Afterimages by D. A. Houdek
Deanna Troi avoided certain decks of the ship, certain sections. Though she would have counseled a patient about such an aversion, tried to get him over the unreasonable sense of loathing and apprehension those areas caused, there was no one to counsel her, and no one with whom she was willing to share those feelings.
Walking through one of those tainted sections, Deanna averted her eyes from the walls. Ghosting over the antiseptically clean corridor whispered an image. The Borg presence on the ship remained to Deanna a palpable thing, vile and foul, like a stench that could not be wiped clean.
Here a crewman had been assimilated, violated in a way that made rape seem as gentle as a lover’s caress. Here another died. And here, at this junction, an assimilated crewman’s flesh had been stripped from his body, leaving only the Borg implants behind.
Deanna shuddered and walked faster.
It was not reasonable, she told herself for the hundredth time, for her to feel so. She had not even been aboard when the Borg controlled these decks. She hadn’t been here when they sucked the souls from half the crew, nor when the plasma coolant seared their last human parts from them. Distance and distraction had muted her empathic link with the crew when these things took place. She hadn’t felt it, hadn’t lived it.
Why, then, did she shiver and clench her knotted stomach every time she passed this spot?
Taking a ragged gasp, Deanna stopped. Covertly, she glanced around to see if anyone noticed her distress. No. This narrow corridor beneath the starboard warp nacelle was deserted. There were no duty stations here. This passageway only served to provide access to the nacelle. At least, she thought with a wry grimace, she didn’t have to climb up there; didn’t have to face the plasma fury again…
Deanna forcibly straightened herself and strove for composure. That incident had been on the last Enterprise, the one she crashed. A hint of a smile twitched at her lips. Will still held that one over her head, testing her resolve never to one-up him by pointing out that it was he who let an ancient Bird of Prey destroy the Federation’s flagship.
This Enterprise was new, fresh, a clean start so soon to be contaminated by the touch of the Borg. Firmly putting her confident Counselor’s smile on her face, Deanna strode forward, and stepped into the small lounge.
“Good afternoon, Ensign K’varak,” she said brightly. The Ensign’s eyes glittered as he appraised her. They always did. He always seemed to be taking stock of her and – she suspected –finding her mockingly inadequate.
It was another of the irrational thoughts and sensations that bombarded her when she was here for her sessions with K’varak. It wasn’t every session, either. At least not at first. It began as an occasional feeling of disquiet. Lately, though, the sensations had grown until now the ghosts visibly leered at her.
At first she’d probed him, trying to determine if he was the source, somehow transmitting these feelings to her, but on the occasions she’d encountered him elsewhere in the ship he’d seemed merely pleasant and innocuous. Now, as always, in this small lounge beneath the warp nacelle where he insisted they hold their sessions, he felt dangerous.
“Counselor,” K’varak returned her greeting blandly, waiting until she sat before reseating himself.
Holding her back very straight, Deanna leaned forward arranging her body so that her stance said “interested and concerned, but not judgmental.” Reaching out with her empathic sense she tried to grasp K’varak’s emotions. They remained an enigma. Emotions were there. She could sense that. She just couldn’t interpret them.
“So, Ensign,” she began, noting again that he would never initiate the conversation, “tell me about your week.”
Without stirring a muscle, nor dropping his unwavering gaze, K’varak began a monotone recitation of the week’s events. Deanna didn’t listen, not to the words or the events themselves. Instead she listened to the pattern of his word choices, to the emphasis–or lack thereof–in his sentences, to the type of things he chose to tell her, and most particularly, to those he did not.
Ensign K’varak spoke of the work in the warp nacelle, of minor problems and their repair, of his off-duty activities… All usual things. His speech lacked inflection but that Deanna attributed to his Vulcan blood. K’varak was one of a kind, literally a breed unto himself. His mixture included Vulcan, Human, Andorian, and Orion, plus–owing to the tom-catting nature of the Orions–a fair sprinkling of half a dozen other species in unknown types and quantities.
Nodding and “umming” agreeably as he talked, Deanna fought off the dark Borg presence.
“Why do you want our sessions here?” she blurted out, breaking into his tedious description of a warp phase adjustment.
K’varak blinked twice before answering. Deanna found herself blinking her own eyes, burning, she realized, in sympathetic reaction to his unnaturally long blink interval.
