The setting was beautiful. An oasis surrounded by giant pines and evergreens, and a hundred-foot waterfall dropped into a lagoon filled with crystal blue-green water and created a perfect rainbow. The sky was clear and blue, and the air was rich with the perfume of churning water and pine. Willow stood on the sandy edge of the lagoon, facing the waterfall watching it pour tons of water over a rocky cliff. She kept her back to Xander as he approached, her avatar's long red hair and light pink summer dress swaying gently in the breeze.
Xander had mixed feelings about using Unimatrix Zero. It was great having a body again, even if it was virtual, and theoretically, it was possible to live a fulfilling life here. Many Individuals who chose to live within Unimatrix Zero, if not all of them, swore living in virt was nearly indistinguishable from existence in the real world.
Xander raised his hand and made a fist and squeezed. He could feel his fingernails bite into his palm, and the muscles in his arm tighten, and sweat on the palm of his hand—it all felt authentic. Or it would if his mind couldn't detect the hundred million processes the Unimatrix Zero used to make his virtual body operate.
"When were you going to tell me?" Willow asked.
"I shouldn't have dropped that on you. I'm sorry."
Willow turned around and her face was drawn into an angry scowl. "Don't be sorry. Don't go!" she exclaimed.
"I have to. You know I do," Xander said gently.
"Then take me with you."
"I'd love to," Xander said smiling. "There's nothing I want more than to beam you up and go explore the universe together."
"Then why won't you?" Willow asked, her voice hushed and trembling with anguish. She turned away again.
Xander strode forward until he and Willow stood shoulder to shoulder on the sand. Willow's bare feet were half sunk into the damp, white sand. Xander willed his shoes away and dug his toes into the sand as well.
"For a lot of reasons, but the most important one is because I need you here."
Xander took a deep breath and for almost half a nanosecond it felt and smelled real.
"The kids are ready."
Willow gasped and her head snapped around.
"I thought… But you said full reconstruction was going to take at least a year?"
"At minimum a year, if we were lucky."
"What happened? What's changed?"
"We gained access to naquadah and learned how to bond it to the human body," Xander said.
"Can I see?"
Willow stared at Xander unseeingly for a moment as she absorbed the Collective's research and developments with Goa'uld technology and naquadah. When she came back, Willow looked overwhelmed as she let out a sigh.
"It's amazing, but is it safe? Flooding their bodies with such a volatile, energetic substance—it's dangerous."
"It's damned dangerous," Xander acknowledged. "But we made sure the naquadah itself isn't a danger to the kids. What it'll turn the kids into is what keeps me up at night. If I slept."
"Then why do it if you're so worried? Why not wait until you come up with a less risky solution?"
Xander clenched his teeth as a familiar sense of guilt and anger spread through him, but he controlled it so none of the feelings he had rung through his made-up Xander-voice.
"Because the longer they're kept from their families, their lives, the harder it's going to be on those kids and their families. If I—if we can put them all back where they belong sooner, we're going to do that."
"How can you still blame yourself?" Willow said quietly.
Xander looked at Willow and suppressed the smile that wanted to spread across his face. She's ridiculously cute when she's worried but didn't appreciate it when Xander treated her anxiety with anything less than complete seriousness.
"I know it's not my fault up here," Xander tapped his finger against his temple, "but in my heart—in my gut—that's different. I need to make it right."
"Okay. I think I understand, at least a little," Willow said. "But if the wrong people find out they're basically superhuman, and can use Goa'uld technology…"
"As you said: the kids were always going to end up some ratio of Borg and be in danger because of that," Xander shrugged. "The naquadah inside their bodies is just one more thing we'll have to keep secret."
Willow was quiet as she watched Xander, and he sensed she wanted to argue, or at least discuss his decision more. He was mildly surprised when she just sighed and turned to gaze up at the roaring waterfall.
"You want me to stay and help them," Willow said finally.
"I need you to stay and help them. You're the only one who can."
It was true, and they both knew it. Though many within the Collective regained their autonomy after the original Collective collapsed, few were left with a tangible connection to humanity. The Borg as a whole still cared for capital "H" humanity, but most, especially those who've fully adapted to being Borg, the way One of One had resolutely left behind any notion of being human in the traditional sense. At best, they possessed a warm fondness towards humanity but were aloof. At worst, they were tolerant but neutral.
Even the individuals who chose Unimatrix Zero over being part of the New Collective no longer felt a strong connection to their former lives. Most preferred living in their virtual world now, where they were free to pursue all things or nothing at all. Only a tiny fraction still sought to return to their old lives.
So, in the end, there was no one within the New Collective human enough to effectively interact with the kids and their parents. But Willow was. She was without a doubt the only Borg still deeply connected to their humanity, and that connection was sorely needed to help guide the kids towards living normal lives again.
