I register it first as a prick of heat at the back of my throat, the position of the master interlink node. The influx sends an electromagnetic surge pulsing to the energy ports at the base of my spine. There is a musical sifting in the voices of the Many, as another filters in, finding its place in my thoughts. It is pleasurable. An immaculate pleasure that I experience each time an individualÕs distinctiveness is added to my perfection. I have felt it hundreds of millions of times, enough to know when something is not as it should be.
I will not underestimate Janeway again. I know her cunning; she delivered her body to me too easily. I seeded it, penetrating every cell, reassembling it in my own image. She is a beautiful drone. But she did not give me her thoughts. I could terminate her, and her officers. But it will be more effective to reconfigure her.
I understand that, among humans, it is courteous to come in person.
The first full-fledged meeting of the resistance dispersed with a palpable surge of energy. The near constant skirmishes with drones left everyone edgy, but Tuvok was training the inhabitants of Unimatrix Zero in guerilla tactics, and fatalities were already dropping. The recruits maintained a secure perimeter around the command center, where Janeway and B'elanna remained during their regeneration cycles, coordinating their efforts with Axam and the other leaders. And, of course, with Seven, who left her alcove on Voyager only long enough to brief Chakotay.
Seven and Axam still repelled each other elementally, gravitating like matched magnets to opposite ends of the compound as the group scattered to their stations. Janeway studied the tense arc of the blonde's back as she bent over the guts of a crude firearm.
She didn't mean to go to Seven. She should have been updating her log. But there she was, her hand pressing into the taut muscles beneath pink cotton. In another place, she would have felt the cybernetic ridges of Seven's spinal implant, but here, there was only smooth heat under her palm.
Unaccustomed to the deficiencies of human senses, Seven jumped at the touch, startled.
"I've missed you." Janeway's voice was pitched low. She didn't know where the sentiment came from, but she'd learned to deal plainly with Seven.
"You spend 6.2 hours of every cycle in my presence."
"You're Annika here, remember?" Janeway settled her hip against the edge of the workbench. Seven's tinkering stilled, but she looked down at her hands.
"I miss you, too. Voyager seems empty without you. To everyone."
"It's disorienting, being surrounded by drones all day, and then coming here and seeing you human."
"I cannot think of you as a drone." Seven made the word hard.
"I'm not a drone, really. Just disguised as one."
Seven met her eyes, gaze brimming with her trademark skepticism. "I forget what it feels like. The alarming silence, when you severed my link to the collective, I have a memory of that. But when I was a drone, I had no thoughts of my own. It's blank, as if I didn't exist."
Janeway looked away, her fingers worrying a bit of dismembered electronics. How did Seven -- Annika -- always manage a hostile takeover of the conversation? "Let's go for a walk."
Seven regarded her levelly. "Not far, it's dangerous." They were already moving.
They strolled in silence, at a deliberately easy pace. Still, it wasn't long before they were out of sight of the compound, surrounded in three dimensions by the simulacral beauty of the dim and misty wood.
Seven was not one to let a matter drop. She stopped in the secluded shadow of a copse of trees and reached out to grasp Janeway's elbow when she failed to follow suit. It was an uncharacteristic gesture, and Janeway's brow was furrowed in concern as she turned.
"What is it?"
"I need to know. I am learning to be an individual. When I imagine going back to what I was, I experience fear, but I don't know what I am afraid of. How can I choose this life if I can't remember the other?"
Janeway took a breath. When she spoke, she looked past Seven into the empty air. "It's a nightmare. I can feel my body, I can feel the implants parting my flesh, invading me. Sometimes I think I can even feel the nanoprobes pulsing with my blood, chilling me, or the current humming through me. When I move, it's as if I'm a piece of machinery operated by remote control. I have my thoughts, but they seem small beside the voices. The voices of the Many are deafening, terrible, and so sweet. Listening to them makes me want to forget myself..."
