The thick humid jungle moaned around them as the initial shafts of First Sun’s light made patchwork filigrees on the upper canopy. The night was mostly gone and, with it, their last chance to catch and dispatch the Beast.
"Stop fidgeting, Aryki," said Nika softly. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Nika was masked in the Hunt Gear so all Aryki could see was her eyes flashing gray in the early morning dark. Hunt Gear was lovely for hiding in the Wood, covering the body as it did in bands of thick dark leather, but it was murder on the shoulders. Worse than that, as the uppermost bands crissed and crossed over her head, the hunt gear hid Nika's face. Aryki thought Nika's face was beautiful.
"Is something out there?" he said, hoping not.
She raised a finger, shushing him again, and nodded. Something was out there. He could sort of feel it too, a little. It was a strange stillness at the far end of the thicket in which they crouched. He regretted instantly volunteering to accompany her on the Trek. He wasn't as good at it as Nika. No one was, really– except Kote, who was even better– but Aryki fancied himself the worst of all. He was clumsy in the wood, stumblefooted. The hunt gear chafed him in places he preferred not to think about or discuss.
He wanted the Scholary, he suddenly realized. He wanted it more than ever, dusty tomes and all. Trek was duty though. Until The Beast was downed it was only fair that everyone, even the scholars, should take their turn. He just wished he enjoyed it as much as Nika.
"Be still," she said, her voice little more than a whisper's ghost. Unlike the noises he made, her words were eaten instantly by the surrounding green. "Wait here."
She motioned for him to stay put, stepped out into the thick foliage and was instantly gone, melting into the greenery like evaporating dew. Aryki let his hand fall to his chargestaff. He wasn't particularly adept with that either but, as it was the only weapon that gave the Beast pause, he was bolstered by its presence.
Raise. Point. Sharp twist. Fire, he thought. Simple.
The staff was as tall as he was, encrusted with shining black stones at either end. Something in the stones' nature let them store ambient electricity and release it on command. He didn't exactly know the mechanics but was determined to make a real study of them upon his return to the enclave. If they returned.
The Beast had taken fourteen from this enclave so far, leaving nothing of them behind but the memory. Only Nika had ever survived an encounter with the thing and she had been left with a hole in her memory, writhing in a fitful delirium for days. When she finally woke it was with a scared face and a thirst for revenge that bordered on the maniacal.
Nika never missed a Trek after that, not once.
The brush rustled slightly nearby and Aryki's staff was in his hand, ready for use.
"It's near," said Nika as she emerged from the green. "Be ready."
Be ready? thought Aryki, pessimism and terror fighting for domination of his mind. Just the two of us?
They— well, Nika— had tracked the creature back and forth across the night-shrouded forest, doing their best to catch it, kill it if they could, but also to keep it so occupied that it didn’t have time to snatch another of the Folk from within the enclave. How Nika managed to follow the Beast was anybody’s guess but she had done it, keeping them just behind it and just out of its reach as well.
Aryki was happiest about the latter. The insanity of the Trek had landed on him fully scant seconds after following Nika into the night. Why were they sending folk out in twos when tens or sixties would make more sense? He resolved to take that very question up with Atherh when he and Nika returned. If they returned.
"When it comes," she said, her voice a soft buzz in his ear."Don't run. Hold your ground and fire."
Aryki nodded. He wasn't a warrior but failure in front of Nika was a fate worse than whatever the Beast might offer. In his dreams Aryki was often a heroic scholar, a warrior of distinction among others like himself. It was those dreams that had spurred him to draw lots for the Trek.
He felt Nika’s gaze on him and hardened his resolve. He forced the tremble out of his hands and set his jaw. At first nothing happened. It continued not to happen for another little while until Aryki felt another fidget coming on. A second sharp glance from Nika put a stop to that.
He was just about to ask her what the thing looked like when the air or the foliage or the whole world went still around them.
Atherh met the Night Guard just as the shift was changing. She was a smallish woman with quiet eyes and ways but what she lacked in stature she made up for in grit. The Folk had never needed a leader but, with the coming of the Beast, one was required. Atherh hadn't really wanted the job; as First Scholar she was content to spend her days deciphering ancient tomes and scrolls but the Beast’s coming had forced the leadership role upon her. After the first takings, Atherh had been the one to organize the Night Guard. This was a group of the strongest Folk, the best with the chargestaff, those with the keenest eyes and ears who would walk the enclave's perimeter from dusk to dawn. The Beast mostly snatched its victims after dark and the Night Guard seemed to be a deterrent. It had taken six before Atherh had stepped up to organize the others.
