Disclaimer: The characters of Star Trek: Voyager are owned by and are the property of Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended by this fiction.

Never, ever start a new story when you're beginning a new life halfway across the world. This second chapter was composed over a three month period in Japan. The lesbianism and drug addiction that I alluded to at the end of Chapter Two will now make themselves apparent, but if you're adverse to these sorts of things, rest assured there is nothing explicit, and it's really peripheral to the story. I make no apologies if you're offended by this sort of thing – but I probably should apologise for the massive swathes of internal monologue. Sorry about that. Anyway, chapter two is a bit of a monster, so enjoy.


Chapter 2

John Holden thought he had a pretty good idea of what fear was. Chief of Security on board the USS Demeter, he had served Starfleet for twenty-two years, and had encountered some of the most dangerous aliens the universe had to offer. He had faced down a trio of Balthorans, ill-tempered giants with the strength to contort human beings like balloon animals. His veins had flowed with the venom of the Termagents, and he had lain for days in a hellish fever, his body a seething mass of boils and tumours. Through some atrocious miscarriage of justice, he had spent weeks in a Tartaruscan prison camp, surrounded by a multitude of brutes, murderers and worse. It sometimes seemed to him that some creatures had been painstakingly crafted by nature simply to kill and maim, their only purpose in life to visit misery and death upon weaker organisms. John Holden had faced death and injury in a hundred different ways, and he was quite certain that he had experienced fear in all of its many forms.

But it was an altogether different kind of menace that attended to the new guest aboard the Demeter, an altogether different kind of unease that prevailed now among its crew. She was an exceptionally beautiful woman, yet she evoked in those who caught sight of her the most oppressive feelings of revulsion and disquiet. It was the way the scars criss-crossed the left side of her perfectly proportioned face; it was the way her smooth skin and long, flowing hair had been drained of almost all of their colour. She boasted a flawless physique, but there was something unnerving about how she carried herself; Holden discerned a kind of dreadful readiness in the way the woman stalked around the corridors of his ship, as if the manner in which she simply walked held some indistinct but undeniable promise of violence. And although, in their dealings with her, the crew found her to be rational and entirely reasonable, her eyes burned always with some deep-rooted, underlying madness. She was the most remarkable juxtaposition of the captivating and the repellent Holden had ever seen, at once an embodiment of the human ideal of beauty, and a perverse, twisted parody.

Only the Demeter's most senior personnel were made aware of the reason behind their detour to Arius. When she contacted the ship with their new orders, Admiral Janeway made it clear that she expected the utmost discretion; few on board would have any idea that they were delivering a corpse to Earth, and said corpse would reside for the duration of the journey in a nondescript casket in Cargo Bay Two. Instead, Captain Spaulding was confronted by the most intimidating woman he had met in his life, who proceeded to inform him that she would require a regeneration alcove installed in her guest quarters.

Thus, it was quite a surprise, and completely unexpected, when the crew of the Demeter found her on their ship. Everyone knew who she was, of course. Kathryn Janeway may have battled the Borg and led her people home through the Delta Quadrant, but it was always Seven of Nine that commanded the fascination of the men and women of Earth. When Voyager reached home, her image found its way to every corner of the Federation; the years spent on Arius had altered her considerably, but there was no mistaking this woman when she appeared as if from nothing on the ship.

It was up to Holden to show the guest to her quarters. "You can access the database from this terminal here. Your room is also equipped with a replicator, so you should have everything you need, but if you feel like something different, you should try the Eatery on Deck Four. If there's anything else you need, you should contact the Liaisons Officer."

Seven nodded. "Please inform this ship's doctor that I will not be undergoing any medical examinations for the duration of this journey."

A frown crossed Holden's face. "All personnel and passengers are required to take medical examinations. It's part of the rules, ma'am."

Seven fixed him with that grim stare. "I am under no obligation to accompany this ship to Earth. If your captain wishes for me to stay on board, he shall need to grant me that concession."

"Very well, ma'am." Spaulding would most likely acquiesce to her condition; the Admiral expected Seven to be delivered to Earth, dead or not, and Spaulding was not the type of man who would want to disappoint her.

