AND NOT FADE AWAY
By Morgan Stuart
Disclaimer: This story is not intended to infringe upon the rights of Paramount or any other Star Trek copyright holders.
Personal Note: The author wishes to thank Kt, Ruth Ann, BEKi, Mickey, Dr. D., M.T.K., and C.F.D.T. Special thanks to Larry, my inspiration in all things, and to Margret, for whom this story was written. Last but not least, thanks to Elizabeth Knauel and the ORION Press family, without whom none of this would be.
This tale was first published by ORION Press as a stand-alone novella in 1997.
Historian's Note: The events in this story take place directly after the events depicted in the third season Star Trek: Voyager episode "Flashback."
"When the bow broke in pieces we fell
we would scream and shout
but the point is we fell dear"
Ensign Harry Kim jerked awake like a marionette, suddenly taut with one deliberate pull of strings. For several seconds he flailed about in a mental free-fall, without any reference or memory, uncertain of where or when he was regaining consciousness. It was dark and cramped. The stinging bite of singed electrical panels assaulted his eyes and throat.
/Okay, Harry, pull it together now. Where are you? What do you last remember?/
His last memory was of a breakfast in the mess hall. Kes had been there, smiling, perched like a pixie, feet tucked beneath her, keeping Neelix company. It was a ritual for her, that morning stop, before she was due in sickbay. Neelix had left the hushed tones of their intimate discussion to usher Kim and Tom Paris to her table. The Talaxian had fussed over the two officers, personally presenting them with their meal. An "ATB," he called it: Away Team Breakfast. He had promised that he had specially designed it to provide them with energy and stamina for their mission.
Kim remembered trying not to laugh openly while watching Commander Chakotay excuse himself from the questionable gelatinous mixture when he had entered a few minutes later with the captain. She herself had opted for her usual black coffee only. The two senior officers had chosen the table next to Kim, Paris, and Kes for their last meeting of the day. They had exchanged datapadds and quiet words, their characteristic solemnity in stark contrast with the young laughter from the other table. He remembered Kes finally taking leave of their company, a light hand on each of their backs, telling Kim and Paris to take care of themselves and come back safely. Turning back for one last look, she wagged her finger at the lieutenant and reminded her tutor of their next scheduled flight simulation. With a kiss to Neelix she was gone.
That breakfast seemed at once both instantly real and ages past. /Where am I now?/ A soft moan directly to his left broke the unnerving silence, and a familiar voice whispered his name. /Tom! I was in the shuttle with Tom, going down to that planet to investigate. What happened to us? Did we crash?/
The second time Paris spoke Kim's name his voice betrayed panic. "Harry!"
"I... I'm..." Kim's voice sounded terribly fragile to his own ears. His mouth was so dry, filled with the acrid taste of ashes. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I'm okay, Tom." Everything seemed unreal to Kim, speaking into the blackness, suspended without sense of direction or context. They sat motionless for a moment, still too shocked to speak.
Then it dawned on him. "Commander?"
"Chakotay?" Kim could sense Paris turning to face behind them, where their commander had been sitting in the shuttle. "Chakotay?"
A grunt sounded in reply from somewhere behind - or was it above? - the two. They felt him move slowly and awkwardly, trying to regain his own bearings. Then he, too, cleared his throat. "Are you both all right?"
"I think so. What happened?" Kim voiced the bewilderment the three shared.
"The last thing I remember, we had cleared the atmosphere and gotten our first sensor readings. I was scanning for possible landing coordinates when -" Paris was interrupted by a violent shudder throughout the shuttle. The officers tried as best they could to brace themselves in the darkness. Kim realized with embarrassment that, in his disorientation, he clung to Tom's arm instead of his seat's. Paris returned the pressure, holding Kim back against his chair protectively.
"What the?" Paris barked at the blackness.
"Someone or something is hitting our hull," Chakotay paused as the shuttle lurched again. "I'm going to try to have a look. Paris, can you tell me anything about where we are or how we crash-landed? Do you know our physical position?"
"Our sensors are dead. It looks like all the systems are. It feels like we're on our nose, but I don't know to what degree. As to where we are, your guess is as good as mine." Kim could imagine Paris shrugging beside him. Another quake. "I think it is safe to say that we're on solid ground, though."
"Agreed. Stay put, but keep alert." Chakotay turned and slid into the back of Kim's chair. Bracing himself, he felt his way up the shuttle's side, half-walking and half-climbing. A fourth, even greater impact slammed him into burned panels and elicited an unrecognizable curse from the Amerindian. Groping his way to the familiar manual controls of the hatch door, he drew his weapon and braced himself.
/This is happening too fast. You've been put on the defensive, with little information and no time to think./ The irony was not lost on Chakotay. /Just like a Maquis./ For the briefest moment, he closed his eyes. /We are on a long journey, so far from home. This is an unknown threat - we have no idea what we are facing. Spirits of my People, I need the strength and the wisdom to lead these men through this crisis and return them safely to Voyager./ He was collected now. He threw his weight against the door, opening the shuttle to the blinding brightness of alien day.
"I would appreciate it if you would remind them to clear any foodstuffs they bring back on board with me before sentencing them to suffer under Mister Neelix's knife. We do not want another cheese incident."
"Yes, Doctor." Kes had learned to suppress her reactions to the emergency medical hologram and not laugh aloud at his personal quirks. "We aren't sure if they will find anything, though; we can't even be certain it's a Class M planet. Neelix is unfamiliar with it, and the atmospheric conditions completely disable our sensors. That's why they had to use the shuttle instead of beaming down. But if they do find food supplies, I'll be sure to remind them to let you inspect everything."
"Thank you." The Doctor returned to his terminal, the creases in his forehead deepening with concentration.
"What are you working on?" She cocked her head to one side and paused expectantly at the edge of his office table.
"Ensign Amos has been complaining of stress and fatigue. He has been exploring aromatherapy, and receiving some relief of symptoms. I would like to continue experimenting, however, to determine what smells would be most beneficial to him. It is a complex question, rooted in a synthesis of psychological and physical factors. Any analysis must also consider the individual's personal experiences and tastes to determine what scents evoke positive memories and reactions." A satisfied smile. "It is a good thing that I have such thorough programming, capable of handling such nuanced data."
Kes did not balk at his self-congratulation. Her mind followed his with the diligence of a gifted acolyte. "That's fascinating. I know the Ocampa sense of smell is not as developed as Humans'-"
"Which explains your ability to tolerate the mess hall while Mister Neelix is working."
She continued, ignoring the good-humored gibe. She alone secretly knew how kind the Doctor truly was. "But I know how comforting it is for me to be surrounded by plants and flowers, by that smell of life and growth and blooms." Her features grew wistful.
"So, if you were embarking upon aromatherapy, the scents of the hydroponics bay would be where you began."
"Yes, exactly." She nodded enthusiastically. Her smile, as it inevitably did with the Doctor, grew inquisitive. "What would you begin with? Can you smell?"
"My programming includes all five sensory perceptions: taste, sight, touch, sound, and smell." So matter-of-fact.
"Do I hear a 'but' coming?" She sank to her elbows, resting her elfin chin on interlaced fingers.
"No, not at all." He grew self-conscious beneath her wide-eyed scrutiny. "I can identify smells. I simply cannot experience the psychological identification between memory and emotion and scents. That is the function of an autonomous psyche. It is part of the uncertainty of sentient life forms' individual patterns."
Kes straightened, her entire body reflecting the excitement of a new idea. "But your program is adaptive! Would you like to experience a new scent? Something different from this antiseptic sick bay? Wait until you smell the blooms of Livadian Spredendron!"
As she so often did, Kes infected the Doctor with her enthusiasm and curiosity. Another new experience awaited him. His thin-lipped nod, brow arched in interest, was all she needed to send her on her way. Once again he marveled at how his little assistant had altered his world, given him a life to replace a program. A mixture of paternal pride in her accomplishments and wondering gratitude for her influence warred within him. It was a satisfying struggle.
At first Chakotay could not see. Squinting against the sudden light, he peered down to the surface, searching for the source of the blows to the shuttle. As Paris had surmised, the shuttle now sat almost directly at a ninety degree angle to the ground. It was lodged where it had tipped forward after crash-landing, between two jutting rock formations. They were effectively held vulnerable for whatever beings might inhabit this world.
Paris and Kim twisted uncomfortably to follow Chakotay's progress. He levered himself into the shuttle's opening, a dark silhouette in relief against the brightness. He stiffened as he absorbed the scene before him.
"What is it?" Kim whispered to no one in particular.
"We'll know soon enough," Paris returned. His pale brow furrowed and eyes narrowed in his characteristic look of concern.
"My name is Commander Chakotay. We come in peace." His voice was controlled, unthreatening. He was good in first contact situations, providing the dual messages of peace and power with his quiet, careful words and formidable physical presence. Another voice answered him but Paris and Kim could not decipher the words. "There is no need for hostility. We did not intend to trespass. If we can repair our vessel, we will leave you and not return. No harm will be done." A short pause. "If I may speak to your leader-" He was interrupted by the other voice, this time substantially louder and more belligerent. A moment's pause. He lowered his phaser.
Kim rolled his eyes and groaned.
Chakotay did not turn back to his men. Still formal, still loud enough for outside ears, he called to them. "Mister Paris, Mister Kim, would you please join me. Unarmed." It was an order, not an invitation.
Together the two officers began the clumsy ascent to the hatchway. Catching Kim's shoulder, Paris moved in front of him. "Whatever happens, stay behind me, Harry."
Kim caught Paris's eye before he turned completely. "You're not expendable, Tom." Paris recognized his own words from their first disaster aboard Voyager now used against him. They locked gazes for a moment. Gratitude fleetingly crossed Paris's animated features, followed by an unreadable expression Kim could not interpret. Then Paris grinned at his earnest companion and turned back toward the climb ahead.