Janeway's throat was suddenly hoarse, and her voice trailed off into a cough. Then Seven reached for her, and they were embracing, their bodies flush. Janeway could feel the rise and fall of Seven's stomach as she breathed, could feel her breasts, soft and heavy, give against her chest. Her head was on Seven's shoulder, lips almost touching her bared neck, and she could smell the faint perfume of her skin. One of Seven's hands was drawing tiny unconscious circles along her spine. She pulled back, and then she was gazing at Seven's face. Well, not Seven's. Janeway's hand lifted to touch her left brow, where she was used to seeing the remaining silver arch of the optical implant. Her fingertips feathered, slowly, down her temple, across her cheekbone. Seven's lips parted.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
Military training makes for fast reflexes, and before the sibilant, syrupy voice had completed its sentence, Janeway and Seven had spun and drawn their weapons on its source. It wasn't until after they were bent into battle stances that they realized they were staring down the Borg Queen, hip cocked sinuously and flanked by four drones.
"What are you doing here?" Perhaps not the most articulate or diplomatic opener, but at least Janeway had delivered it in her most commanding and defiant tone.
"I came to give you my regards. We so rarely have the opportunity to meet." She scanned Seven, eyes glittering. "Seven of Nine. It is also a pleasure to see you. Although you're not looking well. Humanity does not become you."
"What do you want?"
"Captain Janeway, is that any way to treat a guest?"
"I can see you're enjoying this, but I'm really not in the mood."
"I wanted to congratulate you on your ingenious strategy. Unfortunately, your attempt at subterfuge has failed. You and your officers are now in my custody. So it seems that what you are in the mood for is of little consequence."
"I won't cooperate willingly."
"I should hope not." With an inscrutable smile, the Borg Queen gestured to the path meandering on ahead. "Please accompany me. I would prefer to continue this conversation further away from your freedom fighters."
Janeway stole a glance at Seven, whose jaw was rigid with the petrifying intensity of her frown. Outmanned and outgunned, she signaled silently, they had no choice but to follow.
The imaginary geography of Unimatrix Zero seemed to have no borders and no landmarks. When the Borg Queen halted their march in a still and sheltered glade, it was impossible to estimate how far they were from friendly forces, or even from the web of regularly patrolled trails that radiated out from the base. As they watched the Queen survey the site, Janeway's gaze was calculating and recklessly protective, Seven's piercing and shaded with fear. They stood with their shoulders almost touching.
"Captain Janeway, on the occasion of my previous visit to Voyager, I made you a very generous offer. In return, I asked only that you cease all interference in the internal affairs of the Borg. You declined."
"If we could resume..."
"I am no longer willing to negotiate. You are inciting what you would call a civil war among my drones. This is unacceptable. And since you are now in my power, there is evidently little you could offer me as terms. You may consider yourself my prisoner here in Unimatrix Zero for the remaining 2.8 hours of your regeneration cycle. Apparently, I must impress my position on you more forcefully."
"You'll get nothing from me by torture." Janeway's voice was icy.
"Torture is inefficient, the recourse of inferior species. I simply intend to stimulate your appreciation of Borg perfection." The Queen turned to Seven, whose desperate fury was knotted into every muscle, and smiled. "Seven of Nine, you know I have a certain affection for you, although you've been a troublesome drone. You may, of course, choose to end your regeneration cycle at any time and return to Voyager. But if you've learned as much about humanity as your Captain believes, I expect you will not abandon her to me. If you intended to leave her side, you would have done so already. I can assure you that our location is well-guarded, and alerting your forces would be suicide. I would be gratified if you would stay to participate in our discussion."
They began their appeals to each other simultaneously, but Janeway was well versed in Seven's staggering tenacity. She knew, more intimately than the Queen, that no argument would persuade Seven to wake herself if it wouldn't help to free her Captain. Seven obstinately intruded on her most punishing burdens, the ones she had always insisted on bearing alone.
"I could order you to go."
"I would disobey you."
"Touching. But we must get on with our little chat." The Borg Queen nodded almost imperceptibly to a drone. He seized Janeway's arms, his vacant brawn unperturbed by her struggles. Alight with adrenaline, Janeway's mind flashed back to her training. If you are captured, and no chance of escape is imminent, use passive resistance and conserve your strength. Attempt to gain as much time as possible through neutral non-compliance.
"Captain Janeway, I trust you are finding your time as my drone edifying." The Queen was nearly purring with pleasure as she advanced.
"I am not your drone." Janeway spoke quietly, but with a core of steel.
"Indeed, so I noticed. I haven't heard your thoughts among the Many. You gave me this, though, without hesitation."
She placed one knuckle against Janeway's larynx, at the neckband of her uniform, and trailed it down along her sternum. The layers of fabric parted cleanly, like flesh under a knife, and robotic fingers pushed the severed edges aside to handle Janeway's breasts.
