Jean-Luc sat in his room staring intently at the floor as the sun set on Chateau Picard. Late afternoon rays pierced the open window scattering an uncertain glow onto his aging face. The giant shadow it cast onto the wall dwarfed him in stature.
He had just returned from Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. Raffi understandably didn’t take it well when he told her about his unintentional resignation. She had every right to be angry with him. There was no use pretending otherwise. From the immense resources spent on his epic evacuation plan to the destruction of Utopia Planitia, it was entirely likely that with him out of the way Raffi would be forced to play Starfleet’s scapegoat for the whole mess. Her career was probably over, and it was his fault.
The last speck of sun disappeared behind vine covered french hills. Picard mindlessly fidgeted with his wine glass as he wondered why he allowed them to accept his resignation. It was only a threat, after all, but when they so quickly accepted it dumbfounded him to the point of paralysis. Or was that just an excuse? Maybe Raffi was right. Perhaps he was just a coward.
“Is there anything we can get for you?” Laris poked her Romulan head through the doorway, shattering Picard’s somber reverie like fragile stained glass.
“No, please, I’m fine. You and Zhaban should get yourselves settled in. Take a walk through the vineyard if you’d like. The evenings here are quite lovely.”
“Thank you. Good night.”
“Good night Laris, and thank you for coming.”
“It’s our pleasure Jean-Luc.”
Returning to his troubled and mournful contemplation, Picard questioned every decision he had made over the past 24 hours. If Raffi was correct that he was a coward, perhaps she was also correct that he needed to crawl back into Starfleet Headquarters and beg to be reinstated. He was putting his own pride above the reputation and career of his colleague and friend.
No, it wasn’t just his pride. It was an entire species of people who were on the brink of extinction and needed help. If the Federation and Starfleet won’t provide it, then who would? No one else has the resources, let alone the willingness to undertake such a massive, Dunkirkian rescue mission.
Hours passed. He sat in the same spot. He was still staring at the floor, still diminished by the size of his own shadow, only now it was cast upon the wall by a candle that was dripping wax onto the bedroom table. Another glass of wine sat in his loosening grip. An empty bottle on the floor, another half full sat next to the candle. It was his fifth glass.
He had never been this indecisive before. Perhaps as a child, but not since his early days at the Academy, at least. It ate at him like a parasite siphoning nutrients from his gut. The pain was reflected in the lines on his face as he struggled to hold back an intoxicated tear.
“Hello Captain, I mean Admiral. Sorry, force of habit.”
Picard recognized the voice instantly. How could he forget it? He turned around to greet his friend and once upon a time protégé.
“Lieutenant-Commander Crusher. I thought you were on assignment with the Pegasus B, off in the Delta Quadrant testing a new quantum slipstream drive?”
“No sir, wrong Wesley.”
Jean-Luc gazed purposefully through the dim candlelight and noticed that this wasn’t Lieutenant-Commander Crusher from the year 2385. This was Wesley the Traveler. He was much younger, and yet like always, more intelligent and perceptive than his years indicated. The aging man couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing here. In the ten years since Wesley left, he never visited Picard nor anyone else that he was aware of, with the exception of his mother of course. The first time he saw Wesley after he resigned from the Academy and left with The Traveler was six years ago, not long after he returned to rejoin Starfleet.
“You look well Wesley.”
“I wish I could say the same. You look… defeated, sir.”
“No need for formalities. I don’t know about defeated. But it does seem as though I… well, I’m retired now.”
“Yes sir, that’s why I’m here.
“I know you feel guilty and responsible for what Raffi is going through. I know you’re considering going back to Starfleet and asking them to reinstate you in hopes of saving her career. But you can’t do that.”
“And why is that?”
“I can’t tell you that, sir. You know the Temporal Prime Directive forbids it.”
“Ha. You’re not even in Starfleet, Wesley. We both know you’re not bound by that directive.”
“I may not be bound by it through rank and by order, but I still am by principle.”
