The Nature of Reality

Every journey has a destination, a point at which it reaches a logical conclusion. Every task culminates in either success or failure. There can be no compromises, no flaws tolerated, on the path to perfection.

By all objective standards — and Seven of Nine knew no others — the arrival of the Starship Voyager at its destination of Earth had been an unqualified success. Captain Janeway’s heroic undertaking to return the ship and its occupants safely to Federation space had accomplished that goal. Voyager’s crew had been reunited with their families. Thus, full compliance with all specifications of the designated task had been achieved.

It was of little import that one insignificant civilian officially known as Annika Hansen could now find neither purpose nor structure to her meaningless life. Completion of the journey was all that mattered.

Although she had expected to be scheduled for endless debriefings and medical tests, which would at least have given her something to do, Seven discovered instead that Starfleet had little use for her. The Borg resistance had liberated a large number of drones who now sought sanctuary in Federation space. All of them could provide Starfleet Intelligence with more recent and more relevant information concerning the Collective. Seven of Nine was, in all literal truth, yesterday’s news.

“We could really use your help with the resettlement of the Borg drones.” The fat admiral sitting across the desk spoke in a tone that Seven had to categorize as pleading. No doubt it had been difficult to find Federation citizens who felt sufficiently comfortable in the presence of ex-drones to be willing to render such assistance. She had already encountered many humans who found her proximity threatening. From the way the admiral was squirming, she assumed that he was another.

“I’ll give full consideration to the opportunity.” She spoke in a cool, neutral tone, having learned diplomacy from one of the best. Captain Kathryn Janeway of Voyager, who was still, even now, always, of Voyager.

Kathryn. Deep within her consciousness, Seven of Nine silently caressed the name she had never ventured to speak aloud. Kathryn, who was now waiting impatiently for the completion of Voyager’s refit at Utopia Planitia and the assignment of another crew. A crew that would not include the unimportant civilian Annika Hansen.

Civilian by her own choice, Seven reminded herself again. She could have enlisted in Starfleet or sought admission to the Academy, but that would not have brought her any closer to the object of her foolish desires. The fiercely ethical Captain Kathryn Janeway would certainly never allow herself to indulge in an inappropriate romantic relationship with an enlistee or a junior officer.

The only chance she had to become Kathryn’s lover, Seven of Nine had logically concluded as Voyager drew nearer to Earth, was as a civilian. Accordingly, she had refused all attempts to persuade her to study for admission to Starfleet Academy, hoping instead that Kathryn would choose to stay with her on Earth.

It had been a futile hope.

She had never even dared to confess her love, her completely insane, irrational love, to the forever unattainable Kathryn.

Hope was irrelevant. Love was irrelevant.

Nothing mattered.

She left the admiral’s office uttering polite platitudes dredged up from her extensive compilation of human inanities. Her heels clacked along the corridor with mechanical precision. She pretended that she didn’t notice the stares and muttering from several officers who plainly would have preferred not to see a Borg inside Starfleet Command headquarters. None of what they thought or said mattered, either.

“Seven. They told me you would be here.”

At first she thought she had imagined the familiar husky voice, had lost her senses finally and completely. But as she turned, Seven saw that Kathryn Janeway was indeed standing there beside her. Impossible dreams raced through her mind as she forced her betraying face into a mask of tight control.

“The refit of Voyager is complete,” Kathryn continued, “and the ship now has a full crew complement. I’ve just received my orders, and we’ll be leaving tomorrow. Of course, I didn’t want to go without saying good-bye to you. Your friendship has meant a lot to me, and I wish you all the best in the future.”

Seven took the captain’s offered hand without a word, trying not to notice its warmth and the tingle that ran through her body at Kathryn’s touch. So this, in the end, was what it all came down to. Have a nice life, Seven of Nine. Of course I don’t need you. No one needs you.

“I understand you’ve been offered a position with the resettlement program for the Delta Quadrant refugees.”

