AUTHOR'S NOTE: "Star Trek: Picard", the characters, and situations depicted were created for CBS All Access by Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer, and Alex Kurtzman. This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: All episodes until 1x10

The slow walk to a better life
By asianscaper


Chapter 4: The Forked Road

Maybe she was stricken with grief. The feeling was familiar, a shroud that fell around her, opaque and heavy. Guilt sat like a stone in her stomach. She felt the fingers of her right hand clench over the ghost of a horgl and felt a sharp desire for a breath of snakeleaf that would have helped her lift these weights even for a short time.

Instead, she concentrated on the feeling of Elnor's hand on her shoulder, on his high, young voice, filled with an old wisdom from years of waiting and contemplation with the Qowat Milat.

"Stay with me, Raffi," the boy said. "Eyes forward."

She nodded, letting him lead her with his arm around her.

In front of them, Tam and Picard pushed an anti-gravity sled with Seven's lifeless body between them, walking briskly through corridors of dark, geometric tritanium. The walls of the Artifact glowed green past thin filigrees of metal, seemingly closing in as Raffi huddled closer to Elnor's side.

"Breathe," Elnor said.

Elnor's command prompted her to fumble for a Vulcan technique. She tried to control her intake of air but she found it harder and harder to concentrate as she watched Seven's lips turn a sickening shade of light blue.

"J-L," she warned.

Both Picard and Tam glanced at Seven. They quickened their pace to a jog.

"I hope we're the only other people who know about this room," Picard said.

Tam's eyes flashed. "Hugh passed on this knowledge to me. Seven has been the only other queen to this Cube."

Raffi huffed, "Where are we going?"

They rounded a corner and Picard's delayed answer was even more vague. "Somewhere Seven probably didn't ever want to go back to."

Tam's words were more assertive. "We have no choice. The Cube will heal her, no matter what her injuries are. She was queen to this Cube before; it will insist that she be queen again, and alive."

"She's going to assimilate every drone on this ship."

"The few that have remained. Would you rather she died?" Tam challenged.

Picard was quiet. Elnor uttered a soft, "No. I'll miss her."

Alarmed, Raffi found her tone rising. "Can someone tell me what's going on?"

She felt Elnor tighten his arm around her. She glanced sideways at him and could see from his determined expression that he had been here before under different circumstances.

She seemed to be the only one in the dark and as they traversed a long, tritanium-laden corridor, it felt like the earth was constantly shifting under Raffi's feet. She looked ahead to where a T-intersection veered off in two directions.

She glanced back at Seven, at the display monitoring her life signs, and Raffi knew there was barely any time left. She refrained from informing her companions, their eyes dead set on the walls lining the junction.

As soon as they arrived, Tam reached out with a hand at a nondescript portion of the wall in front of them. The black mineral began to shift, squares and rectangles lifting and sinking, then moving aside to reveal a room on the other side.

Raffi was too tired to be surprised, her nerves frayed. They hurried to the middle of the room, which was raised on a platform.

Picard commented, "Agnes assured me that her optical implant wasn't damaged."

"Good." Tam was unfazed. "All we need is for most of her brain function and for her memories to be intact."

Their attention fell on Raffi. Once again, she felt untethered by some unspoken pact among Tam, Picard, and Elnor.

"Why am I here?"

"This is the Cube's queen cell," Picard explained, reverting to an Admiral's tone he reserved for panicked crew. When the Cube establishes its connection to Seven, she will be assimilated by its vast but nonetheless cut-off hive mind. It will fasten her consciousness to all the other drones in suspension."

He closed his eyes, as though consulting a recent memory. "Our presence will give Seven the strength to recover." When he opened his eyes again, he was looking at her, assured. "More importantly, because she will be tied to the ship unconscious, it will give her the strength to come back to us, not as Queen or Borg, but as Seven of Nine."

He nodded at Tam. "Ready."

They pushed Seven to lie on her side. Tam stepped away and onto the platform, bringing up green holographic controls. With speed on the holograms that Raffi could barely follow, Tam enticed the Cube with this new, unconscious quarry.

"Locutus!" Tam warned.

Picard stepped back as long, metallic tendrils slid from the ceiling and floor. Serpent-like, their spiked heads searched the immediate space. As soon as they brushed against Seven's body, they slithered to her shoulders and sought her spine. Five of them forced the connection, punching through Seven's clothing and the skin of her back, dragging her bodily from the sled like a rag doll, and then suspending her body a foot from the floor.

Tam manipulated a few more of the controls and then turned to watch the results of her work.

