to obey my orders, Mr. Linnas, you can begin by removing yourself from my bridge.”

*****

When the yellow alert panels began blinking harshly through the muted lighting of Astrometrics, Seven of Nine did not have to ask why.

After the Collective had succeeded in destroying the rebellion, she had known there was only a minuscule probability that it would forego sending a ship to retrieve and repair its wayward drones. Seven had already prepared for this near-certain eventuality. She intended to make sure that Voyager surrendered every drone on board. With its objective accomplished, the Borg vessel would immediately return to the hive, leaving Voyager unharmed.

That this involved surrendering her own mother was unfortunate but unavoidable. Seven silently addressed a mental image of her mother — the drone who both was and wasn’t her mother — as if seeking justification. You told me that it is pointless to wish things other than they are. I have learned that lesson well.

Voyager had sufficient transporters, counting the main personnel units, the cargo transporters, the redundant backups, and those in the shuttles, to transport all Borg refugees to the Collective’s ship well within her six-minute, twenty-second window of opportunity after they were rendered unconscious.

She acknowledged the probability that to induce neural shock, in their present condition, would kill some of them. That, too, was unavoidable. She could not allow them an opportunity for resistance.

The release of anesthezine gas throughout Voyager would incapacitate the crew long enough to prevent them from interfering, and she would temporarily disable the Doctor’s program. After all the refugees were removed from the ship, she would take Voyager to maximum warp and, in the colorful phrase often used by Tom Paris, get the hell out of Dodge.

Whatever Dodge was.

*****

Midway through alpha shift, the bridge crew all waited tensely at their posts, anticipating battle. Captain Janeway had recalled her senior officers to the bridge immediately upon learning of the Borg threat, and she had assigned other crewmembers to assist the Doctor.

The replacement medical assistants weren’t as competent, Paris observed to himself, but that couldn’t be helped. The captain knew that he was Voyager’s best pilot, and she wanted him at the helm if they went into battle. It was good to have his talents appreciated. Even if he was only a few minutes away from being killed — or worse — by a Borg warship.

They’ll probably just take the drones, Paris tried to convince himself. If the Borg had wanted to kill us or assimilate us, they’d have done it long ago.

Of course, the circumstances were different now. The penalty for aiding rebels in the Borg Collective wasn’t a matter on which he cared to speculate.

Paris stretched his stiff muscles, realizing how sore and tired he was. He probably looked like hell, judging from the haggard appearances of the captain and first officer. Even Harry Kim had lost much of his usual fresh-faced look of youthful energy, and his brow was furrowed as he studied the sensor readings intently.

The captain spoke. “Tactical status, Mr. Tuvok.”

“Weapons systems are functioning normally, Captain.”

At least the refugees aren’t tap dancing on the photon torpedoes, Paris thought. Thank God for small favors.

Kim looked up from the control panel.

“One Borg sphere on long-range sensors, Captain.”

Just one warship to recapture the drones. The Collective obviously didn’t consider Voyager’s defenses capable of giving a Borg vessel much of a fight. Paris wasn’t sure he felt confident enough to disagree.

“Linnas was off by eight seconds,” the captain remarked, to no one in particular. She activated the shipwide communications channel. “Red alert. Battle stations. All hands, battle stations.”

As Kim calmly gave the enemy vessel’s course and speed, Paris wondered if he would have been able to maintain his composure as well as Harry if he’d just had a firsthand experience with an assimilation chamber. He doubted it.

“Raise shields,” the captain ordered, as the Borg warship moved closer to weapons range.

The sphere would have presented a sinister enough image even without the garish glow from the red alert lights. Its menacing shape continued to approach until it filled most of the viewscreen, looming hugely in Voyager’s path.

The captain turned toward Kim. “Try hailing them, Harry. Let’s see if they’re willing to talk to us.”

Not likely, Paris thought.

Kim transmitted a hail, with the expected result.

“They’re not responding, Captain.”

Janeway didn’t look at all surprised, either. “Maintain course and speed, Mr. Paris. They’ll have something to say when they’re ready.”

Voyager swept toward the enemy ship as the sphere continued along its intercept course. Like playing chicken with spaceships, Paris thought. Except that everyone knew the Borg didn’t have a cowardly bone anywhere in their bodies. Or a chicken piece of circuitry, for that matter.

The ships drew closer to each other. Voyager had reached a distance of three hundred and forty kilometers from the sphere, which was definitely whites-of-their-eyes range as far as space combat was concerned, before the enemy vessel altered its course to parallel Voyager’s. Just another fraction of a second, and the ships would have collided at warp speed. Guess they’re chicken after all, Paris decided. Too bad we aren’t going to win the battle that easily.

“Captain Janeway of the Voyager. You are harboring renegade drones.”

The Borg voices echoed eerily through the bridge, almost as if the whole Collective were speaking at once. The voices continued without the slightest pause, making it plain that no response was expected or desired, other than immediate compliance with their demand.

“You will return the drones to the Collective.”

Janeway, facing the viewscreen squarely, responded in a tone as cool as if she had been ready for this moment her entire life.

“Every person aboard this ship is under the protection of the United Federation of Planets.”

Nothing more was said for a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity. Both ships maintained their parallel course, moving precisely together, two metallic dancers tracing their steps across the stars.

With a crisp inevitability, a tractor beam shot out from the sphere and enveloped the smaller Federation vessel. Voyager hung in the glowing lines of force like a fly in a spider’s web.

The Borg voices rang through the bridge once more.

“Resistance is futile.”

*****

Chapter Eleven

Janeway looked at the bright glow filtering in through the viewscreen from the enemy’s tractor beam. You’re going to get a lot more resistance than you bargained for, she thought, turning to her tactical officer.

“Mr. Tuvok, target the source of that tractor beam and fire phasers.”

Voyager’s phasers stabbed along the line of the tractor beam, aiming for the generator from which it originated. Their focused lines of energy came into contact with the Borg vessel’s shielding and dissipated instantly, with no effect.

That didn’t surprise Janeway. The Collective had encountered Voyager before and had sufficient familiarity with the ship’s weapons to set the sphere’s defenses accordingly. What the Borg weren’t counting on was that Voyager’s crew also knew a few things about their systems.

Although the Collective’s warships possessed formidable weaponry, their defenses had certain shortcomings. In particular, they were not configured to routinely detect and destroy small objects moving slowly toward the perimeter of their shields. And Borg shields under battle conditions, when set to defend against standard Federation armament, did not prevent small, slow-moving objects from entering their perimeter. The Enterprise had exploited this vulnerability several years ago, in the use of a shuttle to rescue Captain Picard from the Borg.

Janeway had no intention of sending any of her crew to the enemy ship. A photon torpedo, equipped with maneuvering thrusters and a remote guidance system, would do quite nicely.

At his console, Tuvok directed the torpedo as it moved slowly toward the target. A satisfying explosion ripped through the sphere’s tractor beam generator, and in an instant, Voyager was free again.

Janeway glanced toward Tuvok once more. “Second phase.”

*****

Engineering bustled with controlled activity, its usual assigned roster more than doubled when all hands were at battle stations. As always, everyone knew his or her task and moved swiftly, without fear or hesitation, to carry it out.

Seven of Nine, unobtrusively holding a toolbox, appeared to be the calmest of them all. Instead of tools, the box actually contained a gas mask that she would put on as soon as her defensive program began to knock out the crew. She would not find it a pleasant experience to pilot Voyager alone, but she had done that and other less pleasant tasks before.

When the crew regained consciousness, Captain Janeway would probably send her to the brig immediately. Seven of Nine did not care. At least the captain and crew would still be human. It signified nothing to stand on foolish principles, if the result would be the destruction of one’s entire identity, including those very principles.

Guilt was a distraction she could not afford, and Seven could discover not a trace of guilt anywhere in herself. The observation that she was free of this weakness gratified her. Earlier in the day, she had found herself wondering whether she would be able to complete the work she had set herself, or whether she would be overcome with the human frailties of conscience and remorse.

Now she had her answer. Engineering looked stark and bright around her, pulsing with energy. The crewmembers shared a peculiarly identical appearance in the glow from the red alert lights, like mechanical components, or drones. Seven felt as she once had in the Collective, when her ship had prepared for an assault on yet another species to be assimilated. She stood without fear, without feeling, her universe in perfect focus, narrowed down to the small point of intensity that represented the immediate task. She had no room in her mind for irrelevant thoughts of a little girl who had once lost her mother and was about to do so again.

Maybe it was better this way.

She lifted her head with proud composure and spoke in a crisp tone that held no trace of emotion.

“Computer, run program Raven Zero One.”

*****

Tuvok’s fingers moved swiftly over the tactical control panel, initiating Voyager’s second attack on the Borg sphere.

Nothing happened.

“Tactical is not responding, Captain.” At once, he began to assess the relative probabilities of various causes for this unforeseen development. None of them gave Voyager much chance of survival.

“Reason?” Janeway demanded from the captain’s chair, as tersely as if she’d been Vulcan herself.

“Computer malfunction of unknown origin, caused, I would assume, by enemy action of some sort.”

“A logical assumption.” The captain’s voice sounded as grim as Tuvok had ever heard her.

Paris put in, “Helm’s gone dead too.”

Janeway spoke again. “Computer, restore control of tactical and all other command functions to the bridge.”

Nothing. Not even a word of acknowledgment or explanation.

“We still have full shields,” Kim noted.

“If our computer is indeed under the control of the enemy, we can’t count on shields. We’d better prepare to repel boarders.” Janeway reached for her phaser rifle and spoke again, touching the communications button beside her chair. “Engineering, this is the captain. Tactical and helm have both stopped responding. Transfer shields to manual control immediately.”

Tuvok unslung his weapon as well, although he knew that Borg personal shields would easily block phaser blasts. Lieutenant Torres had made some modifications to the phaser rifles, but the attackers would adapt quickly. It would prove almost as effective to throw rocks at them, Tuvok thought.

*****

The Borg refugees in cargo bay one seemed undisturbed by the flashing red alert lights, Naomi observed as she stood near the doorway, wondering whether she ought to return to her quarters. Her mother had told her a few hours earlier that she was not allowed to leave her quarters because the Collective might attack. Naomi had lived through plenty of battles, though, and in her mind Voyager was nearly indestructible. She didn’t see much point to sitting around in her quarters, expiring of boredom, just because her mother was a silly old worrywart.

This wasn’t even much of a battle. Naomi knew what it felt like when Voyager was hit by enemy fire, the deck bucking beneath you as the shields absorbed the blast, and you had the scary thrill of knowing that without the shields you’d just be another bit of space debris. But the Collective’s warship didn’t seem to be doing anything noticeable. The deck wasn’t shaking at all, so Naomi presumed they hadn’t taken any shots at Voyager. Not much of a battle at all, she concluded.

Naomi turned to the Borg she’d been interviewing when the red alert started, whose designation was Two of Seven, Secondary Extractor of Unimatrix Three-Five-Eight. A compliant research subject, she’d told Naomi to just call her Two because her original name could not be rendered by human vocal cords.

“Why aren’t they shooting at us?”

Two looked somewhat surprised by the question, as if she thought the answer ought to be obvious. “We are Borg. The Collective does not intend to kill us.”

That explained why there hadn’t been any shooting. Nothing to worry about, Naomi thought, deciding that there was no good reason to return to her quarters now. Someone would just see her in the corridor and tell her mother she’d been out, and then she’d get in big trouble. Better to stay here in the cargo bay where she wouldn’t be noticed.

“What are they trying to do?” Naomi asked.

“Assimilate us, of course.” The drone spoke in an almost motherly tone that was evidently intended to be reassuring. “Do not be frightened. You will not find the process at all painful. Young children are placed in maturation chambers and adapt easily.”

This is Voyager you’re talking about, Naomi thought. Nobody around here is going to get captured by the Collective.

“I had three children, before . . . of course, that was long ago. Their bodies were improved, not harmed, when we were assimilated. It is a necessary process in order to best serve the Collective,” Two continued, her voice becoming softer, as if she had not entirely managed to convince herself of that. “When it is done correctly, any discomfort is minimal. If you wish, this drone will assist in performing the required procedures on your body, to ensure that you do not experience pain.”

She was obviously trying to be kind, but that creepy offer left Naomi wondering if maybe she ought to have stayed in her quarters after all. No, that was silly, the Collective wasn’t going to get her.

“Captain Janeway isn’t going to let anyone get assimilated,” Naomi declared in a proud tone.

Two of Seven, Secondary Extractor of Unimatrix Three-Five-Eight, regarded her with a look of patient endurance.

“Your captain’s intentions are irrelevant.”

*****

Every control panel in Engineering had completely shut down, the displays nothing more than blank screens. The computer did not even acknowledge Torres’ futile attempts to restore normal operations, first through voice commands, and then through a portable maintenance unit that yielded no response whatsoever when she connected it to the main access port.

The communications system was still functioning, however, and the captain promptly informed Torres that the bridge had lost both tactical and helm control. Sabotage. Had to be.

Torres reached out and grabbed the nearest engineer by his arm, not even looking to see who it was. “You. Go put the shield generators on manual control. Make sure that all components of the shields have been completely disconnected from the computer system.”

The engineer — Vorik, she now noticed, the young Vulcan — immediately moved to obey. Torres again tried to unlock the system with various command-level codes, none of which amounted to squat. The blank screens stared mockingly at her.

With a particularly inventive Klingon curse, Torres ripped loose an access panel covering a reset module that was designed to enable a restart of the computer core in the event of primary systems failure. Presuming, of course, that it hadn’t been sabotaged too. She’d have to wait for Vorik to transfer shield control before she could find out. Otherwise, restarting the system would cause the ship to lose shields momentarily while the settings were reinitialized, which would probably result in everyone aboard being beamed into the sphere’s assimilation chambers.

She wondered what her ancestors in Sto-Vo-Kor would think of this situation. Hi, Mom, guess what, I died trying to save a shipload of demented drones who returned the favor by sabotaging the ship.

Assuming she ever got there. Capture by the enemy meant utter disgrace for a Klingon, a total loss of honor both before and after death. Torres figured any Klingon warrior unfortunate enough to be assimilated into the Borg Collective definitely had a ticket to the vilest depths of Gre’thor.

She connected the maintenance unit to yet another useless access port, thinking that if they just killed her outright, she’d be lucky.

But then, B’Elanna Torres had never counted on luck. When worst came to worst, and the Borg attackers began to board Voyager, she would manually shut off the coolant valve to the warp core. Without the computerized warnings, the Borg probably wouldn’t notice it was about to breach until it was too late to stop it. A warp core explosion would be more than sufficient to blow everyone aboard both ships to their respective concepts of kingdom come.

Maybe the drones would spend eternity in a collective afterlife. She’d rather take her chances with old-fashioned damnation.

Where the hell was Vorik?

Torres turned her head and saw Seven of Nine standing as still and proud as the warrior statues of Qo’noS, a forgotten toolbox fallen from her hand, and a look on her face as if she were about to be burned at the stake.

*****

Entering the shield generator control room, Vorik heard the familiar, normal humming of the machinery. Whatever had wreaked havoc on the bridge and in Engineering didn’t seem to have affected the shields at all.

The control panels for the shield generators glowed brightly in the small room. A quick look at a status display showed Vorik that the shields were at full power and correctly configured for battle conditions. The indicator lights cast a cool blue glow across the panel as he moved past the display. At the edge of his peripheral vision, toward a corner of the room, Vorik could just see what appeared to be the glow of more indicator lights, blinking a bright red.

But there wasn’t a console in that corner . . .

Vorik spun around, with his phaser in hand as he turned, and knowing that in all probability it was already too late to save himself.

A sparkling flash of light was the last thing he saw as the Borg who had been standing in the corner stunned him. He could barely feel himself falling, blind and helpless, completely unable to break his fall. As his numb body struck the deck, Vorik could just hear Lieutenant Torres’ voice over his combadge, fading from his perception as if she were receding into a great distance.

“Torres to Vorik. Report, Mr. Vorik.”

He could not move or speak, could perceive nothing beyond his own hazy, evaporating thoughts. And when the Borg took him aboard their ship, as they surely would, Vorik knew that even his thoughts wouldn’t remain his own.

*****

Chapter Twelve

Seven of Nine stood silently at her station, quiet and composed, strong and dignified, as her entire world crashed into pieces around her. Somewhere in the depths of her soul, she howled.

Her program had failed to run. The Borg had seized control of the ship’s computer. Any further attempt to resist their overwhelming power would be useless. The Collective had won. Just as it always won.

She became aware that B’Elanna Torres had clapped a hand to her shoulder and was shaking her fiercely, trying to get her attention.

“Seven, we need your help.”

There was nothing she could do. Had the Collective not already proven to her again and again, in the myriad conquests she had witnessed in the brief span of her young life, that no one could stand against its terrible strength? And she was not as young as her body appeared, not with a millennium of Borg memories locked in her brain. Every one of the neatly indexed lives captured in the historical data files worked to further reinforce the lesson of the Collective’s unchallenged dominance.

But she still had the freedom to choose, and until the Borg came to take her, she would serve Voyager with honor, to the best of her ability.

Disregarding the inactive console beside her, Seven reached out with her mind. Her consciousness moved easily into the pathways of the ship’s computer as it had once traversed the vast networks of the Collective, the binary language familiar and simple, living thought and electrical energy blending at light speed.

And she found in Voyager’s systems what she had already known that she would find, the virtual roadblocks thoroughly surrounding every possible entrance to the computer’s central core.

“Borg encryption codes. Hundreds of them.”

*****

Janeway jabbed the comm button.

“B’Elanna, we need weapons, what’s going on down there!”

“We’ve been locked out of the computer core,” Torres replied crisply, “with so many Borg encryption codes that it would take weeks to decipher them by conventional methods. Seven says she can do it in twenty minutes.”

From another location within the Borg warship, a tractor beam renewed its grasp on Voyager, drawing the smaller vessel toward it once again. Tom Paris pounded helplessly on the helm console, without the slightest response. At his tactical display, Tuvok just shook his head in answer to Janeway’s gaze.

