USS Tesseract – Sickbay
As Icheb entered his security override to enter the locked-down sickbay, he remembered something that John had said to him several dozen times back at the Academy: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
The line had always been delivered with the same wide, easygoing grin that Icheb had futilely attempted to reproduce in the lavatory mirror on more than one occasion. That had never worked – Icheb looked didn’t look anything like his tall, blond human friend. But the sentiment behind John’s oft-repeated idiom was often true, at least among humans, and Icheb felt this was one of those times. It would be much more difficult for Doctor Bashir to remove him from sickbay once he was already inside than it would be for him to say ‘no’ if he asked permission to come in. So he didn’t bother with the comm. system. He simply entered.
At the thought of John, he wondered briefly if his friend was okay on the Sol,
but he quickly deemed that worry irrelevant. There wasn’t a lot he could do about the situation until they found the missing ships. Perhaps he would go to astrometrics in a little while and help with scans. In addition to being useful, it might help distract him, and alleviate the anxiety he felt every time he thought of the missing ships. But for the moment, it would have to wait. The captain had all but ordered him to report to sickbay, and she had been right. Doctor Bashir deserved an apology. So did Maren.
As he stepped through the open door into the slightly darkened central medical chamber, Icheb gripped the PADD he was carrying in his hand tightly. He hoped its contents would go a long way toward repairing the damage he had done. At the same time, he also felt guilty as he realized he was still holding something back from everyone. He had made his choice, though – and as sure as he was that he had made the right one, he wasn’t certain if he could stand up to the pressure if anyone else tried to convince him otherwise – especially Maren.
He sighed. He would tell her, anyway. He had to tell her. But he had to tell her first.
If there was any hope of her forgiving him for this, she couldn’t hear it from someone else. Doctor Bashir and the captain could wait.
Although Julian Bashir had technically gone off duty several hours ago, Icheb saw that he was sitting in his interior office with a task lamp on, poring over something on his desk display, rubbing his eyes and looking tired. He looked up as Icheb entered, and his facial features twisted into an expression of exasperation mixed with sympathy. He immediately stood up and walked over to intercept Icheb.
“Commander, please give it time. It’s only been two hours. Her condition hasn’t changed. Go get some rest, or a meal or something.”
Icheb shook his head. “I didn’t come to see Maren. I came to speak to you,” he said.
“Oh, really?” Julian asked, as his eyebrows quirked upward. He sounded surprised and a little bit skeptical.
Icheb nodded. “I want to apologize. I was out of line earlier. I shouldn’t have questioned your abilities. I was frightened for her. It will not happen again.”
Julian’s expression softened somewhat. “I appreciate that, Commander, but I had you removed for my patient’s well-being and yours. I wasn’t offended. But you weren’t helping her by being there. ”
Icheb nodded as if to concede the point, then tentatively offered the PADD he was holding to Julian. “This is for you,” he said.
Julian looked down at the PADD as he accepted it, then gave Icheb a questioning look. “What is it?” he asked.
“It’s my complete medical history,” Icheb answered flatly, eliciting a surprised look from Julian. “Before the away mission, Maren informed me that she told you about my failing implants. I thought this might help you with your research.”
Julian stared down at the PADD for a long moment, then looked up at Icheb. “Thank you, Commander,” he said sincerely. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
“I’m sure you will,” Icheb replied quietly. His let his gaze wander away from Julian as he scanned the large central medical chamber. He could see One of Fifteen – Dena
, he corrected himself – lying in her forcefield-protected area. He could see Ryzal’s hulking frame resting on a biobed through the uncovered window on one of the private rooms. Before he could identify which room might belong to Maren, Julian spoke up.
“Would you like to see her?”
Icheb looked back at him and nodded, suddenly too nervous to speak. Silently, he followed the doctor over to one of the private rooms and waited as he toggled the release on the door.
As the door opened and Julian motioned him inside, he could see that Maren was lying prone on a biobed with a delta wave inducer affixed across the front of her head. He knew that the device would keep her unconscious indefinitely and accelerate her body’s natural healing process, but the absolute stillness it produced in her unnerved him. He was accustomed to her being slightly hyperactive, even in her sleep. With his enhanced vision, it had always seemed like she was in constant motion, almost as if her impossibly active mind created a vibration he could actually see. In contrast, the woman on the biobed seemed like an entirely different person.
“The delta wave inducer is just a way to speed her recovery and make sure she gets the rest she needs,” Julian assured him, seeing the look on his face. “We want to keep her resting until she’s stronger. And since she’s already proven she won’t rest of her own accord …” he trailed off with a gentle shrug as if to say ‘this is what’s necessary.’
Icheb nodded and kept staring at Maren with the same uneasy expression.
“We successfully stopped the bleeding, so all that’s left to do is wait for her body to heal itself completely,” Julian added, obviously looking to fill the silence.