Once again crucified in a Borg queen cell, Seven groaned as her face crumpled into a rictus of pain, her blonde hair plastered to her temples. Her body writhed in the air, hands clenched in fists as though trying to escape the grasp of an unseen intruder.

After a few, punishing seconds, the jerking motions stopped. The colour returned to her lips, but when she opened her eyes, they were unseeing and pitch black.

"We are the Borg," she mouthed, the sound coming out unrecognisable, lifeless and an aggregate of several, slaved voices.

Raffi choked down a sob.

In all her conversation with Seven, Raffi knew that this was inimical to everything Seven wanted for herself. They had thrown her into a sea to drown in a past, which she chose to rise above every single day.

Raffi pulled away from Elnor and before anyone could protest, she took Seven's hand in her own.

"Seven," she urged.

The woman turned to her, blinking, her infinite eyes forced to see beyond the press of thousands against a Borg Queen's consciousness.

"Raffaela Musiker," Seven said. This time, she spoke with a singular voice that trembled, struggling amidst the Borg in her.

To Raffi's immediate surprise, Seven was gentle, her fingers tangling around Raffi's in a gesture both familiar and intimate.

But something was warring inside Seven. Her chapped lips moved without sound, a frown of concentration gathering her brows. Seven squeezed her eyelids shut, grunting as the pained, human part of her convulsed against the jerky articulations of an anesthetized machine.

Raffi tightened her grasp, watched as Seven fought from sinking into a tarry bog of apathy.

Raffi knew its shores. Hung on snakeleaf, she visited it often, hoping to be desensitised with immobility. It was a conflict Raffi had lost far too many times at Vasquez Rocks, nurtured in a decrepit greenhouse surrounded by desert.

But Seven was stronger than most people Raffi knew, and Seven's hunger to feel and to possess her own mind was primal. It overtook every stretch of muscle in Seven's body. In the way Seven reached outwards, nearly dropping Raffi's hand, her palms outstretched.

"No!" Seven screamed, defiant, tears leaking from her eyes. Her hands curled into fists, mutinous.

The machinery attached to her flagged, lowering her before they straightened, reanimated by something other than the compulsion to assimilate.

Seven gasped, gulping air, and then they all knew that the hive mind had retreated.

For a moment, Seven's gaze was a solid but listless blue, reserved only for her.

"Raffi," she whispered before her body finally slumped, unconscious.

Raffi's vision blurred, her eyes watering.

"What have you put her through?" she asked in a tortured whisper.

Tam's gaze flickered to Elnor and Picard. A thread seemed to tie them together, experiences shared and unvoiced.

It was Picard who spoke, "What anyone would under the circumstances to save a life." There was a near-imperceptible shake of his head, a minute regret before Elnor put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He seemed to wake up from his reverie and said, "Likely the same choice she would've made to save ours."

Raffi still held Seven's hand, which trembled at intervals as though she was in a deep sleep and examining every injection of thought from the Cube.

Tam touched Raffi's arm. "She's recovering," the xB reassured, taking a deep breath as she studied the flow of information on the queen cell's display. Relief softened Tam's brow but only by a little bit. "It can be a bit of a shock, but the Cube will obey its queen's whims."

"Her whims?"

"Well." Tam gave her a meaningful look. Though Tam frowned more from concentration now than actual stress, Raffi appreciated the calm she tried to assert in her voice, "She'll come back to you, of that I'm sure."

Raffi laughed wetly, unbelieving. She spared a sad glance at Picard, who tried to reassure her with a fragile smile, then wiped away the water sitting on her cheeks.

"One can hope, Tam," she said. She turned her attention back to Seven, realising with such bad timing that Seven had dug a place in Raffi's heart, all without her noticing.

The starship moved on a perceptible course, skimming over brown continents and bodies of water. Gazing at the view port behind the desk, he watched Coppelius' curvature glow with a thin halo of blue, a bright jewel against the vast black of space.

Cristóbal Rios snapped back to attention just as Axi Ridor offered him a cup of coffee.

He was seated opposite to the Paine's captain in her ready room, a familiar but uncomfortable enough position from his time as a subordinate in the USS ibn Majid that he squirmed in his seat. He opted to cross his legs in an act of quiet defiance and mostly, to prevent his leg from jumping up and down, restless.

Today, he wasn't the captain's second-in-command. Instead, he was a guest.

Once more looking at his PADD, he dropped it on his lap. "Is this a hunt for a murderer or a rescue mission?"

Hurt and anger pinched Axi Ridor's mouth as she said, "It's both. I've known Bran Lekkie since he was an ensign but a crime like this cannot be left unpunished."

Rios couldn't keep the sympathy from his voice. "I think we're both relieved it wasn't a Tal Shiar spy."

