“This was a story I desperately wanted to finish before the Season 7 premiere, mostly because I wanted the readers on the Resistance is Futile list to have the truly atrocious second part of the episode ‘Unimatrix Zero’ blocked from their minds when they read it. Thankfully, I beat Paramount to the punch, and managed to churn out what I feel is one of the most dramatic, emotional stories of the K/7 Saga thus far.” (Michael B)
Written by Michael B
Release 2 Oct 2000
Harry Kim shifted in his balcony seat, looking down at the stage below through his opera glasses, silently cursing his uncomfortable dinner jacket and trousers. However, he knew that part of the fun of participating in a holodeck fantasy was dressing up in period costumes, no matter how uncompromising they were with human biology. It would hardly have looked appropriate to be attending the Savoy Theater in 1885 London wearing his Starfleet uniform.
He tipped a glance over to his companion on his left. Seven of Nine was dressed in a typical woman’s evening gown of the period. He knew that the glamorous attire she wore had to be even more uncomfortable than his own. She had commented endlessly on its ‘inefficiency,’ especially when she tried to put on the bustle, but was willing to endure the discomfort for the sake of historical verisimilitude. Her hair was elaborately coifed and framed with an imitation diamond tiara. Her graceful neck was graced with a cosmetic pearl broach, and her hands and forearms were concealed with long, white, silk gloves. For all of the bother, she did look positively stunning tonight.
They sat silent as Nanki-Poo and the chorus began their libretto.
A wandering minstrel I– A thing of shreds and patches, Of ballads, songs and snatches, And dreamy lullaby!
"Harry," Seven asked curiously, "surely this is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of the court of medieval Japan?"
"Of course not, silly," he teased. "It’s Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s supposed to be a farce."
"Then the purpose of this production is to elicit…humor?" Seven certainly hoped that wasn’t the case. If Harry expected her to laugh this evening, then he would be disappointed. Despite her concerted efforts to study the problem, she had yet to find anything within human culture that could elicit a laugh from her.
"Well, it’s not just that, Seven. ‘The Mikado’ is also a tale about romance, adventure, and just good old fashioned grand entertainment."
"Entertainment…" she considered, "When I informed the Doctor of our evening plans, he did not hold either the play, nor its creators, in high regard. He strongly believed we would receive a greater exposure to culture by attending ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ instead."
"Yeah, well, the Doc can be a bit of a snob sometimes," Harry laughed.
"Indeed," she conceded, returning his smile.
A loud hush was sounded from an elderly dowager sitting in the balcony next to theirs, as she scowled at the two young lovers. Harry gave an embarrassed shrug at the offended party as he returned to his date for the evening. He certainly didn’t want to neglect her, not on this special night.
Tonight was a doubly special occasion, for not only was it the three-month anniversary of their decision to move in together, but according to her personnel files, it was Seven of Nine’s, or rather, Annika Hansen’s 28th birthday.
Harry put a lot of thought into planning the perfect evening for Seven, almost as much as he had when he put together their first ‘date’ seven months ago. Seven months, God, he couldn’t believe it. Had it really been that long, he wondered. Seven had grown so much since then. But then of course, so had he.
He mentally compared his relationship with Seven to the only other long-term romance in his life, with Libby back on Earth. Tal, of course, didn’t count, as their time together had been intense, yet brief. When he and Libby had reached the seven-month point, the initial infatuation had started to fade. They had grown comfortable with each other and had settled into a regular routine. There was a familiarity to their relationship after nearly a year together, something unusual for two young people each barely twenty years old. Of course, they still loved each other. Harry had continued to feel love for Libby, even after Voyager was stranded in the Delta Quadrant, until he had come to accept the inevitable fact that the two of them were separated by too great a distance to hold out any hope for them to be a couple again.
But with Seven, it was different. Every day, she revealed more of herself to him. The constrictions around her emotions became just a little bit looser over time. She learned from him, while at the same time she gave more of her heart as she grew. It was almost like he fell in love with her all over again every day, because each time there was something new to love. How long would this go on? Harry didn’t know. He had learned to enjoy the experience and to let it ride for as long as it went.
Of course, there was still that unspoken complication that existed between them. After seven months and an untold number of his own declarations, even after three months of living together, Seven of Nine had yet to tell Harry that she loved him. Oh, he knew that she cared for him. He was definitely ‘relevant to her existence’ and he ‘pleased her greatly.’ But there had been no reciprocation of his feelings with words of her own. He accepted that Seven would be different from ordinary women, that feelings were still an unknown territory for her, and that she was uncomfortable with the idea of expressing sensations that she did not entirely understand. But Harry wondered what could still be holding her back after all this time. She could assimilate advanced scientific theorems and break down logical discourses with the greatest of ease. So why did the concept of love have her so confused?
He put those concerns aside. Harry Kim never pressed his beloved on this issue, confidant that time would loosen the control she had placed over her heart. And besides, this was her night. Everything was to be perfect, including his state of mind. Besides, he thought hopefully, he might find himself surprised tonight with a present of his own.
He reached over to take her gloved hand into his own. He stroked gently with his thumb, feeling the contours of the Borg exoskeleton beneath the white silk glove.
"It pleases me for us to be together in this manner," she said softly, looking at him tenderly.
"Even if we have to dress up in these ‘irrelevant’ costumes?" he answered with a warm smile. Seven was never one for getting into the spirit of dressing up for holodeck adventures. She would insist on wearing her standard catsuit whenever they visited Tom’s Fair Haven program. He chuckled at the number of times the curious locals came up to him asking about his ‘daft lady friend wandering about in her skivvies.’
She returned his expression with a smile of her own. "While I concur that these garments are highly inefficient, they do project an appearance of elegance which I find befits me quite effectively."
He looked he over with admiration and nodded his head in agreement. "You do look very elegant tonight, Seven. Evening wear definitely suits you."
"Your own appearance is impressive as well, Harry," she responded, her face flushing mildly. "I have been most gratified with tonight’s activities thus far."
"I’m glad the you’re enjoying yourself. Happy birthday, Seven."
"There was no need for you to expend such effort on my behalf for such an occasion. The date of one’s birth is hardly relevant."
"Oh, but it’s relevant to me, Seven. It’s the day that you came into existence. And that fact that you exist and that you’re a part of my life, that’s something worth celebrating."
Seven’s face became increasingly flushed, overcome by the heartfelt emotion of the man beside her. He is a good man, she thought proudly. I am fortunate to have him as my mate. He gives of himself so freely, yet I struggle to return his affections in kind. "At least I am appreciative of the fact that you did not choose to throw a party on my behalf," she said. "I prefer this arrangement much better."
"Yeah, well, Neelix was a bit disappointed. He was hoping to bake a cake."
"I am certain he will recover in time," she answered smartly. "What additional activities have you arranged for our agenda?" she asked, quickly changing the subject.
"I thought that we might enjoy a little ballroom dancing after this," he answered, still smitten. "And then, well, perhaps…"
"Perhaps?" Seven smiled, already picturing what Harry was thinking, and mentally calculating how many seconds it would take to remove these cumbersome garments when the moment arrived.
They made a move close to each other, leading to that breathless moment of anticipation when their lips would touch and they would…
"Bridge to Holodeck One," said the commanding voice of Captain Janeway, interrupting both the chorus and their thoughts over the intercom.
Frustrated at the interruption, but smart enough not to display it to his captain, Harry called out to the disembodied voice. "Kim here." He ignored the hissing of the frustrated matron who was urging them to be quiet during the performance.
"Harry, I’m sorry to intrude on your night off. But I’d like for you and Seven to come up to the bridge. We’ve intercepted a subspace signal with a highly complex encryption pattern. We may not be sure of what it says, but we’re pretty sure of who it was who sent it."
Seven’s face, which had been flushed warm just moments ago, suddenly went pale as she deduced the likely origin of the signal. Why else would they need her of all people, unless… "Borg," she whispered.
"We think so. We need you and Harry up here right away to help us confirm it. If there’s a transwarp conduit in this sector, we need to be sure we’re not flying straight into a Borg armada."
"We’re on our way," Harry replied. "Kim out." He then turned to his companion, his face looking deflated. "I’m sorry, Seven. This isn’t how I wanted your birthday to turn out."
"You are not to blame," she reassured him as she stood up, gathering her gown about her.
"Computer, end program," Harry commanded. Quickly, the balcony, the Savoy and its patrons dissolved away, revealing the black walls and yellow gridlines of the holodeck at rest. The cavernous doors slide open to the corridor.
"Perhaps, if we resolve this matter on the bridge quickly enough, we may resume with the rest of the evening?" Seven said hopefully.
"Maybe," Harry mused as they walked down the hallway towards the turbolift, ignoring the puzzled stares of passersby at the sight of the two of them dressed like they had just come from having tea with the Queen of the British Empire. "But I get the feeling this isn’t going to be over with quick and easy."
As the turbolift sped upward to the bridge, he looked over at Seven and then called out to the computer to hold.
"Why did you stop the turbolift, Harry?" Seven asked.
"In case we don’t get the time later, I wanted you to have this," he said as he reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a small case, "while it’s still officially your birthday."
Her eyes widened as she took the case from him and opened it. Inside there was a necklace, gold braid and pearl inlays. But the pendant itself was the focus of attention. It was a circle of holographic crystal and floating inside was an image, barely discernable to the human eye from a distance. But to Seven’s enhanced optics, it was easily perceivable. It was a molecular structure, one so perfect in its arrangement, yet so simple in its emergent order. She recognized it immediately.
"A representation of the Omega molecule…" she uttered with awe. "How did you…?"
"I took the image from the ship’s science logs and encoded it into the replicator system. I figured that diamonds and precious jewels wouldn’t really impress you, so I found the one thing in nature that you would find perfect." He smiled as he saw the entranced look on her face, still gazing upon the ordered structures of molecular rings.
"But the pattern…it is stable," she said incredulously.
"I know. I had to do some extrapolation from your descriptions in the science logs," he said with a humble shrug of his shoulders. "It may not be an exact representation of what you saw in Cargo Bay Two that day, but I guess even perfection can’t be perfect."
"It…it is perfect," she said while still staring at the necklace with childlike wonder. "It is perfect to me." She then looked up at him with alarm. "Harry, surely this must have come at great cost in replicator rations, to create a pattern as detailed as this."
"Well, it did cost a few rations, now that you mention it," he said. He tried not to let it show on his face just how many rations it did cost him. He didn’t exactly have the most unreadable of faces, and Seven was especially perceptive of his moods. But cost him it did. He tried not to think about the months’ worth of favors he would owe people to pay for the rations that they advanced him. But seeing that look of joy on his sweetheart’s face made the expense all worth it.
"Please inform me of the cost and I will reimburse you," she stated anxiously. "I have replicator rations in abundance."
"Seven, no. This is my gift to you," he said before grinning at her cheerfully. "Happy birthday, beautiful."
"I…" she tried to speak, before realizing that she had no words to say. All that she could do in response was once single, spontaneous act. She grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket at pulled him towards her in a furious embrace. Yes, he thought with the one conscious part of his brain that was still able to focus as their lips fused together. Birthday lips are definitely the tastiest.
Of course, once again the bridge crew showed impeccable timing.
"Bridge to Kim and Seven of Nine." This time it was the voice of Commander Chakotay, sounding very official at first. But then the first officer’s tone faded to one more playful. "That turbolift is taking an awfully long time to get up here."
Harry immediately broke off the kiss and cocked his head up in the direction of the intercom. "Uh…we’re on our way, sir. Computer, resume to the bridge." The turbolift jerked upwards in response to his voice command.
As he stepped back he took the necklace from Seven’s hand and held the chains apart. "Here, let me put this on you," he offered. He reached behind her as she lifted her hair aside and allowed him to clasp it around her neck.
"You are…always so good to me," Seven said, her voice trembling with emotion.
"That’s because Harry loves his Seven," he giggled playfully as he finished his work and admired the results. But then, quite instinctively and without realizing it, he continued without thinking. "Does Seven love her Harry?"
Her face briefly went pale as she found herself at a loss to answer him. Fortunately, before the silence lasted too long, the turbolift doors swished open to reveal the buzz of activity of the bridge. People looked up from their stations to see the oddly dressed couple as they stepped off together. After all, it wasn’t every day that you saw crewmembers in Victorian garb reporting for duty. Chakotay seemed to have a facial expression that matched his playful tone of voice from the turbolift. Tuvok, as always, merely raised an eyebrow. Janeway watched them enter with particular amusement, considering her love of 19th Century novels. She probably was checking them out for historical anachronisms, Harry thought, trying to put out of his mind that awkward moment on the turbolift.
And of course, what was a moment like this without a commentary from Tom Paris, who smirked with delight from his position at the helm. "Hey, nobody said Beta shift was going to be a black-tie affair!"
"Ha, ha, very funny, Tom," Harry sneered at his friend. He still didn’t feel very festive after being called to the bridge in the middle of his perfect evening.
"Hey, take it easy, Harry. Or is it ‘your lordship’ these days?" Tom quipped back.
"Now, children. Play nice," the captain admonished lightly. "Seven, Harry, I’m very sorry to spoil your evening like this. I wouldn’t have interrupted your birthday celebration if I didn’t need to know what we’re facing right away."
"Then there truly is a signal?" Seven asked. "I considered the possibility that your request was a deception intended as a prelude to a surprise party," she explained with distaste, "which would distinctly be in opposition to my wishes."
"Seven of Nine," Tuvok spoke up from his tactical station, "I assure you that they signal we intercepted is quite real. Furthermore, the bridge would hardly be an appropriate location for any festivities."
"I concur with your logic, Commander," said Seven. She then imperiously strode over to the nearest sensor console and whipped off her silk gloves. "If you will excuse me," she stated unceremoniously to the officer on duty, who stepped out of her way while trying to take in the sight of the statuesque Borg in a ballroom gown. She looked over at her mate, who had moved over to the Ops station, assisting Ensign Ashmore, his regular Beta shift replacement.
"Harry, if you will assist," she asked as her enhanced fingertips flew over the console, calling up the recorded sensor logs. Seven searched her own internal memory buffers, as she analyzed the frequency and subspace resonance of the signal.
"The signal was definitely from a Borg vessel," Seven confirmed. She then proceeded to decrypt the complex algorithms to determine the content of the message.
"That’s unusual," Chakotay commented. "Wouldn’t they normally contact the Collective through their mind link, rather than a general broadbeam signal?"
"Not if their connection to the Collective were disrupted, or if there were no functioning drones on board," Seven observed, her eyes still riveted to the monitor. "An automatic signal would then be dispatched along Borg frequencies, requesting assistance."
"Then, it’s a distress signal?" Janeway asked.
"I believe so," Seven replied. "Or it may be an automatic transponder. The message contains telemetry readings and ship status readouts in a repeating loop before ceasing entirely."
"Captain," Harry called out from his position next to Ashmore at Ops. "I’m picking up some fluctuations in the transmission strength. It might have been due to uneven power levels on the transmitting end."
"Almost as if their ship were losing power," Chakotay observed.
Janeway had a look on her face, as if the wheels were slowly turning in her mind. "Seven, do you know of any Borg outposts or stations in this sector?"
"Not to my knowledge, Captain," Seven answered. "The closest facility of any kind is the transwarp conduit in the Brunali system. The signal is extremely weak and grows increasingly degraded over time. If there are no Borg vessels at the mouth of the conduit to receive it, the distress call may well go unanswered."
The captain’s eyes lit up at the news. "Then we may have a lone Borg vessel out there somewhere. Damaged, possibly still in regeneration mode. And weeks away from any chance of rescue." She then turned to her first officer. "Are you thinking what I’m thinking?"
"Another salvage operation?" Chakotay said, equally excited by the prospect. Their last attempt at pilfering Borg technology had netted them a transwarp coil, which managed to cut fifteen years off of their journey. If they were able to do at least as well this time around…
Tom looked back over his shoulder at the back of the bridge. "Hey, just think, Seven. Harry could pick you up a new regeneration alcove as a present."
Seven looked back at the brash pilot to responded. "That would not be necessary, Tom Paris. As you are well aware, I no longer require a regeneration alcove. Furthermore, Harry has already given to me an exceptional gift for my birthday." She then lifted her head to proudly display the pendant dangling from about her neck.
"Did Harry get you that?" Janeway asked as she looked on with delight. "May I have a closer look?"
When Seven nodded in approval, Kathryn hefted up the holographic crystal to admire the complexity of the image inside. "Why…it’s exquisite!" She then looked up to the young Ops officer at his station. "Mr. Kim, I have to say I’m impressed. This must have set you back quite a bit."
Harry didn’t answer, but only smiled modestly. Tom Paris’ wicked chuckle from the front of the bridge served as an all-too-clear reminder as to who at least one of his creditors was.
"Mr. Paris, I think you’d do well to follow Harry’s example," she scolded playfully. "There’s a young man who knows how to treat a lady right."
"As well he should," Seven stated proudly, eminently pleased as she held her head high.
"Hey, I’ve never had any complaints from B’Elanna," said Tom.
"Captain," Tuvok spoke up, his voice sober and steady, "to return to the matter at hand. Need I remind you about the consequences of our last attempt to steal Borg technology? This may well be another act of deception on the part of the Collective."
"I’m well aware of the risk, Tuvok," Janeway answered back to her security officer. "And I don’t plan on falling for the same trick twice." She then turned to the former drone and the sensor station. "Seven, I want you at Astrometrics and try to pin down the source of this transmission. Tell me everything you can about where this signal is coming from. Harry, Tom, I want you to lend her any assistance you can. Where the Borg are concerned, I don’t much care for surprise parties either."
"Yes, Captain," Harry answered as he and Seven moved towards the turbolift.
"Oh, and Ensign?" Janeway called out to the young officer.
"Be sure that you and Seven are in uniform the next time you come to the bridge," she said lightheartedly. "You’re making the rest of us look like poor relations."
Seven of Nine was at the main console in Astrometrics, attempting to boost the degraded Borg signal and track it to its source. She felt much more comfortable now that she was wearing her blue and gray ‘uniform’ catsuit. The former drone simply could not fathom why human females had historically tolerated such obviously inefficient fashions, simply to satisfy the prurient interests of males. If the intent was to stimulate the sexual desires of their mates, then surely less clothing which revealed a greater area of the body would be more advantageous.
There was no question in Seven’s mind that human history would have proceeded with much greater efficiency had the supposedly dominant males bothered to consult the clearly superior females about such matters.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door sliding open. Harry stepped in, along with Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres. Harry quickly moved alongside of his beloved and put his arm around her waist. It was a far superior form of restraint than a bustle, Seven thought pleasantly.
"Hey, Seven," Tom greeted her. "How goes the search?"
"I have narrowed the origin point along a heading of zero degrees mark three. I will transfer these coordinates to the helm station. As we proceed further, I should be able to pinpoint the specific solar system the Borg vessel transmitted from."
"Well, maybe this should help," B’Elanna said, as she handed her a PADD. "Harry and I managed to divert 15% more power to the deflector array. That should help with triangulating the signal’s origin point."
"It will. Thank you, B’Elanna Torres."
The half-Klingon engineer shrugged her shoulders noncommittally. It still seemed strange to hear Seven talking to her in a more ‘casual’ manner than she used to. She still couldn’t call their relationship as one of friendship, despite Harry’s urgings. But at least the two women didn’t get into each other’s face the way they used to, and it was possible for them to spend an evening together without insults. Everything starts with baby steps, she thought resignedly.
"How about you, Seven?" Harry asked with concern. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I am feeling well, Harry," she answered. "You are distressed?"
"Well, kind of…" he replied anxiously. "I mean, this mission, us possibly coming in contact with the Borg again, I was concerned…"
"You were worried that the Borg would attempt to manipulate me and steal me away from Voyager, as they did before?"
"Harry, you need not be concerned. I have detected no subspace frequencies impacting upon my cortical functions, or any other attempt at direct Borg communication. Furthermore, I ran a complete diagnostic upon by implanted systems. I am confident that I have not been affected in any way by the Collective."
"I’m glad to hear that."
"I will, however, admit to a certain…apprehension about this mission. The idea of possibly coming into contact with the Borg again, especially after my last encounter, is disquieting to me."
Harry held her closer to him, looking into her eyes. "You don’t have to be afraid, Seven. I won’t let anything happen to you."
"I doubt that it would be within your power to stop a boarding party of drones, should they decide to come for me. Nevertheless, I am comforted by your offer of protection."
"Well, I’m glad to hear that," Tom said, "’cause I wasn’t looking forward to flying to your rescue a second time."
B’Elanna gave her man a quizzical look before turning to Seven. "So? Do I get to see it?"
"See what, B’Elanna Torres?"
"You know what I mean. Your birthday present. It’s all Harry talked about for two weeks."
"Indeed?" Seven raised an eyebrow.
B’Elanna leaned over to gaze at the necklace, seeming to nod in approval at what she saw. "Very nice. Very nice, indeed. Looks like Harry’s decided to be generous this year. Unlike some people," she commented mischievously as she looked over her shoulder at her own man. "How come you never get me anything this nice?"
"Oh, come on, B’Elanna," Tom sighed, "I buy you plenty of nice things. Is it my fault you hate all of my gifts?"
"I don’t hate all of your gifts, Paris. Just those cheap tourist-trap things you always seem to find whenever we go on shore leave."
"Hey, I happen to think it’s important to support the local economy of the worlds we visit. Is that a crime?"
"No, Tom, but those cheesy tsunkatse dolls you bought me on Norcadia Prime…that was a crime!"
"They weren’t dolls! They were action figures!"
Harry and Seven looked at each other, neither saying a word, but each grateful to be invisible while the other couple went about their arguments.
"Oh, the hell with it," B’Elanna threw her hands up. "Seven, I need your help on Holodeck One. Tuvok thinks we need to do some training simulations for any possible Borg encounters."
"A wise precaution," the blond woman said. "Judging from the signal’s telemetry, the Borg vessel is most likely a Cube. That will mean the away team will have to traverse at least eight levels before you reach the engineering compartment."
"Oh, goody," B’Elanna answered sarcastically. "No point in us having it easy."
"You go on, Seven," Harry offered. "I’ve got some down time, so I can monitor things here until you get back."
As the two women left, Harry turned to his friend. "Hey, Tom, I hope I didn’t show you up in front of B’Elanna. I didn’t mean to make you look bad."
"Oh, forget about it, Harry," Tom said jovially. "B’Elanna wasn’t really upset. We were just teasing each other. The truth is, she hates wearing jewelry. I mean, she might admire it on other people, but she wouldn’t be caught dead in something so…well, so girly."
"Maybe it’s a particular kind of jewelry she’s looking for, Tom."
"What’s that supposed to mean?" Tom asked with suspicion.
"Look, I know it’s probably none of my business. But the two of you have been a couple for two and a half years now. Just when are you planning to make an honest woman out of her?"
"What makes you think I’m interested in settling down?" Tom answered coyly.
"Oh, come off it, Tom. You don’t fool me for a second," Harry continued with a grin, liking the role of the one giving advice for a change. "You may like to play the role of the ultra-suave galactic traveler who’s been around, but I know you too well. Deep down, you’re really an old fashioned kind of guy. Why else would you obsess about the 20th century that way you do?
"Maybe I like the music."
"It’s more than that. I’ve seen how fascinated you are by all of those images of suburban homes with nuclear families and white picket fences. Face it, Paris. That’s exactly the kind of life you want for you and B’Elanna."
"Harry, could you honestly see B’Elanna Torres hosting a Tupperware party?" he joked. Seeing that Harry wasn’t buying it, he conceded defeat, his face turning dead serious. "This goes no further than this room, understand?"
"Absolutely," Harry said earnestly.
"The truth is…we’ve talked about it. Now and then. Getting married, that is."
"I knew it!" Harry replied excitedly. "So, what’s the story? What’s holding you back?"
"Who said it was me?" Tom answered defensively. "I’m the one who wants to get married. It’s B’Elanna who has cold feet."
That wasn’t what he had expected to hear. "You’re kidding. Why?"
"I can’t say as I blame her, Harry. I mean, the way her father walked out on her and her mother when she was little, she has cause to be a little gun shy. Something like that is bad enough for any kid. But for a Klingon, abandoning a child is an even bigger betrayal."
"But still…you both love each other…"
"I know. And I keep hoping she’ll stop being afraid. I mean, we’ve had our ups and downs over the past two years. You know that. But these last few months, ever since she had those visions of Klingon hell and her mother…well, she’s really been a lot more free with herself since then. Things have been better between us than they have been for a while. I guess I just have to remain hopeful. I don’t want to lose her, Harry."
"Don’t feel too bad, Tom. At least your girlfriend can actually tell you that she loves you."
"You mean, Seven still hasn’t said the L-word yet?"
"No. It’s like she won’t let herself go either. I try not to make a big deal of it, and I keep telling myself that Seven really does care about me, that she’s still trying to understand her emotions. But sometimes…" The younger man sighed in resignation. "I just need to hear her tell me what I mean to her. I don’t want to lose her either."
The next day, the senior staff sat assembled in the briefing room. Seven of Nine stood at the conference monitor, addressing the group. While everyone’s attention was focused on the screen, Harry Kim of course, was focused on Seven.
"The source of the signal was traced to this solar system," she gestured to the star chart on the monitor, as the view zoomed in on a single point of light, expanding into a computer-generated representation of the star and its retinue of planets. "The signal originated from the second planet. Considering the risk of a possible encounter, I recommend a probe be dispatched to gather the necessary reconnaissance."
"What have we been able to learn about the planet itself from this distance?" Chakotay spoke up.
Seven turned to Harry, who would take over this next part of the presentation. "The planet is Class M. Barely. Thin air, little water and almost no vegetation. We haven’t been able to detect any mineral ores or resources that would be of interest to anyone, much less the Borg. It’s basically a dead planet."
"And what about the Borg," Janeway asked. "Where you able to find their ship?"
Harry looked uncomfortable as he looked back at Seven. The two of them had analyzed the data from the Astrometric sensors and he wasn’t exactly looking forward to breaking what could be disappointing news. "We…we found it all right." He then pressed a key on his PADD and the view of the monitor switched to reveal the planet itself, rust brown with a thin wisp of clouds and shallow seas. The view then zoomed in for a slightly more detailed image of the northern hemisphere, then again to a hilly region, then one again, until an ugly black smudge became visible, reaching the limits of the sensors’ resolution. Thus answering the question of why the Borg signal had suddenly ceased transmitting.
"Is that our ship?" Janeway asked, sounding startled.
"I’m afraid so, Captain." Harry answered glumly. "Or at least, what’s left of it."
"At least we don’t have to worry about running into any drones," B’Elanna commented dryly.
"So much for our salvage," Chakotay commented with disappointment. "There’s no way anything useful could have survived that crash."
"Well, not necessarily," Harry added. "I mean, our sensors were able to pick up a few faint energy signatures, so we know that at least a few active components are down there. And scans show that some large sections of the hull are still intact."
"So we may still be able to find something?" the captain asked, still tying to keep hope alive.
"Anything is possible, I suppose," Harry shrugged.
"Have you been able to determine anything about what caused the crash?" Janeway asked. "Could it have been the same thing that knocked out the Cube that the Norcadians found?"