As he stood there looking into the eyes of the young man who once looked up to him, he couldn’t help but wonder if, like Raffi, he was also responsible for Wesley’s early departure from Starfleet. Perhaps he pushed him too hard as a boy, expected too much from him at too young an age. What was he thinking giving someone that young so much responsibility? The young Crusher should have been in the holodeck playing games with other children, not on the bridge navigating a starship or in engineering fixing plasma relays.
“Look Wesley, I have nothing but admiration for you and I completely understand your reasons for leaving Starfleet, but you can’t ask me to sit back and bear responsibility for destroying a young, promising officer’s career just to save my pride. The Federation isn’t going to aid the Romulans either way. There’s nothing else I can do for them, but I might still be able to help Raffi.”
“With all due respect sir, I can’t let you do that.”
“Excuse me?” Picard looked up with mild surprise. He might have been amused, but he was feeling too contrite and pessimistic to muster more than surprise. “And you’re here to stop me?”
“Essentially, yes. There’s a lot more at stake than you understand.”
“Well if there’s so much at stake, then eventually you’ll tell me what’s going on if that’s what it takes, even if it means violating the Temporal Prime Directive.”
The look on Wesley’s face gradually morphed from blank to concession.
“Okay, the best I can do is to say that not only does your life eventually hinge upon this decision, but the fate of the entire galaxy, maybe even the whole universe depends on it as well.”
Not exactly a concession, but it might be enough.
“That’s an awful lot of burden to place on one decision Wesley.”
“But it’s the truth sir, and you need to believe me. What reason would I have for lying to you? Why would I come back after all these years to try to convince you to quit Starfleet? Why would I ask you to destroy your new protégé’s career in the process if there wasn’t a monumentally important reason?”
“Even presuming you’re right—which yes I have no reason to doubt—you’re still talking about some distant future that is only one of many possibilities. There’s no saying that any one of a myriad of choices made between now and… “
“Look, sir, it’s not just that. I mean yes, your life and the universe do hinge on your decision to leave Starfleet, that’s all true. But I also need your help, now. There’s no guarantee when, or if you’ll return. It would be better if you left the past, even the immediate past, behind you.”
Picard shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t just discomfort though. Despite the certitude he displayed yesterday when he told Raffi he could not under any circumstances go back into that building and ask to be reinstated, he was now utterly annoyed by the audacity of the thought that he could so easily turn his back on his own history, and equally certain that he couldn’t. He uncrossed his legs and recrossed them with the other leg now on top. He adjusted his jacket and replied defensively.
“My god Wesley, what could be so important that you’d ask me to throw away my career and my life’s work, not to mention Raffi’s?
“It’s my mother, sir. She’s been captured by the Borg.”
“What?” Picard nearly fell out of his chair. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. The echo of its fluttering beats filled his ears. Blood pressure rising. Sweat began forming in beads at the top of his forehead. The beads slid down his cheek like tears that lost their way. “Has she been… ”
“I don’t think so. I tracked them for three days before I lost them in The Void. I saw her not long before that, and they still hadn’t assimilated her. I think they would have done it by now if they were going to. But who knows what they’re up to.”
“Who indeed?” He reached out and patted Crusher on the back. It turned into a long embrace, longer than Picard was usually comfortable with anyway. He could only imagine how the young man must feel, his mother in the clutches of one of the most insidious and dangerous villains the Federation had ever encountered. They both meant so much to him. How could he deny such a request for help?
“Tell me Wesley, how did this happen?”
“Her ship was transporting medical supplies to the Federation colony on Malkus IX.”
“That’s out on the fringes of the Beta-Delta Quadrant border.”
“Yes sir. They were within only a few light years of Malkus IX when the borg cube came out of nowhere. The entire crew was taken and assimilated. Like I said, I’m not sure why they haven’t assimilated my mom. I can only assume she has something they want, or need.”
“And the colony on Malkus IX?”
“That’s what’s weird. It’s fine. The Borg completely ignored it.”
