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... and your blood runs colder
Chapter 1: Down into the dark nothingness
For I dipp'd into the future
Within the immensity of space nothing holds sway on the universe except light and time. Matter changes; ever altering shape and mass. A planet in one time's frame, a cloud of dust in the next. Nothing is permanent and everything is changing. The vacuum draws together the molecules and a star bursts into existence, shines forth for unknown infinite ages, and fades away. The realm of time counts this life with a measure of seconds in the overall width and breadth of the universe. Infinitesimal, transient but with a set birth and death in time. However, it is fleeting for there are many stars and time stops for no one.
The light gives life its foothold. Creatures are born into sentience, live out their lives and die all under the careful, masterless eye of time. Light nurtures and sustains them. Time guides them on the short trek from beginning to end. And the universe is unmarred by their passing. Time clicks over into the next frame and matter changes again. A new life here, an end there.
The darkness of space exists only with the measure of time between the stars. Travellers move from the light of one place in the universe to the light of the next. They never pause long in the darkness. Darkness is the absence of the light which it consumes, absorbing all and giving none. Time seems to stand still within the darkness for it has no reference. No gravity to draw a planet around a star, and no star to live and churn and explode with light.
They may not be within reach or even accessible in an allotted measure of time, but the stars are never beyond sight. Darkness holds only those who cannot create light or defy time's vastness. Trapped within the darkness there is no being, only matter without life.
Moving forward through time and space, hurtling from the light into the dark, the tiny craft appeared. It was an artificial construct, created so those who dwelt within could bear the time and the darkness. It glowed with sustaining light and moved so fast as to propel its occupants from one star to another within their puny lifetimes. It moved with purpose and tirelessness, carried as much by the power of its engines as the minds of those within.
Those minds held one thought: to return from whence they came. And even within the enormity of the universe and the grasp of unstoppable time, this was a long way indeed.
The past, the future and the present all existed on the straight line between here and there. But the awareness of the clean passage of time, the neat and tidy movement of the first, next and last would soon seem muddled. Not so much for those on the ship as their voyage through time would be unaltered, but their perception of the value of time would be affected by the one they were about to meet. In a very short time, they would find the one without time. The one who held only a beginning, lost as it was to time, an ever changing present, and no end.
And time can be cruel to those whose existence goes on farther than the eye can see and time can accurately measure.
Captain's personal log, stardate 52411.2
The tract of space we are passing through is a vast empty wasteland without star systems or any sign of life whatsoever. It is like a relentless desert which must be crossed to get to the country beyond. I have never been disturbed by the infinite nature of the universe, but the void into which we now go leaves me faintly uneasy, as if in this nothingness all the eyes of the world are turned on us. Watching as we walk, step after step, across the unending barren.
Captain Kathryn Janeway shivered involuntarily and turned her gaze to the faint stars moving in a blur beyond the windows of her quarters. There was nothing new out there only her reflection to give her any comfort. She touched the recorder control and continued.
I'm not the only one who feels the emptiness. All the crew feel it to varying degrees but especially Seven of Nine. She fights the loneliness everyday of her new life, but being here, in this place, where there is no physical body to sustain life, she feels it even more acutely. I try to give her all the comfort I can, show her she is not alone, but, though she trusts me, she still finds it difficult to relate her insecurities. She does not want to show any weakness in front the crew, and me especially. I'm trying to help her understand the difference between weakness and normal human frailty but my own weakness, my oh so present frailty for her, often gets in the way. I need to ...
The door chimed announcing the presence of someone who wished entrance. "Come in." Janeway ended the log recording and closed the program. Seven of Nine crossed the threshold and strode into the center of the room where she stood expectantly, hands behind her back.
"Seven, you're early." Janeway furrowed her brows. "This is unusual for you."
"I had nothing else with which I wished to occupy my time and I have observed that arriving for an appointment before the anticipated time is often welcomed." The ex-Borg watched as the Captain moved to the dining table and began arranging the setting.
"This is very interesting as you usually schedule the hours in your day so efficiently." Janeway went to the replicator and called up the dishes she wished to serve for the night's meal. "You might have caught me in the shower."
Seven's eyes narrowed as she considered this. "Captain, I would not infringe on your privacy by observing you nude."
Janeway laughed as she placed the food on the table and poured two glasses of ice water. "Sit down please Seven." She sat across from her. "And as far as that goes, you already did."
"That was under unusual circumstances," Seven said smoothing the napkin carefully in her lap as she had been taught. "I do not consider it to be the same thing."
Janeway uncovered the platters and began spooning out the portions. "This is rice, you've had it before and liked it. This is broccoli, it's new to you, and this is ..."
"It is chicken. I can tell from the aroma."
"My mother's recipe. I hope you enjoy it." Janeway cut into the replicated chicken breast taking her time before she spoke again. "Same as what?"
Seven chewed and swallowed before she answered. "It is not the same as if you and I were in a sexual situation."
"Oh," the Captain tried to hide her grin.
"You have maneuvered me into saying what you expected to hear. Again." Seven looked at her steadily.
"I suppose I did," Janeway met the gaze. "One of my bad habits. I hope I don't make you uncomfortable."
"We have discussed your attraction to me before and I do not expect it has gone away in the time between that conversation and this one. I understand you cannot just turn off your feelings."
"This is not so much about me as it is about you. It's wrong of me to try to manipulate you. I'm sorry, I was trying to be playful."
Seven raised a quizzical brow. "This is not something you exhibit often. It is a private thing, is it not?"
"It is." Janeway dabbed the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
"Were I to get used to it, I might enjoy it in you." Seven cleaned her plate and placed her knife and fork in the center. Janeway was smiling. "I am finished. What is for dessert?"
"It's a surprise," the Captain gathered the dishes. "Something really special. Apple Brown Betty."
"I did not know it was also in your nature to be a playful cannibal."
* * * * * *
Everything was in shades of grey. The sky, the water and the fog. Only the land under my feet in muted yellow and the black of the rocks below defied the grey. Even the sand, usually white in the sun was an unforgiving, hard grey.
The dusk was closing slowly down into the depth of night. To the left, about a mile distant, the lights on the end of the wharf glowed green and red in the shroud of fog.
The dampness clung to all things without mercy, surrounding and possessing but, as always, it gave me a sense of anonymity. I could hide in the fog, even here on the open headland, like I hid in the woods. In the woods with the damp moss, sticky tree sap and small crawling things that snuck up your pant leg.
Out on the water a fishing boat appeared on the far side of the island's sandbar. Its bow light was a faint green slipping now and then below the level of the low land. She was heading into the harbour, her engine a low hum that barely reached my ears. I could imagine the skipper with the mike of the radio in his dirty hand calling his wife to say they'd soon be in for supper.
Back up at the house the scanner would come to life, his slow words drawled over the unceasing growl of the engine for all the world in range, and with the technology, to hear.
"Aye-ya." A long pause as the engine hummed on the open radio. "We's jus' comin' roun' the bar a McNutts. Not long, and she ain't rough a'tall ... a'tall."
"Well, how much ya gut, old man?" The voice higher and shrill, more urgent than the plodding, patient fisherman.
Hummmmmmmmmm ... "We guts bout..." hummmmmmm "bout sisteen ana 'alf."
The silence that would greet the low number would be enough of an answer.
I turned away from the water, my eyes travelling over the busted up old shed. Silhouetted as black dark upon the grey, its missing door gaped like an open maw. I never went in there, even to escape the rain, but I would stand at the threshold to scan the interior looking over the detritus of past work and the rubble of vandalism. The shed just plain gave me the creeps sitting here, exposed like an old wound. To my imagination it represented the futility of the past and the very real present day threat of jutting nails on the floor and buzzing hornet nests in the rafters.
My blood ran cold at that thought and I felt chill at the sight ahead of me. The path washed now in the deep grey of darkness. I stifled those feelings driving them deep down where they would fester with all the other fears and hopes and little panics. My feet started on the path like a boat with the auto-pilot on. I knew the way, knew every turn and every rock from pushing the mower down and back in the summer.