The drones, Seven thought, as her empty hand fell back to her side like a dead thing. How like Kathryn to speak of them as individuals.

Somehow she managed to make polite conversation, to talk about how well the others of Voyager’s original crew had been doing. Mercifully, they didn’t talk for long. Kathryn, as always, had other things to do.

Seven had enough dignity not to stand there watching the captain walk away. That was an image she had no desire to store in her permanent memory files. Instead, she turned toward the main entrance and focused on removing her visitor’s badge, which she would need to return to the security guard at the front desk. Without her Voyager combadge, she still felt as if her chest had lost a vital component.

The doors slid open to expel her into a steady rain driven by a raw winter wind off the bay. At one time San Francisco had briefly experimented with climate control, but most of the residents had protested vociferously, insisting that they loved their natural weather. Seven of Nine couldn’t begin to imagine why.

Although she had taken public transit to the building, a considerably more efficient method of transportation than walking, Seven passed the station and continued on foot. The rain and the dark gloom seemed appropriate to her mood, and there was nowhere she needed to be.

The bridge loomed out of the fog before she consciously realized that it had been her destination. Now known as the Golden Gate Historical Landmark, it was open only to pedestrians and bicyclists. The bridge in summer swarmed with visitors and tour guides. On this rainy March afternoon, darkening toward evening, there wasn’t so much as one individual to be seen.

She knew there was a more sinister history to the bridge, exemplified by the tall safety fences with which it had been surrounded until the most recent reconstruction. Earth was now widely considered to be such a paradise that there was no need for such precautions. Poverty no longer existed, and no mental illness went untreated. San Francisco hadn’t had a suicide in over a century.

It seemed almost a pity to break that record.

Seven of Nine approached the midway point of the bridge, which still appeared entirely deserted. Her optical sensors picked up no movement in either direction. Yes, it was fitting, she thought as she began to climb the low railing, that she should die alone.

She stood atop the slick rail, staring down into the deep gloom below, as the last light faded. Automatically her Borg brain calculated the impact vectors of her insignificant body’s fall into its oblivion. The nanoprobes would not be able to repair what little remained of its organic components. Kathryn Janeway, far away with Voyager and her new crew, would no doubt send very proper regrets to the funeral before forgetting about her erstwhile protegee entirely.

Somewhere in the fog in front of her, a gull screeched. Seven caught a flicker of movement at the edge of her peripheral vision. She turned her head to see a woman’s figure in a large hat and flowing cloak emerging from the mist. Just a moment earlier, there had been only an empty sidewalk.

It came as no surprise to her that these Federation individuals who claimed her as one of their own would not even let her die without interference. The Borg had not allowed their captives that option, either.

“Do not approach any nearer.” Seven lifted one foot from the railing and stood in precarious balance. “Your foolish rescue attempt will fail. I have enhanced strength. You will not be able to restrain me.”

“I’ve gotten too old for heroics, and they have a nasty tendency not to turn out the way one intends. So you’ll just have to step down yourself.” The low, distinctive voice, although very different from Kathryn’s, nevertheless had an authoritative tone that reminded Seven of her impossible love.

A faint reflection glinted off a Starfleet combadge attached to the cloak. The stranger raised a dark hand slightly, indicating the badge.

“My ship has a transporter lock on you, Ms. Hansen. If you try to jump, you’ll be beamed to the Enterprise’s sickbay, sedated, and transferred to a psychiatric hospital. I believe you would find it much easier and more pleasant simply to walk off this bridge with me.”

Defeated and knowing it, Seven obediently took the woman’s offered hand and stepped down to the sidewalk. Without a word, she began to follow the stranger toward the fog-shrouded shore. The dark hand still clasped hers, leading her as if she had been a small child in the care of a teacher or parent.

“I don’t know you.”

Seven didn’t realize she had spoken aloud until the woman answered.

“Guinan.”

No rank, Seven noted, but surely this dominating woman had to be an officer. She ventured, “You must be the ship’s counselor.”