Arius loomed large in the viewport. The entire surface of the planet was obscured from their vision by a dense shroud of dust and debris; no sooner had Seven arrived, three years ago, than the sirens sounded and the Borg came, bringing with them the nuclear winter. The people of Arius would not be subdued by photon bombardment or airborne viruses, so the Borg decided instead to subject them to freezing temperatures and perpetual darkness. She was on the central avenue when it happened; everyone had stopped and stood, gazing upwards as the smoke spread across the sky and the light retreated from their world. She felt the most crushing sense of finality, at that moment, as the sun disappeared behind the blackness, and darkness swallowed the planet, and she knew that she was never going back.

"Is there anything else, ma'am?"

Seven snapped out of her reverie. "I will be bringing a selection of weaponry with me to Earth."

Holden nodded. "Yes, Security has already received your weapons. They will be returned to you as soon as we get there." The woman had brought a small arsenal with her on board; that had certainly caused a stir among the officers in the armoury. And she possessed some of the most exotic weaponry Holden had ever seen; some weapons were obviously Borg in nature, but there were also biological arms, which produced ammunition internally. He would never forget the look on his colleagues' faces when Seven informed them that a particularly large and sinister-looking rifle would require feeding.

The hiss of doors opening, a gasp of surprise, and Seven and Holden turned to face the entrance. A young woman stood in the doorway, amazement on her face. Her eyes fluttered around the room, and then she looked at Seven.

"Is this where we're staying?"

"Yes. These are our private quarters."

The newcomer mouthed a silent 'wow', and stepped timorously into the room. She was no older than twenty, and slight as a flower, brown bangs falling either side of a heart-shaped face. She seemed enchanted by the apartment, her gaze darting to the dinner table, the replicator, the bed, the large plant in the corner. Then she remembered herself, and turned to Holden. "Oh, hello. I'm Inoa."

"Inoa will be accompanying me to Earth," Seven informed him.

"That's right, I saw your name on the manifest." Inoa was nineteen. She was not native to Arius; her people were the Tamahri, a species that had been decimated by the Borg. "Well, I have other duties to attend to, so if it's alright with you both I'll excuse myself. Make yourselves comfortable, and if either of you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask."

With that, he left them to themselves. The last thing he heard as the doors slid shut behind him was Inoa whispering excitedly to Seven. "This ship is incredible!"

The journey home passed slowly. Inoa seemed smitten with the ship; the world that the girl had once called home never achieved the level of technological advancement that the Federation had, and it went without saying that the squalor and deprivation of Arius bore little comparison to the luxury which now surrounded her. The lure of replicators, holodecks and turbolifts proved too much for an orphan from a destroyed world, and she whiled away the trip wandering giddily around the vessel.

"This ship is incredible! I went into the turbo lift this morning, and it knew my name, and it knew where I wanted to go without me telling it because I always go to the holodecks in the morning. And Akimoto, he's the chef down in the Eatery, he told me that they have the recipes for seventy-thousand different dishes from all over the Federation, and that they can make every one of them. Although, everyone keeps asking about you, Seven."

From her seat by the viewport: "What do they ask?"

"How tall you are." Seven raised an eyebrow. "Where you got those weapons. What your favourite colour is. Who your best friends on Voyager were. What you think of Earth's new President. They want to know why you never go to the Eatery, and what exactly you're eating from that replicator."

Seven acknowledged that she hadn't made the most earnest effort to associate with the ship's crew. She was sure that many on board the Demeter would have liked the chance to speak with her, but she would not afford them many opportunities; she hid it well, but the injuries she had sustained in recent times sapped her strength and left her almost constantly exhausted; she was scarcely inclined to pass her time telling stories to ensigns, and so it was that she spent the greater part of her journey in the private quarters that had been assigned to her. She imagined her old friend, the Doctor, chastising her for being unsociable, but she didn't let it bother her. Little did he know, he would find much to disapprove of when she got back to Earth.