But it was March, the mower was in the little shed up by the house its wheels and underside clogged with last year's grass. I would get in shit for that come the first of May when we pulled it out of its hibernation for another season of work. I could've cleaned it when I mowed the big lawn for the last time in the fall but it would make no difference really, it would never be good enough for him. He'd find something to holler about, something to cuss me out for.
The path made a ninety degree turn and led onto the lawn on the side of the house where the kitchen window was. The big streetlight was on casting a cone shaped glow over the parking area at the back of the house. Beyond the well I could barely make out the bulk of the baiting trailer though I could hear the whine of the freezer trailer. The trees closed in forbiddingly around the faint outline of the driveway that led up to the road. Straight ahead of me was the little shed one of its two doors open, another dark smudge on the greyness.
"Damn," I cursed under my breath as I headed toward it. At least I could get it closed before he got back; he wasn't due at the house until after supper. I slammed the wooden door shut and flipped down the stopper my eyes going to the parking space at the back of the house. The half ton was there and so was the big red New Yorker.
Shadows moved across the lawn in the light spilling from the kitchen's bay window. A hand was reaching for the shelf that held the CB and scanner. He was in there. Home early and there was nothing I could do.
I wished I could flee back down the path, run across the water to the island and hide in the grey dark with the moss and the sap and the crawly things. Safe somewhere, anywhere. Any place but here. As I crossed the grass past the bird feeder to the back door, I felt the rage begin to build in me, running cold and fast like my blood. Undirected, impotent, useless rage.
Inside the big porch room I hung my jacket on the peg and pried off my wet sneakers. Then I gritted my teeth and stepped into the broad kitchen. The air was thick with the acrid smell of oily fish. Mackerel. God I hated mackerel. The pint bottle was on the table at his left hand, already half gone. He set down his glass with a solid "thunk".
"Where you been? You close that damn shed door?"
I nodded as I went toward the bathroom to wash up, the strident voice continued from the kitchen but I wasn't hearing much. "I got mak'ril fer supper and I don't wanna hear you sayin' ya don't like it, cause yer gonna eat it anyways."
The water ran chill over my hands but I didn't notice because my mind was moving down... down into the dark nothingness. Down and away where it was safe ... safe and warm.
* * * * * *
The Bridge of a starship is its heart, its center. From there one can control the speed and direction of flight, the weapons to maim and destroy in aggression or defense, the devices that allow you to communicate with others and the systems that let you know what is around you and your ship.
As the USS Voyager, a small, fast and lethal craft representing the dual purposes of The United Federation of Planets to explore and defend, cruised through the dark void, it became aware that it was not alone. Somewhere out ahead something was in its path. Something large and ominous and something it had seen before.
Data streamed from the Voyager's forward sensor array into the liquid intelligence of her computers. There in the barest blink of time it was analyzed and sent on to the humans on the bridge.
Ensign Harry Kim was alerted to the sensor's finding by a soft audio tone on his console. He scrolled quickly through the information regarding the distance and direction and froze when he saw the comparison the computer had drawn.
"Captain," he began his mouth suddenly dry. "There's a Borg ship dead ahead."
Captain Janeway rose from her command seat in one easy movement. "On screen." She didn't look at the Ensign her concentration was on the image on the main viewer.
The huge cube shaped mass of intricate mechanical technology hung in space looking dark and uninviting. Not that one would ever have want to feel invited by the Borg, but this ship, this ungainly, ungraceful construct of machine and organics was sleeping the rest of the dead.
"I read almost no power at all. Unable to determine life sign readings."
"Take us out of warp, Mr. Paris." Janeway rested one hand on the helmsman's shoulder. "Ahead at one half impulse and hold us at ten thousand kilometres distance." She turned to face the Vulcan at tactical. "Tuvok, is there a Borg homing signal coming from the ship?"
"There is Captain but it cannot be heard beyond a range of approximately a quarter light year."
With her hands on her hips she turned to watch the cube grow larger as they approached. She could not help feeling apprehensive. One Borg ship held the destructive power of half of Starfleet and the only thing between Voyager and assimilation was the apparent lack of life, mechanical or organic. She touched her communicator. "Seven of Nine report to the Bridge."
When the turbolift swished open, Janeway watched closely for a reaction from the woman who walked onto the bridge. But Seven displayed little emotion except for the arching of one elegant brow. Her gaze slipped from the viewscreen to Janeway for an instant before she moved to the ops station.
Ensign Kim shifted a half a step to his left to give her room. "There is no power to propulsion systems or life support." Her hands moved swiftly on the controls as she queried the computer and the sensors for details. "Nor is there any energy in the weapons systems or shields. And," she paused to double check. "The central neural processor and redundants are off-line."
"Meaning?" The Captain watched her very closely, saw the muscles tighten in her jaw.
"They are dead, Captain. Disconnected from the Collective."
"Damage? Tell me what caused this."
"There is widespread damage throughout the ship but the cause is indeterminate."
Janeway switched her attention to Lieutenant Commander Tuvok. "Opinion?"
"Were I to speculate, I would suggest a quantum filament, though sensors are not detecting any such phenomena now. It is entirely logical to postulate this event happened sometime in the past."
The Captain looked at her first officer who had remained silent so far. He shrugged slightly as he said, "There might be some technology on that ship we could use."
"True enough. Seven," she turned back to the ex-Borg. "What is the source of the power signatures you can detect?"
"One is the homing beacon and it is gradually degrading. It will be inoperable in a matter of days. The other," she regarded the console in concentration. "I cannot determine its purpose but I can isolate its location within the ship."
Chakotay was on his feet. "You think I should go have a look?"
Janeway nodded. "Take Seven, Tuvok and Torres. And Chakotay?" He hesitated at the door to the turbolift, looking back over his shoulder. "Don't bring back anything strange."
* * * * * *
The peaceful, comforting dark was interrupted by the light. When I crawled out of the tent to see what was going on, I could never have realized that simple act was the last time I would ever make a choice of my own again. If I had been able to preview even a minute of what my life would hold in the coming time, I would've taken the damn gun and put it to my temple right then and there. But fate is a fickle companion more apt to betray than embrace.
It's too bad we can't trade a little time here for a bit of time there. Just a few hours is all it would've taken and none of this would have happened. I stood up, looked up into the hard, white brilliance and that was it for me; game over, tilt city.
After that nothing mattered except the pain. Or, I should say, trying to avoid the worst of the pain and for a time I got pretty good at that. Then again how many times can they whip, beat and bone-break you until they get tired? I built a little place for myself deep inside my head. It held that same warmth and protection as the one with the moss and the sap and I dwelt there while the insanity happened outside to my body. Eventually, I think they might just have been so bored with me they were ready to kill me. That's when the other ones showed up.
The pasty faced guys in the hard black suits with pincers for hands and lasers for eyes.
And down into the dark nothingness I went again, separated mind from body. I wasn't aware of when I noticed they had stopped moving around me; stopped jabbing my useless body with their needles, but eventually I knew I was alone. And so alone; with only the dark and the cold and the ticking of time measured in the play of memories that ran through my mind like reel after reel of a movie.
You don't know what your brain has stored until you're forced to go through it memory by memory in all their gruesome glory. What can I say? It was remember or go insane. Who's to say I didn't do the latter? Maybe I did and just never knew it.
* * * * * * *
Magnetic boots thudding hollow on the catwalk grating, Commander Chakotay followed Seven of Nine. He didn't trust the ex-Borg back on board Voyager, so here, surrounded by all the technology and hominess she had once known, he trusted her even less.
The great cube was utterly dismal, drifting lifeless, most of the inner areas voided to the pressure and cold of space. Nothing more than a jumble of mechanical junk. Worthless mechanical junk.
Tuvok and Lieutenant Torres had gone to silence the dying homing beacon, Chakotay and Seven to find the power anomaly. Ahead of him Seven paused to look down briefly before she took a step and dropped down through a hole in the grating. Chakotay moved quickly to the hole and looked down. Seven was just landing on the deck below, her progress delayed by the uneven gravity.