As they reached Chakotay, he swiveled toward them and extended his hand. Paris reached for it and halted in mid-climb as Chakotay held him firmly in place. He looked at them both, then settled his gaze on the lieutenant. For their ears only he whispered, "I am not giving up. I'm just buying time for us until the odds are better. Sometimes you have to throw a battle to win a war." He glanced at Kim and registered his nod, then returned his intense gaze to Paris. He knew that Paris had problems with his leadership. His authority always felt tenuous with the lieutenant, because it was. Even when the younger man's disobedience and insubordination had been a ruse to lay a trap for the traitor on board, it had not obscured the larger issue for Chakotay. Paris had acted against his first officer because it was believable; his old feelings for Chakotay were common knowledge. His apology afterward did not ease Chakotay's conviction that the same behavior toward Janeway would have instantly caused suspicion. The clever plan had sacrificed Paris's safety to catch the Kazon spy. It had also sacrificed Chakotay's credibility. The most frustrating twist of the dilemma was that Chakotay respected Paris's talented, reckless bravery. He was alive because of it. Whether Paris returned that respect, he could not know. Too many walls, built by them both, stood between them.
In any case, the former Maquis could not afford to allow their personal relationship and past history to jeopardize their current situation. If Paris knew that Chakotay had not surrendered, he would probably follow his lead. That was all Chakotay asked at this point. If all went well, they would have many days back on Voyager to resolve their unsettled issues. He seemed to communicate this uncertainty and urgency to Paris. The blond searched his commander's eyes and then dropped his own passively, reflecting his acquiescence.
With that Chakotay hauled Paris and Kim to the lip of the shuttle where they viewed the planet's surface and inhabitants for the first time. Following Chakotay they lowered themselves to the ground. A ring of over thirty heavily armed beings encircled them, all astride beasts reminiscent of small Terran buffalo. Each appeared almost Humanlike, although more pale and broad-bodied than the average Human. One urged his mount a few steps within the ring and addressed the three officers.
"I am Nett Renoja, chief overseer of the fief of Llilegrough. You are not Phrama."
"We are Human." Paris offered. "If we could just -"
"You will be taken to Llilegrough. Save your words for him. He will decide your fate." He made several hand gestures and a few of the other Phrama dismounted and produced thick bristled cord from their saddlebags.
"There is no need for restraints." Chakotay was gentle but persistent. "We are but three strong, no match for -"
"Silence!" Renoja bellowed. "Speak no more to me." He glowered fiercely at Chakotay, as if the commander's speech were a vile insult to him. "No more."
The officers exchanged glances and stood silently as the Phrama approached them. Two of them tied Kim's hands in front of him, and he hissed with discomfort as he tried to shift his wrists against the tightly-drawn abrasive rope. Measuring a few feet of the cord, they likewise secured Paris's hands. Another Phrama moved to Chakotay and pulled his arms behind his back and tied his hands, leaving him defenseless. Chakotay fixed his unblinking eyes on Renoja, who grew unnerved beneath the commander's calm gaze. The overseer gestured vehemently and the Phrama who had tied Kim and Paris measured out another segment of their rope. They fashioned a noose from its end.
Still mounted, Renoja turned his sneering countenance to Paris and Kim. "Your leader will be tied to my wallibeve. If you care for his life you will follow. If you should falter or stumble, you will either strangle him or break his neck." The Phrama's broad smile seemed strangely mated with such chilling words.
On cue, the others moved to Chakotay. He did not resist as they pulled the coarse noose over his head. As one Phrama tightened it over the officer's bare flesh, he twisted it back and forth. Blood visibly welled up around the rope as it tore at his neck and splintered. Renoja chuckled at this subtle show of force. At his side, Paris and Kim held their breath in silent empathy with Chakotay. He himself only winced. The straining fists clenched behind him, however, betrayed his pain and anger to his officers. Another rope was fastened around his waist and tied to Renoja's saddle.
Without another word their forced march began.
"And, last but not least, the replicator ration usage?" Captain Kathryn Janeway stifled a yawn as she accepted the padd. Her eyes skimmed the data even as her mind wandered. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. If it had, Tuvok would already have told her anyway. Still glancing at the figures, she reached for her coffee. Her fingers played along the rim of her mug, growing moist and warm from steam. Neelix had named this dark, slightly bitter brew for Tom Paris to commemorate his transwarp flight. The popularity of the signature flavor had outlived the viability of the technological breakthrough it honored. It was not sweet vanilla cappuccino, but Janeway found it pleasant and, by now, comfortingly familiar. "How is that new orchid?"
Tuvok lifted an eyebrow at her change in topic. "It still appears frail, but I believe it will survive." A terse, efficient answer from a terse, efficient man.
A pause. "I do not know if she has an opinion regarding my orchid's survival."
She laughed. Handing the padd back to him, she cupped the mug in both hands and curled herself around its pleasant presence. "Tuvok, my friend, when will you ever admit to having a sense of humor?"
He knew her well enough to know she expected no response. She continued. "I meant, are you still tutoring her in the use of her mental abilities?"
"Yes. She is an eager student. She is exhibiting a good deal more patience and self-control than before. This is a long process, but I believe it will be beneficial both to Kes and to Voyager."
"No doubt, Tuvok. I am glad for her. She has so much potential. I know she appreciates your guidance." She smiled fondly thinking of the delicate Ocampa. Her affection for Kes was tempered with an immense respect, knowing that one day she would grow beyond them all into an adulthood with limitless possibilities. Even knowing that her gifts far outweighed any Human's, it was still difficult not to think of her as a girl, even a daughter. /The difference is, no daughter of mine could control subatomic particles with a mere thought./ Her memories flashed back to an alien world and her own alien body, hyper-evolved when she crossed the threshold of warp speed. A suppressed curiosity about the offspring Lieutenant Paris and she had produced once again resurfaced, and not without a characteristic infusion of humor. /Not any daughter that I know of, anyway./
"I am gratified to serve as her teacher. It is a most worthwhile experience." He rose. "If that is all, I believe that I am due in the mess hall for lunch. Mister Neelix has created a new recipe for yet another Vulcan dish and has requested that I sample it." With her nod he turned toward the door. He paused at the archway. "Of course, if there is any other business to which I can attend, Mister Neelix will have to serve lunch without me."
Janeway laughed again and shooed him from the room.
Although they had not been walking for more than an hour, the three Starfleet officers were exhausted. With each step they were aware that Chakotay's life was in peril and that one stumble could easily end it. Chakotay fared worst of all. With his hands bound behind him he could not maintain a sense of equilibrium, much less wipe the sweat that ran into his eyes and blinded him. The heat of this world seemed not to affect the Phrama, but the three Humans suffered. And the sun had not yet risen to its midday peak.
Chakotay tried to embrace an inner peace as the ropes pulled him in different directions. /I must be prepared for what will occur when we met this Llilegrough./ He could not banish his worries, however. /What will become of the shuttle while we're gone?/ At least he had the satisfaction of knowing that their technology was at present nonfunctional. But the Phrama could still learn a great deal from dismantling the craft despite its damage. /And the phasers!/ Just the few on board were enough to alter the balance of power here. At least he had not mentioned that they were from other worlds, or from Starfleet. Any gesture toward the Prime Directive was better than none at all. Anyway, his options had been quite limited. Maquis pragmatism chastised him. /You do what you can do./
As they crested a grassy hill, Renoja reined in his wallibeve and paused to rest. "Water your mounts!" Without waiting for permission the three men sank to their knees.
"Are you okay?" Chakotay panted to his men. Kim nodded wearily.
"We'll live. You've looked better." Paris nodded toward the commander's blood-slicked neck. Chakotay accepted the nonchalant comment as the veiled inquiry that it was. Paris knew that each movement of his caused Chakotay further pain. He had spent the last hour trying to hold his hands still and keep up with Renoja's pace. Chakotay understood. His mouth twitched with the echo of a harsh smile.
"It only hurts when I laugh."
Paris had to chuckle.
"Silence!" Renoja, dismounted now, turned from his wallibeve to glower at them.
From the tail of the group emerged a slight Phrama bearing a leathery waterbag. He drank from it and, without a word, offered it to Kim. The ensign eyed it warily, then reached out and took it in his bound hands. He swallowed deeply, gratefully. Murmuring his thanks to the compassionate man he handed it to Paris, who likewise drank thirstily. Paris turned to Chakotay. He lifted the bag so the Native American could drink.
Before he could press eager lips to the spout, Renoja was there. He jerked the waterbag from Paris, nearly pulling the lieutenant over with his force. "None for this one!" He tossed the bag to its owner and returned to watering his mount.
Chakotay licked dry lips and turned his face away from his officers' expressions of concern. /I can endure this. He will not break me. And I won't let him provoke me into a confrontation on his terms./ He closed his eyes and calmed himself. When the moments of rest passed and Renoja called them to march, though, he thankfully accepted two pairs of bound hands as they gently grasped his forearms and helped him to his feet. In silence, they began again.
Pulling her floor-length cloak tightly around her shoulders, Janeway quick-stepped down the corridor from her quarters. Regardless of how accepted holosuite use was, she always felt self-conscious, even guilty, taking time for herself. With the Away Team gone to the planet for four days and Voyager peacefully in orbit, she had felt satisfied that she could spare an hour of her evening to begin a new holonovel. After reading the last report of the day it had seemed like a good idea. Now, scurrying toward the suite, peering furtively from beneath her crisp bonnet, she had second thoughts.
Once she stepped into the holodeck, though, she was glad she had come. She stood in a square hall, flanked by walls that ascended into shadows. A maid-servant stepped forward and bobbed a slight curtsey. Smiling from beneath the sandy ringlets that escaped her lace cap, she spoke. "Will you walk this way, ma'am?" Janeway nodded, returning her smile, and followed the youth through a tall oak door into a small room doubly illuminated by fire and candlelight.
An elderly woman dressed in black silk and a widow's cap looked up from her knitting. In a matronly English accent she welcomed Janeway, who clasped the chilled hand and knelt to stroke the plump cat at her feet. It responded with a disdainful burnt-orange glare. /Even the holograms can tell I'm a dog person./ "How do you do, my dear? I am afraid you have had a tedious ride; John drives so slowly; you must be cold, come to the fire."