“You suggested it,” he responded after a brief hesitation. Hesitation or calculated pause? “Because of what happened here, and because of the dreams.”
Deanna blinked again. “Yes. Of course.” She suggested it? Hadn’t he insisted that… No, of course it was her idea, a reasonable one to counsel him here where he worked, where the Borg had been…
“And how are the dreams?” she asked using her understandingly sympathetic tone.
“Diminishing,” K’varak answered.
When he did not elaborate, Deanna said, “Well… good, then.” She stood, the Ensign managing to get to his feet a microsecond before her. His manners were nothing if not impeccable, she thought distractedly. If not for that probing stare of his…
“Well, good, then,” she repeated and started to turn, stopped and turned back. “Until next week.”
K’varak nodded, eyes fixed upon her, managing to look like he was standing at attention in the “at ease” position.
With a smile, Deanna turned away, using her bouncy, “well-adjusted” walk. As soon as she was out of K’varak’s sight she broke into a run, not even slowing to preserve her dignity as she dashed through Engineering. She couldn’t have slowed even if she’d wanted to. All the crewmen had Borg implants protruding from their eyes. Borg hands reached toward her.
The door to Captain Picard’s quarters swished aside for Deanna. As she stepped through he called for the computer to mute the music. He’d been listening to those flute tunes again, she noted absently.
“How many experiences we have in this life in Starfleet that none of our ancestors ever had?,” she murmured, more to herself than to the Captain. Hearing the mournful music made her reflect on the shadow life he’d lived, the shadow wife and shadow children he’d loved and lost, all during scant moments of unconsciousness on the Bridge. “There are no racial memories for such things – nothing in our evolution that could prepare us for what we’d encounter out here.”
“Our imaginations prepared us,” Picard said, his eyes fixed on her searchingly. “Our dreams, our nightmares, our fantasies, and our fiction. All were preparation for what awaited us among the stars.” He paused. “What experiences is it for which you were not prepared, Counselor?”
Not for the first time Deanna marveled at the Captain’s ability to grasp the whole of something from only a tiny part.
Looking at the floor, she whispered, “The Borg.”
She felt him tense, then relax, as he fought his automatic reaction to the dreaded name.
“You’re troubled by their presence on this ship, by what happened here,” Picard said, again startling Deanna with his insight. “That would have to be the case for you’ve never demonstrated any trepidation about our prior encounters with the Borg.”
“Yes, Captain… Jean Luc,” she amended, converting the conversation from official to personal. He took the cue, gesturing for her to sit down as he poured her a cup of tea from a pot sitting by the flute.
The Captain sat. Deanna sipped the tea without actually tasting it as she tried to phrase her thoughts. Her cup rattled against the saucer. She noticed the Captain’s eyebrow raise slightly at it. Carefully, she set down the cup and saucer and leaned back, feigning ease.
“I’m sorry,” she said brightly. “I shouldn’t have come here. I don’t know what I was thinking. A session with a patient disturbed me a touch but I’m fine. I’m better now.”
“No, you’re not, Deanna. Something has upset you terribly. Now tell me what it is.”
Her façade of composure slipped. She shuddered. The Captain reached over and put a steadying hand on her arm for a moment. Then, in his firm drop-the-nonsense-and-do-your-job tone that steadied panicked crewmen when the situation was grim, he said, “Tell me.”
With a weak smile, she said, “Sometimes I think you’re more empathic than I am.”
Picard cleared his throat. “It may surprise you to know, Deanna, but it doesn’t take an empath to read your feelings.”
“I’m that transparent,” she said with dismay.
“Umm. Tell me, how often do you win at poker?”
She blinked. “Oh.” Then she laughed, a genuine, unforced laugh that cleared out the last wisps of Borg ghosts. It was another of Picard’s bits of magic, she decided.
“So… tell me what’s bothering you?”
“I really can’t go into detail as it does involves a patient.”
Picard sat up and straightened his jacket, a gesture Deanna – and the entire crew – had learned to read well. “Counselor,” he said, shifting the conversation back to an official stance, “if this matter involves the Borg, you, and another crewman of this ship, you most decidedly can and will tell me about it, and in sufficient detail that I can properly evaluate the situation.”
“Yes, sir.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “It’s Ensign K’varak…”
“Starboard warp nacelle? Quiet. Unprepossessing.”