In the confines of that room, the journey home took on a fitful, spasmodic quality; no doubt the medication that Seven had brought with her from Arius heightened the sense of strangeness. Living on a planet, individuals find order in the alternation of the sun and the stars, and the passing between day and night; even in space, the crewman's life is regulated by shifts and schedules. But time seemed to have left the room in which Seven stayed; the light cast by the apartment's lamps burned always at the same dim intensity, and day and night and lunch and afternoon and breakfast and dusk lost all meaning. The journey would persist in Seven's memories as a montage of eating, sleeping, reading, fucking and thinking, but most of all thinking, hours spent in that chair by the viewport, her gaze lost amidst the passing stars.

Tuesday morning found Seven in that very chair, a PADD in her lap. It was oh three hundred hours; Inoa slumbered in the bed across from her, her soft breathing and the ever-present hum of the warp core the only sounds to be heard. It was completely dark, but Seven's vision was not that of a normal human being, and she could already make out beads of perspiration starting to form on the girl's skin. Come the morning, Inoa would wake shaking and drenched in sweat, her body screaming for that which it craved.

Seven directed her attention back to the PADD. The Demeter would finally reach Earth in a few hours, and ever since they had come within transmission range, Seven had been receiving messages from the Voyager alumni; Tom Paris and Harry Kim were to meet her at McKinley Station, and the Doctor had arranged dinner in Madrid. Seven felt a surge of pride when she learned that Icheb served as an ensign aboard the USS Montenegro; he had been en route to Earth to attend her memorial, but was required to resume his duties when it became apparent that she was, in fact, still alive.

That man has had his limbs removed. That was the first thought that entered Seven's head when she gained consciousness, early one morning, in a medical bay in the Borg rebel base. He lay on the bed adjacent to hers; her comrades had retrieved him during one of their forays into a Borg cube, extracting him from an assimilation chamber, but not before his hive captors had taken away his arms and legs. He lay there, serenely, his skin devoid of colour save for that ghastly greenish hue that indicates infection by nanoprobes. A Borg node protruded from the flesh at each point where his limbs had been severed from his body; only when she rose to a sitting position could she see that his left eyeball had been dispensed with as well.

She had tried to marshal her thoughts. She remembered downing painkillers before her mission into the cube. That was ill-advised; she was also taking neuro-enhancers to help her better interface with the hive computer. Truth be told, she had no idea exactly how many different substances were circulating in her body; something had probably clashed with something else, her mental agility had been dulled, and she'd fallen into one of many neural traps laid by the hive mind.

This was how Seven came to spend two weeks in a coma. Eventually, the specialists on Arius had been able to return her neural pathways to something approaching functionality. When she came to, a medic informed her that a human vessel was hovering in orbit, waiting to take possession of her remains. She realized that the only decent thing to do was to go with them; her former Voyager colleagues were all gathering on Earth for her memorial, and even she recognized that it would have been the most atrocious discourtesy to ignore them and remain on Arius. But there were other reasons she left. She thought of that man lying on the bed in the medical bay. She thought of Inoa, bent over a table, snorting fluorescent red powder off a mirror's surface. She thought of a particular Borg drone, lurching about despite the fact that she had decapitated it. She thought of venturing aboard Borg cubes, her blood swimming with narcotics and barbiturates.

Seven knew that she could die here. She knew that every moment she stayed here, she could be killed, or assimilated, or left lying helpless on a bed in the infirmary. Seven was no fool; she knew these things when she set out from Earth three years ago, but they didn't bother her, and she wasn't afraid. She also knew that Inoa could be left alone without anyone in the universe, and even though that did frighten her, still it was not what drove her from Arius. What suddenly became apparent when she woke up that particular morning, was the sheer insanity that characterized her existence on Arius. She could see it in the limbless man lying prone beside her. She could see it in Inoa's eyes, and the expression of deranged, pathetic relief on her face when she realized Seven was going to be okay. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had seen it every day she lived here. She had seen it in the faces of two eleven year-old twins, standing before the rubble of their home, their parents crushed to death beneath it. She had seen it in the suicide of one hundred men, women and children in the shelters while the Borg bombarded the city above. Every day brought some new, ghastly spectacle; every morning that she woke, Seven knew that some fresh horror was waiting for her. Arius was insanity; perverse, obscene, and Seven had allowed it to consume her life.