Allowing herself to be led to a chair by the hearth, Janeway cleared her throat and recited the first line she had prepared for this long-awaited adventure. "Mrs. Fairfax, I suppose?" The fire crackled invitingly. It had been so long since she had watched as logs glowed and settled and burst with sparks. So long. /Mark -/
"Yes, you are right; do sit down."
She refocused her attention on the scene at hand. The next few minutes flew by for Janeway, quite as she had expected. When it came time for her character to retire for the night, she could not bear to tear herself away from the holonovel. She ordered the computer to fast-forward the program to the next day. Removing her cloak and bonnet, she stepped outside to walk the grounds of Thornfield in the morning light. She could smell the dew on the grass. For a moment she thought jealously of Chakotay, Paris and Kim. /How I'd love to be planetside right now, my feet on solid ground./ She met Mrs. Fairfax again as the housekeeper fussed over morning tea and they spoke. Soon, as Janeway had imagined, the first highlight of the program appeared.
Skipping merrily toward the two women, blonde curls dancing around her slender shoulders, the petite child hopped to a halt at Janeway's knee. "C'est la gouvernante?"
The nurse that jogged to keep up with her diminutive charge smiled at Janeway before breathlessly answering. "Mais oui, certainement."
With a frown of concentration, the child composed her query in English. "Mademoiselle - what is your name?"
They were the words she had been waiting to say to make this escape solid and real. The fingers that grasped her skirts as she walked now clenched them in anticipation. It was so cathartic, so rewarding to lose one's self in cherished stories. Drawing a deep breath, she knelt to the girl's level and gave herself a name she had loved since she was sixteen. At the time it had seemed the perfect antidote to intense hours in the chemistry lab. Now its syllables relieved the tension of command.
"Eyre - Jane Eyre."
She lost track of the hours that night.
[The holonovel is based on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, first published in 1847.]
Tom Paris was a student of human nature. Not that he wanted to be. His experiences with Starfleet, with the Maquis, with his trial, with the penal colony, all had offered him unforgettable lessons, a parade of personalities he had learned to avoid at all costs. He knew the sneer of the sadist, intrigued with the distraction of toying with a helpless victim. And if you tried to show him that you were not helpless, that you would resist, you enticed him all the more. The Phrama were a new species to Paris, but he knew Nett Renoja's type all too well.
There was a strength that came with knowledge, however. Paris could be scared but he could not be surprised. He felt, justifiably, that he had seen it all. That could come in handy, even provide the upper hand if the situation were right. He had contemplated this as he had marched, staring ahead at Chakotay's battered neck and observing as Renoja grew increasingly unsettled by the commander's characteristic stoicism. He observed and he remembered.
They had been walking for hours. Chakotay, still without water, was stumbling now. As they entered Llilegrough's domain with its vast fields of crops and approached the first, most imposing structure of the inner compound, Renoja halted and dismounted. Turning to his force, he addressed them. "I shall inform Llilegrough of what we found. You may resume your posts." The Phrama that had tied the officers together came forward to assist Renoja with them. "Follow me. I shall secure them myself. Come, Human."
Renoja unlaced the rope from his saddle and jerked it viciously, almost pulling Chakotay off of his feet. The building was surrounded by a series of metal bars that connected legs standing about eight feet tall: large hitching posts. He led the officers to the nearest one. The Phrama, with Renoja, secured the bound wrists of Kim and Paris above their heads, high enough that they swayed on the balls of their feet precariously. With a satisfied smile Renoja tied the noose-rope to the pole as well, leaving Chakotay to stand on his toes and strain his neck backwards in order to breathe.
"Leave them now." With that final word the remaining Phrama scattered and Renoja strode toward his master's dwelling.
Chakotay squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the dizziness caused by his unnatural position. He had to stay balanced, stay motionless, or he would suffocate himself. The intense heat and dehydration weakened him. The rope ground into the open wounds in his neck. Renoja had broken his concentration. He had been far from here, in a wood, an unseen stream clothed in foliage gurgling in the distance. He had knelt there in the clearing, silently waiting for his spirit guide to reveal itself. The pungent scent of life had surrounded him. The clear, cool water of the creek had slaked his thirst. There, in the wood, he could assess the situation, seek guidance, and plan. The meditation he had maintained for these last hours was no more. But it had bought him time and provided him strength. He was stronger than he appeared, twisting here in vulnerable balance, bloodied and trembling.
When Phrama emerged from the building almost an hour later, they were not the ones responsible for discovering the officers. Wrapped in flowing toga-like robes as green as the fields around them, a dozen Phrama strode determinedly toward them. One, in the center, appeared to be older, regal. He spoke before he reached the three.
"Which of you is leader?" The tone of authority.
With effort Chakotay strained to swallow, then answered in a harsh whisper that carried by sheer force of will from his cracked lips. "I am... Commander... Chakotay."
"Cut him down! His men, as well." As the Phrama followed his orders, he bowed slightly, formally. "I must apologize for the behavior of my overseer. You have been ill-used. Please understand, he is devoted to my fief's security." Chakotay inclined his head, jaw clenched, planted solidly before the overlord. He did not speak. "Let us remove to my hall. Unbind them!" Llilegrough turned back toward the building.
Their hands freed, Kim and Paris moved to Chakotay to help him disentangle the bloody noose without causing further damage. He finally dropped his hands and let Kim ease it gently open and remove it. The two men instinctively flanked their commander as the Phrama encircled them and followed Llilegrough. "You gonna make it?" Paris whispered into his ear. He nodded tightly. All three of them were.
Llilegrough was not an irrational man. He was a petty overlord with fewer resources and means than many of the neighboring fiefholders, and the delicate mixture of pragmatism and imagination that allowed him to maintain his precarious position and defend himself. Lesser Phrama would have surrendered this delicate existence in favor of security or been absorbed by the hostile forces of ambitious neighbors. Not Llilegrough. Now his attention was turned to the problem at hand. The strange craft had crashed on his property. He lacked the manpower and leisure to dissect it and learn its technologies, however, although he knew they might well prove useful. Before he had mastered its mysteries his greedy rivals would know of his secret and try to take it by force. Unfortunately, and he did regret it, the only thing to do was quickly dismantle and bury the strange spacecraft. If he could not use the technology, no one would. The entire incident would be denied. The cover-up would be in place by nightfall. None of Llilegrough's men would mention again the foreign vessel from the sky.
This decision left the problem of the survivors, the Humans. He pondered this dilemma as he watched them take their seats on a wooden bench in his interview chamber. They were exhausted and hot. Each of them appeared alert nonetheless, assessing their new surroundings, taking in information about the Phrama and Llilegrough in particular. They were intelligent and wary, these men. The young one on the end seemed to catalogue in his mind the details of the room. Young, but clever. A thinker, a planner. The tall, fair one eyed the guards and their weapons. The way he held himself, both consciously and naturally, revealed a distrustful man, a defiant man, a man of action. Admiration instinctively warmed the overlord as he watched the Human leader, the dark one, the focus of a Renoja's anger, take slow, disciplined sips of the water he was offered. His body must have desperately fought to gulp liters of the precious liquid, but he controlled himself. A man of pride. A man used to sacrifice. A complex man who knew much and would reveal nothing. Llilegrough learned a great deal from simple observations. If the situation were different, if he had more options at his disposal, he would have liked to have learned from these men. Perhaps even call them allies. But that was impossible.
Chakotay's appeal to Llilegrough, when it came, was eloquent and concise. It was also irrelevant. The overlord had already made his decision.
"So then he says, 'Sandrine's, for example.' So casually. Sandrine's!" B'Elanna Torres shook her head in amusement and rolled her eyes as she took another bite of her pasta. Kes laughed merrily just thinking about the pub and its irrepressible owner. The combination pool critic, bartender, madam, and philosopher had far too much personality for one holodeck character's own good.
"Poor Doctor. When he's there she won't leave him alone and it drives him crazy. But when he hasn't gone for a while, he gets to thinking about her -"
"Because she drives him crazy." Torres finished Kes's sentence. "It's all too funny. I told him tonight would be fine. Tom's gone, so he won't be using the program, and he never minds if anyone else does. We've all kind of adopted it."
Kes nodded thoughtfully, remembering her own surprise birthday party at the holographic pool hall. Struck by a thought, she gasped, "Do you think he'll wear the beret?" The mental image sent them both into another cycle of laughter.
"Well, it appears that we are having a good evening." Complete with apron and chef's hat, a smiling Neelix pulled up a chair next to Kes.
"Oh, Neelix, we were just talking about the Doctor. He wants to have access to the holodeck like the rest of the crew, not just when we invite him for special occasions. I am excited for him. He is trying so many new things, and his program is adapting with every experience."
Neelix characteristically turned the tide of conversation. "Speaking of experiences, how do you like the dish du jour, Ms. Torres? Is there enough karpel fungi in the sauce -"
/You promised yourself you'd never let him tell you what you were eating again. You're better off not knowing. Karpel fungi?/ Her stomach turned. "Really, Neelix, this is quite good. Before you told me that part about the fungi, I thought it was one of your best."
He was immensely pleased. "Really? Do you think so? I am quite gratified to hear it, I truly am. You see, I faced a rather disappointing setback with my Vulcan dish at lunch, and frankly I have been in need of some honest affirmation. Thank you! I think I will have to take an informal poll about this now." And Neelix was going table to table before Torres could register his animated words. Kes watched him, smiling fondly, then turned back to Torres, now idly considering her datapadd.
"B'Elanna? Could I ask you a favor, with regard to the Doctor?"
"Sure, Kes. What is it?"
"Could we add some scents to Sandrine's? Cigar smoke? Wood polish?" Her mind raced. /How would Sandrine's smell?/ "Perfume, perhaps?" She chewed on her lip thoughtfully.
Torres could not help but be intrigued by the Ocampa's request. "I don't see why not. But why?"
"We have been experimenting with his program to see if he can make links between smells and experiences or feelings."