“The bartender, actually.” A faint tinge of amusement crept into Guinan’s voice. “I have often thought there’s quite a bit of overlap in our positions.”

Several cars stood empty at the public transit station next to the bridge. Guinan led Seven into one of them, gave her destination to the computer, and gently released Seven’s hand as the car hummed into quiet motion along the rails. Streetlights cast a watery glimmer through the rain-streaked windows.

“It’s a hard task, learning to live in a new world,” Guinan observed, her dark eyes glancing up from beneath the wide brim of her hat. “When the Borg attacked my world, there were many among us who resorted to suicide rather than accepting the reality of a choice between assimilation and exile. Some who chose to die were people I loved dearly.”

Sitting in her cold and dripping clothes, Seven felt herself shivering involuntarily. Goosebumps prickled across her skin, and her nipples felt like tight shrunken knots. She tried to tell herself that external conditions were irrelevant to a properly configured cybernetic organism, but several adjustments to her autonomic control system couldn’t quite suppress the shivering.

“In the years since then, I’ve found many reasons to be glad that I made a different choice,” Guinan went on, her gaze drifting past Seven into the darkness beyond the window. “I’ve come to love this city, rain and all, and my friends aboard the Enterprise mean more to me than I can say.”

The car began to slow as it approached a station in front of a four-story apartment building with what looked like an authentic twentieth-century brick fa├žade. You don’t understand, Seven thought. This is the third time I’ve lost my world.

“I suppose you’ll be returning to your ship now.” Her tone bordering on accusation, Seven turned away from Guinan as the doors opened at the apartment building’s main entrance. The rain had lessened, becoming more of a light mist.

“No, I still have another three weeks of shore leave while the Enterprise is stationed at Alpha Centauri.”

Even the mist was enough to start Seven of Nine shivering again. She followed Guinan into the building’s brightly lit foyer, where she found herself surrounded by an incongruous mixture of Klingon warrior statues and potted palms.

“You told me that your ship was in orbit with a transporter lock on me.”

“A slight bending of the truth in the interest of efficiency.” Guinan stopped at the second apartment on the right and began removing her cloak as the door opened. Underneath it, she looked perfectly attired in her long gown, as if she had been attending some formal occasion instead of walking through the city streets on a nasty winter’s day. Seven was acutely aware of her own bedraggled appearance, which by now had to resemble the proverbial drowned rodent. She still couldn’t quite manage to stop shivering.

“You can take off your wet clothing in my bedroom, Ms. Hansen, and there’s a comfortable robe in the closet. Do you mind if I call you Annika?”

Seven realized once again just how much she loathed the meaningless childhood name to which she’d answered since her arrival, all in the interest of conforming to Federation norms. The attempt had been futile. She would never be human.

“My name is Seven of Nine.”

Guinan’s eyes spoke eloquently in response to that, but she said only, “All right.”

The bedroom door closed behind Seven, leaving her alone for the moment as she stripped off her sodden clothes. She found herself welcoming and hating the solitude at the same time. I don’t need to be here, she thought, staring at a vase of bright purple orchids on Guinan’s night table. I don’t need to be anywhere.

She wrapped the robe around herself and, almost at once, began to feel warmer inside its thick folds. A comfortable material, indeed. Not that she needed comfort. She flung her wet clothes into the refresher and opened the bedroom door.

Guinan now stood behind a well-stocked bar in the living room, pouring a glass of some pale reddish liquid. She held it out as Seven approached. “Here, this should warm you up.”

“I cannot drink beverages containing alcohol.”

“This is a Betazoid herbal tonic. Completely non-alcoholic.”

Seven took a tentative sip, finding that the drink was sweet and fruity, with a slight bitter aftertaste. Acceptable, she decided, and finished off the rest of it.

“It contains a mild hallucinogen often used in vision quests, especially those involving romantic matters.”