"Do you think you could tell me before you jump down a rabbit hole?"
She looked up at him eyes blurred behind the glare of her environmental suit's face shield. "Rabbits, Commander? I do not believe we will find any rabbits here. However, should I see any, I will let you know." With that she moved out of view.
No wonder B'Elanna wants to throttle her most of the time, Chakotay thought as he dropped down through the hole. When he reattached his boots and got himself oriented, he could see Seven's light moving around in an enclosed area to the right. He ducked under some bent metal plating and caught up to her. What he saw in that little sheltered space inside the dead Borg cube made him suck in his breath.
Seven was holding her tricorder over a body laid out on a table and covered by a complete form-fitting glaze of transparent material. The skin was the same mottled unhealthy shade as a Borg drone and tubes jutted from several places but it was unmistakable. "Human?"
"I believe so Commander, though the doctor will want to do a DNA reference scan to be sure."
When Seven didn't answer, he took out his own tricorder and began to scan.
The body was dormant, in a stasis of sorts, but the brain ... "Seven I'm picking up low level brain waves."
"As am I. And it seems she lacks a neuroprocessor or implants of any sort."
"Not assimilated?" This just got more and more amazing.
"Not fully assimilated. The blood carries a form of nanoprobe I'm not familiar with."
"Chakotay to Voyager."
* * * * * *
"I've never seen these sort of nanoprobes before Captain." The Doctor was standing beside the table holding the body, and he looked terribly out of place with no environmental suit. He was clever enough to find it ironic. "Chilly in here isn't it?" he said to Seven of Nine when the Captain failed to respond right away.
"It is minus one hundred and seventy Celsius."
"A day at the beach. I hope I don't get a sunburn." He touched the top of his bald head.
"So what you are telling me Doctor is you have a human, apparently unassimilated, but who's blood contains an unknown form of Borg technology."
"Yes Captain. And we need to get her to sick bay so I can try to revive her."
Captain Janeway paced the bridge of the Voyager. It was obvious she was reluctant to bring something strange, something Borg on board her ship.
The rescuer of lost Borg, that's what they'll call me when we get home.
"I understand your reluctance, Captain, but I must insist. This is a person who needs our help. I can tell you she will not leap up off a biobed and assimilate the crew."
She really didn't want to get into this over the comm link with Seven listening because like Seven, removing the human from the Borg ship would be her choice as captain, not the would-be patient's.
"Doctor, I don't feel it's my place to be going around the galaxy bringing back humans from the collective. How do we know she's not better off where she is?"
"You may not know, but I do. This person will die a slow, sickening death if we do not intervene. Let me make the decision if you will not."
* * * * * *
The critical care biobed in sick bay was surrounded by a forcefield. The Doctor and Seven were working inside when Janeway entered. She stood below the dais, arms crossed on her chest. "Report, Doctor."
"I'm busy just now. In a minute, please."
Janeway waited but it was Seven who left the bedside and passed through the forcefield first. She activated the main diagnostic console. "The Doctor is trying to stimulate her neural synapse to return autonomic functions. Without the Borg stasis she will have to begin to exist on her own."
"So, she was in stasis? For what purpose? This is not something the Borg do?"
"No, Captain, it is not. We believe," her glance took in the Doctor, "the stasis was to protect the body from outside injury and the implanted tubes kept it hydrated and clear of bodily contaminants."
Janeway swiveled the diagnostic monitor toward her. Nanoprobes, stasis and Borg tubes aside, she still saw something that surprised her. "What are these injuries? Multiple fractures all over her body, some aren't healed properly. Heavy scarring to the dermal layer ... the right hand is missing two fingers. The Borg did this?"
Seven steeled herself in front of the vehemence of the Captain. "No. The Borg did not. These injuries predate the introduction of the nanoprobes into her system."
"I'm sorry Seven." Janeway's expression softened. "I didn't mean to accuse."
"I understand. Now I must take these nanoprobes to the biolab to analyze."
Janeway remained for only a few minutes more, then with an order to the Doctor to report to her in her ready room she left the sick bay. She knew it was wrong of her to snap at Seven as she did but it was difficult not to react emotionally to the battered patient more dead then alive on the biobed. Not for the first time, she wondered if she had done the right thing in rescuing someone from the Borg.
* * * * * *
Voyager briefing room fourteen hours later
When the Doctor finished, the senior staff had the good sense to look ill. All except Seven of Nine, she looked as impassive as ever.
"So let me get this straight," Torres began. "We're talking about a human who is most likely from earth, was beaten to a pulp by someone, but not the Borg, and who now has a new and improved version of nanoprobe in her system. Correct?"
"Or an older and improved nanoprobe, depending on how long the Borg ship has been out of commission." The Doctor began. "But in a nutshell, yes. I'll leave Seven to describe the nanoprobes in more detail. Seven?" He looked relieved to turn over the conversation to someone else. Oddly enough, for him.
"These new nanoprobes are a prototype ..." Seven began but was interrupted.
"A prototype?" Janeway asked, disturbed. "You mean an experiment?"
"Yes, we have very little doubt this was an experiment. The Borg did not assimilate this individual because her body was needed to test the effectiveness of the nanoprobes in maintaining and regenerating organic tissue."
Two questions were fielded at once.
"As a Borg, you were not aware of this "experiment"?" From Paris.
Then, "How come she exhibits so many injuries if the nanoprobes have regenerative abilities?" From Ensign Kim.
"No, I was not aware. My tasks as a drone did not involve nanoprobe development so I had no need to be aware. And ...her injuries were pre-nanoprobe injection. The nanoprobes were programmed for the state she was in when presumably found by the Borg. It made no difference to the Borg what that state was."
"Good God!" the sensitive Kim muttered. Janeway looked at him sympathetically. She felt the same though she would never show it so outwardly.
"That leaves us with the question of where was she before she was on the Borg ship and how did she get there." The Captain swiveled her seat to look at the Doctor. "Why don't you let them in on what you already told me."
"Ahh, the really interesting part..."
"You mean there's more?" Paris shook his head.
"Indeed Mr. Paris there is. I did a full genetic workup and I found this." The visual display viewer activated showing a single genetic strand of a chromosome. There was silence until Torres prompted.
"What you are looking at," the Doctor began with exaggerated patience. "Is chromosome twenty one and the defective gene that causes the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The Borg nanoprobes isolated it and rendered it inert."
"And this is?" Torres was not known for her patience.
"This was a disease whose gene was isolated in the year two thousand thirteen." He paused for effect, now very pleased to be the center of attention of the baffled faces around him. "But that's not all. The nanoprobes also found this little gem." The image on the viewer changed showing a full strand of DNA in the familiar ladder form. "This is what was referred to as Vancomycin resistant entrococci. It was one of several variants of bacteria that mutated into drug resistant form due to the over use of antibiotics. Put it all together and you get a human from the late twentieth century."
"A very unlucky human." Paris shook his head.
Tuvok spoke for the first time. "This time frame does not fit with the people who were abducted from Earth by the Briori?"
"No, I believe not, although ALS was present in the population in nineteen thirty seven, the bacteria is the real signpost. This strain was not deadly in a healthy person so consequently many individuals carried it without being infected by it. It was isolated and much research was carried out on it around the year nineteen ninety-five. A short time later, a drug was developed that was effective in combatting it."
"Fascinating," Tuvok raised an expressive Vulcan eyebrow.
"Indeed it is," The Doctor smiled.
Chapter 2: Trapped within the light
The images were moving faster now and I had less control. They were snippets of memories instead of the long, detailed vignettes I had been accustomed to for so long. Something was changing but I didn't know what as yet.
The road across the barren field was awash with mud from the heavy rain. The jeep slid and bucked but the Captain in the front seat never stopped talking. He was fixated on the young militia driver because she was cute and he thought he could impress her with his wit and charm. I rolled my eyes for the millionth time at the infantry corporal beside me in the back just as we drove over the land mine.