That was the first bit of good news Picard had heard in the past couple days. Well, that, and the fact that Beverley had yet to be assimilated.
“Sir, please. I need your help.”
“Of course I’ll help you Wesley. You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you and your mother. We should leave right away. We’ll have to figure out how to get a ship. That shouldn’t be too difficult. I still have a lot of friends in Starfleet.”
“There’s no need sir. A ship is already waiting for us in the Delta Quadrant.”
“But that’s tens of thousands of light years away Wes. How will we get there without a ship?”
Wesley looked at him quizzically, one eyebrow cocked. Picard realized how silly the question was even as he asked it. Of course, Wesley was a traveler. He had no need for ships. He could have them in the Delta Quadrant even faster than a quantum slipstream drive.
“Never mind. Alright Wes, let’s go save your mother.”
Row after row after row stacked two kilometers high. Regeneration alcoves stretched into the artificial horizon. Conduits, piping, and catwalks in various shades of grey crisscrossed the open chasm in the center of the cube like separate strands of ligament working in unison to hold the muscles of a single body in place.
Beverly Crusher slowly came back to consciousness and knew exactly where she was. Well, not exactly. She didn’t know the coordinates or even what sector they were in, but she knew without a moment’s doubt that she was inside a Borg cube. What had her mind racing for answers was the fact that she still hadn’t been assimilated. She remembered being forced to watch her crew get assimilated. She could still hear the screams of her shipmates rising and fading in the distant, soft glow of the cube’s pale green lighting. Why wasn’t she being fitted with prosthetics and artificial body parts? Why was she left all alone in a seemingly random space on the ship? And why weren’t there any Borg around her?
She stood up and brushed herself off as she looked around, trying to figure out some way to get her bearings. It was useless, of course. Everything was too symmetrical, too monotonous. It all looked the same no matter which way she turned.
“Well, I suppose I may as well just start walking.” She couldn’t recall a time when she had ever been this scared. But she started by simply putting one foot in front of the other.
As she moved through the ship she noticed something strange about the Borg drones. They ignored her and went about their business, mostly. But as she passed them, every single one of them turned their heads and looked at her as if acknowledging her presence. It was the most jarring, disconcerting experience she could remember, outside of the screams and the looks on the faces of her crew. Every time one of them looked at her with their laser eyes she felt like her soul was being probed by demons thirsting for prey.
She turned ninety degrees to the right at the next corridor and found herself face-to-face with a wall of drones. Fear paralyzed her as adrenaline coursed through her body like flood waters breaching the banks of a mighty river. She turned to run, but where was she going to go? Ultimately, she was surrounded by thousands of drones, if not more. Her ship was gone, and she had no idea where they were. There was literally nowhere for her to go. Either way, she was quickly stopped in her tracks by the sound of a voice that she neither recognized nor expected to hear.
“Wait, please. Please don’t run.”
Dr. Crusher slowly turned back toward the sound of the voice. Shock took over where fear left off. Other than Locutus and Hugh, which were both extremely unique cases, she had never heard a Borg drone speak before. What did it mean? She knew that the Borg Queen retained her individuality. Was this drone part of her inner circle? Was it so close to the Queen that it too had the privilege of retaining a semblance of self? Or perhaps…
“Dr. Crusher, I apologize if we scared you. My name is Axum. We need your help.”
“It’s a bio-ship.” Picard was in awe as he gently ran his fingers along the ship’s warm, sleek skin. “Wesley, how did you get this?”
“I went to fluidic space and took it.”
“You stole it?”
“We need a ship to save my mother. Species 8472’s bio-ships are the best we could ask for if we’re going to go chasing after the Borg. It’s not like I could just ask them to borrow one of their ships. They would have killed me on the spot.”
“Well, what’s done is done I suppose. Shall we head inside and get going then?”
“I think so. We have no way of knowing how long it will take to locate the Borg ship, especially if it’s still inside The Void.”