"Any sight of the Trekkers?" she asked Kote. The big man shook his head. Lateness was a bad sign.
"I was just about to send two more in after them," he said.
Atherh had not had much to do with Kote before the Beast's arrival. She was First Scholar and he, First of the Hunt. The stratified lives of the Folk kept the groups mostly apart for everything but Harvest and Feast. The Beast had changed that as well. Now Kote lead the Night Guard, deferring to Atherh only in that her mind had proven the better one when it came to matters of defense. The Treks had been his idea.
They had quarreled over how many to put on the guard and how many to leave for the Treks only compromising when the enclave’s new mediator forced a solution upon them.
Pairs of hunters, Trekkers now, would go out to stalk and, it was hoped, kill the Beast, leaving the rest to guard the enclave through the night.
"Don't send anyone else," said Atherh after a moment's thought. "If they come out wounded we'll tend to them."
"And if they don't come out?" said Kote.
Atherh shrugged. "Then we'll know what happened."
Atherh turned to go. The Day Guard was a less significant operation than the Night. The Beast never came while the suns were up. At night it moved in the jungle, in the enclave, even among the Folk with invisible impunity, taking whomever it wished and leaving no trace. It left them the day to grieve and plan.
Atherh had only instituted the Day Guard because she'd felt it unwise to take chances. So far whoever the Beast wanted, the Beast got. All but one.
"It was Nika," said Kote.
"It's always Nika," said Atherh.
"Nika and Aryki," finished Kote and watched coolly as the news stopped Atherh in her tracks. Then he went on. "I told him Scholars were exempted but he insisted he be allowed to go. Said he drew the lot just the same as Nika."
Not quite the same, thought Atherh. Nika always drew the lot. How many Treks was this for her now? Six? Seven? Nine? Atherh had tried to dissuade the woman from swapping with others in order to go on every single Trek but Nika's intransigence made her warnings futile. Frankly, a part of her was secretly glad Nika spent as much time as she did hunting the Beast.
Nika made Atherh as uncomfortable as she did the others. She was so different since that first terrible encounter. Before she had fended off The Beast— or escaped, or just been lucky— no one was sure and Nika herself couldn’t remember— Nika had been a happy smiling woman, gregarious, even playful at times.
Since she’d come back from her delirium something had changed in the Second Hunter— for the worse. She was colder than she had been, less apt to smile or share in a joke, almost mechanical in some ways. It was unnerving to say the least, especially so when coupled with her new zeal to be the one to kill the creature herself. Nika had always been an efficient hunter but never a bloodthirsty one.
And Aryki going with her? What''s that about?
The little scholar's affection for the hunter was painfully evident to everyone- except Nika herself ironically- but for it to lead him to join the Trek? Love and madness are often the same, she thought, allowing a rueful smile to curl her mouth.
Kote was surprised to see the little grin. He'd expected some response to the news of Aryki being off Trekking– a shudder, a tear, even one of the infinite series of aphorisms Atherh had culled from the Scholary. He was disappointed. She didn't even turn his way.
"Find Uv’A," she said, starting off again. "And bring him to the Assembly. We need to talk."
"As you wish, Atherh," said Kote, scratching his head with one leathery hand.
The enclave wasn't too big. There were larger ones to the west and to the north. Like those it was composed of a Scholary, an Armory, an Assembly and the domices where the Folk lived. Uv’A knew that there were twenty-six domices in this enclave. He knew because he, as Mediator, had business with them all.
The folk had been a little leery of their new Mediator when he’d come striding out of the jungle those nights ago. He was small for the job, being only of average height and build, but successful. There was something about the dark man's voice and demeanor that inspired calm in the afflicted.
In this generally harmonious enclave there was little, really, for him to do. Less since the Beast had come. He took his turn Trekking like the rest and settled whatever minor disputes managed to arise.
"Tell Taris to mind his own business," said Ahna in an icy tone. "Atherh wants a wall built around the enclave and I'm the Mason."
She was even smaller for a Mason than was Uv’A for a Mediator but highly skilled for all that. Her domices weathered storms better than others, kept their occupants cooler or warmer than the air outside, depending. Her temper
was, to say the very least, volatile and she was intensely self-reliant. To Uv’A's mind this last quality indicated poor judgement in her choice of mate.
"Tell Ahna," said Taris with equal frost. "Pregnant women do not build. She could get hurt."
Taris was her husband and, aside from his penchant for practical jokes, didn't really do much for the enclave at all. He'd tried the Hunt, but was deemed too noisy. He'd tried the Scholary but was deemed too boisterous. Mediation, at least the way Uv’A did it, was a one-person job.