But that's what you wanted, isn't it? That's what you came here for, was it not?

No. Don't think of that.

Seven was out of her chair, wandering the room. No doubt the crew of the Demeter would have found the situation appropriately sinister: a madwoman pacing up and down a darkened room, an innocent-looking girl slumbering unaware in the bed in the corner. It was ten past three. She needed something to do, she needed some way to pass the time, and it was than that she was seized by a strange impulse.

She began rummaging in the cabinet next to the bed, until she found a different PADD, and brought up their Privilege Account screens. When they came aboard the Demeter, Seven and Inoa had both been allocated a certain number of hours for use in the holodeck. Seven had given Inoa all of her hours; she had simply thought that the girl would appreciate the hours more, although Inoa had a suspicion that Seven was trying to get rid of her.

Seven felt that she would never understand the appeal that holodecks held for others. Of course, they had considerable practical use, as in the case of training simulations, but the point of recreational programs eluded her completely. And she knew that she would never, never fathom how a Starfleet crew, stranded seventy thousand light years from home, could believe that time and energy was just as well spent battling Chaotica and Queen Arachnia as focussing on ways of getting back to their world.

From some dark corner of her mind, a voice drifted up. Seven, lighten up. It was Torres.

Seven, if everyone here did nothing but work, we'd all go crazy. Harry Kim, this time.

Geez, the Borg really sucked every bit of fun out of you, didn't they? Torres, again.

Perhaps she was lacking in imagination or creativity, but if the three years on Arius had taught her anything, it was that personal fulfilment cannot be found in moving images. Early this Tuesday morning, however, Seven was particularly curious about something, and to satisfy that curiosity, she needed a holodeck.

She brought up Inoa's account, and was relieved to find that the girl had not squandered all of her holodeck hours. Seven had already gotten Inoa addicted to recreational drugs, and she did not want to be responsible for her developing holo-addiction as well.

She set off through the ship. Seven had always found that a ship's atmosphere was at its most peculiar early in the morning, and this vessel was no exception. The bulk of the crew were asleep in their beds. She passed the Eatery, completely dark, chairs stacked on top of tables, no hint of the energy and bustle that abounded there during the day. Mister Akimoto had sent Inoa home last night with a message for Seven: our new Gujarati vegetarian menu is not to be missed!

The corridors were practically empty, and bleary-eyed night-shift officers were few in number; any that she did encounter started in surprise when they saw her approaching. Seven idly wondered if sleep-deprivation on the part of the beholder enhanced her menacing appearance. Then she realised that it wouldn't have mattered whether Inoa had left her holodeck hours or not; the crew seemed so perturbed by their Borg guest that no man or woman on board would have stood in her way, holodeck hours or no.

She reached Holodeck Two, and stepped inside. "Computer," she called, crossing to the centre of the room, and the computer beeped in response. "I wish to consult with a famous personality."

"Please specify the personality."

A moment's hesitation, a sharp intake of breath. She knew that what she was doing was bizarre, but 'bizarre' was quite a fitting description of everything she had experienced up to this point.

"Seven of Nine."

The Starfleet database contains records on a mind-boggling number of individuals, individuals alive and dead, individuals fictional and historical. The information which it compiles as pertaining to these individuals can range from the mundane, as in dates of birth, ancestry, nationality, leisure interests, sexual preference, taste in music, and so on, to the utterly obscure, for example favourite numbers, preferred footwear, and any number of quirks and idiosyncrasies that can be uncovered by a Federation researcher. From the totality of this information, a ship's computer is able, through inference, deduction and a considerable amount of guesswork and abstraction, to generate an approximation of a given individual's personality. Through the holodeck, the computer is thus able to offer a representation of that personality, a simulacrum of a specified individual, that acts and responds, presumably, in the same way that their original counterpart does. The trouble is, this simulacrum can be no more than an approximation.

