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The boy lay on the grassy hillside, the back of his head cradled in the roots of the old poplar tree, staring up into the infinite nighttime sky. Below him, the entire valley seemed asleep, with only a few scattered lights coming from the windows of its farmhouses and villages. The near perfect darkness made even the dimmest stars of the Milky Way shine like lighthouse beacons, guiding ship captains on their long journeys across the sea of space.
The boy did not hear the voice coming from the direction of the house at first -- or rather, he chose not to hear it. He didn't want to have to give up this place, this memory frozen in time. He kept his eyes and his imagination fixed on the stars above.
"Jean-Luc!" a second, younger voice called from much closer by, accompanied by the rustling of grass and snap of twigs. The boy's thoughts now fell away from the sky and down to earth. Specifically, he wished for the ground underneath to open up and swallow him, hiding him from the pair looking for him.
But to no avail. "Here you are!" the boy crowed triumphantly, leaping from out of nowhere and landing his heavy work boots on either side of Jean-Luc's waist. "Dreaming again, are you, mon petit frère?" Robert grinned down at him, long dark hair flopping over his eyes. He had always been the bigger of the two brothers, and in the summer of his twelfth year, he had gained a full ten centimeters. "Don't you know what monsters lurk in the dark?"
Robert then let out a roar and fell atop his younger brother. The boy put his arms up to ward off the attack, catching the other in the chest and easily deflecting him. He then rolled in the same direction, seating himself on the bigger boy's stomach and pinning his shoulders to the ground with both hands -- though only momentarily, before their positions reversed again. Arms and legs flailed as they wrestled wildly, his brother laughing as he grabbed his wrists and pinned them to the ground. The boy was surprised to find himself aughing as well, finding the roughhouse play strangely liberating, and he laughed even louder.
"Enough fighting," came the first voice again from just overhead. "There will be no more fighting."
Robert jumped off his brother and went to stand beside his father. "What are you doing out here in the dark, mon garçon?" Maurice Picard asked in a deep, authoritative voice. Despite his bald pate and deeply lined face, prematurely aged by a lifetime tending to the vineyard, his sharp eyes and hawklike nose marked him as a man one did not lightly cross. "Dreaming again?"
"No, Papa," the boy fibbed. "I was just...I couldn't fall asleep, and I..." He hesitated, knowing there was no point in trying to lie; his father knew full well that his younger son did not share his feelings of obligation to tradition, and had no desire to remain forever bound to the place in which he had happened, by chance, to be born. And he knew there was no avoiding his father's disappointment in that regard.
But strangely, his father's scowl fell away, and a broad smile flashed across his weathered face. He lowered himself onto one knee and put a large, calloused hand on the young boy's shoulder. "You need to be true to yourself, Jean-Luc," the older man told him. "What I've given you -- our name, our land, our traditions -- was only a foundation, not a limitation. And no matter where else you go and what else you do, it will always be yours."
The boy smiled, and then threw his arms around his father's neck, hugging him with an entire lifetime of unexpressed emotion. Papa returned the embrace, and after an indeterminable time, they let go and fell back, along with Robert, onto their backs in the grass. The stars looked close enough now that Jean-Luc thought he could reach out and touch them.
"All we're seeing now is old light," Maurice said. "The stars we see are how they appeared years and years ago."
"The past is the past," Robert added. "To know what is now, you have to go out and explore on your own, eh?"
That sounded like a grand idea, Jean-Luc thought as he closed his eyes and continued to dream. A grand idea, indeed...
Picard opened his eyes again, and was surprised to find that the starlit vista above Château Picard had been replaced by a sky of brilliant blue. He was further surprised to realize the figure before him calling his name was not his father or brother, but his wife. Beverly Crusher smiled down at him, standing so that her shadow fell over him, shading his eyes from the brightness of midday. With the sun at her back, she appeared as a classical angel, surrounded by an ephemeral light, her long red tresses like flames as loose strands flew in the breeze. She had no wings, of course, and her rounded, pregnant stomach was also at odds with the traditional depiction of asexual divine messengers, but as far as Jean-Luc Picard was concerned, she was most definitely a heavenly being. "What are you doing out here?" she asked him, amusement in her tone.
"Not napping, certainly," Picard said, grinning up at her as he pushed up into a sitting position. "Only old men doze off in the middle of the day."