"Well," Willow said, elongating the word, an impish grin on her face. "If you really need my help. I'll stay."
"Thank you. Thank you. And thank you!" Xander exclaimed.
Xander grinned and pulled Willow into a hug and ignored how unreal it felt. He also ignored how reluctant Willow was to unwrap her arms from around him when he pulled away. She probably just wanted to get in as many snuggles as possible before he was gone for who knows how long.
"Now, let me show my appreciation to my bestest bud ever!" Xander said still grinning.
"What do you mean?"
Xander leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Willow's. She blushed an interesting shade of pink then her eyes widened in surprise as she gazed up at him.
"Yeah. Pretty cool, huh? Happy Birthday!" Xander said, his forehead still touching Willow's as he gazed into her eyes.
"It's not my birthday," she said with a disapproving glare.
Willow's glare narrowed. "Try again."
"Happy Thanks For Being Awesome… Day?"
Willow smiled. "There you go."
"—long are you going to be gone for?" Buffy asked just as Xander, and Willow left Unimatrix Zero and reentered real-time.
"Not sure. Six months at the very most."
"Half a year even," Xander said.
"I'll be back before you know it, Buffster."
"Hey, Willow? Is Buffy pouting?"
"D'wah! I bet she's cute as a button."
"You better thank your lucky stars you're in space right now, Mister Smarty Pants."
"Are you implying I'm finally getting that spanking you promised?"
After saying his goodbyes, Xander reentered Unimatrix Zero. He went deeper than he had with Willow and ended up on the shore of a beach of brown sand that stretched for miles in either direction. The ocean rolling waves over the shore was modified to have a neon blue tint that was visible in the day, and at night glowed with an eerie bioluminescence. Supposedly it was very relaxing.
The beach was part of an island the size of Niihau and possessed similar terrain, a lot of brush, and tall trees, but little else. Though, unlike Niihau, this island was shaped like a crescent. The little else was a swanky-looking beach house that sat a hundred feet from the shoreline. The three-story building was all white walls and impossibly clean glass, and every room in the house could be looked into from the outside.
Standing on one of the forward-facing glass balconies was a tall, sandy-haired man wearing summer clothes the same eggshell white as the house. The man waved and Xander waved back.
"Can I come up?" Xander asked aloud even though it was impossible for the man to have heard him from so far away.
"Sure, kid," Anthony Harris said.
In an instant, Xander stood on the balcony next to his father.
"I heard you all are about to head out there," Anthony said turning back to the ocean and leaning his backside against the balcony's glass barrier.
Just as a lot of Unimatrix Zero inhabitants had done, Anthony Harris used the artificial world to make a paradise to live in, as well as remake himself. Before he was assimilated, Xander's father had been a prematurely balding, slightly overweight man in his mid-thirties, but looked ten years older than that. But within Unimatrix Zero, Anthony was a slim and muscular young man again, with a full head of honey-blond hair, who was just a bit more handsome than he'd been when he was twenty in the real world.
"There's an open invitation to anyone who wants to go," Xander said.
"I'm too old to go looking under space rocks," Anthony replied, waving his hand. "Your mother ain't likely to go playing Magellan, either."
"Figured. She's elbow deep in the terraforming program on Venus."
Not much surprised Xander since he became Borg King, but Jessica Harris being the lead on the Collective's terraforming team was hard to wrap his brain around. And Xander had a very big brain these days. Almost as shocking was his parents' marriage surviving their assimilation.
Jessica and Tony had been one of the very first people in Sunnydale assimilated once the Collective decided it didn't want Xander's DNA to exist in any form. For that reason, other than Xander himself, Jessica and Tony endured one of the most brutal assimilations anyone had ever experienced. By the time the Collective was done with the pair, almost nothing was left of their original bodies. Every last strand of genetic material they had was erased to the last molecule. It was only due to the Borg's innate abhorrence to waste that Jessica and Anthony Harris were converted into low-level maintenance drones instead of reduced to atoms.
After the children, Xander made it a priority to undo as much of the damage done to his parents as he could. It wasn't easy. Their bodies were unsalvageable without un-scrubbed DNA to reconstruct any viable tissue, but the biggest hurdle turned out to be their minds being slaved to the Collective. Meaning neither could possess even a flicker of persona independent of the Borg hive mind. It took weeks and a significant portion of Xander's attention to extract his parents from their lobotomized shells and rehabilitate them into individuals once again.
"The woman's obsessed!" Tony said before turning around to face the ocean. "And she's happy," he added softly.
"Are you happy?" Xander said though he was hesitant to ask such a prying question. He and his father never had an easy relationship even before their assimilation and sharing their feeling with one another wasn't something either were ever comfortable with.