Before Seven, there materialized a representation of Seven of Nine, as requested. But the information that the database had filed on Seven was three years out of date; this Seven had expected to be the case, as no researcher had come to Arius in the three years she had been there (There had always been a certain antipathy from her Borg comrades towards the Federation; the consensus was that the mighty United Federation of Planets was unwilling to lend its assistance to the people that kept the Borg from their borders). The woman that stood before Seven now was the Seven of Nine of several years ago. This was the woman that the people of the Federation came to know when Voyager returned to Earth, or, more properly, the computer's best guess of who that woman was; the woman that Seven faced now was an abstraction, an ideal, a media construct.

Surprise registered on the simulacrum's face as it realized who it was looking at. Then she noticed the scars on Seven's face.

"You are damaged," she remarked.

Seven wondered what she should say. "Yes", I little wearily. "I am."

A moment's uncertainty, then: "Report to sickbay. The Doctor will repair you."

Seven let the command hang in the air a beat. "Why?"

The hologram wavered another moment. "Your scars serve no purpose."

"I am not inclined to have them removed."

She thought about this, then let it pass. "As you wish. Cosmetic appearance is irrelevant."

Everything is irrelevant.

Seven began to circle her duplicate; it eyed her warily the whole time. The hologram was wearing the bodysuit for which she was infamous. Seven had actually retained her penchant for outfits that were seemingly moulded to the contours of her body, but three years in Arius had taught her much about sexuality. She knew that her style of dress aboard Voyager must have attracted much comment from her colleagues, and she would probably have agreed that naivety was a big factor in her being able to walk around in such costumes.

But did her crewmates really believe that mere naivety, simple cluelessness about sex, was the only reason that she had opted for these outfits in the first place? She had not realised it even then, but examining the hologram now, it became clear that those outfits were an expression of that ideal that the Borg understood to be perfection. It was evident in the outfit's simplicity, in its functionality, in the way it perfectly represented the form which wore it. Perfection is the flawless representation of an object. Perfection is the complete eschewal of unnecessary or extraneous features or characteristics. Perfection is the point beyond which a given thing or object cannot be further refined or improved. Perfection is that than which nothing better or greater is possible or conceivable. Perfection is the whole; perfection is simplicity itself.

Unfortunately, perfection is also what caused Seven of Nine's world to fall to pieces. Seven had never given up her belief that the Borg would one day achieve perfection. Perhaps she had never subjected this belief to sufficient scrutiny, although, during her years on Voyager, she had felt a certain twinge of guilt for believing as she did, especially considering that which the Collective's pursuit of perfection had cost the universe. But she always took it for granted that if the Borg could assimilate enough species, and acquire enough technology, they would eventually arrive at that singular, all-encompassing objective.

There are a number of reasons that the concept of perfection holds so much importance for the Borg. To begin with, the Hive's collective memory stretches back no further than one thousand years. Furthermore, clues as to the origins of the Borg are practically non-existent. The Hive has no idea as to how they came to be; it is as if the Collective simply popped into existence. These are extraordinary circumstances, to say the least; any species, no matter how advanced, can follow its evolutionary path through its forebears and less sophisticated organisms. The Borg thus conceive of themselves as phenomena of the universe, coming into existence as if from the very stuff of reality itself, and this in mind, they have set out across the cosmos, trying to unveil its secrets and uncover its mysteries. The Borg believe that there is an underlying rationality to what goes on in the universe, that every event and happening that occurs in the universe does so in accordance with some fundamental law or principle. If they were to discover this underlying principle, Perfection, they could account for everything that happens in the universe, and thus finally establish an explanation for their own existence. In this way, it can be seen how the notion of perfection takes on an almost religious significance for the Collective.

But perfection carries with it further meaning for the Hive. Perfection does not only only promise to explain the Collective's current existence – it promises to end it. All the Borg have known, ever since they came to be one thousand years ago, is an existence of conquest, and assimilation. Popular opinion envisages the Borg drone as utterly without emotion, and while it is true that the Borg derive no pleasure or enjoyment from the destruction of other races and species, it is entirely incorrect to say that such a state of being does not make its effect known on the Hive Mind's collective sanity. The Borg assimilate because it is their nature to do so; they know nothing else. But the cruel irony is that this existence, of genocide, murder, violation, torture and disfigurement, infects the Hive Mind itself, spreading madness to every single drone in the universe, and brings chaos to the very order in which the Borg place so much importance. In one twisted respect, the Borg are much like the explorers of Starfleet; they have flung themselves on an arduous journey across the stars, in the hope of making sense of their place in the universe. When the Borg achieve perfection, there will be no need to assimilate any longer. When the Borg achieve perfection, their long, difficult journey will be over. When the Borg achieve perfection the drones can rest. When the Borg achieve perfection, their terrible, agonising existence will be at an end. Perfection is what carries the Collective across the universe, and it will be with the arrival at perfection that the journey will end.