In twenty minutes, they’ll already have taken us aboard their ship and started turning us into drones, Janeway thought. Presumably one of the refugees had gotten homesick for the Collective and had decided to give up Voyager’s crew as a peace offering. What a way to go.

“Distance to enemy vessel, seventy-four point two kilometers.” Harry Kim’s voice had lost much of its earlier composure, and Janeway could hear the ragged undertone of panic as the young ensign spoke.

Janeway looked up at the viewscreen again, just as a portal began to open on the side of the sphere as the drones made preparations to bring Voyager inside their ship. That was a sight she could have done without.

She got out of her chair and walked up to Harry’s station, putting a hand on his shoulder to try to calm him. Most of the displays at Ops were still in perfect order as they precisely illustrated Voyager’s hopeless situation. Perhaps the Borg had deliberately left that station functioning normally in an attempt to cause despair, allowing the bridge crew to watch the details of their impending doom. Cat with a mouse, Janeway thought. Must be how the Borg get their kicks.

Nothing else would explain why Voyager’s shields were still intact. Despite the power drain caused by the sphere’s tractor beam, Voyager had not as yet lost a significant amount of shield capacity. It would have been so much simpler, so much more efficient, for the Borg to have disabled the shields and transported everyone to their warship.

Unless . . .

A wild hope rose within her.

“Tuvok, are our weapons systems still fully powered?”

The Vulcan officer glanced toward her and gave an immediate reply, his tone showing only the slightest surprise at her question. “Yes, Captain.”

The Collective wouldn’t have overlooked that detail, Janeway was certain. Anyone taking a captured enemy vessel in tow would surely shut down its weapons systems, first thing. The Borg might be confident that they had full control over Voyager’s computer, but they weren’t stupid enough to skip the most elementary of precautions.

“Do you see anything different about our weapons?” Janeway wasn’t altogether certain of what she anticipated. But all her instincts told her that there would be something . . .

As Tuvok studied the tactical data, Chakotay walked around to stand on Kim’s other side, looking at the operations displays. Voyager had moved close enough to the Borg warship to be almost within its shields.

“We haven’t got enough time to fire the photon torpedoes manually,” Chakotay observed. “Maybe we’d get one or two good shots if we were lucky, but it wouldn’t accomplish much.”

“I don’t intend to try. Mr. Tuvok?”

A second later, the tactical officer answered, “Yes, Captain. You are correct. The phasers have been reset to different frequencies, outside the normal battle settings. This configuration is highly unusual.”

Chakotay looked up from Janeway toward the great sphere that filled the entire viewscreen, as comprehension began to show in his face.

“It would appear,” Tuvok continued, “that our guests have made plans of which they have neglected to inform us.”

*****

Linnas Kari Bayanmana, who had once worked at a mechanical loom in a factory on a primitive planet, now held the bright strands of hundreds of Borg minds in the firm grasp of his thoughts as he wove them into the pattern he desired.

How far he had come from his humble origins. He thought of the cringing aristocrat he’d seen with a screaming lady in the assimilation chamber, as their home world with its harsh contrasts of privilege and poverty had been consigned to the history files with all the others. The wealthy fools had been wearing all their jewels and furs, their pockets crammed full of gold and silver, as if they imagined that would be sufficient to save them. He remembered his own triumphant laughter a minute later, when the glory and strength of the Collective burst across his consciousness and he realized what he would become.

No distractions, he told himself. Focus on the task at hand.

Many of the Borg aboard Voyager, despite their increasing dementia, were still alert enough to be amenable to his control. With their lockout chips in place, he couldn’t transmit command sequences directly into their brains as the Collective had done, so it was entirely a matter of persuasion, of coaxing them back from the solitary vistas of their madness.

Political organization had always been one of his talents. Of course, he took no particular pride in that fact. Individual abilities were simply resources like any other, to be used for the greater good of the Collective, not selfishly squandered in the service of unproductive personal ambitions. And it just happened to be an undeniable fact that the Collective would be much improved on the day when he took his place as its supreme and unchallenged ruler.

This battle would be only the first of many to come.

He drew the strands of his followers’ fragmented identities together into a tight consensus, a unified force under his command. For a moment, he felt as if he had the entire galaxy at his feet.

Voyager, still impelled by the tractor beam, drifted into the edge of the Borg ship’s shielding with a crackle of energy as the two ships’ shields touched. A secondary shield generator inside the sphere began to form a tight shield bubble around Voyager, to prevent the captured ship from launching any attacks once inside the perimeter of the main shields. For a matter of seconds, three separately configured shields, as well as the tractor beam, would be in direct contact.

To Linnas and his group of rebels, who possessed the capability to perceive time in discrete units as small as nanoseconds, there was plenty of time to act. The instant that the three shields came into contact, Voyager’s phasers began to fire, their frequencies changing rapidly.

They were aimed not at the enemy ship, but at the shields themselves.

*****

Chakotay was thrown against a console with bruising force when Voyager’s phasers unexpectedly fired, the ship shuddering wildly as the shock wave resonated through the shields and through the tractor beam that still held Voyager in its implacable grasp.

He ended up with his face nearly flat against a display panel, the readouts of which made no sense at all. The phasers were operating at settings he’d never seen used before under battle conditions; some of them wouldn’t melt butter, much less damage an enemy ship. Assuming they’d even been aimed at the enemy ship, which they clearly weren’t. What’s more, their settings kept changing faster than the computer could update the display.

The shield frequencies were changing rapidly as well. Although their settings were still sufficient to block transporter operation, just about any type of weapons fire from the Borg ship would be enough to put Voyager in a world of hurt. The sphere wasn’t firing at all, though. Chakotay presumed this was because the Collective had decided to assimilate Voyager’s occupants, not disintegrate them. Which was not necessarily his idea of good fortune.

He lost his grip on the console as the ship lurched again, and his shoulder hit the deck so hard that he was surprised he hadn’t dislocated it. Although the way things were going, it looked like he had only a few minutes before the Borg would be replacing his arm with the latest cybernetic model, anyway. If this pounding continued for much longer, it would almost certainly cause the shields to fail, leaving Voyager completely helpless.

Chakotay managed to haul himself upright again and look at the display panel. The shields were definitely on the verge of failure. The repeated phaser fire at these bizarrely shifting frequencies, combined with the changes in shield modulation, had set up resonance waves . . .

And then he realized, in an instant of revelation, as he saw the power readings of the Borg warship displayed on the panel in front of him: No. It’s their shields that are going to blow, not ours.

The shock waves threw Voyager back and forth with the ferocity of a carnivore shaking its prey in its teeth, and then, suddenly, with a shower of sparks from Tuvok’s console, the ship was motionless. The glow of the tractor beam had vanished entirely from the viewscreen. The Borg vessel, dark as a burnt-out ember, drifted next to Voyager.

Kim, who had somehow managed to stay on his feet throughout all of this, stared in disbelief at the sensor readings. “We overloaded their shield generators and blew out their primary power grid. That’s to say, somebody on our ship did.”

Chakotay checked the readings himself. No propulsion, no weapons, no transporters, no shields: not even the artificial gravity was operational inside the sphere. The enemy still had enough auxiliary power for life support, but that was about all. The Collective’s design preference for power systems with numerous redundant connections had definitely shown its weakness. Those drones were going to float around in the dark for quite some time before they would be able to get that ship restored to any semblance of normal functioning.

Maybe I could take a boarding party over there and liberate their transwarp coil, Chakotay thought. That’d be just like old times in the Maquis.

“What’s our status?” The captain spoke as she picked herself up from the deck, with no apparent injuries.

“Shields are down . . . no,” Kim corrected himself, “it looks as if they’ve been shut down normally. We’ve sustained no significant damage, Captain.”

“Tactical is still not responding to command,” Tuvok noted. He had also been able to stay upright and at his post the entire time, which was not particularly surprising. Chakotay couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the dignified Vulcan officer take a tumble.

Tom Paris, still at the helm, declared, “Same here.”

“I don’t plan on being stuck here, defenseless, until that sphere gets back its transporter power and invites all of us for a friendly visit to its assimilation chambers.” The captain sat down in her chair and touched the communications button beside it. “Janeway to Engineering.”

No response. The captain tried her combadge, with the same result.

The image of the Borg ship on the main screen shifted unexpectedly and then was gone, as Voyager moved to a new directional heading and went to warp. Janeway looked at Paris, who shrugged.

“Wasn’t me, Captain. The naviconsole still won’t respond.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Janeway snapped, rising from her chair and striding toward the turbolift with the intensity of an avenging angel. “Chakotay, you have the bridge. For whatever that’s worth at the moment.”

I wouldn’t like to be the Borg who gets in her way, Chakotay thought.

*****

Chapter Thirteen

Janeway marched into cargo bay two, surveyed the group of refugees imperiously and demanded, “Which of you took it upon yourself to seize control of my ship’s systems?”

Most of the Borg, lying prone on their cots, did not even turn their heads to look at her. Linnas stood with his pale hand pressed against a bulkhead as if to hold himself upright. He gave her the inevitable answer.

“We all did.”

That wasn’t an answer Janeway had any interest in hearing. “What is our destination?” she snarled at him.

“An abandoned dilithium mine . . . on a moon that was once named Ice Dancer by a species long extinct. In Borg notation it’s Planetary Subunit 381.7.6. Time to arrival, three hours, eighteen minutes, four seconds.” His voice sounded much weaker, but he still spoke clearly.

Janeway figured that the mine had been abandoned for quite some time. Centuries ago, the Borg Collective had cut a wide swath through the star systems in this part of the galaxy.

“Voyager certainly does need more dilithium crystals,” she acknowledged, “but I doubt that’s why you’ve directed us there.”

“Our actions have endangered your ship and our own lives. We must leave Voyager. This is the consensus we have reached. You will take us there and then continue on your previous course.”

A mining camp on an icy moon didn’t seem to Janeway a likely place for a group of refugees to build a colony. Perhaps they’d chosen that location in the hope that if they were lucky, the Collective would reach the same conclusion, finding the probability too remote to investigate. Then again, Linnas might have some other plan he wasn’t bothering to tell her about.

“We have reconfigured our local communications matrix to a range of less than one kilometer,” Linnas continued. “No signals will escape the interior of the mine. The moon’s crust possesses sufficient heavy metals to block any attempt by the Collective to scan for life signs below the surface. Upon our arrival, we will be able to remove our security modules.”

“Some of your people are near death,” Janeway pointed out. “They can’t safely be taken from sickbay. What do you intend to do with them?”

“We have begun to construct modified regeneration units that can be used in sickbay.”

That’s the first I’ve heard about it, Janeway thought. She had the distinct impression that it wasn’t a good idea. If the refugees began to remove their lockout chips while still aboard Voyager, and it turned out that Voyager had been pursued, any Borg ship coming within range would be able to instantly reassimilate them.

Linnas responded to her concern even before she could voice it. “Many of us will die otherwise, and the probability that the Collective will be able to locate Voyager this quickly is remote. We caused considerable damage to the power systems on the vessel that attacked us.”

That might be true enough, but Janeway still didn’t feel at all reassured. There might be other Borg ships in the vicinity. Would Linnas have told her about them? Overloading the shields was not a tactic that would work on the adaptable Borg more than once.

“Kathryn, I would tell you if your ship were at risk. I have become fond of your face in its present configuration, although at first I did think a few cybernetic attachments would improve it.” Linnas turned his head, wincing in apparent pain. “Unfortunately, I am now seeing a triple image of your beauty, and my visual processor is unable to compensate.”

Somewhat to her surprise, his bizarrely sexual banter no longer seemed evil and threatening, but reflected only a young man’s cockiness. Linnas was about her own age, as far as she could guess, but she gathered that he had been assimilated in early adulthood. He must have spent the past twenty years, at least, without any semblance of normal social interaction. Talk about arrested development, Janeway mused.

She found herself talking to him in a tone that she might have used with one of her junior crewmen. “I will grant permission for you and your people to remove your security chips while aboard Voyager, as soon as you get out of my computer systems. And then you’d better go and regenerate before you drive yourselves and everyone around you completely crazy.”

*****

“Stand down.”

The red alert lights obediently stopped blinking. The ship’s computer appeared to have been entirely restored to the control of Voyager’s crew. Everyone in Engineering hurried to begin the enormous series of diagnostics that Lieutenant Torres promptly ordered.

Everyone, that was, except Seven of Nine. She stepped immediately toward the door, her haste earning her curious looks from several crewmen.

Seven ignored them as she strode into the corridor, drawn by a compulsion almost as strong as she had felt soon after her arrival on Voyager, when Borg homing signals had led her to the wreck of her family’s small ship.

Memories thronged behind her eyes, burning with a sudden guilt she could not begin to assuage. Her mother had delivered her to the Collective inadvertently, through careless overconfidence. She had attempted to do the same to her mother with deliberate intention. There was nothing she could do; it was utterly impossible to make atonement; the very thought was pointless and futile. Perhaps she could, at most, hope to gain some understanding.

She instructed the computer to scan for Borg of human genetic origin and discovered that the drone who had been her mother was located in the shuttle bay. Walking into the bay, Seven at first did not see her mother. Borg scout ships occupied every available centimeter of the bay, stacked up to impossible heights like a collection of overgrown crates.

Several of the Borg refugees moved purposefully through the shuttle bay, most carrying machinery that Seven immediately identified as components of regeneration systems. The silence seemed an assault on her senses, intense, oppressive, broken only by the occasional clang or clatter from somewhere inside the scout ships.

I am no longer a drone, she reminded herself, a litany from her earliest days on Voyager, as she had struggled within herself to give meaning to this new and more benign form of captivity. I do not need to hear the voices.

When a calm female voice began to speak, just behind her, Seven felt like an intruder whose presence had just been discovered.

“You will assist us,” her mother briskly informed her, leading the way around several scout ships toward a corner of the shuttle bay where a group of drones worked to reassemble parts of regeneration alcoves into portable systems. Seven followed without a word, not knowing what words she could speak that would have any possible function or relevance.

The drones all proceeded in complete silence with the task. They had no reason to speak with one another, not when they maintained a mental link at all times. Seven, of course, no longer possessed the ability to communicate in this fashion. She would never again have a need to do so, she reminded herself.

Despite suffering from regenerative deprivation, the drones worked efficiently, although Seven noticed that one of them seemed unable to control a twitch on the right side of her face, and another had chewed his lower lip until it bled.

Almost as if she were back in the Collective, Seven of Nine labored among them. My primary task is to serve Voyager and the Federation, she thought, wondering if she should just throw down her tools and walk out. She could see very little purpose to her presence here. Not the Collective, not this meaningless group of rebels, not my mother. This drone standing beside me is no one’s mother. Of what significance are familial genetic similarities to the Borg? Perhaps it would have been appropriate to return her to the Collective, after all.

Annika Hansen had lost her parents long ago. Nothing in the universe could change that fact.

“As soon as this task has been completed,” Seven announced in a loud voice, not caring whether anyone listened, “I shall resume my normal duties as a member of Voyager’s crew.”

She had very little expectation of any response and was almost convinced that she did not want to hear one. Somewhat to her surprise, the genetically similar drone inquired, in a tone almost of pity, “To what purpose?”

“The safe return of Voyager and the crew to Federation space.”

“Such an objective has meaning only to individuals. You are Borg.” The note of sympathy grew stronger in the familiar voice, altogether intolerable to Seven’s ears. “What do you expect would happen upon your arrival? On Earth, you would be a freak, a monster, a hated enemy. You would be feared as well as pitied. You would be shunned. It is not possible for you to become human.”

“I can adapt.”

“No. We are changed forever. We cannot return to what we were. All of us know this to be true. If it were possible for you to speak with your father, he would surely tell you the same.”

Seven couldn’t imagine what use she could possibly have for the irrelevant opinion of yet another formerly human drone of similar genetic construction. The drones who had been her parents were weak, ineffectual, lacking the fortitude to break away from the Borg and assert their individual identities. As the logical consequence of their foolish adventuring, they had not even been able to save their own daughter from assimilation. They deserved nothing but her contempt.

Her mother spoke again, not looking at Seven as she bent down to connect a group of cables at the base of the regeneration unit.

“‘Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.’”

“Will you stop reciting irrelevant quotations!” Seven of Nine, standing in the midst of a group of Borg who should never have been allowed to come aboard Voyager in the first place, practically screamed.

The unimportant former human mother/drone straightened to make a final adjustment near the top of the portable regeneration unit, completing the assembly. Another silent drone immediately took the device away, presumably to sickbay, as the group began working on another unit.

“It will not happen again.” Her mother finally turned away from the task to face Seven. “The enjoyment of verse reflects merely the residue of a previous individual personality. Such behavior possesses no useful attributes among the Borg. After this body has regenerated and all brain functions have been restored to normal operation, this drone will have no further desire to access files containing such extraneous information. No doubt you will consider that outcome to be more suitable.”

The flat voice, almost totally purged of emotion, seemed nevertheless to contain an accusation. Don’t look at me like that, Seven thought. If you must indulge in the meaningless human pastime of finding fault, then look to place it elsewhere. Your daughter was not the one who decided that exploring the Borg Collective would be a fascinating research project.

Seven turned away. She could see no purpose to staying any longer. The drones were fully capable of reconfiguring the regeneration units without her assistance, and there were many tasks she could perform in Engineering.

“Although the Collective no longer dictates our choices, we will continue to seek perfection as we understand it. That is an essential part of our nature. We are Borg.” Her mother’s calm, explanatory tone had somehow lost the accusing note of a moment earlier, if indeed it had ever been there.

Seven thought about this, standing in a narrow corridor between two scout ships, just a few paces away from the group of drones. She concluded that it was true. Her goal was not merely to function as an ordinary human crewmember, but to integrate the best of her human potential with the capabilities she had gained while in the Collective. She could not imagine being content with less.

“Agreed,” she replied. Her voice echoed back to her from the hulls of the scout ships. In the Collective, Seven thought, there were trillions of voices, but I never heard my own.

The corridor became too confining. She moved toward the drones once more, not knowing what she wanted or intended.