Harry thought about the possible connection his captain was referring to. About a month earlier, while Voyager‘s crew was on shore leave at Norcadia Prime, the news had broken across the sector about a salvage team’s discovery of a derelict Borg Cube found adrift in space. The ship’s complement of drones were all dead, killed by some unknown virus. The only survivors had been a handful of children, ranging from an infant to two teenage boys, all of whom were still in their maturation chambers when the prize crews came aboard. The Norcadian Commercial League immediately claimed salvage rights and took possession of the ship, eager to plumb its technological secrets. Captain Janeway had been conducting negotiations with the local shipbuilder’s guild for the sale of their new warp plasma when she learned of the discovery. She offered to share Voyager‘s medical experience with removing Borg implants in exchange for any transwarp technology they might bring to light. Apparently, despite centuries of depredation, the Norcadians and their allies had never learned, or never bothered, to try and liberate one from the Collective. The Norcadians took the medical information gladly, and then politely asked Voyager to leave and not muscle in on their find. And they parked half a dozen warships of their bow, just to help escort them on their way out of the sector. Tom Paris had said it best; remarking on how some people just didn’t know how to share their toys.
He and Seven had been on the surface at the time, enjoying their first real vacation together under the twin suns when the news broke. He saw the Borg children on the planetary news channels, surrounded by posturing politicians and businessmen eager to whip the populace into an anti-Borg frenzy. Harry felt sorry for the children, to have gone through what they had, only to be ‘liberated’ and used so shamelessly. One of the children, a ten-year old girl named Mezoti, happened to be Norcadian also, and had quickly become the poster child for a planet-wide movement to push the Borg out of the nearby Brunali system. He remembered shaking his head in disgust at the sight of the newly-freed child, reading from an obviously pre-prepared speech about the need to fight back against the Borg, while a conveniently discovered ‘aunt’ looked on with approval. If only we had found them first, he thought regretfully. Seven might have had so much to teach them.
Harry figured the Norcadians believed themselves to be invincible, now that they had Borg technology on their side. Personally, he didn’t give them much of a chance. The Norcadians were mostly businessmen, not warriors. Their use of force was clumsy at best. He only hoped that for the children’s sake that the Borg didn’t push back too hard.
"We don’t know what caused the crash, Captain," he answered, roused from his reminiscence. "Or for that matter, what it was doing in this solar system. We just don’t have enough data to work with at this point. I can tell you that the crash was fairly recent. A seismic analysis of the surrounding terrain indicates that the impact took place about three or four weeks ago. But that’s just a rough estimate. There’s no way to be sure about anything without sending an away mission to examine the wreckage."
Captain Janeway sat for a moment, mulling over this information. "Then that’s what we’ll have to do," she said as she turned to B’Elanna. "Lieutenant Torres, we’ll continue with our original plan. Prepare your team for a surface away mission. A security detail will accompany you until we’ve been able to ascertain for certain that there are no survivors down there."
"Captain, shall I assume that I will be part of the away team to the planet’s surface?" Seven asked.
"I’m afraid not, Seven," Janeway said. "I’d like for you to remain on Voyager at Astrometrics. I need for you to keep any eye out in case any Borg ships arrive to clean up after themselves. Naturally, you’ll be involved in the analysis of any technology we find at the crash site."
"But Captain," she objected, "surely I am the most qualified to be assigned to this mission. Nobody on Voyager is as experienced with Borg technology as I am."
"Ordinarily, I would agree," the captain answered calmly. "But I can’t take any chances with what might happen down there."
"You are afraid that the Borg may subvert my behavior," Seven said coolly, her words almost sounding like an accusation, "that this crash may be a trap."
"Given what occurred during our last encounter with the Borg, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable concern," Janeway answered.
"Very well," the younger woman conceded.
"Captain, until we have determined that there are in fact no survivors, I recommend that we keep the ship on Yellow alert," Tuvok suggested.
"Agreed," said Janeway.
"I also feel that we must establish a contingency plan, should the Borg arrive in the system while our away team is on the surface," the Vulcan continued.
"We could send out a shuttle in a wide elliptical orbit around the system and establish a link between it and Astrometrics. The two ships, working in tandem, would act as a wide-band array and increase our sensor resolution. This should give us ample warning should any Borg arrive while we are in orbit."
"Excellent idea, Mr. Tuvok. Make the necessary arrangements." She then turned her attention to the gathering before her. "Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to go prospecting. Let’s pray we strike gold this time."
It was agreed that the landing party would consist of eight crewmembers: four engineers and four security officers. B’Elanna Torres, being experienced in both science and combat, was the natural choice to lead the mission.
The half-Klingon engineer was in her quarters, retrieving the last of her gear before meeting the rest of her team at the transporter room. Voyager had come out of warp and was moving into an orbital position over the target planet. Sensors were confirming what the probe had already indicated: that the Borg cube had come down hard and had spread wreckage over a three-kilometer area. B’Elanna didn’t feel optimistic about their chances of making a valuable discovery, but as a Maquis, she had learned the value of making do with what you could find. Borg technology was sophisticated enough that even a few surviving power cells could lead to an important breakthrough for the crew.
She heard the door slide open behind her. She turned to see her lover, Tom Paris standing behind her. He had a worried look on his face. Understandable, considering where she was about to beam down to.
"I should go with you," he said.
"Relax, flyboy. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. Besides, they need you at the helm in case we have to make a fast getaway."
"Even so, I’d feel better if you weren’t going."
"That’s sweet, Tom, but I’ll be fine. I doubt an ant could have survived that impact, never mind any drones. The biggest risk I’ll probably face is tripping over a piece of hull plating. And if worst comes worst, I’ve got Ayala and three big strong security guards to protect me."
He smiled at her bravado. She never liked to look vulnerable in front of him. He came over to her and put his arms around her, holding her close. He envied the fact that Harry and Seven were able to share so much of their time together. For all of the closure around her emotions, at least the former drone was free with sharing her personal space. By contrast, B’Elanna had no difficulty expressing her feelings. It was her self, her own identity, that should could not relinquish. Even after two years, she insisted on maintaining her independence through keeping separate quarters.
"I didn’t mean what I said earlier," she spoke softly. "About your gifts, I mean. You know I was only teasing."
"I love everything you give to me," she smiled at him sweetly.
He looked into her eyes and grinned mischievously at her. "So how about if I gave you a ring?"
She jumped back in alarm and then let her eyes roll up as she sighed. "Oh, god, Tom," she groaned as she pushed away from him. "Are we going to have that conversation again?"
"Would it be so terrible? You and me?" he asked, his voice sounding wounded.
"Tom!" she snapped in frustration. Her shoulders then sagged, as her voice became weary. "What do we have to talk about marriage for? What we have is so wonderful just the way it is. Why spoil it by getting married?"
"Because I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. And I know you feel the same way about me."
"Tom…" she struggled to answer him. She didn’t want to hurt him or drive him away, but it frustrated her that he couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to risk this one bit of happiness she had. "Marriage…it changes people. It makes them feel trapped. What makes our relationship work so well is that we’re both free to love each other without any obligation." She took a deep breath as she went on. "When people feel like they’re in a cage, all they can think about is how to escape."
"Damn it, B’Elanna!" Tom shouted back, not so much in anger as in disappointment. "I think I’ve proved to you these last two years that I’m not your father!"
"Come on, Tom! Even if we don’t end up like my parents, do you honestly want to end up like yours? You’ve told me all about how your father would be gone for months at a time with his Starfleet duties, and then he comes home, and he and your mother are like polite strangers. Do you want that to happen to us?"
"Hey, I’m not my father either! Any more than you have to be your mother. You and I…we’re just us!"
She raised her hands up, as though she didn’t want him to come any closer. "I…I don’t want to have this conversation any more. I’ve got an away mission to lead." She moved towards the door, but she could see that Tom was standing there silently, obviously hurt. "Please don’t be mad," she said gently, trying to placate him.
"I’m not mad. Who said I was mad?"
"Just think about what I’ve said. You’ll see that I’m right about this." He said nothing as she opened the door to exit. She gave him one last look as she stood in the doorway. "I love you. I really do." Then the door slide shut behind her.
Tom just sighed as he was left alone with his own thoughts. "Of course you do," he said to himself, "just not enough."
It had been a beautiful world once, with wide oceans, blue skies, and a healthy, diverse biosphere. But that was millions of years ago. As time progressed, the planet’s sun had grown hotter and expanded outward, baking its family of worlds. Gradually, the planet’s geo-chemical cycle wound down, with plate tectonics grinding to a halt. The atmosphere steadily thinned out into the vacuum of space, and the once majestic oceans shrank to shallow briny seas. One by one, the various ecosystems of the planet collapsed until only primitive algae and bacteria remained. In time, even those would be lost as the temperatures rose and the residual atmosphere and water boiled away. Then there would be nothing left, nothing except fossils, that would stand as a testament that this had once been a living planet.
For now, it was a graveyard of a world, a fitting place for a Borg Cube to come to die.
The starship Voyager had pulled into orbit around the planet. All was tense on the bridge as everyone anxiously waited for word from the away team. At the same time, a shuttlecraft crewed by Ensign Baytart, Jenkins and Crewman Celez had slipped into a wide orbit around the system’s Kuiper Belt, their sensors networked with Voyager‘s, so far detecting no visitors from outside to catch them unawares. Meanwhile, Harry Kim could see from his position at Operations that Tom was shifting nervously at the helm. He knew that his friend was concerned about B’Elanna and what she might encounter at the crash site. Although Voyager‘s sensors had failed to detect anything alive from orbit, who was to say they weren’t simply being shown what they wanted to see?
And so they waited until the away team materialized on the surface.
At last, the intercom came alive with the sound of a familiar voice. "Torres to Voyager. We’ve found a clear frequency where we can send a transmission. Man, what a mess down here."
Janeway nodded as she listened to the chief engineer’s report. "Lieutenant, what can you tell us about the condition of the Borg vessel?"
"Black and white and spread all over. Ayala’s laying down motion and infrared detectors around the perimeter, but so far nothing seems to be moving around here."
"B’Elanna, our surveys showed some of the hull sections are still intact. Can you see any from your position?"
"I…wait a minute. Yes, there’s a large segment, half-buried in the sand. It’s…I’m picking up low levels of thermionic radiation coming from inside."
Chakotay perked up in concern. "How low are we talking? Anything that’s potentially dangerous?"
"Not to worry, Chakotay. Judging from my tricorder readings, it’s probably just residual leakage from the crash. We should be fine."
"Then you plan to check it out?"
"If its radiating power, then it might have something we’ll want. Permission to proceed, captain?"
"Granted," Janeway answered, her tone confidant, yet her brow furrowed with worry. "Just don’t take any unnecessary chances."
"Yes, ma’am. Bristow, Ortega, Lang, you’re with me. The rest of you pair off and sweep the surrounding area."
Communications ceased for just a few seconds as the com signal adjusted to the shift in location. "Voyager, we’re moving inside the hull section. Footing is a bit unsteady…we’re…"
B’Elanna’s voice was interrupted by the sound of a shrill cry coming from the background. Someone had screamed. Tom nearly jumped up in his seat, fearing the worst.
"B’Elanna, what’s happening?!" Janeway shouted in alarm.
There was what seemed like an interminable lull that in fact lasted less than two seconds. Then, communications resumed, and thankfully, the tone of voice was relaxed. "Torres, here. We’re all fine down here. It seems that Ortega made first contact with a Borg drone. Or at least, the remains of one."
Janeway let that sink for a moment. "B’Elanna, what do you see?"
"There’s at least a dozen corpses in here. It looks like the drones were crushed by a segment of the bulkhead during the crash."
"And there’s nothing moving in there at all?"
"Just the hairs on the back of my neck." The familiar sarcastic smile was evident in her tone of voice. "We’re moving deeper into the section. Trying to…"
"Captain, We’re picking more of those thermionic emissions. They seem to be coming from the next chamber over. I think…my god, captain! I think we’re inside of the engineering compartment! Unbelievable! It actually survived the impact in one piece!"
Janeway looked over at her first officer with surprise. His own features were equally a mixture of confusion and elation. Neither one dared get their hopes up too high. There had been too many disappointments in their efforts to return home before. Could the crew withstand yet another letdown?
"Captain, we’ve found it. The transwarp housing. It…one of the support struts seems to have fallen in on it."
"B’Elanna, be very careful with what’s in there…"
"Working on it, Captain," the engineer answered shortly. "Bristow, give me a hand with that beam. We’ll use it a crowbar."
Things were silent for a minute, then two, then five. All that could be heard was the clattering and groaning of metal against metal. Tom was beside himself with both anticipation and worry. Harry seemed on the verge of pacing behind his station. All he could think about was what Seven was thinking right now. He knew she routinely monitored bridge communication for any relevant information. What was she making of all of this new information?
"Lieutenant, talk to us…" Janeway finally spoke up, the silence unbearable.
"Voyager," B’Elanna finally answered, her voice almost a whisper, "we’ve managed to pry open the transwarp housing."
"B’Elanna, please tell me you were able to find a working transwarp coil in there."
"Not exactly, Captain," came the answer in a monotone. Everyone on the bridge felt deflated at the news, hearing another disappointment in her pause. But then she continued on, and the joy in her voice was unmistakable. "We found four of them suckers!"
And then pandemonium broke loose, as the entire bridge crew let out a resounding chorus of cheers and cries of elation. Janeway jolted up out of her chair, not quite believing what she had heard. Four transwarp coils? A single coil had managed to cut fifteen years off of Voyager‘s journey back to the Alpha Quadrant. But now, they were twenty-five years away. And they had four such coils at their disposal.
They were going home.
Tom Paris let out a cheer that drowned out the bridge, his earlier troubled mood all but forgotten. "B’Elanna, you know I love you. But right now, I really, really, really, really love you! Yahooooo!"
Harry Kim was running about the room, hugging everyone in sight. Ensign Matthews had tears running down her cheeks. And Tuvok seemed absolutely scandalized that decorum had so completely broken down on the bridge. But he knew it would illogical to try and contain it at this point.
A warm, joyous voice spoke next to Janeway. "Permission to hug my superior officer in a spontaneous display of emotion?"
For a split second, Janeway was taken aback by Chakotay’s request. But then she figured…why not? "Permission granted." And they quickly embraced each other cheerfully. The bridge was far too occupied to notice.
Once they separated, Janeway called out to the intercom. "B’Elanna, what’s your status down there?"
"Well, aside from everyone jumping for joy, we’re status quo. All of our scans of the coils show that at least three are in mint condition. The fourth looks a bit banged up, but still functional. "
"How soon can you get those coils up here and flight tested?"
"Hmmm…" she said. "This support beam has got the housing door wedged in pretty tight. We’re going to need a fusion cutter down here to slice it free."
Janeway turned to the back of the room to see Harry Kim slapping crewmen Enriquez and Sun’kuarto heartily on the back. "Mr. Kim," she called out.
"You have some experience with transwarp theory, as I recall. I’d like you to beam down to the surface with the recovery team to assist Lieutenant Torres with transporting the transwarp coils."
"Yes, ma’am." As eagerly darted towards the turbolift, but then stopped and turned back towards the captain. He smiled a toothy grin and seemed to blush as he stood there.
"Uh, Captain," he looked up, almost embarrassed to speak. "Permission to make a detour at Astrometrics before proceeding to the transporter room?"
Janeway almost let out a laugh of pure delight at her young officer’s innocent request. Instead she gave a pleased smile as she responded. "Permission granted, Mr. Kim."
Seven of Nine stood silently at the Astrometrics station, trying to take in all that she had heard in the last few minutes. Three fully functional transwarp coils and one partially functional. She knew exactly what this meant for the crew of Voyager. She even knew what it would mean for Harry. But she hadn’t the slightest idea what this would mean for her. And clearly nobody on board had considered what it would mean in the long term for the Federation, a subject that she was now giving serious thought to.
Her musings were interrupted by the swish of the door and a jubilant cry from behind her. "Yipeeeeee!!!"
Seven’s mate positively glowed with joy as he ran up to her and put his arms around her narrow waist. She expected that perhaps he might hug or even kiss her. But she was startled when he actually lifted her off the ground and twirled her about in the air in a single fluid motion.
"Harry," she called out in alarm, "what are you doing?!"
"I’m sorry, beautiful, but I just can’t help myself," he said, while grinning from ear-to-ear. "We’re going home, Seven! After all these years, it’s finally within our grasp!"
"Surely this is premature. The transwarp coils have not yet been appropriately examined."
"Seven, B’Elanna has enough experience to know if a piece of machinery is working or not. This is really it! Isn’t it wonderful?!"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not," she answered softly, her face impassive.
Harry could see the troubled look on her face and reached out to touch her cheek. "Oh, Seven. I can see what this is about. Look, I know the idea of us heading back to the Alpha Quadrant frightens you. But you don’t have to be scared."
"I am not afraid, Harry. Fear is irrelevant."
"Now, you don’t have to put on a brave front with me, Seven," he spoke to her reassuringly. "I realize things are going to change once we get there. But you don’t have to worry. I’ll be by your side the whole time. Why, you’ll adapt to Earth before you know it!"
"That may be the case initially, but what will happen in the long run?"
"What’s that supposed to mean?" he asked.
Seven looked at Harry pointedly as she spoke. "Harry, have you considered the long term implications of Voyager‘s return to the Alpha Quadrant?"
"Long term? Well, I don’t know…" he said, puzzled by the question. "I imagine we’d make history. I mean, we’d be the first starship to ever travel to the Delta Quadrant and return to tell about it. And we’d be bringing back a lot of knowledge from our exploration. All of the cultures we’ve contacted, the phenomena we’ve encountered…"
"And the technologies that Voyager will be returning with, as well," Seven added.
"Yeah, I guess so," Harry said, still unsure as to where this was all leading. "Where are you going with this, Seven?"
"Consider, Harry, what will happen when Voyager returns to the Federation with at least one functioning transwarp coil. Starfleet will almost certainly study the device in hopes of understanding the principles of its operation and replicating it for use in other vessels."
"Then you concur that the Federation will almost certainly attempt to return to the Delta Quadrant."
"Of course. ‘To seek out new life and new civilizations.’ That’s the Starfleet motto. Voyager barely scratched the surface of this part of the galaxy. If we have the means, then sure, why not continue to explore?"
"It will not be limited to exploration, Harry. Almost certainly some Delta Quadrant races will be assimilated into the Federation. I have heard Mr. Neelix express a desire for his own people to join with the Federation, should they ever prove capable of expanding into the Delta Quadrant."
"Seven, we don’t assimilate people, we invite them to join as equal members. There’s a difference," he replied, somewhat defensively. "And what would be wrong with that? The Talaxians are a fine people and they’d make a welcome addition to the Federation."
"It will not cease with the Talaxians, Harry. Federation expansion will be seen inevitably as a threat by other races in the Delta Quadrant. Most especially, by the Borg."
"Seven, that’s a long way off. We can deal with them when the time comes."
"No, Harry. You can not. Until now, the Borg have viewed humanity as a desirable race for addition to the Collective. Desirable, yet not imperative. Your society has been too distant to be worth expending the resources of a massive assimilation. Hence, the previous incursions by the Borg have each been limited to a single vessel." She looked at him with a desperate glance, her gaze becoming more intense, her voice fraught with anxiety. "But should your people expand massively into the Delta Quadrant, allying with other races to confront the Collective, you would quickly be seen as a threat. The assimilation of the Federation, with humanity in particular, would become a top priority. And then, Harry Kim, the Federation would bear witness to the full power of the Borg Collective."
Harry felt his blood grow cold. He had come in here feeling so elated, like the master of the universe. This wasn’t what he wanted to hear, not now. "Okay…so, we’ll have to face down the Borg sooner or later. But we’ll beat them back. We always have before."
"That is what Captain Janeway clearly believes. I have expressed my concerns to her in the past, but she makes the naïve presumption will inevitably prove itself capable of facing any challenge, in the absence of any empirical proof."
"Well," he answered guardedly, "I happen to believe the same thing, Seven."
"Harry, have you heard nothing that I have said?" she spoke aloud, somewhat harsher than she had intended. "Up until now, humanity has experienced only the merest fraction of what the Collective could dispatch against you, should they so desire. I have seen civilizations far mightier than the Federation fall before the Borg. Resistance truly is futile!"
"Whoa! Just hold on a second. Seven, it doesn’t have to turn out that way. I mean…what about Braxton and the Timefleet? Doesn’t that mean we know that humanity and some kind of Federation will exist for at least another five hundred years?"
"That future is not inevitable, Harry. In fact, our discovery of the transwarp coils may well invalidate such a future from ever taking place."
"But…how can you be so sure?"
"Through logical deduction. The Borg have assimilated much information regarding the nature of time from many other races. For the most part, the timeline is static and proceeds along a predictable course. However, there occasionally are events or intersections which manifest themselves, around which historical contingency is dependent. The outcome of these intersections determines the course and direction that the timeline proceeds. The discovery of warp drive by Zephram Cochrane was one such event, which is why the Borg attempted to alter its outcome during their second attack on Earth. I am convinced that Voyager‘s presence in the Delta Quadrant is another, an historic anomaly with radical implications for the outcome of human history."
Harry couldn’t entirely deny that, given what he knew would be the probably results of Voyager‘s return home. And he did recall something that Q had remarked, about how there weren’t supposed to be any humans in the Delta Quadrant for at least another hundred years. Was Voyager being here such a temporal anomaly that even the Q Continuum could fail to predict it? "And what does this have to do with Braxton’s future? Or our going home?"
"Quite simply, Harry, that the existence of Braxton’s timeline is dependent on historical contingency. Why do you think that the inhabitants of the 29th Century have permitted us to keep the Doctor’s mobile emitter, knowing full well the impact such advanced technology would have on Federation society when Voyager returns? Or for that matter, why would they permit us knowledge of their future’s existence in the first place? This would only happen if they knew such knowledge would have no impact on the Federation of the present. In other words, Harry, in Braxton’s timeline, I believe that Voyager never successfully returns from the Delta Quadrant. So as you can see, a long future for the Federation is not predetermined."
"Well…even so. Just because we don’t know for certain that the Federation will be around in the 29th Century, it doesn’t mean we’re certain to be wiped out by the Borg."
"I believe it does, Harry. I know the Borg. I have seen what they have done and what they are capable of. A single Cube destroyed forty Federation starships at the Battle of Wolf 359. Imagine the results if twenty Cubes were sent to Earth!"
"Seven…just what are you trying to tell me with all of this?"
She looked at him straight on, her blue eyes piercing into him intensely. "There is a way we can escape the Federation’s fate, Harry. Voyager need not return to the Alpha Quadrant."
Harry’s jaw nearly hit the floor as he heard what Seven said. "What?! Do you know what you’re saying?"
"Indeed, I do. The Federation is most certainly doomed, but we need not be assimilated along with it."
"My god, Seven! For the past six years we’ve been struggling to return home and see our loved ones and now you’re suggesting we should just forget about it?! I can’t believe you’d say something like that!"
"Harry, the final conflict between humanity and the Borg will come. Perhaps not next year or within ten years, but almost certainly within our lifetimes, it will come. Our imperative is to ensure our own survival."
"And just what do you suggest we do instead of returning to Earth?"
"Continue as we have been, of course. To acquire knowledge and add to our own perfection. If we can master the technology of transwarp travel, then we will have the freedom to journey wherever we wish. We can always remain ahead of the Borg Collective and never fear being vulnerable to assimilation. Over time, we could enhance Voyager, adding to its capabilities, like the Varro generation ship. We will be free and safe."
"And what about everyone back home!" he demanded. "Even if I believed that this ‘final showdown’ was going to happen, do you really expect us to just abandon our families and friends? Maybe everyone in the universe who matters to you is on this ship, but I still have people I care about back on Earth!"
"I had considered that possibility," she answered. "Perhaps it might be feasible for Voyager to return to the Alpha Quadrant long enough to retrieve those we wish to save, and then depart."
"Depart?!" he sputtered incredulously. "Now you’re talking about stealing Voyager?!"
"Theft is irrelevant, Harry. Not if the party from whom you are stealing will soon cease to exist."
"Stop saying that!" he snapped at her. "I can’t believe you can be so cavalier about the destruction of everything I care so much about!"
"I would have thought that what you valued most were the individuals on this vessel, along with myself," she answered icily. "Surely you would not risk your existence over something as irrelevant as…a government!"
"Yes, I would!" he answered defiantly. "I swore an oath to serve the Federation and protect it when threatened. I thought you knew me well enough to know I’d never accept turning tail and running away!"
"You would do this?" she asked incredulously, her eyes wide in alarm. "You would choose to stay and defend the Federation? Even if it meant the termination of your own life?! Or your assimilation?!"
"If it would buy the Federation one more minute of freedom, then yes, I would!" he retorted in a huff.
Seven of Nine looked at Harry through narrowed eyes, feeling an unexpected coil of fury building up within her, which she then released at the man she called her mate. "Then you are a fool!"
Harry reacted as if he had been slapped. Hurt and angry, he lashed out at the beautiful former drone. "At least I give a damn about people other than myself!" And with that, he turned and stomped out of Astrometrics.
For a moment, Seven stood firm and proud, her stance fueled by anger. But then, her rage began to ebb, and a profound sadness filled the void, as it began to dawn upon her what had just happened. Instinctively, she reached for the necklace he had given her, holding that perfect structure in her hand.
"I…I have lost him," she whispered to the empty walls around her.
"Mr. Paris! At least try to pretend you have some interest in what you are doing!" the Doctor harangued his unwilling assistant.
Tom Paris let out a regretful sigh as he started on his shift in Sickbay. If he had to list the things he would enjoy most about returning to the Alpha Quadrant, the top of his list would have to include an end to his duties under the imperious Emergency Medical Hologram. Oh, he liked the Doc well enough. He just couldn’t stand working with him. "I thought you already had a system in place for organizing your medical files," he protested.
"This isn’t for Starfleet records, Mr. Paris. I’m attempting to catalogue my xenobiological research into a paper to present to the Federation Academy of Interspecies Medicine. With our imminent return to the Alpha Quadrant, it seems prudent to put together a presentation of my findings, wouldn’t you agree?"
"A paper? I’m busting my hump going through your database just so you can get into the celebrity spotlight?"
"Now, Mr. Paris. You must agree that some of the work we’ve done on Voyager has been revolutionary. Why, the data we’ve collected on the Borg alone will completely revise our understanding of nanotechnological medical applications."
"And boost your image in the process, no doubt. You’re assuming the peer committee will even accept a paper written by an EMH. They’ll probably think it’s some kind of prank."
The Doctor was about to make a retort of his own, when the door to Sickbay slid open and Seven of Nine entered the room. She looked pale, almost in shock, as she wandered into the room dazed.
"Why, Seven," the Doctor greeted her warmly. "What brings you down here? I’m sure Mr. Kim has told you the wonderful news by now…" He then stopped in mid sentence as he noticed that she did not seem to react to his buoyant good mood. "Seven, what seems to be the problem? You look upset about something."
"Harry and I…it appears we have terminated our affiliation," she said, her voice was soft, trembling, almost in a state of disbelief.
"What?!" Tom blurted out in alarm from his position by his workstation. "You two broke up?!"
"I can’t believe it!" the Doctor responded. "The two of you seemed so happy together. What could have possibly caused this to happen?"
Seven went on to explain to her former mentor what had taken place earlier in Astrometrics between her and Harry. She ignored the sardonic looks the Doctor and Tom gave her as she related her concerns about the inevitable Borg/Federation conflict to come. Having finished her tale, she looked up and was surprised to see an understanding smile on the Doctor’s face.
"Oh, Seven," he said, "you and Mr. Kim haven’t ended your relationship. You merely had an argument, that’s all. It’s perfectly natural for two people who care about each other to have disagreements and exchange harsh words."
"But, Harry and I have never quarreled before. We may have had moments where we failed to communicate effectively, but we certainly have never spoken ill of each other in the manner that we did."
"Seven, it takes more than angry words to end a relationship," Tom added. "Why, look at me and B’Elanna. We fight all the time, but we always make up afterwards."