I remember the world turning over and the rush of grass and mud coming up to meet me, then the solidness of the earth when I finally met it face to face. The bones in my chest felt like someone had tried to pull them apart and my forehead throbbed from a cut. I took a deep breath, slowly. No sharp pain so my ribs were OK. I wiped the blood out of my eyes and looked around for the jeep.
It was resting on its side behind me, smouldering but not on fire. The Captain was trapped underneath and nothing could be done for him though I checked for a non-existent pulse anyway. The driver was suspended by her seatbelt, the shoulder strap wrapped awkwardly around her neck. I reached in to release the catch and, before I could react, she tumbled out on top of me knocking the wind from my lungs yet again.
While I was trying to assess her injuries to determine if I could move her, the first two villagers appeared. I was relieved thinking they would help, but they ignored me and went to the dead Captain and started going through his pockets. I cursed them but that didn't stop them coming toward me and the unconscious driver.
The corporal was nowhere to be seen but I spotted his M16 sticking out of the backseat. Grabbing it, I checked the mag and pulled the T-bar back to chamber a round. They stopped and stared at me viciously. I knew I'd need my medical bag or the one the Captain carried so I made one more search of the wreck. Then I slung the bag over my shoulder, held the rifle in one hand, grabbed the driver by her belt and began to drag her away from the jeep and the villagers. I just hoped I wasn't doing her any more harm but I had to be in the open where I could see all around me.
Light flashed like a bolt of lightening and the scene changed. I sat by a campfire on the edge of a small rocky lake as the sun went down colouring the clouds in rich pink and red. I sipped instant coffee spiked liberally with rum. It was horrid tasting though I didn't care.
The colours of the sunset and the smells of nature all around me did not fail to give me a sense of wonder much as they had when I was a child, but that wonder was tainted with cynicism now. My left leg began to tremble in the calf muscle and the anger swelled like a pot bubbling to a boil. All around me was perfect but inside I was dead and cold.
I took the handgun from inside my shirt; studied its sharp lines and lethal grooves. Not now I wouldn't. Tomorrow, after I lay awake one more night and heard the loons on the water and the owls in the trees.
Light was bright above me and I could hear the murmur of voices. Not the harsh, unintelligible utterings of the ones who had beaten me or the hum of electricity that came with the silent ones. These voices were gentle, soft, and I could almost understand the words if I tried hard enough.
The effort proved too much for me and I sank down into sleep. Sleep without memory for the first time in a very long time.
* * * * * *
"Yes, Captain, though you will hardly know it," the Doctor said. "She drops in and out of consciousness, but when she is awake and I try to speak with her, she ignores me and feigns sleep."
The Captain looked from the diagnostic monitor to the biobed and the still figure it contained. She lay on her back, eyes closed, for all intents and purposes deeply asleep. "You expected some emotional trauma, didn't you?"
"Yes, but the extent of the damage can't be determined if she wants to play dead."
"I'll try to talk to her." Janeway directed her attention back to the monitor. "Now tell me about her physical problems."
"Well," the Doctor began obviously more comfortable with this aspect of the conversation. "You will notice her human skin colour has returned since I disconnected the Borg stasis equipment. All autonomic functions are within acceptable limits though her metabolic rate is higher than normal. I have had to feed her intravenously. She is very thin as you will notice and I believe whatever body mass she might have had was gradually being used up despite the stasis."
"The nanoprobes are what kept her alive at all. Their regenerative abilities are amazing. They might not be able to grow large amounts of new tissue but they can maintain what is left of existing tissue. Hence I feel I can say, with some certainty, she must have been in stasis for a very long time to have used up the tissue mass she did. It is also my opinion that, despite the nanoprobes, she would have eventually died. The Borg were interested in her body not her mind so they left that aspect of her being functional."
"In stasis? Her mind was awake?" Janeway looked disturbed.
"I believe so, Captain. If she were to attempt to communicate, that question could be answered. This is the main reason I fear for her sanity. Not only has she been through a horrendous physical ordeal, but she has also been trapped in a non-functional body with a mind that was aware to an extent we have yet to determine."
Captain Janeway took a deep breath trying to think this through but she was having a hard time grasping it.
First there is Seven, a Borg since a very young age, who didn't want to be human. Now this poor woman, the body of a Borg, but the mind of a human. No matter what she wants, she can be neither. Seven at least can combine the two in a way she can accept and function with, what we can do here remains to be seen.
"What progress have you made treating the old injuries?"
"Despite what I told you earlier about the nanoprobes not being interested in her wounds, they were responsible for isolating and repairing a punctured and seeping lung. This injury became life threatening after a long enough time without treatment, so the nanoprobes acted to protect the body. Also, the defective gene was identified since the progression of the disorder would have jeopardized the body as well. As for her healed breaks and scarring, I've done what I could but the scarring is just too old to treat successfully. The calcification around the fractures responded moderately well, but she will have some residual soreness from the two worst ones, her left collar bone and right knee. I can treat the pain with medication as the need arises."
Janeway touched him on the arm trying to alleviate his look of dissatisfaction. "You did well Doctor, considering what you had to work with, you did exceptionally well."
He gave her a slight smile as she turned away and prepared herself for what would come next. The Doctor lowered the forcefield and Janeway approached the biobed. The patient was in the same position she had been in since the Captain had entered sickbay, motionless and apparently unresponsive.
Beneath the sheet that covered her up to the top of her breasts her skin was pallid, the upper ribs clearly visible. The stark line of collar bones joined bony shoulders and emaciated arms. Briefly Janeway's mind flashed to the body of Seven of Nine laying on this same biobed, her skull violated by the implants bolted to it and her face pale, unexpressive like a model of a human.
I'm not sure I can go through all of this again. Making decisions for those who can't choose for themselves. I'm not God, why is it left to me to give second chances to those whom I find in need of redemption?
Because 'there for the grace of God go I'. It could be you on that biobed, Kathryn. You the Borg took from your life and assimilated in their quest for purity at the expense of individuality. The right to choose and the right to be who you were meant to be gone. Wouldn't you want someone to stand up for you? To step in front of your battered body and say "no"? I was right to start Annika Hansen on the road to her redemption, I have to believe that in my very core, this person hasn't traveled as far down that road to collective oblivion. She's just been side-tracked.
Her face was gaunt, cheeks hollow, eyes sunken and darkened below the lower lids. Only the faintest trace of hair remained on either her skull or her brows. She was still, quiet. Like a ghost.
"The Doctor tells me you are awake so I believe you can hear me. I'm Captain Kathryn Janeway and you are aboard the Federation starship Voyager. I assure you, you have nothing to fear from any of us; we are only interested in your getting well." There was no reaction to her words but she continued anyway. "I know you can't understand what the term "Federation" means, and starships and quadrants are meaningless. I can't even be sure how much of what you've been through you remember."
There was a scar in the middle of her forehead and as Janeway watched it drew downward with a slight movement of her brows. Her eyes remained closed.
"We still speak a very similar language to what you probably spoke so I think you can understand me. The Doctor has told me your ethnic makeup is comparable with Northern Europeans. You and I might have been born in the same general area on earth, just in different centuries."
The eyes snapped open focusing with a taut wariness on Janeway. Dark green and deep with the haunted look of one long victimized. Something else lurked there just below the surface that unnerved the Captain; an anger, controlled rage or possibly dementia. Just as quickly as she recognized these emotions, they were gone, replaced by a chill, impassive, empty stare.
"What do you want of me?"
The voice was dry, soft and cold like a breath of icy wind.
"We don't want anything except to try to help you." She coloured her voice with as much compassion as she could muster in the face of one so cold.
"Then let me die." The statement was simple and said without any expression except a faint longing.
"I can't do that. I have an obligation to ..." Janeway broke off as the sick bay door opened and Seven of Nine entered carrying something in her left hand. She deactivated the forcefield and stepped up onto the dais where she placed the small thing on the tray at Janeway's elbow.