"I miscalculated," Axi admitted. "He was clever to use a Romulan weapon but the last thing the Romulan Free State needs is another open conflict to fragment what remains of their people. The Tal Shiar likely exacerbated this one but definitely didn't cause it. The Federation has suffered through enough bad press in the last few years since the Mars attacks; an operator acting on behalf of homegrown terrorists --a Starfleet officer with ties to the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yard! --could very well unravel the rest of its reputation."

"The Federation has no jurisdiction in Coppelius," Rios pointed out. "And your man is hiding in the vicinity of the Borg Cube. I can't promise you anything, not with Tam or Seven in charge."

"They'd be willing to risk Coppelius' membership to the Federation and brave the Qiris' sector's more shady characters?"

His earlier conversation with Soji Asha and Altan Inigo Soong was surprisingly supportive. They exuded a solidarity that wasn't there before Raffi agreed to being the xB's representative. He got the distinct impression Raffi had somehow forged an ironclad lateral relationship between the Synths and the ex-Borg within a week. A week! He nearly rolled his eyes in silent admiration.

Axi Ridor had been right to be apprehensive about Raffi Musiker leading the xB's offensive for equal representation in the negotiations.

Rios reached for the coffee and drank, giving himself time to form his words. His mouth was also dry; the last thing he needed was for Raffi to castigate him on his awful choices.

"Remember, Captain Ridor. Coppelius has Synth and Borg technology everyone would pay a premium for. Coppelius would have preferred to side with a more reliable ally, but not at the expense of its current unification."

Axi turned a darker shade of blue. "Understandable. Please apprise me of the situation. I'd like to be able to recover our man and mete justice as the Federation sees fit but," she breathed through her mouth, unsteady, "seeing as the treaty has not been signed, I will respect Coppelius' sovereignty on this occasion."

Rios could tell that the other captain was unconvinced and not for the first time that day, he wished Raffi was present. Nodding, he rose to shake Axi's hand.

"Until next time," he said, letting loose a lopsided grin.

"If the gods allow," Axi said, gripping his hand with more strength than was proper. "You ex-Starfleet are forces to be reckoned with, acting outside Federation strictures. I truly hope there won't be a next time after this treaty has finally been signed."

Rios took back his hand, massaging it as he smiled sweetly. "Ditto, Captain Ridor. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Raffi watched as Rios' particles reassembled near the Artifact's entrance. He beamed widely at her after he materialised fully, looking relieved that he had finished his latest assignment. He approached Raffi with his arms outstretched and she immediately accepted his embrace, grateful for his comfort.

They had been friends since their Academy days. Raffi had known since that first, visceral introduction, when she stood up to a roving gang in Starfleet reds bent on beating Rios into the next semester, that she could trust Rios with her life. Since then, he had saved her from every nefarious secret she'd ever expected to come back and bite her, including Picard and his appetite for saving the galaxy. Today, he'd spared her from meeting with Axi Ridor when Raffi was running on less than empty.

She muttered into his shirt, "It wasn't a Tal Shiar spy. The Romulans wouldn't be that stupid."

Rios seemed to be distracted, pushing her to arm's length and studying her for a hint of something. "Have you finally slept?" he asked.

At his question, she felt her body begin a litany of fatigue that began with her legs, her arms, her shoulders, and her head where a throbbing headache began to intensify.


Rios' expression softened as he led her closer to the entrance, "Raff, you really need to rest."

She pulled them to a stop. "I...I can't."

He attempted another angle, "Look, you can't do more for Seven if you're about to collapse. And I really don't want to meet another Starfleet captain in person if I can avoid it."

Raffi narrowed her eyes at him and poked his chest. "I can see what you're trying to do and it's not going to work."

"But I'm serious!" For the first time since the attack, Rios shed his cool, Captain's demeanour and sounded exasperated. "Listen, Raff. You were right."

"I am?"

He projected information from his PADD, de-classified communiques from the USS Thomas Paine, as well as the results of the last sentiment analysis Emmet had run.

"The man who did it is...was Starfleet." He flicked his hand and the picture of someone human came into view, stolid in his yellow Starfleet uniform, two lieutenant pips pinned on his collar. He was unremarkable enough, with the pale features of a Martian native and a mouth forced into a passive line. Except, Raffi recognised an old hurt in his eyes. Sometimes, she saw the same hurt when she stood in front of a mirror, signs of a wound that couldn't heal.