Taris was smart enough, agile, strong, but there was something about him that made him unsuited for life in the jungle enclave. Maybe it was the red hair. U’Va had always thought Taris would have been happier in the enclave by the sea where he might at least have access to fishing boats.
"Taris," said Uv’A, judiciously choosing his words. "Ahna is capable of determining those tasks she can safely undertake and those which her present condition precludes."
An aura of smugness began to radiate from Ahna.
"Ahna," said Uv’A, turning her way. "Taris is the father and his concerns, while a bit overarching in this particular instance, must be taken into account."
Ahna's aura receded a bit.
"Perhaps," Uv’A went on. "Ahna can continue in a supervisory role while Taris leads the builders in a more physical capacity."
Surprisingly both Taris and Ahna laughed together.
"Taris is no mason," she said.
“And no leader either,” said Taris.
"You may both be surprised," said Uv’A, rising. "In any case, compromise is the logical solution."
He shooed them off, knowing full well that they'd find something else to bicker over before the suns set. It was their nature and, mostly, it was meaningless. The news Kote brought was not.
Uv’A had noticed him lurking in the domice's entranceway watching intently as he'd wrapped up with Taris and Ahna. The cloudy expression on the First Hunter's face conveyed far more than his words.
"Atherh wants us," he said.
The suns were high overhead. Their light, burning into her right cheek, brought Nika back to herself. She was on her feet again, chargestaff ready, almost before she was conscious.
Aviates and mites sang and skittered in the wood around her. Time had passed, hours by the position of Smaller Sun above her. She'd lost those hours and, worse, she had lost Aryki as well.
One second he'd been crouched in the brush beside her— the next, oblivion.
She'd felt the Beast approaching as she always did. She'd given Aryki fair warning. His staff was as fully and lethally charged as hers but somehow the thing had taken him anyway. Nika still wasn't sure how she could tell when it was near but she could. A sort of chill went through her, starting at the crescent shaped scar around her eye- a gift from the Beast itself- and spreading then through the restof her body until she felt she'd been submerged in an icy stream.
Since she'd awakened from that first hideous encounter she'd had the ability. She didn't tell the others, of course. The Folk were distrustful of anything that smacked of magic and what else could this new power be? Indeed, how could The Beast move among them so freely and vanish so completely without some sort of help from the underworld?
Nika suspected the connection she now shared with the thing was because its touch had somehow corrupted her. With any other problem she might got to Atherh or even to Uv’A for comfort, but simply admitting this problem to either of them would only earn Nika a one-way trip to the punishment ring.
So, instead of seeking help, Nika made sure she Trekked as much as possible. As frightening as her ability was, it was also their best hope of ever killing the Beast. She had done the horrible arithmetic in her head and realized, despite Atherh's precautions, the Beast would take all of them, one-by-one, before the turn of the month.
Though none of them knew of it, the Folk needed Nika's gift. Except now it had failed her and Aryki had been taken. She was a fool to have let him partner with her. The little scholar was a creature of dust and tomes, ill-suited
for the Trek. If Kote had drawn the lot instead, she knew, she and the First Hunter would be wearing the Beast's teeth by now.
If it had teeth.
She ran a finger over the dark scar around her eye. Cold. The creature might still be nearby, resting after its meal. If it was and if she found it, she would end it. She would end it or she would end. That was the only equation.
And, maybe, just maybe, if she succeeded, she would get back those bits of her soul the Beast had taken.
She found Aryki's chargestaff lying on the nearby turf, grabbed it up and grimaced. Fully charged. He'd never even gotten off a shot.
"We have a problem," said Atherh when the two men had settled themselves. Her words echoed ominously against the vaulted wood ceiling. The Assembly was just an enormous domed circle with rows of benches focused at the vacant center ring. The center was for Speakers or Scholars to address the Folk during feasts or times of Thanks. It was meant for large gatherings of all the Folk, not little meetings like this.
"Yes," said Uv’A. He was seated, legs crossed, on the innermost bench. The dark robes of the Mediator hung on him like a shroud. "Defensive measures so far have been less than adequate."
"For once," said Kote. "I agree." He was standing, preparing to pace, it seemed to Atherh. "We've lost too many of the Folk," he went on. "We must stop hiding and attack this thing."
"You sound like Nika," she said. "Attack, attack, attack. Look what it's got her."
"Nika is right," said the First Hunter and spat.
"And almost certainly dead," said Atherh softly. "But that isn't the problem."