I don’t want to lose you, not again. Seven of Nine looked into the one calm eye of the alien being who was still, beyond all else, the woman who had been her mother. She wondered why she could not say such simple words.

“Remember this as you continue on your journey. The person that I once was,” and the mother/drone touched Seven’s shoulder with a gentle hand, “loved you very much, Annika.”

Seven thought, And I . . .

She still could not say it, but that did not seem to matter. She felt that she was understood.

“Know this also. You did not lose your mother when we were assimilated, and she did not lose her child. We carry within us the memories, the life experiences of every drone who has ever been part of the Collective. As you grew, as you learned, as you became strong and proud, you were always here.” The tip of a pale finger indicated the hard mechanical configuration of her head. “No human mother has ever been closer to her daughter. Within you, as well, are the complete memories of your mother, up to the day you left the Collective. Perhaps when you have more thoroughly processed your experiences, you will feel strong enough to access these memories.”

The drone who had been — and still was — her mother leaned forward to kiss Seven once on the cheek, just above the small, starlike gray implant that still marred her human features.

“May you find perfection as you conceive of it, Annika, Seven of Nine.”

*****

“You’re shirking your duties, Vorik. We still have another three hours before shift change. This is not the time to be taking a nap.”

Lieutenant Torres’ acerbic voice was unmistakable. Vorik, still lying on the deck in the shield generator control room, struggled to open his eyes and was eventually successful in that endeavor. He made a less successful attempt to sit up, his body responding as sluggishly to the commands of his nerves as if he’d been buried under a ton of sandbags.

Vorik suspected that he was being teased, an annoyance that Vulcans serving in Starfleet often had to endure. He wasn’t sure whether this particular humorous effort was of the Klingon or human variety. The jokes of both species, in his opinion, were about equally atrocious.

“I was stunned. There was a Borg,” and his eyes moved toward the empty corner where his attacker had been waiting. Never again, Vorik vowed, would he take for granted the simple miracle of finding himself in his own body. He had fully expected to be a drone by now.

Torres reached down and gave him a hand to help him up. He got to his feet, still feeling weak as a newborn merak.

“Didn’t they teach you at the Academy how you’re supposed to secure an area? Looks like you need a refresher course in the subject. You can try one of my exercise programs, as soon as we’ve got the holodecks up and running again. The simulation won’t kill you, but if you screw up, you’re going to be in some serious pain.”

Vorik only nodded, knowing this to be deserved, although a Klingon combat simulation ranked only slightly above a torture chamber in his estimation.

“I assume the refugees have returned to the Collective.” He could find no other logical explanation for why the ship was still in one piece and no longer at red alert status.

Torres broke into a broad, fierce grin, the expression so quintessentially Klingon that he found it almost surprising to see the even whiteness of her human teeth. “And why do you say that? We won the battle. Our descendants will tell the tale of our valor for many years to come. Voyager, brave vanquisher of the Borg.”

Not on Vulcan they won’t, Vorik thought, but he said nothing. A combat simulation was bad enough. He didn’t even want to imagine what Torres might dream up as a means of improving his soldierly pride.

*****

Chapter Fourteen

“We’re approaching our destination, Captain,” Paris announced.

“Let’s have a look at it.”

The bright moon filled the viewscreen as Voyager entered orbit. Its surface was not visible at all beneath its extensive cloud cover, as streaks of rusty red, bright pink and pale bluish-green billowed across the landscape they obscured. The swirling colors formed fanciful patterns in the clouds, coalescing and then moving apart. Janeway could immediately see what had inspired the name Ice Dancer.

“Atmospheric composition, eighty-three percent nitrogen, fifteen percent methane, one percent carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of several other gases. Surface temperature at the equator, minus sixty-four degrees,” Kim informed the captain and bridge crew.

“Perfect for a Borg ski resort,” Paris wisecracked. “Come to this wonderful planetary subunit and experience the beauty of mountains sparkling with methane ice, smooth ski runs of pristine carbon dioxide snow, and lovely liquid nitrogen lakes, while enjoying a leisurely assimilation.”

“Shut up, Tom.” The brittle tone of Kim’s voice made it plain that he wasn’t in a mood for comic relief.

Janeway intervened. “Dilithium content, Mr. Kim?”

“There’s definitely some down there, Captain, but it’s hard to say how much. Sensors can’t penetrate more than about fifty meters beneath the surface.”

The onscreen image zoomed in on a small section of the planet where the ruins of an artificial structure briefly became visible through a gap in the multicolored clouds. “That’s the mine right there, Captain, and from the look of it, no one has used it for approximately the past millennium. It’s not likely that anyone will show up suddenly and accuse us of claim jumping.”

Janeway wasn’t surprised to hear that. All of the surrounding systems had turned out to be completely uninhabited, a bleak monument to the efficiency of past Borg conquests.

“But there’s breathable air inside the mine,” Kim went on, his surprise evident as he spoke, “and sensors are picking up a few life signs just below the surface. Small rodents.”

What could the rats have eaten for a thousand years, Janeway found herself wondering. Maybe this place wasn’t as abandoned as it looked.

“No evidence of Borg activity, past or present.” Kim had accurately anticipated her next question.

Janeway gazed at the inhospitable image on the screen before her. “Just in case there are people living down there, I don’t want to be responsible for dropping five hundred Borg on their doorstep. Chakotay, Harry, Tom, you’ll form an away team, transport into the mine and have a good look around before we take any dilithium or allow any of the Borg to leave the ship. And bring Seven of Nine with you. She may know something about this place.”

*****

Just inside the entrance to the mine, the main tunnel was large enough to allow the members of the away team to walk together, if they had chosen to do so. Chakotay stayed a few steps ahead, taking the point position. A faint glow came from the tunnel as it curved gradually downward in front of the group, another bit of evidence in favor of current inhabitants. Not many sources of power would still be functioning after a thousand years. Chakotay kept his light aimed steadily ahead, revealing nothing but the bare rock walls and floor of the tunnel.

Kim had his tricorder in his hand as he continued to scan for life signs. Beside him, Seven of Nine took mineral readings. Paris carried a set of pattern enhancers, in case the transporter lock on the away team began to fade as the group descended, and a communications relay to boost the signals from their combadges.

The air didn’t feel at all stale, Chakotay noted. A light breeze, warmer and more humid than the air near the entrance, drifted upward from the tunnel before them. The breeze carried a scent almost reminiscent of mint. The glow ahead of them became brighter, resolving into a warm yellow that looked almost like Earth’s sunlight. It came from patches of what looked like flat, irregularly shaped tiles on the walls of the tunnel just ahead.

Kim scanned one of the tiles. “There’s no artificial power source. These things are some kind of luminescent plant life. They’re similar to lichen, although they also have some characteristics of fungi. It’s likely that they were genetically engineered by whoever built the mine.”

Seven of Nine also extended her tricorder toward the glowing yellow patches on the walls and observed the readings briefly, without her usual intensity of scientific interest. She spoke in a curt tone. “I concur.”

What’s her problem, Chakotay wondered. Maybe the thought of leaving her mother in this desolate place was starting to upset her, although it was unusual for Seven to show any visible signs of emotional distress. He found himself thinking of the captain’s suggestion that Seven might know something about the species that had built the mine so many years ago.

Just before he could ask her, a sound like tiny bells, high and melodious, came from somewhere not far ahead. Chakotay moved forward at once, as he heard a soft scurrying from beyond a sharp bend in the tunnel. He stepped around the bend and touched his combadge reflexively, amazed by what he saw.

“Captain, you have got to see this.”

*****

In her ready room, Janeway sat at her desk console reviewing the preliminary mineral survey that Seven of Nine had just transmitted to the ship. To her satisfaction, the mine contained all the dilithium that a traveler’s heart could desire. Or at least all that would be able to fit aboard Voyager.

The door chime sounded.

She knew who it would be. Daro Gareth, the Bajoran crewman she’d surprised in the utility room with Linnas, had asked to speak with her privately. He probably wanted to be included in one of the away teams on the day of the ship’s departure, so that he could say a last good-bye to his Borg friends. Janeway, feeling positively jovial about the dilithium trove and the prospect of getting Linnas and his rebel cadre off her ship, had already decided to grant that request.

“Come.”

The young crewman entered her office and stood stiffly at attention in front of her desk. “Captain, I request permission to remain on Planetary Subunit 381.7.6 after Voyager leaves.”

The word remain hit Janeway like a brick.

“You mean, as a Borg.” She gritted the words through her teeth, revulsion mixing with shock in her mind. She’d known Linnas had intended something of the sort, but she hadn’t thought any of her crew would be even remotely tempted.

Daro Gareth regarded her with the intent eyes of a fanatic. “Yes.”

“Completely out of the question, Mr. Daro. You may think that you’re in love with him, but I assure you . . .”

“That’s not the reason, Captain.” He lifted his hands, gesturing widely as if to illustrate whatever bizarre images were passing through his thoughts. “I saw it, just for a moment, as clearly as if I had been looking into the orb of prophecy . . .”

Janeway gave an impatient sigh; with her scientific mindset, she found Bajorans with their mystical metaphors almost impossible to communicate with at times. “You saw what?”

“A vision of the future. A brilliant civilization of incredible beauty and perfection. What the Borg Collective should be.”

“You are delusional, Mr. Daro. Either that, or you’re under the influence of Borg mental control.”

“Captain, you don’t understand.” He leaned across Janeway’s desk, speaking earnestly. “When I learned of the deaths of my Maquis comrades, I could think of no good reason why I was still alive. I lost my faith entirely. That is a terrible thing for a Bajoran; we’re a very religious people.”

“I understand that much. We all need something larger than ourselves to define the meaning of our lives.” Janeway stood up and began to walk around the desk toward him. She’d had more than enough of sitting there looking up into his strange eyes. “However, the galaxy is full of noble causes. I can’t imagine why you would choose to devote yourself to serving the greatest tyranny in history.”

His response was immediate. “To change it.”

“A drone can change nothing, and that’s exactly what you would be. Linnas may talk a good game about individual rights and the Prime Directive, but what he really wants is to rule his own little kingdom. I’ve seen his kind before. You would be his slave, Mr. Daro. Not to mention what would happen to your grand ambitions if the Collective ever happened to find you.”

“We will perfect the security lockout chip.” The certainty in his voice was unaltered, as if he heard other voices than hers. “The Collective will not be able to withstand us. We will conquer it and become the liberators of the Delta Quadrant.”

Janeway wondered if Linnas had injected him with nanoprobes and was speaking through him. Linnas would have no qualms about doing so; of that she was certain.

“I’m ordering you to report immediately to sickbay for a complete brain scan and psychological evaluation. I’ll tell the Doctor to expect you.”

The Bajoran obediently acknowledged the order. “Yes, Captain. If the Doctor finds no impairment of my mental functioning, will you consider my request?”

That’ll happen when pigs fly, Janeway thought. And I don’t mean genetically altered pigs with a sprinkling of bird DNA, either. Although she’d once seen winged pigs offered for sale as a gag gift, years ago . . .

Daro Gareth still stood patiently in the doorway, waiting for her answer.

“After the Doctor has finished examining you, Mr. Daro, you can be sure I’ll have a lot more to say about it.”

*****

The Doctor, with the distinct impression that he’d somehow become irrelevant in his own sickbay, had little to do but watch as dozens of Borg refugees swarmed about, like the perfect hive insects they aspired to become. They had already connected a mobile regeneration unit to each of the bio-beds, including the one where Julia Bonner now slept, with eighty-three percent of her Borg implants successfully removed.

The refugees had made no attempt to reassimilate her. Perhaps they had decided she was too damaged for any salvage efforts to be worthwhile. It was also possible that they simply wanted to avoid further confrontations with the captain. They had offered no explanation whatsoever, had scarcely communicated with him at all, as they went quietly about their work.

All at once, as if responding to some signal that only they could hear, the group of refugees turned toward the doorway. Within moments, there wasn’t a Borg to be found anywhere in sickbay, except for the regenerating drones on the bio-beds.

The captain’s voice broke the sudden stillness.

“Janeway to Sickbay. Are you busy right now, Doctor?”

He looked around at the rows of silent, motionless drones, all of whose vital signs were presumably being monitored quite efficiently by the refugees’ own computer systems. The assistance of a Federation hologram was clearly not required.

“Actually, no.”

“Good. Have you ever heard that ancient curse about living in interesting times? Well, you’re about to get a very interesting patient.”

*****

Chapter Fifteen

Janeway turned the corner and looked out over the vista that had prompted Chakotay’s exclamation. The tunnel opened into a wide cavern, lit as brightly as day with the yellow lichen that encrusted the walls and ceiling.

Flowering vines, which appeared to bear some sort of groundnut, had taken solid root in the dirt floor of the cavern. The air felt warm and humid, and Janeway could immediately see why. Toward the far end of the chamber, a hot spring flowed from a source beyond a rock formation, sending up billows of steam. A small stream trickled away from the bubbling pool and eventually sank into the damp ground.

Insects hovered over the pale flowers, their slender green bodies looking as delicate as dragonflies. A flash of feathered, gold-spotted wings startled Janeway as she advanced. A small bird, cocking its purple-crested head to one side, emerged from a tangle of vines and chirped amiably at Janeway before nabbing one of the insects with a quick hop.

Even the rats were beautiful. They had huge lavender eyes, thick silvery pelts and impossibly long, fringed tails, like a fanciful illustration from an old-fashioned children’s book. Sitting up on their haunches and gnawing groundnuts, they stared curiously at Janeway and chittered to one another in high voices that rang through the cavern like clear bell tones.

The overall impression was one of intentional artistic creation, a sculpture in flora and fauna, an evolving composition on biological canvas. Janeway reached for her tricorder and scanned the area again, confirming what Chakotay had already told her. There were no higher life forms. Whoever had abandoned the mine a thousand years ago had left behind a self-sustaining ecosystem, a living symphony to be performed throughout the ages.

“Who were these people?” Janeway said softly to herself, not expecting an answer.

Standing about ten meters away, Seven of Nine turned her head and started to respond to the captain’s question, with the same peculiar hesitation that Linnas had shown in mentioning the mine.

“Their designation . . . was Species One.”

Can’t begin to believe that, was Janeway’s first reaction. There’s no way the creators of this beautiful world could have been . . .

“The ancestors of the Borg?” Kim sounded equally incredulous.

“Only in a metaphorical sense. No trace of their genetic pattern has survived in the Collective.” Seven took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, as if she really did not want to discuss this subject. “They were a race of highly gifted biologists and engineers, with an unusual depth of sensory perception. Borg history recites that the Collective arose when they made the decision to turn their considerable talents toward perfecting their own bodies.”

“No one in their right mind could have chosen . . .”

Kim thought better of his indignant comment and fell silent, looking at Seven as if he hoped that he hadn’t offended her.

“You need not censor your opinions on my account.” Seven spoke in her usual calm tone, but Janeway could hear the effort that went into maintaining her control. “I do not disagree with your assessment.”

What must it be like, Janeway thought, to become convinced that the society in which you grew up is insane?

For a moment, she heard an echo of Linnas’ voice in the back of her mind: You have no idea of what you did to her.

Well, if the alternative had been to return Seven to the Borg Collective where she’d have gone through her entire life as a drone, Janeway wasn’t about to lose any sleep over it. None whatsoever.

*****

Naomi walked into the mess hall with her head bent over a padd as she worked on her math exercises. She ought to have had them finished a few hours ago, but Seven of Nine hadn’t been around to bug her about it. Probably busy in Engineering, where Lieutenant Torres had almost half the crew working like slaves.

There wasn’t a soul in the mess hall, except for Neelix in the galley. The Borg refugees had all gone to regenerate in their alcoves, except for a few who were still alert enough to monitor the others’ regeneration. As for Voyager’s crew, she wasn’t surprised not to find any of them, as nasty as the food had been lately.

She looked back down at the padd in her hand. If f(x) equals the absolute value of -3(x+1) . . .

As she tapped in her answers, Naomi envisioned waves of boredom rising from her forehead and wafting throughout the ship. Boredom would be kind of a purple color, she thought. A dull red-violet.

She turned toward Neelix. “What are we having for dinner?”

“Baked tubers and mixed vegetables.” Neelix looked mournful. “Very mixed.”

“Ewww-w.” No wonder the mess hall was deserted. Not even a Borg would want to eat that. “Neelix, can’t you use the replicator? I heard someone say that this moon we’re orbiting is a dilithium mine. If that’s true, we shouldn’t need to do all this rationing.”

“The captain hasn’t given permission to use the replicator to prepare meals. We don’t have the dilithium on board yet,” Neelix explained. “If any ships from the Collective happen to show up, we might have to leave in a hurry.”

Naomi grudgingly admitted to herself that did make some sense, even as she put on her best pitiful-little-child face. “Please, I’m starving, can’t I just replicate one teeny slice of pizza? I promise I’ll eat it real fast. No one will ever know.”

“Sorry. All the replicators are off line. They’ve been shut down until the diagnostic programs finish running.” Neelix opened a cabinet and reached up to get a tall jar. “But I saved a big piece of red marmalade taffy, just for you.”

The poor little me act works on him every time, Naomi thought.

*****

Although the pace of activity in Engineering had returned almost to normal, Janeway immediately noted that Lieutenant Torres was still presiding over the second shift. Klingons didn’t require as much sleep as humans, and Janeway had rarely seen her chief engineer showing signs of fatigue, but B’Elanna had by now developed such dark circles around her eyes that she’d begun to resemble a mutant raccoon.

“Captain.” Torres glanced up from a console. “We’ve completed diagnostics of all the main systems and found no significant problems. The holodecks are still closed; I’ll want to install new safeties before . . .”

“That can wait until tomorrow. We should all be able to survive going without our favorite holo-programs for one more day. In the meanwhile, Lieutenant, you need to get some sleep.”

“I’m not that tired,” Torres protested, but her argument was interrupted by a yawn she just couldn’t manage to suppress.

“You’d be a better liar if you could keep your eyes open.” Janeway figured that B’Elanna hadn’t slept at all for several days, probably thinking that if the refugees decided to assimilate everyone on board, at least she would be awake when they came for her. Not the most productive attitude from one of the senior officers, but under the circumstances, Janeway supposed it was understandable.