"Right now, I'm happy she's happy." He turned and looked at Xander. "Can you believe that?"
Xander hummed. He could, actually.
Xander had to retrieve his parents' memories and personas neuron by neuron, and by doing so, he witnessed, literally on a cellular level, the deep love Anthony and Jessica Harris shared early in their relationship. Their love faded over the years as a million little things went wrong between them until guilt, self-loathing, and anger overshadowed everything else in their marriage. Yet, at their core, Tony and Jessica still somehow loved each other. They just needed the rest of the world to get out of their way to find each other again.
"I just wanted to stop by to tell you and Mom your drone bodies are being moved to the Sol Octa-cad unless either of you have any objections," Xander said.
Tony shrugged. "Your mother probably already knows. She likes knowing what goes on out there in the real. If she has a problem with it, she'll let you know." Tony shrugged again. "I don't care where you park my carcass. Do what you gotta do"
Slipping back into the Prime Cube and spreading his mind as wide and as far as he was able felt good. When he was flitting around and shrinking himself to be seen and understood Xander felt restrained and blind. Inside the vast core of the Prime Cube Xander's sense of smallness vanished and he was whole again.
With a thought, Xander reached out to all willing Individuals and requested unity. In an instance, the Collective swarmed together and merged with him until a thousand minds became one and many.
"You know," One of One said. "I've always wanted to see what's at the center of the Milky Way."
"A lot of stars, I imagine," Three of Six replied as she and her unimatrix ran two thousand possible hyperspace jumps in three real-time seconds.
"And at the center of those?"
"Borg long-range sensors detect enormous heat, x-rays, and gravimetric readings, so our money is on a supermassive black hole," Four of Nine of Unimatrix Forty said, and her matrix fellows silently agreed.
"A popular theory, if boring," One of One said.
"That's what's at the galactic center in Star Trek," Three of Six said, and Xander heard the wryness in her tone.
"I will be very miffed if that turns out to be true," One of One drawled.
As Xander prepared the hyperdrive, checked and then rechecked the readiness of all four naquadah generators in the Prime Cube, he sent one last goodbye message to Willow, Buffy, and Giles.
Willow's reply came half a second later when she projected a virtual image of herself. The image was a full-body projection that made it appear as if she stood before him, and Xander returned the favor. They could have given their avatars tactile form but saying goodbye would be even harder if they had the ability to hug.
"You be safe. No funny business," Willow said.
"But Funny Business is my middle name."
"I'm serious," Willow said, and for emphasis, she wore her all-powerful Resolve Face. "You get into another interstellar war, and I hear about it, I'm gonna come find you and drag you back home. You hear me?"
Xander smiled and nodded. "Heard. I love you, Wills."
And without missing a beat, Willow said: "I know." Then her image disappeared.
Xander laughed so hard, he was sure if he still had a bladder, he would have wet himself.
Still laughing, Xander opened a channel to all interested Borg as he spun up the hyperdrive and set a course to the farthest point the drive could take them without stressing the cube's engines.
"Attention, ladies and drones," Xander said. "We can finally reach the stars, so let's go grab some."
Then they were off.
To boldly go where no Borg has gone before.
The only good thing about being put on forced leave was he got to sleep in as late as he wanted. Jack hadn't realized how little rest he'd gotten since he joined the SGC, and now that he could hibernate at will his body let him know it intended to make him pay back every hour of sleep debt he owed it.
The knocking on the door to his quarters grew louder until it became pounding. Jack groaned again before rolling over and throwing his legs over the side of his bunk. He was still in uniform, sans jacket, so he didn't need to take time to make himself decent, though the sonofabitch banging on his door deserved to wait.
"Just a second!" Jack shouted hoarsely as he rubbed his hand down his face.
"Jack! Jack, let me in!"
"Daniel? What in the—"
—Jack reached for the handle to the door and swung it open—
"—World are you doin' banging on my door at," Jack checked his watch, "Oh. It's noon."
"Never mind that," Daniel said hurriedly. "We need to talk."
"About what?" Jack asked after closing the door.
"I'll explain as soon as Sam and Teal'c get here," Daniel said.
Jack's annoyance receded and turned into concern when he noted the nervous energy radiating off Daniel. The guy was always a bit high-strung, especially for a geek, but Jack figured most people would be edgy if they lost their wife to despotic space worms. But Daniel looked ready to pop out of his skin at any second while he paced around Jack's very small quarters.
"Care to give me a hint why you're acting squirrely?" Jack asked.
Daniel stopped pacing and looked at Jack almost like he forgot he was in the room.
"Huh? No, let's wait until—" A much less annoying round of knocking on Jack's door interrupted Daniel.