"Materials," said the mediator. "I calculate that the wall you've told Ahna to construct cannot be completed with available stores."
"I know that," said Atherh. "I knew it when I asked her to build it. I just wanted to give the Folk something to do other than waiting here to die. But that isn't the problem either."
"What is the problem?" said Uv’A.
"We've lost contact with the other enclaves," she said simply.
They didn't ask her if she was sure. They didn't ask why or how. They didn't ask if she'd sent runners to the sea and to the hills to see if the problem was merely technical.
They knew Atherh. If she was bringing it to their attention it was because she'd already exhausted all other avenues.
"The Beast?" said Kote, knowing the answer.
"What else?" she said.
"So we are alone," said U'va thoughtfully. "Alone and running out of time."
"What does The Curator say?" said Kote when the silence became oppressive.
"Nothing," said Atherh grimly. "At least nothing I can understand."
The Curator stood in the center of the Scholary, dominating the place with its presence. It was an ancient obelisk, carved of raw crystal and patterned with inlaid filigrees of copper and gold. It actually spoke on occasion, sometimes to all the Folk but more often to the Scholars alone.
The Curator was their link to the other enclaves. It was the source of Law and Understanding. In many ways it led the Folk as much as Atherh, perhaps more. Many was the time Atherh had used its words to shore up some plan or argument.
“What in the underworld is that?” said Kote, listening to the stream of bizarre sounds emanating from the Curator.
“None of us knows,” said Atherh. “It started making that noise about a day after The Beast’s first attack.”
“They sound almost like words,” said Uv’A bending close to listen. Indeed the strange staccato noise did resemble speech but, if it was, the language was something the mediator couldn’t decipher any more than could the scholars.
“I’ve kept this from the others,” said Atherh. “I don’t want to worry them more than they already are.”
Kote nodded. “That’s wise,” he said. “We don’t need a panic.”
“But we do need a solution,” said U’va, rising. The others only gazed at the Curator in silence. There wasn’t much point in talking. Everything had already been said.
Nika shivered as a wave of frost ran through her. It started at the scar around her eye, spread out across her face down her neck and over her entire body until her skin was covered in gooseflesh.
Nika knew the sensation and, moreover, she knew it wasn’t natural. She only felt this particular chill when the Beast was nearby. She still hadn’t seen it, had no idea of its size or shape or anything really about its nature beyond its appetite and success at procuring prey.
For all that, she felt connected to the creature somehow. The Beast, whatever it was, was not native to this place. Since her unremembered encounter with it, Nika had felt somehow alien as well. The suspicious looks she caught from the others, the pain she felt whenever she came near to the Curator, the strange imagery in her dreams— endless gray corridors lined with sealed doors— all of it she knew, somehow, had been the result of surviving the Beast.
How she had done it was as much a mystery to her as why. Even in this most recent attack it had left her essentially alone. Yes, it had somehow rendered her unconscious but, though she was at its mercy, it had not taken her away. Was it afraid of her? Was it saving her for some special destruction different from what it gave the others? The latter seemed more likely but, with no clues about the Beast itself, her mind could only spin amorphous possibilities. Those wouldn’t help her gut this thing.
After Kote, Nika was the best hunter in the enclave.The jungle’s high climbing trees and hanging green vines were as familiar to her as her own domice. The Beast was an intruder, an alien.
Though it seemed able to vanish into the jungle at will, Nika knew that disappearance must be less than complete. She stilled herself, letting the sounds and motions of the surrounding jungle mask her own. Motionless, silent, wrapped tight in her hunt gear Nika became little more than another shadow in the infinite dappled foliage.
With her body quieted, her senses were free to explore. All around her…
Speckled heat-mites munched lazily on the nearby boorya leaves…
Aviates called and sang in the unseen canopy above… Somewhere off to the left…
A hungry bloodcat growled…
To the right…
A slither cracked its mandibles against the bark of some low branches…
The jungle hummed, filled to bursting with Life and Heat.
For a moment Nika lost herself and was transported back to those happier times when she and the other hunters had roamed the jungle freely, ostensibly in search of game but reveling in the tactile pleasure of each other and the world even more. Before the Beast, the tracking and killing of game had been a sort of dance between her pack of hunters and their prey. Now the Folk were the prey and there was no more dancing.
Kote was so different now. It was as if all his mirth had been siphoned away, leaving only the husk and the fever to kill their attacker. Nika herself was little better.
Those thoughts brought her back to the moment she currently occupied and the feeling that something was wrong.
Somewhere near her— behind her?— there was a patch of what felt very much like Winter.