"Your body is nothing to me but a medium for cybernetics. But in your deluded individuality you treat it as something secret. I want no secrets between us."
Janeway was breathing heavily, now, staring at the mossy ground as if to absent herself from the touch. Seven's hands were wrung into fists. The Queen released Janeway and turned to her.
"Would you like to see? If they've taught you their irrational modesty, I'm sure you're curious."
The Queen watched Seven, head canted to one side, as the drones finished stripping Janeway. Seven had angled her face away from the spectacle with a furious snap, but kept the Captain protectively in her peripheral vision.
"Not interested, Seven of Nine? That's not very human of you."
"If you think this gives you power over me, you understand less of humanity than you think." Restrained, Janeway's stance still spoke defiance, as if she'd conjured by sheer will a phantom uniform to replace the one shredded at her feet. Nevertheless, there was a minute quaver in her voice. Seven looked, then, and took in, along with the Queen, the wiry calf peppered by a week of stubble, the slack bulge of the upper thighs, the flaccid plumpness of the belly, the freckled droop of the breasts. Or this was, perhaps, the self portrait that Janeway herself resolutely disregarded.
"Your garments shield you from your own weakness. Revealed, you are pathetic, small. You lack the capability to correct your inferior bodies, so you clothe them in puerile notions of intimacy."
"It is our flaws that make us unique. There is no freedom in perfection."
"Is that so? And you, Seven: are your Borg implants your flaws? You've elected to appear here without them, perfectly human. Do you feel more yourself this way?" Less inclined to spar than Janeway, unbalanced by the unease that flowered in her gut in the presence of the Queen, Seven stood her ground in silence as she approached. When they were face to face, the Queen raised her hand as if to trace Seven's brow, but halted the gesture with a smirk when she snarled, "Do not touch me."
"You let her touch you, Seven." She inclined her head toward Janeway. "She likes you like this, you know. Virtually perfect, with no trace of the mutilations her Doctor inflicted on you. Your hypocrisy never ceases to amaze me, Captain. You'd like to see her as you are now, wouldn't you? Naked."
"I would never violate Seven like you enjoy violating me."
The Queen sauntered to Janeway, smugly watched her recoil as the assimilation tubules shot out of her wrist, writhing in the air just out of reach of the hollow of her collarbone. "Your human ideas of violation amuse me. Why do you cling to these senseless distinctions between the surface and the interior, between yourself and others?" She inclined her arm, and the tubules rooted into the dark snarl of hair between Janeway's thighs.
Unprepared, she screamed as pallid grey veins whiskered delicately outward under her skin, and metal bloomed from her labia.
Enthralled, the Queen hissed, "This is what you are now, Janeway. All mine. This world is only a dream."
Seven was yelling desperately for her to stop, forcibly restrained from violence by two drones. The Queen regarded her exertions with indulgent poise. "Will you bargain for her humanity, Seven of Nine? I too would like to examine your physique unencumbered."
"Seven, please, go back to Voyager," Janeway managed through clenched teeth. But Seven's eyes were stony as she began peeling off her clinging garments. "My clothing is irrelevant. I would rather be nude and human than see either of us assimilated." This last she spat at the Queen, who graciously withdrew from Janeway's flesh, leaving her with a tangle of implants obtruding from her center like a macabre fig leaf.
Janeway's head was thrown back against the shoulder of her impassive captor, her eyes squeezed shut against the prickling throb of the cybernetics threading through her. Seven's unblemished skin was luminous in the unearthly daylight that hazed through the jumble of branches overhead. In truth, modesty was one aspect of individuality that she hadn't yet absorbed.
"Go ahead and peek, Janeway," murmured the Queen, and pierced her again with the assimilation tubules -- this time through the neck, opposite the spectral location of her Borg interlink node. "Our thoughts are one."
Seven of Nine's figure is primitive, but not without a certain grace. We find the mammalian rosiness of her naked flesh repulsive, but observe the harmony of the curve from shoulder, to breast, to hip. There is something thrilling in the muted protrusions of her collarbone, her ribs, her pelvis -- this species' skeletal structure offers an effective foundation for attaching core technologies.
The Borg Queen shuddered rapturously as she interfaced with Janeway, yet still she watched Seven, who appeared marginally reassured by the realization that no implants were spreading along her Captain's throat.