"Old men, and exhausted ship's captains," Crusher retorted, smiling back sweetly at him. "You're supposed to be on rest leave, and you need all you can get," she told him.
Picard refrained from contradicting the doctor. They were at his ancestral home in Labarre while the Enterprise was in drydock at McKinley Station, undergoing repairs to the widespread damage it had suffered during the most recent conflict with the Borg. He'd slept little during the crisis, of course, and had operated almost exclusively on adrenaline and sheer willpower when awake.
Despite all that, he did not feel exhausted. What he experienced at the end of the war -- witnessing the dismantling of the Borg collective by the Caeliar, and sharing, in a limited way, the absorption of billions of former drones into the Caeliar gestalt -- relieved him of his fatigue, instead filling him with pure joy as he was finally emancipated from his lingering, fifteen-year link to the Borg.
Beverly lowered herself onto the grass beside her husband. Spring was officially still a few weeks away, but already the world around them was coming back to life in a riot of green. "Though, if you re going to nap," she said as she settled in and leaned backwards against his chest, "you might pick a more comfortable spot for it."
Picard chuckled as he slipped his arms around her and laid his cheek on the top of her head. "This actually has always been my favorite spot on the entire estate," he said. "I would sit or lie here for hours, watching the Paris-bound shuttles by day and the stars by night. Of course, part of that was the fact that, if I lay in just the right position, I couldn't be spotted from the house." He looked back over his shoulder at that house now -- or rather, the house his sister-in-law, Marie, had rebuilt on the original's foundation following the tragic fire that had claimed the lives of Robert and his son, René. It was a near-perfect re-creation; if not for the loss of the roof-high shade trees closest to the house, he would have no trouble imagining himself over a half century back in time. "I had a most curious dream," he mentioned as the nostalgia washed over him again.
Picard nodded. "I was a boy again, lying here, staring up at the stars. My father and brother came looking for me, and when they found me..." Picard paused significantly before continuing, "Father gave me his blessing to leave home, to follow my dreams." He smiled at the marvel of it. "Robert and I were able to reconcile before he died. But Father..." His voice broke momentarily. Beverly shifted her position so that she could look at him directly once he was able to continue. "I was away, on the Stargazer, when he died, and I'd always assumed that, to the end, he stayed as stubborn as he ever was in life." So certain of this was he that, when Q had presented him with a vision of his father during his own near-death experience, Jean-Luc had no trouble accepting bitter, disappointed old man as an accurate representation.
That negative image fell away now. "I feel now, though, that I've finally been given his absolution," Picard told Beverly, smiling again. "That all those old wounds have at long last been healed."
"That's wonderful, Jean-Luc," Beverly said, smiling back. "I know your relationship was troubled for a long time, and I'm glad you've finally found peace with your father's memory." She took one of Picard's hands and placed it on her swollen abdomen. "And I know your experience is going to make you an even better father to our son."
He answered by leaning forward to kiss her mouth. Jean-Luc Picard could not remember another time in his life when he had felt such peace and contentment.
"You know," Beverly said once their lips had parted again, "when you told me just now that you had a curious dream, I thought for a moment you were going to tell me..."
"What?" Picard prompted.
Hesitantly, as if afraid of bringing on a curse, she continued, "...that you dreamed about the Borg again."
Picard blinked in surprise. "Why...?" he began, then stopped. "No, Beverly," he assured her. "The Borg are gone, forever, from here and everywhere."
Crusher nodded, though she clearly did not feel Picard's confidence. "Yes. But...we've thought they were gone before."
Picard sighed. He wished that he could share with her the absolute certainty that had been conveyed to him by the Caeliar -- or whatever they and their newly liberated brethren had now become. All he could do was to look deep into his loved one's eyes and tell her, with all the conviction he could muster, "Beverly, believe me when I tell you: There are no more Borg. They are never coming back. We are all free."
Beverly stared back, and then allowed herself a small smile of relief. "Of course I believe you, Jean-Luc. Always."
Geordi La Forge turned his face up to the equatorial sun high overhead, letting its warmth wash over him. There were still a few weeks left until the rainy season came to this part of the African Confederation, and it was significantly warmer than he was used to on the Enterprise. But he couldn't very well complain about that.
Because, after all...he was home.