"Yes, I have often wondered how it was possible for you and B’Elanna Torres to maintain affection for one another given the amount of disagreement you display at times," Seven commented.
"Now, Seven, you have to understand the fundamental paradox of what it is to be human," the Doctor lectured. "As I’ve observed matters, humans, like most other species, are individuals, and as such, they can never fully share their thoughts and feelings, except through the inaccuracies of verbal and non-verbal language. Thus in an elemental way, humans are forever isolated from each other in their thoughts.
Yet at the same time, they are also social creatures, each with an instinctual need to establish connections with others; the need to have friendships, to create families, to be part of societies or communities, not to mention the need to form relationships with loved ones.
So given these two contradictory impulses, it’s only natural that there would be friction between them."
Seven of Nine blinked in response to the hologram’s observations. "Then you are saying that conflict between those who share affection is inevitable? That does not sound like a condition to which one would wish to aspire."
"I’m not saying that conflict is inevitable, Seven," he replied, "only that it is to be anticipated. The question then becomes how one chooses to manage the conflict."
"To make a long story short, Seven," Tom added, eager to get back on track from the Doctor’s long-winded pontification, "fights are all perfectly normal. It’s a part of being human. But if your love is strong, then any disagreement can be forgiven."
"But how does one determine who is correct?" she asked.
"Now, Seven," the Doctor continued knowingly, "It’s not a question of who’s right and wrong. A true relationship of equals is always based upon compromise. And I think Ensign Kim is smart enough to realize that part of your proposal was motivated by your fear of returning to the Alpha Quadrant."
"It is more than simply fear," she answered defensively. "My concern about the Borg is a legitimate one. Harry accused me of being concerned for no one’s welfare other than my own. But that is not true. I wanted Harry and the entire crew of Voyager to be safe from harm."
"Come on, Seven," Tom chided, "I think you know Harry well enough to know that what you suggested would be completely unacceptable to him. Harry may love you, but he also loves Earth. It’s his home, it’s part of who he is. Even if he could rescue his parents and the rest of his family, he couldn’t just give up the planet of his birth without a fight. It’s certainly not fair to make him choose between you and his people."
"Mr. Neelix thought nothing of leaving his own homeworld and his people behind to join Voyager‘s crew," she countered.
"Neelix…" Tom hesitated, not sure if it was his place to psychoanalyze the Talaxian, knowing full well the painful memories and psychological demons he was leaving behind. "He has his own reasons. But just because Neelix made his choices, it doesn’t mean those are the same choices Harry should have to make."
"But surely Voyager could be his home as well?" she asked.
"Voyager‘s not a home, Seven. It’s just a ship. It’s a fine ship, don’t get me wrong, but that’s all it is, and that’s all it ever will be. Wandering from place to place, that’s just not what it is to be fully human. A person needs to put down roots. He or she needs to say, ‘this place is mine’ so that no matter where they travel to, they always have somewhere to return to."
"It was always acceptable as a home to me," she said sadly, but the reality of Tom’s advice was starting to sink in. To Seven, who had never truly known a place to call home, even before her assimilation, the whole idea of being emotionally attached to any one place or society seemed fairly ridiculous. But it was becoming clear that Harry was capable of holding allegiances to collectives far more extensive than just the crew of Voyager or his family, but rather to an entire world, or an alliance of worlds.
"Besides, Seven," the Doctor said, "You must remember that Ensign Kim is a Starfleet officer. It’s his sworn duty to protect those who are in need of help, not to mention it being a part of his generous nature. Even if it means sacrificing his own life…"
Then the former drone spun towards her former mentor and spat out with uncharacteristic fury. "It is not his life to give away!"
The Doctor was startled by her outburst as he jumped back in amazement. Seven recovered herself and flustered in embarrassment at her behavior. First Harry, and now the Doctor. What was happening to her? The last thing she wanted to do was be harsh with her friend, especially since she still felt guilty about how poorly she had treated him during Voyager‘s recent stopover at the Quomari homeworld. The hologram, eager to pursue his own emerging humanity, not to mention being extremely flattered by the adoration of millions who had never heard singing before, had hoped to stay behind and bask in the glory of being a musical celebrity. Seven had not reacted well to his decision to leave. It was bad enough for her to lose someone she regarded as ‘family,’ but it was even worse for her to do so to a race whose behavior was as unacceptable as the Quomari. She recalled how harsh and judgmental they had been with Harry’s own performance, preferring to hear the Doctor’s singing to the jazz stylings of the Kim-Tones. Seven had been furious at their obnoxious interruption of his act. She had even threatened bodily harm against one of the attendees if he did not sit down and remain silent. An embarrassed Katherine Janeway quickly had her hustled out of the room before a major diplomatic incident occurred. Of course, Harry had not been affected by the incident. He brushed it all aside with good humor, claiming that ‘any artist has to accept bad reviews, now and then.’
She struggled to explain what she was feeling. "Harry…his life…it is relevant to me. I do not want to see him harmed."
"Perhaps you should have explained that to him," the Doctor replied patiently.
"I…I wished to. But when I heard him speak of giving up his own life, rather than choosing to be safe with me, I became…angry. I berated him." She looked up at the Doctor, her face frantic and agitated. "Why did I do such a thing? Why did I behave in so irrational a manner?"
Tom gave the tall blond woman a knowing grin as he leaned forward. "Uh, Seven. Do you remember, earlier in your relationship with Harry, when he became upset about not thinking he was worthy of you?"
"Yes, you are referring to the time when Harry became displeased with the Doctor because of his fantasy of me."
Tom glanced over at the Doctor with a half-hearted apologetic expression. The Doctor took a deep breath and looked uncomfortable, before returning to the pilot with a dirty look. Maybe that experience didn’t mean much to Seven, but it was a low point in his existence that he would just as soon forget.
"Well, remember what I said about why Harry was acting as foolish as he was?" Tom asked.
"Yes, you indicated that one often behaves like an idiot when one is in love."
Tom grinned wickedly at the young woman as he gave his opinion. "Yeah, well, it works both ways, you know."
Seven blinked at hearing the pilot’s words. If his observations were correct, did it mean…could it mean…? Perhaps, in spite of her concerns that she was incapable of feeling the emotion of ‘love,’ she had in fact been in love with Harry Kim the entire time?
"And don’t forget, Seven, there’s one good thing about when couples fight," Tom added.
"What could that possibly be?" she asked in disbelief.
"Making up afterwards," he added playfully. "Believe you me, there ain’t nuthin’ better than make-up sex."
An image formed in Seven’s mind of Harry’s firm yet gentle hands exploring the curves and crevices of her body. "Make-up sex…" she mused aloud, "I do not believe such a position exists within my sexual database. It sounds most intriguing." A wide smile of her own spread across her smooth features.
"I believe you’ve just found an strong incentive to reconcile with Mr. Kim," the Doctor jested.
"Yes," she answered, "assuming that he wishes to reconcile with me."
"Are you kidding?" Tom grinned. "Let me tell you what’s happening right now. Harry is probably fuming to himself. He’ll seek out B’Elanna, she’ll tell him what a knucklehead he’s being, and then straighten him out. He’ll probably beam back with a whole bouquet of flowers, begging your forgiveness."
"But, the planet below does not support flowering plant life."
"Well, maybe the metaphorical equivalent, Seven," he answered with a smile.
"I see. I shall consider your words, Tom Paris. Thank you, for your…friendship. If you will excuse me, I must now return to Astrometrics."
She acknowledged the Doctor as she turned to leave, thinking about the value Harry had placed on his friendship with Tom Paris. Until today, she had never felt the same kind of connection with Voyager‘s chief pilot that her mate had. Harry was always trying to encourage a friendship between herself and Ensign Paris and Lieutenant Torres, but it had always been slow to develop until now. The lieutenant’s hostility had always been a barrier between them. As for Tom Paris himself, he was helpful enough in the past, and had always been a valuable source of information. But she had always found him so…unpredictable. And she found it nearly impossible to decipher his sense of humor, which seemed to be the primary mode in which he communicated with others. Better to have Harry around to translate for her.
But perhaps, she thought as she went down the corridor to return to her duties, not everything Ensign Tom Paris had to say was irrelevant after all.
As Harry Kim’s molecules reassembled themselves on the planet’s surface, he wished that he could have beamed his foul mood into the depths of space. He had stomped his way into the transporter room, not even looking at the faces of his fellow teammates. Sue Nicolletti, Noah Lessing, and Siri Golwat had all looked at him on the transport pad like he was out of his mind. Here they all were, just moments away from going home, all bubbling with excitement, and yet here he was, scowling like a man who had received the biggest let down of his life.
Which wasn’t so far from the truth.
"Harry, are you OK?" Sue had asked him.
"I’m fine," he replied brusquely. "Why wouldn’t I be?"
"You don’t seem like yourself, Harry," Golwat commented in her soft, lisping trill. "I would have thought that you’d be much happier considering…"
"Look, I said I’m fine! Let’s just get what we came for and be on our way, OK?" he shot back, immediately regretting his tone of voice with the sweet-natured Bolian.
As the transport sequence completed, Harry took a deep breath from the cool, thin atmosphere and looked around him. B’Elanna had been right, this place was a mess. Twisted, blackened fragments of metal and ceramics were strewn across the burnt desert plain as far a he could see. The wreckage ranged in size from tiny metal shards to hull sections hundreds of meters across. The bronze-colored sun overhead cast a lurid glow across the crash site. All these elements together gave it the appearance of some kind of Stygian junkyard, a vision of engineering hell. The visceral chill he saw on Sue and Noah’s faces told him that it wasn’t just his opinion either. Golwat, on the other hand, seemed to merely shrug off the sight of the crash. Bolians obviously didn’t share the Terran concept of the afterlife. Vorik and Freddie Bristow stood before the recovery team, awaiting their arrival. The young Vulcan stood as calm and impassive as always, while the human engineer next to him was giddy as a schoolboy.
"Well, it’s about time you guys got here," Bristow said. "We were all getting pretty antsy. The sooner we cut loose those coils and load them up, the sooner we can get a move on," he said, his eyes gesturing towards Lessing and Golwat and the fusion cutter rig they had brought down with them.
"Ensign Bristow," Vorik said formally, "Voyager has been in the Delta Quadrant for nearly six and a half years. Surely a few additional hours would not be too intolerable a wait?"
"It is for me, baby," the lanky engineer replied with a smirk.
Vorik merely rolled his eyes at his impertinent fellow officer. He turned his attention towards the group in front of him. "Ensign Kim," he addressed Harry, "Lieutenant Torres has requested your assistance in one of the bulkhead sections. If you will follow me." Harry merely shrugged his shoulders and followed the Vulcan towards of one of the other large surviving hull sections. It looked like a dark, melted brick, half buried into the barren ground, towering over them at least fifty meters high.
Vorik led Harry through a tear in the side of the bulkhead, as the two carefully made their way through the passageways formed by the twists of the crash. They had to use their hand lamps to see through the dark corridors, only occasionally lit by beams of sunlight streaking through holes in the ceiling. Harry almost expected some demonic force to leap out from a dark corner and frighten his soul right out of him.
"Doesn’t it give you the creeps, working in a place like this?" Harry asked the Vulcan engineer ahead of him. He shivered visibly, feeling a strange itchy sensation that seemed to radiate all through his body.
Vorik turned around and gave the young officer a puzzled, yet direct look. "No," he replied honestly.
Serves me right for asking such a stupid question, Harry thought to himself.
After a few more turns through the twisted passages, a light could be seen emanating from a chamber in the distance. Starfleet standard issue field lamps, Harry recognized. They illuminated the entire cavernous room, filled with scattered electronics and exposed circuitry. Over once badly pulverized console, B’Elanna Torres and Ensign Ana Ortega were running sensor sweeps and removing intact components for retrieval. The two women looked up and acknowledged the new arrivals.
"The recovery team has arrived, Lieutenant," Vorik reported formally. "Ensign Bristow is assisting them in setting up the fusion cutter in the primary engineering compartment."
"That’s fine, Vorik," B’Elanna answered him, before looking to his left. "Hey, Harry," B’Elanna greeted him. "Nice of you to join the party." Harry only grunted solemnly in response. He wasn’t in a partying mood.
"Harry, did you bring the tarp we asked for?" Ortega requested.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Here you go, Ana," he answered as he handed a folded field tarp from his field kit to the young engineer. She quickly took it from him, grabbed one end and flung the covering over a section of the wall. Harry caught a quick glimpse of the mangled drone corpses, crushed in their regeneration alcoves, just before the camouflage coloring of the tarp concealed them. As soon as the bodies were hidden from view, Ortega made a quick movement with her fingers over her chest. Harry recognized the gesture immediately the sign of the cross.
"Do you really think that’s worth the bother?" B’Elanna asked curiously to the young female engineer. "They’re just drones, you know."
"They were people once," she answered, her voice tinged with sadness. "At least now, their souls are free."
The chief engineer shrugged her shoulders, not wanting to dispute her subordinate’s beliefs. Among 24th Century humanity, religious faith like Ana Ortega’s was respected, albeit a minority taste. "Whatever," she said. "Why don’t you go help Vorik pry loose some of the plasma conduits down the corridor. We may want to take a few of them home as souvenirs. Harry, you’re with me."
As Ortega and Vorik left the room, Harry came over to B’Elanna’s position behind the console. But his eyes were unable to leave the sight of the bulging tarp and what lay underneath. "How were you able to get any work done around here with those…bodies…just lying right next to you?" he asked with a visible shudder.
"I’ve seen worse," she answered, her attention focused on the exposed console. "Ortega was definitely more shaken up by it."
Harry still looked in the direction of the dead Borg, still unnerved. "B’Elanna…do you think…they really do have souls?"
The half-Klingon engineer immediately looked up from her station, looking at the young man oddly. "Jeez, Starfleet. What are you asking me for? I come from ten generations of lapsed Catholics on my father’s side. I don’t even know for certain if I have a soul."
"Yeah, well…Ana seems to believe."
"Yeah, well, more power to her. If she’s been praying for a miracle, then somebody delivered big time." She looked around at the cavernous room around them. "I still can’t believe all of this survived the crash."
"Maybe the Borg tried to soft land the ship?" Harry guessed.
"Soft land? A Borg Cube?" B’Elanna almost laughed in disbelief. A Cube massed over twenty million metric tons and had all the aerodynamic grace of a neutronium brick. The idea of any vessel so ungainly trying to make such a landing defied the imagination.
"Well, how else do you explain so much of the ship making it to the surface intact?" Harry responded.
"I can’t." She then looked at Harry curiously. "Did Seven beam down with you? Maybe she might be able to figure out what happened here."
Harry reacted as if a nerve had been struck. "She…she’s still on Voyager."
"Really? I guess the captain must still be pretty cautious about a possible Borg trick. How are people…" She looked up to see the disconcerted look on Harry’s face. "OK, Harry. What’s up with you and Seven?"
"What? Nothing! There’s nothing wrong with me and Seven."
"Yeah, right! Harry, when are you going to learn that you can’t lie to me. Hell, you can’t lie to anyone! You’re just…bad at it. So give."
Harry rolled his eyes and gave an audible sigh, clearly not wanting to share this. But hey, wasn’t this how it always ended up? So he slumped down next to her and related to her the story about what happened between him and Seven in Astrometrics. All the while, that strange itchy sensation seemed to get stronger.
"I still can’t believe what she said! She’d just have us give up any hope of seeing our homes and families ever again! Can you believe that?!"
B’Elanna looked him in the eye, her face seeming quite skeptical. "Look, Harry, if you want to know what I think, I don’t think you’d be this upset with her if there wasn’t a part of you, deep down, that was afraid she might be right."
Harry shrank back in surprise. "What?! Not you too! So you also think the Federation doesn’t stand a chance?"
"I didn’t say that. I’m just saying that Seven has a legitimate concern and we’d be foolish not to take it seriously."
"I’m not disregarding it, B’Elanna. I just feel that writing off the Federation so quickly is wrong. I mean, humanity has always triumphed over problems in the past…"
"And so it’ll automatically prevail over every obstacle in the future? Honestly, Harry, you can be so…Terran sometimes."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"It’s something I saw with plenty of people during my time at the Academy. You’ve grown up with this perfect little life on this perfect little planet and you assume that it was all inevitable that things were going to turn out as wonderful as they did. Believe me, Harry, nothing in Earth’s history was inevitable, good or bad. Things could have gone terribly wrong any number of ways. Take it from someone who grew up Klingon out on the frontier. History isn’t always all sweetness and light."
"Look, I’m not naïve, B’Elanna," he retorted angrily. "I know that stories don’t always have happy endings. But to not even try?!"
She then leaned in to him, giving him a conspiratorial look. "Listen, I’m going to tell you something. And you have to swear that it goes no further than the two of us."
"I swear," he answered honestly.
"It was right after the Delta Flyer got back from rescuing Seven from the Borg Queen. Tom seemed a little…well…a little funny. Nothing serious, just a bit off. I didn’t think anything of it until later that night, after we…" She then stopped as she spoke and looked at Harry, almost seeming embarrassed. "Well, you know…after."
"I get the picture, B’Elanna."
"Well, anyway. I had gone to sleep when I found myself woken up in the middle of the night. It was Tom. He cried out and looked like he was having a panic attack. When I finally got him to calm down, he told me he had had a nightmare, something to do with swarms of giant locusts, billions of them, all coming for him, ready to crush him like a flea. I knew then that he was really talking about the Borg. I mean, think about it, Harry. Did Tom ever tell you about what he saw at Unimatrix One? Did Seven?"
"Not really," he answered. "I mean, Tom only talked about it in general terms, all of those ships, those stations. And as for Seven, well, she’s told me a little about what it was like for her in the Collective. But…well, she claims it’s impossible to really describe in any terms that an individual human could really understand."
"Exactly. Tom didn’t just see one or two Cubes up close. He saw the living, breathing heart of Borg civilization! Now you and I know what a cool customer Tom Paris can be. If seeing that could freak him out, just imagine how Seven must feel. I mean, she didn’t just peek inside the slaughterhouse. She actually got put through the meat grinder itself!"
"I…I know," he sighed. ‘I should understand. But…it’s just…I just can’t accept that there’s no hope!" He then took a deep breath before continuing. "During our voyage, we’ve seen so many incredible things, so many wonders and mysteries. And what made them all so wonderful was that we were there to see them. We could appreciate just how amazing the universe could be." He then looked at his friend with an earnest intensity. "I just can’t let myself believe that the ultimate heirs to the universe would be a race of beings like the Borg, who could never see the cosmos and appreciate its beauty and grandeur for what it is, instead of something to be consumed." He then sighed as he let his shoulders slump. "It would all be such a terrible waste, almost like the universe had no purpose to it at all."
B’Elanna cracked a smile, even though, deep down, she was really moved by Harry’s poetic words. "Jeez, Harry. Are you getting religious on me? And here I thought you were such a good, modern, secular humanist."
"It’s not that," he answered sincerely. "I mean, not really. I’m not talking about good and evil, or heaven and hell, or anything like that. But…I do think that there has to be some kind of higher values out there. Right and wrong. You know what I mean?"
B’Elanna looked askance at her friend and laughed softly as she shook her head. "You know, Starfleet, Seven was right. You are a fool. But damn if we all couldn’t use more fools like you."
In spite of himself, Harry let a smile pass his lips and allowed himself a chuckle. "I guess I did go a little over the top with Seven about defending the Federation and all," he admitted sheepishly.
"A little? The way you were talking, you sounded like you did everything except wrap yourself in the flag!" she laughed back at him.
"And who would have thought, you of all people, defending Seven of Nine?"
"Yeah, well," she mumbled, "let’s just say I know what it’s like to be a woman confused about love."
Harry nodded silently, knowing what it was B’Elanna was not saying. He was about to speak when the ever present itching he felt earlier started to become more like a needle-like stinging. At first, he had thought the sensations were just anxiety about his surroundings, or tension over his fight with Seven. But now he suspected that he might really be sick.
"Harry? What’s wrong? You look…well, kind of pale."
"I…I don’t know," he said as he stood up, then suddenly feeling dizzy. "I think I might have caught something. I think…yow!" He yelped as the stinging sensation intensified into a sharp bolt of pain in his left arm, followed by one in his lower back. Suddenly Harry felt his heart racing faster, as his breathing became more labored.
B’Elanna reached for the young officer, trying to steady him as his knees buckled. "Whoa, there. I think we’d better get you in for a medical exam. Looks like you picked up some local bug…" But before she could finish her sentence, Harry winced in pain yet again. As she held his arm, she looked down at the back of his hand, only to notice that something beneath the skin was bulging and moving about. And then, she gasped as that same something lanced it’s way out of his skin, and quickly spread metallic-looking fractals across the back of his hand.
Harry looked on with his eyes bulging, and suddenly found it impossible to draw breath, never mind to scream. Then his body was wracked with pain, as he felt another penetration of his skin, first on his neck, then on his left temple.
There was no mistaking the telltale signature of Borg nanoprobes hard at work.
B’Elanna fought the instinct to cry out as she rapidly slapped her combadge. "Torres to Voyager! Medical emergency! Two to beam directly to Sickbay! Now!!!"
"Hang on, B’Elanna," she heard Chakotay’s commanding voice, stern, yet urging calm. "We’re locking on now! What the hell is happening down there?!"
She didn’t answer as she looked up to see Vorik and Ortega standing in the doorway, their faces stunned. B’Elanna bellowed at them as she tried to hold Harry up, who was in too much pain to stand on his own. "Clear everyone from the crash site! Await further orders! And nobody touch anything!!!"
Those were the last words she spoke before the radiant curtain of the transporter beam enveloped her and the prone Ops officer.
They rematerialized inside the familiar surroundings of Sickbay, the faces of Vorik and Ortega replaced by Tom Paris and the Doctor.
"B’Elanna, what happened down…Jesus Christ!" Tom gasped as he saw the bio-metallic tendrils spread across Harry’s cheek and neck.
"T-tom…" Harry struggled to talk, his voice weak with pain.
"He…" B’Elanna spoke weakly, the shock just beginning to set in. "He was just standing there, talking. All of the sudden, he just…I…"
"Mr. Paris!" the EMH commanded, "Get him on the biobed immediately! We haven’t much time!"
As Tom and B’Elanna carried their friend to the nearest biobed, the Doctor called out to the intercom. "Computer, initiate Quarantine Protocols. Authorization Emergency Medical Hologram Alpha One."
"Quarantine Protocols initiated," the computer responded.
With that, a shift in the room’s air circulation could be heard as Sickbay disconnected from Voyager‘s life support system and switched to its own self-contained generator. All vents and access hatches were vacuum-sealed shut. A brief flicker of light at the door signaled that the quarantine force field was in place. Sickbay was now entirely cut off from the rest of the ship.
The voice of the captain came over the intercom. "Doctor? What’s going on down there? The computer says you’ve authorized quarantine."
"Not now, Captain. I’ll explain everything shortly," the Doctor called out, not bothering to look up. "Quickly, Mr. Paris. What is the replication rate of the nanoprobes?"
Tom’s eyes bulged as he looked at the biobed readouts. "Doc, I’m not getting anything on these sensors."
"What do you mean, you’re not getting anything?!"
"I mean, I can’t find any nanoprobes in his bloodstream!"
"Run the scan again! There must be nanoprobes in his body somewhere!"
"Doc, I ran the scan with the biobed and my tricorder! They both say the same thing! His system is totally clean!"
"Tom, does he look like his system is clean?!" B’Elanna shouted at him. "What do you think that crap is all over his face, chicken pox?!"
"Lieutenant! If you please!" the Doctor hissed. He then turned back to the biobed monitor as he began typing instructions into the panel. "I’m going to attempt an interface with the nanoprobes. Hopefully, I can override their programming and order them to shut down." The hologram knew it was a long shot. Although he had accumulated thousands of hours worth of experience working with Seven of Nine’s Borg systems, nobody had ever attempted to stop an assimilation while it was still in progress.
"Unable to comply" the computer answered. "Target systems will not accept interface protocols."
"It’s not working, Doc! We’re losing him!" Tom shouted frantically while Harry writhed in pain, babbling incoherently.
"I…I don’t have any other options, Mr. Paris," the Doctor mumbled, humbled by his inability to think of a solution. "No one’s ever performed a procedure like this before."
"What about the 8472 antigens we’ve been experimenting with?" Tom blurted out.
The Doctor looked at him with horror. "Mr. Paris, are you insane?! Those are for research purposes only! They’re nowhere near ready for testing in a living subject! We have no idea what they might do to Mr. Kim!" Among the Doctor’s many side projects was his research into the properties of the wildly complex DNA patterns of Species 8472. So far, the EMH had managed to isolate the race’s extremely long pseudo-protein chains and grow them into highly potent blood antigens. Unfortunately, control over their rapid replication rate and toxicity levels remained a distant goal. The Doctor was convinced that mastery of the structure of 8472 DNA would mean a breakthrough in the area of gene therapy and medical biotechnology. But the demands of the Doctor’s time, plus the limited resources of both his database and Voyager‘s research tools meant that such a breakthrough would have to wait until a properly experienced experimental genetics team could analyze his research.
"H-help…me, please," Harry whispered through pursed lips, as his face twisted in agony.
"Doc, we don’t have any other choice! 8472 DNA is the only stuff we’ve found that can resist Borg nanoprobes!"
"Yes, and the last time Mr. Kim was infected by Species 8472, it almost killed him! Do want to be responsible for that?!"
"And do you want to be responsible for letting Harry turn into a drone?!" Tom shouted back.
"For god’s sake! Somebody just do something!" B’Elanna screamed at the two quarreling medics. "We’re going to lose him!"
"Lieutenant!" the Doctor flared at the engineer. "I’m programmed to follow Starfleet medical and ethical guidelines to the letter! And the first rule of good medicine is to do the patient no harm! I wont…"
"Damn it, Doc!" Tom screamed at the hologram. "Stop hiding behind your programming because you’re afraid of the consequences! You claim that you’re a sentient being, so act like one! Make a choice!"
The Doctor stood silent for just a fraction of a second, looking at the groaning form of Ensign Kim before him. He then remembered another time a crewmember lay before him like this, when he had to make a choice. Ensign Jetal. He had chosen to let her die so that Harry Kim could live. It was a decision that still haunted him to this day. No, he thought. Saving Harry Kim’s life had cost far too much. He would not lose an individual he considered his friend to a life as a Borg drone, and he would not let Jetal’s sacrifice be in vain.
"Inject the antigens, Mr. Paris," he ordered, solemnly.
"Right," Tom answered as he quickly dashed for the replicator and ordered up a sample of 8472 antigens and loaded it into a hypospray.
The Doctor gripped Harry’s arm tightly and leaned over him. "Mr. Kim, hold still. This may be painful."
"It’s…p-painful right…n-now," Harry struggled to respond, just as another tendril snaked its way along his neck.
Tom hurried alongside the biobed, hypospray in hand. "I loaded it with 3ccs. I figured that should be enough."
"Well, here goes nothing," he said as he pressed the hypospray to Harry’s Borg infected neck, where the concentration of metallic growths were the densest.
What followed was even more horrific to behold. Harry’s eyes bulged in shock as his body twisted even more wildly. His earlier moans of pain became a single continuous shriek of agony so loud that the walls of Sickbay seemed to vibrate. Tom and the Doctor had to hold him down to keep him from flopping onto the floor. B’Elanna could only stand there watching, helpless, as her friend cried out for help, help that nobody could provide.
And then, all the strength in his body gave out, as he shuddered for a moment, then fell still.
"Doctor," B’Elanna spoke softly, her body trembling. "Is he…?"