Picard entered the ship and stopped.
“Fascinating.” He stood in awe, blocking the doorway Wes was trying to get through. “It really is actual flesh and bone. I’ve seen images before, but there’s nothing like seeing one of these ships in person for the first time.”
Picard’s eyes followed the network of organic conduits with his eyes and hands. They pulsed with the electrodynamic fluid that was thought to be the energy source of these living vessels.
“With this ship we’ll be able to evade detection and will be relatively safe from attack, unless the Borg are ready with modified nanoprobe warheads. But it’s been over a decade since Species 8472 has made an appearance in the Milky Way. So I’m betting the Borg won’t be prepared.”
“That’s an awfully risky bet to make Wesley.”
“With all due respect, sir, do you have a better plan?”
“No, not really… Well, off we go then.”
Imagine you’re in a room that doesn’t have a single light source. Your eyes are closed. The darkness is so thick that after only a few brief moments your brain starts creating pulsating, swirling waves of faded color and flashes of muted light against the inside of your eyelids. The Void was like that, only darker.
The blackness of The Void was impenetrable. A deep, heavy hue that was not just mesmerizing, but thoroughly hypnotising. It was too easy to get lost in this barren wasteland of nothing. Direction was meaningless without stars by which to navigate. Thirty-six hours in The Void and Picard already felt his mental health beginning to slip. Not a single star system for over 2,000 light years. Nothing but blankness. Even the sensors were virtually blind due to the high concentration of theta radiation.
Just the thought of all that emptiness was starting to make him feel boxed in. He felt sweat seeping from the palms of his hands. His heart rate increased as he looked around for a way out. He started to have a panic attack. He took a few deep breaths. He needed to do something to distract himself, to keep his mind off the eternal loneliness that surrounded him.
“May I ask you something of a personal question Wesley?”
“Why do we even need this ship? Can’t you just, ‘travel’ to the Borg cube and get your mother?”
“I wish it were that simple. But I’m not like Q.” Wesley flew the bio-ship with ease. It was obvious he had practiced. He did bring it back from fluidic space, after all, and he was exceedingly intelligent. It made perfect sense that he quickly became familiar with the integrated navigation systems.
“I can travel the stars, sure,” he continued. “But I have to know where I’m going. I can’t just wander around in the vacuum of space looking for a place to land. Even if I knew where the Borg cube was, traveling across star systems with someone who isn’t capable of that particular kind of transportation would be disastrous.”
“Is it just not possible then? Traveling long distances while carrying someone else, I mean?”
“No. It isn’t impossible, but I’m nowhere nearly strong enough yet to do something like that. But if we have a ship nearby where I know I can safely land with something solid underneath my feet and an atmosphere to breathe, I just might be able to pull that off. But it will still be risky.”
“Can we run through the plan again? I understand that I’m here in case you need back up, or a quick get away. But it would help me to run through everything again, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
“Are you okay Admiral? We’ve been over the plan a few times. With all due respect, sir, this isn’t like you. You seem… off.”
“To be perfectly honest Wesley, I think I’m starting to feel a bit claustrophobic due to The Void. I think it would be a great help if we could just keep talking, to help keep my mind off it. I just thought running through the plan again would be a good distraction.”
“Of course sir, I apologize.”
“Oh nonsense. Just talk to me Wes. Tell me about your travels.”
“Wait, the sensors are working, and they’re picking something up a few dozen light years ahead.”
“Perhaps it’s the Borg ship.”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Wesley focused on his connection with the bio-ship. It altered course almost immediately and went straight to warp.
“Axum…” Beverly’s mind raced as the name rolled off the back of her tongue and into the humid air between them. “Wait a minute, you’re the leader of the Borg resistance, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s correct. Seven years ago, when the starship Voyager was trapped here in the Delta Quadrant, Captain Janeway and her crew helped liberate thousands of us from the control of the Borg Collective. We have a whole fleet of cubes and spheres under our command, and we’ve been waging a rebellion against the Collective ever since.”