"Great idea. But he'll be going soon. We'll have to hurry to get them installed before he uses it." Neelix was bewildered to find them gone when he returned with the voting spread. He needed more affirmation. The morale officer was feeling low. According to his survey, 'none of the above' was overwhelmingly the favorite dish he prepared. He sighed. /Does every civilized Alpha Quadrant culture condone the abuse of cooks?/
"For workload purposes, you three will be counted as a kin group. If your group does not fill its quota each day, one of you will be punished. That shall be your dwelling." Renoja pointed to one of the dilapidated wooden shacks on the periphery of the makeshift village. "All you require for survival is there. Tomorrow you shall assume your duties. I will personally supervise your progress." He nudged his wallibeve into a slow turn, remarking, "Report to this common at sunrise." He left them amid the huts.
"A forced labor camp, and Mister Congeniality here is our own personal slavedriver? This makes me pine for the penal colony." Kim responded to Paris's comment with a nervous chuckle, and Chakotay tugged on his ear absently as he surveyed the structures around them. After a moment's silent contemplation, he spoke.
"Let's get to the cabin, where we can talk." The three made their way to the structure Renoja had indicated. The crudely-constructed shack would barely shield them from the elements. Mismatched wooden planks left gaping cracks on all sides. An open hole in the center of the roof had been cut to allow the smoke from the fire pit in the center of the dirt floor to escape. Simple wooden bowls, metal pots, and dusty blankets littered the ground. A few torn pieces of clothing hung on a wall. Chakotay sighed as he drank in the disheartening scene, rubbing his chin distractedly.
Abruptly, he sat down crossed-legged on the floor, a brief concession to his body's needs, and looked to his men. "We need to buy time until we know the best way to escape back to the crash site. Then we can either repair the shuttle and leave by ourselves, or we can await the rescue party - that will be the first place they search. Paris, it looked like the stream that ran through this village is the workers' source of water. Get us a few bowls." The lieutenant nodded, collected the vessels, and went on his way.
"I don't get it. Llilegrough seemed regretful about sentencing us to this camp. Why would he sic that Renoja on us if he didn't want us hurt?" Kim opened a sack of provisions, some kind of course meal, and scowled in distaste.
"I don't think he knew Renoja would follow us here and pull rank on the guard. You are right, Llilegrough didn't seem to want to hurt us. He even apologized for how Renoja treated us when he brought us here. Unless I'm wrong, he doesn't know what is going on."
"If we could somehow let him know that Renoja was waiting for us when we came out, and that he has appointed himself our overseer without Llilegrough knowing, maybe we could get Renoja in trouble and get us a little breathing room." Kim frowned in concentration. "But how?"
Paris reentered and offered each of them a bowl of water, from which they drank silently. Chakotay shook his head. "We would have to learn enough of the politics around here to know who we could trust and who had access to Llilegrough. That might take a while. If we can just get through the next day or so and keep our eyes open, I hope we can get out of here altogether."
"There's a plan. No offense to you guys, but I always imagined playing house with someone more... feminine."
"Don't worry, Paris. I wouldn't take you home to Mother, either." Chakotay smiled in spite of himself at his own rejoinder. Then he slowly climbed to his feet, stretched strained muscles, and moved to observe the clothing on the wall. "We'll need to make note of all of the routines. How many guards there are, where we work, the hours we keep, when we're most closely watched." He fingered a tattered shirt. "We haven't seen any of the laborers yet. I think these clothes would fit Phrama, though. It seems that these people might enslave their own kind."
"Enemies of Llilegrough, like dissidents, maybe? Political prisoners?" Kim offered.
Paris shook one of the blankets from the floor, and grimaced as a cloud of dust rose from its filthy fibers. "And Federation officers. All one happy family here, smack dab in the middle of the Phrama gulag. I can see it now. 'A Day in the Life of Thomas Eugenovich.'"
The Phrama did enslave their own kind. But not because the unfortunate prisoners were politically dangerous or economically unsuccessful. The overlords bred their laborers, and inherited their caste like the land that they cultivated. Those who worked in the labor camps had never known any other way of life. This did not mean that they were utterly content with their existence, but it did mean that they envisioned few options for themselves. The resignation, the silence, the unimaginative bleakness of these prisoners both frightened and repulsed Harry Kim.
Like Paris and Chakotay, Kim stole glances whenever he could as he worked the endless rows of crops. Renoja was never far away. The laborers at first seemed amazed and concerned that the high overseer was paying so much attention to their routine duties. In a way, the Federation officers were fortunate that Renoja was obsessed with their subjugation. His desire to keep them all in view meant that they were assigned to tasks together. Each could always see the other two. There was a small comfort in that.
Kim was down to his undershirt now, the long-sleeved portion of his uniform hanging from his waist, its long black arms flapping as he knelt and stood, knelt and stood. The temperature changes made him constantly miserable. In the sweltering heat of yesterday afternoon, the Humans could not imagine ever needing to build a fire in their meager shelter. By sundown they had kindled one in the fire pit. By midnight they had wrapped the filthy shirts around their shoulders and covered themselves with the dusty blankets. Each had taken turns keeping watch as the other two reclined by the fire, but no one could sleep well. The rising sun only renewed the cycle of extreme heat and cold.
The inefficiency of this mindless toil infuriated Kim further. His hands ached and bled where the hidden thorns of the tall plants caught his flesh. Harvesting the half-budded flowers and the oily sap-like fluid from each stalk seemed needlessly laborious to the ensign. As he fumbled and fought for some kind of rhythm, he remembered Renoja's warning that each worker must meet a quota of harvest for the day, or one member of his group would be punished. How could he learn this in a day, and yet be held as responsible as the Phrama who had labored like this since childhood? He slowed his work for a moment and stretched his throbbing back. Turning, Kim looked at the prisoner directly next to him. Guilt shot through him. /She is so old, and bent over with work. If she can do this, so can I./
He attacked the stalks with renewed determination, keeping one eye on the elderly woman beside him in shame for his own weakness. Only after watching for several minutes did he notice what was happening. As the Phrama around him debudded their plants, they each tossed a bud into the old woman's bin at regular intervals. The rhythm of this choreographed throw was like music; no two workers tossed a bud at the same time, and none looked to locate her pile before they threw. The men and women acted in perfect concert with each other, performing this defiant drumbeat so expertly that no overseer, not even Renoja himself, could detect their actions. A knot formed in Kim's throat. Witnessing the workers helping one of their own offered him a real burst of hope, as well as a new respect for these seemingly complacent slaves.
For what felt like hours he labored silently. He grew to work to the rhythm of the buds as they softly hit the old woman's bin. When he had finally summoned the courage to interact with these wary aliens, he took a short step away from his stalk and tossed a bud of his own into her pile. In a lightning-quick reaction, the ancient face turned towards him and smiled. Then the scene, with its ever-present Renoja on his mount, the cadence of the buds tossed to the bin, the desperate heat and thirst, the silent and absorbed laborers, fell back into place as if he had never done anything at all.
It was terribly tempting to Chakotay to revisit the glade within himself and not return to the scorched fields where his body baked and thirsted. But the nearness of Paris and Kim - his crew, his responsibility - jarred him into constant surveillance and planning. He mapped in his mind the route they had taken from the shuttlecraft to the compound, and from the compound to the cabin and fields. They would need mounts to travel. The Phrama would certainly have wallibeves to follow them. They also had to find some way to prevent Llilegrough's men from learning of their flight immediately. And alternative plans, contingent upon what they found - or failed to find - when they reached the crash site. Kneel, stand. Kneel, stand. /Endure this. We will be gone from here soon./
Further down the same row, Paris had only one thing on his mind: Nett Renoja. His own restless minutes of sleep the night before held images of other guards, other prisons. He knew that the biggest threat to them this day was Renoja. And Paris knew he was the one most capable of understanding it.
It came as no surprise to him, then, when Renoja announced at the end of the day that the workers must labor longer. His excuse - something about a forthcoming inspection by Llilegrough himself - was merely a means to an end. Paris could tell from the way Renoja watched them that he wanted to make an example of them. To flex his muscles of authority. To punish them from landing on his territory. To satiate his hungering ego. The light was soon too dim to illuminate their work, despite the torches that burned at the end of every other row. Renoja bellowed at the workers' insolence, their disobedience, their sloth. But they could not pick the buds or tap the resin in the darkness. Renoja would have his vengeance. He would give them an example of his wrath that they could watch and remember. He fumed and screamed and shouted. Then he looked down the rows of workers. Kim. Paris. /Chakotay./
Paris could feel the older man straighten slowly a few yards behind him. He knew Chakotay knew. He also knew Chakotay would surrender himself to this torturer without a struggle. But Paris had made his own decision, back before they had been sentenced to this camp. He had made a choice as he watched Renoja sneer at them as they were bound. Renoja was a predator. If not Chakotay, then Kim. Paris would not have it. He knew what to do. It was easy. When Renoja dug his heels into his wallibeve and urged it down their row, Paris did nothing. He simply stood in the overseer's way and failed to step aside. He looked at the Phrama's face as the torchlight played upon it, as it twisted in a new, immediate anger. /I know you, Renoja. Different names, same monster. This time I won't let you break me, or hurt anyone else. You're an old enemy, but I'm a new Tom Paris./
Urgent, hushed words behind him. Chakotay was trying to stop him. Ordering him to step aside. It was too late. A cry to his right, a row over. /Harry, my dear friend. Better me than you./ He smiled, actually smiled, at the enraged overseer then, sealing his fate. Guards appeared behind Renoja and took Paris away. He would not be killed; instead, he would serve as a living reminder to the slaves of Renoja's power. When the punishment was complete he would be returned. The cryptic foreshadowing was the only explanation the workers received. Paris looked back only once. One of Chakotay's dark, muscled arms encircled a frantic Harry Kim. Whether he was restraining or comforting the ensign, Paris could not tell.
