And here we go! The final chapter!!!
The fear emanated from Earth like an odour, and it excited her. She would prolong their torment, let them experience protracted fear, and even then she would not grant them death. She would take them; make them her own so their minds would live, anguished forever inside the Collective.
She had been aware of the messages spreading throughout the Federation after she had destroyed their fleet, and she rejoiced in them. They had given warning to their own kind as well, to run and escape, but that was irrelevant. Many had fled Earth in their fear, but she would find them. She would find all who tried to hide from her. She had no doubt that many of them would try to attack her, and she would give them quick deaths, swatting their ships or simply advancing over the top of them, crushing their flimsy hulls against her Cube. But, the messages and warnings they sent meant little. Despite all those who had fled, billions still remained on Earth, and she would have them.
She was also aware of their last ditch effort to attack her. They were rushing work on three starships at Mars. She laughed. Pitiful.
But still, she had expected them to try.
The Enterprise flew like a juggernaut at warp nine point eight five for Earth. Five times now, La Forge had called the bridge from his post in Engineering, warning of the danger of pushing the engines beyond their limits, but Riker ignored him. It didn’t matter that the warp core was already at a hundred and twenty percent, or that the temperature had climbed far beyond the red line, or that the stress was causing irreparable damage to the reaction chamber. Each time, Riker’s order was the same. Maintain speed and get us to Earth, no matter the cost.
“The Borg have dropped out of warp, sir,” said Shelby, looking up from the communication station. “Jupiter Outpost Nine Two reported visual contact at twelve hundred hours, thirteen minutes.”
Riker turned to her. “Planetary defences?”
“Responding,” said Shelby. “No reports on effectiveness yet, but I really can’t believe that against the Borg…” Her voice trailed off.
Riker turned to Wesley. “Mister Crusher, at their current speed, when will they reach Earth?”
Wesley checked his panel. “Twenty seven minutes,” he said.
“The soonest we can intercept?”
Wesley’s voice was grim. “Forty two minutes.”
“Riker to Data, what’s your status?” He hoped that Data would be able to provide some good news.
“The initial cybernetic connection into Captain Picard’s neural net pathways has been established,” Data said. “Mister O’Brien is ready to process the Borg signals through the transporter pattern buffer.”
“Make it so,” said Riker. “And with dispatch, Mister Data.”
“Proceeding immediately, sir,” came Data’s response. “Data out.”
The channel closed, and Data stepped up to the elevated platform in the center of the cybernetics lab. Above the platform, the frame carrying the unconscious form of Locutus had been raised, the Borg being probed by the scanner mounted overhead. Data’s preparations were complete and he had opened the access panel on the side of his skull, allowing him to connect the data transfer cable from the frame’s processor directly into his positronic brain.
The scanner’s examination completed, and Data was aware of it instantly, without needing to look at the apparatus’ panel. It was communicating directly with his neural net. Everything was as he expected it to be. Soon, that connection would allow him to connect directly with the Borg through Locutus. He pressed the control to lower the support frame into place.
Beverly had been able to strip much of the Borg implants from Picard’s body, but the change in appearance was little more than a cosmetic one. Many of the implants within his body remained, as well as the implants that chained him to the Collective. The ones that would kill him if the connection was severed.
Data’s plan was simple in theory, yet difficult in practice. In three stages, he would connect himself to Picard and attempt to find a way to access the implants that connected him to the Collective. If he succeeded, he hoped to use the connection to find some weakness that could be exploited, and hopefully some way to reprogram them to allow them to be safely removed from the Captain’s body. Risky, yes, but even though success was but a slim chance, it would be a great success. Helping him were three others. Doctor Crusher, who would monitor Picard’s vital signs and be ready to provide any emergency medical treatment should things go wrong. Chief O’Brien, whose familiarity with the transporter systems would hopefully help him interpret and control the interconnections between Locutus and the rest of the Collective. And Deanna Troi, who hoped to be able to sense any last vestiges of Picard left inside the shell that the Borg had turned him into.
Locutus stood within the support frame’s arms. His eyes were closed, his body held in place by restraining fields. Data reached out and attached a cable between the frame’s processor and the implant on Picard’s body that connected him to the Borg. Data was at once aware of his presence through the frame’s sensors, but he was as yet aware of nothing more than what was being displayed on the bed’s readouts.
O’Brien looked over the readouts on the panel in front of him. “At what point should I shut it down if there’s a problem?” he asked.
