Twice into the Same River

Download interrupted. Regeneration cycle incomplete.

Input failure.

Visual functions activated. Visual input: major malfunction detected: specifically, the other four drones aboard this scout ship are sprawled unconscious on the deck. Six armed intruders are on board, all of them former drones with most of their cybernetic implants removed.

One of them approaches and speaks.

“You are human. We will take you to Voyager.”

Human. Species 5618. Irrelevant.

“We are Borg.”

Vocal speech mediated by visual contact, an inefficient method of communication.

The intruder evidently has no interest in any further argument on the subject. He raises his weapon and fires.

*****

Reinitialization complete. Configuration files significantly modified to reflect major system changes.

Primary visual sensor is off line. Secondary input enabled: modification noted: this body now has two organic eyes.

Looking up at the lights on the ceiling in a Federation starship: Voyager’s sickbay. Four faces gazing down: two human, one Vulcan: spectral analysis of the other indicates that it is a holographic projection.

A familiar human face with a captain’s uniform. Kathryn Janeway. I first met her when she was a lieutenant serving aboard . . .

Incorrect syntax. File access error. Irrelevant data.

Janeway smiles and holds out her hand. “We’re all very glad to have you with us aboard Voyager, Captain La Forge.”

Human greeting sequence. To reciprocate while in a recumbent position is disfavored. Sitting up on the bio-bed, extending a hand in response. Only then does it become apparent that all of the skin covering this body has been restored to its original dark brown color.

“We’re going to contact Earth five days from now,” Janeway continues. “Your husband and children will be thrilled to learn that you’re alive.”

Children. Offspring of a sentient species. Faulty data input. The Borg do not procreate.

And then I can see Geordi’s face in my mind as clearly as if he were standing right there in the room.

“Processing error.” My voice is an awkward croak in my ears. All at once I am human, frail, inferior. An individual.

“I realize it’s difficult to adjust.” Janeway’s tone is sympathetic. “We’ll do everything that we can to help. You’re not the only person on Voyager who’s been through this.”

Person. A descriptor sometimes applied to a discrete unit of a lesser species. Never used to designate a component of the Collective.

Anomalous function noted: maintenance required: the reconfiguration of visual machinery fails to meet acceptable standards. Drones are incapable of crying. The tears feel cold against my face, a strange and impossible sensation.

I look at my hands again, their smooth brown outlines blurring as my inefficient new visual input structures follow them up into human wrists. I am not a drone.

*****

Late afternoon sunlight slants through the branches of the huge tree on Holodeck One, which is a Delta Quadrant species resembling a sequoia, but twice as big. The shadows trace their precise embroidery across the soft forest floor in which my bare toes are planted. Bright imperfect biological patterns. I can’t remember ever having seen anything more beautiful.

I’ve been discovering minor miracles all over Voyager: the delicious taste of the carrot slices in a replicated bowl of chicken soup, the light sound of a young girl’s laughter, the two ensigns completely at ease as they stand in the corridor busily gossiping about their boyfriends . . .

“Touch the tree,” urges the Talaxian standing beside me. “Its strong flow of life energy will restore your spiritual balance.”

That sequoia is made of photons and force fields, I find myself thinking, and the only significant energy flowing through this body is in the form of Borg circuitry that can’t be removed. Your misplaced religious rituals are irrelevant.

I realize that I have no idea why I exist.

But I touch the tree anyway, in what proves to be a futile endeavor to locate a lost human attribute called hope.

*****

The newly replicated Starfleet uniform feels strange covering the biological organism that has become my body, like something carried over into real life from a dream. I notice a few sidelong glances from certain members of the crew who seem to consider a Borg in captain’s clothing the equivalent of the proverbial wolf. You could have it worse, I think, passing their hard closed stares in the corridors. Your body could be decorated with these charming cybernetic ornaments, too.

To be fair to Voyager’s excellent holographic Doctor, everything that could reasonably be removed has been, leaving only one remaining Borg implant visible on the right side of my face. All the other cybernetics are hidden beneath the uniform that I wear like a new suit of armor, effectively deflecting any potential human attacks of camaraderie.

I understand why Seven of Nine welcomes the isolation of the cargo bay, but that obviously isn’t an option for a Starfleet officer. I’ve been assigned a guest suite adjacent to the senior officers’ quarters. Under normal circumstances, these rooms would be reserved for visiting dignitaries, ambassadors and the like. They’re very comfortable, providing another reminder of my uncertain status. Voyager definitely doesn’t need two captains.