The edge of Llilegrough's fief, the very boundary of his lands, was dotted with small metal cubes. The Federation officers had noted them in the distance and assumed they were territorial markers. The officers could not have known that they were also punishment devices. Solitary cubes, they were called. With only a thin patchwork of ventilation holes in the top, the boxlike cells grew chillingly cold at night and searingly hot in the daytime. Victims sat doubled-over on themselves, unable to move at all, either to create friction and stay warm or to shrink away from the burning metal sides when the sun blazed down upon them. Immobility and temperature extremes together made these cubes effective devices of torture, both physically and psychologically. Tom Paris soon discovered how effective they were.
After the first full day, as night fell on Llilegrough's lands, guards opened the cube and lifted Paris bodily onto the grass. He collapsed at Renoja's feet, unable to will strength into his trembling limbs. No one spoke. A leering Renoja produced a needle from the folds of his robe and nodded to his men, who spread Paris across the ground and held his arms and legs. The lieutenant had no strength with which to fight. His only weapon was defiance. He narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin challengingly. He had suffered a day with only this moment to anticipate. His stubbornness had kept him sane. /I won't let you break me, I won't, I won't, I-/
But when the syringe plunged into the side of his neck, his body exploded in an agony unlike anything he had ever felt before. In the distance, he could hear his own fragile scream. He twisted vainly in the strong arms that held him, gasping and sobbing for breaths that burned like flame. His mind danced on the edge of consciousness, his vision exploding into brilliant kaleidoscopes with every strained beat of his heart. Even as he writhed and struggled, the guards rolled him into a sitting position and dragged him again towards the cube.
He tried to speak, to ask them what was happening, what they had just done to him, to warn them that he could not breathe, that he would die if they put him back in that horrific box. He could not find or keep the breath for voice. Disjointed whimpers, staccato sobs. /No, no, I don't want to die like this! It hurts, I'm suffocating, it's tearing me apart! Please, please, don't let it end like this, not another failure! No! At least let me fight, don't let me go so easily -/ When the lid of the box closed above him, he scratched and clawed at it with feeble hands. Tears burned in his eyes.
The cold wind obscured the sounds that emanated from that tiny metal cube.
Somewhere miles above the planet on Voyager, a sleeping Kes clutched twisted sheets in trembling fists and screamed.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
Chakotay gasped with the shock of words after so many hours spent in silence. He had offered to take first watch in the meager cabin and let Kim sleep. Sitting before the fire, staring into its mesmerizing depths, he had not moved for half the night. When the blankets around his shoulders fell to the dirt floor, he did not notice. He had not realized Kim was awake - if, in fact, Kim had ever slept at all. He did not meet Kim's eyes. He merely nodded.
"It isn't your fault."
He jerked as if he had been hit and stared at Kim. From the looks of the young man, he too had passed the night sleeplessly. "What do you mean?"
"Tom did what he did for both of us. You were willing to do the same thing for him and for me." Silence spread between them. "I'm sorry if I am out of line. It's just... I thought that you... "
"I know what you're trying to do, Ensign, and I appreciate it. Now get some rest." The formality of Chakotay's tone widened the uneasy space between them. He stoked the fire and gathered the blankets back around himself. His expression remained unchanged.
/Well, that was no use./ Kim had wondered whether or not to reach out toward the commander. Now he wished he had stayed silent. Chakotay remained a bit of a mystery to Kim. The commander often seemed quite sensitive to the feelings of his crew, yet at times incredibly private and secretive, even uncomfortable, about his own. It seemed that he was there for his officers, but would not allow them to offer reciprocal concern. Kim felt awkward and alone, trying to quiet his own fear and yet dispel the anger and self-recrimination he read through Chakotay's veiled features. He burrowed against the hard ground, seeking a comfortable position.
He thought again of Paris. /What are they doing to him? When will they bring him back? How will we escape?/ Questions ran together in his mind and exhaustion mercifully overcame him.
"This is day four. Voyager will be expecting us within the next few hours." Kim stirred the pasty concoction without further comment. He knew better than to ask when Chakotay thought Paris would be returned. Neither of them had an idea. The two worked and rested in a hyperaware state, outwardly obedient to the guards and inwardly frantic for a sign of their comrade.
Chakotay had tried to funnel this fear into productive pursuits: gathering and sharing information, planning, even cleaning the hut and clothes. They learned more about the Phrama, their political divisions, their religious beliefs, and the agricultural system that fueled them both. He knew that they would have to act quickly when Paris rejoined them. A search party would be coming soon. So many variables rested on the lieutenant's condition, though. So many unanswered questions. They waited.
As Chakotay drifted off to sleep next to the fire later that night, Kim, taking the first watch, heard the plodding of hoof beats and the murmur of activity. Shouts. The faint glow of torches shone through the cracks in the cabin walls. "Commander!"
In a reflex borne of long necessity, Chakotay came instantly awake and rolled into a defensive crouch. They reached for threadbare Phrama jackets and headed out toward the disturbance. A ring of workers had formed in the village common. Mounted guards formed the innermost ring. The same thought occurred to both officers immediately, and they took off at a run to elbow their way into the heart of the gathering.
Paris was hunched on the ground, arms hugging his chest and knees drawn in a fetal position. He rocked back and forth, shivering violently, his eyes open and intense but unseeing, as if he were concentrating with all of his waning strength on something distant within himself. His torturers had stripped him to the waist and taken his boots, Chakotay noted, probably to intensify his exposure. He now wore his socks on his hands. Bruises made his chest and stomach a solid mass of blue-black flesh; the guards had systematically brutalized him after he was too weak to protect himself. There were burns as well. The dust and filth of his imprisonment covered him. Shouldering past the stunned Kim, who was already removing his own coat to cover his friend, Chakotay knelt before Paris and carefully grasped his bare shoulders.
"Paris." The lieutenant flinched away from his touch, shuddering uncontrollably. Chakotay took a deep, calming breath. "Paris. It's Chakotay." Dark brown eyes searched pale blue ones and found only the faintest promise of recognition. He leaned closer, grimly registering the harsh, ragged breaths Paris struggled to take. "It's Chakotay," he repeated softly, studying Paris's face.
/Chakotay./ It was terribly difficult, trying to remember. He'd built so many walls in these recent hours and expended so much energy on maintaining them. But this hushed voice and these eyes, meeting and questioning his own, touched the terrorized senses that had screamed and hidden and finally slumbered. Somewhere, beyond thought, Paris reacted to the gentle words. No friendship. No comfort. But he did find a grudging, honest emotion. Respect. /Chakotay. I trust Chakotay. This can be over now./
Paris surrendered himself to arms he somehow knew would cause him no pain or shame. He pitched forward. As Paris lost consciousness, Chakotay caught him, disentangled arms and legs, and gathered the lieutenant to himself.
Kneeling beside Chakotay, Kim wrapped his ragged jacket around Paris's trembling frame, then grasped Chakotay's elbows and steadied him as he rose to his feet. The older officer nodded his thanks. "Watch my back."
Falling into step behind his commander, Kim warily eyed the mixed crowd of slaves and captors, guarded against anyone who might move against Chakotay or his vulnerable burden. The desperate sound of Paris's labored breathing was all that broke the silence. The onlookers parted and let them retreat in the darkness to their cabin.
Kim threw open the cabin door, rushing to pile several threadbare blankets onto the dirt floor beside the fire. Turning back to Chakotay as he entered, he accepted part of Paris's weight and the two slowly sank to their knees, lowering Paris gently to the ground. Kim continued to murmur soothing words like a mantra as if begging the lieutenant to respond. Chakotay could tell he was horrified at Paris's condition and dangerously close to shock himself.
"We need more water, more wood, and more blankets. I don't care how you get them."
Kim nodded eagerly, grateful to have something constructive to do to help. He wrapped his sleeping blanket across his shoulders like a cape and practically ran to the door. "And Ensign! Be careful." Kim nodded and disappeared into the night.
Chakotay knew the tasks would take some time. He wanted to spare Kim. He could do this himself. He pulled back the blankets and methodically ran his hands over Paris, searching for injuries. The bruises testified to the punishment he had received; there was no way to determine the internal injuries. His shoulders, back, thighs, and knees all had surface burns, as if he had pressed against hot metal. At least one rib on his right side was broken, maybe more. He could find no other evident broken bones, but he could feel a far more ominous threat - each tortured gasp sent deep rumbles through his chest. It seemed as though Paris was suffocating, or drowning. He lifted the blond head and rested it on his lap, hoping it would ease his breathing. Only then did he see a thick knot surrounding a small puncture wound on his neck. A sting? A bite of some kind? He could not tell.
Chakotay then dispassionately bathed him. Repeatedly he dipped a rag into the water bowl, cleaning the worst if his wounds, wiping away the dirt and blood and his own filth, carefully redressing him in the Phrama clothes they had washed for him. He moved slowly, conscious to avoid further trauma. He knew Paris did not really care what he thought of him personally. That made it easier for the commander to deal with his unconscious form now, helpless and humiliated. At least Kim did not have to see him like this.
In his soul, however, the spirits warred with one another. His recently-found respect aside, he had never personally cared for the former - what did he once call the admiral's son? Mercenary? He was not without his reasons. Nonetheless, Paris did not deserve this. He was a hero many times over. And Chakotay was his commanding officer. He owed Paris his life, was now bound to be his protector, and yet he had allowed this to happen. He had not wanted this, to be sure, but he should have shaken this planet to its very foundations before he let it claim his crewmate and charge.
Paris coughed harshly and moaned as Chakotay turned him. Although sometimes still angrily defiant of the first officer, who knew the man he used to be all too well, Paris was now a penitent. His resentment flared less often, and less overtly. Now the two even shared an occasional joke, an occasional game of pool. On Voyager he was building a new life and fighting himself at every turn to do so. Volunteering to endure this torture was his attempt to do something noble, to spare others and accept punishment for the mistakes that still haunted him. The gasping body beneath Chakotay's hands was crucified on his own hopes of self-redemption, and his commander had not intervened. Each ministering touch to the lieutenant was Chakotay's silent act of penance.
Clothed and wrapped in blankets beside the fire, Paris struggled toward consciousness. Even before his eyes opened he choked on an urgent syllable: "Has!" It was as close to a scream as his shallow breath would allow.
