A plain, functional three-story building tucked away behind tall pine trees, the Cybernetics Institute in Palo Alto looked like any of the numerous research facilities in Northern California. Most area residents, if they thought about it at all, assumed its purpose to be the study of captured Borg technology. That guess wasn’t too far wrong, although, like most assumptions, it was incomplete and rapidly becoming more so.
In recent years, since word had gotten out that the Federation possessed both the medical capability to remove Borg implants and the willingness to provide aid to refugees, an increasing number of Borg defectors had found their way into Federation space. Most of them were quietly given medical treatment at remote starbases before their resettlement on distant colony worlds. Only those former drones who were human, or who belonged to other Federation member species, were brought to the Cybernetics Institute for treatment and rehabilitation. The facility had become, in effect, a highly specialized veterans’ hospital.
The staff showed no surprise at the presence of a Starfleet captain walking toward the front entrance on this April morning, his bald scalp glistening in the light rain. He had been, after all, their first patient.
“Captain Picard, it’s good to see you again.”
The groundskeeper, looking up from her petunias, almost smiled, but not quite. That was one of the last human attributes to return, Picard had noticed. Although the doctors here could work wonders in restoring their patients’ mutilated, half-mechanical bodies to a semblance of normal humanity, the restoration of the soul was quite another matter.
“It’s good to be back,” Picard replied.
He mulled over the truthfulness of that statement as he entered the foyer, where what should have been a cheerful variety of potted plants had been rearranged into neat lines with inhuman precision. The staff made a point of positioning them more randomly, but the patients often had difficulty tolerating even such a slight manifestation of disorder.
The doctors had told Picard years ago that his recovery was complete, but although he no longer had reason to undergo periodic examinations, he still found himself returning to the Institute on occasion. As the first human to return alive from the Borg Collective, he could set an inspirational example for the patients, could give them hope that it was possible to return to their previous lives. He made a point of meeting with all of the newly admitted patients during his visits, although their numbers had increased enough so that it would soon become impracticable for him to do so.
To be honest with himself, there was more to his visits than the occasional few hours of charitable work with the less fortunate. Sometimes he felt that it helped him, as well, to spend time in the company of those who shared his nightmares, who could also hear the collective voices echoing down the dark and distorted pathways of dream-terror.
Turning his attention away from the plants, Picard began to climb the staircase that led to the second floor, an impressively wide and curving marble structure with an elegant banister. In all his visits, he realized, he’d never seen one of the patients use the stairs. After all, when elegance was irrelevant, the lift was a more efficient means of getting from one place to another.
More potted plants adorned the hallway, along with various landscape paintings evidently meant to reaccustom the patients to views of their native worlds. He halted in front of a door and rang the chime, prepared to wait for a while before hearing a response. The concept of having private quarters often seemed strange to the patients at first, after the Collective’s utter lack of privacy; many of them did not even realize that they could give or withhold permission for someone to enter.
“Come in.” A woman’s voice, low and slightly accented.
The door slid open, revealing a small room filled almost to bursting with colorful flower arrangements, huge stuffed animals, and oversized family portraits. It took Picard a moment to locate the room’s petite occupant, who was standing quietly beside the window, as still as a figurine among all the flowers and gifts. She had been luckier than most, Picard knew. Many families never responded to the notification, choosing to pretend that their Borg kin no longer existed.
Her dark eyes widened in recognition, and she hesitated briefly before she spoke in answer. “Captain Picard.”
She had been about to call him Locutus, he knew. Most of them did. At first it had bothered him, but annoyance seemed a petty reaction in light of all that they had endured. Taking a step across the threshold, Picard matched his tone and words to the formality of her own. “Lieutenant Perez. Welcome home.”
The somber face was recognizable, just, as the woman whose smile gleamed from the nearest portrait. The surgeons weren’t to blame; their techniques had improved markedly since they’d treated the first ex-drones. Not a speck of Borg metal could be seen anywhere, although Picard presumed that the heavy black turtleneck sweater hid a cybernetic implant or two.
“I was just about to go outside for a walk, Captain, if you would care to join me.” The lieutenant gestured rather vaguely in the direction of the window as she moved away from it. “My counselor wants me to spend more time outdoors.”
“Indeed.” Picard fell into step beside her, remembering his own impressions of the natural world shortly after his rescue from the Collective. The French countryside had seemed strangely transformed, almost sinister, an anarchic sprawl of greenery cascading in all directions. The trees had jutted out of the ground like gargantuan, many-limbed monsters clawing their way toward an impossibly azure sky. Even his family’s vineyard had taken on the appearance of a tangled nest of snakes coiling and tentacles flailing, while masses of dark, bulging globes had peered out from under concealing leaves. He recalled just how difficult it had been to complete a simple stroll around the terrace.
Perez began to shiver noticeably as she left the building, although her thick sweater should have given her more than enough warmth on this mild spring morning. She folded her arms tightly across her chest. Her face took on a red, puffy appearance, and small welts became visible wherever a drop of rain came into contact with bare skin. An allergic reaction of sorts, triggered by exposure to cool temperatures, this condition — known as cold urticaria — was not at all unusual among former drones in the early days of their recovery. Although Picard had not been affected by it, he knew from his observation of other patients that the condition usually required no treatment. It could be expected to disappear on its own as the immune system and various temperature-regulating mechanisms returned to normal.