Acknowledging defeat with as much grace as could reasonably be expected, Torres took a step toward the door. “Yes, Captain. I’ll go back to my quarters now.”

“Good.” Janeway looked around the room. Not many people were still there from alpha shift, except for Vorik, who had apparently decided to work a double shift to atone for his lack of caution in the shield generator room.

And over by the warp core stood Seven of Nine, taking more readings on the antimatter containment field. Seven always preferred to keep busy, Janeway knew, especially when she wanted to take her mind off a subject that disturbed her.

“Your duty shift is also finished, Seven.”

The young woman’s pale eyes looked up from her task and regarded Janeway without a blink, as usual. “I completed a regeneration cycle at 0600 hours. I am not experiencing fatigue and can perform these duties efficiently.”

“No one is criticizing your efficiency.” Janeway kept her tone calm. The entire crew had gotten about as touchy as she’d ever seen them. “But you do need to eat, and I’d like you to have dinner with me tonight. There are a few things we need to talk about.”

Seven looked less than thrilled with that invitation, but she obediently crossed the room and fell into step beside Janeway. “Very well.”

The corridor stretched before them, restored to its usual quiet, without a Borg refugee to be seen. Voyager seemed suddenly larger than it had been, and the silence gnawed at Janeway’s nerves. A ship from the Collective could appear at any moment and transmit a signal to wake the regenerating drones aboard Voyager, transforming them in a fraction of a second into the instruments of her crew’s destruction.

“Let’s start with why you don’t want to talk about Species One,” Janeway began, as she and Seven entered the turbolift. “If there’s anything in that mine you haven’t told me about — ancient weapons, or whatever it might be — I need to know.”

A brief flicker of surprise passed across Seven’s expression. She’d probably been expecting Janeway to play the part of ship’s counselor and ask how she was getting along with her mother. Might do her some good, actually; but the ship’s safety came first, as it always did.

“The probability of finding weapons in the mine is extremely low. Species One did not engage in warfare.” Seven’s voice took on a slightly ironic tone. “Which may be why they became extinct.”

Janeway tried to picture the Borg Collective emerging from a civilization of artists and pacifists, but no images formed in her mind, other than the turbolift doors opening in front of her. She turned toward the mess hall, deciding to leave that particular historical conundrum for another day.

“But there is some reason you don’t feel comfortable talking about them.” Janeway probed further. “And it’s not just you. I’ve noticed that the refugees have the same reaction.”

As they entered the mess hall, Seven of Nine looked somewhat perplexed at the question. Neelix, appearing pathetically grateful for their company in the empty room, hurried to give each of them a tray that held something resembling a splattered work of abstract art. At any rate, the tray’s contents surely didn’t look like food.

“I don’t know how to explain it, Captain.” Seven put down her tray and sat facing Janeway across the table. “In the Collective, we were never specifically instructed not to mention Species One, but it was plain that they were regarded as irrelevant. We learned very little about them. Their weakness was considered unworthy of us.”

Janeway thought she saw where this was leading. “And for that reason, the Collective has avoided the ruins of their civilization.”

“Precisely.” Seven began to eat her meal with efficient motions and a look of silent and grim determination. To balk at a completely functional source of nutrition evidently wouldn’t suit her Borg dignity.

Taking up a forkful of baked tuber, Janeway decided that the unidentified vegetable scraps could feed the compost tank, as soon as Neelix wasn’t looking. Usually she was of the opinion that the captain should eat her veggies to set a good example, but there were limits to what she would do for the sake of the crew.

She carried Seven’s explanation out to its logical conclusion. “In other words, Linnas picked the last place in the galaxy that the Collective would look for us.”

“Numerous other locations are less probable . . .”

“A figurative remark, Seven. Meaning that the Collective’s search is likely to begin elsewhere and to overlook this particular system.”

“That is true.” As Seven of Nine finished off the vegetables, her expression put Janeway in mind of a warrior who had just slaughtered an enemy in a particularly messy form of combat.

Janeway felt a slight twinge of guilt as she wrapped up most of her remaining food in her napkin while Neelix had his back turned. Not very much guilt, though. She could definitely live with it.

Seven remained quiet as they cleared their trays and turned to leave. Neelix still wasn’t looking at them. Now that it was obvious no one else was eating dinner, he’d decided to start scrubbing the nearly empty shelves in the galley. Janeway supposed this was his way of sulking.

The two women entered the corridor, still completely deserted before them.

Janeway figured it was about time to switch over to counselor mode, now that she’d had some reassurance about the ship’s safety. “Can you tell me about your mother, Seven? How is she?”

“The drone who is sometimes described as my mother is in good physical condition. She experienced only minor symptoms of regenerative deprivation.” Seven of Nine stared straight ahead as they entered the turbolift. She finally added, still without meeting Janeway’s eyes, “She will not return to Earth. I understand her reasons.”

“But part of you wishes she would change her mind,” Janeway suggested.

“It is pointless,” Seven replied in a measured tone, as if reciting from an ancient book of wisdom, “to wish things other than they are.”

“Perhaps, but it’s also one of the defining characteristics of our species. Our natural emotional responses aren’t always logical or efficient.”

Seven of Nine continued to stare directly in front of her, toward the closed turbolift doors. She blinked twice rapidly, an uncharacteristic gesture, as if she were trying not to cry.

Janeway, following her instincts, reached toward Seven to give her a hug, almost as if she were trying to comfort her own daughter. The young woman stood rigidly, without response. After a moment, the blinking stopped.

Then the doors opened and Seven turned away, returning to the solitary relief of her self-imposed duties.

*****

Chapter Sixteen

The collective voices rang through Harry Kim’s dreams, seductive and horrible.

You are becoming one of us, the drone told him, the certainty in her voice leaving no room for doubt in his mind. You will be made perfect.

And then she started to cut off his arm.

Kim opened his eyes, suddenly realizing that he had been asleep in his quarters the whole time. For a moment, he felt a profound sense of gratitude.

Then he found that he was lying on a table in a small room within a Borg ship. The drone of his nightmares stood gazing down at him without even the slightest trace of pity in her unchanging expression.

During the simulation on the holodeck, she explained, your suitability for assimilation was evaluated. The Collective has determined that you will be an industrious and efficient drone.

Kim tried to sit up, only to discover that he could not move his arms or legs. He lifted his head far enough to enable him to see, with the inhuman clarity of focus provided by his visual sensor array, the cybernetic assemblies that had replaced all of his natural limbs.

Your programming is not yet complete, the drone went on to inform him. The routines necessary for movement of your limbs will soon be downloaded into the motor control module of your cortical processor.

The collective voices that had blended so harmoniously on the holodeck now hissed like the distant whispers of devils in the background of his consciousness.

I’m still dreaming, Kim thought desperately. I never even woke up. This is just another part of the same nightmare. If I had really been assimilated into the Collective, I wouldn’t have any idea of who I was.

How little you know about us, the drone responded, a note of disdain coming across very clearly in the voice that spoke into his mind. You will have the rest of your life to improve your understanding.

Her face began to break apart slowly into fragments, tiny pixels, like a screen out of focus. A sensory malfunction, he could hear her explaining from what seemed to be a great distance.

Kim opened his eyes and found himself in his bed.

He sat up and looked around his quarters, wondering if he could trust his senses. Everything certainly looked real enough . . .

As he shaved and showered, Kim couldn’t rid himself of the thought that he might indeed be a drone experiencing sensory malfunctions. Recent events with the refugees had clearly shown that the Borg possessed the capacity to hallucinate about their previous individual lives.

He resorted to the old-fashioned remedy of a pinch. It hurt. There, you idiot, you’re awake and you’re human. Now stop thinking about it.

Of course, the Borg were perfectly capable of experiencing pain. It was simply a matter of sensory adjustment. He supposed that would be even more true in hallucinations such as this.

Kim put on his uniform and regarded his appearance in the mirror. Although he looked entirely normal, he knew that didn’t prove anything. How could one determine the relative probabilities of being a man having nightmares about the Borg, or being a drone with hallucinations of a former life as a man?

Standing alone in his quarters obsessing about it would be a sure way to go bonkers. Think about something else, Kim commanded himself, turning toward the door. For a moment he hesitated, almost expecting that the doorway would open into an assimilation chamber.

The corridor beyond the door looked the same as always, much to his relief. B’Elanna Torres, who had just left her quarters, also looked about the same. The only difference he noted was an unusually grim expression on her face. No one could scowl like a Klingon.

“Good morning, B’Elanna.” Kim forced himself to smile.

Torres did not return the smile. “Maybe for some people. I’ve got to talk with the captain about one of my engineers, Daro Gareth, who was a very strange guy even when we were in the Maquis, but not like this. Now he’s decided that he wants to be assimilated.”

Oh, God, Kim thought. I really didn’t need to hear that. Why don’t you just put me in a nice comfy stasis chamber and wake me when all this is over.

*****

Janeway had just finished dressing and was about to leave her quarters when she heard the door chime.

“Who’s there?”

“B’Elanna.”

Stepping toward the door, Janeway switched off the motion sensor. “Come in.”

The chief engineer strolled through the doorway, pausing to look at the booby-trap on the table. She grinned. “That’s one way to keep ‘em out. In my quarters, I have a bat’leth hanging from the ceiling just above the door, with a release mechanism wired into the door’s control circuitry. Instant guillotine.”

Janeway frowned. “Take it down, B’Elanna. That’s an order. I know you’re just trying to protect yourself, but you’ll have to find a non-lethal way to do it.”

“Yes, Captain.” Her lip curled slightly as if she were thinking that Starfleet had gotten far too soft. Janeway wondered if she ever had guillotined anybody in her days among the Maquis.

“They’re not going to be here much longer,” Janeway went on, “and the strange behavior should stop now that they’ve had a chance to regenerate. I don’t believe it’s at all likely we’ll be assaulted in our quarters now.”

“Right. Now that they’re behaving like normal Borg again, they’ll just calmly proceed to assimilate us. Believe me, I’m still watching my back.” Torres got a glass of iced cranberry juice from the replicator, which now seemed to be functioning normally, and sat down at the table across from Janeway. “Which brings me to the subject of Daro Gareth.”

Janeway wasn’t surprised that she had heard about his request to stay behind. News always traveled swiftly aboard the ship, and a story this bizarre would travel at warp speed.

“I understand you’ve refused his request,” Torres continued, in a neutral tone.

Janeway stared at her across the table. “You can’t seriously think that I ought to consider it?”

“He’s not insane, Captain. The Bajorans are driven by their mystical visions to an extent the rest of us can’t begin to understand. Martyrdom and complete submission to fate are part of their racial character. That’s how they were able to convince the Cardassians that Bajor wasn’t worth keeping. It’s hard to stop guerrilla fighters who die gladly, sacrificing themselves without any predictable pattern.”

“Becoming a martyr in a struggle to save your homeland from an invading army is one thing. Having your very soul destroyed by the Borg, for no purpose that I can comprehend, is quite another.”

“Gareth and I fought together in the Maquis, as you know. I’m probably the best friend he has, if you could say he has any friends at all. He lost everyone he loved to the Cardassians long ago.” Torres leaned forward, rested her elbows on the table and continued quietly, “There’s one thing the Borg are very good at. They don’t think about what they’ve lost.”

“I see very little difference between that and suicide.”

Torres shook her head. “I’m definitely no admirer of the Borg, Captain, but I don’t see it as suicide. Quite the reverse, actually. He’s been desperately trying to find a reason to go on living, and now he’s found it, in the form of some strange vision of a transformed Borg Collective. Maybe we can’t understand whatever it was that he saw, but that’s beside the point.”

“Right. The point is that it’s my responsibility as Voyager’s captain, and your responsibility as Mr. Daro’s commanding officer, to bring him safely home. That doesn’t include letting him get assimilated by a group of Borg rebels on some godforsaken frozen moon in the middle of the Delta Quadrant.”

“Gareth doesn’t have a home,” Torres observed, her tone strangely distant, as if thoughts of her own home had abruptly intruded into the construction of her argument. “But that really isn’t the point, either. Captain, when I had a vision of my mother dead and lost forever in Gre’thor, you allowed me to nearly kill myself in an attempt to rescue her, although it made no sense at all to you. There are times when we have to go beyond all logic, beyond all rational understanding of our responsibilities. I believe this may be one of those times.”

“After all that we’ve been through, I have no intention of giving up any member of this crew to the Borg. Not one. Not ever.” Janeway spoke just as quietly, looking into B’Elanna’s dark eyes. “Two of my closest friends from the Academy were killed at Wolf 359. By the time my ship arrived, it was all over, and there was nothing we could do but pick up the bodies. You know what it’s usually like when you’re identifying casualties; you look into the faces of the dead, hoping you won’t find your friends and loved ones.”

Torres nodded without speaking.

“At Wolf 359 it was different. We hoped that we would find our friends dead, because we knew what the Borg did to their captives. Even the most ghastly, agonizing death seemed preferable to the living hell of assimilation into the Collective.”

Her expression pensive, B’Elanna chewed on a small piece of ice before giving her answer. “That may be the way we look at it, but Gareth has survived experiences even less pleasant. I’m not sure that he would describe assimilation as hell. Not all drones are damned souls. Purgatory, perhaps, if I understand the concept correctly.”

“Whatever it is,” Janeway declared firmly, “I’ve seen more than enough of it, and I don’t want to be responsible for sending one of my crewmen there.”

Torres stood up and pushed in her chair. “I’d love to debate the finer points of theology with you all morning, Captain, but I still have a bat’leth to put away.”

*****

The cargo area hummed with cheerful activity as a group of crewmen cleared away the cots, for which the refugees would have no more need. The huge empty spaces in the cargo bays would soon be filled with containers full of dilithium crystals. Mining was already in progress, and it was coming along very efficiently with over a hundred Borg volunteers assisting.

“What should we do with this stuff?” a female voice asked.

Neelix glanced toward the harp and drums, abandoned in a corner of cargo bay one. Their fanciful decorations, which had evoked strong images of loss and sorrow on the holodeck, now seemed bizarrely out of place. Of course the refugees had left them behind. No other choice would have been possible. What use could there be for such things in a practical, utilitarian society where art and music existed only in data files pertaining to other civilizations? What purpose could they serve, in a stark existence altogether bereft of joy and beauty?

He felt a prickling of tears at the corners of his eyes. Foolishness, he chided himself, knowing there wasn’t a thing he could do. The Borg had lost their joy in life over a thousand years ago. None of it was his concern.

Blinking a few times, Neelix tried to focus on the young crewmember who stood patiently in front of him, awaiting his instructions.

“Just leave the harp and drums here for now. It’s possible that someone may decide to come back for them later.”

Not much of a chance, he knew.

*****

Sickbay had never been quieter, Janeway was sure, although refugees still occupied all of the available beds. She noted that the bio-beds had all been equipped with portable regeneration devices attached to each bed.

One female patient, almost human, rested with her eyes peacefully closed in a bed near the door. Wearing a plain blue gown, Julia Bonner looked smaller, younger, much more vulnerable. Her skin had been restored from the chalky Borg pallor to its original rich earthy brown, and her broad lips were the red-brown of Georgia clay. She’s beautiful, Janeway thought. I had no idea.

Her left arm, the one that the Borg had replaced with a cybernetic implant, now lay outstretched within a protective restraining field. A thin layer of her own skin cells had begun to spread across the clear polymer scaffolding that now covered the artificial framework of the arm. Janeway could just see the network of small blood vessels growing within. By the next day, the bionic arm would appear almost indistinguishable from the other.

“We’re fortunate to have another Borg among the crew, I’d say.” The Doctor spoke in an indulgent tone, beaming as he glanced from Julia’s sleeping figure to Janeway. “I’ve grown quite fond of Seven, and it will be good for her to have a friend and comrade aboard.”

Janeway had a feeling that the Doctor was going to be quite surprised at the extent to which personality differences could exist among the Borg. She’d be satisfied if Julia and Seven didn’t try to kill each other.

“Actually, Doctor, I came here to talk about our Borg wannabe. Have you diagnosed a mental disorder?”

“If Mr. Daro were human he’d be delusional, Captain, but his psychological assessment results are well within Bajoran norms.”

In other words, his whole race is crazy, Janeway thought. Looks like B’Elanna was right about that. Oh, the joys of having a multicultural crew.

“How about Borg control? Any signs of that?”

“None at all. No nanoprobes, no unusual brain activity or chemical changes. Of course, that doesn’t end the inquiry. Bajorans are somewhat more suggestible than humans. It’s quite possible that Mr. Daro’s mystical vision may have been hypnotically induced with the purpose of convincing him to leave Voyager.”

Janeway didn’t think it very likely that the Borg would bother with anything as low-tech as hypnosis. They would probably consider it far beneath their dignity. Not that it mattered in the least. She didn’t need medical evidence to convince her that she wasn’t going to hand over one of her crewmen to the Borg.

She looked around sickbay at the regenerating drones. “How soon before they’ll be able to leave?”

Not soon enough, she added mentally.

“They will all be fully recovered by tomorrow.” The Doctor paused, then added in a dry tone, “The psychological condition of the crew should improve considerably upon their departure.”

That was an understatement if she’d ever heard one. Janeway knew quite well that in the near-unanimous opinion of the crew, Borg refugees should never have been allowed on board at all. She also knew quite well that Voyager wasn’t a democracy, and that carrying out her duties as a Starfleet captain wasn’t a popularity contest. Janeway could deal with malcontents, no problem. How she ought to deal with a crewman who had inexplicably decided to devote his life to worshipping the Borg Collective was a somewhat more dicey matter.

I’ll sit on him if I have to, Janeway thought, but there’s no way he’s going to leave this ship.

*****

Chapter Seventeen

When Janeway had entered sickbay, she’d seen no one nearby. As soon as she ended her conversation with the Doctor and stepped into the corridor, she immediately discovered Linnas standing next to the doorway, with the slightly impatient expression of a companion who had been waiting for her to finish an errand.