"This was found on the Borg ship. It is not of Borg manufacture so it must have come with her." Her eyes left the Captain and regarded the patient steadily but without emotion. Janeway didn't notice, she was looking at the object.
It was a sack of some sort. A bag for carrying things in, small enough to be attached to a belt. When Janeway opened it and spilled the contents onto the tray, the patient struggled to sit up. The Doctor was there instantly trying to support her from the other side of the bed and she favoured him with a frosty look before turning her attention back to the little bag's contents.
There were several thin, round disks shining iridescent in the light, a red folding pocket utility tool, metal keys on a loop, a small, engraved pendant on a chain, and something else. The Captain recognized its threat a second too late.
Impossibly quick, the patient shot out her right hand and grasped the gun. Without so much as a twitch of hesitation she pressed the muzzle underneath her chin and pulled the trigger.
The old weapon clicked once then again before the Doctor clamped his hand over hers and tried to pull it from her grasp but she hung on tenaciously a low howl of protest beginning in her throat. Just as quickly though, she gave up her grip on the gun, kicking out from under the sheet. Her foot contacted the surgical tray spilling its contents as she propelled herself off the biobed. She landed heavily at Janeway's feet, tried to stand but her legs would not hold her. Falling to her knees, she compacted herself into a tight ball trembling through the length of her body.
The Captain waved off the Doctor when he would have put a hypospray to her neck, crouching down beside her herself. She extended a hand to touch the shivering form but pulled up short with a soft gasp. Her back was rent with vicious, white scars that cris-crossed her flesh.
Very carefully Janeway laid her hand on the woman's shoulder. This caused her to freeze, still and quiet again, the outburst stifled.
"We won't hurt you. You have to trust me. I know that's hard for you to accept, but it is true." As an afterthought she added, "I swear it."
* * * * * *
Janeway had the gun sitting directly in front of her on her desk when Seven entered the ready room. She didn't speak, barely looked up as the tall ex-Borg stood before her, hands laced behind her back.
"You are troubled." Seven's voice was gentle, tinged with a concern that was not lost on Janeway. She looked at the woman in front of her desk quietly amazed at how far she had come but there was more, something deeper.
"Tell me I wasn't wrong Seven."
"To what do you refer?"
Janeway came out from behind the desk and leaned against it directly in front of the other woman. "Do you remember how angry you were? How you demanded I return you to the Borg? I made that decision without regard to your wishes because I felt you could not rationally do so for yourself." She looked at her hands for a long moment before finishing. " I believe I was right but it takes everything I am to justify that decision to myself. I can't help but doubt myself sometimes."
There was a long painful moment of silence before Seven finally spoke. "You were not wrong," she said, meeting her Captain's eyes. "I did not believe it then because I did not understand what you offered me. I will not tell you it has not been difficult, you know that to be true as much as I do. I am who I am now because of you; because you believed in me."
Janeway stood, reached out her hand and drew delicate fingers along the line of Seven's jaw. Her touch was soft, longing and Seven did not pull away. Janeway's eyes fell shut as her hand rested palm flat in the middle of Seven's chest.
At first she did not believe her senses when she felt the hand touch her own cheek as she had touched Seven. She turned her face toward the caress devouring it hungrily.
"You require comfort and reassurance."
Janeway opened her eyes; felt herself grinning helplessly. "I do, Seven."
"I'm not sure that I can ..."
She clasped the hand in her own, kissed the palm. "You just did, love. You just did."
* * * * * *
"And how is our patient today?" Janeway breezed into sick bay and confronted the Doctor in the glassed in office.
"Restless and agitated." They left the office and went on to the biolab. At the back of the room a storage area had been converted into a cross between a brig holding cell and a medical observation room. Two large windows showed the sparse interior containing a low bunk, sink, toilet and a treadmill. Dressed in drab coveralls, the captive patient paced the width of the room. Back and forth, back and forth.
"She spends a lot of time on the treadmill, which is good for her muscles but I am concerned at how little she has slept in the last two days. I don't know if that's due to her nerves or the Borg nanoprobes."
"Can you blame her for that? All that time on the Borg ship with nothing but sleep. At least we assume. Has she told you anything of that?"
"No," the Doctor said looking perturbed. "She will not communicate with me, though she did have a few choice words to say when I informed her she could not starve herself to death by refusing food."
"Yes, with a good appetite now too. Her metabolic rate is still high so she needs more nutrients than I can inject with a hypospray. Speaking of which." He crossed to the replicator. "You can take her lunch in... if you dare."
The Captain raised an amused brow but accepted the tray. It contained a plate with two blocks of bland nutritional supplement and a tall plastic tumbler of water. "Well, I can understand if she's not overly excited at the prospect of this meal."
"Appealing or not, it is appropriate for her stage of recovery." The Doctor touched the control pad beside the door and Janeway passed through. The door closed behind her and she looked around for a place to put the tray. The bunk was the only available space and to reach it, she had to pass through the path of the patient as she stalked across the room and back. She stopped short in front of Janeway and tried to move around her but the Captain stepped to block her path.
"I know you don't want to deal with us, but you are going to have to try."
Several centimetres taller than Janeway and so thin the clothing hung on her frame she seemed to carry no presence except for her eyes. Those eyes were now narrowed in displeasure. "What do you want?" The voice was stronger but still ice cold.
"We are concerned about your mental condition. We believe you were a very long time in stasis on the Borg ship and your attempt at suicide the other day is troubling. We want to help, but we can't if you won't talk to us. What do you remember?"
She had held Janeway's gaze for the time it took her to have her say, but on the word "remember" she looked away.
"I don't know."
Memories tumbled one over the other fast and disjointed. The bright cold light, freezing paralysis. The dim enclosed space with the brutal bindings and a pressure that hurt the ears. The whip, the splatter of blood and the snap of bone then the sound like laughter. Then silence. Drifting. The red lasers. Sharp pain. Nothing again. Nothing, nothing... nothing...
Janeway saw her flinch and reached out a hand that was quickly shrugged off. "I think you remember something. I can understand if you're confused. I'll tell you what we know." She moved in front of her again but the patient wouldn't meet her eyes. "Sometime very near the end of the twentieth century you were taken from earth; forcibly abducted we presume. Whoever did that also abused you very badly causing the scars you still have. Then, if things were not bad enough for you, you fell into the hands of the Borg."
"Who?" A flicker of interest crossed her eyes.
"The Doctor has told you about the substance your blood contains how these microscopic nanoprobes maintain your body?" She didn't answer negative or positive so Janeway pressed on. "The Borg are a race of cybernetic beings. Part organic, part technology. They implanted you with some of their technology. We can't remove it, it's part of you now, for better or worse."
As if to emphasize the point, the door swished open and Seven of Nine entered. "Captain," she nodded. "I need to take some readings to complete my reports." Opening her tricorder she approached the patient who took a step back disturbed. "Please stand still," Seven tried to be patient. "This will not hurt."
"What are you?" Her eyes traveled from Seven's metallic hand covering to the ocular implant surrounding her left eye.
"You have seen me before. You must have forgotten. I was Borg. Like you I still retain some of the technological physiology although I am not as emotionally weak as you." Finished, she snapped the tricorder shut and clasped her hands behind her back.
"Seven..." Janeway began warningly but it was too late.
"Weak?" The patient stepped menacingly forward. "You don't know anything about me, but you call me weak?" Seven was impassive before the anger not blinking when the maimed hand was raised before her. The two smaller fingers were gone, what was left of the knuckles savagely scarred. "I was weak when they hacked off my baby finger," she hissed at the ex-Borg. "I screamed and they liked it so they cut off the next one. I didn't scream again."
The Captain thrust an arm between them and when the patient turned her eyes on Janeway, she saw again the rage and the barely contained insanity. But it was gone quickly when she turned away, going to the bunk and snatching up the water container.
Janeway took the moment to give Seven a hard look.