From his vantage point atop the metal bleachers bordering the Zefram Cochrane High School athletic field, he could see the Mogadishu skyline to the southeast and -- by virtue of his cybernetic optical implants -- the Indian Ocean beyond. Oldfashioned sailboats drifted lazily on the blue waters that lapped against the pristine white beaches along the Somalian coast. It was hard to believe the city had been largely destroyed in the years between the second and third world wars, and abandoned to rival militias. The ancient port city experienced a renaissance in the late twenty-second century, and was rebuilt in a manner that reflected its long history as a major trade center, using the most modern architectural techniques. It may not have been Paris or San Francisco, but it was as pristine and perfect a city as any other on the paradisiacal world called Earth.
And on the field, he was watching the Cochrane Flyers face off against their crosstown rivals, the Mogadishu Central High Scorpions. The school band played as, all around him, the other spectators shouted encouragement to the players or chatted among themselves about nothing in particular. All of a sudden, the entire crowd jumped to its feet and exploded in a mighty roaring cheer. Geordi stood up a second later and saw the Flyers celebrating what must have been an impressive goal.
"So help me, Geordi, if that was my kid scoring a goal you made me miss..."
La Forge turned and saw his sister, Ariana, climbing the bleacher steps toward him, carrying a disposable cup in each hand and wearing a disappointed frown. His eyes flicked fleetingly to the playing field, and he noticed that his niece, Nadifa, seemed to be at the middle of the celebratory circle. She beamed and waved as she spotted her mother and uncle in the stands.
Geordi waved back meekly as he relieved his sister of one of the cups. Where the hell had his mind been during her score? "Sorry, 'Riana," he said.
Ariana gave him a look that eerily mirrored the ones their mother would use any time her young children tested her patience. With her now-free hand, she swatted her brother on the back of the head -- playfully, but still with a touch more force than necessary. "Next time, you get the drinks."
"Hey, I offered," he said as he sat and took a sip. "Ugh...I should have insisted," Geordi continued, his face twisted in reaction to the tart concoction.
"What? I thought you loved isbarmuunto," she said.
"Is that what it is? I thought it was straight lemon juice on ice."
"Starfleet has spoiled you. Made you -- "
Ariana stopped suddenly, and her teasing smile disappeared at just the same moment Geordi snapped his head in her direction, jaw set tight. They stared at each other like that for several seconds, while play resumed on the field.
"I should rephrase that," Ariana eventually noted.
Without acknowledging her words, Geordi said, "I'm going to go stretch my legs a bit."
"I'll come with you."
"No, stay." Already on his feet, he made his way down the bleacher steps. "There might be another goal, or something else just as important." He started walking aimlessly away from the field.
Ignoring his sister, La Forge continued idly in the direction of the school building, sipping his drink. A group of teenagers congregated on the library steps, talking and giggling and carrying on the same way Geordi had done over half a lifetime ago.
He knew he was probably making more than he ought to of what was just a thoughtless comment. On the other hand, Ariana had been unapologetically disdainful of Starfleet since she'd been Nadifa's age. She hated that their parents spent so little time living together while their kids were growing up, with one or the other usually off on some mission at any given time during their childhoods. She hated that, once she had turned eighteen and headed off to college, Mom decided to switch back to the command track and pursue her own starship command -- a decision that eventually led to her disappearance over ten years ago. She hated that their father was three hundred light-years beyond Federation space aboard the U.S.S. Amalthea, one of the new Luna-class explorers (although she admitted to being grateful that his ship had been too far off to be called back during the recent threat).
Geordi, for his part, hated how much she looked down on the life he'd chosen, though he normally kept it to himself. Now just wasn't a very normal time.
"Geordi!" Ariana shouted again as she caught up with her big brother, one hand holding her headdress atop her head. "Hey, I'm sorry, you know I didn't mean it."
Geordi stopped, but did not look at her. Instead, he slowly turned in a half circle, taking in the whole of the school grounds. "It all looks the same as always, doesn't it?" he asked, gesturing to the field, the students, the trees and the sky. "So normal, like nothing happened. You would have no idea, seeing all this, how close we all came to losing it all."
"Well, that's not fair," Ariana countered. "You weren't here when things were looking their worst. There wasn't much normality then."
Geordi was sure that was true, but still..."But it didn't take you long to go right back to soccer games and picnic lunches, did it."