"Paris, it's Chakotay. You're all right. Calm down. You're safe."
The pale blue eyes fought to focus and he whispered again, "Has." Another gasp, and violent coughing overcame him.
"Has? I don't understand, Paris. Be quiet now, you are all right. Calm down." Chakotay held a wooden cup of water to his lips, but Paris turned away miserably and tried to free his arms from the blanket. "Mah hans," he mouthed in panic.
Understanding hit Chakotay suddenly. When he had washed Paris he had removed the socks the lieutenant had worn on his hands. Evidently he was exposed to the frigid night and feared he might freeze. Chakotay's stomach twisted as the implications became clear, as he imagined the young officer deciding what he could lose first to frostbite as he slowly died a little at a time. He was a pilot. His hands were his life.
"Tom, listen to me." He restrained the wild motions that threatened to steal such fragile breath. "Your hands are okay. They weren't damaged. Your hands are okay."
Then Paris looked at him, fully lucid, for a long moment. Pain was etched into every feature of his face but he was calm. And aware. He grew still, satisfied that Chakotay spoke the truth. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. "Harry?" He mouthed the name as a question.
"He is gathering wood and water. He's fine."
This seemed to satisfy Paris. He drank from the bowl Chakotay offered and sank back against the blankets, exhausted.
Chakotay just sat there, watching him, for some time. He was unsure what to do to help. Now that the lieutenant was conscious, Chakotay felt uncomfortable tending to him, as if his nearness to the vulnerable man were some kind of invasion. They had always observed each other's space. He was no doctor, but he had seen his share of injury and death on the front lines with the Maquis. The Phrama may not have wanted to kill Paris, but they came frighteningly close. They would have to watch and wait. Chakotay trembled in the wake of the adrenaline surge which had carried him this long. In a few hours dawn would come and they would be expected to work again in the fields. What then?
At a noise outside, Chakotay fell silent and moved warily toward the door. Before he reached it Kim entered, his back loaded with blankets and a waterbag. "I stacked the wood outside the door," he panted, his breath white clouds in the cold night air. He carried a small metal pot in his arms. "Is he okay? Did he wake up?"
Chakotay stepped aside to let Kim see his friend for himself, moving behind the ensign to help unload the supplies he carried. Shrugging off his burden and placing the pot on the floor, he knelt beside Paris and smiled. "Good to see you awake. You really had me scared."
Paris returned the smile weakly. He opened his mouth to speak, then convulsed with coughs. Kim rested a hand on his fevered head until the fit passed. "Don't try to talk, just rest. I've got more water for you, and some soup when you feel like it." He held the waterbowl to Paris's lips and let him drink. "Did they give you any food while... while you were gone?" Paris's eyes grew vacant, and he shook his head. "When you've rested, then." /What did they do to you, Tom?/ Kim's voice grew husky as he looked at his friend's drawn face. "We're going to make you well, and we won't let them hurt you again."
"S'okay... Harry," he whispered faintly. The haunted face appeared no more peaceful as Paris drifted into unconsciousness.
Janeway entered the sickbay to find Kes surrounded by the three men she needed - and who, in return, needed her - the most. The Doctor was simultaneously asking her questions, running scans, and arguing with Neelix. Neelix was circling her bed with nervous steps, gesturing wildly and arguing with everyone. Tuvok's head was cocked to the side in thought, and his own deep tones joined the other voices, melding into a confusing medley that seemed to do nothing but aggravate all of the participants. Kes sat on the bed, chewing on her fingernail, curiously detached from the raucous attention focused on her. Her cheeks were wet and her eyes red-rimmed, as if she had been crying, but she now seemed utterly composed.
"What's going on here, Doctor?" The voices quieted only partially as the Doctor crossed over to Janeway.
"Mister Neelix tried to contact Kes. When she did not respond, he found her in her quarters, rather hysterical. When he tried to determine the reason why she was so upset, she could not explain it. He says, and these are his words, that she seemed 'disoriented' and 'foggy.' By the time she fully understood where she was and who was with her, he had carried her here."
"Can you think of anything that could have caused this hysteria?"
"Kes did complain of a nightmare. And Neelix has noted mood swings today. But I have no further explanations. Physically she is fine, except for mild exhaustion." His forehead wrinkled in deep concern. Janeway put a gentle hand on his arm in empathy. Then, abandoning him to his debate with Neelix and Tuvok, she stepped closer to the young Ocampa.
"Captain?" Kes's naturally deep, resonating voice held no trace of hysteria. The quiet word contrasted sharply, in fact, with the heated tones of the others. Janeway lifted a commanding finger and the Doctor, Neelix and Tuvok all fell silent. Kes slowly turned on the bed to look at Janeway, her blue eyes calm and steady.
"Yes, Kes? Talk to me."
"I know how strange this will sound, Captain, but I don't believe that these emotions are mine."
"What do you mean?"
Kes registered the Doctor's uplifted brow and Neelix's frown of concern, then returned her attention to the Captain. "I believe... that I may be experiencing the feelings of the landing party."
Janeway took a deep breath, then looked over her shoulder at her acting second-in-command. "Tuvok, could this be possible?"
He considered it for a moment. "It is possible, Captain." He turned to his student. "Kes, why do you think you are experiencing the feelings of the Away Team? Is this in any way similar to how you have sensed the thoughts of crewmembers before on Voyager?"
She chewed her lip, choosing her words carefully. "Yes and no. I feel recognition. I know the person whose feelings I am experiencing. So it is not random. But I can't read thoughts, just extremely strong emotions. And these feelings seem as if they are echoing from far away, clear but distant, the same way I experienced the thoughts of the other Ocampa we encountered on the array."
Tuvok continued thinking aloud. "Those Ocampa were calling you, Kes. And they, like you, had extraordinary telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Are the officers on the planet seeking contact with you? And if so, how? I do not believe Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Paris, or Ensign Kim have ever tested positive for telepathic potential."
She shook her head. "No, I don't think they were seeking me in any way. I just felt what was going on..."
Janeway frowned and then interrupted. "If I may, Kes, what exactly did you feel was 'going on'?"
She sighed, as if steeling herself to visit unwelcome territory. "In my dream, I was sure that Lieutenant Paris was being tortured. He was in agony, and frightened, and after a while he was so desperate, he was beyond reason... it was horrible for him." She paused, shuddering in remembrance, letting her audience absorb what she was saying. "At first I thought I was just worried about Tom, but then the feelings kept returning. Now there's a general worry, like a 'background hum,' that could be the other two officers. But Tom is still in pain. He is not being hurt now, but he is wounded, afraid, and very sad. It was as if his soul screamed out and I heard it."
Janeway, Neelix, and the Doctor stood in shocked silence. Tuvok recovered from the unexpected news first. "It is logical that, if Kes were to experience a link with any crewmember, it would be one for whom she has an emotional attachment. I believe that you and Mister Paris are close friends." She nodded in reply. "And if Mister Paris were put in an unpleasant situation, more so than the other officers, his emotions might be stronger, and thus more easily received telepathically."
"Tuvok, this could explain why the landing party hasn't returned yet. If what Kes says is true..."
"Pardon me, Captain, but aren't we being a bit too hasty?" Neelix interrupted. Janeway crossed her arms in displeasure at Neelix's outburst, but she could not bring herself to reproach him. She knew any stress on Kes was also stress on Neelix. Besides, the Talaxian did have a way of seeing things from another angle. And she was not anxious to accept the reality that Paris had been tortured while she orbited the offending world, oblivious to his need for help.
"Kes believes the ancient legends of her people, about their mental abilities. And the other Ocampa we encountered, they only added to her expectations. Now that she has friends who have not returned from their mission on time, it is easy to add up a bad dream and natural concern and believe that she somehow knows what's happened to them. She's tired and she's worried. What she needs is a good dinner and a good night's sleep. If you have a bad dream or worries about the Away Team, don't you count it as natural reaction to the fact your officers are in danger? Why should Kes be any different? Can't she have the same subconscious reactions we do without it being some mysterious telepathic phenomenon?"
The Doctor bristled visibly during Neelix's commentary. "Well, Mister Neelix, I was not aware that you were trained in psychological and neurological studies. Perhaps you can instruct me in your free hours on the dynamics of the telepathic-telekinetic subconscious."
Tuvok likewise reacted to the Talaxian's queries immediately. "I do not believe that you appreciate the full extent of Kes's abilities, Mister Neelix. She has a potential that we cannot even fully understand."
Janeway shook her head. "I agree with you, Mister Tuvok, but Mister Neelix has a point. We should not jump to conclusions just because Kes has certain gifts. She is also Humanoid, and vulnerable to the same factors that we are - Vulcans excepted, of course." A wicked half-smile, a touch of humanity in the midst of a tense situation. Then, somber again, she looked to Kes. "What do you think? Could exhaustion and worry account for what you are feeling?"
Gentle eyes on the Talaxian, Kes replied, "I know Neelix worries that I take things too seriously sometimes. And I know it's because he cares about me. But this is unlike anything I have experienced before. And I have been more exhausted, even terrified, before, and this did not happen. It was so clear, Captain. I have to believe it's what I think it is." Her eyes then sought out her teacher, at once plaintive and apologetic. "I realize this is a private thing, Tuvok, but, if you think it would help, I'd be willing to share my memories."
Sickbay went quiet. Everyone felt the weight of what she was suggesting. Waiting a heartbeat, to give him time to consider the proposition, Janeway spoke softly. "That's your decision, Tuvok." /I haven't forgotten the time that I thought I'd lost you in Suder's mind. That's why I told you to always ask my permission first. I had to be sure you would be safe. But I will give you permission if you decide to do this. It's your call now, old friend./
He met her eyes as if she were the only one in the room. /Most appreciated, Captain./ He drew a deep breath. "I know you respect the Vulcan sense of privacy, Captain. For that I thank you. I do not object to what Kes suggests, however. Her mind... is not foreign to me." Behind Tuvok, Neelix shifted uncomfortably at the admission, aware that it touched on an intimate relationship, a literal meeting of the minds between the mentor and acolyte, which he could never share with Kes.