"He’s passed out," the hologram announced, checking his tricorder. "Thank goodness. I’d have given him a sedative, but I had no idea how it would interact with everything else in his body."
"But…did you stop the nanoprobes?" she asked.
"I’m not sure. We still can’t see them, for whatever reason."
"Well, I’m not sure if we stopped them," Tom spoke up as he focused on the readout on his tricorder, "but I think we slowed them down. According to these readings, something is fighting the antigens in his bloodstream. The implants are still growing, just a lot more slowly."
"By how much, Mr. Paris?" the Doctor asked.
"It’s difficult to say. I’ll have the computer analyze the tricorder readings." The blond pilot then looked up at the EMH, his face flush with embarrassment. "Doc, I…uh, I just want to apologize for what I said earlier about…"
"It’s alright, Mr. Paris, we were all under a lot of pressure. And for what it’s worth, you did make the right call. As for now, we need that bio-analysis."
"But surely the 8472 antigens would have killed off the nanoprobes, wouldn’t they?" B’Elanna asked as she turned to the hologram.
"Lieutenant, we just don’t know enough at this point about what’s happening to Mr. Kim. There are just too many mysteries involved in this case. Right now, it seems we’ve at least bought him some time. As to how much, that remains to be seen."
"Well, I should get back down to the surface. Maybe there are some answers there that could…"
"Oh, I’m afraid you’re going nowhere, Lieutenant. This entire room is under quarantine. Until we know what it is we’re dealing with, you’re to remain right here. And I don’t want anyone going near that crash site."
"So…what am I supposed to do here instead? I feel so damn useless!"
"For one thing, I need to examine you as well. You said you were there with Ensign Kim when he first started to feel the effects of the assimilation?" he asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"And you said he wasn’t attacked by a drone or handled any drone corpses?"
"No, not that I saw! He was just talking with me, and then…well, you know," she said. "It just happened."
"And yet you don’t appear to be showing any of the same reactions. Curiouser and curiouser," the Doctor muttered to himself, shaking his head. "Invisible nanoprobes, no obvious means of injection, resistance to 8472 DNA, and all from a dead Borg vessel. Just what is it we’re dealing with here?"
"Well, whatever it is, Doc," Tom spoke up from a console as the analyzer station, "we’ve only got three days to figure it out. That’s roughly how long the computer figures we have until the nanoprobes finish their job on Harry."
"Three days…" said the Doctor, shaking his head, "three days for a process that should normally take three minutes."
"So…what do we do now?" B’Elanna asked, as Tom came up and put his arm around her.
"Now, Lieutenant," said the Doctor, "now we make our report to the Captain."
Kathryn Janeway sat in her command chair on the bridge, listening to what the Doctor had to say as his face appeared on the main monitor. She didn’t like what she was hearing right now. "What is Harry’s condition at this point?" she asked, her face a mask of concern.
"He’s still being assimilated, albeit at a much more gradual rate. It’s…like nothing I’ve ever seen before, Captain. I’ve attached a synaptic blocker to his nervous system to reduce the level of pain he’s experiencing. It should help somewhat, when he wakes up."
"Are there any additional resources we can provide for you, Doctor?" Chakotay asked, sitting at his captain’s side.
"Thank you, Commander, but with the force fields in place, there’s nothing anyone on the outside can do for us. We’re pretty self-contained in here."
"I’m calling for a staff meeting in one hour," Janeway said. "I hope you and Mr. Paris will have something more to report by then."
"I hope so too, Captain," he answered contritely before the screen went blank.
Both captain and first officer looked at each other, their brows furrowed with worry. "I knew this was all too easy," Chakotay said regretfully. "There just had to be a catch somewhere."
"Only why did Harry have to be the one to pay the price for it?" Janeway responded, her voice filled with sorrow.
At that, the bridge door slid open, and Seven of Nine strode out, her face worried. "Captain, I was completing my scans in Astrometrics when my status alert informed me that there was a medical emergency down on the planet. Now, I discover that Sickbay has enacted Quarantine Protocols. Explain what has happened! Is Harry still on the surface? Is he in danger?!"
Janeway went pale as she stood and realized that the younger woman didn’t know it was her lover who was the medical emergency. She looked back towards Chakotay for strength. He nodded at her, urging her to go on, knowing that breaking the tragic news to Seven was her responsibility and that it was something she couldn’t ignore.
"Seven," Kathryn said softly, reaching out to the young blond as she touched her arm sympathetically. "I think you and I need to sit down and talk. There’s something you should know about what’s happened…"
The Senior Staff had assembled one hour later to discuss the latest crisis to hit Voyager. The Doctor, Tom Paris, and B’Elanna Torres were attending the meeting via the briefing room’s main monitor. Likewise, Lieutenant Michael Ayala was on the intercom from the planet’s surface, his away team in a quarantine of its own. Lieutenant Joe Carrey was filling in as acting Chief Engineer while B’Elanna was in quarantine, just as Ensign Walter Ashmore was present as acting head of Operations. Harry Kim, of course, was unable to participate in any fashion, still being unconscious.
"So far, the infection is continuing to spread throughout Ensign Kim’s body. The 8472 antigens are providing some resistance, but the fact that implants still seem to be growing inside of his body indicates that they’re losing the battle. Unless we find a solution soon, it’s only a matter of time."
Chakotay looked at the image on the screen with puzzlement. "Infection? You talk as though this were some sort of virus."
"In a manner of speaking, it is, Commander."
"Bottom line, Doctor. What do you think we’re dealing with here?" Janeway asked directly.
"It’s clearly a new version of Borg assimilation nanoprobes, Captain. They’re using an interface protocol like something we haven’t seen before," the Doctor answered.
"But you said yourself that Harry wasn’t attacked by any drones."
"That’s correct. I’ve examined his body thoroughly, and I can find no evidence of a puncture wound or any other obvious point of entry for an assimilation tubule. The reports from Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Vorik confirm that."
"Then how could he have been assimilated?"
"I have a theory about that. Seven, do you remember telling us about the conversation you had with the Borg Queen while you were at Unimatrix One?"
But Seven of Nine’s thoughts were not at the meeting. Her mind was elsewhere, thinking about the man who was suffering an unpleasant fate in Sickbay. The man who was her mate, for whom she had wanted to spare from this ghastly fate, but had fallen victim to it anyway.
"Seven," Janeway said, lightly jostling her arm.
"I…" she jerked upwards to see the entire room looking at her. "I apologize, Doctor. You were saying?"
"The conversation you had with the Borg Queen…"
"You are referring to the plans she informed me of to assimilate humanity through the use of a nanoprobe virus spread among the population…and…" She allowed her words to trail off as she saw the obvious direction the Doctor was heading.
"Is that what you think this is, Doctor? The Borg Queen making good on her plans?" Janeway asked.
"I believe so. As soon as Lieutenant Torres told me that Mr. Kim became assimilated without being attacked by a drone, I suspected this might have been the cause. That was why I instituted Quarantine Protocols."
Tom Paris leaned over next to the Doctor, allowing his face to fill the viewscreen. "For all we know, that Cube we found may have been on its way to attack the Alpha Quadrant with that stuff before it crash-landed here."
"And there’s nothing we have that can be used to combat it?" Chakotay inquired.
"Commander, I can’t even study any of these devices at this point, let alone fight them," the Doctor stated emphatically. "They don’t appear on any of my sensors. It doesn’t make any sense."
"On the contrary, Doctor," Tuvok ventured, "it is most logical. Given that the purpose of this nanoprobe virus is to spread throughout a population, then assimilate its members at a later time, the ability to remain undetected during a cursory medical scan would be most advantageous."
"You mean, cloaked nanoprobes?!" Janeway asked incredulously.
"That was Lieutenant Torres’ theory. She’s taking apart one of the biobed sensors right now. She figures she can modify it into a multi-spectral analyzer and hopefully determine what it is that Ensign Kim has been infected with."
"What about B’Elanna? I presume that she’s showing no signs of assimilation?"
"Nothing as far as I can tell. She’s in excellent health. Not to mention everyone else who was on the away mission. They all reported in from the surface without displaying any ill affects. Ensign Kim remains the only one who’s been infected."
"And what about the away teams? How long do you feel they have to remain on the planet."
"Well, clearly the quarantine applies to them as well. We can’t allow anyone who was at the crash site to return to the ship until we can be absolutely certain that they pose no danger to the rest of the crew."
Janeway then turned to Neelix, who was sitting a few seats down from her. "Neelix, what are the conditions on the planet’s surface. Will our people be safe down there?"
"Well, it does get a bit nippy at night, but nothing too serious," the Talaxian answered helpfully. "Everyone’s set up camp about two kilometers away from the site. I’m putting together a care package of survival shelters and field rations."
"Maybe you should include a deck of cards and some books, Neelix," Tom mentioned over the intercom. "They could be down there for a while."
"Captain," Tuvok said, "I also recommend that the shuttlecraft remain in orbit as well and not be allowed to dock. Ensigns Baytart, Jenkins, and Crewman Celez may remain the only members of the crew totally safe from assimilation. And we still need to remain alert to any possible Borg reinforcements."
She nodded silently as she looked back up at the EMH’s face on the monitor. "Doctor, don’t you have any possible treatment for Harry? Or at least a way of stabilizing his condition?"
"I’m afraid not, at least at this point. A second injection of 8472 DNA would have only a limited effect compared to the first shot, and it might very well put his body into toxic shock."
"Doctor," Tuvok addressed the screen, "since you are unable to affect the nanoprobes while they are in their active phase of assimilating Ensign Kim, have you considered a more radical option?"
"What do you mean, ‘radical’?" Neelix inquired.
"What I mean, Mr. Neelix, is allowing Ensign Kim to be assimilated by the nanoprobes, and then severing him from the Collective once the assimilation process is complete."
Everyone in the room gaped at the Vulcan security officer in shock. "Tuvok…" Janeway gasped.
"What?! Have you lost your mind?" Tom and B’Elanna both shouted in unison.
Seven of Nine jolted upward as she stood at attention and glared at Tuvok furiously. "That is unacceptable!"
The Vulcan was unfazed by the looks of disapproval from his fellow officers. "I am merely suggesting an alternative, desperate as it may be. It is certainly not one that I would wish upon anyone, least of all Ensign Kim."
"Believe it or not, Mr. Tuvok," the Doctor commented seriously. "I considered just such a possibility. As an option of last resort in case all other treatments failed. That is, until I discovered this…" The second monitor on the opposite side of the room the switched on to display an interior body scan. A large mass was in the center, pulsing regularly. Seven recognized it immediately. It was Harry’s heart. She had made it a point to study all aspects of her mate, including his internal physiology, in order that she might better understand him. But this heart she saw before her, was not the ‘heart’ that she had come to know Harry by. This was not his metaphorical heart, the one filled with kindness and love, but merely his physical heart, the one that pumped his now-infected blood throughout his ailing body. But there was something different about his heart now. A faint spider’s web of filaments was now networked across the beating surface.
"Doctor, what is that?" Janeway asked. "Is it some kind of implant?"
"I do not recognize it," Seven stated. "It is not part of the standard configuration of adaptations for a newly assimilated drone."
"Indeed not, Seven," the Doctor said. "This is definitely something new. I believe it’s some kind of tripwire."
"Explain," Seven demanded urgently.
"Well, as near as I can tell, it’s designed to be fully activated once the victim’s mind is linked to the Collective. After that, should the connection be lost or the implant tampered with, it would trigger a fatal jolt to the heart, and thus kill the drone."
"What?!" Janeway blurted out.
"Yes, my reaction exactly. I suppose the Borg figured after losing Jean-Luc Picard, Hugh, Seven of Nine, and those children, that dead drones tell no tales."
"Can’t you remove it, Doctor?"
"I already did. Twice. That’s how I was able to study its function. The nanoprobes just kept building a new one in its place. The point is, Captain, that if Ensign Kim is assimilated, it will almost certainly be for life, however long that may be."
Janeway sighed quietly, overwhelmed by events that had put a member of her crew in jeopardy, events that she was powerless to control. "Doctor…do you think that the quarantine will hold? Is there any possibility that the nanoprobes might escape and infect the rest of the crew."
"I have no idea, Captain. Until we can isolate and study these nanoprobes, we have no way of knowing what their full capabilities are. As a precaution, though, I would recommend evacuating the surrounding deck around Sickbay."
Janeway nodded solemnly, heeding the Doctor’s advice. "Agreed. I’m also authorizing all department heads to arrange periodic medical checks for their subordinates. Keep me informed of any out-of-the-ordinary results. Dismissed everyone."
As the crew reluctantly shuffled out of the room, Tuvok and Chakotay remained to address the captain about these latest developments. But before either of them could approach her, another straggler, Seven of Nine, waylaid Janeway first.
"Captain," the former drone addressed her urgently, "I request permission to join the others in Sickbay. My experience with Borg technology will greatly benefit the Doctor’s research…"
"Permission denied," she replied softly, her heart heavy. "I’m sorry, Seven. I know how you feel. But I can’t allow the quarantine seal to be broken. The entire ship could be put at risk."
"The risk is minimal. I must…I must be with him. I…"
"Seven, no. I can’t allow it. You can coordinate your work with the Doctor remotely." She then reached out to take Seven’s hands into her own. "I know how much Harry means to you. He means a lot to all of us. But he’s going to be just fine. You’ll see."
Seven withdrew her hands from Janeway’s and gave her a long cold stare. "On what basis do you make such an optimistic assumption? Is it the same basis that you presume humanity will inevitably prevail against the Borg?"
Kathryn let the younger woman’s impertinent tone slide by. Seven was hurting inside, and if it helped to ease her pain by projecting some of that pain at her, then so be it, she figured. "I make both statements on the basis of hope, Seven. The hope that both Harry and humanity have a long and bright future ahead of them."
"Hope?!" Seven flared at Janeway momentarily, and seemed about to go on, when her shoulders slumped and her body trembled. For just a second, her face quivered, and she seemed like she was about to burst into tears. But she quickly regained her composure, her face becoming a stoic mask of dispassion.
"Hope is irrelevant," she intoned coldly. She then turned on her heel and strode out of the briefing room, leaving three nonplussed officers in her wake.
B’Elanna Torres was hunched over the exposed innards of the biobed, surveying its contents and making connections to various peripheral devices. She worked with a single-minded focus that tried to hide her frustration with her situation. She had been tearing apart the machine and putting it back together all throughout the night, while Tom and the Doctor watched over the unconscious Harry Kim, grimly observing as the nanoprobes in his body made their progress in his transformation.
Knowing that there was nothing she could do to aid the two medics directly, she came up with the idea of modifying one of the empty biobeds into a multispectral scanning array. It was a feature used in the hand scanners they recovered from the Vidiians five years ago, but had been difficult to implement in Starfleet-issue medical tricorders until now.
"Almost ready?" Tom asked, leaning over her shoulder. He had been giving her space while she worked, knowing well enough to stay out of her way while she was being so focused. Klingons by nature hated being confined, and B’Elanna Torres, even though she was only half-Klingon, despised being cooped up more than most. But now, more than anything, he wanted to be near her, to give her the support and courage she needed at a time when she felt so helpless.
"As ready as it’ll ever be," she replied wryly.
He came up behind her and stroked her back affectionately, not saying anything, but just letting her know that he was there. She looked up at him, and gave him a sad, but sweet, smile. "How do you do it, Tom? How do you put up with me and all the crap I give you?"
He smiled at her in return as his hand brushed through her dark, wavy hair. "What can I say? I’m a sucker for punishment." His smile became a smirk as a naughty twinkle gleamed in his eye. "But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?"
She rolled her eyes as she sighed. Sometimes, she thought, he can be such a…a boy! But then, wasn’t that part of what she loved most about him?
"But seriously," he continued, "I ought to be asking you the same question. I know I can be a real piece of work sometimes."
"Hey, what can I say?" she teased back. "Klingon women love a challenge."
"But you’re only half-Klingon," he answered her back.
"I know, which is why I only find you challenging half the time," she replied playfully.
They looked at each other for what seemed like the longest time, both knowing what the other was thinking. After two years together, they each knew the other so well. But still there was that regret, the part of inside of them, which held them back from genuinely expressing their feelings freely for each other. With B’Elanna, it was easy to hide behind being tough. And with Tom, it was even easier to hide behind a joke.
"Hey, Doc, let’s start feeding in a sample," Tom called out to the EMH.
The Doctor came over with an ampoule from a hypospray, containing a dark red liquid. A sample of Harry’s blood, just taken from the still unconscious young officer. He placed the ampoule into the scanning mechanism that B’Elanna had rigged up. "You’re sure this will work, Lieutenant?"
"That all depends on what’s in Harry’s blood." She peered over to the viewscreen on the side of the modified sensor panel. Tom and the Doctor eagerly leaned over to watch with her. At first, all that could be seen was a grainy image of the blood sample. B’Elanna then began shifting the sensor frequencies on the device, and the standard optical images became visible. Red and white blood cells started to come into focus. And then, along came a series of billowy, knotted shapes that flowed like clouds among the more solid platelets in the bloodstream.
"The 8472 antigens," the Doctor pointed out.
"But no nanoprobes," Tom added.
"I’m going to try running a higher range multispectral scan," the engineer offered. She punched in a few commands, and the field of view sparkled as a shimmer of red, then blue, and finally green, passed over the blood sample. But the contents of the samples did not change. That is, until something, or rather, many thousands of tiny somethings, flickered into existence.
"Hey, I see them!" Tom called out.
"Gotcha!" B’Elanna shouted in triumph.
And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the tiny mechanical devices faded away.
"What happened? They disappeared again!" the Doctor shouted.
"They must have some kind of adaptive sensors," B’Elanna observed. "They obviously can adjust their cloaking resonance to respond to whatever scanning frequency we use."
"Clever little sons of bitches, aren’t they?" Tom observed, impressed with the technology, yet humbled at the same time.
"I’ll set the sensors to run on a random frequency shift. A nanoprobe has only so much on-board intelligence to adapt with." B’Elanna that typed in a few more commands on the keypad, and the view screen resonated with a multi-spectral glow. The nanoprobes phased in and out of view, their mini-cloaking fields desperately trying to keep up with the biobed scanners. "Now that we know what to look for, we can come up with a treatment for Harry, right?" she asked as she looked up at the Doctor with hope in her eyes.
Unfortunately, the Doctor’s worried gaze upon the sensor screen did not do much to comfort her. "I wish it were that simple, Lieutenant. What I’m seeing here confirms my worst fears. The nanoprobes seem to be reproducing at an exponential rate through his bloodstream, faster than I initially assumed. The 8472 antigens are only reducing the time it will take for them to finish their job."
Tom stepped forward, a look of concern on his face. "What about B’Elanna? We need to make sure she’s OK too."
"Quite right, Mr. Paris. And we’ll have to examine you also." And with that, the hologram placed two more blood ampoules into the scanner feed. After a few seconds, the device realigned itself and began to read the new data it received. The results were all too clear on the monitor.
"I’m very sorry, Lieutenant," the Doctor said to the female engineer. "You appear to be infected as well." He then looked up at Tom Paris, his expression not changing. "Both of you. This confirms that the nanoprobe virus is casually contagious."
B’Elanna said nothing, her face like ashes. All she could do was to stare at the flickering nanoprobes on the screen, trembling with the realization that these things were now crawling in her bloodstream also.
Tom put his arm around her, trying to give her some of his strength. He looked up at the Doctor with concern. "But…she seems so healthy. I feel healthy. How can we possibly be infected?"
"I’m not quite sure," said the Doctor, his gaze focused onto the scanner screen. "This is most unusual. The nanoprobes don’t appear to be active in either of your blood samples. They seem to be in some kind of dormant state, not unlike the ones in Seven’s body after we severed her from the Collective."
"So B’Elanna’s not in any danger?" Tom asked desperately, completely disregarding the danger to his own life.
"Not immediately, Ensign, but you both could be a risk to others if you’re contagious. And we still don’t know if anything could suddenly trigger the nanoprobes to go into active mode. I could try a transfusion and see if I can cleanse the devices from your blood."
"You think it’ll be that simple?" Tom asked tersely, the tension showing in his voice.
"I honestly don’t know what to think, Mr. Paris," the Doctor commented, his face looking dead serious. "One thing that’s been bothering me about these nanoprobes is trying to understand how they spread. In theory, a nanoprobe virus should be no different from a biological virus, in that it must have a vector through which it can travel to a potential host. The risk you run with an airborne virus is that air is an inherently unstable medium for viral transmission, and can easily lead to a mutation from its original form. My database on viral infections shows a recurring pattern across hundreds of worlds, that airborne viruses tend to spread quite virulently, but then quickly burn themselves out before they spread too far into a population. It’s the viruses that disseminate through more stable vectors, like blood or saliva, which tend to linger through a target population for years, or even decades. Given the intended goals of the Borg to assimilate as much of the Federation as possible, I would think the latter approach would be a more effective strategy for them."
"But still…we have time to find a cure, right?" B’Elanna asked.
"I suppose. Right now, we need to network the medical scans from the rest of the crew through the multi-spectral scanner. Hopefully, now that we can detect these devices, we can analyze their programming and find a way to shut them down," the Doctor said solemnly. "I should coordinate with Seven of Nine remotely. Her experience with Borg algorithms should help in…"
"Seven…" a weak voice could be heard in the distance. Harry Kim was now awake and coming into consciousness.
Everyone immediately rushed to his side. B’Elanna, who had been hunkered down with the biobed all night long, had not seen the gradual impact of the nanoprobes’ work on Harry’s body. But now she did, as she gasped at the sight of him. His skin had turned deathly pale, the warm color of his cheeks entirely gone. Biomechanical growths were now solidifying around his right eye and below his left ear. The Doctor had cut his uniform away and dressed him in a loose medical robe, but she could the beginnings of an exoskeleton growing in segments from his neck and chest. His hair was thinning and falling out in clumps around his pillow. The lively, vibrant young man that was Harry Kim now looked like an animated corpse.
"T-tom…" Harry tried to speak, his eyes focusing weakly.
"Take it easy, buddy. You’ve had a rough night."
"I…I remember being…something in my skin. It hurt so much…I…" Then he lifted his hand and stared at it, seeing the patterns of metal along the back, disappearing into the folds of skin along his fingers. It didn’t seem possible, but his face actually seemed to grow whiter. "W-what’s happening to me?!"
The Doctor sighed with grim resignation as he stepped forward to the frightened officer. "Mr. Kim, I won’t lie to you. You’ve been infected with a new breed of Borg nanoprobes. We’ve used a strain of blood antigens from Species 8472 to slow down the assimilation process. But I’m afraid you’re not cured, not yet anyway. I’m very sorry."
"Borg…" Harry gasped, not wanting to believe it. "I want to see what I look like."
"Harry, you don’t need to…," Tom said, trying to steady his friend.
"I want to see!" he shouted, his voice assuming a metallic echo as it hit its high pitch.
Tom and B’Elanna looked at each other in alarm, not sure of how to react to what they had just heard. They glanced over at the Doctor, who nodded at them solemnly, granting them permission to give Harry what he wanted. Tom reached over and grabbed a reflective panel from the instrument tray. He held it up in front of Harry’s face, and braced himself for the reaction.
Harry said nothing, trembling and breathing raggedly, as he gasped at the face he saw looking back at him. A ghastly face that was not his own. "Oh, god…" he mumbled. Tears started to collect at the corners of his eyes.
"Harry…" B’Elanna reached over, putting her hand on his shoulder. "We’re going to find a way to beat this thing. You’re going to be just fine. Isn’t that right, Tom?"
"Absolutely. You’ll be up and about before you know it." Tom gave his friend a sad, despondent smile.
Harry looked at them both, forcing himself to smile. "And you say I’m a terrible liar?" He then became more serious as he looked back at the Emergency Medical Hologram. "Doc, what about Seven? Has she been here? Has she…seen me?"
"I’m sorry, Ensign," the Doctor answered sadly, "but we’re under quarantine. Seven of Nine hasn’t been allowed to be with you in person. She’s been very worried about you, though, calling every hour to check up on your progress. If you like, I can raise her on the monitor and…"
"No!" Harry cried out, again with that metallic echo in his voice. "I…I can’t let her see me like this!"
"Harry," Tom said, "she’s been Borg herself. She knows what it’s like."
"Tom, please!" Harry pleaded. "I know how upset she’ll be when she sees what I look like! Just…just tell her how much I love her. And how sorry I am."
"You can tell her that yourself, Mr. Kim," the Doctor spoke sternly. "Now, I have to be completely honest with you. We’re working round the clock to try and help you, but…well…there are no guarantees. If I were you, I’d want to make certain I didn’t leave any unfinished business behind." He then leaned in to give him a knowing look. "I think you know what I’m talking about."
"I…I know," he admitted, still in disbelief over what was happening to him. How had everything gone so wrong? Just this morning, he had been so happy. Voyager was ready to head home, and his relationship with Seven had never felt closer. Then came the fight, their first fight together. And now this. "I do want to talk to her…but audio only."
"Mr. Kim, I really think…"
"Doc, I mean it," he answered seriously. "If we can’t stop this process, then I don’t want this face to be Seven’s last memory of me."
Everything was dark, illuminated only by the sinister green glow of the display screens and readouts. The temperature and humidity were higher than what an ordinary human would normally find comfortable. Seven of Nine knew these corridors all too well, the inside of a Borg Cube. Mindless drones shuffled past her, intent upon their duties as dictated to them by the Collective. Seven wandered about in a bewildered state, not quite sure of how she came to be here, but desperate to find a way out.
Then in her path, a solitary drone stood before her. Its features were difficult to discern from this distance, but it was clearly equipped with a pronounced optical enhancement sensor where its left eye would have been. It did not make any effort to move aside or scuttle about. Seven knew that this drone had come for her.
"State your purpose," Seven demanded of the drone.
The drone stepped out of the darkness and revealed itself. It was…Seven of Nine. The Seven that had once been a loyal drone of the Collective. It stood before the frightened young woman, hairless, with pale, mottled flesh, it’s stare cold and without pity.
"Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, you have become inefficient. You have strayed from the path towards perfection," the drone stated imperiously.
"I am no longer a drone," Seven shot back defiantly. "I am an individual and I choose my own destiny."
"Individuality is irrelevant. Choice is irrelevant. You serve the Collective," the drone Seven stated flatly. It might as well have been the word of God. "You will always serve the Collective."
"I serve the crew of Voyager, and I do so by my own free will! Explain my presence here, now!" Seven demanded.
"You have become small, weak, flawed," a second, familiar voice spoke up from behind Seven. She spun around to face her accuser, only to discover…herself! It was another Seven of Nine standing before her, only this one looked more like she did now, after her separation from the Collective. But there was something…different…about this individual. She seemed somehow younger, colder, and was wearing the silver healing suit she had initially needed during her first year aboard Voyager. Then Seven understood that she was facing the person that she had once been, just as the drone-Seven was a representative from even further in the past. She didn’t know how this was logically possible, but she was determined to fight whatever forces had placed her here.
"Explain," Seven commanded.
"Once, you were superior. You aspired to perfection and greater intellect. But now you have become like the rest of humanity, motivated by your emotions and your base desires," the younger Seven said with just a hint of contempt coloring her passionless voice. "You have even taken one of them as a mate."
Seven felt stung inside as she reflexively fired back at her accuser. "He…he loves me!"
The Seven drone then came around to stand beside the Seven of the past and joined in the accusations. "Love is irrelevant. Perfection is eternal."