One hour, twelve minutes, and 38.8 seconds until we’re able to communicate with the Alpha Quadrant. I still haven’t recorded a message for my family, in part because I’ve been able to retrieve very little memory of them. Small fuzzy distant images mix jarringly with the crisp data sequences stored in my Borg files. I recognize all of the faces, identifying each individual with mechanical precision, but the emotional content is gone. I remember Geordi with an ache that almost shades into human sentiment; we were always very close. For the others, I feel nothing.

I determine that my familiarity with human cliches and platitudes will suffice for the construction of an acceptable message. Image recorder activated. Cheerful smile, or facsimile thereof, likewise activated. Looking forward so much to seeing all of you again, I tell the insubstantial ghosts from a past that I take on faith belongs to me.

When I’ve finished, I run the message through a syntax checker designed for students of English as a foreign language. The program promptly identifies three sentences in which my phrasing is more Borg than human. Revision is easily accomplished. An image editor proves adequate to remove the cybernetic implant from the picture of my face. Now the image on the screen is a perfect representation of a woman who no longer exists, which should please the ghosts.

The door chime calls for my attention just as I’m about to save the final draft of my message. I don’t find it intrusive. Seven years in the Borg Collective can’t be expected to leave a person/discrete unit of a lesser species/former drone with much of a requirement for privacy.

“Come in.”

Kathryn Janeway enters the room. Her gaze lingers on the altered image still visible on the screen, but she doesn’t remark on it.

I press the button to save the godforsaken file, and the image mercifully disappears.

“Captain La Forge, I stopped by to ask if you were ready to send your message to Earth. I think it’s only fair yours should go first.” The warm, husky voice touches my now-alien ears like the perfect vibrations of rose quartz in the sunlight. Another of Voyager’s many miracles, I think, as the resonance of it surrounds me. But I speak too quickly, and the crystal aura shatters.

“Call me Silva, and the answer is yes.” I’m not the captain of anything, I tell myself viciously. A captured ship and an assimilated crew. She shouldn’t be talking to this former component of the Borg Collective as an equal. I ought to be down in the galley, applying my inestimable talents to peeling Neelix’s vegetables.

“And you can call me Kathryn.” She smiles in response, so naturally, as if she’s somehow managed to find my company enjoyable. I stare at that easy smile with poorly concealed envy. Although my facial muscles are still capable of constructing the expression, it feels like a laboratory exercise in anatomical function.

“Kathryn,” I repeat in an acceptably polite tone, with the smile function once more on display. No one can fault my flawless simulation of a human being.

But I know better.

*****

It’s not long before Voyager’s comfortable guest quarters get on my nerves, or perhaps it would be equally accurate to say my circuits. Even in my distant human past, I never could stand days with nothing to do, and the word leisure isn’t even in the Collective’s vocabulary.

I perversely proceed to decorate the regeneration alcove in my quarters with a lovely fa├žade of twenty-first-century pink plastic and fake flowers. Barbie’s Borg Playhouse. It’s a damn good thing Voyager doesn’t have a ship’s counselor, not that I have any duties for which I could be declared unfit.

Irrelevant piece of junk, I snarl, as I throw another strand of plastic ivy on top. Still haven’t gotten a reply from the human strangers who used to be my family. Less than three hours remain before the communications link is terminated. Not that it matters whether or not they answer me, but it would be nice, in a pathetic inferior emotional human way, to know that someone in the universe gives a shit.

To convince myself that I’m not an entirely meaningless biological organism wasting the ship’s resources, I go down to Engineering and ask Lieutenant Torres if there’s anything useful I can do. Torres nods, unsurprised by the question; she’s evidently familiar with the Borg compulsion to be busy at all times. She hands me a toolbox and sends me off to a Jeffries tube between decks seven and eight, where a plasma flow valve is in need of recalibration.

But somehow it’s worse than before, working alone with nothing but the sound of the ship’s engines to break the silence. My thoughts begin to fill with dark and distant voices, the coldly efficient harmonies of the Collective. As I complete the task and put away the tools, I find that my hand in the toolbox has been transformed into a drone’s pale hand. Precise, deliberate, moving without reflection or choice, the drone’s hand reaches into the living body of a captive in the assimilation chamber, removes an organ and inserts a biomechanical replacement.

I squeeze my eyes tightly shut against the sight, and the fact that I have two eyes to shut convinces me that I’m really here on Voyager. The collective voices begin to recede, and Voyager’s walls close in around me again.

I ask myself: How many assimilations . . .