“Will there be any permanent damage?” Icheb asked worriedly, without taking his eyes off of her.
Julian breathed a small sigh and glanced over at the engineer. “It’s impossible to say for sure,” he admitted, “but I think we repaired all of the damage. And if there are any lasting effects, we’ll find a treatment. I think she’s going to be fine.”
“She’s not fine,” Icheb said, with a bitter edge to his voice. “She’s emotionally damaged and it’s my fault.”
“We all make mistakes,” Julian replied. “Even the Borg.”
Icheb stared silently at Maren for a few moments. He longed to go to her side, but he didn’t make a move. He kept thinking back to a time when it had been him lying on a biobed with an uncertain future. She had held his hand in the infirmary at Starbase 12 for nine hours and twenty-eight minutes straight. Unsure of whether he would survive, she had flat-out refused to let go. The medical staff had told him about it later, seemingly bemused and awed by her determination. As much as he wanted to return the favor now, he didn’t feel he had the right to touch her. She had been through too much, and it was all his doing.
After a long silence, Julian interrupted his thoughts. “She cares for you,” he said quietly. “You should have seen how worried she was when you were being held by the Borg resistance.”
Icheb kept gazing down at Maren even as he answered Julian. “I left her because I wanted to protect her from being hurt,” he explained to the doctor. “I remembered how frightened I was when Seven was dying. I risked my life to save her. I didn’t want Maren to have to feel that way, or ever put herself at risk for me. I was too young and inexperienced to realize that removing myself from her physical proximity would not be enough to change her feelings toward me. Now, we are here, and in a matter of days, she has risked her career, her safety and her life because of her relationship to me. It is unacceptable.”
“I suggest you learn to accept it,” Julian retorted gently. “People take risks for the people they care about all the time – especially in our line of work. You can’t control the way she feels about you. You can’t force her not to love you … least of all when it’s so obvious you feel the same way.”
“I don’t want her to suffer.”
“You don’t think she’s suffered every day since you left her, knowing your life is in danger? Wanting to tell someone, but thinking you’d never forgive her? I assure you, Commander, she has suffered. The good news is, somehow, you’ve lasted this long. You have a chance to fix this. Not everyone gets that chance.”
Icheb looked thoughtfully down at the sleeping Maren. “You’re right, Doctor,” he said, with quiet determination. “I do have a chance to fix this.” Without another word, he turned and walked out of Maren’s room and out of sickbay, leaving Julian staring bemusedly after him.
USS Tesseract – Diplomatic Quarters
The dampening field was a necessity, Lakwa knew it, but it made her feel very alone. After nine years, she was used to hearing Malik’s thoughts during times like this. Right now, there were only her own.
She wondered what he was doing right now, locked in the brig of this Federation ship behind a force field even their technology could not easily defeat. No doubt, he was angry. Angry at her, angry at the Federation … maybe even angry at himself.
She still found it difficult to believe that she had betrayed him. You did not betray him,
she argued with herself. You saved him. You saved us all.
Her internal arguments seemed inadequate. Malik was her friend – her only friend. The others looked up to her, for reasons she could not begin to understand, but Malik saw her as an equal. And despite her increasing lack of confidence in his ability to lead their small crew, she cared for him. Maybe too much.
She crossed the extravagant quarters to which she had been assigned by the captain of the Federation vessel and looked at herself in a reflective surface mounted on the wall. Mirror,
came the translation in Federation standard, without her consciously bothering to call it up. There were no mirrors on her own vessel, at least not in the areas reserved to the Resistance. The organic crewmembers had them, but most of those who had been freed from the Collective preferred not to be visually reminded of what they had become.
Lakwa was no different. She still remembered herself on Seitun. She remembered how she used to look, young and vital, with pink, healthy ridges, blue eyes and hair the color of the setting of the second sun. Now there was only gray skin, scars and machinery where that beauty had once dwelt.
She remembered her mate, Inru and their four offspring, Onla, Minra, Lidu and Saeil. She remembered the warm home they had shared before the Borg came. She remembered their assimilation. And she remembered how she had been forced to kill them all.
Not by her own hand, thanks be to Iyira
… but she had watched in horror – still in shock herself from the realization that her thoughts were once again her own – as Malik and the others had struck them down one by one. She had not lifted a finger to stop them. So recently separated from the Collective, the logical Borg programming in her cortical array had overruled her heart, and she had let them die. She had not even recognized the children until later, as they tried to determine who among them had survived the battle for control of their sphere. The maturation chambers had been effective. The body of her mate was recognizable, albeit barely – but the bodies of their children looked like just four more drones from the Collective, their only identifying features the ridges on their foreheads. She rarely dreamt, but when she did, it was still of them – all these years later.