He did not speak, which was just fine with Janeway. She had nothing she wanted to say to him. Turning toward the closest turbolift, she found with considerable annoyance that Linnas had decided to walk beside her, matching her strides precisely, and almost close enough for their bodies to touch.

She noted that he had a clean, spicy smell, almost like cloves. Either Linnas had been helping out with the cooking again, or else he’d decided to replicate some kind of cologne to try to please her. Although where on his body he might have applied cologne was a question she didn’t feel like considering.

No way I’m going to let a lovesick Borg follow me to the bridge, Janeway thought. I don’t care how many decades it’s been since he was intimate with a woman. Not my problem.

Although it was likely to become her problem if he kept behaving like this. She could just imagine the smirks on the faces of her crew, the whispers and giggles behind her back. The subject of sexual relations between humans and Borg already lent itself to unending merriment. Seven of Nine had given up all thought of dating after the widespread hilarity that had greeted her first clumsy attempt. Janeway didn’t intend to become the next target of the crew’s vast capacity for lewd inventiveness.

She halted just before the turbolift entrance and stood facing Linnas, wondering what would be the best way to get rid of him.

“You were asking your Doctor whether we have altered any of the brain functions of your crewman Gareth.” As he spoke, Linnas’ calm observation held no question in it. “We have not done so. Such action would be unnecessary. We have given a voice to his deepest longing.”

Janeway had no doubt that he was deliberately trying to annoy her, with remarkable success. She rasped, “Being assimilated by the Borg is no one’s deepest longing. I don’t know what you’ve done to Daro Gareth, but you can be certain of this. I’m not about to let you get away with it.”

He did not respond for a moment. The gaze of his bright green eye drifted away from her, as if he were seeing an image from his own thoughts.

“We had just started working second shift at the factory when the Borg came. The huge brick building had rows of narrow windows near the ceiling for light and ventilation, but we had no way to see out. Maybe the owner thought that placing windows at eye level would allow us to become distracted by the enthralling sight of the rats and garbage outside the building, or that such windows would make theft easier. Whatever the reason, the place felt like some ancient dungeon, complete with the appropriate noxious odors.

“When we started to hear a commotion near the factory, no one thought much of it. Almost anything could happen in the old city: a riot perhaps, or a fire, or maybe even mass murder. The only thing that seemed fairly certain was that the police would be along shortly, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to be out there when they showed up. I still had an impressive collection of bruises from the last time they’d beaten me. So we just stayed inside the building and kept on working, while the sounds of panic in the streets grew ever louder.”

Linnas glanced back down at Janeway. She could hear a faint whirring sound as his visual array focused on her.

“One of the drivers rushed in from the loading dock, babbling something about mechanical monsters from outer space. We all laughed, and someone wanted to know if he had any more of whatever drug he’d been taking. When he dived headlong into an empty crate and cowered there without answering, we figured it had to be some really potent stuff.

“Then the foreman went to take a look outside and never came back. The noise had reached colossal proportions by then. Some of the more religiously inclined among us began to count their prayer beads, wondering out loud if it might be the end of the world. I told them, with my jaw still aching from the clubbing I’d taken the other night, that I wished we could be that lucky.”

Janeway heard footsteps in the corridor but did not turn to look toward the crewman who passed by, his eyes fixed straight ahead of him, deliberately avoiding any speculative glances toward the captain and her unusual companion.

“It wasn’t much longer before everyone started to panic,” Linnas went on, “with all the apocalyptic talk. They started rushing home to see if their families were safe. After a while the factory was almost empty and I decided to leave as well, although I had no particular destination in mind. By now, the police had to be busy enough so that they wouldn’t be likely to waste their time on me. I figured that even if the streets were swarming with mechanical monsters, they’d probably turn out to be better company than the idiot from the loading dock who was still crouched inside a crate gibbering mindlessly about them.

“The setting sun blazed directly into my face as I stepped out of the building. For a moment I couldn’t see anything else. The usual smoky haze over the city had turned a bright orange-red in the sunset, and I couldn’t tell whether or not the world was really coming to an end in flames.

“As soon as I turned away from the sun, I saw two drones walking toward me along the deserted street. Even to my superficial sight it was clear that they weren’t monsters or robots, but intelligent beings from a civilization beyond our understanding. They seemed as far above my ignorant species as if we’d been a wriggling mass of flatworms. I couldn’t imagine what use such an advanced race could possibly have for a lowly factory worker. But as they came closer, the sun reflecting as brightly from them as if they had captured its very fire, I knew that I had never wanted anything more. If only they would take me with them, I would give my soul . . .”

“Maybe you did.” Janeway’s dry observation cut across the narrative, causing him to pause momentarily.

“No. That component is still present in the system, with file sharing enabled.” Linnas smiled sunnily and touched her on the lips with his index finger, a caress as familiar as if they had known one another their entire lives. “We are fortunate, Kathryn. You cannot say that we are unable to attain our deepest longing.”

By main strength of will, Janeway forced herself not to lift her own hand to her lips, where the warmth of his touch still tingled across nerves that had gone far too long without a lover’s kiss. Just who does he think he is?

Janeway entered the turbolift, finding herself alone in it, and commanded it to take her to the bridge. The turbolift responded at once, in contrast to its behavior of the previous morning.

“And if I hear one note of Borg music, even one,” she informed the ship’s computer, “I’m going to be extremely tempted to commit an act of mayhem on your memory banks.”

*****

A festive mood reigned in the mess hall, where Neelix had taken the night off, and the crew had received permission to create their favorite dinners without any limits on replicator use.

B’Elanna Torres sat at a central table enjoying a thick, juicy slab of replicated prime rib, and enjoying even more the complete absence of Borg refugees in the mess hall. Now that Voyager’s dilithium supply was in the process of being replenished, the refugees had taken the opportunity to replicate a large quantity of their own preferred rations. Well, maybe preferred wasn’t quite the right word to describe their food. Borg rations were precisely calibrated to meet the exact metabolic needs of each drone, without regard to extraneous considerations such as taste. The Borg consumed nutrition in much the same way a ship took on fuel.

Although that might be an improvement for certain humans, she thought. Across the table, Tom Paris began to devour a heaping platter of hamburgers and french fries, a peculiar combination that had once been a popular meal on Earth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Which probably explained the high rate of heart disease during that period, B’Elanna thought as she chewed a fry experimentally, finding it far too greasy and salty.

“They’re better with ketchup,” Paris advised, dipping one into an unappetizing red puddle on the side of his plate.

“No thanks.” She cut herself a big piece of beef, feeling totally content. “I can’t believe you wasted a free meal on that.”

“It has its good points. And while you’re insulting my ancestors’ favorite foods, at least you didn’t choose a plate of the worst food in the universe, which is unquestionably gagh.” Paris took a swig of his chocolate milkshake. “You’d have been eating by yourself if you had. I draw the line at seeing Klingon worms on my dinner table. Even replicated ones.”

“An acquired taste, like your hamburgers. No self-respecting Klingon would eat replicated gagh, anyway. It’s supposed to be alive and moving while you’re eating it.” She observed the expression on Tom’s face as he paused with a hamburger halfway to his mouth, and she added with a smirk, “Sorry.”

A roar of laughter went up from the next table, whose occupants seemed significantly jollier than a free meal would warrant. Although food replicators came programmed with a wide variety of synthoholic beverages, Torres suspected that someone had hacked the files to substitute the complete molecular structure of the real stuff. Not that it would last long. Tuvok, the ship’s official killjoy, would no doubt delete any specifications for alcohol that he found in the replicator files. He’d probably also give the crew a lecture about its deleterious effects on readiness.

In the meanwhile, though, a mug of bloodwine would be the perfect complement to a rare prime rib . . .

*****

From unimaginable depths, Julia Bonner drifted up toward consciousness.

Extensive system modifications detected. Configuration files updated. Initialization sequence in progress.

Pathways at the molecular level opened before her, forming and then breaking apart and reforming, bright fractal patterns, sparkling kaleidoscopes, mandalas, dream catchers . . .

The reboot was complete. Julia opened her eyes.

It took her a moment to realize the significance of having eyes, plural. She blinked, confirming the new configuration. A system diagnostic informed her that most of the functions of her visual processor were intact, but sensors had been transferred to the secondary array.

The collective voices were gone, an entire civilization lost to her. Forever, she thought, testing the emotional content of the word. She dimly remembered Chakotay carrying her from his quarters, the strength of his arms. Her future shifted before her, reconfigured itself, became solid. The rest of her life didn’t look like a terrifying prospect after all.

I do not need to delete my memories, she realized. I am no longer afraid to be alone with them.

She could still hear the rain falling like a comforting drumbeat against the tall grass and yellow leaves of her dream. Logic told her that the sound was no more than a residual auditory hallucination. But Julia, to her surprise, found that she had another name for it.

A gift from the spirit world.

*****

Janeway walked into cargo bay two, discovering that a group of drones had taken over the operation of the cargo transporters and proceeded to stack large containers of dilithium crystals to imposing heights. There wasn’t so much as one member of her crew among them. Evidently, her people had been more than happy to leave the mining operation in the refugees’ capable hands. Not to mention all the other components attached to the ends of their cybernetic arms.

She’d have to give several of her second shift officers a detailed explanation of just why abdicating one’s duties to a group of Borg was not the practical equivalent of carrying them out as ordered. Although from what she’d seen earlier, Janeway had to admit the drones were doing excellent work. They’d made a few repairs and improvements to the machinery in the mine and had the ancient devices operational within a matter of minutes. The resulting high-grade crystals rivaled the best the Federation could produce.

The drones went by her as if she didn’t exist, without a word or a glance, their entire attention on their tasks. Janeway was able to recognize a slight female figure among them.

“Hello, Lumacretia.”

The tiny Borg did not turn her head at the sound of her name; it seemed to have no meaning at all to her.

“How are you?” Janeway persisted, stepping into her immediate field of view and making it plain to whom the question was directed.

Lumacretia seemed faintly annoyed by the interruption, as if a noisy insect had started buzzing about. “This body has completed a full regeneration cycle and is completely functional,” she replied tersely, regarding Janeway with a look of disdain before returning to her work.

The Borg are back to normal, that’s for sure, Janeway thought. Although this group had chosen to disconnect itself from the Collective, the refugees had, for whatever reason, also made the deliberate decision to maintain a group consciousness. They’d probably been drones for such a long time that they couldn’t even imagine any other way of life.

With the obvious exception of Linnas, who had also finished regenerating and didn’t seem to have lost any of his sense of self in the process. His behavior reminded her of the Borg queen, who also had a distinct individual personality, coupled with a whopping dose of arrogance. There seemed to be a correlation between individuality and higher social status among the Borg.

Then again, Linnas might just be a total nut case even by the unimpressive standards of Borg sanity.

Whatever the situation, Janeway didn’t intend to waste any time ruminating about it. The refugees would soon be gone, and Voyager would resume the journey home. And while she was waiting for them to leave, Janeway could think of a few beta shift officers who could use a thorough butt-chewing.

*****

Chapter Eighteen

Paris whistled cheerfully as he walked along the corridor wearing his warmest winter clothing, skis slung over his shoulder and images of brilliant Alpine vistas in his thoughts.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” Kim demanded.

“Going skiing, Harry, what’s it look like?” Paris smiled as he looked into his friend’s worried eyes. “Hey, relax. B’Elanna says it’s perfectly safe to use the holodecks. We haven’t had any system malfunctions all day, and B’Elanna has added a whole new set of safeties. Nothing to worry about.”

Kim didn’t look convinced. “They’re still on board, aren’t they?”

Paris put down his skis, leaning them against the wall. “They weren’t trying to assimilate you, Harry. It was just someone’s nightmare playing itself out on the holodeck, and you happened to get in the way.”

“That’s what they said.” Kim still sounded skeptical. “Do you believe them?”

“Actually, I do. If they’d wanted to assimilate us, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because we’d already be drones.” Paris figured that logic was beyond argument.

“I still think it’s a bad idea for you to go in there alone, Tom. What’ll you do if one of them starts having another nightmare?”

“You can be a hero and rescue me. Put on a coat and boots. You know, a little exercise will do you some good . . .”

“I’m never setting foot on the holodeck again,” Kim declared. “At least, not until every Borg is off this ship.”

“Half of them are down on the planet already, working in the mine. Have you seen all the dilithium in the cargo bays? Just think, unlimited replicator use. No more rationing for quite some time. The refugees have more than paid their rent, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one who almost got vivisected.”

“All right, sulk if you want to.” Paris picked up the skis again. “I’m getting hot standing around here in my coat, and I’m not going to waste my reserved holodeck time arguing about what you think of the refugees. Okay, you hate their biomechanical guts, I get the idea.”

Kim, a few steps behind, continued the conversation while Paris started to walk toward the turbolift. “No, I don’t hate their guts. They’re all victims of the Collective. I understand that. But I don’t think it’s very smart for us to act like everything’s normal around here when it isn’t. We’re damned lucky that we’re not all drones now, and you know it.”

The turbolift doors closed behind them, almost nipping the end of a ski. Paris opened his mouth, then gave a bit more thought to what he’d been about to say, and finally remarked, “It’s not luck, Harry. The captain is a pretty good judge of character, you know. Even Borg character.”

That last comment left Kim looking even more dubious. Paris guessed he was probably thinking about Seven of Nine: as long as she’d been aboard Voyager, it was still quite an adventure trying to figure her out. Although the captain didn’t seem to have any trouble at all.

Paris started the simulation running and breathed in the cold, crisp air gratefully, as the doors opened and a precipitous slope dotted with snow-covered pines came into view. The holodecks had been shut down for less than two days, but it already seemed like an eternity.

“Sure you don’t want to join me? It’s a beautiful day in the Alps.”

*****

“The tiny mouse, trembling with fear, approached the great lion and pulled the thorn from the lion’s poor swollen paw. From that time forward, the mouse and the lion were the best of friends.”

Naomi mused over this. “The mouse’s decision was illogical, wasn’t it, Seven? She knew the lion was a dangerous predator. The lion could have waited until the thorn was out and then eaten the mouse anyway.”

“Yes, but the mouse acted out of compassion, because she believed that removing the thorn was the correct moral choice. From that standpoint, the calculation of risk and benefit had become irrelevant.”

“A brave little mouse. I liked that story.” Naomi snuggled deeper into her warm blanket and closed her eyes contentedly.

*****

Janeway, having taken apart the trap she’d set beside the door, pushed the table back into its usual position. She’d had enough of slinking timidly around on her own ship. The refugees, restored as much as possible to normal functioning, would all be leaving Voyager within the next twenty-four hours.

The question that she couldn’t get out of her thoughts was whether Daro Gareth would go with them. Janeway still found it difficult to believe that she could even begin to consider allowing one of her crewmen to do such a thing. B’Elanna was wrong, she had to be. How could anyone’s spiritual development, Bajoran or not, be improved by allowing him to be assimilated by the Borg?

She paced her quarters for a few minutes, unable even to contemplate sleep, and then sat down at her desk console and began to do some legal research. She could find no regulations at all that would prohibit the use of a starship’s medical facilities to assist in the assimilation of a person who chose to join a Borg resistance group. Presumably this was only because Starfleet Command and the Federation Government couldn’t have imagined anyone would be that crazy. Or, for that matter, that his captain would be crazy enough to permit it.

The door chime sounded.

“Come in,” Janeway replied, quitting her unhelpful search of the regulations. She turned around in her chair, facing the entry.

Linnas stepped through the doorway and halted several paces from her, in the perfect posture of a crewman standing at attention. Janeway conquered an impulse to laugh. At least he’s figured out that he’s supposed to use the doorbell. That’s something of an improvement.

“At ease, Mr. Linnas.” Janeway couldn’t resist.

She expected him to respond with some comment on the absurdity and inefficiency of Starfleet military rituals, and then to ask her decision on Daro Gareth. Instead, with a deliberate display of insolence, Linnas approached her desk and sat down on top of it.

“You will not treat me as a half-tamed beast, a Borg mascot to be baited for your personal amusement. The unfortunate Seven of Nine already enjoys that doubtful distinction.”

Janeway thought, As if you haven’t baited me plenty. I’m definitely the only captain in Starfleet history to have a Borg for a desk ornament.

She found herself wondering if the desk could take the load. Linnas had to weigh at least two hundred kilos, what with all of the metal in his body. Not exactly what the ship’s designers had in mind.

“I wouldn’t call it baiting,” she told him, looking up into the bright green eye that formed such a vivid contrast to the dark gray metal and the red indicator lights that surrounded his body. “My species often uses humor as a way to express affection. You might say I’ve gotten used to having you aboard Voyager.”

“We leave tomorrow. If you desire affection, perhaps I can bid you a more intimate farewell.” His face changed, taking on an expression recognizable anywhere in the galaxy as a leer, somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Or at least the organic parts of his face did.

“Linnas, you’re a raving lunatic.”

In exasperation, she got out of her chair, which made her feel more comfortable now that she could look into his face without having to look up at him.

A moment later, Linnas got up off the desk and stood directly in front of her, as if to display his superior height. The alpha male showing off to a female, Janeway thought. Not the first thing you’d expect from a Borg.

Linnas didn’t seem at all bothered by her observation on his lack of sanity. He took a step toward her, intentionally invading her personal space.

“That fact is not in dispute.”

Almost clinically, Janeway noted that her breathing and heart rate had quickened. “You’re interfering with my bioelectrical frequencies again, aren’t you?”

“No. Your physiological responses do not require adjustment.”

He looked quite smugly satisfied with himself, Janeway observed. Come to think of it, she had just given him every guy’s favorite compliment, although that certainly hadn’t been her intention.

And just what is your intention, she interrogated herself, as Linnas reached toward her and encircled her with his long arms. She held herself still, as if poised on the edge of a precipice, while her heart continued to beat with unsettling rapidity against the hard metal plates of his torso. You’d better figure that out, hadn’t you?

She could feel the warmth of his lips and breath just above her head. Janeway felt like a medieval maiden being embraced by a knight in armor, a fantasy in which she had occasionally indulged on the holodeck. This time, it wouldn’t be a simple question of when to end the program. She took a breath that seemed to burn all the way through her body, leaving her in no doubt as to what her intention had become.