When the inhuman cortical processor that still inhabits my skull calmly returns an exact five-digit answer, I wonder if I ought to just step off the rung and let myself fall to the bottom of the Jeffries tube.

Fortunately my combadge buzzes at that moment, and the cheerful young human voice at the other end of the link announces, “Mail call.”

*****

Back in my quarters, I have messages from thirteen relatives: a baker’s dozen or an unlucky number, however you care to look at it. First up is my husband. I discover he’s now my ex, having married a much younger woman soon after I was declared dead. Although he doesn’t actually come right out and admit he was sleeping with her all along, just because the Borg reconfigured my cerebral cortex doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

I decide that I’ve had more than enough of him — too bad I didn’t think so years ago — and move on to the next message. Geordi glows on the screen, more excited than I’ve ever seen him. I notice that he no longer needs to wear his VISOR; medical science must have advanced considerably in recent years.

“I knew you were alive,” Geordi keeps repeating, his words tumbling over one another in a barely coherent rush. “All the others gave up hope, but I knew you were still alive. I knew.”

It’s obvious that he doesn’t have any idea what I am. Alive . . . well, maybe, although that somewhat stretches the definition.

*****

Kathryn Janeway invites me to dinner in her quarters, which is presumably her idea of a private counseling session. Can’t say I blame her. My unbalanced mental condition has probably been obvious to the entire crew since I was first brought on board, and Neelix’s attempt at Talaxian tree therapy didn’t accomplish much.

Dinner consists of replicated shrimp and rice in some kind of cinnamon-cranberry-tomato sauce. I’m fairly well accustomed to human food by now, so I partake appreciatively and without pausing to calculate the statistical probability of unmentionable Borg digestive problems. Which at least would give me an excuse to avoid enduring amateur night at the counselor’s.

“For years, we were completely out of contact with the Federation,” Kathryn tells me in her rose-quartz voice, cleverly making it sound as if this conversation isn’t about me at all. “It’s wonderful to be able to communicate with our families again.”

Of course, she carefully avoids asking what sort of communication I received from mine. Not that I care if she knows. Privacy is an irrelevant human indulgence, after all.

I finish the last of the shrimp, which was quite excellent, and inform Kathryn, “I got a Dear John letter.” She’s welcome to counsel me all she wants about the unimportant state of my matrimonial affairs. And if she gets overly tedious, I can always tell her that I have to go regenerate in Barbie’s Playhouse.

“I know what that’s like,” Kathryn replies in a fervent tone that makes it plain something similar happened to her. “That’s men for you. Out of sight, out of mind. I’d much rather have a good starship than a man. At least you know you can count on your ship to be there for you.”

Well, yes, that’s probably true. Unless you do something stupid like letting your ship and crew get assimilated.

“And if you feel like you want a man,” Kathryn continues in quite a cheerful tone, “the holodeck can always construct one for you.”

I picture myself enjoying conjugal bliss with an anatomically correct holographic Ken doll and bust out laughing. Kathryn’s unconventional attempt at therapy may have had some worthwhile results after all. Then the laughter changes unexpectedly into tears, and I go on crying, completely unable to control myself.

“I lost my ship,” I bawl against Kathryn’s comforting shoulder, sounding like a toddler with a missing toy. “I’ll never command a ship again.”

She pats me on the back and brings a pot of coffee, which seems to be her all-purpose solution to life’s woes. I have my doubts as to how much caffeine my Borg metabolism can handle, but I take a small sip, enjoying the familiar aroma.

“Picard kept his command,” Kathryn points out, as we sit together on the couch. “Starfleet isn’t going to treat you like a medieval leper. Experienced captains are hard to come by. Speaking as one former drone to another, I don’t think we have anything to worry about on that score.”

“Your little weekend holiday in the Collective doesn’t count for a damn thing. Fucking tourist,” I snap, the sudden rush of anger intertwined with another emotion even less logical.

Kathryn sets down her coffee cup and covers my hand with her own. I feel the warmth of her body beside mine and realize that this is all the forgiveness I need.

You foolish, inconsequential old woman, I tell myself.

*****

Kathryn places me on the duty roster and assigns me to work alpha shift in Astrometrics with Seven of Nine. Of course, Seven doesn’t actually require any assistance, but standard protocol calls for two crew members at this post on each shift. The nervous young ensign previously assigned to this duty appears pathetically grateful for her deliverance from it. Seven’s ongoing quest for efficiency seems to have reached legendary proportions.