Now that intrusion was inexcusable. Seven of Nine slammed her glass down hard enough so that if it had indeed been glass, instead of the more durable transparent metal alloys commonly used, it would unquestionably have shattered. She took a step toward Guinan and glared at her.

“I do not require psychoactive drugs, alien religious rituals, or invasion of my privacy.” Then she focused on the last part of what Guinan had said. “Romantic matters? What made you think so?”

“After several centuries as a bartender, I’ve developed an intuition for such things.” Guinan returned a wry smile. “So, who is he, if I may ask?”

“She. And I do not intend to discuss her.”

That rebuff didn’t seem to trouble Guinan, who stepped out from behind the bar and walked toward a couch embroidered in warm flowing patterns. She beckoned for Seven to join her there.

“The Betazoid vision quest isn’t so much a religious ritual as it is a form of meditation, a method of emotional focusing. Have you had any experience with meditation?”

“Certain members of Voyager’s crew attempted to instruct me in their preferred forms of meditation.” Seven stood stiffly beside the couch. “Their efforts were unsuccessful.”

“It’s not a question of success or failure. Whatever you learn on the inward journey is already a part of you.” Without asking for permission, Guinan began to remove Seven’s hairpins and gently toweled dry the damp blonde hair. “Sit down right here, and I’ll show you how to begin.”

Seven took a mental tally. So far, this insufferable bartender had lied to her, deliberately drugged her, and shown a complete disregard for individual privacy of which any drone in the Collective might be proud. The logical course of action would be to retrieve her clothing and leave immediately.

“It’s all right to stand, if you’ll find that more comfortable,” Guinan went on, as she put down the towel. Her hands slid under the robe’s thick collar and began to massage Seven’s shoulders. “Now close your eyes and picture the woman who’s been troubling your thoughts. Imagine yourself having a conversation with her, just as if she were right here in this room.”

That sounded harmless enough, Seven decided, and she didn’t want to leave so quickly that Guinan would decide it was necessary to report her mental instability to the authorities. A few minutes of playing along with this farce would probably be the wisest choice. She closed her eyes.

“Very well. I am recalling a mental image.”

“No, don’t recall something that’s past history. Imagine.” Guinan raised her voice emphatically. “Imagine that she’s here now, looking straight at you, or perhaps standing at the bar and pouring herself a glass of wine. Now she’s begun to say something to you. What is she saying?”

This was beyond absurdity. A mental construct, no matter how precisely extrapolated, could not initiate a conversation. Seven briefly considered the possibility that she had fallen into the hands of a psychopath, although she had to admit the warm fingers still comfortably massaging her shoulders didn’t feel as if they intended any injury. She opened her eyes again.

“Not everything can be explained by logic.” Kathryn Janeway, wearing a casual blouse and pants, stepped out of the kitchen with a full cup of coffee in her hand. “After all we went through in the Delta Quadrant, I would have thought you’d learned that by now.”

Kathryn walked toward the bar. Her chest rose and fell in the normal rhythm of breathing. Even the coffee smelled like real coffee. None of this could be real. But Guinan couldn’t have started a holographic program without knowing what woman to simulate. A drug-induced hallucination, then. The appropriate response would be to run a diagnostic on her sensory pathways in order to identify and correct the malfunction.

She found herself looking at error codes she’d never even seen before.

“You are not real,” Seven of Nine informed the captain’s image.

“I’m not going to argue the nature of reality with you, Seven. I’m here, in this room. Deal with it.” Kathryn raised her coffee cup to her lips, sipped slowly as if enjoying the taste, and put the cup down at the end of the bar.

Seven reached toward the cup and found it hot and solid against her fingers.

“And you have a lot of explaining to do,” Kathryn continued in the familiar acerbic tone, hands firmly planted on her hips. “I didn’t bring you across half the galaxy so that you could jump off a goddamned bridge. Now, what do you have to say for yourself?”

I am no longer a member of your crew, Seven thought in response, her full lips pressed shut. You can’t demand explanations from me, either in real life or in this meaningless hallucination.