Watching Raffi's expression, Rios became more sympathetic, "Name's Bran Lekkie. His parents were engineers on the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards when the Synths malfunctioned. He had been away for a school trip off-planet when it happened; practically watched Mars burn from space." He pushed the information to Raffi's PADD, which she retrieved from her thin jacket in order to follow his short report."

Rios paced the narrative to what she could read in Lekkie's file. "That's most of his dossier. He entered Starfleet four years later, participated in a few anti-Synth protests with fellow Martians, not enough to get into trouble. He probably got hold of Tal Shiar propaganda while he was at it. It was nothing too serious, but he held those connections until it became serious when he got wind of the treaty and that his ship was hosting it. The rest is history."

Rios closed his display, pocketing his PADD. "He went down with parts of the saucer section. God knows if he's dead or alive. The electrical storms have been fucking with everyone's scanners."

"And the good Captain Axi wouldn't dare send an away party without a Coppelius invitation."

"Exactly. I came to tell you the good news myself. Soji insisted the xB's have jurisdiction of a hundred-kilometre radius surrounding the Artifact." He indicated the smoke in the distance. "I'm already assuming Tam sent an away party to check that part of the saucer section out."

Rios looked past Raffi, probably at Tam who had followed Raffi outside and hadn't stopped frowning since they installed Seven in the queen cell.

Rios was unperturbed. "Well, she looks positively put out by the whole thing."

Raffi turned to follow his gaze. Tam studied them for a moment longer, uncrossed her arms, and stepped back inside the Artifact, daring them to follow. Raffi patted Rios' arm. "She's been in a mood. Seven's the closest thing she has to family and one wrong move can dictate the rest of her people's lives. Best to talk to her later."

"I'm really, really hoping she doesn't kill him. Lekkie practically grew up on the Paine and I have a feeling Axi won't appreciate it if we don't bring him back alive."

"But Ridor respects that it's also a local matter."

"To a degree. I think she's familiar with Seven's particular brand of justice and she's afraid Tam's picked up her habits."

Rios flinched at his own words and they were both brought back to that moment when they realized Seven had left La Sirena to exact revenge on Bjayzl and her men. The aftermath was a torrent of chatter on the subspace channels, and not a few mercenary fobs for several hundred thousand credits to anyone who was able to catch or kill the perpetrator of the carnage.

It was fortunate Freecloud was non-aligned, that its authorities didn't interfere with business' or the Rangers' affairs, and that Bjayzl didn't have many friends. The heat died down eventually. But its continual effects included an increase in the constant, low level buzz surrounding Seven of Nine's notoriety in the Qiris sector.

Most of the time it was convenient. Sometimes it was not.

Rios sighed. "We all know the consequences if Tam doesn't take the high road. Federation sentiment for Coppelius will be less than positive and it will be harder for Axi and Starfleet to intercede on the xB's behalf or to change the tide of public opinion."

They stared at the Artifact's entrance, at the yawning array of choices that could shift the xB's future and even their own.

"Thanks for playing diplomat," Raffi finally said.

"You did all the pre-work, superstar."

"Thanks." Raffi chuckled. "I'm just glad you're here. Just in time for dinner."

"Oh good!" Rios was too easily distracted when the discussion was edging on dire. His smile was all teeth, gleeful. "I keep hearing about this adobo and I can't wait."

For the first time in the last twenty-four hours, Raffi laughed, full-bellied in a way that was cathartic. She leaned against Cris, his arm reaching around her. It felt a lot like being given permission. Raffi felt a deep exhaustion seep from her muscles right into her bones and she relaxed against Rios' side.

She looked sideways at his happy expression, at how it lit up even more when Agnes Jurati emerged from one of the tents surrounding the Artifact.

The two lovers embraced, Rios kissing Agnes' forehead. She waved a greeting at Raffi, which she returned. After a while, Rios tucked Agnes under his other arm while the other woman narrated the day's events, leading them both to the communal area where big pots boiled over wood fires.

Perhaps Raffi would get some sleep tonight. After all, she thought, she could let her guard down when there was no one to stab her in the back and would sleep better with friends.

Raffi could have waited a few hours for Seven's condition to change, for her to come back to consciousness, but there was very little to watch out for; most of the work was done. Elnor all but chased her from the room, insisting that she re-join the others and relax.

Watching as Agnes and Rios retired for the evening, Raffi picked up her second cup of coffee, sighing as she warmed her hands and savoured the aroma of dark cocoa and fruit. She welcomed the cooler air of dusk, her mind shedding some of its worries at the sight of the open sky, which dashed thin strands of blood orange and violet across a darkening horizon. She sequestered herself to a table that could sit only two and deposited her folded jacket on the opposite chair to broadcast that she didn't want company.