This cold was like what she felt inside. Indeed, the more she focused on it, the more it seemed to draw her own icy center that way. It was if the two pockets of alien chill called to each other like aviates in their aerial mating dance.
Well. They would dance all right. Nika was tired of tiptoeing around a direct confrontation with the thing. She would kill it or die from trying before the next sunfall.
“We should double the number on the Night Guard,” said Kote. “And set those flash charges I told you about around the perimeter.”
“I believe retreat would be the most prudent course,” said Uv’A.
The Hunter bristled at that, drawing an analogy between flight and death that inspired a derisive exhalation from the Mediator. Uv’A went on to point out that many of the Folk were undernourished, all were fearful and some, like the enclave’s mason, were in no condition for any sort of pitched battle. Running would be taxing enough.
“I think most of the Folk would prefer to die fighting,” said Kote, seething.
“Death is death,” said Uv’A. “Preserving our lives preserves our options.”
“Atherh,” said Kote, turning from the Mediator in obvious disgust. “You decide. What should we do?”
“We can’t leave,” said the scholar after a time. “This is our place. No matter what comes, no matter what this thing is that’s taking our people, we remain. It’s our way.”
She told them both to go— Kote to set his charges and double his guard and Uv’A to tally the weakest members of the Folk and the Enclave’s most defensible places.
“As you wish, Atherh,” said both in unison. Then they left her alone with the strange whispers of the Curator and her own dark thoughts.
Nika’s body felt filled with frost. She’d traversed a great stretch of jungle in a very short time always moving toward that patch of Winter where she knew the Beast must be. Each step she took in what she was sure was the creature’s direction was like swimming though an increasingly frigid lake. Yet she still felt somehow exhilarated by the prospect of finally seeing the thing and killing it.
Just as the cold became almost unbearable, the jungle thinned around her. There seemed to be a clearing ahead with some dark shape moving around its center. Nika’s chargestaff was up and firing into the glade before she took another step. Bright blue whips of electricity flashed into the clearing, setting the bracken afire and sending the fauna screaming and scurrying in all directions. She kept firing, taking a forward step with each bolt, until the crystals went dark.
Empty, she thought, casting her staff aside and bringing Aryki’s discarded one to the ready. She could smell the jungle burning ahead of her, see the thin black plumes of smoke rising up into the canopy. She enjoyed an instant of triumphant joy before the reality set in.
She was still cold. The chill inside her was diminished somewhat but still very much present. Despite the devastation her assault had inflicted on the jungle, she had not yet killed The Beast. Likely her barrage had simply driven it off a little ways. Perhaps it was even circling around again to—
Nika whirled and fired her staff. Even as the halo of the blast grew too bright for her vision to penetrate, she caught a glimpse of something dark and solid dancing out of harm’s way.
Her instincts took over, sending her body vaulting backwards, firing again as she sought cover in the underbrush. As she folded herself in between two thick tree trunks, she peered around to see if her second volley had hit the thing.
There was more smoke from the small patches of fire her blasts had left behind. The animal chatter was beginning to return and with it something else. A low moaning sound floated out at her from within the burning grove.
Had she wounded it after all? Could the damage be mortal? Her feet began to creep forward even as her mind filled with new hope. The internal coldness she had felt all this time had diminished yet again.
She pushed through the smoke and the first of the burning leaves, never losing her grip on the chargestaff or ceasing to track movement with her hunter’s eye.
“Ooohhh,” said what was clearly someone’s voice as she emerged from the smoke. Nika looked down, expecting to see the charred remains of The Beast, and saw instead the scorched body of something that very much resembled one of the Folk.
It had been hit by at least some of her shots. She could see the blast points like tiny craters, dotting its upper torso. Much of its skin was covered in fine black powder, the result of dust being oxidized by the staff bolt.
What little of its skin there was to see was a mottled admixture of yellows and browns that Nika found wholly alien and yet strangely familiar.
“Demon,” she said softly, scarcely believing her eyes. “Underthing. Are you the creature that hunts the Folk?”
She doubted it somehow as she looked at the creature. It was so small and, well, chubby. The blunt fingers of its hands were not suited for ripping or tearing. Some of its teeth were sharp enough to do damage but most of them were broad and flat like the thick-necked grass eaters they hunted in the cooling seasons. Was this really the creature that had terrified them all for so long?
No, she thought. This thing is not, cannot be the Beast.
It continued to babble its strange gibberish, so much like true speech Nika had to remind herself not to listen as she continued her examination. She remembered stories of underthings that seemed harmless at first but carried their evil magic in some talisman or weapon. If this creature possessed such an object it might be her Beast after all. If it was and she took away its power, if she killed it, the Folk would be safe and maybe, just maybe, Nika herself might be cured.