"And what are we supposed to do?" Ariana asked. "Cover ourselves in ashes and sackcloth and beg the universe for mercy? Life goes on, Geordi."
"For you," Geordi snapped. "Never mind the billions of people who weren't so lucky!"
Then it was as if time just stopped. Ariana stared with her expression frozen, stunned by his bitter words. And Geordi felt just as stunned, mortified that such vitriol could have come from him. "Oh, my God," he said in a strangled whisper. "'Riana, I'm sorry. I don't know what..."
His sister shook her head. "Don't be sorry, Geordi."
"I didn't mean it," he insisted. "I just...I don't know..."
"I know you didn't. You gotta stop beating yourself up, Geordi."
"But that was a horrible thing to say!" Geordi nearly shouted. "I have no right blaming you for what happened!"
Ariana reached out and put a gentle hand on her brother's arm. "And you have no right to blame yourself, either."
Geordi felt as if all his insides were contracting. "Wh-what?"
"You lived, Geordi." His sister looked him directly in his cybernetic eyes. "You can't let yourself feel guilty for that."
His mouth moved up and down a few seconds before he was able to form sound again. "I...what? That's...that's ridiculous. I don't feel guilty..."
"I know you better than that, Geordi La Forge. You survived the Borg when billions died. This after surviving them about a half dozen times before, and surviving the Dominion, and the Tezwans, and the Remans. You've outlived Mom. You've outlived Data..."
He almost felt like he was going to double over. "That's stupid," he insisted, as tears welled up around his implants. Yes, it had been a hard few years, and yes, all these deaths had hit him hard, especially Data's, who had been his best friend for years and who was supposed to live for centuries, but..."I shouldn't feel guilty for living..."
"No," Ariana told him. "You shouldn't."
La Forge clamped his eyes shut, but that couldn't keep the tears from starting to pour. He felt Ariana pull him into a hard embrace, and he returned it, wrapping his arms tight around her and burying his face in her shoulder. He felt like an idiot, letting his little sister see him like this. "I'm very proud of you, big brother," Ariana told him softly, "for putting on that uniform and going out there so that we can all live here safely and have picnics and play soccer and all that. But I'm also very, very grateful that you get to come back every once in a while and share it with us."
Brother and sister stood like that for a long time, as the game and the world went on around them.
The suborbital shuttle caught up with and passed the sun minutes after leaving Paris, on its way to San Francisco. Picard watched the clouds below as he replayed his earlier conversation with Beverly in his mind. If this meeting turned out to be anything like the others he'd taken part in over the past week -- and he had no reason to think it wouldn't -- he would need to cling to the assurance that there was at least one person in the universe who had complete faith in him.
It had been eight days now since his return to Earth, and half of those days had been spent in stuffy conference rooms, briefing Starfleet Command, then President Bacco and the Federation Security Council, then representatives of the governments of Earth, Luna, Mars, and other Sol system colonies, repeating over and over his account of the end of the Borg collective. And in each of those meetings, one question would inevitably be asked, repeatedly, in a number of different ways, couched in hypotheticals and vague expressions of distrust, but all boiling down to one simple concern: How can you be so completely certain the Borg are really gone forever?
To which, Picard could really only give one answer: "I just know."
He had felt the cataclysmic metamorphosis as it happened. He'd sensed the severing of every single drone from the collective, and then felt the embrace of the Caeliar gestalt, taking in all those lost souls and making them a part of themselves. It was the single most remarkable experience of his life...and there was no one else in the universe who could truly understand it.
The shuttle landed on the grounds of Starfleet Command, and Picard was met on the tarmac by a young female human in security gold. "Captain Picard?"
"I'm here to escort you to your appointment," she said, her spine perfectly stiff, a sure sign that she had been wearing the pip on her collar for only a very short time. Picard had heard that most of this year's Academy seniors were granted their commissions early, so they would be ready to deploy on short notice, just in case. With the estimates of Starfleet losses during the Borg assault at over forty percent, there would still have to be a major recruitment effort to bring forces anywhere close to what would be considered secure levels.
They rode the lift in silence to the Headquarters building's uppermost floor -- the sanctum sanctorum of the admiralty -- and then the ensign led him through the dimly lit corridor lined with portraits of Starfleet's past leaders, arranged in no discernible order; a white-haired human in the dark jacket and necktie of the pre-Federation era hung beside an Andorian in the gold-green silken dress tunic of the following century.