“You might be more comfortable taking a walk later in the day,” Picard suggested gently. “The sky is expected to clear before noon.”
The lieutenant deliberately unfolded her arms and held her hands stiffly at her sides. She continued along the gravel path into the wooded area without breaking her precise stride.
“I like walking in the rain. I’ve always liked walking in the rain.” She cast an apprehensive glance toward the looming pines and declared, in a brittle and overly loud voice, “I’ve always liked walking through the woods in the rain.”
A squirrel darted across the path, its soft brown fur glistening against the damp gravel. Picard watched in silence as the animal scrambled up a dripping branch and disappeared into the trees. He took a deep breath of the humid air before he spoke again.
“Lieutenant Perez, there’s no shame in acknowledging that you are,” Picard paused for a moment as he selected a suitably neutral word, “changed. The healing process will take some time. To be captured by an enemy, by any enemy, is a terrifying experience for even the strongest and bravest among us. I was abducted by the Borg more than ten years ago, and I still have nightmares, even now, of being — back there.”
“I have no memories at all. None that I’m able to remember, that is.” Perez lifted a hand to brush a wet, curling lock of hair away from her face before she spoke again. “The doctors were able to remove almost all of the implants from my brain, including various memory storage devices. I was informed that the procedure would result in near-total amnesia as to my experiences after my capture. Although I can’t remember that conversation, I assume that I must have decided those memories wouldn’t be much of a loss.”
“But you still see images from time to time. Flashbacks, perhaps, triggered by people and things that remind you of subconscious memories.” That was the only plausible explanation, Picard concluded, for the lieutenant’s hesitation in identifying him when she had first seen him standing in the doorway of her room.
“Sometimes,” Perez acknowledged, “but the images seem very distant, and there’s not much that makes sense. I sometimes see one of my daughters aboard the enemy ship, protecting me from the Collective. Of course, she was safely on Earth the whole time. My counselor says that it’s quite common for the human mind, when faced with a traumatic situation, to construct imaginary protective figures of some sort.”
“So it is.”
Picard walked beside the lieutenant in silence for a while, his boots crunching against the wet gravel. An imaginary protective figure made for a perfectly logical theory of events, he knew, and it was the most natural conclusion for a counselor to have reached. After all, the Institute’s counselors were not military interrogators and, although they were required to hold low-level security clearances, were not normally briefed on the more sensitive details of each patient’s rescue from the Collective. The staff of the Institute would have been told no more than the information approved for public release, which was that the lieutenant had been found in a stasis unit inside an automated Borg cargo pod. A reasonable inference would be that she had somehow managed to resist the Collective’s control for just long enough to escape.
Reasonable — and of course, like most assumptions, largely inaccurate. Picard’s own security clearance would not have permitted him to access the data file found in the cargo pod, but for the fact that its creator had addressed the narrative expressly to him.
“Sometimes the images seem very real,” Perez went on, her soft voice distracting Picard from his thoughts as the two of them emerged from the woods and continued along a smoothly paved sidewalk. The rain had given way to a faint mist and a brightening sky, and the temperature was rising noticeably. Picard glanced toward the lieutenant and saw that the red mass of welts on her face had by now faded almost entirely away.
He longed to ask her to go on talking, to tell him all that she could remember about the Borg child who had made the inexplicable choice to preserve the life of a human captive. Of course, he could not; the less memory Perez had of her experiences, the safer the child would be. No one knew the extent to which the Collective had become capable, over the past several years, of covertly gathering intelligence on Earth.
A light breeze touched Picard’s face. He closed his eyes for a moment as a vivid image came back to him: a sailboat off the Oregon coast, the rhythmic sound of the waves, and the gray, somber face of Lucienne, the girl-drone who had been unable to comprehend the relevance of hope. Created from Picard’s own genetic material, the child had been sent into Federation space alone, as an agent of the Collective. He had tried, and ultimately failed, to convince her of the value of an individual human life.
Perhaps he had not entirely failed after all, Picard thought, as he opened his eyes again to see the slim figure of the lieutenant, now a few steps ahead of him, striding toward the Institute’s entrance. Lucienne herself, according to the message found in the cargo pod, had been unsure of why she had chosen to aid one captive out of so many, at great risk to her own life. The message had ended with a plaintive question as to whether it would ever be possible to make any sense of her experiences.
The pavement sparkled in the sunlight now. Perez halted for a few seconds, waiting for her trailing companion to catch up.
“Captain Picard, I appreciate your taking the time to visit with me, to speak of your own memories. I know that takes courage to do. I’m not trying to cut our conversation short, but I have a scheduled session with my counselor in nine point three . . .”
A sudden smile flashed across the lieutenant’s face, and for just a moment she looked exactly like the carefree woman of her portrait. “In about ten minutes. I think I’m going to be all right, Captain. It gets easier each day.”
He remained standing on the sunlit pavement as Perez walked back into the building, her stride noticeably more relaxed. Even if he could somehow distill the meaning of this encounter into words, Picard realized, there would be no possibility of conveying it to her child-rescuer in the Collective. The risk of any such attempt would be too great. Lucienne, who had protected herself by deliberately erasing a broad swath of her own memories, would not even be able to understand his response.
The only answer, Picard knew, was time.