Unsurprisingly, Tam joined her without permission, draping the jacket on the chair so she could take the seat. She wasn't gentle with her own hot beverage either and dropped it ceremoniously between them, causing Raffi to jump.

Sitting with arms bracketing her steaming mug of tea, the younger woman stared at the space between them, seemingly unwilling to move.

Raffi said, "Was there something you needed?"

Tam blinked, her brown eyes lifting to meet Raffi's. "I can have him executed. I can say that this is how xB's treat criminals, how we eliminate threats."

Raffi took the mug that had been half way to her mouth and slowly put it back on the table.

"He would not be the exception if that's to become the rule of law," Raffi said, keeping her tone neutral, although curiosity and uncertainty brought a hand to the back of her neck, rubbing at the slowly tensing muscles there.

Tam grinded her jaw. "I can bury him in the desert and no one would find out."

"I'm well aware you can, Tam. But you would know, and I don't really want to spell out the consequences of something like that on your or the xBs' conscience."

Tam's eyes narrowed at her before she huffed, leaning backwards in an effort to distance herself from the conversation and to think.

"I can see why she likes you."

Raffi chose that moment to sip her coffee, if only to hide her own aggrieved expression.

She thought that there were many things to figure out between Seven and her, but after the incident, she'd realized that only one thing did --it was whether this was something they both wanted. Unanimously, they did.

The past, they can handle together. She could see it in the way they danced with the ghosts of memory and regret, offering each other's hand for support.

Neither cowered from the complication of the present, from their interminable flaws, and more importantly, from the strength they inspired in each other. The path to a future always depended on their ability to navigate the boundless now; Seven's quiet encouragement and pragmatism extended to Raffi's present concerns.

How could one ask more from a friend? Or a lover?

She nearly sobbed again, except she would've choked on her food. She put aside her drink, frustrated.

Tam was staring at the space above Raffi's head, far away. "I like to think I know what she'd want me to do."

"We...don't know what she would've wanted," Raffi admitted, reminded of the enormity of emotion that lurked beneath Seven's exterior --how parts of Seven's past were inaccessible to her because Seven's lived experience as Borg, as someone who had been robbed of her autonomy, was vastly different. Just as Raffi's own unique experiences as a human who grew up on a near-utopian Earth were foreign to Seven in return.

"I was lucky to have been taken from the Tombaugh at eighteen."

Raffi quirked her lips, her meal forgotten. "I think it was unlucky to have been taken at all."

"No, I meant in the context of being able to remember who I had been before, what I had stood for." Tam closed her eyes, took a few breaths as though to centre herself. She opened them again, the softness dissolving into cold, Borg passivity. "I don't know if I'd choose my humanity every time, Raffi. He would've destroyed everything my people have worked so hard to achieve. What's to stop me from saying that we want nothing of mercy, and that justice is brutal and swift in Coppelius instead?"

"Honestly? Nothing."

"Ah, so this is true power." Her voice was alarmingly toneless.

In any other circumstance, with any other leader who knew they could promulgate justice (or injustice) in the way they desired, gloating would have been warranted.

Raffi sighed, suddenly very weary. "Whether we like it or not, our destiny is tied to the Federation. And whether or not they realize it, their fate as a government is inexplicably tied to your own as xB's and Synths. Injustice in the Federation is a threat to justice everywhere, just as it will be here."

To Raffi's relief, Tam's face filled out with the expressivity of her human heritage, and the first impression was of quiet, pained realisation.

Tam said, "So. Our ability to move freely, to cease to be victims, and to be given back our dignity; these aren't possible without systemic change here in this quadrant and in others. No organisation but the Federation has that reach."

Raffi sighed, "If you give this Bran Lekkie the opportunity, he can destroy so much more than just the xB's opportunities."

"No," Tam said, this time meeting Raffi's gaze with calm vehemence. "This particular choice will be entirely ours. I won't let him take that away from my people."

Raffi reached out to put a hand over Tam's arm. "You're learning fast, kid."

Tam met her gaze. She was too young, Raffi thought, and had matured so quickly.

So much time was spent in the Artifact under the Romulan's authoritarian control. Coppelius' liberation from decades-long, systemic discrimation deepened her understanding of the galaxy's inequities even more.

Now, Raffi was sure this young woman did not want to age another year under the present status quo, but to navigate change was already difficult. To instigate it even more so.

"I used to have the Federation, the Borg, and then Hugh," Tam said. "Now, I like to think I'm surrounded by even better mentors and a harsher teacher in experience." Her laugh was chillingly grim. "It is hard, Raffi, to change something like the Federation from within. I'd rather spite it and leave."