Janeway turned her head toward Linnas’ cybernetic arm, which held her as competently as the arm she would have described as real. He wouldn’t regard that description as acceptable, she knew. From his perspective, all of his component parts, whether organic or mechanical, were equally real.

I don’t consider this body to have been mutilated, he had said to her, defending the indefensible. Linnas was out of his mind, literally so, with his consciousness inhabiting a combination of Borg circuitry and altered brain cells. All the same, Janeway found herself wishing that she had the strength and resilience to rise above her own experiences to the extent that he had done.

She glanced up to meet the gaze of two different — but equally real — visual input structures, both focusing steadily on her.

“I was wondering what you feel with that arm. Holding a woman isn’t one of the functions described in the Collective’s specifications, after all.”

“This arm mediates sensory data much more effectively than a primitive biological nervous system allows. The embedded microsensors precisely measure the temperature, pressure, and directional vectors of anything that touches this body.”

“I know you have sensor readings out the wazoo, Linnas, but my question was what do you feel.”

He considered this for a moment. Janeway found herself wondering, absurdly, just how a Borg universal translator would have rendered the word ‘wazoo.’ That probably hadn’t been the best choice of words . . .

“Feeling is not a static function in this configuration,” Linnas responded. “Any sensory input can be modified by linking the appropriate stored procedures to obtain the desired sensation.”

Janeway touched the hard artificial structure of his upper arm, understanding what he meant. “This could feel like my hand, or a cool breeze blowing, or a splash of water, or all three at once.”

“Yes, although the Collective would reprogram any drone who indulged in such irrelevant diversions. Protocol requires the use of only those sensory settings that are most conducive to the efficient performance of our duties.”

She moved her fingers down his cybernetic arm. Cold metal, clearly not alive, but nevertheless very much a part of him.

With a sudden intake of breath, Linnas tightened his grip, pulling her more closely against his body. His catlike eye was half closed as he made a low sound of pleasure.

Janeway didn’t think she wanted to know what sensory subroutines he had just linked to her touch. Nothing to do with any Borg protocol, that was for sure. She figured it was a safe bet that the Collective would have deleted them in an instant. Maybe Linnas had developed new programming just for her personal benefit.

“I still don’t want to find out what you’ve got under your removable external attachments.”

His lips touched her hair and moved downward, and a line of kisses precisely traced the contours of her face. He spoke again, in a deep tone that resonated with complete confidence.

“Yes, you do.”

“You’re so damned arrogant,” she breathed against the incredible warmth of his kisses, lifting her lips toward his.

“Yes, but not as perfectly, as exquisitely arrogant as you. In every way you’re incomparable, Kathryn my love . . .”

*****

Chapter Nineteen

Daro Gareth came slowly to consciousness, lying prone beside the wall in his quarters, and only vaguely aware that the computer voice had just announced 0600 hours. He had instructed it to wake him this morning, although he was not scheduled for duty until beta shift, and he had not expected to sleep at all. Just as he had not slept the previous night.

His physical exhaustion had interfered with his plan to spend another entire night in prayer and meditation beside the wall he had dedicated as a shrine to his dead. Although he sought the blessing of their spirits, they had not spoken to him at all, leaving him to go forward alone.

Perhaps it was for the best. The spirits of his dead could not follow him where he intended to go.

Forgive me, he cried to their beloved images silently, for the last time. I could not avenge you.

Then he placed an empty box on the floor next to the wall, opened it, and began to take down the pictures and pack them away.

*****

Deep in her thoughts, which were less than pleasant, Janeway poured herself a cup of steaming black coffee while sitting beneath the windows in her office. The stars hung motionless in her solitary view, as if they had chosen to mock her. The ancient world’s celestial gods, not to mention approximately five hundred Borg, knew everything she had done last night.

She realized with excruciating clarity that during her little fling with Linnas she had, in effect, made love to every Borg on the ship, with all the details preserved for posterity in their shared memory files. And quite likely abstracted and cross-indexed as well, given the Borg penchant for efficiency. She didn’t want to think about what index headings they would have chosen. Human mating behavior, of course, with a selection of numbered subheadings thereunder. And maybe a basic specification for the standard operation of this function: insert Tab A into Slot B.

Talk about having second thoughts in the morning.

Although she had to admit she’d enjoyed it . . .

The chime sounded, and Janeway turned to face the door, glad of the distraction. “Come in.”

Chakotay entered. “I knew I’d find you in here, as early as it is, brooding about what to do with Daro Gareth. You didn’t sleep at all, did you?”

“Not much.” She hoped that her tone was sufficiently neutral.

“I had a long conversation with B’Elanna last night. She’s convinced that we ought to let him remain here and seek the meaning of his vision, because this is the spiritual path to which he has been called.”

Janeway was familiar with Chakotay’s beliefs on the subject of following the visions sent by one’s spirit guide. “I suppose you agree with her.”

“No.” To her surprise, Chakotay shook his head as he sat down on the couch beside her and poured himself some coffee. “I see too much of myself in him, Kathryn. Several years ago, just after the Cardassians attacked my home and slaughtered my entire tribe, I could find very few reasons to go on living. I gave up my career in Starfleet, gave up everything but thoughts of revenge. All that had once defined my life, my individual being, was lost. I never thought of letting the Borg take me, but I might have been willing to let them, just to have something to fill the empty place where my soul used to be. Maybe I could even have managed to convince myself that there was some noble purpose to it.”

About time somebody around here started to agree with me, Janeway thought, setting down her coffee cup.

“So you also see this as the equivalent of a suicide attempt.”

“Daro Gareth is the only one who can answer that. Let’s just say that I haven’t been persuaded otherwise.”

“Yes.” Janeway looked out upon the stars again, still thinking of the ancients with their belief in divine fate, and briefly wishing that she could solve her own problems with such simple certainty. “He’s the only one who can answer that.”

*****

Another Borg scout ship left Voyager’s shuttle bay and descended in a smooth arc toward the moon below, its gray outline vanishing into the bright, turbulent atmosphere. Like an ice cube into a punch bowl, Tom Paris thought as he sat in his pilot’s chair, with fond memories of last night’s celebrating. He wondered whether the Borg refugees had any idea of how glad everyone would be to see the last of them. Though he didn’t expect it would bother them in the least.

As there wasn’t much for him to do while the ship remained in synchronous orbit, Tom started playing a game of Klingon solitaire on a padd. The small screen didn’t come close to doing justice to the scowling faces of the heroic warriors pictured on the cards. B’Elanna could recite the history of every one in detail, he knew.

The captain wouldn’t approve of his goofing off like this while on duty, but she didn’t need to find out. She’d been in her office for the past half-hour, along with Chakotay, B’Elanna, and that crazy Bajoran crewman who wanted to be assimilated. When B’Elanna had told him about that, his first reaction had been that she had to be joking. Obviously, she wasn’t.

One more Borg ship was briefly visible on the main screen as it made its way into the swirling clouds. Not far from the dilithium mine, they’d found a cave deep enough to dock several of the scout ships without risk of detection. As for the remaining ships, the drones aboard Voyager had been busy most of the night breaking them down into sections small enough to transport into the mine’s main chamber, where salvage work would continue.

Borg heaven, Paris thought. All the work anyone could ever want.

He glanced back down at his game, where the ferocious visage of Kahless now glowered from the tiny screen, wielding his powerful blade to smite his enemies and unite the Klingon Empire. This was a good start to the game. Now, if the next card could just be . . .

Tuvok spoke from behind him. “Mr. Paris, it is apparent that your padd does not contain technical data.” He held out his hand for the padd, which Paris, with a sigh, surrendered.

The insufferable Vulcan had probably been able to deduce from across the room, just from the sound of his fingers moving across the keyboard, exactly what game he was playing.

*****

Janeway had lost track of how many cups of coffee she’d had this morning. Beside her, Chakotay sat silently with his chin resting on his hand, in the contemplative pose of Rodin’s statue. B’Elanna had started biting her fingernails in neat, tiny motions, like a squirrel bent on self-cannibalization. Janeway tried to ignore that for a while, but she finally reached over to give the offending hand a sharp tap.

B’Elanna blinked in surprise. “My mother used to do that.”

Ship’s mom, that’s me, Janeway thought. She looked back at Daro Gareth, who sat facing the senior officers calmly, as if he had already made his decision and accepted the consequences. He might not be insane, but he certainly was one troubled child of Voyager’s. And neither her maternal instincts nor her command skills seemed to be of much use in resolving the situation.

“Mr. Daro, you’ve described at length what you envision the Borg Collective could become.” Janeway tried another tack. “I don’t think any of us would disagree that there’s a tremendous amount of wasted potential in the Collective. The Borg have many commendable qualities. They’re intelligent, dedicated to their work, loyal to one another, and very adaptable. All the same, the Borg don’t come close to sharing our central values. No matter what you may tell them about their potential, I see no reasonable likelihood of your being able to change that.”

“Perhaps on Bajor, it’s not unusual for the people to rise up and follow one man’s vision,” Chakotay put in. “But it’s definitely not a characteristic of the Borg. They won’t hail you as a prophet, Gareth. They’ll simply reprogram you to delete what they’ll see as your irrelevant daydreams.”

Considering his response, the young crewman raised a hand to his earring and moved his fingers over the smooth, patterned metal, a fidget of which he seemed unaware. With his other hand, he picked up his water glass; many Bajorans eschewed coffee and recreational drugs, believing that indulgence in such vices would impair their receptivity to spiritual insights. As far as Janeway was concerned, he’d already had more than enough such insights to last a lifetime.

“It’s my understanding that the memories of every drone become a part of the collective consciousness and can influence the decision processes of all the others.” His tone was still calm, as if this conversation were no more than an abstract philosophical discussion. As if the prospect of having all of his memories ripped out of his brain didn’t disturb him at all.

“Whatever you ate for breakfast will be part of the collective consciousness, too. So what? Do you really think the drones will care?” By now, Chakotay had definitely begun to lose his legendary patience. Janeway couldn’t blame him.

The Bajoran’s glance moved from Chakotay to Janeway and then back again. “I know this doesn’t make much sense to you . . .”

“You’ve got that right,” Chakotay snapped.

“Maybe it’s not possible for a human to understand. My people seek the guidance of our prophets throughout life, in the form of mystical visions. To us, these visions are as real as our daily lives. Even more so, in that they represent the inner essence. We can’t ignore them. We’re compelled to follow wherever they lead us, no matter what the cost. A life without spiritual guidance would be no more than a hollow husk; it wouldn’t be worth living.”

“I have a spirit guide myself, but it sure as hell never told me to go forth and be assimilated.” Chakotay’s voice crackled with exasperation. “Just how did you get the idea that your inner essence was a Borg?”

Daro Gareth continued to rub his earring absently between his fingers. Janeway was about ready to smack his hand, too, but she restrained herself and reached for the coffeepot again. It was empty. Naturally.

Janeway thought, And if you were to dream that you jumped out an airlock . . .

She didn’t even bother asking. Obviously, he would.

“After Linnas told me about the changes he wanted to make in the Collective,” Daro Gareth explained, “I was in my quarters, meditating, and all at once it was there in my mind, complete, as if a door had suddenly opened into another dimension.”

B’Elanna began to nod in response, as if she understood what that was like. Chakotay threw her an irritable glance as he continued.

“Did you ever consider the possibility, Crewman Daro, that what you saw might have been the result of hypnotic suggestion intentionally induced by Linnas during your conversation with him?”

“I considered and rejected that possibility.” His voice held no trace of doubt. “This is not the first occasion on which the prophets have seen fit to bless me with a vision of the future. I would have known the difference.”

Janeway had no desire to pursue that particular line of conversation. She figured he was lucky to be alive, if volunteering for assimilation could be considered a representative sample of the sort of visions he had.

“Have you been unhappy aboard Voyager?” she asked quietly.

“Not at all, Captain. This is by far the best place I’ve ever been.”

She could clearly see that he was sincere. Thousands of light-years from home, completely cut off from all the people and places he’d ever known, in a ship that could be destroyed at any moment by one of several dozen hostile species, take your pick, and he’d never been anywhere better.

The extent to which she’d enjoyed a privileged life as a citizen of the Federation struck her suddenly, not with her usual abstract perspective, but with an emotional immediacy that took her completely by surprise.

We have given a voice to his deepest longing. She still couldn’t fully grasp what Linnas had meant by that. Couldn’t quite bring herself to acknowledge that there might be a hard kernel of truth to it.

A ghastly thought, that it might be possible for a rational man, in full possession of his senses, to choose to become Borg. She, Kathryn Janeway, the admiral’s pampered daughter, doubted she’d ever be able to understand how that could happen. But her limited comprehension didn’t mean it couldn’t.

“Mr. Daro, you are a free man, and this is ultimately your decision. You have the right to self-determination, like every other member of this crew.” Janeway leaned forward, her gaze fixed upon his, intently studying his expression for any signs of uncertainty or confusion. “But if you decide to stay here, it’ll be the last free decision you ever make.”

His eyes met hers with clear, unblinking focus as he answered without the slightest hesitation.

“We are all slaves to our destiny, Captain, in one way or another.”

*****

Chapter Twenty

With a sigh of frustration, Naomi deleted yet another unsuitable attempt to design a parting gift for the refugees.

She had thought about giving farewell cards to them all, decorated with her own personal drawings, but individual cards didn’t seem quite the right thing for a group of Borg. One big collective card wouldn’t be appropriate either; the whole concept of giving cards to mark special occasions assumed some amount of individuality, after all.

A pot of flowers from Neelix’s gardens had seemed a fine idea at first, but she’d realized almost at once that it definitely wouldn’t do. From the description Captain Janeway had given of the plants and animals that had been living in the mine for a thousand years, it didn’t take Naomi long to conclude that the addition of any off-world flowers would very likely damage the ecosystem. Voyager was always very careful not to cause any disruption to the natural biological evolution of worlds that the ship visited. Even cut flowers might contain harmful pollen.

What would a group of Borg want? To assimilate the culture and technology of other species, of course, but Naomi couldn’t help them with that particular goal. The refugees had already downloaded everything that they wanted from Voyager’s databases, and from what she’d heard, they were even going to take one crewman with them. It looked like she wasn’t the only person on board who was curious about Borg society, after all.

But I wouldn’t be curious enough to let myself be assimilated, she thought. Not in a permanent way, that was for sure. She’d been told that it was possible to be temporarily assimilated by means of a device that the Borg attached to your head, allowing you to be linked into their network while you were still human. That would be a fascinating experience to have, especially from the point of view of a scientist conducting a study of Borg social behavior.

Of course, she’d known better than to ask her mother for permission to try it. Her mother would have freaked out completely, and Naomi probably would have ended up locked in her quarters for the entire duration of the refugees’ stay aboard Voyager. Even her conversations in the cargo area had made a lot of people nervous.

Maybe some day, when she was grown and had finished that education on Earth that her mother always talked about, she’d come back to the Delta Quadrant and take up where the Hansens had left off. By then, perhaps Borg society would have evolved enough so that the Collective would begin to see the value of sharing information with other civilizations . . .

Another idea for a farewell gift suddenly came into her mind.

“Perfect,” she declared. “Computer, construct new prototype design, specifications as follows . . .”

*****

Janeway heard laughter echoing along a hallway as she turned the corner, finding Paris and Torres in conversation with Julia Bonner. Dressed casually in a loose-fitting shirt and pants, her face cheerful and animated as she talked, Julia might have been any off-duty Starfleet officer. Except for the nearly bald head on which a few Borg parts were still apparent.

“And we were going to put the horse in the admiral’s office,” Julia recounted with lively gestures, “but it got loose and started wandering through the gardens, and I was trying to round it up and get it out of there without anyone noticing, as if you could, and then old Boothby spotted me. He looked down his nose at me with this awful expression of disgust, as if he’d just noticed a slug devouring his roses, and he snapped, “Cadet, Starfleet Academy is not a stable . . .”

Julia fell silent as she noticed the captain in the corridor.

“As you were.” Janeway approached her. “It’s good to see that you’re up and about, Ensign.”

“Not much of an accomplishment by Borg standards.” Julia still had a trace of a smile, but most of the happiness had gone out of her expression. “This body has been reconfigured several times. The Collective finds no useful meaning in the concept of convalescence. New tasks are assigned immediately.”

“We were in sickbay,” Paris put in, with a slight but definite edge to his tone, “and I was assisting the Doctor in monitoring Julia’s brainwave activity, when three Borg came in with Daro Gareth. The Doctor seemed to be quite excited about this opportunity to observe an actual Borg assimilation firsthand. That’s when Julia and I decided to go for a walk.”

Can’t say I blame you, Janeway thought. She’d probably have done the same thing herself.

“I’ve reviewed your service record, Ensign Bonner, and found it most satisfactory.” Janeway briskly changed the subject. “It looks like you’re a very fine officer. I’m sure that all of your new shipmates will join me in welcoming you as a member of Voyager’s crew. When the Doctor determines that you’re fit for duty, we’ll see about finding a suitable assignment for you.”

“I shall consider it an honor to serve with you, Captain.” Some of the life had returned to Julia’s voice, but it still sounded a bit strained.

“And if the captain happens to walk into her office and find a horse munching on her plants, she’ll know who to blame.” B’Elanna gave Julia a comradely smile that Janeway couldn’t help but to contrast with her chief engineer’s hostile reaction when Seven of Nine first came aboard Voyager.

Julia suddenly acquired a cheerful look that put Janeway in mind of the sun coming out from behind a bank of clouds. “Actually, I was a well-behaved cadet most of the time. And contrary to popular belief, my classmates at the Academy did not put me down in the yearbook as Most Likely To Be Assimilated.”

At that remark, Janeway winced, but Tom Paris seemed to take it in stride.

“You know, they did give someone that honor,” Paris noted, “but I can’t recall who it was . . .”

“That particular designation went to Jason Montefiore, because he thought we’d eventually form an alliance with the Borg, and everyone was convinced he’d lost all the dots off his dice.” Julia chuckled at Tom’s look of surprise. “Although some drones lose the memories of their individual lives, most of mine are crystal clear. There are some advantages to having a computer built into the brain, including the ability to organize one’s memories with dazzling efficiency. And I will, of course, expect all of you lesser species to be suitably impressed when we attend our next class reunion.”