"Is this why you rejected the path towards perfection, Seven of Nine?" past-Seven charged. "So that you might be with him? To copulate with him? Like an animal?" There was then a shimmer of light as a large open-air holographic field came to life above the three Sevens. She recognized the scene it depicted right away. It was the last time she and Harry had copulated together…or rather, when they made love. Seven balled her fists in fury at this casual violation of her mind. But her thoughts softened as she looked up at how beautiful Harry was, and remembered how pleasing it felt for him to hold her, and for her to run her fingers across his smooth bare chest. And then her throat constricted as she remembered that her mate now lay prone in Sickbay, all because of the Borg.
"He is beneath you," the past Seven stated imperiously. "He is your inferior, both physically and intellectually. He is nothing. Irrelevant."
"No! He is not! He is…good. And kind…and…gentle."
"You are wrong! He…he makes me happy. And it pleases me when he is happy as well." Seven could think of no better way of saying it. Harry Kim simply made her feel good. And for that, she wanted him to feel good in return.
The two Sevens before her almost seemed to shake their heads in pity. "You have fallen beneath acceptable standards, Seven of Nine. You are no longer perfect."
"Then I reject your false notion of perfection!"
"What you wish is no longer relevant," the drone Seven said blandly. "You will be re-assimilated into the Collective. There, you will come to experience what perfection truly is."
"I will not allow you to assimilate me," Seven swore, defiant, her stance ready for a fight.
"We have not been chosen to assimilate you, Seven of Nine," the past Seven said to her, her tone sounding smug, as she looked past her shoulder. "That task has been assigned to another unit."
Seven spun around, expecting an attack from another drone, quite possibly another Seven of Nine. But when she turned to face her attacker, she went slack-jawed with horror. For instead of being another mirror image of herself, she was face to face with…Harry Kim. Only now, he was fully assimilated as a Borg drone, his skin ghost white, half of his face covered with cybernetic implants, and his right hand becoming a sinister mechanical claw.
"Resistance is futile," the Harry drone spoke, just as assimilation tubules shot out from his Borg-enhanced hand towards Seven’s vulnerable neck.
Seven of Nine cried out in terror…
"Sickbay to Seven of Nine," a voice called out in the midst of the chaos.
The scene of turmoil was swept away from Seven’s mind as she returned to full consciousness. She looked about, recognizing where she was. She was lying back in a reclining position in the regeneration chair in her and Harry’s quarters. She remembered now. She had come here to refresh herself and purge her body of negative sensations after her altercation with the Captain. Somehow, during her regeneration cycle, she had fallen into a…a dream, she supposed. This was unusual. Back when she was using the regeneration alcove in Cargo Bay Two, she would occasionally lapse into a dream state. Sometimes the dreams would become nightmares. Given her experiences in the Borg Collective, nightmares were to be expected. But she had never before had any kind of dream or hallucination since she began using the more modest regeneration chair. A session of twenty or thirty minutes was too short a time for her mind to experience such a state. But then she had never undergone regeneration when her mind was so agitated before now.
"Seven, are you there?" the voice repeated itself. It was Tom Paris.
"Seven of Nine, here," she responded.
"Seven, I just thought you’d like to know that Harry’s woken up. I know you can’t come down here in person to be with him, but I thought, well, maybe you’d like to speak with him anyway."
"Thank you, Tom Paris. I would very much like to speak with Harry," she replied as she disengaged herself from the regeneration device and stood up. She scanned the room, getting the feel of Harry’s presence in this room. Their room. And so she waited. Waited to face the man that she…that had come to matter so much to her. And terrified inside of what it was she would see on that screen when she spoke to him.
"Ok, Seven," Tom answered. "We’ll have to do this over the intercom. And just so you know, Harry may not be able to talk for very long. He’s pretty weak right now."
"I understand, but why can I not communicate with him visually? I wish to see him."
Seven heard a deep sigh on the other end of the intercom. "Believe me, Seven. It’s better this way. Seeing him right now…it’ll just be upsetting to everyone involved."
"Very well," she answered, indicating that she understood, even though she really didn’t.
Then another voice came over the intercom, one so very familiar, yet different all at the same time. "Seven…?" Harry Kim called out.
"Harry?" she called out to him. For a moment, she didn’t hear him respond. It was just for a second, but it felt like the longest second Seven had ever experienced. She had never felt more alone.
"Seven, I…I…oh, god, Seven," he said as his voice broke. "I just wanted to tell you…I’m so sorry. What I said to you, I…I never meant…"
"Harry," she cut him off, "an apology is not necessary. It was my behavior that was unacceptable, not yours. It is I that should ask for your forgiveness, instead. I only wished for us to be safe and happy together. But…" she hesitated, uncomfortable about proceeding, "in truth, I was apprehensive about returning to the Alpha Quadrant. I wanted the life that I knew and gave me comfort, rather than risk an uncertain future. Can you forgive me?"
"Oh, Seven," he continued, his voice sounding like a warm smile. "What I said to you was so wrong. You really are the warmest, sweetest, most wonderful human being in the entire universe."
"And you, Harry Kim, are most certainly not a fool. Even if your analysis of me is not entirely correct," she answered, unconsciously smiling on her own.
There was another long, uncomfortable moment of silence over the intercom. Fearing that her mate might be too weak to answer, before he finally spoke up. "I guess you know I picked something up down there. So I’m not exactly feeling one hundred percent right now."
"I know, Harry. I regret that I am unable to be with you in person to offer you comfort."
"That’s OK, Seven. Just hearing your voice is comfort enough for me."
"I have…I have analyzed the Sickbay quarantine fields. I believe it may be possible for me to momentarily cause the force field to flicker, allowing me to transport in without endangering the ship…"
"Seven, no," Harry cautioned, not out of anger, but concern. "You know the rules as well as I do. Even there’s even the chance the crew could be at risk…"
"I assure you, Harry, the risk is negligible."
"Even so. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. You mean everything to me, Seven. I just…I want you to be safe."
She said nothing. All was silent before he continued. "Seven, please promise me you’ll let the Doc do his job. And please don’t put yourself at risk."
"I…," she wanted to protest, but she couldn’t. Even though she knew that risking everything to be next to him felt so right, she could not bear the thought of doing anything that might hurt him. And risking her own life and the lives of others would do just that. "I promise, Harry."
"Thank you, Seven. I wouldn’t want you doing anything reckless. And don’t you worry about me. I’ll be just fine. I’ve been in and out of Sickbay so many times, that they’ve given me a biobed with my own nameplate."
"Indeed? I was not aware…" she answered before considering her words. "You are making a joke, are you not?"
"Trying to, anyway," he answered weakly. "I don’t suppose…," he tried to speak, but then drifted off in mid sentence.
"Seven, I…what did you say?"
Seven arched her eyebrow in puzzlement. "Harry, what is it? Are you experiencing pain?"
"I’m not…I…I don’t know…it’s all…I…" He tried to answer, but his words were all a jumble, as if his mind were in complete confusion.
"Harry!" she cried out to him. When she heard no response, she called out again. "Doctor! What is happening?!"
"Stand by, Seven," the hologram answered, his voice sounding urgent. "We’re examining him now. He seems to be…"
But the Doctor’s words were cut off by a groan from Harry Kim, as he called out over the intercom. "Seven…I…oh, god…I’m hearing… voices in my head."
"Harry!" She called out again. "You must be well! I…it is unacceptable that anything should happen to you!"
"Seven…" Harry rasped weakly, "I love you…"
"Seven, we have to clear this channel," the Doctor interrupted. "I’ll contact you the minute we know what’s happening. Hang in there."
And with that, the line went dead. Seven of Nine sat alone, looking out into nothingness. During her days as a Borg, it was obvious to her that as a single individual, she was small and insignificant. Since her liberation, Captain Janeway and the other crewmembers had tried to teach her that even an individual had the power to make a difference, sometimes significantly.
But at that moment, she felt as though the Borg might be right.
"Voices?!" Janeway cried out incredulously from her desk in her ready room. Chakotay and Tuvok stood at her side.
"That’s what Ensign Kim says he hears. According to the new sensor readings, the nanoprobes have begun weaving tendrils into his temporal lobes and have partially formed a cortical implant. The voices he’s hearing are probably Borg subspace signals."
"Then Harry is already connected to the Collective?" Chakotay asked.
"Not completely, no. The cortical implant is still incomplete. Only when the nanoprobes have completely penetrated into his frontal lobe and established a complete circuit will the necessary feedback exist to fully link his mind fully to the Collective. Until then, he’s only a receiver. The Borg are almost certainly still unaware of his presence at this point."
"Doctor," Tuvok spoke up, his voice a steady calm. "At what point do you predict Ensign Kim’s assimilation to be complete?"
"About thirty six hours, Commander. Maybe less."
"Thirty six hours?" Chakotay blurted out. "Yesterday, you were saying we had three days!"
The Doctor sighed visibly, his eyes cast downward. "That was before we had accurate sensor readings of the nanoprobes, Commander. They appear to be adapting to the 8472 antigens faster than I originally projected."
"What about the nanoprobes’ programming? Now that you can see them, can you start shutting them down?" the first officer asked.
"Unfortunately, Commander, it’s not as simple as that. They’re using an encryption algorithm that’s markedly different from any other Borg system I’ve seen. I’ve asked Seven of Nine to try and decipher their programming code." The EMH then let out a long, sympathetic sigh. "At the very least, it will give her something to focus on, the poor thing."
"I see," Janeway answered solemnly, trying to present a professional exterior, despite her concern. "What about the crew medical reports? Have you run them through the multi-spectral sensor?"
"We’re doing that right now, Captain. But we already have some preliminary results. Not only are both Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Paris definitely infected, but the entire away team as well. We’ve only just begun analyzing the tricorder data from the rest of the crew. We’ll let you know as soon as we start getting some answers."
"Is there anything you can do for B’Elanna and Tom?" Chakotay asked. "I mean, if you can’t do anything for Harry, can you at least get the nanoprobes out of their systems?"
"I’m afraid I haven’t had any luck in that area either, Commander. The nanoprobes in the other crewmembers may be relatively dormant, but only compared to Ensign Kim. They’re reproducing at a slow, yet linear rate. Whenever I tried to flush them out of either Ensign Paris’ or Lieutenant Torres’ bloodstream, they reproduce themselves faster than I can remove them. It’s like trying to scoop water out of a sinking lifeboat. So far, they’re not causing any harm to their hosts. But who knows how long that might last?"
The captain gave a weary sign as she accepted the physician’s grim report. "Keep me informed, Doctor. Janeway out."
As soon as the screen went blank she turned to her officers, hoping one of them might have a suggestion for how to proceed in this murky situation.
Chakotay could only shake his head, looking just as fatigued as his captain. "It just keeps getting worse and worse, doesn’t it?"
Tuvok remained silent, his thoughts clearly elsewhere. Janeway noticed her security officer’s lack of focus as she looked in his direction. "Tuvok, what are you thinking?"
The Vulcan turned back to Janeway, his focus returned. "Forgive me, captain. I was attempting to make sense of what we have discovered here. The more I consider the matter, the more illogical it seems."
"There’s nothing logical about losing an officer and a friend, Tuvok," Chakotay replied sadly.
"Indeed, but I believe there is more to our situation than just the emotional dilemma surrounding Ensign Kim."
"Go on," Janeway urged, curious as to where her friend was leading.
"Clearly these nanoprobes represent a weapon of considerable sophistication and deadliness. The Borg have clearly expended great effort in developing them. Yet according to our geological surveys, the Cube we discovered crashed over twenty-two days ago. In all that time, there is no evidence that the Collective made any effort at recovery. I find it highly illogical that the Borg would allow such an invaluable weapon to be simply abandoned."
"Maybe we just happened to find the crash site before the Borg did?" Chakotay suggested.
"Unlikely, Commander," Tuvok countered. "All drones are interconnected. If their link were severed, the rest of the Collective would be aware of it immediately. It is improbable that an entire vessel could remain lost for very long, especially if it were carrying a cargo of such importance. And we have not detected any Borg search parties in this sector thus far."
"What are you saying, Tuvok?" Janeway asked.
"I am not sure, captain," he answered curiously, "except that I believe these incongruities may be of importance if we are to find a means to help Ensign Kim."
"I’ll tell you what I find illogical," Chakotay added. "Ten crewmembers beamed down to that site. All of them supposedly picked up these nanoprobes. But in everyone else, they’re dormant. Harry’s the only one being assimilated. Now why is that?"
"Maybe some biological factor that’s unique to Harry?" Janeway suggested.
"Again, unlikely," Tuvok replied. "Borg nanoprobes are designed to attack a broad variety of species and forms. Only Species 8472 has proved resistant to these attacks. It seems illogical that these new nanoprobes would prove to be so limited that they would be easily affected by any specific biological agent."
Janeway stood up and began to pace around the room as she spoke. "What we need right now are answers. All we’re doing is coming up with more questions." She then picked up the PADD on her desk, scanning the list of names of crewmembers that had submitted their medical data to Sickbay for analysis. She recognized them all, section heads and subordinates alike. Until something started to come to her attention…
She slapped her combadge as she hailed the bridge. "Mr. Ashmore, open up a channel to the shuttlecraft."
After a few seconds, the viewscreen came to life again, showing Ensigns Baytart, Jenkins, and Crewman Tal Celez. They all knew what was happening on Voyager and their faces showed the same look of concern.
"Ensign," she acknowledged Baytart, who was the ranking officer on the shuttle, "have you and your team transmitted your medical scans to Sickbay?"
"Why, no ma’am." Baytart answered with a puzzled look. "We didn’t think that applied to us. I mean, we’re not at any risk of getting infected out here, are we?"
"I can’t be sure of that, Ensign. Nevertheless, I want all three of you to send your findings to the Doctor for examination within the hour."
"Understood," Baytart answered promptly.
"Captain?" Jenkins inquired softly, "how’s Harry, I mean, Ensign Kim doing? We’re all really worried about him."
"He’s…doing as well as can be expected, given his situation. I’ll send him your regards, Ensign."
"Poor Seven," Celez intoned with her lilting voice. "She must be so upset."
Janeway smiled warmly at the young Bajoran’s show of sympathy. "I’m sure she’ll appreciate your concern, Crewman."
"Captain, please tell her that we’re all praying for Ensign Kim. I even replicated a BeRaal candle, so that the Prophets might grant him good health." She then looked up nervously from her seat and stammered. "I…I know it’s not regulation, ma’am, but…I just figured…well, I mean…"
"Under the circumstances, Crewman, I think we can be lenient with the rules. Harry can use all the help he can get." The innocent display of empathy touched Janeway’s heart deeply. It meant a great deal to her that even at a time of distress such as this, the crew could pull together and care for each other like a family. It was especially heartening to see such compassion from Celez towards Seven. The former drone had not been especially kind to her in the past. Celez’s "mathematical impairment" was a source of endless frustration to the ex-Borg, who demanded no less than perfection from those who worked with her. During her first year on board, she treated Celez more like a defective drone than a crewmember in need of help, which only served to undermine her confidence even further. Yet Celez never seemed to show any resentment or anger towards Seven. She simply accepted her criticism as fact, and returned hostility with kindness. Bajoran women generally had a reputation for being outspoken and aggressive, yet Celez was remarkably sweet natured and insecure.
A few months ago, Harry suggested to Seven that it would be both efficient and "nice" to tutor Celez in the areas where she needed improvement. Reluctantly, Seven agreed. And their off-duty study sessions did pay off. Celez’s work performance improved over time, enough to the point where Seven now trusted her to monitor Astrometrics unattended. No one could call the emerging relationship between the two of them as one of friendship, but at least it had the elements of mutual respect.
Janeway wondered if the warming between the two women had something to do with Seven’s increasing ability to feel guilt.
As soon as the transmission ceased, she turned to see both Chakotay and Tuvok looking at her oddly. "Kathryn," the tattooed first officer said, "what was that all about? How could the shuttle crew possibly be at risk of infection? Unless you think this virus can spread across space."
"Call it a hunch," she answered cryptically. "All of these questions we’re raising lead me to believe that there’s more to this virus than meets the eye."
"Captain," Tuvok spoke up, "there is an additional matter we may need to address soon."
"What are we to do with Ensign Kim if we should fail to find a treatment for him before his assimilation is complete?" he asked soberly. "As a drone, he will be a danger to the entire crew if he remains on board. And as the Doctor has made us aware, separating him from the Collective is not an option, unless we wish to terminate his life."
"Terminate?" Chakotay said incredulously. "You’re talking about killing him!"
"I am merely presenting what few options the Borg have left before us, Commander. Would termination be a more merciful option than a lifetime as a drone?"
"I…" Janeway started to say, before she realized the enormity of the decision that lay before her. It was a vexing moral dilemma, indeed. Could taking a life be justified in order to prevent a perpetual living nightmare? Kathryn Janeway knew when she assumed the rank of captain that it would mean assuming the responsibility for the lives of those under her command, and that sometimes it would involve sending good men and women off to their deaths. It was something she had been trained to accept. But nothing in Command Training could prepare anyone for the quandaries she had to deal with these past few years. As she had learned so many times during her sojourn in the Delta Quadrant, sometimes quite painfully, life had a way of revealing how useless the rules and regulations could be in guiding you through reality. Sometimes you just had to make things up as you went along, and pay the consequences later.
"Let’s not deal with that until we absolutely have to," she said softly, her voice haunted by memories of the past. "We have enough to think about as it is. Until then, I suggest we take a cue from Crewman Celez."
"Which is?" Tuvok asked curiously.
"Say a prayer for Ensign Kim," she answered softly.
"As you wish, Captain," Tuvok answered noncommittally, as he requested permission to leave. As soon as he was gone, Janeway turned to look at her first officer, who had chosen to remain behind. She easily spotted the concerted look on his face.
"You don’t seem satisfied with that option, Chakotay," she commented. "I’m surprised, given that you’re normally such a spiritual person by nature."
His brow remained furrowed as he replied. "Prayer’s a funny thing, Kathryn. You need faith to make it mean anything, but when you really need something and prayer fails you, it can throw that entire faith into question."
"Are you talking from personal experience?" she asked curiously.
He nodded silently. "When I was a boy. It was around the time that I first started to question some of my tribe’s beliefs. You see, my cousin was dying from Rushton’s Syndrome."
"Oh, my," she said sympathetically. In this day and age, when viruses and diseases could be broken down to their basic genetic components and cured within days, weeks at most, an outbreak of Rushton’s Syndrome had cut a terrible swath through the outer colonies over thirty years ago, lasting six months. She had never known until now that Chakotay’s people had been among those affected. She had thought she had come to know her first officer and friend very well these past six years. Obviously there will still some personal matters that he kept to himself. But then, she thought, don’t we all?
"We did everything we could," he continued, his head bent down with reminiscence. "Conventional and traditional therapies. But nothing worked. She was dying. All we could do, my father said, was pray to our ancestors and hope that her life would be spared." He then looked up again. "She died a few days later."
"I’m so sorry," she said. "I’m guessing that caused a crisis of faith for you."
"I was pretty angry, yes. I asked my father why did we waste our time on spirits and gods that ignored us and allowed good people we loved to die."
"What did he say?"
"Something that has stayed with me to this day. He told me that it doesn’t matter to whom we pray to, as long as we pray. Gods, spirits, ancestors, they all listen and they always answer our prayers." He then looked at his captain and friend seriously. "It’s just that sometimes, the answer is ‘no.’"
"Doc!" Tom called out, "I think you should have a look at this!" He was peering over the monitor screen of the multispectral sensor. The Doctor quickly rushed over to join him. Looking over his shoulder, the hologram followed the pilot’s gaze on the screen.
"How many samples have you looked at, Mr. Paris?" he asked.
"This is the fourth one," Tom replied, "We could do a few more scans before we make it official."
"No," the Doctor said gravely. "We’d better tell the captain now." With that, he called out on the Emergency Medical Channel. "Sickbay to Captain Janeway."
"Janeway, here," came the familiar reply. "Please tell me you have something good to report."
The Doctor’s eyes cast downward as he chose his words carefully. "I’m very sorry, Captain, but its quite the opposite, in fact. Mr. Paris and I have already begun examining the medical scans from the rest of the crew. It appears that nanoprobes are present in all of the samples we’ve looked at so far. I’m afraid that the quarantine has failed."
There was a brief moment of silence on the other end of the intercom channel, before a reply could be heard. "Doctor, are you absolutely certain of this?"
"Quite certain, Captain."
"Are there any medical signs we should look for among the infected crewmembers you discovered so far?"
"I believe you’re in a better position to know that than me, Captain. You see, the sample that I’m looking at right now…it’s yours."
"Oh. Well, thank you for not holding back, Doctor," she shot back with sarcasm.
"I regret being the one to have to tell you. Under the circumstances, Captain, I see little point in maintaining the state of quarantine. Not if the nanoprobes have already spread throughout the ship."
"I’ll take that under advisement, Doctor," she replied crisply. Then her voice softened as she continued on. "There’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you, Doctor. Privately, if you get my meaning."
"I think I understand. Just a second," the Doctor said cautiously as he glanced over his shoulder. He saw Ensign Kim weakly propped up on his biobed, B’Elanna Torres trying to engage him in conversation. He was becoming increasingly worn down as the Borg nanoprobes continued their work. It had become necessary to increase his sedative dosage to combat the increasing levels of pain he was experiencing, which made him easily tired and groggy. And the steady din of Borg chatter in the back of his head made him easily distracted, requiring greater effort on his part to carry on a conversation with other people. The Doctor feared that as more of his mind was taken over by Borg implants, Harry Kim would gradually lose the ability to think in terms of ‘words’ or ‘language,’ or be able to communicate his thoughts to mere individuals.
As soon as the Doctor stepped into his office, he resumed communication with Janeway. "We’re alone now, Captain. No one else can hear us. What is it you wanted to say?"
"This is a very difficult subject to bring up. But I need to know…Doctor, what do you figure your changes are of coming up with an effective treatment for Harry before…well, before the deadline is up?"
He sighed painfully as he considered the obstacles he had found in examining this pernicious strain of nanoprobes. "Captain, I really don’t think I could give you a number. But I have to be honest with you, we first need to decrypt the nanoprobe operating code and hope that we’ll be lucky enough to discover a shutdown command of some kind, all within the next thirty-two hours. Frankly, I don’t give Mr. Kim very good odds at all."
"In that case, Doctor, I also need to know how bound you are by your Starfleet Medical ethical guideline program."
"Captain?" The hologram did not like the direction this conversation was going.
"We may shortly find ourselves in a situation where we have to make some very morally and legally dubious decisions. I have to know what position you might take if…well, if we find it necessary to either leave Mr. Kim behind for the Borg, or…allow Harry to end his life with dignity."
"Captain!" the Doctor gasped in horror. He was a physician, first and foremost. To do anything to end the life of a patient, even if it meant an end to terrible suffering, was beyond the pale of his ethical guidelines. However, the idea of allowing Mr. Kim to spend the remainder of his days as a Borg drone, to live but to no longer be him, was something that offended his individual sense of decency as a sentient being. But baring the discovery of a miracle cure, death or dronehood seemed to be the only options available.
"Doctor?" Janeway called out, after waiting for a response.
"Captain, I…I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t do anything to assist a suicide. Terminating a patient’s life…it goes against everything the Starfleet Medical Code of Ethics stands for. I just…I can’t do it, Captain."
"I understand and respect your feelings on this, Doctor. Believe me, the last thing I want to do is create a moral dilemma for you. I know your ethical program has taken quite a beating these last few years."
"There are moments, Captain, when I long for those blissfully ignorant days when I was first activated. My program may not have had the flexibility to think about very much back then, but at least my purpose was always clear."
"I know what you mean, Doctor. Sometimes, self-awareness can be a mixed blessing."
"As for your resolution, Captain, if you’re looking to me for guidance, I can tell you that the philosophical templates which make up my ethical program assume a number of conflicting positions regarding the morality of…suicide. But they all agree that it’s not a decision that should be made by the physician. I presume that would also include the patient’s commanding officer."
"In other words, we need to present the situation to Harry, and allow him to reach his own decision. I figured as much. And you would do nothing to interfere?"
"I…I suppose…if I weren’t available at the time, then there would be nothing I could do about it, could I?"
There was a brief moment of silence as he pictured Captain Janeway nodding, reading between the lines of what the Doctor was telling her. "Perhaps," she answered thoughtfully.
"Of course, Captain, a situation such as this is usually not entered into lightly. The patient makes a decision like this only after great deliberation, usually with…his loved ones."
"Loved ones…" Janeway repeated. "Poor Seven. I don’t quite know how I’m going to tell her about this. I’ve sent condolence messages to families of deceased officers before, but I’ve never had to have a conversation quite like this, certainly not with anyone with Seven’s ‘unique’ background."
"I know what you mean, Captain. Do you want me to discuss the matter with Ensign Kim?"
"Not yet, Doctor. Continue your efforts to find a treatment for him. I’ll…talk to him about it, myself. But I may need you with me when I do."
"With you? Then you will authorize ending the quarantine?"
"Send your data to me and I’ll inform you of my decision." She paused for a moment before continuing. "Doctor, with these nanoprobes in our systems, are we all carriers?"
"Most likely yes, Captain," he answered somberly.
Now it was Janway’s turn to sigh heavily. "It’s ironic, isn’t it? We finally have the means at our disposal to get home, but we can’t without spreading a terrible plague across the Alpha Quadrant."
"Can’t we, Captain? It’s possible that Starfleet Command may have the resources to find a way to stop these nanoprobes. Granted, even with transwarp travel we’d never get home quickly enough to help Ensign Kim. But for the rest of the crew…"
"Doctor, it’s too great a risk. If these things can get past a quarantine force field, who knows how far or fast they can spread? For now, at least, we stay put."
"Well, you’re the captain. I’d say the crew will be disappointed, but I think they have other matters to worry about right now."
The Doctor and the Captain continued to speak about how they were to proceed, confident that they were doing so with complete privacy. What they didn’t know was that Harry Kim was beginning to discover some of the features that came with the implants growing inside of him. During the past few hours, he noticed how at certain moments, his frequency of vision would shift. B’Elanna and Tom would vibrate in fiery red colors, colors that would shift to a warm pink whenever the two of them became closer together. The Doctor, by contrast, would appear as a steady violet glow, indicating the boundaries of his photokinetic fields. The steady hum of the medical instruments and computers, normally inaudible to the human ear, created a loud echo in his head. It was both fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. He wondered if this was how the world looked to Seven. They had talked many times about her life in the Collective in the past, and she had tried her best to explain what it was like to experience life with a vastly expanded sensory input, yet without having a sense of self. But words were inadequate to describe what such an alien experience was truly like. Now he was starting to see for himself why that was so.
At least playing with his newfound senses helped to distract him from the sinister cybernetic murmuring of the Borg Collective, which had now become constant background noise to him. After a few hours, he began to get used to the noise. He didn’t know if that frightened him even more, especially since the collective voices became steadily louder and clearer over time. At first, he had to remember not to keep spinning around, expecting to see an army of drones coming for him.
So he focused his attention on the Doc once again, as he went into his office to talk to the Captain. The hologram had believed that Harry wasn’t paying attention, but in fact, he found himself able to focus on every single word, even with the door closed. And so he heard everything, including the Doctor’s dim prospects for his recovery.
At least it confirmed exactly what he had feared. It was over for him. He would soon be Borg.
He tried to accept it stoically. After all, he was a Starfleet officer, and he knew that risk was part of the price one paid for the chance to explore and see the universe. But he had been so close to death many times before. He had been clinically dead for over an hour when he had ridden that alien cenotaph across the dimensions during Voyager‘s first year in the Delta Quadrant. He had nearly been eaten alive almost three years ago when he had been stung by an 8472. And there had been that time when a space/time anomaly caused Voyager to split into two ships, and his counterpart had died in a hull breach. Technically it didn’t count, as it had not actually happened to him, but to this day thinking about the incident gave him existential nightmares.