I find that we can work productively together; but if Seven is supposed to be sharing the accumulated wisdom of her experiences as a former drone, she’s being very subtle about it. Most of the time Astrometrics is completely silent, as we speak only when the need for communication arises. I find it a considerable relief not having to concern myself with polite conversation and pointless smiles.

I continue to have dinner with Kathryn regularly, two or three times a week. Ship’s gossip seems to be about evenly split as to whether she’s counseling me or dating me. Although I find our encounters pleasant, I’m not certain how to describe them, either.

My days pass slowly, filled with imaginary crystal harmonies. The real Kathryn seems both achingly close and unattainable. I wonder whether I still have the emotional capacity to love anyone.

Seven catches me daydreaming and lectures me at length on my lack of efficiency, showing no deference whatsoever to my Starfleet rank. By the Collective’s impossible standard of perfection, I suppose I must be somewhat of a disappointment to her. She’d probably been expecting another flawless drone, like herself.

I console the inefficient human part of me by planning an elaborate dinner to share with Kathryn. Greek food: what would have been a lamb slowly roasted on a spit, except that replicator technology now allows us to be kinder and gentler in our dealings with animals. A salad drizzled with olive oil and garlic. Pita sandwiches with cheese, tomato, and olives. Dried figs. A plate of baklava dripping with orange-blossom honey. No ouzo, given the Borg intolerance for alcohol, but then I never cared much for ouzo anyway. Iced tea will be just fine, I decide.

By the time I’ve finished loading the generously sized table in my quarters with what looks like enough food for an entire Greek village, Kathryn is one point eight minutes late and I’ve used up every scrap of my replicator rations.

She breezes in, still in uniform, and sighs. “Diplomacy. I’m so damned tired of having to negotiate for safe passage with every egotistical minor potentate in the quadrant.” The expression on her face is surely something that’s never been seen on the bridge.

And she’s beautiful all the same, I think; but I confine myself to observing neutrally, “You look none the worse for wear.”

Now she smiles. “The sight of this wonderful dinner has me feeling better already.” She sits down and begins to eat as heartily as any Greek peasant from olden times.

I think of lambs in slaughterhouses and young children in Borg maturation chambers; and as I take up a forkful of meat, I’m very glad that it was produced by the modern miracles of science.

Kathryn is clearly enjoying the food, and I watch her eat with housewifely pride, although I did nothing but enter the specifications into the replicator. I find myself wondering whether housewives a few centuries ago felt that they hadn’t done much work when they bought their meat already prepared, instead of having to kill and gut it.

I hear echoes of collective voices in dark corners of my thoughts, mocking the irrelevance of my human musings. Go away, I tell them, you’re not really here. I pick up a piece of baklava and distract myself with a fantasy of Kathryn walking with me on a Mediterranean beach. Maybe the holodeck has a suitable program . . .

Kathryn finishes eating and gets up from the table to wash her hands. She passes by the bedroom door and notices the regeneration alcove, now adorned with cute little balconies and castle turrets, and flanked closely by fake palm trees. A plastic monkey hangs from one of the trees, holding a coconut.

“Silva, what the hell is this?”

“The home of Drone Barbie,” I explain, wiping my hands with my napkin and standing up. “Instead of a hairbrush, she comes with a generous assortment of interchangeable snap-on cybernetic parts.”

“Bullshit,” Kathryn declares immediately, looking angrier than I’ve ever seen her. “There are no drones on my ship. You’re a human being, not a toy for the Collective’s amusement. The next time I come in here, I don’t want to see one molecule of pink plastic. Is that understood?”

Now she’s in my face just as if she were lecturing some inept ensign on a thoughtless error. There’s a crumb of baklava at the corner of her mouth, and her lips look like a wonderful honey-sweet confection. I answer meekly, “Yes, Captain.”

A moment passes, suspended in time. She begins to smile again and then speaks, her voice low and husky. “You’re forgiven, Captain.”

I find it entirely logical to kiss her. After all, I reason, the worst she can possibly do is to turn around and leave the room. Her lips taste of orange blossoms and tangy Mediterranean sunshine, and her body against mine feels soft and alive.

She doesn’t leave.

I can almost hear the honeybees buzzing. Probably a malfunctioning Borg circuit, I tell my foolish romantic self. Kathryn looks into my eyes as if she intends to search my soul; God only knows what she’ll find there.

She raises her hands to my face, her fingers resting gently on both sides of my head. “Silva, are you sure you want this?”

“More than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life,” I answer, and in that instant I’m able to believe it.