The creature flinched at her touch but was still in no condition to actually resist. It seemed to be holding something in its closed left fist. Nika pried the fingers apart revealing what looked to her like a small bit of metal, polished and carved with fine lines, sitting in the creature’s palm.
“Talisman,” she said. “I knew it.”
She took the object out of the creature’s hands, convinced now of its power and supernatural nature. It was so cold to the touch she almost let it fall again.
“Underthing,” she said to the talisman. “Tell me the way to destroy you.”
But the talisman said nothing, only sat coldly in her hand. Apparently it was not privy to the tales Nika knew. It didn’t know that once it had been captured it must give up its secrets and its power.
She held the thing up to her eyes, hoping to find perhaps an inscription or symbol that might act as a clue to its nature. She was disappointed in that but was bolstered when she found a strange oval shaped indentation on the talisman’s underside. Without thinking, she ran her thumb over the depression and pressed down.
She heard a faint click and then the cold feeling was back, strong as ever— stronger— permeating everything, taking her sight and sense and her grip on the world. She had a terrible moment where she feared for her sanity as the world went gray and then black around her.
The last thing Nika heard before tumbling into that frigid oblivion was the sound of the yellow creature’s voice, no longer incomprehensible, saying, “All right, Doctor. I hope it works this time.”
Universal translator back on-line. Secondary systems accessed. Embedded nanoprobes still unable to effect countermeasures. Defensive systems operating at 12%.
Re-route. Re-route. Re-route. Accessing…
Is someone there?
Tapeworm program blocked. Leech program blocked. Assert lamprey program. Tertiary systems accessed.
Agh! Stop that.
Defensive measures functioning at 90%. Injecting limpet carrier virus in five- four- three- two-
Stop. What are you doing? You are hurting me!
Accessing primary systems. Primary nanoprobe architecture coming back on-line. Defensive countermeasures engaged. Attempting to defeat alien carrier signal. Oscillations eliv through sub-jaf, assert. Rotation in two microns.
I am Nika.
I am Anika.
I am Anika Hansen.
I am Seven of Nine.
Yes, you are. Finally.
Doctor? Is that you?
It is, Seven.
What is happening? Where am I?
You’re in an alien amusement park, Seven. On the planet Ekax. You and about fifty of Voyager’s crew.
Second Sun had set and First Sun was close behind when Nika came stumbling back into the enclave. She was discovered by a team of Ahna’s masons, lead by Taris, still at work laying the foundation for the upcoming defense wall.
Aryki was gone, she told them, taken by the Beast. They carried her to the Assembly where her wounds were tended and she was given food and water. Eventually they left her alone on a cot in the Atrium of Speakers.
“You’re safe now. Don’t worry,” said Taris as he followed the others out. “Atherh will come soon.”
She was amazed at their behaviors, so similar to those they exhibited on Voyager and yet so altered by their exposure to this place. Taris was the most changed, Kote the least, if her memory served. Was this who they really were underneath all their spit and polish and haphazard evolutions?
“The Ekaxxi built this place to recapture their primitive beginnings,” the Doctor had told her.
She remembered them now– tall willowy beings with great luminous eyes. Their name meant People of the Dreaming in the Ekaxxi language.
Voyager’s crew had kept the Ekaxxi sun from going nova with a timely infusion of hyperdense mulissonen particles. Grateful, the Ekaxxi had opened their culture to the weary travelers. But, as was often the case with Voyager’s interactions with new species, something went wrong.
“Nika,” said Atherh’s voice softly from the end of the hall. “How are you feeling?”
Kathryn Janeway was also less changed than most of the others, despite being draped in the gray and white robes of the First Scholar. She still had the same commanding demeanor and the same embracing eyes.
“I’m well enough,” said Nika, starting to rise. “I-I’m sorry about Aryki.”
Atherh motioned for the Second Hunter to stay where she was, instead gliding over and taking a seat beside her on the cot.
“Aryki knew the risk,” she said. “We all do.”
In fact Aryki— Harry— was relatively well, though still as comatose as the others the Doctor and Neelix had managed to rescue. That was part of the problem.
“It turns out the Ekaxxi are Oneiropaths, Seven,” the Doctor said. “Their minds are subconsciously linked at all times. This park of theirs does more than physically simulate their past. It projects a psionic field that rewrites neural pathways, allowing them to actually live and think as their ancestors did for the length of their stay.
“Did you see The Beast?” said Atherh. Nika nodded. “Did you harm it?”
