"I'm so tired I can't sleep
Standing on the edge of something much too deep
It's funny how we feel so much we cannot say a word
We are screaming inside
We can't be heard"
- Sarah McLachlan
Neelix had known this day would come. Like a birth, or an execution, that future day met him every morning when he woke, taunting him with its inevitability. During breakfast this morning, the cook had overheard B'Elanna Torres talking about her projections. The landmass was emerging from its deep winter. If all went according to plan, she and Kes would leave tomorrow for the surface.
The news hit Neelix in a physical way, leaving him breathless and pained with its passing. Their first departure months ago had been difficult. But Kes had been so much more.... herself then. Now, after suffering for her through the spells of pain and fear and fatigue, he could hardly bear to let her go. He left the mid-morning snacks on the counter of the mess hall, abandoned to the officers' self-service, and scurried to his quarters to face the shock in private.
In some ways he felt that he had less of a right to feel protective of Kes now than he did then. This... situation... had opened a chasm between them that she dared not let either of them bridge. She clung to the emotions of the men doggedly, even as she let herself slip away.
/I don't blame her./ In a sense Neelix felt loathsome inside for caring for her so much. /I want them back. I want Tom back. Next to Kes, he has been my best friend.../ Neelix's affection for the cocky pilot stung him reproachfully. /Wouldn't I risk my life to save him? Of course I would. And he would risk his for me. He has before./
/But Kes's life?/
He sat himself before the communications terminal, trying to think of the words he should send with Kes to hear before she alighted on the surface. /I'm sorry I have fought your brave attempts to save them. I understand why you are doing all of this. The Captain was right in supporting you./ He thought of Tom. /He is my friend, too, sweetie. Please take care of him as well as yourself. Bring him back.../
Tom tortured. Kes changed. So many months passing. He suddenly wondered if he would really know either of them when they returned. /I could lose them both. The two people I care about the most. Whether or not they return, I could lose them./
/Maybe they are both already lost./
Sitting there in his dark quarters, Neelix was frighteningly aware that he was one small man in the cold expanse of space. And he was ashamed. Of selfishly prodding Kes, of selfishly clinging to her now, of selfishly bemoaning the plight of a friend whose rescue he had fought for months. /Kes and Tom. Her sanity, his life. I was in the middle. Now I am simply on the edge./
With a sigh of disgust for his own shortsightedness and helplessness, he pushed himself away from the darkened screen. Kes needed no tape from him.
B'Elanna Torres stood silently, waiting for the Ocampa's voice to respond. When it did not, Torres cautiously began to search the once-tidy quarters that were now littered with sheet music, small carvings, and even a satin slip which looked suspiciously like the shade of pink preferred by one of the Delany sisters. She finally found Kes half-submerged in her tub, her head floating above a mound of scented bubbles.
"B'Elanna! Can you believe it? The Doctor formulated bubblebath that smells like the hydroponics bay! Livadian Spredendron!" Torres smiled. Before she could reply, Kes spoke again, in another tone of voice altogether. "I used to love the smell... it seems like so long ago." Her eyes took on a glazed quality. "Um, how did Harry die? Not ours, the other one?"
The engineer backed up rapidly, backing herself into the corner of the small bathroom, shocked by the swift change. "Don't. I don't want to -"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Her voice trailed off weakly.
"I just don't want to talk about it. I won't let it happen again. That's why I'm here." She heard the edge in her voice, the offensive reflex of a cornered animal facing a sudden looming threat. "The captain asked me to finalize our flight schedule, and I wanted to check with you about the time of departure."
Kes shrugged. "As soon as possible is fine."
"You'll bring the equipment?"
"Yes. All you need to bring is you."
A short nod.
"Are you okay, Kes? I mean, do you still feel the same about going tomorrow?"
"Oh, yes!" The wide eyes were guileless, open.
"Good. I'll be by in an hour or two to go over the final details."
"Thanks, B'Elanna." She slid almost totally beneath the bubbles, her gaze unfocused.