"You do remember?" She tried to modulate her voice gently.
"I was forced to!" Whirling to face the Captain, she held the cup so tightly Janeway heard the rigid plastic crack. The patient looked at it, watching the water trickle down her wrist and then with a swift move, as she had before with the gun, she brought the cup smashing down on her upraised knee. It splintered into several fragments one of which she held in her three fingered grip. She brought the jagged weapon up to her neck where she savagely cut from under her left ear across the front of her throat.
"Damn you!" Janeway cursed closing the distance to her as the blood gushed from the wound. It was cold on her hands as she caught the front of her coveralls. As she began to sink to the floor, her green eyes caught Janeway's, smirking and self-satisfied.
By the time the Doctor got there, the gash had stopped bleeding. He used a dermal regenerator to temporarily close the wound and the three Voyager crew carried the patient out into sickbay.
"The naonoprobes, Doctor?" Janeway asked when they had deposited the unconscious form on a biobed.
"I believe so. I'll have to do some more work to close this properly but the nanoprobes seemed to have cut off the flow of blood very quickly." He raised his eyes to the Captain and she could see the concern and pain. Once again he transcended his programming. "She won't die."
"Despite how hard she's trying." Janeway balled her bloody hands into fists.
* * * * * *
later, ready room
"You can't go around calling people weak, Seven."
The tall ex-Borg stood in front of the Captain's desk. Consternation crossed her features. "I was simply stating fact, Captain."
"To you, yes," Janeway replied squeezing the bridge of her nose with two fingers. "It's as much my fault as yours, if not more mine. I shouldn't have allowed you to be in a position where you could interact with her."
"I am not to blame for her suicidal actions." The tone was imperious with a hint of arrogance, but it was something Janeway had learned not to put too much stock in. Part of Seven's human development had been her creation of a unique way of expressing herself. Humans grew up with the understanding that things they said might offend and so often adjusted their tone so as not to alienate but still get the point across. Seven had no such experience to draw on. When she spoke it was to convey a message; how the listener received that message was beyond her control or care.
"No, you are not. You must understand, though, that you may well become a natural target for blame."
"Because I was Borg?" Seven's brows drew together in confusion. "She was as well."
Janeway rose slowly from her desk taking her coffee cup to the table in the seating area that held the carafe. She refilled it, sat and sipped before she spoke again.
"She doesn't see it like that. To her the Borg are some mysterious force who's only influence was to take from her the one thing she wants the most."
"To die." Seven followed the Captain to the upper level, stood looking down at her. "I do not understand this ..." she seemed to search for the right word. "...motivation. She is safe now, with us."
Janeway watched her closely. She doesn't see the parallel. There's more here than the redemption of a lost, self-destructive woman far from her own time. Can Seven understand her own redemption by seeing herself in our patient? What does it mean to her when she says 'safe with us'?
"Please sit down, Seven." Janeway patted the cushion beside her and waited until she did so before continuing. "I don't think she understands what it is to be "safe" anymore. Sometimes a person experiences so much beyond their control that they can't conceive of anything else other than strife and fear. They can't cope; she can't cope."
Seven looked away for a moment thinking. "Is it possible I could relate my experiences and how I came to be on Voyager to help her cope?"
"Yes, it's possible." Janeway smiled. "Though it's not prudent to do so right now."
"I understand. What will you do?"
The Captain placed her coffee cup carefully on the table and looked at her hands. She imagined she could still see the stain of cold, red blood in the lines of her palms. If she allowed herself, she could see the Borg nanoprobes wiggling like parasites one could never wash off. It chilled her in the same way as the look of spite in the woman's eyes as she bled.
"This is very difficult for you?" Seven prompted.
"It is." Janeway finally looked at the woman beside her, the same woman who had pleaded to be returned to the only life she knew, a life with the Borg. "The Borg sweep through space leaving shattered lives in their wake and I'm here to pick up the pieces."
"That is not the intention. The Borg wish to better the lives of all species."
"Let's not get into that. You can't tell me you can look at the patient in sick bay and say her life is better."
"No, I cannot." Seven's voice was colder now, more remote and Janeway missed the rapport they had earlier. "She has the ability of virtual immortality but her wish is to die. This is a contradiction."
"Indeed." Janeway thought for a moment, came to a conclusion. "Seven, I want you to research the Federation database. I believe there are records of missing persons going back into the twentieth century. We may find our patient there."
"To what purpose would such records be kept on Starfleet vessels?"
"That's a story in itself." Janeway affectionately patted Seven's knee. "During that era there was a sense of paranoia about what they called 'alien abduction'. When people from earth ventured forth, they kept those 'mysteries' in the back of their minds hoping something in their interstellar travels might bring answers."
"You think we may have found those answers?"
"To one small mystery a very long time ago? Maybe."
Seven was clearly perplexed. "Who will care if a mystery is solved?"
Two steps forward, one step back.
"I will care," Janeway said gently. "I hope you will too."
Chapter 3: To hold one moment in time
"What is it about older women?"
She grinned at me with total abandon as safe in her sensuality as she was in my arms. I smiled back as I stroked the hair from her eyes.
"I dunno. What is it about younger women?"
She just laughed and snuggled deeper into my grasp. Her cheek rested just above my left breast, one arm had slipped between the pillows and my back, the other hand trailed fingertips up and down my thigh. Inclined comfortably on the piled pillows of the bed, I held her to me with my knees and my arms.
The soft sea air gently stirred the curtains on the doors to the patio. Below the cottage the waves climbed and retreated on their unending wash of the sand beach. Night held the island in her tender grasp and the moon soothed the room with a pale light.
Her skin smelled of ocean salt and sweet sweat. Smooth, tanned brown in the sun, sensual and energetic, I never thought such a creature would want to be with me. But with me she was, and it was perfect. I sighed deep in my chest and hugged her closer.
"What is it, MG?" she asked sleepily.
"Nothing, I'm just happy to be here with you. You amaze me. I don't know what I do for you, but you amaze me."
A sharp bite into the skin of my chest was her answer. "You don't know anything about yourself," she said against my skin. "You don't know your own power, your worth." She raised her head and looked at me; eyes pale in the light, earnest in their youth. "When you stood on that stage you might as well have thrown a net over me."
I was stripped bare to the soul caught in her calm gaze. For a long moment I couldn't speak and when I did, it was the lamest thing I ever said.
"I can't love you, I don't know how."
"Somewhere inside you do so know how to love. It might take you a long time to find that love, but you will, and you'll know yourself then, and love yourself then."
I tried to look away but she caught my chin and kissed me tenderly and with more love than I had ever felt. After, when she slept, soft above my beating heart, I watched the moon set over the water time slipping slowly away with each breath and each ocean wave. And I knew then I'd never see her again.
She gave to me that night a gift I had never unwrapped though I always carried it with me waiting for the time when I might. The time when I knew it was right. The time when my heart would know that for just one moment everything was perfect.
* * * * * *
Captain Kathryn Janeway walked the quiet corridors of the starship Voyager. It was the middle of the Gamma shift, those not on duty were asleep in their quarters ... where she should be. But sleep was elusive tonight and fleeting like the dreams that had awakened her. Dreams of blood on her hands that would never wash away.
The blood of responsibility. The blood of everyone on this ship who depended on her and trusted her to get them home. The responsibility that would never go away. The responsibility she depended on to help her get out of bed in the morning. The responsibility that gave her a reason to go on.
When she returned to her quarters it was only to wash her hands and face before reporting to the bridge for the start of the Alpha shift.
* * * * * *
later, sick bay
"I tried using physical restraints but she struggled so I had to find an alternative." The Doctor followed the Captain's gaze through the glass to the patient laying flat on her back, eyes closed. "I've given her a paralysis agent. She's aware but can't move her body below the neck."
Janeway looked at him sharply. "Like she was on the Borg ship?"
"It's all I could do. When she regained consciousness she was uncontrollable." He looked away for a long moment. "I think I should consider honouring her request. If I knew how to fulfil it. The nanoprobes give her a life she doesn't want."