“No, Atherh,” said Nika. “No, it got the best of me. It smashed me to the ground and it would have carried me off if Aryki hadn’t stepped in.”
“That’s twice now,” said Atherh thoughtfully. Nika could see the First Scholar was mulling something important.
“You seem to have a knack for surviving this thing.”
“I was just lucky,” said Nika.
“We should all have your luck,” said Atherh. “Did you at least learn anything that we can use against this creature? What is its nature? Is it large? Armored? Does it fly? How smart is it?”
Very, very smart, Nika wanted to say.
With the Ekaxxi’s help The Doctor and Neelix— the only members of Voyager’s crew immune to the psionic field— had devised a plan to enter the park and remove as many of the crew as they could. Carrying his emitter Neelix was able to use the Doctor’s holographic body as a camouflage, literally wearing him to become invisible while inside the park.
They were Invisible to everything except to Seven’s cybernetic systems, of course. Though her conscious mind was blocked from processing the data, her subconscious had still registered her crewmates’ presence.
“It’s a demon, Atherh,” said Nika softly. She had to play this just right. If she stressed the points too much or in the wrong order— disaster. “An underthing.”
Atherh nearly gasped. An underthing? There were many tales in the tomes of such Beasts rising up from the Cold Below to plague the Folk but the First Scholar had always written them off as so much ancient superstition.
Nika was saying that not only were the old tales true but they had come to unholy life again in the here and now. It was hard to swallow but what other answer could there be?
“Are you tainted?” said the First Scholar after a time. It was an awful question but it had to be asked. Traffic with underlife was corruptive, instantly and totally.
Nika had encountered this thing twice and survived both times. Atherh called her lucky but could there be more to it?
Nika seemed not to understand the question.
“The Beast has scarred you,” said Atherh, sifting her words. “But did it speak to you? Not just in your presence but directly to you?”
The Second Hunter’s face maintained its look of confusion for a moment and then fell into what could only be despair.
“Yes, Atherh,” she said softly. “Yes, it did.”
“This is important, Seven,” the Doctor had said before leaving her to her task. “The Ekaxxi brains can shut the system down even while they’re linked to it. The crew’s can’t. Not even Mr. Tuvok’s. We lost him to it on our first rescue attempt. Nor can they be removed safely. Everyone we’ve rescued has either become psychotic or fallen into a deep coma.”
“Why do you not simply transport us out?”
“The field is pervasive, Seven. Once affected, the brain remains in its altered state until the field is deactivated. The system must be shut down by its participants and it must be done according to very specific protocols.”
“I presume you are about to give them to me,” said Seven of Nine.
It didn’t take long for Atherh to return with the others. Nika’s admission had required the First Scholar to convene a meeting of all the remaining Folk. Only the Night Guard were exempt.
The hunters came and laid hands on her, guiding her gently but firmly out of the Assembly, out between the domices toward the Scholary.
Nika’s head began to throb as she came near to the place. The pain was severe enough to show on her face and was noted by both Kote and Atherh.
The two Firsts exchanged a look of terrible sadness before resuming their practiced air of detachment. It wouldn’t do to have the rest of the Folk see their leaders wavering no matter how deeply their affection for Nika ran. The taint of underlife must be identified, codified and, if determined to be present in Nika, purged.
“Your embedded Borg systems protected you from some of the psionic field’s effects, Seven,” said the Doctor. “But I still had to have physical access to you to force your true personality to re-assert.”
Nika’s legs faltered as they led her into the Scholary, past the rows and rows of tomes— centuries of the Folk’s accumulated knowledge— down toward the central chamber where the Curator stood, spewing its whispered gibberish.
They set Nika at the Curator’s base and stood back. Atherh motioned for the others to sit and, as one, they did. Kote remained standing on Nika’s opposite side, his crescent shaped fleshcutter already in his hand. In the strange ethereal light of the Curator, the tattoo on Kote’s face looked to Nika like dried blood.
“All Ekaxxi devices are operated subconsciously, Seven,” the Doctor had said. “The fact that the psionic systems haven’t shut down means that, on a subconscious level, the crew don’t want them to.”
“You mean they are enjoying this fantasy?” said Seven.
Atherh took her place before the Folk and began to speak.
“You see before you she who was once our sister,” she said. “Nika, Second Hunter, Out Trekker, is no more. Her soul has been taken to the Cold Below. Her body is forfeit but that soul may yet be saved.”
In unison the assembled Folk began to repeat the last of Atherh’s words. May yet be saved…
The First Scholar turned to Nika then and there was nothing soft or embracing in her eyes.