Janeway took the statement for what she knew it was: the closest thing to an outright expression of concern for Kes that Tuvok could make. /I know you are worried, Tuvok./
A curt nod. "All right, then. Mister Tuvok, I will be interested to hear your interpretation of Kes's experiences when you are finished. Shall we leave you now?" She gestured to the Doctor and Neelix to retreat with her and leave the two alone. The Doctor frowned disapprovingly, and Neelix drew a breath to protest.
Tuvok preempted their refusal smoothly. "Captain, I do not object to your presence." It cost him. Only Janeway knew that this was a gesture of kindness to his young pupil, to have those who cared near her. "But this procedure requires complete silence." He looked pointedly at both Neelix and the Doctor.
"Understood, Mister Tuvok. I assure you that we will cooperate fully." It was her turn to throw pointed glances.
"Are you prepared for this now, Kes?" The Vulcan made his way to the bed where she sat. Trust showed openly in the youthful face. She nodded, then closed her eyes. Instinctively, she leaned into the dark hands that sought her pale temples.
"My thoughts to your thoughts, my mind to your mind..."
In unison, their features twisted, and their lips parted in silent screams.
Tom Paris regained consciousness incrementally, with intriguing clarity of thought and sensation. The pain in his lungs was searing, tearing through his body from his aching back to his broken ribs, shattering the fragile link between his thoughts and his abused body. Every shiver registered and confirmed his own aloof self-diagnosis. /I'm in shock./ But he could not share the prognosis, could not stir his bruised frame to action. He was separated from the scene at hand. An outside observer. Apart.
Even now, as the firelight played across the faces of Chakotay and Harry Kim, he marveled at his inability to care, to partake in their hushed, frantic concern over his welfare. Just a few minutes ago he had feared for his hands. Now his very survival seemed uninteresting. Coolness, welcome moisture. Harry was running a damp rag across his brow. Speaking to him, to the blank eyes, those windows into a world too distant to see. More blankets, the very jacket from Chakotay's back. He could not stop trembling. He withdrew in a philosophical way. Ironic, it was, that it would end like this. But typical. He had lived his life in bursts of brilliance, parted by stretches of wretched mediocrity, at times even failure. He could handle the heroic moment, just not the constant day-to-day. And it had led to this.
He had tried. Tried to do one more good thing, one more burst to perhaps outweigh the seemingly endless periods of sarcasm, cynicism, and disappointment. Tried to spare others. Tried to die well, if he had to die at all. But here he was, reduced to a shivering, broken body on a cold dirt floor, breathing in hideous, agonized gasps. A burden to his commander. A heartbreak to his best friend. Slipping deeper into shock. Waiting for the end. A death as slow and wearisome as the greater number of his days. Somewhere far away, in one of the dark recesses of his mind that still offered commentary on his plight, silent laughter echoed. /How pathetic. How very Tom Paris./ And how appropriate, that the one surge of emotion that survived to the end would be his own self-loathing.
There was no point in trying to understand what they were saying. There was no energy with which to try, anyway. He heard the words of his shipmates, but they held no meaning.
"The old Phrama laborer that I told you about, they call her a wise woman and healer. She offered me the soup. She said it would help him."
"Does she know what they did to him?"
"She had an idea. But I... I don't want him to hear."
"It's okay, I don't think he's aware right now. Quietly."
"Does he have a small wound in his neck, like a point of a needle -"
"Yes, and it's swollen. What is it?"
"She... she said that, on top of the torture, they've infected him with this disease that destroys the lungs... It's a favorite they only use on 'special occasions'... "
"And its effects?"
"Pain. She put herbs in the soup to dull it... She said the Phrama workers who've been infected are bedridden. They can hardly breathe. They just... just waste away before everyone's eyes, and finally die."
"How long ?"
"It depends on age, on stamina. From a few hours to a few weeks. She says they are terrified of it, because it is slow and so painful."
"Do you trust her to tell you the truth?"
"Yes... I do. And sir, there's more. The guards try to force them out to work, to show them off to the others. They try to make a spectacle out of them..."
"I understand... We have to remember that we can't be sure how this will affect Paris, because he's Human... But whatever happens, we won't let them drag him into the fields."
"They'll punish us if he doesn't fill his quota."
"I know. We'll just have to get out of here soon."
"Can he travel?"
"If what you say is true, he will only get worse. We need to act quickly."
"What can we do?"
"You can sleep."
"Now. That's an order. I need you to sleep, because I'll want you clear-headed in an hour or so when I wake you up and brief you."
"Our escape plan."
Paris was only marginally aware that Kim curled beside him in a protective ball, sharing the corners of the blankets that covered him. That Chakotay sat across from the fire, cross-legged with his palms pressed to the dirt floor, keeping both the door and the lieutenant in view as he gathered his thoughts. That a new dawn would soon break onto the blood-red alien horizon. Paris's reality was crumbling all around him in cadence with the echoes of his shredded breaths.
When Tuvok terminated the meld, Janeway felt as exhausted as Kes looked. The delicate Ocampa swayed back into Neelix's arms, which eased her into a resting position on the sickbay bed. She was wet-cheeked and worn, but she wearily assured both Neelix and the Doctor that she was fine. Relieved, in a way, to share the images she had experienced.
Tuvok stepped back from Kes, shakily reaching behind himself to locate the biobed before sitting down heavily. His captain stood quietly at his elbow. "Tuvok, are you all right?" He nodded without meeting her eyes. His gaze seemed intent on the scenes he had witnessed within Kes's mind. Sickbay grew still, waiting for him to speak. The Doctor, Neelix, and Janeway all exchanged impatient, anxious looks. But they waited.
Finally, the Vulcan cleared his throat and turned toward Janeway. "Captain, I must concur with Kes's interpretation of her experiences. It seems that she has felt the emotions of Lieutenant Paris, on the surface below. It would appear that he has been tortured."
Janeway lowered her head into her palm, and her shoulders sagged for a minute, perhaps two. When she looked again at her security officer, she drew herself up to her full height and folded her arms across her chest in defiance of the situation and the odds. "Then we know that the Away Team is under duress. We know that they've encountered hostile lifeforms and they're unable to return to Voyager. The questions, then, are how to locate them on the surface, and how to retrieve them without putting the rescue team in the same danger the landing party now faces." She whirled to the Doctor. "May we use sickbay for an impromptu meeting, Doctor? I want Kes and Tuvok to be included, but I expect you want to keep an eye on them a little longer."
His thin lips pursed in pleasant surprise. He was clearly pleased to have so much going on around him. "But of course, Captain. I -"
"Thank you." A swift hand tapped her communicator. "Lieutenant Torres, report to sickbay. Immediately."
Chakotay left them that day to work in the fields. Kim stayed with Paris. The lieutenant could not be left alone. In the night they had been forced to sit him up and hold him several times just so he could breath. Kim gave him water and soup and reassurance, although the tortured man barely registered any of these. Most importantly, the ensign remained with Paris to protect him from any Phrama guards who might be ordered to bring him out and make a spectacle of his helplessness.
When Chakotay returned at sunset he stumbled wearily into the tiny cabin, sinking to his knees before the fire pit. Sweat gleamed on his bare olive-toned chest. He looked up at Kim, armed against his entrance with the metal pot, and smiled despite himself. "You're a threatening figure, Ensign. I surrender."
Kim grinned sheepishly. Stepping around the pit to offer Chakotay water, he gasped as he caught glimpse of the commander's back, cut into thin bloody ribbons from his waist to his torn neck. "Renoja?"
The whipping was not severe enough to prevent him from working, but it would have made every movement difficult. A knot formed in Kim's throat. Chakotay shook his head at the unspoken sympathy. "He warned us what would happen if the quotas weren't filled. I knew what I was getting into. I'll be okay." He drank thirstily. His eyes roamed the hut, noting appreciatively that Kim had washed every spare piece of clothing and cookery while he was gone.
Chakotay looked at the sack of meal and thought of the thin paste it made. His stomach had refused to accept the fact that the Phrama workers' fare was its only option. The gruel, combined with the heat and labor of the day, would be unwise. Eating again would only make him ill, slowing them down and dehydrating him further. He shook his head, then nodded toward Paris. "Any change?"
"Not really, although he let me feed him a little of that soup. He's not noticeably worse." /Or better./
"Good." He sat, debating silently with himself for a moment. Then he drew his knees up to his chest and let his head fall stiffly forward on crossed arms. "Give me just a few moments." His words were muffled against his skin. "Go ahead and wrap the bowls and tools into a blanket. I'll just take a minute or two."
Kim nodded and began moving quietly around the cabin. It stunned him to realize that Chakotay had not slept in the last two days. Not that he had exactly had sweet dreams himself. But Chakotay had not even tried to rest. He glanced at the hunched figure. The deep breaths that rippled the muscles of the torn back reflected silent meditation, not sleep. But Kim knew that Chakotay respected his own limits. Had he not led a Maquis ship in guerrilla warfare? The Commander knew the demands made by his body, when he could postpone them and when he had to obey. Sighing, Kim collected the contents of the cabin together, spoons and bowls, twisting them into a coiled blanket thoughtfully. He then gathered and folded the blankets and ragged clothes that had been discarded during the day as the heat intensified.
He was adjusting an unconscious Paris when Chakotay raised his head. "I'm going to wash my back in the stream and have a look around. How are things here?"
"Good. When I return, we move."
Chakotay reentered the cabin sparkling with stream-water droplets, shivering with the coming of the chill night. His mouth formed an "o" as he took in deep breaths to combat his body's reaction to the cold. His steps still betrayed fatigue, but they were purposeful and controlled nonetheless.
While he had washed his back and surveyed the area, Kim had added layers to Paris's clothing and wrapped the suffering lieutenant securely in their least worn blanket. He had also started a fire in the fire pit. Chakotay drew close to its fledgling heat, surveyed the small shelter and its contents and nodded. "Good work. We'd better wear as much of the clothing as we can."