“We have a simulation of the Academy in our holodeck files, in case you feel like rehearsing your grand entrance,” Torres rejoined. “You might want to reattach a few of your biomechanical parts and scare the piss out of your less traveled classmates.”

Janeway was about to tell Torres to knock it off, but surprisingly, Julia still seemed to be in perfect spirits.

“Ha. I might just do that. Some of the configuration options can get pretty interesting. They’d love me at the press conference when we get back to Earth, wouldn’t they? But for now, I’m thinking about designing some programs that aren’t quite so tame. B’Elanna, do you think you might like to try a new holodeck scenario where we have to fight off intruders of Species 8472, and we’re armed only with traditional Klingon weapons . . .”

“Cool,” Torres said immediately.

“But don’t put any assimilations in your program,” Paris advised. “We had a situation a few days ago on Holodeck One. You probably don’t want to hear the details of it, but some people around here are still nervous.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Julia assented pleasantly. “We’ll just stick with our honorable, old-fashioned, socially acceptable ways of interacting with the enemy. Like throat-cutting, disemboweling, a blade through the heart . . .”

Torres grinned in response. “Now you’re talking.”

“The start of a beautiful friendship,” Paris observed. “I hate to break this up, but it’s time to go back to sickbay, Julia. See you after a while, B’Elanna.”

Dutifully turning toward the turbolift, Julia explained to Janeway in a tone as calm as if she were discussing a simple engineering task, “I require further adjustment of certain brain functions.”

Janeway fell into step beside her and Paris, thinking that Julia seemed almost to have two distinct personalities. Maybe the Doctor would be able to restore more of her normal thought patterns. On balance, though, Julia seemed to be coping with her return to human society with a fair amount of success.

The turbolift moved swiftly to its destination, and the doors opened. The corridor outside sickbay was empty, and Janeway could hear no sound from within. Leaving the turbolift, Julia walked with a peculiar swaying gait, clearly not yet fully comfortable with her normal legs.

The small group entered sickbay.

Across the room, three Borg and the Doctor moved purposefully around a bed. Janeway kept her eyes averted from the scene. She had seen quite a lot in her years as captain of Voyager, and she wasn’t squeamish by a long shot, but she definitely drew the line at watching one of her crewmen being transformed into a Borg in Voyager’s own sickbay.

“They’re still at it. Damn.” Paris also looked away, although Janeway knew he had no qualms about treating the most grisly of battle wounds. “I was hoping they’d be finished by this time. How long can it take, anyway?”

Julia regarded the group of Borg with a bleak expression. “The procedure can be expected to have an approximate duration of . . .”

“Never mind,” Paris interrupted. “I don’t want to know.”

The sickbay was otherwise empty, Janeway noticed. All of the Borg who had been regenerating had by now completed the process. They had removed all of their portable regeneration units, with the exception of the one Julia was using. If it hadn’t been for the unmentionable act taking place across the room, you could have said sickbay was almost back to normal.

Paris fussed with the settings on a medical tricorder and gathered up other equipment. “Sit down here, Julia. We’ll start by scanning your brainwave patterns.” He indicated a bed as far as possible from the activity on the other side of sickbay, and facing the other direction.

Julia smiled very slightly, looking almost as if she were in pain. “Your solicitude is noted, but it’s not as if I haven’t observed the assimilation process before. Actually, you’re the one who probably wouldn’t want to look.”

There was a flurry of activity on the other side of the room, and the figure that had been the center of attention sat up. Janeway, wishing herself anywhere but here, began to walk toward the group of Borg. The Doctor turned to face her, all smiles.

“A veritable work of art, Captain, if I do say so myself. I demonstrated a new method of efficiently mapping the visual circuitry into the optic nerve without removing an eye. Then I . . .”

“Save it for the medical journals,” Janeway snapped, resisting a sudden urge to shut down Dr. Frankenstein’s program. She forced herself to look at the Borg who had been Daro Gareth. He returned her look with a disconcerting calmness, his eyes like dark pebbles in a face the color of skim milk, the light in the visual sensor array casting harsh red shadows across the left side of his forehead.

She saw that he still had both hands, although various cybernetic attachments covered his arms. His pale fingers gripped the edges of the bio-bed tightly. Janeway realized that he must surely be dizzy from all of the additional sensory inputs. No doubt the drones performing the procedure had all carried out their tasks very efficiently, but there were certain unavoidable physical limits involved in the reconfiguration of a living body.

“Gareth,” she began quietly, and then couldn’t bring herself to go on. What the hell do you say to a man who’s just been assimilated? Have a nice polite conversation and ask him how he’s feeling?

“Although the experience is somewhat disorienting, this body will adapt.” His voice sounded almost unchanged, but Janeway was aware that he spoke to her from across a great and widening gulf.

I can’t ask him if he’s happier now, she thought. The question wouldn’t even make sense to him.

God, this was frustrating. Janeway found herself thinking of Naomi Wildman with her interviews, doggedly asking one refugee after another what it was like to be a Borg. As if anyone could even begin to understand the answers without first having lived through the ordeal.

Daro Gareth sat before her with his body almost perfectly still, the fidgets and nervous motions gone forever. Janeway could barely see the rise and fall of his breathing through the hard plates that surrounded his chest.

“Do you believe that you made the right decision by staying here?” she asked, feeling almost as if she were talking to herself, and knowing full well that it was her own decision she was trying to justify.

He lifted his hands tentatively from the bed and placed them over the metallic attachments covering his knees, letting his fingers rest more loosely, as if his sense of equilibrium had begun to improve.

“Such speculation is pointless.” His calm gaze was unchanged.

A silent female drone, standing beside him, lifted a panel on the back of his head and briefly made an adjustment to some circuitry inside his skull. He didn’t seem to take any notice at all of this.

Janeway took a deep breath. “Indulge this foolish individual and try to answer my question anyway.”

A moment passed. Daro Gareth looked as immobile as a waxwork. She wondered if he would ever speak again.

“The measure of the effectiveness of any action,” he replied finally, “is the extent to which it benefits the group. We do not yet know whether the assimilation of this drone will provide significant assistance in accomplishing our objectives.”

Fair enough, Janeway thought. He doesn’t have a clue.

“I wish you wouldn’t call yourself a drone.”

He regarded her without blinking, his face a pale oval framed in metal. “That description is appropriate. The term has historically been used in reference to a biomechanical component of the Borg Collective.”

“I know, and I don’t like it at all. Can’t you think of something that would be more suitable to describe intelligent beings? Such as calling yourselves people, for instance?”

“That would violate established protocols. The word carries inappropriate connotations of individuality.”

Janeway gave up, wondering why she had even tried to ask him whether he thought he had made the right choice. It was obvious that he didn’t know and in all probability would never know. She herself, the captain who had let him go, was the one who would have to struggle with the moral ramifications.

*****

Chapter Twenty-one

The bright colors moved across the cold face of the moon in rapidly changing patterns, every imaginable variation of curves and whorls, as Ice Dancer carried out her eternal performance, oblivious to the audience above.

Which at the moment consisted of Seven of Nine, standing at the primary viewer in Astrometrics and musing over the sight below. For once, she did not even try to convince herself that there was anything practical about her current activity.

Seven knew that her crewmates found beauty in the sight. She could not. To her, Ice Dancer’s swirling colors were no more than simple mixtures of common chemical compounds in gaseous form, impelled from one location to another by changes in atmospheric pressure, and reflecting light waves at various points along the electromagnetic spectrum.

There had once been a time when she, too, had known the imperfect mix of emotions that made up the human response to the universe. A vivid memory came unbidden into her mind, of herself as a young child gazing out from her parents’ ship as it passed a brightly colored nebula. She had clapped her hands in sudden joy, exclaiming at the loveliness and wonder of it.

She could not remember her mother’s answer, but the face was clear in her thoughts, reflecting the awe that her child-self had felt. The fascination with the unknown, the longing to explore the cosmos, arose from the very essence of humanity. This passion for new experiences, Seven knew, had been the reason why her parents had left the safety of Earth to pursue their ill-fated quest into Borg space.

Perhaps she would never fully develop the capacity to forgive her parents for their failure, for the loss of their human lives. Their inadequacy had torn from her everything that she had once valued, even to the last shred of her individual self.

But they had meant to give her a galaxy of wonder.

Seven of Nine looked again at the image on the screen before her, feeling the tiniest glimmer of hope. An unexpected yearning arose within her: for once more in her life, if only for a moment, to see the beauty.

*****

Leading the way along the main tunnel into the mine, Janeway carried a folded piece of black cloth. Paris and Torres, a few steps behind her, each held a box. The golden luminescence grew brighter around them as they descended toward the central cavern.

The sounds of industry echoed through the mine, a clanging of metal and whirring of machinery, but no one spoke aloud. Coming out of the tunnel into the glowing warmth of the cavern, Janeway felt as if she had just walked into an Industrial Age factory. The hulks of numerous scout ships lay on the dirt floor, in various stages of disassembly, with drones moving purposefully among them.

Some of the scout ships were now docked at a safe depth inside a large cave several kilometers from the mine, Janeway knew, but most of them would be dismantled for the valuable parts they contained.

Farther back, near a rock wall, a dilithium converter was up and humming, producing all the power the new colony could ever need. Janeway could barely see the converter behind the enormous banks of capacitors that surrounded it.

No chiming bell tones or sociable chirps could be heard above the metallic clatter, and Janeway saw no animal life whatsoever. She presumed that the rats, birds and other fauna of this strange netherworld had sought out quieter places deep within the mine. A shame to displace them, but she’d had no alternative.

As Janeway approached what she couldn’t help but to think of as the factory floor, the Borg workers took no notice of her at all, or of her two officers. Every drone, with complete attention focused on the immediate task, continued working silently and efficiently, just as the Borg had always done.

With one notable exception. Linnas, immediately visible in the large group because of his height, strode briskly from one scout ship to another, inspecting the drones’ work like a factory boss. Or a medieval slave driver, Janeway thought as she noticed the command interface structure that now covered his head, the gleaming metal resembling a crown.

He finally got his wish, she thought. King of the world, this pathetic little piss-pot of a world . . .

The thought saddened her immensely. He could have been so much better than that. Every one of them deserved better.

Janeway continued to search through the group, but it was Torres who found Daro Gareth. He stood next to a large section of a scout ship, taking apart something that vaguely resembled a navigational deflector array. He continued to work as they approached, without even a pause or a glance in their direction.

Holding the box out toward him, Torres stepped forward.

“Gareth. You left this in your quarters.”

He did not look up from his task as he replied, in a tone entirely devoid of emotion, “Such things serve no purpose here.”

Torres still held the box containing the images he had once cherished. He ignored it entirely, as if it did not exist.

If this isn’t hell, Janeway thought, it must be the gateway. At the far end of the cavern, the hot spring continued to bubble away. Its rising steam combined with the bright yellow luminescence to create a realistic illusion of sulfurous fumes. Fire and brimstone. The cooling rivulet that trickled away from the warm pool might have been the River Styx. She almost expected to see the infernal ferryman of the ancient myth, rounding up the drones for the trip across the river into Hades.

Rage boiled up suddenly within her and crystallized to a single point of intention. No, she thought, looking at her former crewman reduced to little more than a factory robot. I didn’t give you up for this.

“You’re wrong. These things have not lost their meaning.” Janeway pitched her voice to be heard throughout the chamber, echoing from the high rock walls. “Their purpose is to remind you of the places you came from, of who you are, of the essential uniqueness and value of your soul.”

She turned her head, surveying the chamber. All around, the drones continued to work in silence, with no response whatsoever to her words.

“We all have an obligation to our society,” Janeway went on, “as well as to ourselves, to contribute the best of our individual character and abilities to the building of our civilization. All of us. Human, Bajoran, Borg, it doesn’t matter. This is a law of nature, a universal requirement for civilization. Without it, we fail to grow, and we stagnate and eventually wither away. The vital essence of who we are, the heart of the group’s collective identity, must come from within our individual selves.”

She reached into the box that B’Elanna was still holding, and her fingers closed around a small piece of jewelry. She placed the earring directly into her former crewman’s hand. He blinked at it, his intense focus on his task finally interrupted. As if by simple force of habit, he raised the patterned metal to his pale ear and fastened it into place. Its bright, airy strands glinted strangely against the gray metal of his cybernetics. He did not speak, but Janeway thought she saw a flicker of emotion, of life, returning to his expression.

Good enough to start with, Janeway thought. She took the box of pictures from Torres, set it down, and moved on.

Not far from where she stood, the tall composer had turned away from his work, and his gaze was fixed on her with unwavering concentration. She spoke directly to him, with her words still echoing through the cavern.

“I know you understand that the individual defines the collective.”

Somewhat to her surprise, the composer answered her. At first his soft voice was hesitant, but he seemed to gain courage as he went on.

“Captain, would it be possible, if it’s not too much of a distraction for your crewmen, to transport the harp into the mine? It’s still in cargo bay one.”

“I’ll have it sent down to you directly,” Janeway assured him.

He continued to stare at her as if she were the only point of light in a dark universe. Around them, other heads began to turn, and the busy clatter lessened noticeably. Janeway scanned the rows of white faces, all of them looking yellow in the soft glow from the lichen, until she found the one human face among them.

Paris and Torres followed her across the dirt floor, stepping across groundnut vines and components of transwarp drive assemblies, a bizarrely incongruous melange. Ahead of them, the drone they sought had turned from her task and stood facing Janeway with silent, rapt attention.

Taking the remaining box from Tom and holding it with her arms extended, Janeway spoke. “These are personal items salvaged from the wreck of the Raven. They belong to you.”

A slow smile began to brighten the drone’s pale features as she accepted the box and placed it beside a neat row of power cells. “Captain, you have a request from a friend. Four of Eight says he would like to keep the drums.”

“No problem.” Janeway smiled in response.

“Perhaps it is not altogether unthinkable to be both individual and Borg.” The clear, purposeful speech sounded almost exactly like the strong tones of her daughter. “We will explore this possibility.”

She went back to her work, but as she removed another power cell, Janeway could hear her reciting in a much softer tone, “‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .’”

The chamber was nearly silent. By now, almost all of the drones had turned to look at Janeway. She could feel every eye upon her, dark orbs staring from chalky faces, visual circuitry tracking her movements and focusing with mechanical precision.

Janeway advanced across the dirt floor toward the man who had been her lover, who stood watching her in silence like the others, his metal-encased feet planted in the dusty soil amidst the straggling vines. No red carpet for the King of the World.

“It’s a pity we didn’t know one another many years ago, on my home planet.” Linnas regarded her with an ironic smile. “You would have made an outstanding anarchist.”

Her tone was just as dry. “I don’t think so.”

Linnas moved his head slowly, taking stock of what had happened to his obedient minions. He spoke again, turning back toward Janeway.

“You have no idea of how long I’ve waited . . .”

Janeway confronted his gaze squarely. “Irrelevant.”

A long silence stretched between the two of them. The cavern’s quiet was suddenly broken by the whistling of a tune both jaunty and rebellious, creating vivid images of sun-splashed parades, of young men raising their fists in protest marches, of petals falling in springtime. Janeway looked for the source and was not surprised to find that it was the composer with whom she had just spoken. He was a native of the same planet as Linnas, she knew, and she suspected that the melody had some significance to them both.

“That song — it’s called Liberty Arise,” Linnas explained to Janeway in a calm voice that formed a counterpoint to the spirited whistling. “It was the workers’ solidarity anthem. Like your Internationale.”

Several of the other drones accessed their musical history files and began singing along, in perfect harmony. The sound rose and echoed from the surrounding walls, filling the chamber beautifully.

Linnas responded to their performance with a deliberate look of assessment, as if he were considering a command override. Then he turned back to Janeway.

“You’re right, Kathryn, even if you are the most arrogant female in all of creation. Sometimes we do need to be reminded of where we came from.”

Almost as if saluting her, Linnas raised his artificial arm to his head. As Janeway watched, he began to disconnect the command interface. The cybernetic attachments flashed and whirred in precise and rapid motions. That arm has become more a part of him than the original arm could ever have been, Janeway found herself thinking.

The King of the World looked down at her, smiling ruefully as his short-lived crown fell into the dust beside his feet. “That piece of cybernetic junk wasn’t very comfortable anyway.”

“Liar.” Janeway’s voice grew softer with affection. “I know that’s not so. It was the best thing you’ve ever felt.”

“No.” He touched the side of her face, his fingers warm against her cheek, and kissed her. “Only the second best.”

Standing a few paces away, Paris and Torres exchanged glances. Janeway knew everyone aboard Voyager was going to hear all about this conversation within minutes of their return to the ship, complete with bawdy speculation as to whether male Borg were configured with original or enhanced sexual equipment. She had no intention of enlightening anyone on the subject.

“The Borg are not accustomed to functioning without a leader to direct the tasks and enforce consensus,” Linnas went on. “It’s going to be very confused and inefficient around here if we’re all behaving like individuals.”

“Perhaps for a while, but you’re intelligent people. You will adapt.” Janeway looked around at the drones, who still seemed to be a very orderly crowd. The protest song had ended, and most of the workers were continuing to dismantle the scout ships. “And you can be a leader without being a tyrant, you know. Although it may be difficult at first, ultimately it will be much more rewarding. Maybe it would help to think of it as part of your life’s task of climbing that great mountain you once told me about. Your spiritual mountain.”

“I don’t suppose the wise man ever contemplated this.” Linnas opened his hand in a broad gesture, the alien luminescence gleaming brightly against the almost colorless fingers and reflecting far more brightly from the smooth metal of his implants. Janeway realized that she couldn’t even begin to imagine what he had looked like in his youth. She couldn’t imagine him at all different.

“You’ll have to be your own wise man now.” She began to unfold the piece of black cloth she’d been carrying across her arm. “When you reach the top of the mountain, you’ll have this to plant there, for all your people. It’s a farewell gift from Naomi Wildman.”