Seven spoke much of perfection whilst on board Voyager, especially during her early years, but the peculiar thing was that, despite the fact that it was her foremost obsession, no one on that ship ever thought to ask her exactly what perfection was. Perhaps it was inevitable that Seven's world would one day subvert itself so appallingly. Perhaps there was some way that she could have maintained a degree of inner peace. Perhaps, and this was something that had definitely occurred to Seven, perhaps the madness, that terrible insanity that accumulated in the Hive mind and filtered down into every drone in the Collective, had festered inside her for years and finally erupted.

It was no particular event that set off the change in Seven, no trauma or life-altering event. The catalyst for the transformation had always been inside of her. It was the memories of her life as a drone. Seven always remembered perfectly what she had experienced when part of the Collective, but she guessed that at first she never comprehended the full significance of the things she had done, or the things she had seen. Again, the question of naivety.

She understood now. How could she have been so blind? How could she have failed to understand for so long? The universe was not perfect. This fact alone was manifestly obvious, at least to anyone who had to endure Mr. Kim's inefficiency day in, day out for four years. But the thing is, not only is the universe not perfect, perfection does not exist. There is no underlying reason or rationality to anything that happens - the universe is insane.

How could she have been so mistaken, how could she remain ignorant to the truth for her entire adult life? And how could the Collective have failed to see reality for what it really is, when reality stared them in the face every moment that they existed? Reality is the screams of the conquered as the nanoprobes work their way through their bodies. Reality is the columns of maturation chambers, foetuses and embryos stacked hundreds of metres high, that revolting green solution mutating and deforming their premature bodies. Reality is the eyes and limbs and flesh torn from sentient creatures and disposed of because such organs serve no purpose. Reality is the unconscious misery of untold trillions of drones, gradually accumulating and leaking into the Hive mind, slowly rendering the great cosmic creature that is the Borg Collective completely, irreversibly insane.

Seven cared little for guilt. She allowed herself feel no remorse for the things she had done as a Borg drone; her mind had not been her own. She remembered that Commander Chakotay had once likened her situation to that of Bajoran prisoners of war, forced by the Cardassians to build weapons for use against their own people. She had effectively been employed as slave labour by the Hive for eighteen years, and it made no sense to suggest that she should be culpable for what she had done during that time. But this revelation had left her completely lost. She never had the courage to admit it to her Voyager companions, but Seven had always kept within her a small pang of love for her old Collective. Of course, she appreciated full well what the Borg had done to her, and the injuries that had been inflicted upon her. But the fact was, Annika Hansen had ceased to exist that day when the Borg boarded her parents ship. It was left to Seven of Nine to make her way in the world, and Seven knew that she was as much in debt to the Collective as she was Kathryn Janeway.

Seven had never given up her belief in perfection. She had never stopped believing that the Borg would one day be emancipated from their terrible existence. When she was a drone, perfection was the end towards which her every thought was directed; it was the object towards which her every action was taken. And now, she had realized that that object did not exist. More than twenty years of her life had been spent in the pursuit of an illusion. More than twenty years of her life had been wasted. She tried to imagine all the hundreds of star systems that the Borg had traversed. She tried to get her head round the thousands of species that the Borg had devoured. She tried to imagine the countless trillions of minds bent to the will of the Hive, the countless trillions of lives that had been destroyed, all in the name of something that simply wasn't there.

The Borg were a joke.

The Borg, the most fearsome race in the galaxy, were the brunt of an almost unfathomable, cosmic joke.