Data regarded him. “I do not know,” he answered simply. “I have never done this before.” He turned back to the frame’s panel. “Initiating first neural link...”
Beverly closely watched the medical readout. “The Captain’s vital signs are stable,” she said.
“Positronic activity unchanged,” said O’Brien.
Data acknowledged them. He was aware of them, but his essence was in some other space, perceiving the Borg Collective as though from a great distance. But try as he might, he could not resolve it into anything more than a vague impression of a nebulous entity. “The first neural connection is complete. I cannot report any significant access to the Borg consciousness.”
The Borg Cube moved relentlessly past Mars.
The crews working on the starships at Utopia Planetia sent fear-filled messages to Earth, but the Cube ignored them. They posed no threat, and she would be back for them soon enough. But she felt their fear, heard their terror as they frantically warned Earth and sent final messages to their loved ones, and it excited her.
And then she was aware of a flock of small objects rushing towards her. Small objects, no life forms on them, but armed with phasers and photon torpedos, and protected by shields. She laughed at them and her Cube struck out leisurely.
They were destroyed, and the Cube did not slow.
She could see the small blue globe of Earth ahead of her.
The call came through to the Enterprise quickly. “It is confirmed,” said Worf, his voice heavy. “The Borg have broken through the Mars defence perimeter.”
“Enterprise entering the Terran system, sir,” said Wesley.
“Maintain speed,” ordered Riker. “Time to intercept?”
Wesley checked his panel. “Twenty three minutes, fourteen seconds.”
The Enterprise entered the Terran system, rushing at warp speed past the orbit of Neptune.
Data delved further towards the Collective. It was difficult, as if trying to move through some thick viscous fluid. He struggled against it, but even as he established the second connection, his perception of the Collective remained blurry and indistinct, as though there was a veil held before him. He had a vague impression of hurriedness, of frantic activity and constant restlessness, but nothing more.
“Second neural connection is complete,” Data said to those he’d left in the real world. “I still cannot report any significant access. I am proceeding with the final link.”
She finally slowed the Cube, bringing it to a standstill a bare three hundred kilometers above the surface of Earth. She could almost taste the fear coming from the planet. It was nearly tangible. She savoured it. She struck out with her cutting beam and began to reduce the planet to rubble.
And then there was something else. Not from without, but from within. Another mind, wandering inside her own.
And she stopped her attack, ignoring the outside universe for a moment and she turned her thoughts inwards to her own consciousness.
The Enterprise rushed past Jupiter, and began to slow. Ahead, the sun loomed large and bright. Earth and the Cube lay beyond.
Data worked to establish the final link with Locutus and the Collective, struggling to rid himself of the veil that seemed to envelop him. It seemed to take an eternity. He was aware of some force that held the veil in place, almost as though it was trying to stop him, and each time he made even the smallest progress, it was countered. But he continued his efforts, and each time his work was countered, he found that it had not been countered completely, and he had made some small progress. He continued, and he finally broke through. The veil was lifted, the neural connections were complete, and the Collective was laid bare before him, a turbulent mass of riotous activity.
As if from a great distance, he heard Doctor Crusher reporting the increases in Picard’s brain activity, his increased heart rate, and he heard O’Brien calling out the changes in Data’s own brain, but he ignored them. He was already aware of everything that was happening in himself, and everything happening in Picard’s body. But of Picard’s mind itself, Data had only the subtlest sense, as though it was nearby yet greatly distant. Data was aware of everything, of all the Borg, a single great mind that stretched across the galaxy. He could hear every word that each one of them was shouting, he could sense every thought, he could see from the eyes of every drone, he was aware of every signal between every Borg. But through it all, he could not find Picard.
But then, the multitudinous voices changed, no longer whispering and chattering amongst themselves, but speaking as one, each voice coming into a discordant harmony with the others.
We see you.
Data replied, I also see you.
What do you think you can do against us?
I do not know, said Data. But I will use everything I can find to stop you.
If you do not leave now, we will destroy him.
I cannot leave.
You will be lost as well. Leave now. Protect yourself.
I will not.
Then you will die.
And then Data was aware, amongst the deafening chorus of voices, of a single voice, a woman’s, a bare whisper, calling Picard’s name. And, from somewhere distant, Data heard Picard’s reply. Data pushed through the endless writhing swarm, moving as fast as he could, the voices falling away at his presence, and then Picard was there, and even as the voice whispered for Picard to die, Data found Picard and took him up, shielding him from the voice, and the Borg’s call for death went unheeded.