Deanna nodded. “Yes. He was in the nacelle when the Borg took over Engineering. He hid, wasn’t assimilated by the Borg, but he saw many crewman taken, and the carnage later. I’ve been counseling him for recurrent nightmares and delayed trauma.”
“You’ve counseled quite a few, myself included, regarding trauma caused by the Borg. What is it about this particular crewman, and after so long, that troubles you so?”
Deanna frowned. “It’s hard to describe, Captain. At first he didn’t stand out to me, but as our sessions continued I began to feel more and more disturbed in his presence. I… I can’t go near Engineering without seeing the bodies… the ghosts…” She shuddered. “It’s getting worse.”
“Worse for him?”
She shook her head vigorously. “Worse for me. Other than claims of bad dreams, of which he never gives details, he seems fine, repressed and unemotional – he’s part Vulcan – but fine. He doesn’t seem to have any telepathic abilities. I can’t be receiving images from the Ensign. It must be me. Or the ship.
“Either the ship is haunted, or I’m going mad.”
The Captain studied her for a long time. Then, irrelevantly, it seemed to Deanna, said, “Do you remember when young Wesley Crusher came aboard the Enterprise “D”? Time and again he annoyed us by being where children ought not be, doing what children ought not do, and knowing things none of us believed a boy his age could possibly know.”
Deanna nodded. “But what does this…?”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “He saved the ship. Not once, but several times. Yet time and again we dismissed him, wouldn’t listen to his concerns, tried to ignore the truth of what he’d accomplished, diminishing it and him. The blunt fact is that after the first time. We should have begun taking him seriously. I should have. I don’t believe in ghosts, and neither do you, certainly not in this sense.”
“What are you saying, Captain?”
Picard looked thoughtfully out at the stars streaking by. “I don’t normally remember my dreams,” he commented, irrelevantly it seemed to Deanna, “but I’m aware that recently more and more of them have been about the Borg.” He set down his tea cup and looked at her, his eyes meeting hers directly. “I’m saying that if you feel something is wrong it is not because something is wrong with you. It’s because something is wrong. And we’d better find out what it is before we’re all in serious trouble.”
Deanna fought shivers as they descended toward Engineering. She led survey crews to the places she saw the ghosts, trying to ignore their tortured forms reaching toward her. With tricorders and scanners, the crews went to work. Commander LaForge directed them to examine every cubic centimeter of the area until they found something, anything, that could account for Deanna’s sense of the Borg presence.
Leading the Captain, Will Riker, and Beverly Crusher past the crews, Deanna reached the lounge where she held her sessions with Ensign K’varak. A moment later the Ensign appeared, as blandly enigmatic as ever. Probing, she reached toward him with her empathic senses. Again she slammed into the blank wall.
“Ensign, we’d like to ask you some questions about the Borg incident,” she said, using her soothing tone.
“Yes, Ensign,” the Captain endorsed her words, turning them into an order. “Please sit. Doctor. Counselor.”
Everyone sat down in the cramped alcove except Riker who remained standing in the entry. The Ensign might never have completed the sitting process had not Riker gestured for him to sit in the presence of his superior officer. Dr. Crusher immediately and with no subtlety, began scanning K’varak with her tricorder.
“Now, Ensign,” the Captain said, “tell us what happened.”
K’varak droned for almost an hour, recounting in excruciating detail the events surrounding the Borg takeover and their subsequent defeat. It amazed Deanna how he could take such dramatic and macabre events and give them all the excitement of a Gregorian chant. As he spoke, Deanna shifted uncomfortably several times in response to another Borg ghost passing the lounge. One paused in the entry to the lounge, his image overlapping Riker’s so that Riker seemed to sprout Borg implants. Shivering, she knotted her hands together and strove not to scream.
Riker, watching her intently, smirked. Sometimes that smirk of his could be maddening, she thought, driving the ghost away with annoyance.
“Counselor.” A voice cut into her thoughts.
“Yes. Captain.” She jerked herself as if from a dream. Ensign K’varak stood as she did, Dr. Crusher and the Captain following suit. “Yes,” she repeated, wondering what had just been said. “Well. Thank you, Ensign.”
“You’re dismissed,” the Captain said quietly.
Ensign K’varak nodded and quickly left, turning toward the access to the warp nacelle.
LaForge leaned around the corner. “Nothing, Captain,” he announced. “We checked for everything we could check for. There’s nothing here but ship.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Captain Picard acknowledged. LaForge nodded and disappeared. “And you, Doctor? What did you find?”