“Is that why the Borg have been silent for so many years? Is the Collective embroiled in a civil war?”
“Essentially, yes. We’ve been in a stalemate for some time now. With the help of Species 8472, we dealt a significant blow to the Collective, and they’ve been licking their wounds and regrouping for the past year.”
Dr. Crusher was reeling from all the new information. The Federation had few ships and plenty of allies in the Delta Quadrant, so this likely wouldn’t be news to Starfleet Headquarters. It was the first she had heard of it though. How long would the ceasefire last? How many drones did the rebellion have? How many ships? Were they growing or losing ground?
“I’m sure you have many questions. But why not start with the one that has been on your mind since you first woke up?” Axum stood about fifteen meters away from her. His eyes were set behind cranial ridges shaped like an upside down wishbone. They were calm and focused, but at the same time betrayed the weariness of war and life on the run that had obviously settled in and made itself at home some time ago.
“Why am I here? And why haven’t you assimilated me?”
“Why would we assimilate you? Dr. Crusher, we need your help.”
“Do you honestly think I would help you after you captured my ship and assimilated my crew? I don’t care if you’re liberated individuals fighting the Borg. I won’t help someone who just murdered my friends.”
“Murdered your friends? I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood. We didn’t assimilate them. We wouldn’t assimilate anyone. That isn’t how we operate. It’s not who we are. We may look like Borg, but we aren’t. We tracked the cube that assimilated your crew for weeks. Unfortunately, we weren’t close enough to get there in time to save your crew. But we managed to get you out and stop the assimilation process before it was too late.”
“What do you mean ‘stop the assimilation process?’” Beverely instinctively touched the side of her head and the tips of her fingers brushed against what she assumed was part of a cortical node implant. She had been so disoriented and scared waking up alone in the middle of a Borg cube that—with her individually still intact—it didn’t occur to her that she might have Borg implants in her head.
“They began the process,” Axum responded, “but there’s no need to worry. We got there before they were able to integrate the cortical node into your nervous system. There shouldn’t be any problems resuming it.”
“But I heard their screams.”
“That must have been a residual memory from when you were on board the other cube. The mind can do tricky things in the state between unconsciousness and waking, especially when you’ve just experienced a trauma.”
Crusher forced the thought of the screams, of being turned into a Borg, from her head and concentrated on the moment at hand.
“You said you need my help. I suppose it’s the least I can do. After all, it seems you saved my life.”
“We’re approaching the Borg cube sir.”
Picard put down the pad containing his copy of Moby Dick, and sat up in his chair. He had thought about bringing Don Quixote instead, but this seemed more appropriate.
“As far as we know, Species 8472 has kept pace with Borg technological advancement over the past decade. If that’s true, then we should be able to avoid detection.” As Picard spoke, he noticed how much Wesley had come to resemble his father, Jack Crusher. He missed his old friend, and he was grateful he was able to watch Wesley grow from a young boy into the man sitting next to him.
“Sensors show one human life sign on board near the center of the cube. I’ve pinpointed her location. I’ll port over and…”
Wesley’s explanation was cut short by a mild screeching sound that seemed to function much like the beeps of a console on a Starfleet ship.
“What is that noise?”
“Sir, I think we’re being hailed.”
They were both confused. The Borg don’t hail. They simply tap into a ship’s communications systems and announce that you’re about to be assimilated. They interrupt to inform you that resistance is supposedly futile, which Picard knew first hand was a lie no matter how much the Collective wanted to believe it was true.
“Well Mr. Crusher, I suppose we should answer.”
“Hello boys.” Dr. Crusher’s face appeared on the view screen that emerged from the fleshy walls of the ship’s bridge like a huge, ancient Earth-style flatscreen television dangling from interstellar bone by thin strands of sinewy tendon.
“Mom! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine Wes, really. They haven’t harmed me at all. In fact, they’ve been very gracious hosts.”
“Gracious hosts? Beverly, what are you talking about?”