"No, Doctor." Janeway tapped the padd she held in her hand against her knuckles, hard. "We'll reach her. It just might take some effort."
When she entered the small cell she didn't raise the lighting, just stood for a moment letting her eyes adjust. The patient didn't blink when she sat down on the bed beside her.
For a long time Janeway just looked at her trying to feel the pain and fear that haunted her soul, trying to find some level to connect.
I don't know who she is, she thought, glancing at the padd. I have her life story here in my hand; dry biographical facts that happened hundreds of years ago. What does it tell me? Nothing, nothing, nothing ...
"Why are you doing this to me?" Said softly but filled with anguish.
"Doing what?" Janeway shifted closer, realized she'd almost sat on her hand. She lifted the limb to place on the patient's belly and paused holding the battered hand in her own. It was cool. Four degrees below human normal, she recalled the Doctor saying. Another gift of the Borg nanoprobes.
"This, doing this." Her eyes were open now not angry, deeply hurt. "Don't you understand what you're doing?"
"You mean the paralysis? It reminds you of the stasis on the Borg ship?"
"No, not that. Then I had no body. ALS. I was going to die of ALS."
The disease. Janeway reviewed the facts in her mind. Progressive degeneration of motor cells in the spinal cord and brain. Muscle weakness in the arms and legs, difficulty with speech, swallowing and breathing. In later stages, all voluntary muscle action affected leading to total paralysis.
"Oh, I see now." Was all she could think to say and she hesitated, confused, unsure of how to proceed. Several approaches occurred to her but they were all excuses, reasons, explanations. She discarded them all and went with the blunt truth.
"I can't release you unless you give me your word the self-destructive behaviour will stop. I can't allow you to continue trying to kill yourself."
"Who are you to allow me anything?" Again the pain.
Who indeed, Kathryn. It comes to this again.
"You have been given a second chance, another life. The disease can't kill you now. You can't kill you now. You have to deal with it, move on. You have to let it go and live."
"I don't want to live."
"I know that and in a way I can understand, but you can't just give up now. You've survived this far, now let it go and try to live."
Her head was turned and her eyes closed, effectively distancing herself as far from Captain Janeway as she could.
"Do you hear me, Sergeant Cullen?"
The reaction was slow in coming but it had the effect Janeway wanted. She was listening. Janeway keyed the padd and began to read.
"Mary Glenneth Cullen, born on earth in the year nineteen sixty three. Disappeared in the woods of Eastern Canada sometime after June the twenty-fifth of nineteen ninety-eight. Camping equipment and wallet found on the shore of remote Handsled Lake in September of two thousand one. Though the body was never found, declared officially dead in January of two thousand two. I can also tell you the military authorities of the time had classified files of radar contacts over the districts of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in June of ninety-eight, but you know that part."
Her eyes had turned inward as if scrolling backward through time and events. Janeway continued.
"Entered the Canadian military in nineteen eighty-one as a medical assistant. Two tours of duty in the Middle East in eighty-four and eighty-six. Investigated in eighty-nine for an illegal affair with a female officer, no charges laid. As a Master Corporal in nineteen ninety awarded the Military Medal for actions during a gas attack on a medical aid station in the Persian Gulf Conflict. Nineteen ninety-three: first tour of peacekeeping duty in the former Yugoslavian Republics. During a second tour to the region in ninety-five, involved in a jeep accident and the following year received the Star of Courage for saving the life of a Corporal after that accident. September nineteen ninety-seven diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Given a medical release in February of ninety-eight. So ends your official record. This is you?" she said softly.
"This is me." The answer was almost reluctant.
"Two decorations for valour, that was quite a career."
Cullen blinked, looked away again as she said, "Sometimes medals don't mean a whole lot."
"Sometimes," Janeway conceded. "I have two myself."
There was a long pause, then a question which made Janeway feel she had finally made a connection. "Who are you again?" Her eyes were narrowed in concentration as if she knew the answer but could not connect the fact to reality.
"Captain Kathryn Janeway," she smiled when she said it.
"Captain? Army or Navy?"
"Starfleet. You're on the USS Voyager. I'm the Captain. I suppose you didn't have very many women captains where you come from."
"Not of ships." She seemed to think again before continuing. "I'm not sure I understand where I am and what's happened to me." Her look was open and honest but with an undercurrent of fear. Janeway laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Can you tell me what you remember?"
Cullen sighed heavily. "There's a lot I don't want to remember."
"I can understand," Janeway said gently. "Do you remember the lake?"
"Yes." Small and rocky. A beautiful stand of old-growth hemlock just up from the water. A deer, frozen like a statue as it stared me down. Just enough room for the tent and a fire pit ... a Barred Owl calling after the sun went down. "At night. It was still and quiet then there was a light. I grabbed the bag the Berretta was in and went out." Her expression became empty. "Then nothing. The light... and I was frozen, couldn't move."
"Then you were on a ship ..."
"A ship?" She gave her head a sharp shake. "I don't know where I was. I was bound; laid out flat. It was cold and dark and it smelled. I thought I was dead but I was so scared. So scared I was sick. I tried to think, to be calm but I couldn't .. I couldn't control the fear."
Janeway could see the beginnings of panic building behind her eyes. The confusion and the terror. "It's OK you're safe now," she said catching her chin when she would have pulled away. She kept the reassuring eye contact, modulated her voice softly. "No one is going to hurt you now, I promise you. Now breath deep and slow."
She did and after a few minutes her voice was soft again. "Will you let me go? Please."
"I will but you have to promise me something. Can you do that?"
"You don't understand." Cold, flat and resigned. "I went there to die, to put the gun to my head and blow my brains out. I didn't want to die of ALS; slow, paralysed, dependant. Can't you see that?"
"Yes, I can." Janeway was firm. "But you didn't die and you won't, and now you can start over again. You have a clean slate. Don't throw that chance away."
"I can't ..."
"Yes you can. You saved someone else's life once, now save yours. It's hard, I know but I'll help you all I can."
For a long moment she teetered on the edge. Janeway could see all the emotions as they played across her face: the despair, the weariness, the fear and then the hope.
We all hold that hope somewhere inside us. Like a shiny little rock clutched in our child's hand. We want to believe, we want to take that extra step just because we think there might be a chance. And we want someone to guide us. Someone to make it easier because on our own it's too hard, the fear of failure so close and strong. Like Seven stepping into the unknown of humanity and Cullen reclaiming hers.
She stared at Janeway as is gauging her sincerity; a long moment of testing the Captain met openly. Then, with a sigh she answered. "All right, you have my word."
Janeway believed her.
* * * * * *
two days later, astrometrics
Seven of Nine turned her head slightly as the door whooshed open and Captain Janeway entered followed by Voyager's newest passenger. "Seven, Sergeant Cullen would like to know where we are." They took up a position to the right of the control panel.
"We are in sector..." she hesitated. "She would need a course in Astro Physics to understand where we are."
"Maybe we'll do that later. Why don't you just show her," Janeway gestured broadly to the three dimensional display before them.
The ex-Borg's hands paused in their inputting and she afforded Cullen a baleful look.
"Apples, oranges, pickles, what?"
"Seven of Nine."
"So? Seven of Nine what? Pickles? Ping-Pong balls? Socks? Barbie dolls?" Cullen waited; Janeway held her breath.
Seven's hands were active on the console again. For a long moment she was silent, then she spoke slowly. "I see you are feeling better. You've traded self destruction for sarcasm. This is an improvement."
Janeway was biting her lip. Cullen winked at her.
"Yeah, well, I've still got a bit of a stiff neck and my hair-do is 376 years out of date, but other than that I'm getting by."
"You have no hair."
Cullen rubbed the newly grown stubble on her skull. "Hey, now. Give it a chance."
"All right, kids." Janeway broke in. "Enough banter. Look," she directed Cullen's attention forward.
"Whoa..." stepping up on the raised platform she let the star map surround her like so many points of dust caught in sunlight.