It had been necessary. They were part of the Collective, and they were intent on reassimilating or destroying everyone with the Unimatrix Zero mutation – including Lakwa herself. No amount of reasoning with them would have been effective. In fact, she had been pleading with Inru in a voice she had all but forgotten she possessed when Malik had deactivated her lover and her friend. Yes, it had been necessary. But it had hurt. And that pain had reminded her that she had once been Seituni – not Borg.
Now, she looked in the mirror aboard a Federation starship and wondered where her own loyalties lay, in the end. Seitun was no more. Neither was Malik’s homeworld, or Jeytl’s … or Icheb’s for that matter, although she hadn’t told him yet. She had been fighting against the Borg with everything she had since the destruction of Unimatrix Zero, but at the same time, the Borg were the closest thing she had to a people. The Resistance may have formed alliances with others, like the Tyndorans, but no one had truly accepted them yet. No one trusted them, no one loved them.
Seeing Icheb in the medical bay of this Federation vessel had changed everything for her. The engineer had looked at him like Inru used to look at her. She loved him. The captain clearly valued him. He was Borg and Brunali, yet they treated him as one of their own. In that moment, Lakwa had known she had to act – that perhaps Malik’s hatred for the Federation had been misplaced.
She knew would have to speak to Malik. He would need her to explain. She also knew she had to wait. Asking to see him too soon may cost her the trust she had earned from the Federation crew. Mutiny was much more understandable than … whatever she was doing. She was uncertain herself. All she knew was that she wanted this to work, and Malik had gotten in the way, and for the first time in nine years, she could not stand with him, so she had risen up against him. She knew it was very unlikely that these people would understand why she still wanted him to be part of this.
The door chime sounded. She did not recognize it at first, but a memory stored deep within her cortical array, from some Starfleet member long ago melded into the Collective, told her what it meant. “Come,” she said, out of a habit not truly her own, yet as familiar to her as anything she had done with regularity on Seitun.
The door slid open. Commander Icheb stood on the other side, flanked by two armed guards. “Your assistance is not required,” he told the officers. Both looked hesitant to heed his words. “Please stay here,” he said, with more authority, and stepped inside the room, allowing the door to close behind him.
Lakwa looked at the young man with a curious gaze. She had not been expecting him to return so soon after escorting her here. “May I assist you?” she asked him.
Icheb took a step toward her. “Malik made me an offer I could not accept,” he said quietly.
There was a desperate quality to his voice, and Lakwa could hear his heart rate accelerate, then quickly level out as his implants regulated it. He was clearly anxious. “You’ve come to ask me for the same thing, with no conditions,” she replied softly. She hesitated only a moment before adding, “I’m willing to provide it.”
“No,” Icheb answered forcefully, with an emphatic shake of his head. “I don’t want it.” Lakwa looked at him in surprise. “I want to know if there’s an alternative solution,” he said. “If so, I’ve come to ask for that,
with no conditions.”
Lakwa looked at the Brunali for a long moment. “You’re afraid it will make you Borg again,” she guessed.
Icheb hesitated, but nodded. “Yes,” he replied simply. “I want to live, but not like that.”
Lakwa understood perfectly. She had often thought that if she could remove everything that made her Borg, she would. She knew of others who had tried, with varying success, but none who had integrated as seamlessly into a new culture as this former drone standing in front of her appeared to have done. In his position, she doubted whether she would feel any differently than he did.
“I know of no alternative,” she told him quietly. “I am uncertain how you have even survived this long.”
“Then study me,” Icheb pleaded. “Perhaps you’ll learn something you can use on others, while finding a way to allow me to live. Perhaps -- ” he was cut off by the sound of his combadge chirping.
“Commander Icheb, report to the bridge immediately,” a female voice said. Lakwa recognized it as belonging to Lieutenant Iden Nix, whom she had met earlier that day. Icheb visibly tensed at the interruption, but tapped his badge to reply.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“We’ve found an area of subspace damage on long range sensors not far from the last known position of the auxiliary ships,” came the disembodied reply from Iden.
“Is there any sign of the ships?” he asked, looking concerned.
“I’m on my way,” Icheb replied tersely. He looked over at Lakwa again, then opened his mouth to say something, but she spoke first.
“I am willing to attempt what you have asked of me,” she said simply. “I cannot guarantee success, but I will try.”
Icheb shut his mouth and looked at her gratefully for a moment. He nodded slowly. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I’ll let our doctor know.” Lakwa nodded once in reply. “I have to go,” he added, a bit awkwardly.
Lakwa nodded again. “Use caution, Commander,” she warned him quietly. “Remember that the Resistance is fractured. There are many who are dangerous to you.”
Icheb looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then nodded. “In that case, your assistance may be needed on the bridge,” he said. “Please postpone regeneration until I notify you otherwise.” She nodded her assent. Seconds later, Icheb was gone, leaving Lakwa once again alone.