Presently, they reached a set of solid double doors, and the ensign gestured to Picard to place his hand on the security panel beside it. The captain did so, and the doors parted with a slight mechanical moan to reveal what appeared to be an oversized holosuite.
Today's briefing would be for the benefit of the members of Starfleet's admiralty stationed off-Earth, who would be attending via holocom. A long table was positioned at one end of the room, facing the open space that would soon be filled with holographic images of those flag officers who would be participating from afar. A small handful of HQ-based admirals were also here: Leonard James Akaar and Marta Batanides stood talking at the near end of the table, while Admirals Masc, Batiste, and Montgomery were huddled in the far corner, engaged in what appeared to be a rather animated discussion. Picard was approached by the sixth admiral present, Alynna Nechayev. "Good morning, Captain Picard."
"Good morning, Admiral," he echoed automatically, even though his body was telling him it was early evening. "I take it we're just waiting now for Admiral Jellico?"
Nechayev frowned slightly. "No, I'm afraid not," she said. "The admiral last night tendered his resignation to President Bacco."
Picard's head snapped back at that. "He what? Why?"
"Don't be obtuse, Picard," Nechayev said, scowling at him. "The man was the commander of Starfleet during the greatest debacle in all of recorded history. Whatever else you may think of Edward Jellico, he is a man of honor who has always taken responsibility for his actions and decisions. And that's what he's done now."
"I have never questioned Admiral Jellico's honor," Picard quickly asserted. He'd questioned many of the senior officer's decisions over the years, as well as his tendency to turn a deaf ear to contrary viewpoints once he'd made up his mind on a given matter. "But still, he shouldn't have felt obligated to fall on his sword because of this," Picard continued. "What happened was beyond the power of any mortal being to control."
Nechayev sighed and nodded. "I essentially told him the same thing. I suspect it was the lack of control that finally pushed him to his decision."
Picard didn't know what more to say. He'd butted heads with Jellico more than a few times, and he had not thought much of the decision, following Admiral William Ross's well-earned retirement last autumn, to promote Jellico to fleet commander. All things being equal, he couldn't honestly say he was sorry to see Jellico step down.
But "things" were not equal anymore. Starfleet had suffered devastating losses, and the loss of the man at the top of the chain of command could only serve as one more complicating factor in getting the organization back on track.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doors opening again. Picard turned, and for a split second failed to recognize the tall blond woman who entered. Part of that was due to her face, which now lacked the metallic Borg implants that had encircled her left eye and pierced her neck just below her right ear. But the more striking difference was the way in which she carried herself. Seven of Nine, the former Borg drone who had been liberated by the crew of the U.S.S. Voyager seven years earlier, had always struck Picard as one of the most self-confident people he'd ever encountered -- a trait made all the more impressive by the fact that she had been stripped of her individuality at the age of eight.
However, that quality was now gone. Though she put on a good show of fearlessness, the woman who entered the conference room clearly wished to be any place else.
"Captain?" Picard turned again, and then looked up to meet the gaze of Admiral Akaar. "If you'll take your seat; we're just about ready to begin," the imposing Capellan said.
Picard moved behind the table and took the chair indicated, which happened to be right beside the late arrival. She sat, hands folded in her lap, clearly straining to keep the perfect posture that had always seemed to come naturally to her. "Hello, Annika," Picard said to her, with a small, friendly grin.
The woman flinched in response and jerked her head to the left. "Captain Picard," she said, and quickly turned to face forward again.
Realizing he'd committed a faux pas, Picard added, "I'm sorry, Professor...I assumed you no longer favor your Borg designation." In earlier encounters, the woman had objected to the use of her human name, Annika Hansen, insisting for whatever personal reasons on retaining her Borg designation. Given recent events, the captain had thought she would understandably feel different about it now.
"It is irrelevant," she said, without looking back at him.
Picard stared quizzically at her profile for a moment longer, noting the tightness of her jaw and neck. What he had felt during the Caeliar's merging with the Borg -- what he had felt in concert with the entire Collective -- was so positive, so uplifting, it was difficult for him to believe that this fellow former drone could have come away from the experience in such a clearly haunted state.