In the real world, O’Brien cried out in shock as a power surge flashed through the implant that would reduce Picard to ash, but then it was over and the implant was completely inert.
The voice seemed to scream in fury, but Data ignored it. He wanted to bring Picard back to the real world, out of this shell he had withdrawn into, but the presence of Picard that he had found was silent and did not answer Data’s calls. He wished he could continue his efforts, but he had still to develop a way to use his link with the Collective to stop the Cube, and he reluctantly turned his attention away from Picard.
The Enterprise slowed to warp two as it entered the inner solar system. Earth and the Borg Cube lay only five minutes away. Ahead, the sun blazed, and the Enterprise rushed past it.
He turned his attention to the frantic activity of the Borg, surrounding himself in it, trying to find a weakness. And amidst the unending chaos, he found that there was order, and he enveloped himself in it and understood.
Every aspect of the Collective was divided into subcommands, necessary to carry out all functions; defence, navigation and communication, each one controlled by a root command implanted into every drone’s synaptic implant. Data turned his attention to the defence subcommand.
And then the voice stopped calling for Picard’s destruction and called instead for violence. Data was aware of Locutus suddenly moving in the real world, attacking. The Borg, unable to break Data’s link with the Collective by destroying Picard, were now trying to separate Locutus and Data by breaking the physical link between them.
Data returned to the real world, seeing the prosthetic arm raise and swing towards the biobed’s processor. It emitted a massive electrical discharge and the processor started to lose power.
The security guard rushed forwards, but the arm raised and came down on him, shattering his shoulder and sending him flying. He hit the ground hard and fell into unconsciousness.
Locutus’ arm moved back towards the processor, but Data’s hand flew out in an instant and grabbed it, holding it in a vice-like grip. He could sense the biobed’s processor failing, his connection weakening, and Data struggled to pull the prosthesis away. Data reached into his connection to Picard. You must stop your attack, he urged, but Picard’s mind made no response. Slowly, with great effort, Data was able to move the arm away from the processor, but the electrical discharge arcing around the grasping claws continued to deteriorate the data connection. With a sudden wrench of his wrist, there was a flash of light and a loud crack of an electrical arc, and Data tore the metal, ripping the end of the arm away, leaving the Borg arm a ragged stump.
Beverly called out. “Data, I’m picking up increased neural activity in Captain Picard, localised in the prefrontal and parietal lobes!”
‘The Borg might be trying to terminate their link with him,” said O’Brien.
“Negative,” said Data. “Subspace signal configuration is unchanged.” The Borg had given up that idea when Data had disabled the destruct implant in Picard’s body. “The cause of the increased neural activity is unclear.”
“No it’s not,” said Deanna, and there was wonder in her voice. “It’s him! It’s Picard!”
And as Data watched, Picard’s other arm reached out, grasping Data’s hand in warm flash and blood fingers, and lifted it, his eyes locked with Data’s and never wavering.
Data went into his connection with Picard.
He heard a voice, soft, Human, weak. I see you.
I see you too, Captain.
The Enterprise passed Venus, now in the final approach to Earth, and Wesley reduced the ship’s speed further.
The comline opened, and Deanna’s voice came through. “Troi to bridge. Data has made first contact with Captain Picard.”
Riker felt a surge of hope. “Can you communicate with him, Data?”
“I have been unable to create a neural path around the Borg implants, sir,” Data said. “It is Captain Picard himself who has somehow managed to initiate contact.”
“The Borg have halted their attack on Earth,” said Worf.
Shelby laughed. “I think we got their attention.”
Riker turned to Wesley. “Time to intercept?”
The response came immediately. “Two minutes, four seconds.”
Riker smiled. “They’re worried. They’re worried that we’ve got access to Picard.” He lifted his voice to the com. “Data, we’ve got two minutes to figure out what we can do with it.”
Data delved back into his connection with Picard. He was still aware of the Collective. They seemed to be making no attempt to restore the veil that had clouded his perception of them. Perhaps they had abandoned the idea, or perhaps they were unable to. “Sir,” said Data, placing the torn end of Picard’s prosthetic arm on the top of the display, “it is clear that the Borg are either unable or unwilling to terminate their link with him.”
“That may be their Achilles’ heel, Captain!” Beverly was stepping forwards, her voice excited.