"Then no one else will be better for it."

"Yes. But then Bran Lekkie would be dead and I would've had my revenge."

Tortured, Tam put her head in her hands and Raffi reached for her, rubbing a hand on her back.

"Honey," Raffi whispered, consoling, "as with anything, change starts from within."

Not for the first time, Raffi felt like she was watching her child learn to walk, hoping that with every stumble and fall, she'd get up again. All Raffi could do was offer the best advice, provide a mirror, and force a confrontation of the issue. Ultimately, the xB's would have to forge a path themselves and in Raffi's experience, people on both sides of the fence didn't always choose what was right or what would benefit the galaxy.

Sometimes the price of freedom was perceived to be too steep. After all, an oppressor never returned the freedom it had taken without some sort of struggle.

It should have been unnerving to enter the queen cell. Severe, geometric shapes covered the walls as though squares had been neatly stacked then covered in black tar to dry. The incessant green glow didn't care if it was the day or night cycle outside, neither brightening nor dimming as it remained completely apathetic to the presence of anyone in the room. All around them, the Cube's self-repairing machinery hummed on its eternal march.

Instead, Raffi's eyes were set on Seven, who was still suspended by the metal limbs driven into her back. Seeing that Seven's demeanour was indolent but peaceful, Raffi felt all the strain rush from her body.

She found Elnor seated cross-legged on one of two small cots nearby, just as relaxed. He was in the middle of a meditation, his sword on his lap and his sharp Romulan features flat and serene.

Raffi approached Seven, reached to touch her hand. It was warmer than it had been earlier today.

Seven had suffered a great deal of damage to her Borg implants from the explosion, enough that even her organic parts were beginning to fail. Raffi could remember the moment her guts turned to ice when she entered the med bay, the displays flashing red over Seven's body, and then realising only later that she was shouting at Emil to let her in.

Emil's eyes widened, gesturing wildly at Elnor to keep her at bay. But beneath his concentration, she could tell that he was watching her with as much concern as he afforded Seven as he tried to keep her stable.

Agnes Jurati, a tricorder over Seven's forehead and oblivious to everyone, looked like she was at a terrible loss, her lower lip trembling. The Borg technological paradigm would have been entirely different to Synth, invasive and discordant. The look she gave Raffi was apologetic and Elnor knew to tighten his grip on her as she fought to go to Seven's side.

"Raffi, I really need you to sit down," Emil said, jabbing another hypospray into Seven's neck. "You aren't helping!"

Elnor pushed her into a chair, a hand on her shoulder to keep her in place. Raffi's stomach lurched everytime Seven's heart shuddered towards flatlining. By the time Emil stepped back, harrowing minutes later, Seven's vital signs were edging on yellow.

Tam, Elnor, and Picard transferred her to a gravity sled and took her to the transporter room, Raffi following in a daze.

Rios met them there and looked very close to wringing his hands. "Is this going to work?"

"With Raffi, it very well might," Tam said.

Rios' eyes widened with a demand when he looked at Tam and Picard. He nearly lifted a finger at the former Admiral but stopped mid-way.

With his attention fixed on Raffi, he told the whole party instead, "You take care of these two and get them back in one piece."

These two. When there had been five of them on the platform.

She hadn't known what he meant until now, as Elnor opened his eyes to watch her and Seven. In Rios' mind, Raffi and Seven could probably run La Sirena unassisted just on nav and ops. He would have also been right.

"Rios will be relieved," Elnor commented. He paused to consider his own feelings. "I am, too."

"Oh yeah?" Raffi said in a tired whisper as she moved to sit on the cot next to him. She indicated Seven with a nod. "How's she doing?"

"Tam's certain Seven's nanoprobes can finish the job of repairing the rest of her Borg implants sometime tonight. We'll need to move her to your quarters when she's able to disengage from the Cube." She opened her mouth to protest but he continued with calm insistence, "Her room is a glorified stock room and anyway, yours is more equipped for recovery." He studied her for a moment longer. She knew instantly that his next words were entirely about her, "And we can all sleep a bit better."

Sighing, she removed her boots and jacket and lay on the cot, situating herself sideways so she could watch Seven. Her blonde hair falling over her face, Seven maintained a small frown of concentration as though recuperation was a deliberate act.

"When did you guys get so close?" Raffi asked.

Elnor leaned towards her to deposit a small chip on the pillow in front of her. "She gave me this Fenris SOS chip. I used it."

"And she came for you," Raffi said, unable and unwilling to hide her awe as she brought the chip up to the light.