Kathryn’s hands slide possessively over my shoulders as she lifts her lips toward mine again. I know this has to be real because I no longer have dreams. She kisses me with a hunger that makes it plain her holographic men left a lot to be desired.

“I love you,” I whisper against the smooth softness of her cheek, feeling myself become giddy with the inexplicable wonders of inefficient human emotion. As I hold her, I can’t imagine that any homecoming could be better than this. “Kathryn, my dearest, perfection . . .”

And what makes you think you can go home again, a reverberating metallic voice hisses from the depths of my consciousness. I drown out the echoes with a few mental curses, telling it and them to go straight to hell; the Collective is not allowed in my bedroom. I defiantly undress, pretending that the cybernetic implants I’m uncovering aren’t really there.

Of course, as Kathryn removes her uniform, I see that her sleek body is entirely human. Her brief sojourn among the Borg didn’t last long enough to leave her with any permanent changes to her physical functions. There’s not so much as a scar or a speck of metal anywhere. A biomechanical tourist, I think again, but this time without anger. God, she’s so beautiful.

It’s a law of nature that the observation of any phenomenon changes it, and Kathryn is no exception. As I watch her, I can see the responsive increase in her breathing and pulse, in her blood flow and neural energy patterns. I realize that my cortical processor has begun recording her vital signs in a particular file area designated for temporary storage of data during the performance of an assimilation. Ancient vampire stories flit through my thoughts as I disable that function. Perhaps Kathryn ought to be driving a wooden stake through my heart instead of making love to me.

But her hands are open and gentle as she touches this flawed, insignificant body that has the hubris to call itself Silva La Forge. Beneath us, on this bed in which I’ve never slept, the sheets are clean and sweet-smelling. Kathryn murmurs in pleasure as my fingers and lips render homage to her perfect human form.

Her soft sighs begin to resonate with distant metallic echoes of even fainter screams. When an assimilation is performed correctly, there should be minimal pain. For a moment, I can’t recall whether I’m observing Kathryn’s sexual excitement or monitoring a captive’s pain levels; from a molecular standpoint, there’s not much difference in the function of the relevant neurotransmitters. The echoes in the distance grow louder, building upon one another like thunderheads on the horizon. They’re not real, I tell myself again. They’re not real.

Kathryn cries out, and the sound of her pleasure is somehow transmuted into precisely measured howls of anguish ringing through the centuries. One of us has started weeping, but I wouldn’t be able to say which one if my life depended on it.

Then she starts touching me, caressing and licking the soft dark flesh that now covers this drone’s body, a moist rich chocolate cake served to the Captain on a hard metal plate. The ancient wolf of the fable, wrapped in his crude sheep’s costume, would have been envious. But of course, Kathryn can’t hear the voices.

I try to focus my thoughts by silently reciting the periodic table of elements as if it were a mantra, but the echoes recede only slightly. Contorted faces begin to appear behind my closed eyelids. Hands reach toward me as if to plead for mercy, but they can’t penetrate the armor, and in any event there’s nothing still human beneath it.

Kathryn’s hands touch me in their stead, a silent accusation that I’ll never be able to refute, although she doesn’t intend it as such. I discover that it’s a simple matter to override the default settings for autonomic functions in order to increase sensory efficiency and blood flow to certain bodily areas; one might describe this as the Borg equivalent of faking orgasm. Technically it’s real enough, with the appropriate muscles contracting in the normal sequence. Eyes closed, head turned aside, hard wordless sobbing into the pillow, oh, God, no, don’t touch me, never again . . .

I reach my ersatz climax thinking of the chemical composition of nebulae, the expression on the face of a young girl as she sees her mother assimilated, and the square root of pi.

Kathryn pretends she can’t tell the difference, but I can see the bright glitter of tears behind her half-closed eyelids. She has far more faith in my humanity than I do.

I wish I could love her.

After a while her breathing slows, and I realize that she has fallen asleep with her body still sprawled protectively across mine. Although the human sleep cycle lacks the efficiency required to complete a cybernetic organism’s regenerative functions, I don’t want to disturb Kathryn by returning to my alcove.

Her breathing, rhythmic and peaceful, fills the silence. The voices are quiet now, the echoes faded, the images gone. Experimenting, I find that it’s possible to synchronize my own heartbeat and breathing to Kathryn’s, creating the illusion of oneness. For an instant she becomes the living core of my universe. As I drift into sleep, my limbs intertwined with hers, I wonder whether she would resent this small intrusion on her individuality if she knew of it.

And then, for the first time in seven years, I dream.