The cloth unfurled to reveal a design of a silver cube in the center of a rectangular field of tiny white stars.

“Naomi says it’s the new flag of the Borg Republic.”

“She must be my spiritual kindred. Another climber of impossible mountains.” Linnas took the flag and began to fold it again. “Perhaps we will eventually designate a function of some sort for it, in the event such a form of organization should prove feasible, although the Borg have little use for sentimental symbols.”

Janeway figured that Naomi had become familiar enough with Borg phrasing to understand that oblique expression of thanks. “I’ll be sure to tell her.”

“And there is another matter of concern,” Linnas continued, “on which the citizens of Planetary Subunit 381.7.6, or the Borg Republic if you prefer, have had no difficulty reaching a consensus. In salvaging our surplus ships, we have been left with some components that have no useful function outside a spacecraft. The inefficiency of this situation is obvious and intolerable. We are compelled to seek your assistance in order to prevent this appalling waste of resources. Is it possible that Voyager might somehow be able to find a productive use for . . . seventy-two transwarp coils?”

It suddenly seemed to Janeway as if there couldn’t be enough air in the universe for her to take another breath.

As he spoke again, Linnas had just the slightest trace of a smile. “A single coil from our small craft is insufficient to power Voyager, but if you connect them all in parallel, they should take you more than half the way home. Fifty-three point eight percent of the way, to be precise.”

Janeway looked around the chamber, at the silent drones. No, they’re citizens now, she corrected herself. She could almost feel their parting wishes of goodwill, like a perfect brush stroke across the canvas of her mind.

Linnas extended his hand, with the folded flag over his arm. She placed her own hand into the strength of his firm grasp. For the last time, they touched one another as equals, as friends.

“A fair wind in your sails, Kathryn.”

*****

Chapter Twenty-two

Carrying a vase of bright pink flowers from Neelix’s garden, the nearest thing the Delta Quadrant had to roses, Chakotay entered Julia’s newly assigned quarters.

The first thing he noticed was that the viewports no longer displayed the familiar vista of space. Instead, an image of Earth’s moon, approaching its full, cast its light through the broad rippling leaves of several sturdy trees. A warm glow came from the window of a house in the background. White lace curtains seemed to flutter in a light breeze.

“This was the view from my bedroom window when I was a child. I downloaded the visual images from my long-term memory files into the desk console,” Julia explained in a calm tone, as if this were a perfectly normal activity. She took the roses with a smile and set them down on a small round table. “I’ve programmed in a diurnal cycle to match the ship’s chronometer, as well as the moon’s phases and the seasonal changes. Weather report for tomorrow: sunshine, a few high clouds, magnolia blossoms opening, and plenty of hummingbirds. I’ve always liked hummingbirds.”

“That’s the most creative thing I’ve seen in a long time.” Chakotay had known that the viewport screens were fully programmable — that was how the screens maintained the crisply enhanced image of streaking stars when the ship was in warp — but he’d never heard of anyone overriding the standard programming to use them as a form of interior decoration.

“And a very impractical use of my time. You might say this activity is about as irrelevant as it’s possible to get.” Julia grinned widely. “I’m glad you could come and help me bless my new quarters. I’ve just finished getting my medicine bundle together. It’s laid out on the bed.”

Chakotay followed her into the adjacent room, where he noticed that the virtual lace curtains on the viewport screen matched the bedspread and pillow shams perfectly. A rice paper partition with a delicate cherry blossom design screened off a section of the bedroom. It all looked very cozy and feminine, at least until Chakotay stuck his head around the corner of the cherry blossom partition and discovered a Borg regeneration alcove. Until then, it hadn’t occurred to him that she would never have any use for the daintily decorated bed.

Although he could think of one potential use for it . . .

To distract himself from that line of thinking, Chakotay focused on the small replicated items that Julia had placed on top of the bedspread. He saw dried ragweed, some kind of small daisylike things, and the brittle brown stalks of some other weed that he couldn’t quite manage to identify. A handful of yellow sycamore leaves surrounded the weeds.

Julia’s medicine bundle looked like stuff from a compost heap, Chakotay thought, as he began to say the words of the traditional blessing for a new home. He reminded himself that different things had meaning to different people, and that it wasn’t up to him to judge. All the same, he was glad that he hadn’t found any Borg parts in the mix.

“They’re all in storage now,” Julia informed him, answering a thought he hadn’t spoken aloud. “My biomechanical attachments. Eventually Starfleet will study them. Seems kind of strange, having one’s body parts on scientific display. Like what American museums used to do with our ancestors’ bones.”

“Would you prefer to give them a burial?”

“No. I agree with you, there’s no point to that.” She cleared everything off the bed, sat down and bounced a few times experimentally, with a goofy, childish smile spreading across her face.

“Sometimes it’s the little things one misses,” she explained, seemingly without embarrassment.

Chakotay found himself smiling back at her. “I’m glad you were able to keep your sense of humor.”

“Actually, I wasn’t quite as much of a wiseacre before the Borg took it upon themselves to restructure my brain. You might describe this as an unintended consequence.”

He looked at her, not entirely understanding what she meant.

Julia, still sitting on the bed, ran her fingers through the thick dark stubble that now covered her scalp.

“They botched my assimilation. That happens sometimes, you get a bad batch of nanoprobes or there’s a glitch in the programming, and the interlink doesn’t form properly. When that occurs, the usual result is death, as you might imagine. As for captives who survive with brain damage, the Collective abhors imperfection, and such unfortunates are almost always deactivated shortly thereafter. But I was lucky, comparatively speaking. There was no significant impairment to anything but emotional control.”

She gazed through the virtual window, her mind somewhere far away. “It’s hard to separate the memories; it was all so overwhelming. I do remember lying there, hysterical with laughter, as they sliced open my skull. And our first officer with a look on his face like we’d all died and gone to hell. I thought that was hilarious, too. That when you’re a Borg, you get the privilege of going to hell not once, but twice.”

“That’s not true. As I see it, you’ve been resurrected.” Chakotay surprised himself with the vehemence of his reply. He wondered if he’d been trying to convince Julia or himself.

“I think we’re both mixing our religious metaphors,” Julia observed calmly. “In either case, one first has to be dead, and as luck would have it, I wasn’t killed. Some minor deviations are within tolerance; after all, it would be inefficient to destroy salvageable resources. They tried to repair me but didn’t have much success, so I ended up being the class clown of the Collective. I got assigned to recycling duty, along with other slightly flawed drones. Linnas never did tell you that he was a garbageman, did he? Too much individuality, that’s why.”

For once I’ve got to agree with the Collective, Chakotay thought. Although putting Linnas on garbage duty hadn’t done much to curb his arrogance.

“It’s not so bad to be a Borg garbageman,” she went on. “At least you can adjust your olfactory inputs so that you don’t have to smell anything. And it’s not as if you have that much consciousness of yourself, anyway. The Borg are fond of their hive-insect images, but my experience was more like being a drop of water in a stream. Trillions of lives flowing by, every one a part of all the others. In a way, it was very peaceful.”

That certainly wasn’t a word Chakotay would have chosen.

“You’re a survivor.” After so many years in the Delta Quadrant, he could understand that much.

“The Doctor expects me to recover. He says now that I’ve stopped running the emotional suppression routines, the neurons around the damaged area can be stimulated to form new connections. This process will take approximately two days, five hours.” Absently, she chewed on the tip of one of her new fingers, almost as if testing its permanence. “The Doctor also told me that I’ll be fit for duty after I’ve gone through one more regeneration cycle.”

“I’ve already put you down on tonight’s duty roster. Third shift on the bridge,” Chakotay informed her. “You don’t have to stay for the entire shift, but the captain has a particular task she’d like you to perform before you leave.”

Julia responded with a broad smile, touching the bright rank insignia on her new uniform. “Captain Janeway is such a sweetheart. I wonder, Chakotay, do you think they’ll welcome me like this when we reach Earth?”

“I can’t imagine why not.”

“Can’t you?” A small piece of Borg circuitry was still visible on her forehead, although in Chakotay’s opinion it didn’t detract from her beauty. “What if I went home, and it turned out that my family would have been happier if I had stayed missing in action?”

“Forget it. That can’t happen.” Chakotay’s own memories caught and burned in his throat as he spoke. “Home is a place where, no matter how far you’ve traveled, they always want to take you back.”

“Your people are dead, aren’t they, Chakotay? All of them? I’m so sorry.” She reached to take his hand, in a comforting, innocent way. He sat down beside her on the bed and put his arm around her, feeling strangely awkward, like a boy on a first date. How innocent could she be, he thought, after she’d been through the Academy . . .

“It’s true, I’ve never chosen to make love to a man, although Starfleet Academy is definitely no one’s idea of a monastery.” Julia looked quite pleased. “But I am very adaptable when it comes to assimilating new information.”

“Are you sure that you’re not half Betazoid? I hadn’t realized my thoughts were so easily read.”

“That particular thought was obvious. And no, I’m not a natural empath. I’m afraid this falls into the category of Borg dirty tricks. I suppose it’s best to tell you now, although this is going to be difficult to explain.”

Julia avoided his gaze, turning her head toward the virtual window, where a pair of small yellow eyes now glowed brightly on a branch just beyond the curtains. Chakotay almost expected to hear the leaves rustling.

“I haven’t yet made up my mind whether I want to include sounds in the program.” She faced Chakotay again, her hand still clasped intimately in his, the dark eyes pleading. “The nanoprobes in your brain will eventually become dormant, if they receive no further instructions. There is no permanent change to your configuration. Please don’t hate me.”

He vividly remembered Julia’s fingers tracing the lines of his tattoo, and the impression he’d had of ritual and sacrifice, the ancient Mayan priestess reaching into the depths of his soul.

“I could never hate you, Julia. Just tell me why.”

“When the uprising started, I didn’t want to leave,” she began quietly. “I know this won’t make sense to you, but I was content to be a drone. I felt strong and protected inside the hive mind; it compensated for my individual flaws and weaknesses. Linnas practically had to drag me away. He convinced me that if I followed him, we would make the Collective more perfect. After that, he told me his first goal was to assimilate the crew of Voyager into our group. I was the bait to persuade Captain Janeway to allow us to come aboard.”

Chakotay had a clear recollection of a vehement Seven of Nine making that very accusation and being thoroughly ignored by the senior officers.

“She was right,” Julia acknowledged, “but for the wrong reason. The Collective doesn’t have any particular desire to capture this ship. You’d never have made it so far across the Delta Quadrant otherwise. And don’t think the Borg have ever considered Voyager an ally; the very thought disgusts them. They’ve never made alliances with lesser species before, and they can’t stand the thought that you saved the Collective from defeat. As far as the Borg are concerned, Voyager is a plague ship, infected with an inexplicably virulent strain of individuality.”

If we’re so loathsome, Chakotay thought, I wonder what use Linnas intended to make of us.

“What better place for a rebel band to hide,” Julia responded promptly, “than a plague ship? Linnas expected that after we had contaminated ourselves by assimilating Voyager’s crew, the Collective would not have chosen to return us to the hive. We would have been ignored altogether, by reason of being too severely damaged to merit reassimilation. That would have allowed us to remove our lockout chips and regenerate properly, taking as long as we needed to perfect the design of the chip. Eventually, Linnas intended to assassinate the queen and seize control of the Collective.”

The grandiose insanity of the plan just about floored Chakotay, although he had to admit that it probably made a strange kind of sense if you’d been a drone most of your adult life. Now he understood why Linnas had wanted Daro Gareth.

“But I thought that Borg didn’t kill other Borg?”

“They don’t, as a general rule, unless a drone has been damaged beyond repair. Linnas said that made for the ideal situation. She wouldn’t be expecting it.”

What a nice guy, Chakotay thought. He still had one question.

“What changed the plan?”

“Random chance. Quantum chaos. The tiny current of air from a butterfly’s wings.” Julia gave him a tender smile. “We just happened to eat a meal at the same time. You spoke to me with kindness in the mess hall, as if you truly cared what became of me. Every other human aboard Voyager treated me like a monster, or worse yet, a pathetic mutilated zombie in need of rescue. To my surprise I found that I did not want to assimilate you, to destroy your individuality. So I persuaded Linnas that for our purposes, just one member of Voyager’s crew would be sufficient. I explained the Prime Directive to him and eventually convinced him that anyone worthy of assimilation would voluntarily join us. I also told Linnas that we would be able to ensure our safety by monitoring the thoughts of the captain and first officer.”

“You mean Linnas implanted nanoprobes in the captain’s brain?” Chakotay didn’t look forward to telling Kathryn about that. She would be hopping mad.

“I’ll tell her, if you’d rather not,” Julia volunteered. “It’s all my fault, anyway, so that seems fair.”

“I wouldn’t describe it as your fault. It sounds as if you saved all of us from becoming drones. I’m sure the captain will be grateful.” Chakotay looked into the warmth of Julia’s eyes, thinking suddenly, I wish I could see into your soul, too.

After a long moment, he could hear the response in his thoughts, her mental voice sweet and clear. This can be done. I have begun to reprogram the nanoprobes to create a primary interlink node. You will experience a rough approximation of how the Borg communicate with one another.

All at once, he could see an image of a little girl in a purple raincoat and boots walking along a muddy path, innocent and peaceful.

I would like to be one of a collective of two, Julia added wistfully. It is very difficult to be isolated. But are you sure that you don’t mind having Borg circuitry in your brain?

As he looked into her eyes, his consciousness seemed strangely bifurcated, as if he were also looking at himself. Her love and complete acceptance surrounded and comforted him. It was almost like coming home.

I feel as if we have been part of one another for a long time, he responded. I think we’ll be able to make this work. As long as you’re not planning to replace any of my body parts . . .

Julia’s voice in his mind held a note of laughter. Don’t worry. I intend to make good use of them as they are now configured.

Chakotay wondered why he felt no fear, why this bizarre experience seemed perfectly normal. Although there had been another time, several years ago . . .

She spoke again, out loud this time. “Who are these other Borg females that I see in your memory?”

At that, Chakotay had to laugh. “Julia, One of Two, sweetheart, if I have a sexual history file in my brain, stay out of it, will you?”

“You don’t. The human brain is not organized with any method that remotely approaches that degree of precision. It’s a wonder you can ever manage to find anything in there. Talk about random access.”

He released her fingers and lifted both his hands to rest lightly on either side of her face, bending his head toward hers. She already knew his intent as her lips parted for the kiss. He could feel her desire rising to match his own, and a flicker of surprise as she realized the extent of it. A current of pleasure flowed through him, between them, doubling and redoubling impossibly, energy trapped in a closed system.

It’s more like harmonic resonance, he thought, or maybe Julia was communicating it to him; he wasn’t quite sure any more where his body and mind left off and hers began. He felt an impression of voltage building and crackling between them, more intense than he could ever have imagined. In another moment both their bodies would explode in a burst of spontaneous combustion . . .

“Most unlikely. Our body temperatures are within normal parameters.” Her voice was husky and amused. She leaned back slightly as the intensity of the connection between them started to fade. Chakotay realized once again that they were separate beings, that he was one person, an individual. The thought was briefly unbearable.

Julia kissed him again, more gently this time. This function will require implementation of precision control subroutines, he could hear her thinking.

“That’s kind of missing the point, Julia. You’re just supposed to relax and enjoy it.” He ran his hands along the soft curves of her body. The new uniform looked perfect on her. She would look even more perfect out of it, he thought as they stretched out on the bed, side by side, two pairs of Starfleet boots on the pristine white lace.

But at this rate, they’d never make it to the bridge in time for gamma shift, and he didn’t feel like making excuses to the captain for their tardiness. It was going to be hard enough to explain what Linnas had done.

With an unflattering thought on the subject of military discipline that he hoped Julia didn’t hear, he let go of her and stood up.

“Mmm, don’t stop now, Chakotay. I haven’t finished mapping this function.”

*****

The turbolift proceeded smoothly toward the bridge, Janeway’s bridge, just as it should be, with all of the ship’s systems completely back to normal. The transwarp drive was on line and ready to engage.

“I do not understand one thing.”

Janeway stood facing Seven of Nine. “And that is?”

“You gave Daro Gareth a choice that you did not allow me.” Seven’s features were sharp, her voice hovering between unemotional and accusing.

“Sometimes the way in which we make our choices can be more important than the outcome.” Janeway knew this would require some explanation. “Hold,” she ordered, and the turbolift hissed obediently to a stop between decks.

“Seven, when you first came aboard Voyager, you were afraid to be an individual. You wanted to return to the Collective so that you could avoid making choices, avoid growth, avoid having to take the responsibility for your decisions. That’s not a healthy way to go through life.”

“And Daro Gareth becoming a Borg is healthy?”

Janeway sighed. “I don’t pretend to understand his reasons. I do know that he intended to devote himself to a greater cause and to seek the meaning of his existence. Whether he’ll find it or not, I can’t imagine, but in the end I couldn’t stand in his way.”

“But you did stand in mine.”

“Do you want to be a drone now?” Janeway inquired.

Seven answered without hesitation. “No.”

“Then the decision was correct.”

Looking for a moment as if she were about to challenge the logic of Janeway’s observation, Seven instead chose to move on to another point.

“Five hundred idealists will not change the Collective.”

“It’s more vulnerable than you think, Seven. One saboteur almost brought it down.” Janeway thought of another example. “Have you ever heard of Archimedes? An ancient mathematician. He said that he could move the world if he had a lever long enough.”

Seven of Nine was silent, probably constructing a mental picture of a bearded primitive on the moon with a giant bar of duranium.

“The hardest part,” Janeway explained, giving Seven an affectionate pat on the shoulder, “is finding the right place to stand.”

At her command, the turbolift continued toward the bridge. As the door opened, Janeway could see the bright curve of Planetary Subunit 381.7.6 on the viewscreen. She walked to the captain’s chair and sat down. Beside her, Chakotay looked like a cat that had just eaten a whole flock of canaries.

Seventy-two transwarp coils, Janeway thought. She still couldn’t believe it.

“Ensign, it’s time we were on our way home.”

At the helm, Ensign Julia Bonner had already set a course for Earth.