“I’m waiting.” Kathryn folded her arms across her chest.

“Continue to wait. You are irrelevant,” Seven retorted, closing her eyes again so that she would not have to endure the sight of this intolerably perfect simulation. She could still detect the aroma of Kathryn’s imaginary coffee as Guinan’s hands withdrew from her shoulders. She had never felt so alone.

Hands touched her once more, this time from the front, as Kathryn firmly seized her shoulders. Seven reluctantly opened her eyes to find the captain’s image confronting her once more. This couldn’t go on. She had to find a way to stop it. Perhaps a complete shutdown and restart of all her sensory systems would purge the image. Seven attempted to initiate the restart sequence, only to find that her control processor was not responding to command.

“I’m not going to let you weasel out that easily.” Kathryn’s tone was low and ominous. “On Voyager, I’d have thrown you in the brig until you came to your senses. Unfortunately, that isn’t one of my options at the moment. So we’re just going to stand here like this until you decide to answer my questions, for as long as it takes.”

That can’t be true, Seven thought. Any form of hallucinogen has a limited effective time. If I wait long enough, she’ll simply vanish.

“You’ll find I can be very patient,” Kathryn went on. “That’s something you should already know. When I took you from the Collective, I resolved to do whatever was necessary, no matter how long it might take, to restore you to your full humanity. For a time, I thought my effort had succeeded. I want you to tell me where I went wrong.”

Nowhere, Seven thought. And everywhere.

And I can’t say that.

“Don’t touch me.” Her control cracked, shattered. “Kathryn. Please.”

You’re my collective.

I’ve lost you.

“So that’s how it is.” Kathryn lifted her hands from Seven’s shoulders, moving as carefully as if her small, soft fingers might somehow be transformed into deadly weapons. “I noticed that you seemed to have feelings for me, but I expected you’d have gotten over them by now. A girl’s first crush doesn’t usually last long.”

Seven gazed past the captain’s image without replying. A mirrored clock on the far wall showed her reflection standing alone, face slightly flushed and hair curling around her shoulders. This isn’t real, she told herself again. None of this is real.

The clock ticked softly as if counting away her life.

Kathryn sighed. “I’ve been through all this with Chakotay. There are many reasons why a captain can’t become romantically involved with a member of her crew. Ethical as well as practical. Especially on such a long journey. I had to maintain a certain emotional distance. Now that we’re home, I can’t suddenly change the way I feel.”

Seven stared at the coffee cup, watching the steam rise from it. Her vision had become slightly blurred, and she blinked twice. Such an emotional reaction was completely inappropriate, she told herself firmly. Especially in response to this insignificant projection from the depths of her own imagination.

“Sweetheart, you’re a lovely young woman. I’m sure you’ll find someone who can cherish you and be a part of you, forever, in many ways that I can’t. You’re not to blame, and you’re certainly not worthless. If there’s any fault here, it’s mine.”

“I don’t want someone else.” The bitterness crept into Seven’s voice despite her best attempt at control. “You’re all that I want.”

“But I’m not what you need.”

A bright flash of red traced a path across the room, tiny wings beating. Her mind classified it automatically. A Terran avian species known as a cardinal, not normally found in human living quarters. It alighted on the edge of the bar, tucked its wings neatly against its body, and turned one bright eye toward Seven of Nine.

“Trust yourself,” Kathryn continued, reaching past the bird — which didn’t move at all in response — to pick up her coffee cup again. “And trust the universe, Seven. Everything that you need is already waiting for you.”

The bird’s gaze was still fixed on Seven as if it had come expressly to give her some message. But I don’t understand, Seven thought. Then she realized that perhaps she did, after all.

“Reality is mutable.” Seven closed her fingers around the bird, and it abruptly vanished in a rainbow of sparkling droplets that tingled across her palm. Kathryn stood sipping coffee without a word.

“And I should be capable of controlling the course of this hallucination.” It all seemed perfectly logical now. Seven reached toward Kathryn and pulled the captain into a firm embrace. “I want you to make love to me.”