Kim nodded and held up a torn shirt. /Okay, let's try this "reach out to Chakotay" thing one more time./ "Would you like me to bandage your back before you put something on?"
The tension in his shoulders relaxed visibly since Kim spared him the need of asking. "I'd appreciate it." He knelt compliantly. "Looks like you've become this mission's medical officer." Kim chuckled, pleased with this minor success, and worked swiftly, tying strips of the shirt like bandages around his commander. /That wasn't so bad./ His hands were quick but gentle, and Chakotay held his breath and remained still until the ensign had finished.
"There, I think that will protect the wounds from your clothing. "
"Thank you, Mister Kim." He rose stiffly and began adding layers of shirts, beginning with his Starfleet undershirt. His demeanor changed subtly, gratefulness melting into preoccupied concentration. "It looks like the workers are inside for the night. Are you clear on what to do?"
"Yes, sir." Kim wrapped the last of the shirts around his own shoulders.
"After we begin there may be little chance for communication."
"Fine. Good luck." Their calm made the situation surreal to Kim, their careful pace at odds with the desperation of their actions. But he could see how Chakotay had made a successful Maquis Captain. His tranquillity, while disconcertingly out of place, was also comforting somehow. Kim knelt at the fire and gathered the small flint-set together. Chakotay strapped the tool-filled, twisted blankets to his own back, criss-crossing them like ancient ammunition belts. Kim winced just thinking about the weight against his fresh wounds, but said nothing. He would have his own burdens to worry about soon enough. With a curt nod to Chakotay and a backward glance at Paris, Kim slipped out of the cabin and into the darkness.
Standing still in the silent dwelling, Chakotay shivered despite his heavy clothing and the growing blaze in the pit. The black sky - he could see it through the smoke-hole in the roof, its opaque depth like a dark pool of water above him - seemed utterly innocent of the night's occurrences. He was thankful for it, as if it were some objective bystander, a representative of history to chronicle this drama. All the while he gazed into the night he counted the minutes quietly to himself. /Eight... Nine... Ten./
In the corner, Tom Paris swam through a brief moment of clarity. He could make out the commander's pillar-straight figure in the flickering light. Staring at the sky as if it were holy, Chakotay murmured private words to what must have been an ancient spirit. And nodded, as if he had received answer. Instinctively Paris shuddered with the weight of whatever was happening. He could sense the somber gravity of Chakotay's mood. The commander stood for so long without making a motion, Paris was shocked when the solitary figure suddenly turned to him silently. Then the former Maquis bent down before the semi-conscious navigation officer and guided his lips to water. It was curious, frightening, that the commander then hauled him up to a sitting position, whispering a short few comforting phrases of safety and reassurance. So this was it. He could not process the words, the plan. But he could feel the intensity of the moment. A moment drifting hopelessly out of focus. He was slipping again. Fading away. Gone.
Chakotay crouched for a moment next to the slumping Paris and considered the passing time. Then he shifted to his feet, squatting and drawing Paris's weight over one taut shoulder. He stumbled backwards, sat, shifted Paris, and tried again. Awkwardly he finally stood. Half-straightened. Turned. Looked up through the roof's smoke-hole.
The sky was on fire.
/And so it begins./ Panicked wallibeves bellowed, sounding crazed, guttural cries. A new smoke mingled with familiar scents. /Almost there./ Paris's gasps were growing louder. The body Chakotay held twisted jerkily with the labor of breathing. /Just a moment more./ Hold on. The commander strained to listen, strained to hold himself still. The rhythm of hoofbeats. /Now./
He leaned his weight into the door. The darkness was marred by the pulsing light of burning stalls beyond the boundary of the small labor village. He tore his eyes from the mesmerizing sight, peering into the murky night for Kim. Abruptly a wallibeve emerged from the blackness and stomped to a halt only inches away from Chakotay. He reached up with his free hand, felt his way along the saddle, finally met Kim's clenched fist. It uncurled, offering him the reins. He could hear the heavy breathing of a second wallibeve, the one that carried Kim, although he could not see it. It pawed at the ground, sidestepping in terror, snorting its dismay.
/Time, time, hurry./ He launched himself up toward the beast and flailed, dragged down by the weight of Paris and his own abused body. /Try again. Don't panic./ When he finally swung himself over the mount's back he could not stifle a short cry of pain. But the rest was easy in comparison. Sliding Paris down in front of him in the saddle, wrapping the reins around his wrists, shifting his protesting legs on the frightfully-wide wallibeve into position.
Phrama shouts. Screams. Splashes of light reflected on the sky. The stalls were burning and the fiefdom was coming alive.
Chakotay did not need to urge his wallibeve into a gallop. It took off with all the power of its instinct for survival. He could sense Kim following suit. Around the huts, across the field. As planned. Under cover of darkness. And the fire would require all of the attention of Llilegrough's men. For a while. A short while. He had no delusions about how brief their window of opportunity would be. Paris's head was buried in Chakotay's chest, his unconscious form draped sideways, his cocooned body held in place by the commander's arms as they reached for the reins. Kim, laden with newly-stolen tools, clanged rhythmically behind them. They were alive. They were together. They were escaping. /Be merciful in your judgment of us, Sister Sky./ Chakotay became something elemental, unleashing the carefully-controlled forces within him, propelling them forward with his anger, his fear, his will. /Go, go, go, go, go.../
Something, an intensity, a turning point, something important was happening. For a brief moment Kes saw the world through Paris's eyes, the disjointed view narrowing and dissolving with his own loss of awareness. She shivered without knowing why.
She hurried her pace to the shuttle bay, hitting her communicator as she walked. "Tuvok? I'd like to go now, please."
A pause. The request was unorthodox, even insubordinate. But the Vulcan no longer thought in those terms. Not with Kes, not now. He asked no questions. "I will inform the captain that we shall depart a few minutes ahead of schedule. I am on my way."
"Thank you." She broke out into a run.
When they had passed the solitary cubes that market the border of the interior of Llilegrough's lands, Chakotay and Kim allowed their wallibeves to drop into a rhythmic canter. Exhausting their mounts immediately could only hurt them later. Besides, neither Chakotay nor Kim had ever ridden such an animal before. A less punishing pace appealed to them both.
Eyes now adjusted to the dark, Chakotay led them along the planned route toward the crash site. He could see the white puffs of Kim's breath over his right shoulder. The shouts and cries from the Phrama carried over the flat terrain and urged them onward, reminding them that their flight would ultimately be discovered. Chakotay could not help but think of the other time they traversed this terrain. They had been hot, thirsty and bound. But Paris had been whole and strong. The limp body curled against him now made no motions save the involuntary shudders that accompanied his painful breaths.
After a mockingly short distance, considering the difficulty of their passage on foot in the daytime heat days before, the riders approached the rocky boulders of the foothills. The stones deflected the sounds of the Phrama from behind them and threw the echoes in fantastic directions. The Starfleet officers sounded at once both alone and surrounded. They picked their way around rocks, finally approaching the two jagged formations that had held the shuttle. Chakotay signaled Kim.
The shuttle was gone.
So was their chance of escaping the planet.
"Commander..." Kim's voice reverberated, calling the title again and again. Chakotay met this eyes and watched Kim's determined professionalism fight bewilderment and disappointment. He himself had no explanation for this mysterious disappearance. They stared at each other for a moment, absorbing this development. It was a contingency for which they had planned, but neither man was truly expecting it. Seeing the vacant cleft was a harsh blow.
The Phrama curses, the wallibeves' hoofbeats, thundered at them. Was the canyon distorting the distant sounds, or were pursuers closing in on them? It was not a question they could afford to ponder. /Abandon escape, embrace survival./ They had no other choice. Adjusting Paris's weight and whirling his mount, Chakotay faced his shipmate.
"Mister Kim, into the mountains! Now!"
"Tuvok to Voyager."
"We are approaching the atmosphere of the planet."
"Maintain an open channel. I want communication as long as possible." /Even if Lieutenant Torres's additional external sensors successfully relay the information to us, I want more than data back. I want you back, Tuvok. I can't lose you, too./
"Understood." /You worry, Captain. Surely you know that I will return to your side if I am able./ "Our angle of approach will allow us to 'skip' off the atmosphere and analyze the data before we commit to entry. Impact... now."
"WARNING. WARNING -"
"Hold on, Kes -"
"Mister Tuvok, report!"
"- WILL RENDER THIS SHUTTLE POWERLESS -"
"Captain, we cannot -"
"Tuvok! My console is blinking! The power is -"
"- WARNING -"
"Tuvok! What's going on?"
There was silence. Kathryn Janeway's fist clenched and opened spasmodically. "Torres, have we got their data?"
"Coming through now, Captain."
"I want an explanation -"
"Tuvok to Voyager." /We are well, Captain./
She took a deep breath, crossing her arms, hugging herself in silent thankfulness. "Report, Mister Tuvok."
"It appears that our concerns regarding the atmosphere were justified, Captain. Full contact with it must have disabled the shuttle. The Away Team must have crash-landed after losing power." /We cannot follow them./
A sigh. /I know what that means, to us, to the landing party. "Are you all right? Is Kes?" /Of course you are. Nothing would fluster you./
"We are well, Captain."
"Good. Then return to Voyager. Lieutenant Torres is analyzing the information now." /Come on Kath, you didn't think it would be that easy, did you? Settle yourself down. This could be a long process./ She swallowed convulsively. /Just hope the landing party can survive it./
"Affirmative, Captain. Tuvok out." His long fingers played across the console, then he sat back and regarded his companion. He hesitated before choosing his words. "I know that this is difficult for you." He searched for more. "I ... regret the fact that we must return."
Kes said nothing. Her eyes were unfocused, staring glazedly. Silent tears spilled from her eyes and trailed down her cheeks.
"We can be of no help to them if we, too, are captured."
She nodded her understanding. Took breaths in short little sips. Pressed her fingers to her lips. "We were just... so close. Analyzing the data, making a new plan, it will all take time. I don't know, I don't know if we have time, Tuvok... I am losing him."
END OF CHAPTER ONE