Yes, Harry thought, he had been battered, bruised, and beaten down more times than he cared to remember. But he always bounced back. Despite the jokes he heard from the crew, even he was starting to believe that he had all the lives of a cat. And now, here he was, just when everything was going so well in his life, it was all coming to an end. Why? Why did fate have to be so cruel, cutting his life short, just when he could imagine spending the rest of it with Seven.
He then thought of Seven. Would she ever recover from this, he wondered? Or would the pain of losing him cause her to withdraw from emotions altogether. Especially since it was the Borg who would be responsible for taking him away from her…
No, he decided with grim determination, the Borg may be taking away his life, but he was still a man. He could still decide the manner of his own death.
He reached out to call to B’Elanna, before dizziness and exhaustion forced him back onto the table. He wouldn’t be able to do this on his own, he realized. The impact of the assimilation, the neural blocker, and the sedatives had all combined to drain him of his strength. He saw his Klingon friend hunched over with Tom at the scanner, going over the crew results. His newly enhanced hearing had overheard their conversation as well. Plenty of bad news all around.
Before he could say anything, the Doctor poked his head out of his office and called out to Tom. As the pilot left her, B’Elanna got up and returned to Harry’s side, trying to look encouraging. But he could see that she wasn’t looking hopeful either.
"The nanoprobes…got past the q-quarantine, didn’t they?" he rasped.
"What? How did you…I mean…" she struggled to answer, wanting to conceal as much bad news as she could.
"You don’t have to… try and buck me up, B’Elanna. I heard everything."
"That’s not important. I just can." He then looked at her with all earnestness. "Be straight with me, Maquis. Doc doesn’t hold out much hope for me, does he?"
"Harry, don’t talk like that. You’re going to be…fine. You’ll see." B’Elanna wanted to smack herself upside the head, her backpedaling sounding so damned obvious.
"And you’re as bad a liar as I am," he tried to joke, before his expression turned deadly serious. "Nobody knows how to help me, do they?"
"They…they’re trying to crack the command code on the nanoprobes. It’s slow going, but if they find a shutdown command…"
"And what if they don’t find one?"
"Harry, you shouldn’t think…I mean, of course they’ll find one. You’re Harry Kim, remember. The ensign who can’t be killed?" she jested desperately.
"That’s what I’m worried about," he said grimly. "If they can’t stop these things, I…I don’t want to be Borg, B’Elanna. Seven told me all about the terrible things she did when she was a drone. Carving up whole ships and cities…assimilating entire cultures… I’d rather be dead than hurt innocent people like that."
"Harry…come on," she backed away slowly. "You’re scaring me."
"B’Elanna, I need you to do something for me. One last favor."
"Of course, Harry. Anything. You know that."
"Then tell me, what would a Klingon do if he were in my situation?"
Her brow furrowed as she thought back to her childhood and her forced upbringing in Klingon culture. "Well, he’d probably ask his closest family member, or baring that, a good friend, to perform the hech’bah on him in order to…" And then her voice trailed off as she realized what she was being asked. "Harry…no…" she gasped.
"B’Elanna, please. I know it’s a terrible thing to ask anyone to do…"
"Harry…my god, do you have any idea what you’re asking?!" she sputter as she paced frantically around his bed.
"Yes, I know…believe me, I do. And I wouldn’t ask it if I didn’t think the alternative was so much worse…"
"Oh god, Harry," she wailed, tears beginning to form at the corner of her eyes. That threw Harry for a loop. He had never seen B’Elanna cry before, not once in all the years he’d known her. He wasn’t even sure if she had cried in front of Tom or not. It humbled him as it started to become clear the enormity of his request.
"B’Elanna…I don’t want to ask you to do anything you can’t do. It’s just…I don’t know who else to turn to. I haven’t got the strength to do it on my own. Not quickly, anyway. Tom, I know he could never do it. He likes to play it tough, but he’s really all sentimental inside. You know that. And Seven…god, I just can’t ask this of her!"
"But you can ask me, is that it?" her voice flashing into unintended anger.
"You’re the only one I know who’s strong enough, both inside and out. And you’ve got enough Klingon in you to know how necessary this is. Please…" he begged her. "If you’re worried about the Captain or Tuvok, I can record a final message absolving you of all responsibility."
"That may not wash if there’s a court martial."
"B’Elanna, I know how much you think it’s going to hurt you to do this…but just think. How much is it going to hurt to watch me become a drone! To lose my humanity!" He paused, as though he were gasping for breath. "If there was ever anything I asked you to do for me out of friendship, then this is it!"
"Harry…" she shook her head wearily, slumping down in front of the biobed, still too stunned to give an answer.
"So please, B’Elanna," he pleaded with her, his eyes still capable of showing emotion, "will you help me end my life?"
Captain Janeway informed the crew of her decision shortly thereafter. The quarantine was officially lifted, as there was no longer any point in maintaining it. Tom Paris continued to sort through the data from the crew medical scans, only to confirm what they already knew, that the virus had spread throughout the ship, and that all members of the crew were now carriers.
It was just as well that they were free to go, Tom thought. B’Elanna had seemed especially agitated during the last few hours and had kept to herself, not wanting to talk to anyone. As soon as the quarantine fields were dropped, she bolted from the room, claiming she didn’t want to be disturbed. Tom figured she must have been deeply upset by the prospect of losing Harry to the Borg. It was a terrifying prospect on everyone’s mind. Even the Doctor had spoken to him about the possibility of discussing the options for euthanasia, something the hologram clearly found distasteful.
"Mr. Paris, are you sure you still want to be here?" the Doctor came over to the pilot by his station at the multispectral scanner. "The quarantine is over. You can go back to your quarters if you want to."
"Aren’t you going to need help here?" Tom asked.
"There’s not much I can do, other than monitor Mr. Kim’s condition. The computer is doing most of the work," he said, gesturing over to the biobed where Harry lay resting. In the last few hours, he had become increasingly exhausted, needing to sleep much more frequently. The Doctor suspected it was due to the rapid growth of the nanoprobes, drawing upon his metabolic energy. "The Seven and the Science Department are helping out with the decrypting project, but until we can find something more specific to look for, it’s all just code."
"Well, something should turn up. I’m not ready to call its quits with Harry just yet. If there’s a solution, then we still have another twenty-four hours to find it."
The Doctor smiled at the young man’s tenacity. "Mr. Paris, in case I don’t get a chance later on, I just want to say that I’ve been most impressed by your performance during this crisis. Frankly, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be working with right now."
Tom almost blushed from the compliment. It was the first time he had ever heard the curmudgeonly hologram say anything nice about his performance in Sickbay. "Well…thanks, Doc. I mean, I know I’m no Kes."
That had always been a stumbling block during their working relationship. When Tom had first been assigned to Sickbay duties after Kes’ departure, the Doctor had continuously compared him unfavorably with his previous assistant. The young Ocampan had shown a passion for medicine, which combined with her photographic memory and her natural empathy, had made her and the Doctor a highly effective team. By contrast, Tom had initially viewed his assignment as medical assistant to be some kind of punishment. And as for working together, the persnickety hologram and the laid-back pilot seemed less of a team and more like, as Tom put it, an ‘odd couple.’
"I know I haven’t said it often enough," the Doctor said with a surprising degree of humility. "I suppose I never wanted to give you the satisfaction. But in the last few years, you’ve become quite an effective medical practitioner. I know that this assignment was never your first choice, but you’ve demonstrated a natural ability with patients. If you wanted to, I think you could become a first-rate physician."
"Well, that’s nice of you to say, Doc. I mean, you’ve really tried to teach me what I needed to know, in spite of myself. And it’s nice to know you think I’ve got what it takes. But flying will always be my first love. After B’Elanna, that is."
"Yes, about that…I’d have thought you’d want to be with her, now more than ever."
"I don’t think she wants me around right now. She’s got too much on her mind. Besides, I think the best thing I can do for her is help Harry." He then looked up and tried to force a smile. "Unless, of course, you’re trying to get rid of me…"
"Well, if you must know, I was hoping you’d hit the showers at the very least," the Doctor jested. "After nearly two days in quarantine, you’re starting to get a bit ripe."
Tom grinned at the Doctor’s light-hearted put down, and was about to make a retort of his own, when the scanner grabbed his attention with a steady beep.
"Another analysis done," Tom said. "I wonder who…" His voice trailed off as he looked at the identification file. "Wait a minute. This isn’t right."
"What is it?" the Doctor asked.
"This sample…it’s from Pablo Baytart!"
"Ensign Baytart? Wasn’t he assigned to the shuttle?" asked the Doctor.
"That’s right. According to the scanner, he’s got the infection too."
"But how can that be? He hasn’t been on board Voyager since the away team first discovered the crash site. There’s no possible way he could have contracted the nanoprobes."
"Let me double check something." Tom then proceeded to call up two more files, those of Ensign Jenkins and Crewman Celez.
A few minutes later, the results were on the screen. "This shouldn’t be happening!" Tom exclaimed. "They all have it. Everyone on that shuttle has the nanoprobes in their bloodstream." He then looked up at the Doctor. "You don’t suppose that the nanoprobes have a way of beaming across space, do you?"
"Mr. Paris, don’t be absurd. Even if such a thing were possible, the volume of space they’d have to travel through is simply too big. It would take years for such tiny devices to spread naturally across the vacuum. Not unless the Borg figured out a way to build microscopic impulse engines."
"Then how…?" Tom queried with frustration. Somehow with these annoying little replicators, there always seemed to always find more questions, and few answers.
"I don’t know," said the Doctor. "Mr. Paris, in the samples you examined thus far, did you encounter any other anomalous cases, ones that didn’t fit into any standard pattern of epidemiology?"
"Well…hey, wait a minute!" Tom said as his eyes flashed with insight. "There was something I found earlier that didn’t quite make sense. Sometimes the nanoprobe levels in the blood are lower in some crewmembers than others."
"What do you mean?" the Doctor perked up in interest.
"Well for one thing, yesterday, when we first did the samples of the away team, I noticed that Noah Lessing’s nanoprobe level was about half that of the rest of the group. Remember that?"
"Yes. We assumed it was simply a natural variance. After all, its not as though he was immune. He contracted the virus just like everyone else."
"I know. But about twenty minutes ago, I got in the results for Marla Gilmore. And her nanoprobe level was just as low as Lessing’s. I didn’t make the connection until now, what with everything going on."
"Hmmm…two crewmembers from the Equinox, both with the same low levels of nanoprobes," the Doctor mused. "What about the rest of the survivors?"
But Tom was already one step ahead of the Doctor. "I’ve got the results being processed through the scanner right now. We should know if there’s a connection pretty soon."
Within minutes, more data came through on the scanner monitor. It confirmed the pattern they suspected.
"All five of them!" the Doctor exclaimed as he looked at the screen. "All of them with the same lower nanoprobe levels! I can’t see how this could have happened."
"Well, could the Equinox have picked up some biological agent during their trip, something that would slow down the replication rate?"
"I don’t think so, Mr. Paris. According to what I’m seeing here, the nanoprobes don’t appear to be reproducing any slower than in any other crewmember. And I don’t see any molecule or antibodies in their blood fighting the virus."
"Then how could the level be so low?" Tom asked.
"The only possible explanation that would correspond with what I’m seeing is that all five of the Equinox survivors contracted the virus at a later point than everyone else," the Doctor concluded. "It looks exactly like the infection in the rest of the crew, only at an earlier stage."
"How could that have happened?" the pilot asked in disbelief. "Lessing was at the crash site, and the others were here on Voyager with the rest of the crew. When could all five of them have caught the disease at the same time?"
Then the Doctor’s eyes widened as his features showed the revelation of an epiphany. An idea was forming within his matrix, something that explained, well, not quite everything, but just enough for it to make more sense than it did before. "Why, of course! They caught it when first came on board!"
"Cloaked nanoprobes, Mr. Paris! Don’t you see?" the Doctor declared with excitement. "Mr. Kim didn’t catch the virus at the crash site! That’s why the Equinox crew has lower levels than everyone else does! That’s how it was possible for it to escape quarantine! And how it’s possible for the crew of a shuttle millions of kilometers away to have the infection!"
The Doctor could see the puzzled look on the young pilot’s face, as he tried to absorb the implications of what he was hearing.
"Doc, are you trying to say that the virus was already aboard Voyager from the beginning?!" Tom asked with incredulity.
"Yes!" the Doctor answered ecstatically. "It was in everyone’s blood long before we ever arrived in this solar system!"
"Oh, man! We’ve got to tell the Captain about this!" said Tom, still overwhelmed by this breakthrough. But he quickly snapped out of it and his face became serious again. "Wait a minute, Doc. If we didn’t pick up the disease at the crash site, then where the hell did it come from?"
"That’s something we still have to answer. But at least now that we know what not to look for, which puts us one step closer to finding an answer." The Doctor went over to the console, and looked up at his assistant. "Mr. Paris, you said you planned on giving Lieutenant Torres some privacy?"
"Uh, well, yeah."
"Good! Because tonight, you and I are going to go over every blood sample from the crew, and find every possible interaction we can. We’re having another staff meeting this afternoon, and I intend to have some answers by then."
The Senior Staff assembled in person at 1700 hours for the first time in several days. At first, Janeway was nervous about taking such a risk, giving the existence of the virus. But if the Doctor was to be believed, then the quarantine had never been necessary in the first place.
Given the news of the ship-wide infection, the assembled group seemed exhausted and emotionally drained. None more so than Seven of Nine, who had spent all day and the previous night sifting through data on Borg programming codes, hoping that a means to stop the nanoprobes would be forthcoming. And although she managed to uncover bits and pieces on the devices’ operation, a solution for Harry’s condition had not yet been found.
She had not been able to focus on anything else. She didn’t even leave her workstation at Astrometrics all day, for fear she might miss out on a possible answer for Harry’s condition. Even when Samantha Wildman came by to cheer her up and invite her to lunch with her and the science team, she would not budge. To think about anything else other than finding the answer would just be too painful. And she needed to stay focused; otherwise, she felt inside, she might fly apart or go mad.
How did this happen, she wondered? How did she become someone so preoccupied with a single individual that his potential loss would have her so completely devastated? The individual she had once been would never have approved.
"Are you saying that these things have been in our bodies for months?" Neelix asked the Doctor in astonishment. "And nobody ever knew?" The distaste was evident in his voice. Neelix remembered all too well when he needed regular treatments with Borg nanoprobes, in order to reverse the effects of his ‘death’ two years ago. The treatments, and their uncomfortable side effects, both physical and psychological, had been unpleasant, to say the least. He had been glad when, after three months, the Doctor announced that his tissues were healthy enough to resume their natural function unaided. The idea of having more of those devices in his body filled the Talaxian with an understandable dread.
"Exactly, Mr. Neelix," the Doctor stated proudly. "My analysis of the programming code has confirmed it."
"But, Doctor," Janeway interrupted, "if we didn’t pick up the nanoprobes from the Borg vessel, then how did they get on board?"
"I wondered about that myself," said the Doctor. "I knew they had to arrive on Voyager before our encounter with the Equinox. And our previous meeting with the Borg prior to that was…"
"Operation Fort Knox…" she interrupted softly. Their previous attempt to pilfer Borg technology. "Harry was aboard the Borg Sphere with myself, Tuvok and Seven. Could that have been where he caught the virus?"
"That was my initial supposition," the Doctor answered. "But as Mr. Paris and I have learned, this virus doesn’t spread through casual contact. We examined the replication pattern of the virus, and we noticed something interesting. The nanoprobes tended to be somewhat more concentrated in the blood vessels of the gastric and intestinal regions. And the samples we observed had slightly higher elevations from those departments who had taken their medical scans after their designated meal breaks."
"Doctor," Tuvok commented, "are you saying that the spread of this disease is associated with the consumption of food?"
Neelix poked his head up in alarm. "I hope it wasn’t anything from my kitchen."
"On the contrary, Mr. Neelix," the Doctor answered. "It was just the opposite."
"The food replicators?!" Janeway concluded incredulously.
"Precisely, Captain," the Doctor beamed. "On a hunch, Mr. Paris decided to dismantle the replicator in Sickbay. What he discovered was quite enlightening."
Tom then turned to the Captain to report his findings. "The pattern buffers were crawling with nanoprobes. Every time someone would request something to eat, they’d be wolfing down a healthy dose of the little buggers as well."
"It makes perfect sense," the Doctor added pedantically, as if he were giving a lesson to Naomi Wildman. "How else would a technological species such as the Borg choose to spread a virus throughout another technologically dependent culture such as the Federation? Through our machines, of course. The very machines upon which billions of citizens draw their daily sustenance."
"Doctor, this is unbelievable," Janeway responded. "A nanotech virus that spreads through technology?!"
"You’ve got to admit, it’s a quintessentially Borg solution," Chakotay commented. "How exactly does it spread?"
"Quite effectively, Commander," the Doctor added proudly. "Let’s take an infected crewmember. He proceeds to…ahem…relieve himself, his waste products being filled with nanoprobes. The wastes are then recycled by Voyager‘s reprocessing system, and broken down to their constituent molecules, and then fed into the replicator molecular feedstocks, to be reassembled into whatever another crewmember requests for food."
"But wouldn’t the nanoprobes get broken down to their basic molecules as well?" Chakotay asked.
"Apparently, the cloaking fields act as a kind of micro-shield, protecting them during the reprocessing," the Doctor replied. "When the molecules are reassembled into foodstuffs, the nanoprobes integrate themselves into the replicator program, making copies of themselves into whatever food the user has requested. Once the replicated item has been eaten, that person then becomes a carrier, able to spread the nanoprobes in a similar fashion elsewhere throughout the ship."
"Or another ship," Chakotay added. "Or a space station, or a Starbase."
"Or a city," said the Doctor. "Remember that on most Federation worlds, municipal waste disposal and food distribution utilities operate on similar principles to Starfleet life support systems."
"And the nanoprobes remain dormant the entire time?" Tuvok asked, his eyebrows arched, his mind clearly at work. With the information the Doctor had uncovered, much of the behavior of the Borg these past two years was beginning to appear more logical.
"That’s correct," the Doctor replied. "From what we’ve been able to ascertain from their programming code, the nanoprobes are then designed to reproduce within their host at a slow, steady rate, until they either achieve some sort of ‘critical mass’ or receive an activation signal from a Borg vessel. Then they go directly into full attack mode and assimilate the host."
"Doctor," inquired Janeway, her voice disturbed by the implications, "exactly how fast could this virus spread if it ever got back to the Federation?"
"I ran a series of simulations, assuming a number of different variables. In most of the scenarios, the disease succeeded in spreading through eighty percent of the homeworlds and almost half of the major colonies in just over a year, with a potential infected population of over 300 billion. In every one of the scenarios, complete saturation was achieved in no more than four years."
"And all the Borg have to do is show up with one ship, send out an activation signal, and then…whamo!" said Tom, "Instant Borg army, all ready to mop up any stragglers, or neighboring governments."
"Jesus," B’Elanna gasped. "And we’ve been eating the damn things the whole time."
"Indeed," the Doctor said gravely. "And with the cloaking fields in place, nobody would suspect a thing until it was all over."
"You mean, if Harry hadn’t gotten sick," B’Elanna added acidly, "we might have brought this stuff back with us, and never known it."
"Unfortunately, yes," the Doctor said, his earlier triumphant tone now muted.
"An unacceptable price," Seven spoke up, after having been silent and withdrawn throughout the entire meeting. Her eyes did not meet with anyone else’s.
"Doctor, that still doesn’t explain how the nanoprobes first came on board," said Janeway. "If they spread through technology, then could they possibly have been transmitted through the transwarp coil we brought back from the Borg Sphere that first time."
"I don’t think so, Captain," Tom answered. "The warp drive systems don’t interface with any of the life support functions. The nanoprobes would have to be introduced pretty much the way the Doctor described. I can’t think of how our ‘patient zero’ would have been contaminated without being aware of it."
Then Seven’s face went pale as a realization came to her. "There is another technological system on this vessel that could have interacted with the replicators in precisely the manner the Doctor described," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "My own."
"Seven, what are you saying?" the captain said in alarm.
"You will recall that during the period the Doctor mentioned, I too was in the presence of the Borg for a considerable length of time," she said. "It is entirely plausible that I might have been infected while I was aboard Unimatrix One."
Janeway turned to the EMH. "Doctor, is this possible?"
"I suppose so," said the Doctor, deeply disturbed by the implications. "Seven was unconscious for several regeneration cycles while she was a prisoner of the Borg Queen. It’s reasonable to assume that they could have modified her nanoprobes during that time without her knowledge. Once she returned, the modifications would be too subtle to detect. Seven would just go about her business, quite unaware that she would be spreading the disease throughout our replicator system."
Seven said nothing, the shame on her face evident to see. Janeway could see the discomfort and leaned over to reassure her. "Seven, don’t blame yourself. There was no possible way you could have known."
"But I am responsible," said the young woman, shivering as she spoke. "I have caused this."
"Seven of Nine, you were clearly deceived," said Tuvok. "It is obvious now that it was the intention of the Borg Queen from the very beginning to use you as a means to spread the infection to Voyager, and thus use us to infect the Federation as well."
"But…she told me that I was summoned to the Collective in order to provide aid in their efforts against the Federation," she protested.
"I find it illogical that the Borg Queen would believe you would willingly assist in the assimilation of others, having had eighteen months to experience individuality for yourself. Any information you possessed could have easily been gained through assimilation. No doubt you were told precisely what she expected would provoke you into resisting. I suspect that either it was expected that Voyager would come to your rescue, or that a means would have been manufactured to ‘allow’ you to escape."
But this was all cold comfort to Seven of Nine. We want you to help us assimilate humanity. Those were the words the Queen had used. Surely it had all seemed hard to believe at the time. Had it all been a lie? Perhaps not all of it, she thought. Despite everyone’s reassurances, the Borg Queen’s words were accurate. She had helped them with their plans for the Alpha Quadrant, even if it was without her conscious participation.
"But if they wanted us to rescue Seven, then…they must have let us escape!" Janeway realized.
"So it would seem, Captain," said Tuvok solemnly. "I always believed that our rescue of Seven of Nine was far too easy. It would also explain why we have never been subsequently attacked by the Borg since that time."
"Wait just a second…" said Janeway, his face showing alarm. "We traveled half-way across the quadrant since we rescued Seven from Unimatrix One. All of those worlds we visited since then…have we been spreading a plague everywhere we’ve gone?"
The Doctor offered a reassuring answer. "I don’t think so, Captain. The nanoprobe virus seems to be adapted to spread through Federation technology only. While it’s probable that alien visitors we’ve had on board could carry the nanoprobes back to their homeworlds, without continuous exposure the nanoprobes won’t be able to successfully incubate in their new technological medium. Eventually, the infection would be flushed from their systems."
"Well, thank god for that, at least," Janeway said with relief. The guilt of being responsible for spreading the domain of the Borg Collective across any more worlds would have been too much to bear.
"It just all seems so elaborate," Chakotay observed, overwhelmed by the audaciousness of Borg conspiracy. "So much effort, just to spread a disease."
"On the contrary, Commander," Tuvok responded, "it is eminently logical. If the Borg wished to spread a nanoprobe infection across the Federation, what would be the most effective means to deliver it; a Borg vessel, which would almost certainly be attacked at first sight, or a long lost Starfleet vessel, which would be welcomed with open arms?"
Then Chakotay’s eyes widened in alarm, as he began to realize something. "Doctor! You said the virus spreads through Federation technology. What about the Equinox? When it was docked with us, our crews mingled. Could the Equinox have potentially carried the virus back with it?"
"It might well have, Commander," the Doctor said. "Since we don’t have any surviving equipment from the Equinox to examine, we can’t be certain. But there’s no reason to suspect otherwise."
He then turned to Kathryn Janeway, the shock on his face plain to see. "Good god. If Ransom had gotten away…if he had made it back to the Alpha Quadrant…"
"He and his crew, and all those they came in contact with, would have undoubtedly spread the virus across dozens of worlds by now," the Doctor finished his sentence. "An unexpected bit of serendipity for the Borg."
He and the captain exchanged looks, subtle enough for the crew not to pick up on their full meaning. There was no point in everyone else knowing how divided the two officers had become over Janeway’s obsession with hunting down Captain Ransom. Chakotay had disagreed strongly with her fixation, but in light of what they now knew, he could no longer dispute that she had made the right decision, even if it had been for the wrong reasons.
"It’s awfully convenient then, that we should happen to find a crashed Borg starship, complete with enough transwarp coils to get us home," Chakotay added, his voice perked up in suspicion.
"As you have no doubt surmised by now, Commander, there is nothing coincidental about it," Tuvok observed. "We have been attempting to discover a cause for why the vessel below was destroyed, without bothering to consider the obvious explanation: deliberate design."
"You mean, they crashed their ship on purpose?!" B’Elanna sputtered. "That’s insane!"
"I think not, Lieutenant," the security officer responded. "In the past, we have seen the Borg demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice large numbers of drones in order to achieve a greater goal. No doubt they waited until they felt the nanoprobes had sufficiently acclimated to our ship before arranging for us to discover the crash site."
"Then Harry was right. They did try to soft land it," the engineer said, still bewildered by what they were learning. "They wanted us to find those transwarp coils!"
"Incredible," Janeway remarked. "They use Seven as a Trojan horse to infect Voyager, and then use Voyager in turn to infect the Federation."
"There is one more factor we must consider," Tuvok added. "After rescuing Seven of Nine from Unimatrix One, Voyager could have taken any number of flight paths back towards the Alpha Quadrant. Yet the Borg knew precisely where to crash their vessel in order that we should discover it." He then sat back silently, waiting to see if the others would come to the same logical conclusion he had.
As he expected, it was Kathryn Janeway who realized the implications of his words first. "Oh my god…they’re tracking us…" The very thought of it sent chills down the spine of everyone in the room who was capable of fear.
Tuvok nodded his head in approval of the captain’s logic. "No doubt they have been aware of our movements ever since we departed Unimatrix One."
"My god…," Janeway repeated herself. "How long do you think they’ve been planning this, Tuvok?"
"It is difficult to say," the Vulcan answered. "Possibly since the end of the war with Species 8472, when they first became aware of our presence in the Delta Quadrant, and knew that we had Seven of Nine on board."
"Man, they’ve been playing us like a cheap fiddle all this time," Tom commented while shaking his head, in his usual colorful manner.
"So it would seem, Ensign," Tuvok concurred.
"Just a minute," B’Elanna held up her hand in frustration. "We still haven’t answered the most important question, here. If these things are supposed to lie dormant, then how the hell did they go haywire with Harry?"
"Well, Lieutenant," the Doctor tried to answer, "until now, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. You see, from what Ensign Paris and I were able to extrapolate from the programming code in his nanoprobes, Ensign Kim had an initial level of at least forty times that of the average crewmember. I’m not sure, but I believe that this is close to the critical mass necessary to go into attack mode. Whatever stray radiation was in the wreckage must have been enough to trigger the assimilation command."
"Forty times!" Janeway said in alarm. "How could that have happened? Surely not just from eating?"
"I don’t think so, Captain," the Doctor answered. "But…I…um…I believe I have a theory, based on what we’ve uncovered at this meeting."
"Yes?" the captain demanded.
The Doctor and Tom both looked at each other, too uncomfortable to speak. "It’s somewhat…er…difficult to discuss."
"Doctor, I have a crewman in Sickbay being assimilated into a Borg drone. I’m in no mood for games. Now, out with it!"