"Do you remember what it feels like, Seven, to merge with the hive mind? Would you care to join us? This will all be over in 1.4 hours, and you'll never again be this close to Janeway. In fact, it's unlikely you'll ever see her again."
As if on cue, Janeway opened her eyes. Her gaze was empty, but not unseeing. Seven looked down at her left hand, watched the virtual organ dissolve into the silver mesh of her real appendage, banding up her bare arm. There are limitations of humanity, she thought, that perhaps outweigh its rewards. She stepped forward, and rested her palm on Janeway's naked shoulder. Extending from her wrist, the undulating tubules burrowed into her Captain's neck, seeking the junction of their joined minds.
We're desirable, even coveted. We're more resplendent than in any remembered snatch of fantasy: the one where we unfasten the biosuit down the back under the pretense of a friendly neck massage; the one where we accidentally walk into cargo bay two while changing clothes; the one where we're caught using pornographic holodeck programs for research on human mating behavior. Our velvet skin, alabaster; our pendulous breasts, luscious; our plump nipples, delectable; our lissome thighs, perfect, perfect, perfect. We're exposed, for the first time, by this unimagined scrutiny. We understood nothing of this erotics, of this prurience. We review every encouraging push towards individuality in the unflattering light of these ulterior motives: the intimate philosophical discussions, the full-contact games of Velocity, the flirtatious teasing about males. We're ashamed. We're a frigid middle-aged woman, flabby and dried up, with nothing left of her sexuality but perversion. We're a predator, practically a pedophile, a rotten friend, a duplicitous mentor. We are less than human. We are more than human. We are a collective. We are inviolable. We are one.
The Borg Queen touched the bristling carapace over Janeway's center, and it was as if she caressed the root of every nerve twining among the delicate organs into ropes of pleasure, each now encircled with the nano-filaments of an enveloping biogenic interface. Instantly, their bodies convulsed in a communal orgasm, the relentless, impossible sensation coursing through muscle and circuit, mind and flesh, in a violent apotheosis of every secret desire, every insuperable antagonism. And they became a single thought.
Janeway was wrapped around herself on the couch, arms gripping the satin of her robe as if to shield her skin from the faint kiss of the recirculating air. Newly-regenerated skin, still tender from the surgeries that had remade her body human again. The few implants that remained inside her were inert, imperceptible. "Only an expert like myself would even be able to identify them on a scan, Captain," the Doctor had assured her, "You'll forget they're even there." And good had again triumphed over evil. The euphoria of another narrow escape, another unlikely victory over the Borg Queen's spiteful superiority, had worn off. She felt battered.
She didn't look at Seven, who was perched stiffly on a bland standard-issue chair, in awkward silence.
"Captain, what I did was unforgivable, but nonetheless, I must apologize. I have not, it seems, made as much progress toward becoming an individual as you had hoped." Her voice shook, and she stared down at her hands.
Janeway took a breath. Her answer was weary, but gentle. "It is not in the nature of humanity to always conquer one's baser impulses, Seven. You know, now, that I'm no stranger to wanting things I shouldn't, things that could hurt people I care about. I should be apologizing to you."
"You did nothing to 'hurt' me. I, on the other hand, willingly violated the privacy of your thoughts."
"Why did you link with us?"
"I wanted to understand what I am. I didn't want to leave you to her. I..." Seven swiped surreptitiously at the corners of her eyes, and her fingers came away wet.
"I've always hated mind melds. That unpleasant sensation of someone poking through your memories and feelings, like watching a stranger rooting around in your closet. This was different. Our thoughts were actually... one. I regret the person I've become. I regret that my reprehensible feelings caused you distress. But I don't regret sharing that with you, Seven. I don't regret that part of you is, and always will be, Borg. Not anymore."
"Captain, what 'distressed' me was not your 'feelings'. It was that I didn't know, didn't know you..." With a growl of frustration at the inadequacy of words Seven was suddenly on top of her, her hand fisting into the hair at the nape of Janeway's neck, her breath searing her lips, her assimilation tubules penetrating her skin, finding unerringly the deactivated interlink node that was permanently lodged in her spine.
We are imperfect. We are forgiven. We are hybrid. We are beautiful. We are love.
The touch of their tongues was as electric as the current joining their minds. Seven's fingers crept resolutely up under the layers of satin to part her lips, to slide into her, humid and living. And again, they came as one.