Dr. Crusher sighed. “I’m sorry, Deanna. There’s nothing. No implants, not even molecular nanobots. He’s clean; not Borg. Of course, I’ll have him come to Sick Bay later and do a full work-up, but I can tell you we’re not going to find anything.”
“I see. Thank you, Doctor,” the Captain said. “Well. We shall have to reevaluate and decide on a new course of action.”
That meant deciding she really was mad, Deanna thought bitterly. Riker’s smirk grew wider. Sometime he really seemed to enjoy seeing her in distress.
Dr. Crusher left, followed by Captain Picard. Riker stayed in the entryway, watching Deanna. He didn’t say anything but she recognized the twinkle in his eyes and suddenly wanted nothing more than to kick sand in them.
“It was an ancient Bird of Prey commanded by two females,” she hissed as she strode past him.
“Come,” Deanna said in response to the door chime.
Will Riker stepped into her quarters. In spite of her previous annoyance, she was pleased to see him. Deanna knew that though he sometimes baited and teased her, his concern for her was genuine. He proved that now but crossing to her and, without saying a word, enfolding her in an embrace. How good and safe she felt in his arms. Yet, as always, their personal relationship stood a distant second to his role as First Officer of the Enterprise.
“Now, then,” he said commandingly as he released her. “Let’s do some work and see if we can figure out what’s going on with you.”
Deanna smiled. There was nothing mocking in his tone or actions now. Together they sat down and poured over ship’s logs from all departments, as well as her own notes, and even her personal journal, trying to find a correlation between her sensations and documented events.
After several hours, Will leaned back and yawned. “I don’t know, Deanna… We’ve been in warp with K’varak on duty in the starboard nacelle for each of the problem sessions. But we’ve been in warp with K’varak on duty a lot of times when there wasn’t a problem so that can’t be it. And the Borg don’t figure into that. I don’t see a link between you, K’varak, and the Borg anywhere.”
Deanna didn’t either. Ship’s operations had been completely normal on every occasion. “There are other telepaths on-board, but none have come to me with problems. The Vulcans wouldn’t, of course, not unless something was seriously wrong. Maybe tomorrow I’ll call them in and question them.”
Riker stood. “That’s a good idea.” He paused in the doorway, looking back at her solemnly. “We’ll keep investigating, so you just relax and try to get some sleep.”
Not even two cups of hot chocolate were enough to induce Deanna to sleep that night. Instead she sat at her computer and replayed every bit of data they had about the Borg. Somewhere in this conglomeration of information there had to be a clue as to what was happening to her.
Leaning back, she let the information pass before her without trying to process it, letting her subconscious handle the job. The computer droned on in a voice that always somewhat annoyingly reminded her of her mother’s. Eventually she closed her eyes and drifted away.
In her dreams she saw a baby on the first Borg ship with its early implants. She saw Captain Picard as a Borg, and later his scars after the implants were removed. The images drifted and distorted and she was in space calling out, feeling terribly lonely, wishing the others would answer her. Why couldn’t they hear? Wasn’t her voice like her mother’s? Couldn’t it travel without sound?
Deanna jerked awake, grasping frantically at the dream before it effervesced into nothingness. That was it. She had it. Somewhere in this information, or in herself, or both, she’d found the answer.
“Engineering, Commander LaForge,” she snapped toward the ceiling.
“LaForge here,” the disembodied voice answered a moment later.
“Geordi, do something for me and don’t ask questions. Look at the warp field, particularly around the starboard nacelle, and see if you can find any pattern in it that in any way – even slightly – resembles the pattern of the Borg subspace communications.”
“Sure, but why?”
“Never mind, just do it, please. Computer… Get me Captain Picard.” Reaching into a drawer she drew out her personal phaser. She clenched it in her hand as the Captain answered her call.
Deanna sketched out her idea as she ran down the long curving corridor toward the turbolift. “Engineering,” she told the lift. The Captain would be summoning Security. Whether to aid her or apprehend her she couldn’t say.
Racing through Engineering and the corridors beyond, Deanna ignored the bodies and blood, ignored the seared flesh and gleaming metal parts. She didn’t pause for breath at the bottom of the warp nacelle. The Borg were closing in. She climbed. Fast. Ensign K’varak would be the only one on duty. He’d been alone up there many, many nights. He’d been alone when the Borg took over. Alone.