“What do you mean, Doctor?” asked Riker.
“He’s part of their collective consciousness now,” she said. “Cutting him off would be like asking us to disconnect an arm or a foot. We can’t do it.”
Shelby’s voice confirmed. “They operate as a single mind.”
“If one jumps off a cliff, they all jump off.” Riker was silent for a moment. “Data, is it possible to plant a command in the Borg collective consciousness?”
Data thought for a fraction of a second. “It is conceivable, sir,” he said. “It would require altering the pathways from the root command to affect all iterative branchpoints in…”
Riker cut him off. “Make every effort, Mister Data.”
Data thought for a moment, then asked, “What command should I attempt to plant?”
He heard Riker sigh. “Something straightforward,” said Riker. “Like disarm your weapons systems.”
The Enterprise slowed to impulse just beyond the Moon’s orbit. “Visual contact with the Borg,” said Worf.
“On screen,” said Shelby.
The viewscreen flicked to show the image of Earth, the Borg Cube a dark blot over it.
“Magnify,” ordered Riker. The Cube filled the screen.
“Sensors reading increased power generation from the Borg.” Worf’s report was ominous. The Enterprise’s weapons would have little effect against the Cube, and with the warp core damaged by the rush to Earth, there was little hope that they would last for more than a few minutes in battle. All they could do was hope to buy Earth enough time for Data to force the Borg to stop their attack.
“Red alert,” said Riker. “Load all torpedo bays, ready phasers.”
The Enterprise readied herself for a battle she had no hope of winning.
“Status of the Borg weapons systems?”
“Borg weapons systems are fully charged,” Worf said. “We are entering weapons range.”
Riker turned back to the com system. “Data,” he said, “give me something...”
“Attempting to reroute subcommand paths, Captain,” Data said, even as he was aware of the Cube’s preparations for battle. He ignored it; he concentrated on finding some aspect of the Collective’s mind he could alter, turn to his own designs. But it seemed that the mind he had sensed before had been working, placing barriers before him, preventing him from reaching what he needed. He could breach them, yes, but there was not enough time to do so. There was nothing he could find that he could use in the few minutes that remained to him. He reported to Riker. “Defence systems are protected by access barriers.”
It was time to destroy them. Riker had proved to be more of an inconvenience than she had expected, managing to mislead her and she would not allow it to happen again. She could sense the android in her mind, trying to wrest control of her Cube away from her, and she would not suffer it. She’d placed barricades to block his mind, and then she turned her attention to the Enterprise.
She would crush it.
The Enterprise rocked, the ship quaking as the Cube let fly with its tractor beam. The hull was groaning under the pressure.
“Rotate shield frequencies!” Riker shouted, struggling to be heard above the din. Around him, the lights were diminishing, alarms were sounding. “Data!”
Data put his free hand out to steady himself as the deck beneath him lurched. There was a deafening crash as the hull twisted. “I am unable to penetrate Borg defence systems command structure, Captain,” said Data, shouting to be heard.
“Try the power systems, Data,” came Shelby’s voice, almost lost amid the thunderous noise. “See if you can get them to power down!”
“Acknowledged! Attempting new power subcommand path!”
But as his mind delved through the Collective, he ran hard against more barriers.
“Shields have failed!” called La Forge. His voice was barely audible, the comline from Engineering crackling with static.
The Enterprise reeled, and the deck flew out from underneath them.
“Fire all weapons!” called Riker, holding tight to the command chair to keep from being thrown to the floor. “Fire everything! Evasive maneuvers!”
Wesley was shouting, but Riker couldn’t hear him.
The Cube’s tractor beam wrenched at the Enterprise, and her hull was torn at its touch.
Data’s voice came over the com, barely audible over the noise as the Enterprise began to break apart. “I cannot penetrate Borg power subcommand structure. All critical subcommands have been protected!”
“The hull is beginning to breach!” called La Forge through the com’s rush of white noise. “Structural integrity is down to forty eight percent!”
Riker turned towards Shelby, and saw in her eyes the same despair that he knew was in his own.
“It’s over,” she said.
Riker nodded, then pushed himself to his feet. Struggling to remain upright on the bucking deck, he made his way to the conn, stumbling and grasping the back of Wesley’s chair to prevent himself from falling.
“Mister Crusher,” he said, “ready a collision course with the Borg ship.”
Wesley turned to face him in disbelief.