When Jack opened it Teal'c and Carter were standing outside in the hall. Carter was out of uniform, instead wore a white lab coat over civvies, meaning Daniel probably pulled her away from studying the Borg tech down in the lab. Teal'c wore standard BDU tactical pants, a black tank top, and combat boots.
"Colonel," Carter said with a respectful nod.
"Now it's a party, I guess," Jack said then wave them into the room. "Okay, Daniel, the gang's all here: what's up?"
"Yes, why did you summon me to Colonel O'Neill's quarters?" Teal'c rumbled, though Jack couldn't tell if the big man was annoyed or just asking a question.
Daniel tilted his head towards the still open door then glanced at Jack. Once Jack shut them in, Daniel took a deep breath and looked a lot calmer.
"Okay. Okay. While I was off base, I asked a friend of mine to let me borrow her Star Trek: The Next Generation DVDs so I could research—"
"The complete series? Is your friend independently wealthy?" Jack asked. "Those DVDs cost a pretty penny."
Daniel seared Jack with a blistering glare before he went on, "Anyway, I watched the series over the past week, and rented tapes of Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek Deep Space Nine—"
"It'd save a lot of time if you used their abbreviations," Jack said, earning him another irritated glare from Daniel. "You know instead of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, you can say DS9."
"Alright, alright. Go ahead."
"As I was saying, I watched whatever Star Trek material I could get my hands on to research the Borg. Now there's not a lot of episodes focusing on the Borg, except Seven of Nine on Star—Voyager—"
"Go figure," Jack said.
"But, while there's only a handful of hours pertaining to the Borg Collective, there are hundreds of hours to watch about the Star Trek universe itself."
"A lot of fun, right?" Jack asked.
"It's trite, pseudo-intellectual clap-trap, and I think Carter would have an aneurysm if she had to watch what passes for science in the franchise," Daniel said.
Jack frowned. Daniel's harsh commentary stung a little. "Damn, Daniel, tell us how you really feel!"
"Well, it is science-fiction," Carter said, emphasizing the word fiction. "It's not meant to stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. It's supposed to be entertaining."
"Thank you, Carter!" Jack said, then shot Daniel a smug 'in your face!' expression.
"You're right, and it's also meant to be inspirational," Daniel said.
"What's with the ominous tone there, Daniel?" Jack asked.
"I've been thinking about our… conversations with the president at Camp David," Daniel said.
More like interrogations, Jack thought. He and SG-1 had been debriefed by the president so hard, Jack felt like he was back in middle school and there was a sign taped to the back of his pants with the words: 'Please wedgie' written on it. The only fun part about the ordeal was they all got to dress up as Secret Service agents. Teal'c really looked the part and Carter… Well.
"If you haven't been thinking about how sketchy those meetings were, I'd be disappointed in you," Jack said.
"They were extremely uncomfortable," Teal'c said.
"Now, I understand why there's so much secrecy involved when it comes to the Borg, look at where we work," Daniel said. "But did anyone else notice how… I'm not sure how to phrase this."
"I think I know what you mean, Daniel," Carter said.
"Well, I don't," said Jack.
"Sir, we've all seen how nervous high-ranking officials react when confronted with the threat the Goa'uld pose. They're afraid of humanity being either enslaved or just wiped out."
"Pretty smart of them."
"Yes, sir, but when I was talking with the president it was like—"
"Careful, Captain," Jack said warningly.
They were ordered not to discuss the details of their debriefings with anyone, not even one another.
"I know, sir." Carter took a breath and looked thoughtful as she considered her next words. "I'll just say the president didn't seem very concerned about what you'd expect."
"I agree," Teal'c said.
So did Jack, but he decided to keep that to himself. The four of them were already treading dangerous ground. Instead, Jack returned his attention to Daniel.
"What's your point here, Daniel?"
"My point is after hours and hours of watching Star Trek and its many iterations and taking into account our interactions with the Borg, I've come to the conclusion we've been looking at what their presence in our world suggests all wrong."
Daniel licked his lips and raised his hand as if he was preemptively gesturing for them not to dismiss what he was about to say.
"These Borg are from Earth, and a lot of them are young and grew up watching Star Trek, and what they probably like most, besides the incredibly inaccurate science, is the show's message."
"Message?" Jack said.
Then it clicked, and Jack knew exactly what Daniel meant.
"Oh," Jack whispered.
Daniel must have heard him because he nodded, and said, "Yes. I think you were right, Jack. I think the Borg do have a secret agenda. But it's not to destroy Earth or take it over. I think they want to save it."
"Daniel, they've been saying that all along," Carter said, her gaze darting between Jack to Daniel.
"The Borg did say many times they wish to protect this world from the Goa'uld," said Teal'c, sharing Carter's confusion.
"Yeah," Jack replied. "Yeah, they have. But what Daniel means is: the Borg also want to save Earth from itself."