“Counselor!” K’varak showed surprise when he saw her. It was his first evident emotion in her presence. Still she sensed nothing. The visions couldn’t be coming from K’varak. Yet they had to be.
“The images were faint at first. They’ve been growing stronger and stronger. It’s because of you. You’ve been making me see these things. It was a way to test what you were doing, wasn’t it? Test first with an empath, then increase the strength to reach the others.”
“Counselor, let me call someone for you,” K’varak said evenly.
She laughed raggedly. “They’re coming. My people, not yours. The Captain. Security. They’ll be here in a moment.” His hand rested on a panel. What did that panel do, she wondered frantically. His finger twitched on the controls. Deanna sensed the Borg. Tasted them. Felt their presence in her soul. Their voices echoed in her mind. She didn’t have to be alone. The Borg wanted to merge her voice with theirs.
The phaser wavered.
Deanna heard the Borg call to her in her mother’s voice. An end to aloneness. Resistance is futile. K’varak’s finger twitched again. The voices grew louder. Borg climbed the nacelle. One-ness is irrelevant. Resistance is futile.
No! Deanna screamed inwardly. I am me! An individual. The voices shrieked. The Borg neared. She toggled the phaser to maximum.
“Counselor Troi. What are you doing? Put down that phaser.” The Captain’s voice came from behind her.
“Deanna, please.” It was Riker’s voice. Low, he said, “It’s set to kill.” Louder, “Put it down, Deanna.” Her hand wavered. K’varak’s hand moved a millimeter toward another control.
“I can’t, Will. Captain. You have to trust me. He’s Borg.”
Captain Picard answered, “There were no implants. He can’t be a Borg.”
She shook her head. “That was our mistake. They’re not part Borg and part human. They’re all Borg. That’s what he is. Don’t you see? They made a Borg implant but out of flesh. They rewrote the genetic code, or something, to make him Borg. Maybe his unique breeding made it possible. He’s Borg. A Borg alone. You understand, Jean Luc. There are no other Borg here so he’s trying to use our warp field to… to…” She sounded mad, she realized with dismay.
“Deanna.” Will’s voice again. Pleading.
“He’s almost done. That’s why the images were getting so strong. He’s almost ready to create his new Collective. Us. And. I. Can’t. Let. Him.”
K’varak’s hand shot out toward the panel.
Deanna’s finger convulsed on the trigger.
The Captain and Riker lunged forward.
K’varak fell, his hand missing the panel. He twitched, then died. Deanna screamed and dropped the phaser as Riker’s strong arms enfolded her, pinning her arms to her side.
“Captain Picard!” Geordi LaForge’s urgent cry came over the intercom.
“Recommend we get out of warp immediately. We’re generating a Borg signal pattern!”
Picard looked at her. Blinked, swallowed, then calmly said, “Make it so.”
“…used his position in the nacelle to adjust the warp field into a simulation of the subspace link the Borg use.” LaForge reported. “It was so subtle and hidden we’d have never noticed the distortion until it was too late.”
“Somehow finding the frequency or pattern to tap into Deanna’s empathic senses,” Will Riker added. “We’ve since found others on the ship were starting to have bad dreams and feelings of unease as K’varak increased the power.”
“Ummm…” Picard nodded.
“K’varak, because of his unusual breeding, had an almost undocumented type of telepathy,” Dr. Crusher inserted. “He couldn’t transmit directly but by way of the signal he imbedded in the warp field could communicate indirectly with Counselor Troi. That’s why she couldn’t sense him as the source, even though he was.”
Deanna said softly, “He was Borg. And alone. He needed other Borg. But there was also a loyal Enterprise crewman still trapped inside. He fought back the only way he could.” She looked up and swallowed. “It was his telepathic suggestion that caused me to put the phaser on kill. For him, ultimately, resistance was not futile.”
“He died a hero. The log shall so note it,” the Captain said.
For a moment they held the silence, then LaForge, Riker, and Crusher quietly left.
“So, it’s all gone, Counselor? The ‘ghosts’?” Captain Picard asked over a cup of tea. It was good tea, she thought, tasting it carefully.
“Yes. But I’d almost prefer them back.”
She stared into her cup and wrestled with the inner demons, ones as potent as those Picard had fought after his capture by the Borg.
“I was in telepathic contact with him, Jean Luc – intimate, personal contact – at the moment I killed him.”