“It’s nice to see you again too, Admiral Picard.”
“Actually, I’ve just resigned from Starfleet.”
“What? And you’re asking me what I’m talking about? Jean-Luc, how could you resign? Starfleet is your life.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to discuss all of that later,” Wesley interrupted. “What are you doing on that Borg cube mom? Why haven’t they assimilated you? The bio-ship’s sensors detect thousands of drones on board. How did you get access to their communications systems and contact us without them stopping you?”
“It’s okay Wes, relax. These aren’t drones. They’re liberated individuals who are part of the Borg resistance movement.”
“The resistance movement… I’ve heard a few stories from Admiral Janeway, but Borg space is still so impenetrable that we know very little about what has happened with resistance in the last five years.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for all of that later as well,” Dr. Crusher responded. “To answer your questions about what I’m doing on this cube—as it turns out—I’m wanted all over Borg space. The Resistance wants my help, and of course that means the Collective considers me dangerous and has been trying to find me before the Resistance does.
“The Collective got to me first, unfortunately. I was forced to watch as they assimilated my entire crew. I looked into each one’s eyes as they screamed in terror, and there was not a single thing I could do to help them.”
“Mom, it wasn’t your fault. You just said it yourself, there was literally nothing you could do to help them. You can’t carry that guilt around inside you for the rest of your life.”
“They started to assimilate me as well,” she continued without acknowledging the truth she knew was in Wesley’s words. She wasn’t ready yet for anything except grieving and self-blame.
“Luckily, Axum and his crew showed up in time. They got me out and stopped the assimilation process before it went too far. I already removed the cortical node that they failed to integrate into my nervous system.”
“Thank goodness you’re okay mom! But why did the Borg resistance want to get its hands on you so badly?”
“They need my help removing their implants. Some of them want as many removed as possible. Others want to keep some that they find useful. All of them have at least a few implants that won’t be able to be removed without killing them. But all of them want at least some of their technology taken out.”
“And between your experience reconstructing Lore and removing the implants from my body when I was assimilated, they see you as the perfect person to help them. It all makes sense now, but there must be tens if not hundreds of thousands of Borg who are part of the resistance Beverly. You can’t possibly help them all, not even all of them on this one cube.”
“You’re right Jean-Luc, I can’t. Even if I did nothing else for the rest of my life I wouldn’t have enough time. But they only need me to teach them how to remove the implants safely, and which ones can’t be removed at all. Then they can pass that knowledge on to other groups in the resistance.
“They must have no experience or frame of reference for such work,” Wesley mused. “They’ve only ever removed implants from dead drones. Considerations of health, functioning, and life weren’t lying there on the surgical table with the patient.”
“And so you’ve been living on this cube for the past week teaching them to remove their implants.” The amazement was more than apparent in Picard’s voice. The feelings raging through his body were extremely complicated. He never truly recovered psychologically from the trauma of being assimilated and used as a spokesperson for the Borg during their attempted invasion of Earth. It was unlikely that he would ever feel comfortable around the Borg, regardless of whether or not they were liberated individuals.
At the same time, he admired Beverley for what she was doing. Anything that aided the resistance in their struggle against the Borg threat was like a welcome hug from a long lost friend as far as he was concerned, which after the last couple of weeks was something he could really use right now.
“How much longer do you think you’ll need to stay aboard the cube, Beverly?”
“Another day should do it. They’re extremely fast learners, and many of them are already equipped with medical equipment that far surpasses the Federation’s level of technological advancement. If you two don’t mind waiting, I’ve always had a secret desire to take a ride in a bio-ship.”
Picard and Wesley looked at each other as they allowed a massive sense of relief to wash over them like cool ocean waves on a steaming hot Cardassian summer day. She was okay, and the Borg resistance would be stronger as a result of her efforts.
“We’ll be here waiting mom. Just hail us when you’re ready.”
“I will, and Wesley, it’s so good to see you. I love you.”
“I love you too mom.”