*****

The bridge of the Hera at the start of alpha shift. I’m sitting in the captain’s chair with my morning cup of coffee, and my crew are carrying on their familiar duties around me: another routine mission.

Ensign Washington at Operations, his very first Starfleet post. “Captain, we’re picking up some anomalous readings. Looks like a transwarp signature . . .”

“A Borg vessel,” cuts in Lieutenant Szabo, my tactical officer. He’s already activated the ship’s shields before I can get the words Red Alert out of my mouth, but we all know just how little protection the shields will provide.

The whole hopeless battle plays itself out inevitably before me, the overwhelming attack that takes out the Hera’s shields, our futile attempts to save ourselves by returning fire, the Borg cube almost entirely undamaged.

“Captain, we have boarders on all decks.”

I turn to face my Vulcan first officer T’Mirith, my friend and lover for almost eight years. She nods grimly. Time slows until I can’t even feel my heart beating. My bridge officers seem frozen in place.

Only a second has actually passed before I give the computer the command to initiate self-destruct, but I’ve already left it too late. A drone appears beside my chair and transports me into an assimilation chamber before I’m able to complete the authorization code.

Time passes; I don’t know how long. Now I’m standing at the center of the chamber surrounded by my crew, and they’re all Borg, every one of them. Ensign Washington approaches, or what’s left of him, as the cold green light reflects from his pale gray skin and metallic implants.

“You failed to take immediate action to destroy your ship,” Washington observes. “Had you begun the self-destruct sequence 1.6 seconds earlier, your crew would not have become drones.”

“Our assimilation was fitting and inevitable,” declares the Borg who has replaced Lieutenant Lorena Pascal. I want to weep at the sight of her, at the memory of my young and brave pilot, but no tears pass my frozen eyelids as she continues to speak. “Our weak, ineffectual human lives have been discarded. The Collective has made us perfect.”

T’Mirith stands silently before me, her drone’s face altogether expressionless. I reach toward her ruined visage as if to touch my lover one last time.

“No two views of Mount Seleya are identical,” she says. “You cannot step twice into the same river.”

My fingers pass right through her image.

“You still don’t understand,” she tells me with a calm, inexorable certainty. “We no longer exist.”

Then the dream shifts and I’m running through the corridors of Voyager screaming meaningless words that make no sound, an insubstantial, irrelevant ghost pursued by ghosts. Kathryn stands in front of a doorway, and I know she can’t see me. I seize her shoulders desperately, but she’s too solid for me, and my hands dissolve as I touch her.

“Silva.” Her voice shatters me to fragments in her arms as I awaken, eyes staring, an alien face streaked with tears that feel real but can’t be. Kathryn holds me, strokes my hair, murmurs soothing words.

“I have to go back.” My voice quavers. I force my hands to release their grip on Kathryn’s shoulders when I realize that my fingers have left deep bruises in her human flesh. “I have to find them.”

Kathryn doesn’t need to ask what I’m talking about. With her rose-quartz voice under perfect control, she answers, “I understand. If they were my crew, I would feel the same.”

Still holding me, she gives me a last kiss like a memory of light and warmth, and then she lets me go.

*****

The Borg resistance ship hasn’t changed much since it was liberated from the Collective. Stark, functional, its precise dimensions surround me with the familiarity of a coffin. Not exactly the homecoming I’d imagined, but a homecoming nonetheless.

In a way, the faces of the rebel soldiers seem familiar as well. Although I’ve never seen these particular faces, even stripped of their cybernetic enhancements they still resemble drones, with their lack of emotion and their sameness of expression. It’s clear that they have taken up their cause of destroying the Collective with a single-minded intensity of dedication, just as they once served the Collective.

There are no mirrors aboard this ship, but I don’t need a mirror to know just how closely my own appearance matches theirs.

Kathryn stands beside me. She’s the only one of Voyager’s crew who chose to beam over with me, to wish me well. There’s another existence outside this cube, her presence reminds me. And, even now, I haven’t entirely left it behind.

“When you get home,” I tell her, “maybe you can put in a word for me with the State Department. For the position of Federation Ambassador to the Borg Republic. I’ve always found it prudent to plan ahead, after all.”

“You tell the Borg that I’m going to be very disappointed if they don’t elect you Prime Minister,” Kathryn declares promptly. She clasps my hand and draws me into a tight embrace, for just a moment. Then she touches her combadge and calls for transport.

She’ll be all right, I know. She has her ship.

I watch her image fade until there’s nothing left of her, and then I turn to face the future.