"I…that is…well, as we’ve just come to realize, it was Seven of Nine’s bodily fluids that were the original source of the infection," the hologram answered sheepishly.
"Well," Tom added awkwardly, "let’s just say that Harry was a lot more up-close-and-personal with Seven’s bodily fluids than the rest of us."
All eyes turned to Seven of Nine. No wonder the Doctor had been reluctant to state his reasons in front of the group. As for Seven, if she had been upset before, then she was now pushed to the limit. "I…I am the cause of this?! I have done this to him?!" she cried out.
"Seven," Janeway looked over at the young ex-drone, her expression one of concern. "I told you before, you had no way of knowing any this. The Borg are responsible for Harry’s condition, not you."
"But it is because of me he is to become Borg!" she wailed. Everyone in the room was amazed. No one, with the possible exception of Harry Kim, who was naturally not present, had ever seen Seven so vulnerable before. B’Elanna especially found herself floored by this obvious display of genuine emotion. She had thought for so long that she had the former drone completely pegged. Now her estimation of the young woman had to be reconsidered.
"It’s the one thing that the Borg never would have anticipated," Chakotay observed, "Seven becoming intimate with a member of the crew."
"I…I must go," Seven mumbled, before rushing from the briefing room, not bothering to look back. The Doctor initially wanted to go after her, but a cautioning hand from Janeway stopped him.
"Let her go, Doctor. She needs to be by herself for a little while," said the captain reassuringly. She then hardened her expression as she returned her mind to the duties before her. "Doctor, please tell me with all you have discovered that you’ve found a way to shut these nanoprobes down."
"Well, Captain, I’m not certain. Mr. Paris and I believe we’re close to finding a shutdown command," the EMH answered. "However, we’re not sure if it will work while the nanoprobes are in assimilation mode. Remember that the Borg designed these devices. They would have no need or desire to shut down an assimilation while it’s in progress. Especially since it normally would last less than five minutes."
"Then, we have nothing to help Harry with?" B’Elanna implored.
"I wish I knew how, Lieutenant," the Doctor replied. "It would involve designing an entirely new command code structure for the nanoprobes. In theory, it could be done. But in time to help Ensign Kim…"
"I understand," said Janeway sadly.
"In that case, Captain," Tuvok spoke up, "Mr. Kim’s moral situation has now taken on a greater urgency."
"What do you mean, Tuvok?" she asked.
"What I mean, Captain, is that in light of what we have learned today, Mr. Kim poses a greater threat to this vessel and crew than ever before," he answered gravely. "Once Ensign Kim is fully assimilated, his knowledge and experiences will become fully known to the Borg. They will know how he came to be assimilated, and they will realize that their trap has been sprung prematurely. And if they are able to track our movements, as I believe they are…"
"We can expect an attack," she finished his sentence for him.
"Yes, rather than allow us to depart with the transwarp coils and warn the Federation," the Vulcan concluded.
Janeway sighed inwardly. When the Doctor had called this staff meeting, she had hoped that he would manage to pull a rabbit out of his hat and find a solution for Harry’s condition. In doing so, she would be absolved of the moral dilemma regarding what to do about the quality of his remaining life as an individual. Now, it would seem, the decision had taken on a greater necessity. It wasn’t just Harry’s humanity at stake now, but the lives of everyone on board.
But while Kathryn Janeway was wallowing in uncertainty, a determined B’Elanna Torres had apparently made up her mind. As soon as the meeting broke up, she silently departed, not even bothering to look back as Tom called out to her. She had much to prepare for.
For years, work had been the refuge and solace for Seven of Nine, comfort from a world that she found confusing, irrelevant and, as she later came to realize in retrospect, painful. Only gradually did she come to discover that there was more to life than simply being productive. She learned that life could be enjoyed simply by doing things that made you happy. In some cases, doing work could be enough. But it could also be enjoyed by spending time with someone special, someone kind and gentle that treated you with affection. Someone just like Harry Kim.
Cargo Bay Two was dark, much darker than Seven remembered it being. It occurred to her that she had not even been here since she had formally moved in with Harry. Having moved out, she had never looked back. A chill crept up her back as she scanned the room, observing how cold and unwelcome it all seemed to her now. The chamber had become cluttered with overflow from the supply bins, as Cargo Bay Two had now reverted back to its original purpose as a storage facility after Seven’s relocation.
And then, she saw it, dominating the back of the room. It was Seven’s regeneration alcove, the one piece of the Borg Collective that remained on board. The familiar green glow from its status lights were dim, as it was now a cold, silent monolith in the midst of the disorder of the cargo bay. The control panels had been pried open and stripped of their valuable components. On Voyager, nothing functional remained unused for very long.
She stared at it for what seemed like forever. How did something that had once been a comforting source of replenishment now become so sinister and terrifying? But as she looked deeper at its dark, solid mass, the fear gradually transformed itself into rage. A white hot burning fury spread through her body as she thought about the pain and devastation that this and all other manifestations of the Borg had brought onto the universe. The rage seemed to take on a life of its own as she instinctively ran up to the device and ripped a section of plating from the side. Seven felt a fleeting moment of satisfaction as the plating tore loose. But it dissipated as quickly as it came, only to be replaced by the fire of hate that had been there before. Using the plating as a club, she swung wildly at the alcove, denting its outer structure, smashing in its more fragile outer components. She was like a woman possessed. Never had she felt this kind of anger before, so intense it was that she wasn’t even consciously aware of what she was doing. She simply struck out blindly, feeling an irrational need to destroy this representation of all that was Borg.
And then, after what seemed an eternity, the rage subsided, leaving Seven of Nine with both emotional and physical exhaustion. She looked up at her handiwork, and gasped at what she had wrought. The regeneration alcove had been battered and pulverized like a discarded ration can. Puffs of smoke and sparks marked where the delicate circuitry had been destroyed. Yet despite the devastation she had wrought, Seven still felt like it wasn’t enough.
"I could think of better ways for you to work through your feelings," a familiar voice came from behind her.
Seven spun around to see Captain Janeway standing behind her, her arms folded, with a neutral expression on her face.
"Captain!" she cried out in alarm. "I did not intend…I will understand if you wish to discipline me for…"
Janeway held up her hand to reassure the anxious young woman. "Relax, Seven. We were planning on dismantling the alcove anyway. Besides, there’s an old Earth expression," she added as she looked past Seven at the demolished structure behind her. "’Sometimes, there just aren’t enough rocks.’"
Seven said nothing, trying to ponder the meaning of the words.
"I just came by to see how you are doing," Janeway continued. "Seven, you have to accept that what happened to Harry was not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong!"
The younger woman sighed visibly. "That is not true, Captain. I did do something wrong." She then reached up to grasp the Omega molecule pendant that Harry had given her, clutching it close to her heart. "I did not give to Harry what he wanted more than anything."
"Maybe there’s still time for that," Janeway answered. "You could go and see him now. The quarantine has been lifted, after all."
Seven’s voice was exhausted, drained of energy. "I do not believe he wishes me to. He does not want me to see what the nanoprobes have done to him."
Kathryn came closer, put an arm out to comfort her. "He’s only trying to protect you, Seven."
"I am not a child! I do not require protection!" she declared bluntly, before her stoic resolve asserted itself once again and projected her normally impassive exterior. She turned away from the captain to look upon the wreckage of the alcove.
"Seven?" Janeway looked on with concern. The younger woman was silent for a long moment before she spoke up.
"I hate them!" she exclaimed fiercely. Janeway knew immediately to whom she was referring. This was part of a long and difficult journey for Seven of Nine. When she had first come aboard, she had regarded her time in the Collective as perfection, and her return to humanity as a fall from grace. Only gradually, as she grew accustomed to her rediscovered individuality, did she come to look on with apprehension the idea of losing it to the Borg once again. As she came to identify more closely as a part of Voyager‘s crew, that apprehension became fear. Then, as she came to realize what she had missed out on as a human being as a result of her assimilation, that fear became resentment. Now, with the full acceptance of her emotional capacity and the ability to feel what the Borg had taken from her, resentment had now become hate.
"Everyone in my life that I have felt for, they have taken from me," Seven went on. "Mama, Papa, then One, and now Harry," she wailed. "When we first started to work together, I regarded Harry Kim as an irrelevant annoyance. And now…" she shivered as she spoke, struggling to maintain control over herself, "now, I cannot imagine my existence without him."
"I know how much you care about Harry…"
"If I could, I would destroy them all." The coldness with which Seven said those words chilled Janeway. She had no doubt from the tone of her voice that she meant every word.
"Now, Seven. Just imagine what might have become of you if someone had felt that way while you were still a drone."
"It would not be relevant," she said coldly. "It would be more merciful to destroy them all, rather than allow them to continue their existence as Borg."
"Oh, Seven," Janeway sympathized, "I know the pain you’re feeling right now. Believe me, this was the one lesson in humanity that I was hoping you’d never have to learn. I wish I knew how to make the pain go away. But I can’t. Only time can do that."
"How can you possibly know of what I feel?!" Seven lashed out. "You have no mate of your own!"
"I do know what you’re feeling, Seven!" Janeway replied back, a bit more harshly than she had intended. "Once, years ago, I also had…a mate." Kathryn Janeway’s memory went back to that awful day so many years back, when she was just a young officer, trapped under the ice on a crashed shuttle with Justin and her father. Both men had been injured, but there was only enough power in the transporter to beam one of them to safety. It was a true Kobiyashi Maru scenario, forced to chose between the two men who mattered the most to her in the universe. But young Kathryn had refused to make that choice. Instead, she tried to improvise a solution that she thought could beat the odds. She believed that she could save them both, but in the end, she ended up saving neither one.
"It was the most horrible day of my life," Janeway continued, her voice haunted. "I thought I would never live past it. But I did. I had to. I owed it to the man I loved to go on living. And in time, I found another…er, mate. And I lost him, too. Not to death, mind you. But it felt the same way."
"I…I did not know, Captain. Forgive me."
Janeway looked at the young blond in surprise. This had been the first time that she could recall Seven ever apologizing to her for anything. Her tone softened as she went on. "What I’m trying to say, Seven, is that it does get better, over time. You never truly forget the grief and the pain, but each day that goes by, you learn to live with it. And eventually, you’re able to find happiness again. It will happen with you, Seven. Believe me."
"Are you saying that I will find another mate?" she said as her face grew hot and flustered. "I do not want another mate! I want Harry! I want him to recover! I want him to be with me! I want…" she stammered as her control wavered, her face became flushed, her eyes puffy. "I want to tell him…" her voice quavered as her breathing became more ragged, "tell him that I…I…" Then it happened. The dam of control and discipline finally burst, and twenty years worth of sorrow and pain burst out in a loud, gut-wrenching wail, like the howl of a wounded animal. So intense was her outcry that her knees buckled and she fell forward. Janeway rushed forward to catch her and held her tight, as tears that had not been shed since childhood finally gushed from her eyes. The two sank down to the floor together, as the formidable ex-Borg had become as vulnerable as the child she had once been on the day of her own assimilation.
"W-what is happening to me?" she managed to speak in a childlike whisper between sobs. She was as much frightened as she was saddened, terrified of this new emotion she was feeling.
"You’re crying, Seven," Janeway said as she cradled the young woman in her arms, letting her rest her head on her shoulder. "Don’t fight it. Let the tears come out."
"I…I wish I were dead," Seven managed to speak. "Surely it is better to be dead than to feel this way."
She continued to sob, her body wracked with a pervasive…awfulness, that was unendurable. Was this what it would mean to be human? Was it worth it to feel happy and wonderful one day, only to be followed by such abject sadness? Why could she not have stayed a drone, where pain and sorrow could not touch her?
"Why, Captain?" Seven muttered through her tears. "Is the joy of being human worth the pain one must endure?"
"Let me answer your question with another," Janeway replied, looking into her blue, tear-filled eyes. "Those moments when you were happy, when you felt love, wouldn’t you say they were worth the journey? Would you give up those moments you spent with Harry, with your friends, with this crew?"
"I…I do not know what to feel!"
"Of course, you don’t, poor dear," Janeway answered as she stroked the younger woman’s blond hair in a maternal fashion. "Nobody knows. That’s what it is to be human."
After a few moments of supporting the bereaved young woman, the voice of Commander Chakotay interrupted them over the intercom. "Captain, the Doctor wants to know if you’ve had a chance to look at the medical data, yet."
"Tell him I’ll speak to him later," she called out. "I’m otherwise occupied right now."
"I see. How long do you think you’ll be?"
She looked on at Seven, who had nestled against her like a lost little girl. "For as long as I’m needed," she answered softly, as she cradled the young woman who continued to cry on her shoulder.
B’Elanna was in her quarters later that evening, tightening her jet-black workout coverall about her, making sure there was nothing amiss in her plans. To most people, she would have looked like she was dressed for combat rather than exercise, but then for B’Elanna Torres, the two were often one and the same.
She reached into the dresser drawer to pull out the item she had carefully replicated earlier in the day. The ritual hech’bah blade gleamed in the artificial lighting of her quarters, its curved shaft bedecked in synthetic jewelry and carvings. It might have seemed a bit much for an object that would be used only once, but according to Klingon tradition, this was the appropriate configuration for the instrument used to end the suffering and preserve the honor of warriors since the days of Kahless himself.
Harry Kim might not have considered himself a warrior, but he was willing to give up his life not just for his honor, but for the lives of his crewmates as well. In B’Elanna’s mind, he deserved no less than a warrior’s sendoff.
Her mind was still conflicted over the path she had chosen. Rationally, she knew it was the right thing to do. There seemed to be no hope of a cure before the deadline was reached. And if Tuvok were to be believed, the ship itself was at risk. The part of her that was still Klingon agreed that it was better that Harry should die quickly, at the hands of a friend, than suffer an ongoing nightmare as a soulless drone.
So why did she feel so damned guilty?
It was because of the injustice of it all, the fact that a good man like Harry Kim didn’t deserve to go out like this. If anyone on Voyager was entitled to a long and happy life, it was he.
She spun around and quickly hid the hech’bah blade in the seam of her coverall. The door to the bathroom slid open, and Tom Paris came out, tying his short bathrobe around him. His face was lined with worry. Although he had wanted to stay with Harry up until the last possible moment, the Doctor had ‘ordered’ him to take a shower and look after himself first. At this point, it was up to the ship’s technicians and the computer to develop a way to deal with the nanoprobes. Tom had put in his time, and was now largely superfluous. He now felt like B’Elanna had during quarantine, frustrated and useless.
B’Elanna, on the other hand, cursed his timing. She had hoped he would still be in the shower by the time she left. Now she had to lie to him. She hated lying to him.
"You smell a lot fresher," she joked feebly.
"I should be down in Sickbay," he grunted. "Harry shouldn’t be alone tonight."
"The Doctor is with him," she reassured him. "There’s nothing you can do." Maybe it was the deception that hurt her the most. But as much as she didn’t want him here with her right now, she wanted him in Sickbay even less. She already had a plan for dealing with the Doctor. Had Tom shown up, it would complicate matters considerably, especially since she didn’t know how he might react to what she had in mind, and didn’t care to find out. It wasn’t that she was worried he might stop her. She was even more concerned he might try to help, and she didn’t want that. She knew she’d be going down for this, and she wasn’t afraid. But Tom had enough black marks on his record already. Murder, even if it was for compassionate reasons, wasn’t something she wanted added to the list.
"I know," he admitted grudgingly. "I just…"
"Get some rest," she reassured him. "You’ve done everything that can be done." She then turned to leave, hoping he wouldn’t try to stop here.
"Hey, where are you headed?" he called out.
Damn! Just seconds from a clean getaway. "I…I’m going down to the Holodeck. I need to…um…work out some things."
She hoped that would be enough of an answer for him. He knew her preferred method for dealing with stress, and she hoped that he would accept her need for solitude with some therapeutic violence. Just to be sure, she reserved Holodeck One for two hours tonight, just to cover her tracks.
"He’s going to be OK," he said to her reassuringly.
"I…I know," she answered softly.
They said nothing for a moment. They both just stood there. B’Elanna knew she should go, just leave before he asked anymore questions, before she had to tell him any more lies. But she couldn’t leave him like this.
She came to him and put her arms around him, hugging him tightly to her bosom. "I love you. I really do. You know that, don’t you?"
"I know. I love you, too," he said back, while he nuzzled her neck. And she was grateful to hear it, at least for this one time, because she didn’t know if he would feel the same way tomorrow.
"Are you sure you don’t want to stay?" he asked.
"I’ll be back later tonight," she said softly. "I just have to do this."
Before he could say anything else, she slid out of her room and moved quietly down the halls. She looked about her as she went, trying not to draw too much attention to herself. She was out of uniform, but that was expected for crewmembers off duty. It was late anyway, and the few people she saw in the corridors clearly had other things on their minds. B’Elanna supposed that knowing you had Borg nanoprobes circulating through your body was enough to keep anyone off-focus, something she could use to her advantage.
Moving through the dimmed corridors, B’Elanna felt like she was back with the Maquis, preparing for a raid on a Cardassian military stronghold. Well, this would be a raid, of sorts. And she did have a violent goal I mind. But this time, the ‘enemies’ were people she had come to consider her friends, which only helped to make her feel dirtier.
She did not intend to cover her tracks or hide from her actions. Once the deed was done, she had every intention of taking responsibility and accepting the consequences for it. That’s what one did when one was given the honor of performing the hech’bah.
It’s funny, B’Elanna thought bitterly. First I see a vision of my mother going to Greth’hor, and then Harry gets assimilated by the Borg. Why is it that people I care about have to die to get me to take my Klingon heritage seriously?
As she arrived at Sickbay, she turned about to make sure nobody was approaching. According to the computer, the Doctor was alone in his office, and not engaged in conversation with anyone. Confident that nobody was in the vicinity, she pulled out the other item she had hidden on her person. A small electronic device, it would cause a brief interruption in the holographic sensory input matrix. The Doctor would not be harmed, nor would his memory matrix be affected. But for just a few seconds, his program would be unable to perceive anything around him. It would be just like being switched off, only there would be no record of it on the computer. He would not even be aware that any time had passed, at least not until later, when the truth came out.
Carefully, she flicked the switch, waiting for the device to sync with the Doctor’s program. When the green status light blinked on, she quickly darted into Sickbay, and made a quick dash behind one of the biobeds. She made a quick visual pass of the room. The lights were dimmed, and Harry lay still on top of the next biobed over. The lights were on in the Doctor’s office, and she could see him standing perfectly still. The effect would be over soon. Three…two…one…
"Hmmm. That’s odd. I could have sworn I was reading earlier in the page," she heard the Doctor fuss. Good. He suspected nothing. She would then wait for the right moment, then use the device again. She felt guilty about abusing her intimate knowledge of the Doctor’s program, but she knew that as a physician, he would never allow her to just waltz right in and slit his patient’s throat.
Slit his throat! God, she gasped inwardly, what the hell is wrong with me?
She trembled, wondering if she had the strength to do it or not. She had killed before, during her days in the Maquis, but not as many as the rumors around the ship would lead people to believe. Most of them had been faceless Cardassian soldiers back home. Some she had killed here in the Delta Quadrant. But it had all been done in the heat of battle. She had never systematically plotted the death of an individual before, and this was one of her best friends. She would rather have plunged the blade into her own gut than use it on Harry. Why? Why was she doing this?
She was doing this, she reminded herself, because nobody else would. Janeway could be fierce when she wanted to, but ultimately her loyalty was to her beloved Federation principles. And this dilemma put them right on the line. B’Elanna remembered how ambivalent the captain had been when asked to decide the permissibility of an immortal Q taking its own life. How much more difficult would it be to decide on the life of one of her crew, especially one as beloved as Harry Kim? No, she decided. Action had to be taken. And she would be the one to do it…
But before she could act, the door to Sickbay slid open and in walked…Seven! B’Elanna crouched further behind the biobed, hoping to remain unseen. She was grateful that the lights were still in nighttime mode, but she realized that would be no impediment for Seven of Nine’s enhanced vision.
"Doctor," the former drone called out to the office.
"Seven," said the holographic doctor as he came out to greet her, looking melancholy as he saw her. "I…I wasn’t sure if you would be coming to see Mr. Kim or not."
"I know Harry did not wish for me to see him as he is now. But I felt…I wanted…" she struggled to say.
"I understand," he said sympathetically.
"What is his status?"
"The computer is running different combinations of the code we extrapolated from the nanoprobes. None of them, so far, are having any effect. He’s nearing the final stages of assimilation now. I had to increase his sedative dosage. The pain he was experiencing was becoming unbearable." The hologram then looked at her almost apologetically. "I doubt he’ll even know that you’re here."
"He will know," she answered him, softly, yet with certainty.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Can you allow us to be alone?" she requested. "I realize that you are on duty, but I only require a few minutes."
He smiled at her. "I can shut myself down for fifteen minutes. The computer will reactivate me earlier if there’s a change in his condition."
"Thank you, Doctor."
He gave her another sad smile as his program winked out of existence. B’Elanna further crouched behind the biobed, trying to remain invisible. She didn’t want to intrude on this most tender moment. But looking up at Seven, she saw…no, it couldn’t be. It looked as if the former drone had been…crying. But that was impossible. Wasn’t it?
Seven leaned over Harry Kim in the dim light of Sickbay, taking her first look at him since the transformation had begun. He appeared to be sleeping, his eyes gently closed and his breathing soft and rhythmic. At this point, almost all of his hair had fallen out. His skin was now bone-white and his exposed neck and arms were coated in a Borg exoskeleton. An ugly-looking tube stuck out from his neck and ran into the side of his skull. In short, he resembled a standard undifferentiated drone, one of billions that were newly assimilated and awaiting assignment to wherever the Collective required additional units. Among the Borg, a drone at this stage would be relocated to an implantation facility, where it would be outfitted with more specialized equipment appropriate to its newly assigned function. There the drone would remain for the rest of its existence, or until it was considered obsolete and discarded.
But this was no ordinary drone. This was Harry Kim, her mate. She stood over him, and took his hand into hers, holding him to her breast. There was still warmth in his face. The humanity had not gone away, at least not yet. And when she looked into him, she still saw the gentleness and serenity that she had learned to draw strength from. Instinctively, she reached out to stroke his cheek, feeling the remaining heat emanating from his body.
"Harry," she spoke to him softly. "Why did you feel the need to hide from me? Surely you know that to me, you are beautiful."
There was no reply.
Undeterred, Seven went on to speak. "I have completed my studies on the emotion of love, Harry. I now know what love is." She then took a deep breath before continuing, her lips flushed and her eyes intent on the young man before her.
"Love is that which requires no definition. It is total and complete acceptance of another. And it is through that acceptance that true perfection becomes possible. "I know this because…because I love you, Harry Kim."
For a long moment, Seven felt nothing, nothing except the sensation of her world coming down around her. But then, ever so subtly, she felt the pressure of her hand being squeezed. She then looked at the face of the man she loved and saw a tear forming at the corner of his eye.
"I regret that I was unable to tell you this before. I know it is what you wanted most of me, more than anything else. But I realize now that I was too frightened to allow myself to feel love. Perhaps I believe that if I felt love, then I would be truly human, and I feared the changes such an epiphany would bring.
"But I no longer fear that, Harry. What I fear now is… is no longer having you in my existence." Seven felt her voice breaking, and a tear started to stream down her cheek.
"T-that is why you must recover and be restored to your prior condition," she implored him. "It would be unacceptable for me to lose you, now that I have come to know how much you have meant to me.
"You see…you have told me that I make you happy. But you, Harry, you have given me a special gift beyond measure. You have made me…human."
She then let his hand go and allowed it to rest at his side. She stepped away from him slowly, wanting to remember him at peace. But as she moved back, she heard something, a soft gasping, like air escaping from a valve. She leaned in and realized that it was coming from Harry’s lips. Using her enhanced audio senses, she was able to make out the words he was desperately trying to form.
Seven of Nine then bent her head down and kissed him softly on the lips, silently urging him to rest. Unable to remain without breaking down entirely, she backed towards the door, her eyes never leaving his. Whispering to him a silent goodbye, she left Sickbay.
Minutes passed. B’Elanna Torres had sat still the entire time, struck dumb by what she had witnessed. She never would have believed it if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. Never had she seen anything that had so moved her like Seven of Nine’s innocent and heartfelt declaration of love. It was only then that she realized that her own cheeks had become damp with tears.
This was wrong, she determined grimly, as she looked down at the hech’bah blade in her hand. How could she end Harry’s life now, after what she had heard? She could not! She would not! What was honor, when compared to love?
Realizing that she still had a minute before the Doctor’s program came back on line, she darted upward from her hiding spot and shot out the door. Fortunately, nobody was in the corridor. She stomped down the empty hallway until she came to a disposal bin. Without even a thought, she casually tossed the ceremonial blade into the dematerializer and walked away.
Harry would not die tonight, she decided. There was still time before the deadline was up, and she, along with everyone else in this crew, would fight until the very last second that it was possible to save him. No, she realized. This was not a time for despair. This was a time for hope.
Because Harry Kim now had a reason to go on living.
The following morning, Janeway called another staff meeting. According to the latest status reading, Harry had less than six hours until the cortical implant in his head became fully operational and was linked to the Borg Collective. Everyone hoped the Doctor had something new to report. The news, needless to say, was mixed.
"On the positive side, the computer has identified an override command in the programming code. It should be sufficient to shut down reproductive function in the nanoprobes for both the crew and the replicator systems. We shouldn’t have any difficulty purging them after that."
"But what about Harry?" asked the captain.
"Unfortunately…" the Doctor continued, clearly unpleased by what he had to say, "it doesn’t seem to be working in the case of Mr. Kim. As I feared, while in assimilation mode, the nanoprobes reject any and all outside commands until their program has run its course. Or in this case, until they’ve finished their job."
"So that’s it?!" B’Elanna stood up in anger. "We just give up?"
"I didn’t say that, Lieutenant," replied the Doctor testily.
"Well, I refuse to accept that there’s no solution," the captain said. "There isn’t a computer program in existence that can’t be overridden somehow, and I imagine that must apply to the Borg as well." She then turned to Seven of Nine, who was sitting silently during the conversation, her mind focused on Sickbay. "Seven, surely there must be some procedure that you know of that can countermand an assimilation."
"There has never been a need for one until now, captain," the young woman answered.
"Well, if not a specific countermand, then what about a way to go around the lock-out the nanoprobes have regarding new instructions?"
Seven’s brow furrowed as she thought about the captain’s suggestion. "Ordinarily, when the Collective wishes to update a drone’s assimilation protocols, it is done through the regulator implant."
"It’s part of the tympanic interface, along here," the Doctor explained, pointing to the area below the base of the ear, where Seven had a prominent starburst-shaped implant. "It serves as a control nexus for the nanoprobes within a drone’s body. Unfortunately, that’s not an option in this case."
"How can you be so sure?" Janeway asked.
"Because of this," the hologram said as he turned to the briefing room’s monitor. On screen, a schematic of the progress of the Borg nanoprobes inside Harry’s body was revealed. The view zoomed in on the head, particularly the region of the neck.
"As you can see," he demonstrated, "the regulator implant in Ensign Kim is still forming alongside the cortical implant and isn’t yet functional. The two should be completed at roughly the same time."
"So by the time it’s up and running, it’ll be too late to do Harry any good," Chakotay commented sourly.
"I’m afraid so, Commander."
Janeway pondered on this new information. "Couldn’t we just transplant one of the implants from one of the Borg corpses we discovered?"
"It doesn’t work that way, Captain," said the Doctor. "The implant won’t be functional after the drone is dead. It wouldn’t do Mr. Kim any good."