But before he could question her any further, the holo-emitter grids surrounding them shimmered out of existence, replaced by a brightly lit conference room. The table at which he and Seven sat became part of a long wooden oval, around which some fifty or sixty admirals from across the Federation were seated. Picard immediately noticed Admiral Elizabeth Shelby, commanding officer of Bravo Station, who earlier in her career had established herself as one of Starfleet's first experts on the Borg. There were several other familiar faces, some of whom he had not seen for years and was surprised to learn had been promoted above him. As they realized the hololink had been activated, they all looked expectantly to the head of the table.
The physically present admirals took seats on either side of Picard and Seven, except for Admiral Akaar, who remained on his feet. "Good day, friends," he greeted the assemblage. "Thank you for your time today. As I'm sure I needn't tell you, the past two months have been the most catastrophic in the history of any of our worlds. Beginning on stardate 58011, the Borg launched a new, intensive offensive against the Federation. You all are aware of the horrific results: over sixty-three billion deaths on over a hundred worlds, ships, and starbases. Approximately forty percent of our fleet destroyed, most of those at the Azure Nebula, when the Borg armada invaded the Federation en masse. Vulcan, Tellar, and Andor were hit by crippling attacks, along with our allies on Qo'noS, and several other independent worlds.
"However, in all this tragedy, there is reason for optimism. Not only because the Federation has survived this most recent onslaught, but because the evidence leads us to believe that the Borg threat has been eradicated forever.
"At this point, I yield the floor to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise, who witnessed the ultimate fate of the Borg."
Akaar took his seat. Picard remained seated as he repeated his piece of the narrative: the tale of how a starship captain from the old Earth Starfleet, thought dead for over two hundred years, had instead lived in a loop of time for the last eight hundred and fifty years among a race called the Caeliar. And of how that captain was able to bridge what was apparently a very narrow gap between Caeliar and Borg, enabling the Caeliar gestalt to dissolve the Borg collective, to silence the queen, and to transform the Borg into something new.
"What do you mean, 'something new'?" interrupted Admiral Nyllis, the short, compactly built Pentamian commanding Starbase 120.
"What we witnessed was a physical metamorphosis," Picard said, as he pressed a control button on the flat panel before him. In the well at the center of the circular table, the classified sensor log recording from the Enterprise played back, showing Axion, the Caeliar's spaceborne city, surrounded by the thousands of Borg cubes it had drawn back from their onslaught against the Alpha and Beta quadrants. The Caeliar city began to glow, and in a flash, seemed to become a mass of pure light. Its radiance expanded, washing over the surrounding armada, overcoming the ability of their black hulls to absorb visible light. And then, those nigh-impenetrable metallic hulls cracked like eggshells, spilling out even greater brilliance as they hatched what looked like giant spiked spheres of pure silver. "According to Captain Hernandez," Picard continued, "the Borg -- all the Borg, all across the galaxy -- had become part of the Caeliar gestalt, and were now dedicated to the cause of peace throughout the universe."
"Captain Picard..." Unsurprisingly, it was Shelby who now spoke. "Please forgive my cynicism, but that sounds to me like a very tidy, pat resolution: the Borg are taught the error of their ways, and decide to dedicate themselves to good instead of evil from now on. It's a bit hard to swallow, isn't it?"
Picard grinned. "When you characterize it that way, yes, of course it is. But not when you understand that the entire nature of the Borg has been altered -- "
"The last time the nature of the Borg was allegedly altered, it was by the android Lore," said a Saurian admiral Picard did not recognize. "And they weren't altered for the better."
Picard could have pointed out that Lore had not altered the Borg, but had rather taken advantage of an alteration effected by himself. Explaining this, however, would not have helped his argument in the least. "But what Captain Hernandez and the Caeliar have done to the Borg is fundamentally different -- "
"Captain, I'm sorry," interrupted Admiral Rollman, C.O. of Starbase 401, "but it seems to me that a lot of what you're telling us hinges on the acceptance of the claim that this Erika Hernandez was in fact the same person who disappeared with the Columbia two centuries ago."
"Yes. Didn't you once have an alien claiming to be Captain Bryce Shumar try to take over the Enterprise?" Admiral Toddman added skeptically.
"The Titan's medical staff did perform a DNA test," Picard replied, "and confirmed Captain Hernandez indeed was who she said she was."
