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Annika Hansen rose from her bed and began the slow process of preparing for the day. Her clothes, which had been thoughtfully laid out by one of the children, seemed an irritant against her skin; their coarseness an early reminder of the harsh reality of her life. Gone was her earlier resilience and youthful spontaneity, and in their place was a woman old before her time; a fragile shell of the vibrant thirty year old she should have been.
"Ma?" Garin's voice. The boy whose crush on his father's new wife had caused them hours of grief just six short years ago, had turned into a young man who now cared for the decrepit remains of that once beautiful woman as if she were his real mother. It made Annika want to weep.
"In a moment." Her voice was weak; she would need another course of treatment within days. Another round of hell fire and apologetic looks; she would wait as long as she could.
Garin had been joined by his sister, Mischa, in waiting outside her door. Their twin faces, so dark yet filled with life, could not hide their concern. The dread that filled their hearts every time she left their company filled Annika's heart with both sadness and joy. She hated that those sweet children were made to worry about her so constantly, and yet she found so much joy in the love they so freely gave. They were the best things in her life.
"You look nice," said Mischa, placing her arm around her mother's waist in a deceptively casual gesture; her help disguised as affection to save both their feelings. "Did you sleep well?"
"Very well." It was only half a lie; the hour or two of actual sleep Annika had managed had been restful, if not entirely welcome. The images from the device had replayed themselves continuously inside her mind, confusing her already scattered thoughts. "Is you father here?"
Garin's voice held disgust. "He sends his apologies."
"He is a busy man," Annika consoled, her own sadness at her former husband's lack of caring having faded years before; but she did worry about the children, Malik's actions were causing a rift that she feared would become insurmountable after she was gone.
"No one is that busy," Mischa countered, her anger equal to her brother's.
Annika wanted to protest and heal their wounds, but today wasn't about Malik, it was about her. "We need to sit."
Garin helped her onto the couch as Mischa fussed with the pillows and throw, her need to position them correctly only halted by Annika's gentle hand and grateful smile. Brother and sister taking a seat on either side of their heart's mother, a hand reaching out to encompass them both in a loving bond. "It is time for us to make the decision."
"It is not ours to make, Ma, it is yours," Garin argued, his voice suddenly thick with unshed tears.
"No, Garin, it is all of ours," Annika said, "you children are my life and if I am to contemplate giving up that life then it becomes as much your choice as mine."
"We want what is best for you," Mischa said, her tears unrestrained.
Annika pulled both their hands to her lips, kissing one and then the other. "I know that." At that moment, as at other time throughout her illness, she thanked the universe for sending these two amazing people into her life. "But you have to help me decide what is best for me."
They all looked towards the innocuous looking device on the table; its slim lines and forgettable colour masking the realities of its potential gift. The gift of a whole new life.
"How can we be sure it's real?" Mischa, the budding scientist, had devoted all her spare time to finding a cure for her mother's ills, but now one had presented itself she found it almost impossible to believe in its existence.
"It's real." The children had only seen echoes, but Annika had experience the full force of the device's gift; images, sounds, memories and feelings that were too complex and troubling to be anything other than real. But it was more than that; she just knew that what had been promised was what was meant to be and the life she had been living a glitch on the order of the universe. That knowledge hadn't made her choice any easier.
"But so is this!" Garin's anger could find no target and soon withered. "It seemed so full of sadness."
"Yes." Annika had been left a heap of uncontrollable sobs as she'd experienced the briefest touch of that other life. So much pain and loss. So many wasted years. "But there was also great hope and a sense of wonder I haven't felt since I was a child and my parents left me to go exploring."
"What about love?" Garin let his tears fall. "Are you loved there as you are here?"
"No." The pain of being unloved, possibly even unlovable, had been deep in her other self. "I don't think I could ever feel as loved as I do when I'm with the two of you. You're both a part of my heart in a way my other self could never even dream."
"Does she have no one?" Mischa's heart ached. This other woman, as much as she was a stranger, was also their mother and she couldn't bare to think of her mother alone and unloved.
Annika was quiet a moment before a smile transformed her worn face. "She is in love." The emotions she'd felt from that other life had been confusing, their clarity at times astonishing and at others clouded in a mist of doubt. "She just doesn't realise it yet."
Mischa could not help but smile at her mother's look of wonder. "And does this person love her back?"
"I don't know." Annika had thought Malik loved her, but his devotion had quickly faded in light of her reality. His declarations and promises as transient as the winds across the Sahara. Yet for some reason she held out hope for her other self; the strange young woman she might have become showing a sense of judgement in matters of the heart that she had never mastered. "I think, maybe, they have a chance."
"Is he good enough for you?"
Annika laughed at her son's protective instincts. "She is a fine and honourable woman," heat rose to her cheeks as she remembered some of her other self's thoughts, "and extremely pretty."
"Does..." Mischa's voice trailed off as she tried desperately to suppress her jealousy, but an encouraging look from her mother forced the words from her lips. "Does she have any children?"
"No." Annika closed her eyes. All the talk of that other life had seduced her into forgetting what she would be giving up if she accepted this second chance. "I will refuse the gift."
"Wait!" Garin looked at his sister. They had talked long into the night and during that time had at last admitted some of the truths they had previously refused. Their mother was dying. Hair that should have been the colour of sunlight had dulled into an indistinguishable grey; eyes that once sparkled with intelligence and whit were now clouded by pain. In a matter of months they would be saying their last goodbyes. "It would keep you alive."
"But I would lose you."
"No." Mischa knew that the essence of the gift was to change one moment in time, from which all subsequent moments would originate. That Annika would join her parents on their trip and begin a whole new life that would end with her becoming Seven of Nine; a woman who had never even heard of Mischa and Garin or cared whether they lived or died. She knew all that but she refused to believe it. "You can never lose us. Even if we cannot remember your face, you will always be in here," she tapped her chest just above where her heart was beating furiously, "always."
Annika couldn't speak. Six years ago she had met two troublesome teenagers who promised to make her life a misery with their hormones and petty jealousies. Six years of squabbles, laughter and more love than her heart could contain. How could she give that up? "I don't know if I'm strong enough to leave you."
They had discussed this, each knowing that their mother would be unable to leave them, willing to sacrifice her chance at life for the memory of them. They could not let her die for them. "Then think of us," Garin began.
"Because I know that we are not strong enough to watch you die," Mischa finished.
Annika doubted that, they were the strongest people she had ever met, but they were still only children. How could she make them face that? How could she blight their young lives with so much grief? Malik would try to console them but they would push him farther and farther away until there was no way he could come back into their lives. They would be alone. "I'm scared."
"So are we." Garin reached for his sister's hand and laid them gently against their mother's lap. There was no more they could say, the gift would either be accepted or refused, and life would go forward. It was only a matter of deciding its path.
The morning sun shone in through the window, its promise of warmth sending a shiver through Annika's body; no matter what her decision mornings like this would soon be lost to her. "Seven is such a curious name, but for some reason I kind of like it."
Garin and Mischa smiled.
Annika released her hold on their hands, her palms cradling tear stained cheeks for the final time. "I will see you again," she promised. "I love you both."
"We love you," they echoed.
With trembling hands Annika reached for the device, the sight of her weeping children the last image she saw before her world became anew.
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