The strength of her grasp would probably have broken several bones if the object of her affections had been a real person. Instead, the image blurred and shimmered before coalescing into another, changed Kathryn, one with half-closed eyes who was panting in excitement and leaning eagerly into her kiss.

“Mmm,” this new Kathryn breathed against Seven’s questing lips. “I just love an aggressive partner. I’ve never wanted anyone more than you, Seven.”

There was no way this could be real, under any definition of the word, but Seven of Nine found that she no longer cared. She let the robe fall to the floor as Kathryn’s hands roamed deliciously over her body, leaving hot trails of arousal in their wake. An involuntary whimper escaped her lips.

The captain’s head dipped toward Seven’s breasts, encircling them with gentle kisses. This wasn’t right. Too soft, human, inefficient. Seven’s cybernetic hand tangled itself in the loose brown hair and forced Kathryn to her knees.

“You will service me.”

Kathryn submissively complied, her tongue seeking the core of Seven’s pleasure. Impossible that anything could feel so good. Surely this had to be more than a simple fulfillment of primitive instinct. Seven of Nine felt herself transformed into an overpowering force of nature, a tidal wave, a volcano in eruption, a star gone nova.

She closed her eyes as the flood of delight coursed through her body and radiated outward, shattering Kathryn’s kneeling form and dissolving it into nonexistence.

But of course Kathryn had never been there.

As she opened her eyes again, Seven became aware that she was standing naked in the middle of Guinan’s living room with the robe in a heap around her feet. Her body was covered with sweat, in defiance of her normal Borg ability to regulate her internal temperature, and her thighs felt damp and sticky.

Guinan sat quietly on the couch sipping tea. A small plate of cookies, in assorted shapes, now inhabited the end table right next to a saucer.

Tea and crumpets have been served for milady’s peep show, Seven thought furiously, as she picked up the robe and wrapped it around a body that no longer felt like her own.

“I suppose you will now expect me to perform a sexual act on you.”

Guinan’s expression held a trace of sadness. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Do you always behave like this with young women you meet in your bar?” Seven flung that sarcastic accusation over her shoulder as she stormed toward the bedroom to collect her clothing.

“I give them what they ask for. Or what they need. Which is not always the same thing.” Guinan took another sip of tea and then set down the cup. “Most people don’t respond with such, ah, youthful exuberance.”

Seven could feel a hot blush starting and forced herself to suppress that foolish human response. As the bedroom door closed, she could hear Guinan adding, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

She cleaned herself up and got dressed. Her hair fell loosely around her shoulders as if mocking her loss of control; the pins were still in the living room, right next to Guinan’s tea. Rather than have to ask for them, Seven read the pattern into the replicator and directed it to produce more hairpins.

With her body restored to its usual configuration, Seven began to feel almost normal again, although she still had the impression of having lost something that could never be replaced. She opened the bedroom door and strode out to confront Guinan. “Shame is irrelevant.”

“Of course it is.” Although her voice sounded conversational, the lines of sadness on the older woman’s face deepened.

Seven had already turned toward the door before she gave much thought to where she was going. There wasn’t much doubt as to what Kathryn would want her to do. She found herself wondering which of the two imaginary Kathryns had been more real, and whether it mattered.

Standing in the doorway, she informed Guinan crisply, “You need not worry about my intentions. I will be assisting in the relocation of Borg refugees.” Then she left the apartment before Guinan could say a word in response.

The apartment lobby was deserted, except for the gleaming ceramic eyes of the Klingon warrior statues that seemed to regard her with approval. A warrior, Seven thought, does not fear being alone.

She stepped out of the building and felt the cool mist against her skin.

Silhouetted against the emptiness of the street, an unexpected but familiar red shape perched on a wrought iron railing. The cardinal turned a dark and sparkling eye toward her.

Was it real? Did it matter?

And Seven of Nine, much to her surprise, smiled.