Riker nodded hopelessly, confirming the order. “You heard me.”
Wesley nodded in shock and turned back to his console. He entered the course, his hands shaking.
Riker lifted his voice to the com. “Geordi, do we have warp power?”
“Only just, Captain,” came La Forge’s voice. “No more than a second or two.”
“That’s all I need,” said Riker. “Prepare to go to warp speed.”
“Aye, sir,” said La Forge, he voice resigned.
Data’s fruitless search continued. He had tried many other subcommands, but all were protected. He couldn’t get into the navigation subcommand to move the Cube away from Earth, he couldn’t access their sensors to give them another target, and he couldn’t force their power core to overload.
So this was how his existence would end, torn apart as the vessel around him was destroyed. He thought of how Earth would soon be assimilated, and he wished his efforts had been successful. He wondered if it was regret he was feeling.
He turned to the essence of Picard. I’m sorry, Captain. My efforts have not been effective.
For a moment, he was aware of nothing, and he wondered if Picard was still there. But then he heard Picard’s voice in his mind, so soft that he almost missed it.
Beverly saw the readouts of Picard’s brainwaves change, fluctuate. “Data, he’s regaining consciousness,” she said.
Data could feel Picard struggling, as though clawing his way out of a deep dark hole. His mind was fighting.
It was more forceful now, but Data could not fathom what he meant.
I do not understand.
Deanna sensed it as well, Picard rising from the darkness that had surrounded him. “It’s Captain Picard, not Locutus,” she said.
And now, when Data heard Picard’s voice in his mind, he could hear it in the real world as well.
The readouts fell and Picard lost consciousness.
Beverly turned to Data. “He’s exhausted,” she said.
And then Data understood.
She had the Enterprise in her grasp, and it couldn’t escape. The starship was beginning to come apart, and she could sense its imminent destruction. She gloried in her triumph.
She struck out with her cutting beam, speeding the Enterprise’s death.
“Borg cutting beam activated!” called Worf.
Riker sighed heavily. His command was over, his ship beyond help. He’d done quite well, all things considered, he thought. He’d lasted as long as he could, given Data every second available. He hadn’t succeeded, but he felt no regrets about what he’d chosen.
The difficult choices were difficult because whichever way you chose, the cost was going to be high. And this time, the cost would be his own life.
He closed his eyes. “Mister Crusher,” he said, giving his last order, speaking for the last time, “engage.”
Wesley reached for the panel.
And then the com burst into life and Data’s voice came loud. “Bridge, stand by.”
Riker’s eyes flew open. “Stand by, Ensign!” he called, but Wesley had already pulled his hands back.
“I am attempting to penetrate the Borg regenerative subcommand path,” Data reported. “It is a low priority system and may be accessible.”
The Enterprise shook as the Borg cutting beam sliced into the hull. There was a deafening crack with the impact. Alarms screamed, the computer announcing warnings in the midst of the chaos. Debris flowed from the Enterprise’s broken hull. The deck was thrust upwards, then heaved back down, and the crew fell. Stations erupted into sparks casting hard shadows, and there were cries of pain.
“Mister Data!” shouted Riker, stumbling back to the command chair. “Your final report!”
She closed her eyes in pleasure, feeling the hull of the Enterprise buckle under her attack. She saw crew members tumbling out into space, their limbs flailing for short seconds before becoming still as their life left them, and she exulted. She’d sensed the build up in the warp core, and she smiled as she felt it grow dark and dead. The Enterprise was hers, and she would destroy it.
She'd waited long enough. Time now to send Riker to his death.
She turned her attention to the bridge of the Enterprise, to slice into it and watch him die as the void claimed him…
…and her control of the Cube evaporated.
For a long moment, she felt shock, incomprehension, and try as she might, the Cube refused to respond to her wishes.
For a long moment, there was silence. It was in such contrast to the deafening noise of the attack that it felt unreal. Riker wondered for a moment if he had died and this was the last effort of his brain to cling to life.
But around him, the other bridge crew were looking around, and Riker knew that it was real. The Borg’s assault on the Enterprise had simply ceased. The sounds of destruction had gone, and all he could hear was the soft venting of the atmosphere being replenished.
He lifted his voice. “Data, what the hell happened?”
Data’s voice came over the com, slightly distorted, but coherent. “I successfully planted a command into the Borg collective consciousness, sir,” he said. “It misdirected them to believe it was time to regenerate. In effect, I put them all to sleep.”