She never shared her revelation with her friends from Voyager. She could predict with dispiriting ease how they would all respond to the bombshell that the world was not perfect. Again, she could hear the voices drifting up from the darkness.

You don't need to talk to me about imperfection, Seven. It was the Doctor. I worked for four years with Mr. Paris for an assistant medic.

Next, B'Elanna Torres. I'm sorry to break it to you, Seven, but none of us ever really thought you were perfect to begin with.

Welcome to the human race, Seven! That was the Admiral.

They were not capable of understanding. Human beings owe their evolution to error and imperfection. They embrace their flaws as virtues.

It didn't help that while she was trying to process all that she had discovered, she was also expected to adjust to life on a new world. She detested that planet; the years spent on Earth were the worst of her life, and she hated it with every fibre of her being. She hated the twee little niceties and meaningless platitudes. She hated the pointless social conventions. She hated the inflated sense of importance, the self-worthiness. She hated the humans for the hundreds of thousands of little ways they imposed their feeble order on this demented, deranged universe, their capacity for delusion surpassed only by the Collective.

She needed to be elsewhere. She needed to be anywhere but here, but she needed to go some place where the atmosphere was more conducive to her current frame of mind. That was when Arius first began to beckon to her.

After Seven had departed for Arius, her Voyager colleagues, and the wider public in general, were not short on theories as to the reason why she left. Some thought she had gone in order to prove herself to Admiral Janeway, after having failed so utterly to adapt to life on Earth. Some thought she she had left in order to be among her own. Others believed she had gone to help free other drones from the Collective. Some even suggested that the big 'Arius adventure' was an attempt to garner attention and publicity; they were clearly unaware of how virulently Seven had come to hate the media after her first few months on Earth.

Like most others in the Federation, Seven had seen the reports on Arius in the news service. She had seen the images of the streets, strewn with rubble, peppered with blast marks. She knew that when the rain came, the drains overflowed and effluence bubbled up to the surface. She knew that when the Borg came, sirens could be heard all over the world, and thousands of people crowded into massive shelters. She had heard the remarks to the effect that if you had to die on Arius, it would be best to be crushed beneath a falling building; no one would come to claim your corpse, but at least you would have something like a proper burial, and your carcass would not be left out on the street to the attentions of the sun and the flies.

Seven was under no misconceptions about what Arius was like. She knew that no glory awaited her there, whatever it was that humans understood by 'glory'. But even at such a massive distance, Seven began to feel the strangest affinity with that world. In Arius, Seven could perceive that which had gone undetected by her for so long: the Universe. Arius was suffering. Arius was fear. Arius was privation. Arius was injustice. Arius was constant, violent upheaval. Arius was the Universe. Seven had seen the Universe, and she felt overwhelmed by it, but if she was to make sense of it, she would need to venture out and experience it.

Even the Borg have dreams. But this drone's dreams had fled from her. She went to Arius.

Resurfacing from her thoughts, Seven regarded the hologram before her. In the light of all she had learned up to this point, the woman that stood before her seemed the embodiment of innocence, unsullied by the Universe; admittedly absurd, considering all that she had been through.

Then the comm system came to life, and John Holden's voice sounded throughout the Demeter. "We'll be arriving at Earth in a little over two hours. All morning shift personnel report to their stations."

Seven took one last look at the woman she had been three years ago. The woman that had departed from McKinley Station all that time ago.

"Computer, end program."

If Seven's contemplations had gone uninterrupted, her thoughts would have eventually turned to her experiences after leaving McKinley. She would have reflected upon her time amongst the Borg rebels. And she would have thrilled at the unlikeliest, most improbable irony, that Perfection was to be found, of all places, on Arius.

But the Demeter was drawing closer to Earth. Seven left Holodeck Two, and returned to her quarters. Inoa sat in bed, applying a hypospray to her arm. She showered, dressed, and helped Seven to pack.

I obsessed over this chapter for three months. I'm still not happy with it, but in the end I realized life's too short to be agonizing over a fanfic, so I just threw the sucker up. Thank you for reading (especially if you got through the whole thing). Reviews are always welcome; I've no idea when the next update is coming, but I've got to get this story out of my system, so I'll keep on plugging.