"Despite everything, yes. I owe her my life." Elnor's tone dropped, reaching into parts of him that had once been hurt --by Picard and perhaps, even by others in his life who should have been there to raise him as a proper Romulan boy. "I want to be able to keep my promises the way she keeps hers."

Raffi closed her eyes, curling her fingers over the chip. It was curative to bask in this light after wandering in the dark labyrinths of her psyche. Elnor, all the good in him, didn't want to perpetuate the same pain on anyone else.

"Good for you, kid," she said, her throat tightening as she remembered Gabe's own earnestness at a more tender age.

When she returned the Fenris SOS chip to Elnor's outstretched hand, he was smiling softly at her, his expression eager. "You're very lucky, you know."

She chuckled, apprehensive. "I have no idea what you mean."

"Seven really likes you."

Blushing, she pushed herself up on her elbows. "Elnor," she reprimanded gently. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, everything," Elnor said, lowering his head as he clasped his hands together. "I haven't found anyone else who fights harder for me than I'd ever fight for myself." He sighed, lying down on his own cot with his gaze on the ceiling, pensive and sure. "Seven's that kind of person."

She considered him for several seconds. "Sometimes I wonder if I deserve…"

Elnor interjected, mimicking her reprimand with a tone that seemed far more mature than he let on, "You give yourself too little credit, Raffi. If there's anyone else on the ship whose promises deserve to be'd be the ones made to you."

Her smile came unbidden, threatening to widen, and she lay back down in an effort to hide it. "Thanks Elnor."

"You're welcome," he said, matter-of-fact.

He yawned then wriggled for a more comfortable position in his makeshift bed. It was shocking that he had so little care in such a foreign room but his story and the actions leading up to bringing Raffi here, spoke of a previous situation. It had called for absolute trust in the queen cell's functions and in Seven's ability to control them.

Before Raffi could even wonder at the desperation Elnor and Seven had gone through together to precipitate such a trip, Elnor was snoring softly.

Raffi turned her attention back to Seven, her eyelids heavy. "Well, you both seem comfortable enough," she whispered, just as she drifted into her first, dreamless sleep in days.

As part of the Collective, she was never truly unconscious, never truly unhearing or unfeeling even as her nanoprobes jittered to new life. She was remarkably more. Every mind connected to an unexploited alcove was hers, every limb was one she could move towards a directive, every eye an aid for her next plan.

It took an extraordinary act of will to associate her mind with her frail, human body, pulling at strings and tying them together into a single point in the queen cell.

She recognised a few minutes later that the Cube had set her back on the anti-gravity sled. Lying sideways, she opened her eyes and found Raffi sleeping peacefully on an adjacent cot, not even a metre away. Warmth flooded Seven's chest and the insistent demands of human emotion brought her even more into the present.

She tried to move but groaned at the pain from where the Cube had sought its connection with her. Her back felt like she had been beaten into submission.

The noise woke Raffi, but not Elnor, who had the uncanny ability to sleep through a crisis when there were others to carry the burden.

Seven tried to gesture at the surroundings, failing when her hand flopped uselessly beside her. "What am I doing here?"

"They put you here," Raffi accused. Her eyes seemed puffy from recent tears and her voice was throaty.

"It must have been for a good reason," Seven tried to guess, daring to tease with a close-lipped smile. She attempted to lift a shoulder and grimaced, the Cube's appendages shuddering against her back and communicating the Collective's displeasure. "I feel like I've been run over by a freighter."

Raffi's expression was troubled. "Something like that. Probably worse. You were caught in an explosion and that part of the saucer section fell planet-side."

"Ah. Sounds serious." Seven looked inward, into the cold order of the Collective and into visual archives where the Cube caught a defence orchid in its sensors and tracked a blazing piece of starship as it fell towards earth. Although queen-less at the time, its collective consciousness, some of it attached to a few hundred drones, had hoarded an ocean of data, which the Cube channeled into a bland stream of decision-points that filled Seven's mind.

Seven honestly did not have the energy to delve into the minutiae but with a cursory touch against the Cube's larger sensors, she could feel the USS Thomas Paine hovering above, the prickle of its emergency force fields skittering across her skin and telling her that it was functional but crippled.

The Cube seemed self-satisfied with this, possessive of its surroundings, only slightly concerned at the distant folding of warp space where another Federation ship was racing to aid the Paine.

Seven pulled back to the queen cell, allowing Raffi's scolding tone to anchor her to her body. "Tam's been on a rampage."

The ex-Borg kept her expression deadpan but her heart roiled with misgivings. "She'll bring the perpetrator back. Are they Starfleet? Or Tal Shiar?"

Raffi blinked, surprised. "Starfleet."