Riker heard a burst of laughter from Shelby. “To sleep?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” said Data.
Riker turned to Worf. “Status of Borg power drive?”
Worf glanced over his panel, but all the readouts were at near zero. “Minimal power.”
Worf looked up. “Nonexistent,” he said.
Riker allowed himself to feel relief. “Commander Shelby,” he said, “take an away team and confirm that the Borg are…” He smiled widely. “Asleep.”
Shelby grinned back at him. “Delighted sir.” Shelby indicated to Worf, and the two of them moved off the bridge and into the turbolift.
So this was how it would end. She was only slightly surprised. After all, the message that had been sent by the drones in the past had indicated that, and despite all her precautions, she had always been aware that she could fail.
And fail she had. She could repair the damage that the android had done, but to overcome the blocks that he had put in place would take time, and she had only seconds before the Cube was lost.
Still, she wasn’t worried. The loss of a Cube meant very little. And while her body would be lost, her mind, spread throughout the entire Collective, would live on. And bodies could be replaced easily enough.
But Picard, she would remember him, and he would one day learn the price of his resistance.
And Data, too. She was intrigued by him. She sensed in him an intellect that could rival her own. He excited her, and she desired him.
But, it would have to wait…
A few minutes after leaving the bridge, Shelby called from the Cube. “Shelby to Enterprise,” she said over the comline. “It’s true. They’re all in their regeneration mode. They’re dormant, sir.”
“Any indication to how long we can keep them like this?” asked Riker.
“Checking,” Shelby said.
Riker could hear Worf’s voice over the line. “Tricorder readings are fluctuating rapidly.”
Shelby’s voice came again. “Enterprise, there are indications here that their entire power network is about to feed back on itself. I’d say we’re looking at a self-destruct sequence activated by the Borg’s malfunction. Do you want us to attempt to disarm it?”
There was soft tone, and Beverly spoke over the comline. The channel had been routed to the cybernetics lab as well, and she had heard the away team’s report. “There’s no way to know what the destruction of the Borg ship will do to him,” she said.
“We should also consider the advantages of further study of the Borg and their vessel, sir,” came Data’s voice.
Riker considered it for a moment, but he dismissed it. He was fully expecting the Cube to recover at any moment, and he wasn’t going to do anything that would prevent their destruction. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Mister Data, separate yourself from Captain Picard. Away team, get yourselves home.”
“Acknowledged,” said Shelby. “Chief Brossmer, energize.”
“Aye, Commander,” came the chief’s voice.
Riker turned back to look at the Cube on the viewscreen. Small detonations burst from its outer shell. “Mister Crusher, upon the away team’s return, move us to a safe location.”
“Aye,” said Wesley.
And then the Cube’s surface rippled, waves of motion washing across it, and then the hull cracked, letting forth a blazing fiery light.
Riker’s eyes opened wide in horror. “Wesley, go!” he cried out, but the Enterprise was already turning and accelerating away.
And then the light burst free and the Cube was engulfed in a blinding radiance, the conflagration consuming it in a massive fireball. The inferno was quickly extinguished by the vacuum, leaving only wreckage and debris that slowly began to sink downwards to Earth, burning orange as they vaporised in the planet’s atmosphere.
Picard shuddered in the restraining field of the frame, his legs almost buckling. Data reached out, supporting him. For a moment, the tremors seemed to overwhelm him, but then they passed, and Picard slumped against the side of the frame.
“Life signs are stable,” said Beverly, the relief in her voice bringing her close to tears. “The DNA around the microcircuit fiber implants is returning to normal.”
Picard raised his head and opened his eyes.
“How do you feel?” asked Deanna.
Picard spoke, but his voice was soft, hoarse with fatigue. “Almost Human.” He looked down at the ragged and torn metal of the biomechanical arm. “With just a bit of a headache.”
Beverly laughed. “We’ll get you to sickbay,” she said, grinning. “We won’t have any trouble getting these implants out now.”
The door opened, and Riker came in. Picard looked up at him and smiled, warmly and appreciatively, but tiredly. Riker stepped up to the raised platform where Picard stood.
“How much do you remember?”
Picard was silent for a moment, and his eyes drifted away. “Everything,” he said. He looked back up at Riker. “Including some brilliantly unorthodox strategy from a former first officer of mine.”