"We are here," Seven's voice spoke and a blinking blue symbol appeared. "Sector 001 is here." The perspective shifted to the left and rotated upward as a line began to wind its way across the map passing through a fuzz of indistinct celestial bodies then into more familiar territory marked by names and numbers.
Janeway stepped up beside Cullen. "The Beta Quadrant. Romulan space," she pointed out a section of the map delineated in pale grey as the line passed through the edge of it. "Federation space. Home territory." The line continued through the area marked in red, crossed the division of the Alpha Quadrant and stopped, blinking slowly.
The star map shifted again becoming flatter and more filled out. Janeway indicated everything before them with a single wave of her hand. "Our galaxy. The four quadrants, gamma, delta, beta, alpha. This is where we are," she pointed to the blinking symbol in the upper right quarter. "And this is where we have to go," she traced the line downward to where the two lower fourths met.
"Halfway across the galaxy?" There was awe in Cullen's voice.
"About sixty thousand light years."
"At least sixty years. If we're lucky."
She dropped down onto the deck so fast Janeway thought she must have fainted. But, instead, she was sitting cross legged her head in her hands and her shoulders shaking. Janeway touched her arm thinking she was weeping. "We'll make it back, don't worry."
"I'm not worried," she laughed, her eyes filled with a strange recklessness tainted with the same manic emotion Janeway had seen other times. "It's just so ironic, don't ya think?"
Captain Janeway gave Cullen's shoulder a slow squeeze. "Out of time, out of place," she said.
* * * * * *
"You'll like the mess hall," Captain Janeway guided Cullen along the corridor of deck two. "But a word of warning: as you've noticed there are some non-human members to Voyager's crew. Neelix, our resident morale officer and chef, is a little more unusual than the others."
The doors parted before them and they stepped up to the front of the galley counter. Neelix, his back to them, was sautéing something aromatic in a skillet. "Mr. Neelix, please meet Sergeant Cullen." Janeway watched the human's eyes as the Talaxian turned.
"Ahh, so good to meet you," he patted his hands on his garish apron and rocked on his heels. "The Doctor has sent me your nutritional requirements," he bustled about on the shelf below the counter finally coming up with a padd. "He says nothing too spicy for you yet, and lots of vitamins and minerals as you grow back the body weight you lost when you were a Borg. Lucky I have experience with the dietary requirements of ex-Borg," leaning forward he winked.
For a long moment Cullen's face was expressionless then she met Neelix's smile. "Well, that sounds OK," she started. "I never liked spicy food much anyway. Gave me heartburn."
Neelix's odd eyes widened. "Don't you worry about that. Nothing I cook will affect your health."
Janeway suppressed a cough. "I promised her a cup of replicated coffee for now," she steered the other woman to an empty table and started to the replicator.
"Double cream and a maple dip." The Captain raised an eyebrow in question. "It's a doughnut." When she returned to the table she carried two mugs and a plate holding two round, sugar coated confections. Cullen laughed. "I guess some things never go out of style. I should've bought stock in Tim Horton's."
Janeway watched as she held the mug up, breathed in the rich aroma, sipped slowly and sighed. "My that's good," she said with appreciation.
"I don't know what I'd do without coffee for a few hours let alone a few hundred years."
"Well, you don't think about it much after awhile," Cullen's expression darkened. "It would be enough to drive you crazy." She picked up a doughnut, took a large bite, and chewed thoughtfully.
The Captain let a long moment pass before speaking what was really on her mind. "You seem to be doing better; not quite so... depressed."
"That's putting it gently," Cullen scoffed. "Look," she leaned forward, elbows on the little table. "I owe you enough to be honest. You know this isn't where, or when for that matter, I want to be, but I can't change it. All I can do is try to get by as best I can."
"And I'm not asking any more of you. In fact," Janeway met her eyes earnestly. "I'm not asking anything of you except that you try, and I'll be here to help you as best I can. I don't profess to know what you went through. Life has demanded more from you than anyone could possibly answer..."
"Yeah, well, that life's over," Cullen interrupted. "This is a whole new kettle of fish. For better or for worse, yadda, yadda, yadda." Her eyes roamed around the room pausing on a small group of Voyager's crew. Janeway followed her eyes, saw them come to rest on the musical instrument.
"You play, don't you?" she prompted.
"A little help, Captain?"
"A little biographical data, that's all. Why don't you go ask if you can borrow it?"
Cullen pushed back her chair and crossed the room. She stood for a moment uncertain, eyeing the instrument. "Mind if I try your funny looking guitar?" she finally asked the woman closest. The Ensign smiled slightly and passed it over.
Hands tracing the burnished wood, Cullen looked it over from the ultra thin body, the small sound hole, to the slim but sturdy neck. There were no tuning keys just an irregular head where the not quite steel strings terminated. "It's got six strings at least."
She put the strap around her neck and the fingers of her left hand found their way naturally into the form of G major. The chord sounded true to her strum and she looked slightly surprised. "Not bad," she tried a C and then a D. "Not exactly my Martin, but it'll do."
With hardly a thought, she picked out an eight note run, repeated it and began to sing.
In the dawn your memory finds me, Chase me round all through the day...
* * * * * *
The desk in the guest quarters held all her worldly possessions. Cullen placed the borrowed guitar carefully against the chair and looked at the simple items. Useless keys, the Swiss Army knife, her chain, the disks. She made a mental note to ask the Captain if there was a way to access the music on them. Surely the twenty-fourth century could handle a simple CD
She ran her throbbing fingers under cold water in the small bathroom thinking how good the strings had felt. And the chords, and the words. The ship's crew had watched and listened to each of the old songs with intent interest that made her wonder what music was like for them now. She made another mental note to ask the Captain the question and her mind brought up the image of Captain Janeway listening with a soft smile of approval.
It was a pleasant image, but, as she lay on the bed in the dark, it began to make her uncomfortable.
Now I can't let her down...
Although the crowd had thinned some and they seemed as much interested in their drinks as they were in the songs she played they still clapped with reserved enthusiasm as she let the last chord ring. She turned away and took several thirsty drafts of her glass of beer. "Well," she adjusted the strap over her shoulder and let her hand smooth along the neck. "I still know lots of songs if you're all not too bored with me yet." Her eyes traveled over the murmuring mass in the open air bar as a few called out encouragement and the others simply nodded distractedly.
At the side near the bar a young woman in a dirty cook's smock slid behind a table alone. Their eyes met easily the way sometimes happens and she had to make an effort to think up a new song to play. When her fingers fell into a D, she smiled to herself.
"This song reminds me of this place. It's a great beach song and a simple lazy statement on life ... well, without the alcoholic haze, anyway." She was watching closely enough to see the young woman smile when she started "Margaritaville".
They were walking on the beach barefoot, the waves tickling their toes. It was almost full dark and the moon was huge over the ocean. A light breeze ruffled the young woman's blond hair as she turned.
"Did you ever think about me over the years, Mary-Glen? Did you ever think about what it might've been like if you weren't so scared?"
She stopped, stared at her companion surprised.
Something wasn't right ...
"I tried to find you a couple of times, you know. I thought maybe you might've changed. Might've been ready to try. It's so ironic. When I finally did find you, they told me you were gone ... just gone. You walked into the woods and never came back. You know what I thought?" Her eyes were intense and unearthly. "I thought 'how like you'. You walked away from me and you walked away from life. You've been walking away forever. And now where are you? Are you going to walk away again?"
Pushing away the unsettling images, Cullen's mind struggled up from the dark depths of sleep. For a long moment she could not understand where she was. Her mind played out options and discarded them. The apartment she had for three years in Ottawa, the ramshackle barracks in Croatia, the old house by the water. Eventually her eyes adjusted and her memory returned. All of her memory. With effort she pushed the cold discomfort down hard concentrating again on the dream. The dream that had started as a familiar well played memory then had turned to something else. Something that left her distinctly uneasy.
Uneasy and incomplete.