"Then Axi Ridor will want him alive. Tam was a junior Starfleet lieutenant on the Tombaugh and if it wasn't a matter of principle, she would have reclaimed her Federation citizenship long ago. She won't risk bringing back a corpse if she can help it."

Raffi peered at her, an odd, searching look which was deceivingly soft beneath her light brown curls. "You seem very sure."

"I'd like to think I've impressed more of Janeway on her than my recent missteps."

Again, her look was curious. "Kathryn Janeway," Raffi said, a subtle inquiry.

Seven didn't offer any more information, her chest suddenly tight. Raffi watched her visibly swallow emotions and words.

There was too much history between her former captain and Seven, very personal reasons as to why Kathryn hadn't sought her out after learning she had joined the Rangers. Kathryn would have taken it as a betrayal or worse, a rejection of everything she had imparted to her protege. And if she had heard about Icheb or the resulting violence at Freecloud at all...well.

Seeing Seven's discomfort, Raffi was careful not to venture any further into the subject. Instead, she offered, "I'm told you're staying in my room."

"With you?" Seven asked.

Seven didn't even try to keep the eagerness from her voice. Something about her connection to the Cube, its dispassionate and slightly unhinged inclinations, made her inhibitions shaky. The Collective in the Artifact was a peculiar extension, a limb made of hundreds of intelligences threaded into a single tapestry of perfection, bending her spectrum of desires to fit into the Borg blueprint.

It made her feel infinitely powerful, present in a multiple of ways. With it, she could feel the immense complication of transwarp conduits, the eddy in her senses as planets fell into their stars' gravity wells, and the urgent stirrings of technology the Cube was inclined to taste.

The Cube gave her the computational power to make any number of decisions, to assign probabilities to an endless array of possible situations, and the god-like ability to choose with tranquil but brutal certainty.

But the price? Assimilation, uniformity, a complete lack of context or framing from an individual's origin, gender, race, or creed --it was perfection at the steepest of costs.

Still, the yearning for the uncomplicated single-mindedness of the Collective was as tempting as it had been since she had first been severed.

Her drones took that one breath with her. And another. And another…

With every breath, guilt throbbed in her chest at having leveraged their freedoms for yet another chance at life.

As though to admonish her, the Cube showed her the earlier conversations between Tam and Picard, the silent assent from Elnor, and the hopeful disorientedness that radiated from Raffi.

To Tam, Picard, and Elnor, this would not have been much of a choice. Picard's voice was loud and sure in the echo chamber of her doubts, Likely the same choice she would've made to save ours.

"You arranged that room for me," Raffi said, once again bringing her back to their conversation. "The least I could do is share it with you." Her cheeks darkened. "I can always sleep on the couch."

"Nonsense. The bed's big enough."

Seven focused on Raffi's eyes, at the flecks of dark brown which held in them a softness that tempted Seven to delve deeper into the human concept of vulnerability, even as she remained connected to a machine.

Raffi nodded to the Cube's connection from the ceiling to her spine. "Are you okay?"

"I'm feeling much better. Close to 89 percent, if not for the obvious bruising this will give me."

With a forceful exhale and before she could think about it any more, Seven severed the connection to the Cube. The Collective screamed its dissent, but just as she had cut off other limbs in her life --Starfleet, Bjayzl, places and people that had caused her immense pain and conflict --her disassociation was swift and ferocious.

She grunted with pain as the metal attachments retracted. Raffi reached out to support her.

"I don't think you should walk yet," she said as Seven struggled to sit up.

"Good thing we have an anti-grav sled," Seven replied, failing to keep the sarcasm from her voice before pain shot from her back to her arms, making her groan.

The screens monitoring her were a cheery, persistent green but she felt like she had gone a few rounds against a large, scaly Voth...and had lost, horribly.

Raffi pursed her lips, pushing her back into a lying position. "You were dying not twenty four hours ago and gave us all a scare. You can suffer a few more hours lying down while Elnor and I take you to my quarters."

They stared at each other, Seven feeling only slightly defiant before the pain against her spine told her to acquiesce.


"Are you always this stubborn?" Raffi chided.

"Yes. But you're very convincing, Musiker."

Seven closed her eyes, the exhaustion suddenly unbearable as she sank deeper into the warm padding of the anti-grav sled. She felt a gentle hand on her forearm and basked in its comfort as it distracted her from the agony stomping over her back like so many violent, Voth feet.

"Just rest, Seven. We've got you."

She submitted to her fatigue, comforted by Raffi's voice as she woke Elnor up and guided the sled away from the queen cell --farther and farther away from so many of Seven's deep-seated regrets.

Part 5

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