Riker opened the framework, and Picard stepped out of the apparatus. Riker reached out, supporting him. Picard looked up, meeting his eyes, and he let Riker lead him out towards sickbay.
For almost twelve hours, Beverly operated on Picard, removing as many of the Borg’s cybernetic implants as she could. Some of them had been integrated too deeply into his body’s systems, and she didn’t dare touch them, but they all appeared to be inactive. She’d been able to clone a new arm for him, and once she reattached it, its nerves, muscles, blood vessels and bones began to knit with his own.
After the surgery had been completed, Beverly kept him in sickbay for another day, as he recovered under her caring ministrations. She finally let him return to his own quarters to rest.
But sleep would not come to Picard, and he lay for restless hours in his bed, trying to stay awake. He did not want to dream, for he knew what the dreams would bring with them.
He dressed and took a turbolift to the bridge, and he went into his ready room. He wore a uniform, his wounds were dressed and healing. But the wounds under the surface, the wounds in his mind, were still open and raw. He hadn’t spoken of it to anyone, but his mind dwelt on what the Borg had done to him. The horrors they had forced him to live through. And her, constantly forced upon his thoughts.
Some length of time later, Riker entered. He spoke softly, and with care in his voice, but Picard, lost in his own thoughts, barely heard him.
“… and Earth Station McKinley has advised they’re ready to begin refitting the Enterprise.”
Picard looked up. He saw Riker holding out a padd. Picard took it, but didn’t look at it. “Have they estimated the time for repairs?”
Riker nodded. “Five or six weeks,” he said.
It was a relief to Picard. Let the crew rest and recover for those weeks. Let them grieve. There were few on board who had not suffered a loss, either among their crewmates, or at Wolf 359. He’d already noted that there were several requests for transfers. He understood, and he’d approve them. But not just now. It could wait.
The door chimed. Both Picard and Riker looked up. “Come,” they said together. Riker smiled, but for Picard, the memory of voices speaking as one was still too close, and he felt the pain of it. The smile quickly faded from Riker’s face.
Shelby entered. “Request permission to disembark,” she said, looking between the two of them.
Riker stepped back, deferring to Picard. The Enterprise was his ship, as it should be.
“Permission granted,” said Picard, rising to reach across the table and shake her hand.
“Thank you sir,” Shelby said.
“Have you been given a new assignment already?” Riker asked her. There was a note of disappointment in his voice; despite their early confrontations, they’d learned to work well together, and despite only serving with her for a few short days, he’d developed a particular warmth for her.
“I have, sir,” she said. “Starfleet’s assembled a task force, to analyse everything new that we’ve learned about the Borg, and develop defences against them. They’ve asked me to lead it.”
“They picked a fine officer, Commander,” said Picard.
Shelby smiled warmly. “We’ll have the fleet back up in less than a year,” she said. “And probably with a few new ship designs as well.” She turned to Riker. “I imagine you’ll have your choice of any Starfleet command, sir.”
Riker grinned widely. “Everyone’s so concerned about my next job,” he said, feigning an affront. “But with all due respect, Commander,” he turned to Picard, “sir, my career plans are my own business, and no one else’s.” He turned back to Shelby and flashed her a confident smile. “But it’s nice to know I’ll have a few options.”
Shelby grinned, then reached out and grasped his arms, taking a step towards him. “I hope I have the fortune of serving with you again,” she said quietly, her voice full of admiration and a sincere smile on her features. She turned to Picard, standing straight. “Captain.” She nodded to him. He nodded back at her, and she turned and left.
Picard sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“Course to Station McKinley is ready and laid in, sir,” said Riker.
“Make it so, Number One.”
Riker turned and left. The door hissed closed behind him, and Picard was left alone.
Picard reached for the tea growing cold on his desk. His thoughts strayed. Thoughts of crying, screaming in his mind as they bent his body to their will, her will, as she forced him to destroy. She would haunt him, he knew this. His body ached for sleep, but he knew the memory of her would come to him, and so he resisted his fatigue.
He leaned back in his chair and raised the cup. Sleep would come, along with its host of nightmares, but for now, he would enjoy the freedom of his own life.
As the cup touched his lips, he heard a soft noise in his mind, chattering voices whispering in the shadows.
The cup slipped from Picard’s fingers and broke on the floor.
He could still hear them, and then her voice spoke in his thoughts. I’ll always be there with you, in your mind…
Picard felt a deathly chill seize him.