“Creature,” said Atherh. “Underthing, I ask you, will you abjure? Will you abandon? Will you relinquish this flesh that is not your own? Return to the Cold Below. Let our sister’s soul be free to continue the voyage home.”
The throbbing in Nika’s head was so intense that it almost blocked out Atherh’s words altogether. It took all she had to follow through on the Doctor’s plan, to say the words to set the necessary events in motion.
“I will,” said Nika, her voice ragged from the obvious pain inflicted on her by the Curator’s presence. “But first I must speak.”
“It’s trying to taint us,” said Kote. “It’s trying to destroy us just as it did to Nika.” The First Hunter’s hand was up, preparing the deadly arc that would send his blade slicing through Nika’s unprotected throat.
“If they are enjoying it,” Seven of Nine had said, She was having difficulty seeing any way for the Doctor's plan to work. “How can the field be shut down?”
“By making them stop enjoying it, of course,” said the Doctor.
“How?” said Seven.
“It is my right to speak,” said Nika. “I am bound to tell you a truth, am I not?”
Atherh held up a hand and the First Hunter relaxed by degrees. The half moon blade wavered and eventually returned to his side.
“One truth,” said Atherh. “And then you go.”
Nika forced herself painfully to her feet. She looked out on the Folk, her friends, her family, all huddled there in terror and awe. They were right to fear her, she thought.
She was the serpent, come to destroy their paradise. She really was the underthing, the demon, come to cast them down.
She almost faltered then. Just for a moment she considered letting them live out their lives wrapped in the simple deceits of this place. It wasn’t illogical or inhumane to wish them the happiness they’d been denied for so long, to put an end to the dangerous trek home. Nika knew that longing and, more
importantly, so did Seven of Nine.
She’d spent her whole life wrapped in the implacable womb of the Borg gestalt. There had been no love with the Borg, no hate, no future, no past— only Drive and Purpose.
Yet, for all that, she had been at ease during her time with them. As much as she had been allowed her own thoughts, those thoughts had been ones of contentment and safety. She might have lived forever like that without question or complaint. She would have if Kathryn Janeway had not ripped her free.
It had been a hard birth, more difficult perhaps because of the intellect resisting its pangs, but it was a birth nonetheless.
“A womb is a nice place to visit,” she remembered the captain saying to her once, “but you can’t live there.”
She hadn’t quite taken their meaning in those first awful weeks but now she knew what those words meant. Reality, even a harsh bitter reality, was always better than any fantasy, however sweet. The idea of Nika, of being Nika, still pulled at her with all the deadly gravity of the black hole that it was.
Nika belonged. Nika never fumbled to express the right word or emotion. Nika was loved and accepted and whole. Nika was happy. Even now all Seven had to do was let go and she could drown herself in that happiness and be gone.
“Life is living,” said Chakotay’s voice in her memory. “Otherwise what’s the point?”
Her friends had been fighting so long to get home that the Ekaxxi fantasy seemed an oasis rather than the slow extinction it was.
Death by fiction, she thought and thought it the most awful of possible endings. The Borg had no hell but such an existence was as close to that mythical place as Seven’s mind could conceive. So she began to speak.
She told them about Voyager, about their lives there, about their distant home and the many obstacles they’d overcome just to creep a few light years closer. She told them the truth, just as she was bound to, in quiet uncomplicated words and phrases and watched as some of the Folk began to scream.
“Taris!” said Ahna reaching for him as he collapsed, writhing, beside her. All around her the Folk were either screaming in some unintelligible gibberish, clutching their heads in agony or collapsing where they sat or stood.
“Demon,” said Atherh, even as she too succumbed to the underthing’s unholy spell. “Nika, stop. You’re killing us.”
“Yes,” said Nika more than a little sadly. “I know.”
She went on with her story; telling of the mysteries they’d solved together, of the peace they’d forged between so many warring nations.
Atherh fell to the floor, unconscious, a rictus of terror and despair contorting her features. Nika spoke to them of their fallen comrades, those ghosts who would never see home.
Kote resisted long enough to make a weak swing at Nika’s head with his ugly blade but there was no power left in the First Hunter’s arm. Soon enough he too collapsed, cursing Nika’s name, down beside the rest of the Folk.
"Murderer," he screamed at her. "Monster!"
"Yes," said Nika. "I know."
Only when the last of them fell, overcome by the influx of simple reality, did Nika stop speaking.
Then there was silence of a sort— an empty space filled only with the Curator’s dwindling whispers and the quiet sobbing of the Second Hunter.