"And have we already forgotten how easily the Founders managed to get around our blood screenings during the Dominion War?" asked Admiral ch'Evram, who had been captain of the Bellingham during that conflict. "I don't think an alien power that could do what we just watched in that playback would have much trouble creating fake DNA."
Picard sighed. He could spend another half hour vouching for Hernandez, or countering every question about every niggling little detail, but he couldn't see the point, other than to drag this meeting out as long as possible. So, he simply pulled himself upright in his seat, tugged his uniform in place, and, making certain to meet the eyes of everyone appearing to be in the room, said, "Sirs, I understand your doubts and your concerns. The Borg have been like a specter hanging over us for a decade and a half, and it's difficult to believe, after fearing them for so long and after witnessing the worst that they could do, that the threat could be over so suddenly, and so finally.
"Yet, it is."
The room was suddenly silent. Picard let that simple declaration sink in for a moment, and just as the buzz of contradictory disbelief started to build again, he continued, in his authoritative tone, "I was assimilated by the Borg. And in the years since then, the Borg maintained a low-level psionic connection with me. I was not even aware of it at first, thinking my nightmares following the Battle of Wolf 359 were the product only of my own subconscious mind. But four years later, just before the Battle of Sector 001, I realized that the dreams were not created by my mind alone. I was forced to recognize that a part of me was still Locutus, and that this shade of the Borg would haunt the darkest part of my mind for the rest of my life.
"That was, until Hernandez insinuated herself into the Collective, and the Caeliar sundered the link. I felt that break. I felt...millions of souls suddenly liberated, as well as my own liberation. And then...Locutus was gone. Along with the Borg. Along with the weight that had been on my soul for so long, I could hardly remember when it hadn't been there.
"I realize this is not the testimony you expected here today, sirs. But I have never been so confident of anything in my entire life as I am of the fact that the Borg are gone, forever."
Again, a hush fell over the room, as the gathered admirals processed Picard's words. Being admirals, however, they could not go without hearing the sounds of their own voices for too long. Several spoke at once, but it was Admiral Batiste who made himself heard above the rest. "And what about you, Professor Hansen?"
Picard noticed her flinch again at the use of her human name. "What about me?" she snapped.
"What do you have to add to Captain Picard's testimony?"
"I have nothing to add," she said. "I have no insights into the captain's feelings or beliefs whatsoever."
"But he talks about what he perceived through his residual link to the Borg," Batiste persisted. "You also have maintained some connection to the Collective since your liberation seven years ago, isn't that correct?"
"It is," she said. "Do note, however, that our experiences with the Borg are quite disparate, as are the specifics of our links. For instance, Captain Picard failed to note that Admiral Janeway and the U.S.S. Einstein had been assimilated by a suppos-edly dead Borg cube, leading to the near destruction of Earth nine months ago."
Picard turned toward the former drone, surprised by her words. He knew that she and the admiral had forged a strong bond following her liberation from the Borg and through her early reintroduction to humanity. He had no doubt Janeway's death had had a profound effect on her. But he'd never thought that she might somehow resent him for not anticipating or preventing the admiral's death.
Picard's old friend Marien Zimbata spoke up then. "It was right at the time that the Enterprise was witnessing this metamorphosis of the Borg that you had a breakdown at the Palais de la Concorde, and that your remaining Borg implants mysteriously disintegrated."
Seven shot a harsh look across the head table at Akaar and Batanides. They both had also been in the presidential offices with her at the height of the crisis, Picard knew, and the younger woman seemed to feel one or both of them had betrayed some kind of confidence. "Yes," she answered.
"Can you tell us what you were experiencing at that time?"
"Clearly, I was experiencing the metamorphosis," she shot back. "I could not have told you that then, as I did not learn what the Enterprise witnessed until a later time. And, I cannot tell you more than that now."
Admiral Batiste folded his hands and tapped his knuckles against his bottom lip. "So you don't share Captain Picard's certainty that the Borg are gone, and the Borg threat is over forever?"
Picard caught the former drone sneaking a furtive glance his way from the corners of her eyes before stating, "Admiral, at this point in time...I have no certainty about anything."
Though he had no idea what this woman had gone through to make her sound so lost and forlorn, Picard considered her with great sympathy. At the same time, though, he was dismayed to look around the virtual conference room and see that her uncertainty had been transmitted, like a virus, throughout the Federation.
Copyright © 2009 by Paramount Pictures Corporation.