Then Seven stood up, her face resolute. "There is another fully functional regulator implant available, Doctor. You may transplant my own."
"Seven!" the Doctor cried out. "I can’t do that! One of the reasons I left that implant in your body was because it had become tightly integrated into your nervous system. If I removed it, there could be serious consequences. You might suffer permanent neural damage or even death!"
"Irrelevant! Harry Kim must live!"
"Seven," Janeway said softly. "I know you want to do whatever you can, but I’m sure Harry wouldn’t want you to sacrifice your life for him."
"But I must do something!"
Tom Paris then got up, an idea coming to him. "Maybe there’s a way we can use Seven’s implant without having to remove it surgically. We could try to network it remotely using a neural interface attached to Harry. That way, we could use it to send commands to Harry’s nanoprobes, while it still remains inside her body."
But the Doctor didn’t seem convinced. "Mr. Paris, Borg implants aren’t designed that way. They’re each a dedicated unit. One implant, one drone. If you were to try and ‘daisy-chain’ them like that, it could overtax their function."
"Borg technology is adaptable," Seven countered. "I believe the risk to be acceptable."
"I strongly disagree, Captain," said the Doctor. "If her regulator implant should undergo a catastrophic failure, it could kill her. Or worse."
"Yes. It could send a cascade command to her own nanoprobes and cause them to default to their original programming."
"In other words, Doctor," Tuvok observed, "they would attempt to assimilate her."
Kathryn Janeway looked at both Seven and the Doctor, feeling torn, knowing that a decision in this matter required expertise she didn’t have. But part of being a captain was knowing how to judge risk; sometimes it was too great, and other times it was worth taking.
"Seven," Janeway said gently as she stood up from her seat and walked over into her personal space, "I already have one crewmember in Sickbay. Tell me why I should take a chance on putting another one in the same predicament?"
Seven stood silent for a minute, considering her answer. "Because I must help him, Captain. I love him."
Now it was everyone else in the room who was stunned in to silence. Everyone except for B’Elanna, who gave the former drone a knowing smile.
"I see," said the captain, who paced back to her chair, before turning to face those assembled to hear her words of wisdom. "Doctor, Mr. Paris, prepare the procedure. If Seven is willing to do whatever it takes for Mr. Kim, then we should do no less. Dismissed."
As the meeting broke up and Tom Paris came up alongside him, the Doctor let out a worried sigh, and let his eyes roll upward. "My ethical program isn’t just taking a beating this year, it’s being ground into a bloody pulp!"
Seven came up to her mentor, seeing the worried look on his face. "I am not worried, Doctor. One must have hope, Doctor," she said reassuringly. "That is what it means to be human." She then left the room, leaving a puzzled crowd behind her.
"Who was that woman?" Tom asked, pleasantly surprised. "She looked familiar, but she sure as hell didn’t sound like the Seven of Nine that I know."
"Well, whoever she is," B’Elanna answered as she put her arm around his, "she sounds like someone I’m hoping will stick around for a while."
One hour later, Seven was lying on a biobed in Sickbay. On the bed next to hers was Harry, still under sedation, his metamorphosis from man to drone nearly complete. Janeway stood at the back of the room, Tuvok and a security detail by her side, all of them looking on in silence. This was the first time she had the opportunity to see Harry in the flesh since the crisis began, Janeway realized. She couldn’t believe the transformation she was seeing. It was ghastly to think that the upstanding young man she had known, so eager and full of life, was buried under that hardware. He reminded her of the images she had seen of survivors of the nuclear attacks during the Third World War, wasting away from radiation sickness and third-degree burns. This was not something she would wish upon anyone, certainly not a member of her crew. Considering the risk to Seven, it almost made her want to countermand her own decision and stop the procedure right now.
But she couldn’t do that. If there was one thing that had been drummed into her by her instructors at Command School, it was that once a decision had been made, she must stick by it. ‘No regrets,’ they had told her sternly. ‘Even if it turns out to be a mistake, even if people die as a result, you never, ever, apologize once the order is given! If you do, then you’ll be second-guessing yourself for every choice you make after that. And then you’ll be useless as a captain!’
She turned to her security officer next to her. "Tuvok, should this fail and Harry and Seven become assimilated, how long will it be before the Borg attack?"
"Impossible to say, Captain," the Vulcan answered crisply. "With transwarp speed at their disposal, they could be upon us within minutes."
She nodded grimly as she slapped her combadge. "Janeway to Bridge."
"Chakotay, I want you to monitor what happens in Sickbay. Should we lose Harry and Seven, I want you to go to Red Alert immediately and prepare for maximum warp on my signal."
"Yes, ma’am," said the first officer. "Captain, you realize that if we leave now, we’ll be abandoning the wreckage and those transwarp coils. We may never get a chance like this again to get home."
Janeway sighed, knowing all too well what they could be giving up here. "I realize that, Chakotay. But those coils won’t do us a bit of good if we’re in the middle of a firefight with the Borg."
"Understood. Chakotay out."
The Doctor attached a small circular block to Harry’s neck, while Tom punched in commands from a console nearby. A similar device was already attached to Seven’s tympanic implant.
"We’ve got a link with Seven’s implant, Doc," said Tom.
"Very good, Mr. Paris," he replied, even though his tone indicated that he did not think things were very good at all. He looked down at his young pupil. "Seven, are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"Your concern is appreciated, Doctor," she answered him softly. "But I must do what I can. Do not be worried. All will be well. I have…faith." She then gave him a reassuring smile. The Doctor couldn’t help but be touched and smiled back.
"You may proceed, Mr. Paris," he said to his assistant, as he applied the sedative to Seven of Nine’s neck. They stood a better chance of sending commands through her implant if she were to remain unconscious during the procedure.
There was the bleep of keys being pressed. "I’m punching in the command now," Tom announced. "We should know soon if we have an interface with Harry’s nanoprobes." Somehow, considering what was at stake, the procedure seemed anticlimactic, Janeway observed. The door to Sickbay hissed as B’Elanna Torres rushed in.
"Well?" the engineer asked eagerly.
"The procedure has just commenced," Tuvok replied.
After a few minutes of silent activity, the EMH looked up at his assistant. "Mr. Paris?"
"Nothing," Tom answered sourly. "The nanoprobes don’t seem to be responding to Seven’s implant. I’m going to try looping the command. Maybe we’ll get…" But his voice trailed off as the status light on the panel began to buzz.
"What’s happening?" Janeway demanded.
"The nanoprobes…" the Doctor gasped as he checked the biobed sensor readouts. "Their growth just…accelerated!"
"I can’t explain it, Doc," he stammered. "Something in the command code must have…"
"Tom, whatever you did, undo it!" Janeway commanded.
The Doctor looked at the readouts, his expression going from bad to worse. "The tendrils are growing into Mr. Kim’s frontal lobes. His cortical implant will be online within minutes!"
Tom stood there are the screen, panic-stricken. He was at a loss for what to do, just as the Doctor was the other day. No matter how many commands he tried to push through Seven’s implant, the nanoprobes refused to accept the shutdown. Instead, they reacted like any organism would to an invasion, and responded vigorously.
Then, an idea came to mind. "I’m going to try something…" He began typing new commands into the keypad.
"Mr. Paris, what are you doing?" the Doctor asked.
"The nanoprobes won’t accept a shutdown command from an outside implant. But they might accept a command to accelerate even faster."
"Accelerate? Are you nuts?" B’Elanna cried out.
"Mr. Paris! Just what do you hope to accomplish?" an equally bewildered Doctor asked.
"If they won’t accept a shutdown from Seven’s implant, they might accept one from Harry’s" Tom answered.
"But by the time his regulator implant is complete, so will his cortical implant! He’ll be a Borg by then!" the Doctor protested.
"Not if I command the nanoprobes to focus on building the regulator implant first," he grinned wickedly. "We won’t have much time before the cortical implant is done, but if we get at least a minute to work with, it should be enough."
The Doctor looked on at the rash young man across from him in amazement. "Mr. Paris, you practice medicine the same way you practice piloting by the seat of your pants! I…" Another chime from the monitor screen distracted him. "Uh, oh."
"What’s happening now, Doctor," Janeway asked with more concern.
"Mr. Kim’s cortical implant…it’s sending out signals."
Janeway immediately slapped her combadge. "Bridge! Stand by!"
"Doctor," Tuvok spoke calmly. "You informed us that the cortical implant was still being formed."
But the holographic medic struggled to give an answer. "No, you don’t understand. It isn’t sending out subspace signals to the Borg yet. The long-range transmitter is still being grown. It’s communicating on short range only."
"Short range? To where?" B’Elanna asked.
All eyes then immediately turned to the still form of Seven of Nine, whose closed eyelids were fluttering rapidly, as though she were lost in a dream state.
Seven found herself wandering the familiar corridors of the Borg vessel once again. Standing in front of her were the two versions of herself she met before. One, the fully outfitted Borg drone that she had been for eighteen years. The other, the cold and haughty Seven of Nine that she had been during that first year or two among Voyager‘s crew. The individual she had been before discovering her humanity…and love.
"You sacrifice your existence for the human," the drone Seven stated with disdain. "You will cease to exist because of him."
"He would do the same for me," Seven replied proudly. In her earlier dream, she had feared these apparitions, albeit subtly. But no longer. She had a strength now, a weapon with which to fight them.
"It is expected that he would," the younger Seven stated coldly. "He is weak, his thoughts given to irrelevancies. You, however, are superior. It is not rational that one should exchange one’s life for another less valuable."
"You know nothing of life! Either of you!" Seven cried out to them. "I offer my life for his not because it is valuable. I do so because I love him!"
The two Sevens looked on with disgust. "You are flawed," said the drone coolly.
"Weak," the past-Seven added.
"Imperfect!" they both declared in unison.
"No," Seven answered them boldly. "I am human! I would rather be dead than Borg!"
And then a shuffling could be heard from behind her. Standing there was the drone Harry, his humanity gone, his eyes dead. His arms outstretched menacingly.
"Then you will die," the past-Seven answered cruelly. Seven couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a faint tone of satisfaction in her voice.
"She’s going into synaptic shock!" Tom cried out, as he tried to stabilize Seven’s condition.
"It’s the link!" the Doctor stated. "Mr. Kim’s implants are in flux, and they’re taking her with them!"
But another chime on Tom’s panel had something else to say.
"The Harry’s regulator implant is up and running, Doc!" Tom announced.
"Good. Send the shutdown command through it, now," the Doctor ordered. "And pray that this all works. The only way to help Seven now is to help him!"
Janeway looked on nervously, her hand on her combadge, ready to give the order to cut and run at a moment’s notice. And leaving behind their best hope in a long while of getting home.
Assuming, of course, that the Borg didn’t catch up to them first.
"Harry…" Seven called out to the drone, as it stomped heavily in her direction. "You must remember who you are!
"He does not hear you," the past-Seven taunted her. "He is one of us now."
The drone-Seven came up from behind her and subdued her, holding her arms tight. "Now you will be assimilated, Seven of Nine. Now, you will be made perfect."
He drone-Harry stood within arms-length of her now, his claw arm reaching out, assimilation tubules ready to be extended. She braced herself for what was to come, trying to remember the frightening sensations she had felt that first time, so many years ago.
But they did not come, instead of reaching for her neck, the drone-Harry reached past her and grabbed at the drone-Seven, yanking a component from the side of her neck. The female drone jerked backwards, as much out of surprise as a physical reaction. He then pulled the Seven drone away from her, and flung her like a rag doll across the room.
He stood there, his hands on his hips, and slowly, the implants and exoskeleton appeared to melt away, revealing a handsome Harry Kim in his full Starfleet uniform, proud and bold.
"She’s perfect just the way she is!" he declared defiantly. He then looked to Seven and smiled at her. "It’s me, Seven. Don’t be afraid."
"I…I am not afraid," she said to him. On the contrary, she had never felt more powerful in all her life.
"I don’t know how this is happening, Seven. But I think I’m inside your dream. None of this is real. They can’t hurt you unless you let them."
The past-Seven looked on in shock. "This is unacceptable!" she sputtered. "You cannot resist what you are! Resistance is futile!"
Seven then looked at her alter ego through cool narrow eyes as she strode the distance between the two. As soon as she was within her personal space, she spoke to her in a low, even tone. "What you believe is irrelevant." And with that, she backhanded her across the face and sent her sprawling. "Furthermore, you need to learn to address people more respectfully," she told the stunned specter, whom now lay spread out across the floor. "Your manners are unacceptable."
Paying the others no mind, she turned back to Harry, who stood there looking at her proudly. "It is you…it is not a dream…" she said to him as she came closer to him, feeling his warmth.
"I don’t know how this is happening, Seven. I just…I just saw this place, and I saw you. I knew you were in trouble. And I…" Suddenly, the walls of the Borg environment began to grow hazy. The ground shifted under their feet. "Seven, I’m not sure if I’m going to make it or not. I just wanted to say…before the end…that…I…"
"I love you, too, Harry Kim." And they took each other into their arms and embraced, as everything faded around them.
"It’s working!" Tom announced triumphantly. "The nanoprobes are shutting down!"
The Doctor looked over at his status monitor, please with what he saw. "Yes…all work on the cortical implant has ceased. The assimilation appears to have been halted."
Both Janeway and B’Elanna let out a collective sigh of relief. "Thank god!" said the captain.
Seven’s eyes slowly opened, as the effects of the sedative started to pass. "Doctor…"
The hologram leaned the young woman, his smile wide and beaming. "It’s alright, Seven. Everything’s fine."
"Harry…" she said weakly.
"He’s fine," he reassured her. "The procedure worked. We stopped the nanoprobes."
The news seemed to energize her, as she slowly moved up and off the biobed, looking at her beloved. He lay still on the biobed, but it was evident that there was some movement on his part. He was starting to come to.
"Seven…" he called out.
"I am here, Harry," she said to him, her heart filled with joy for the first time in days. She reached out and took hi hand into hers.
"Harry," Janeway greeted him, her smile as wide as everyone else in the room, except for Tuvok, of course. "Glad to have you back with us. Voyager wouldn’t have been the same without you."
"T-thank you, Captain."
"Don’t thank me, Ensign," Janeway answered proudly, "thank them." She then gestured to her left, showing the assembled group of Seven, Tom Paris, B’Elanna Torres, and the Doctor, all beaming with happiness. "They never gave up on you."
"I…I don’t know what to say," he stammered.
"Hey, don’t say anything, buddy," said Tom with a smile. "Save it for after we scrape that gunk off of you." He then looked over at Seven and grinned wider. "No offense, of course."
"Yes," the Doctor agreed. "We should get you into surgery right away, Mr. Kim. With the nanoprobes shut down, we’ll have no difficulty removing those implants."
"Just a second, Doc," Harry requested, before turning to his beloved. "Seven, for a moment there, I thought I was dreaming. I thought I heard you say…"
"That I loved you?" she answered him, her smile wide, her cheeks flushed. "It was no dream, Harry. I do love you."
Harry gasped with pure delight. Even with his face pale and half-covered with Borg hardware, his joy and humanity shone right through. B’Elanna instinctively moved closer to her own man, and gripped his arm tightly. Tom, of course, did not object.
The Doctor smiled affectionately at the assembled group. "As pleased as I may be by this tender moment, I think you’d all better leave now. Mr. Paris and I need to prep our patient for surgery." He then looked fondly at Seven. "You and Mr. Kim will have plenty of time to spend together after his recovery."
"Indeed we will," she smiled back.
While the assembled group was moving out of Sickbay, Tom leaned over to his best friend and gave him a worried smile. "I gotta tell you, pal, you gave us all quite a scare. I…was really worried I was gonna lose you."
"But you didn’t, Tom," Harry reassured him. "Thanks." But Harry was still glowing from his earlier bit of heavenly news. "She loves me, Tom. She really love me."
"Yep, I heard her, buddy. I knew she’d come around. Congratulations." He then chuckled to himself. "You know, it was the exact same thing with B’Elanna. What is it with some women? You have to nearly die before they’ll tell you how they really feel about you."
Harry chuckled back, the first time he laughed in three days. "I don’t know about that, Tom." He then looked at his arms and hands, seeing the Borg exoskeletal framework, hopefully for the last time. "But to hear those three little words, it was worth all of this."
Kathryn Janeway sat back in her ready room, pleased by the status reports she was reading. The relief team had beamed back from the planet’s surface after an extensive retrieval mission at the Borg crash site. The transwarp coils were on board and appeared to be in full working condition. Engineering would be ready to install them within the hour, with flight testing to commence first thing tomorrow. It hardly seemed possible. After so many years of wandering and false leads, everything was coming to fruition. They were going home.
Also encouraging was the Doctor’s medical report. After several hours of surgery, the Doctor had successfully managed to remove all of the Borg implants from Ensign Kim that had grown into place over the past two days. Harry had come out of the surgery as healthy as could be expected and in good spirits. Seven was seeing to that, she thought with a broad smile. Had she known that a young man’s charms were the key to unlocking Seven’s human feelings, Janeway thought to herself, might have assigned the two of them to work together more often.
Also, the Doctor reported that the deactivated nanoprobes were now being successfully flushed from the bodies of the rest of the crew. It would take a few days until everyone was given a clean bill of health, with gave Maintenance plenty of time to purge the nanoprobes lingering in the ship’s food replicators. In the meantime, the replicators were taken off line, which left Neelix to pick up the slack. Janeway couldn’t recall the last time she had seen him so busy, or so happy.
On a similar note, there was the security report from Lt. Commander Tuvok. Upon closer examination, it appeared that each nanoprobe was able to emit a nanoscopic discharge into subspace. On its own, the brief emission was too weak to detect by any normal sensor sweep, but with trillions of nanoprobes working in concert, they were capable of producing a weak, yet measurable signal. Tuvok was certain that his was the means the Borg used to track Voyager‘s journey. It made logical sense, he argued. Not only would it be effective at tracing Voyager, but it could also be used to monitor the progress of the disease as it spread throughout Federation space. Fortunately, Security had developed a means to resonate the warp nacelles to produce a similar signal, sufficient to fool the Borg into thinking that their plan was still in place. A similar technique would have to be used by Starfleet once they returned to the Alpha Quadrant to imitate the spread of the disease, thus helping to lull the Borg into a false sense of security. Janeway smiled with malicious glee as she pictured the look on the Borg Queen’s face a year or two from now, when she or the vessel she dispatched arrived in Federation space expecting an easy victory, only to be met by a well-prepared Starfleet ready to greet them. Yes, Janeway mused, the Federation will survive the third Borg incursion quite nicely, thank you very much.
Of course, it will be the attack after that, the fourth one, which will truly test the mettle of the Federation. She just had to hope that it was her optimism for the future, and not Seven’s earlier grim scenario, which would ultimately win the day.
The chime of someone requesting entry interrupted her musings. She granted the computer permission to let them in. As expected, it was her first officer. He noticed the PADDs she had laid out on her desk.
"Reading up on the good news, I see," he said.
"Very good news, indeed," she replied. "After all these years, it’s just so hard to believe."
"I guess a lot of prayers were answered today," he said with a warm, sunny smile.
Janeway perked up as she arched an eyebrow at him playfully. "Weren’t you the one who was such a skeptic about prayer a little while ago?"
"I never said that," he protested, pretending to be hurt, playing along.
"Oh, really?" she teased him. "What about all that talk about your father, telling you that ‘sometimes they say ‘no”?"
"That’s right. But sometimes, they also say yes," he retorted. "I guess after all this time, we were due for a little divine intervention."
"Divine?" she laughed. "I wouldn’t go quite that far."
"Well, if two young lovers that nobody thought stood a chance in the universe hadn’t gotten together, we might well have been responsible for bringing about the destruction of the Federation. Now, call me superstitious if you like, but I’d say someone had to be looking out for us."
"And who might that be?" she pondered half-seriously. "God? Q? The Great Bird of the Galaxy?"
"Maybe Cupid," Chakotay answered with a broad grin. "Who’s to say he limits his good fortune to just lovers?"
"Now, don’t tell me you actually believe that?" she almost laughed out loud.
"Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t," he answered quixotically. "I mean, if you’re going to pray for something, it’s nice to know who it is your praying to. It always help to tailor the message, if you know what I mean."
"And just what else do you pray for, Chakotay?" she asked as she leaned forward in her chair, perhaps a bit more eagerly than a starship captain should.
He gave his answer with a twinkle in his eye. "Maybe I’ll tell you…someday."
"Ouch!" the young officer yelped.
The Doctor rolled his eyes as he readjusted the sonic stimgun. This had been the fourth time in a row! "Mr. Kim, will you please hold still!"
"Jeez, Doc! You didn’t say it was going to hurt!" Harry protested as he rubbed his scalp. Seven of Nine looked on sympathetically. She had not left his side since he came out of post-op, standing vigil over him and holding his hand or his arm protectively.
He was sitting up in his bed in Sickbay. He wasn’t quite his old self yet, but he was looking a lot more human than he did yesterday. His head was still nearly hairless and his face and arms were plastered with dermal bandages, marking the areas where the Doctor had removed the numerous implants studding his body. But the warm color had returned to his cheeks and the constant chatter of the Collective was gone from his head. What was more, the constant pain was gone from his body, even though it was replaced by an overall soreness that the Doctor assured him would go away as his body healed from surgery. And of course, the brief sensory enhancement he had experienced had gone away. Yes, he thought, he was just plain old Harry Kim, human being, once again. Which when you thought about it, wasn’t such a bad thing to be.
"Mr. Kim, follicle stimulation is naturally going to affect the surrounding nerve endings. Your scalp will be sensitive until the first hair follicles grow back in," the hologram lectured him. "If it bothers you so much, I can prescribe another sedative…"
"No thanks!" he answered quickly, holding up his hand in protest. "I’ve been doped up enough these past few days."
"I understand your discomfort, Harry," Seven said to him tenderly. "I too recall when I underwent follicle stimulation after I was severed from the Collective. It was not a pleasant experience for me, either."
"Well, its either follicle stimulation or we wait several months for your hair to grow out naturally, Ensign," the Doctor said. "Of course, there’s something to be said for going au naturale," the hologram added with a grin, his chest puffed out, while proudly stroking his own bald scalp.
"That will not be acceptable," Seven stated firmly. "Harry must be restored to his original state." She then looked at her mate, her eyes dreamy and lusty. "It pleases me to run my fingers through his hair while we are intimate together."
Harry grinned widely, his face flushing to a warm healthy red. A surer sign than any that he was on the road to recovery.
At that, the door to Sickbay slid open and Tom and B’Elanna walked in. They both lit up at the sight of the convalescing young man.
"Hey, Starfleet," B’Elanna greeted him. "You’re looking much better today."
"Well, I ought to," he smiled back, "what with Seven’s tender loving care."
"Hmph!" the Doctor huffed. "I’d like to think my professional skill would play a factor somewhere."
"Well, nothing personal, Doc," Tom quipped, "but I think Harry will agree you don’t match Seven in the bedside manner department."
"No, but thank you so much for that visual you put in my head, Tom," Harry snapped sarcastically as he cringed at his friend’s words.
"Hey, what are friends for?" the pilot joked back.
Harry, Tom and B’Elanna laughed with each other. It felt good after the trauma of the past few days to be able to joke with each other again. Especially since they were all so buoyed by the good news about the prospect of going home. After the Doctor excused himself to his office to leave the two couples to their banter, Harry looked earnestly at his two oldest friends as he spoke.
"Look, I just wanted to thank you guys, for everything." He then gave a special smile towards B’Elanna, the two of them exchanging a knowing look between them. Both of them silently acknowledging the special request that he had asked of her, and quietly thanking her for not following through on it. But Harry knew he had might the right choice in asking B’Elanna. Being strong meant knowing when to follow through, and sometimes knowing when not to.
"I too wish to thank you both," Seven added, her grip on Harry’s arm growing tighter. "For being such exceptional friends to the man that I love." Harry blushed warmly again and took her hand into his and stroked it gently.
"Well, it’s good to see you two so happy together again," Tom grinned. "I just hope you two don’t have any more arguments regarding the Federation or the Borg."
"You need not be concerned about that, Tom Paris," Seven responded. "Although I am still apprehensive about my future in the Alpha Quadrant, I know now that I will not face it alone."
"Of course you won’t, beautiful," said Harry affectionately. "You’ll have me."
"Hey, you’ll have us, B’Elanna added, as if she were challenging the universe itself. "We’re all in this together, Starfleet, Maquis, and Borg. You mess with one, you mess with us all. Right?"
Seven perked up, pleasantly surprised, which was a rare thing for her. "Indeed." Her look then turned deadly serious. "As for the Borg, I have decided that I will offer my services to the Federation in whatever capacity they see fit in order to aid in their defense. It is my hope that one day I shall help to rid the universe of the Borg Collective once and for all."
Tom was jolted momentarily by the fierceness in Seven’s voice. "Daaaamn! Talk about ‘hell hath no fury,’ eh, Harry?"
"Well, Tom, I’d have thought you’d know that after being with B’Elanna for so long," Harry jibed back.
Both Tom and B’Elanna laughed heartily with their friends for a while, before picking up the hint that they would prefer to be alone. As they made their way towards the turbolift, it was clear they were both pleasantly surprised to see Seven demonstrate such an honest outpouring of emotion. The half-Klingon engineer was especially affected by her genuine feelings. It almost made her feel…ashamed.
‘She loves him so freely,’ she thought wistfully, ‘without any doubts or fears. If a Borg drone can express herself, then what’s my excuse?!’
It was then she reached a decision of her own. She reached for the panel on the turbolift and the car slowed to a halt.
"Hey, what did you do that for?" Tom asked.
She turned to him, her filled with…what? Lust? Love? It was all of that, and more. She loved this man, and for too long she had been afraid to show it. She wouldn’t let herself give to him what he wanted more than anything else. And in doing so, she was only hurting herself. Well, no more, she figured. They two of them both deserved a happy ending.
So she reached up, and gently stroked his cheek, feeling the warmth and excitement radiating from his body. It was so alluring, so feral, like a wild animal in heat…
And then, she scratched him, her nails raking deep enough to draw blood!
"Jesus!" he yelped as his hand went to cover his wound. "What the hell did you do that for?"
But she still looked deep into his eyes, with that feral, lustful gaze. Slowly she brought the blood stained fingers to her lips, and tasted them. Tasted him! His essence was becoming a part of her.
God help me, thought Tom, while he covered his bleeding cheek. This is actually turning me on!
"Sorry about hurting you, baby," B’Elanna said softly. "I just wanted to make it official in both our cultures."
"What do you…?" he started to ask, just before he stopped himself. "Wait a minute. Are you saying…?"
"Tom Paris, will you marry me?" she asked him, probably a lot more corny than how she intended, but it was genuine, and it came from the heart.
For a moment, he was dumbstruck. He stood there for so long that B’Elanna was afraid he might reject her out of hand. But instead, he let out a whoop of delight! And then gathered her into his arms and kissed her good and hard for what seemed like forever.
And when they parted, he looked deep into her fiery eyes, completely ignoring the face that he had blood running down the side of his face. "Baby, I thought you’d never ask!"
Captain’s Personal Log: I believe it was a twentieth century writer, whose name currently escapes me, who said it best. It’s been a long, strange trip. But I’m please to say that our trip may soon be coming to a close. Our tests have been completed, and the order to engage the transwarp coils is now at my discretion. I can honestly say that we never would have come as far as we have without the participation of so many brave souls, who came together as one, with a single goal in mind. Now, it would seem, that goal is about to be reached.
For the starship Voyager, our journey will soon be coming to a close. But I suspect that for some of her crew, the journey is only just beginning.
…and the adventure continues…