Pausing at the bathroom door, the lieutenant rested her crested forehead against the archway. Her words came out in a flat, dead tone. "He suffocated in space. One moment I was holding his hand, the next he was falling into the vacuum. Alone. It was the worst day of my life." A quick intake of breath, noting a new thought. "It was the worst day of the life I led before they were stranded. This is all kinds of new hell." Pushing herself upright again, she headed for the door without looking back at the Ocampa. "But you know what that's like. Who am I to talk? See you in a little while."
"Captain's log: supplemental. We are biding our time as Lieutenant Torres and Kes search planetside. I had little faith that their deployment to the surface would alter sentiments among the crew, and my cynicism seems well justified. Luckily for me the factions that disagree with my policy also disagree with each other. Perhaps that has been the saving element all along."
"Although I believe I have handled the situation with Kes as well as I know how, my conscience is not entirely easy. Starfleet must respect the rights of individuals to decide how and when to use their personal gifts. I could no more ask Kes to pursue this telepathic link with the officers than I could order Tuvok to perform a mind-meld. It is too intimate, too personal. But am I not somehow responsible if Kes has crossed the boundary and can no longer make rational choices? Have I stood by and willingly let her injure her own mind? If so, how can I live with myself?"
"I knew what it meant to be a Starfleet Captain before I ever accepted command. Was it hubris to think that I could maintain that delicate balance? There is no black and white anywhere to be found. Everything, everything is grey. I keep wondering - how did I get from there to here? It seems... Computer, end recording... Come."
She straightened as her visitor entered. "Tuvok, have a seat." /Shall we dance on eggshells once again, old friend?/
"Captain, I have come... to offer my services."
"I'm sorry, I don't follow you."
"As Chief of Security and Acting First Officer."
She shook her head, bewildered.
"You were correct in presuming that my... interest in Kes's condition clouded my judgment. When you required a sense of the crew's mood, I was preoccupied with my own concern. When you wanted to present 'a united front,' as you put it, I undermined your position. When you, as a Human, needed reassurance, I left you with no ally. For these things, I apologize."
She rose slowly and walked to the replicator. "Double mochaccino, hot." Wrapping both hands around the materialzed mug, she sniffed approvingly and curled back into her chair.
"What brought this on?"
"Kes is gone. I have had time to contemplate." /You know that I felt I should have gone with her. Torres could have instructed me and allowed me to pilot the shuttle. You chose to keep me here. But I realized that I had no position here. I had relinquished it months ago./
"I see." /I could not afford to let you go to the surface with her. B'Elanna sees her as the lifeline she is. You would have tried to limit her. Besides, I wanted you here all along. Even the last time they tried to go down there, I wanted you by my side. I needed you, Tuvok. I needed you more than anyone, but when I looked around, you weren't there./
"Can we pull this out in the eleventh hour?"
"I am sorry, Captain, please explain -"
"Say they find them. Say they bring them back and we are free to leave. Will we be able to function again as one crew? Has too much damage been done?"
"The returning officers, if they are... functional, will serve as a rallying point for the crew. They could restore unity. If they return soon."
"And if not?"
"We will face the situation together." He met her eyes.
She smiled at him, and for a moment he saw a shadow of familiar affection. "Better late than never, Tuvok."
"You've been quiet. Is there any way we can make you more comfortable?"
Kes was perched behind the broad shoulders of a wallibeve, her short legs tucked into a side-saddle position. "No, I'm fine. I'll just switch sides every so often."
"Be sure to tell me if you need to stop."
She nodded absently.
Torres chewed her lip in frustration. /I haven't meddled in your life. In fact, I have gone out of my way to help you, just as you've given yourself to search for the others. I haven't judged you on how you've managed. Don't start judging me on how I conduct my end of things. None of this is easy./
She instantly felt guilty for her defensive thoughts. "Kes, I'm sorry you had to see that."
"It's okay. I wasn't expecting you to kill them, that's all."
"Is it?" No answer. "Kes, I have to treat these aliens as hostiles. They were near the sight where you think they landed, right? We must assume that these beings could be threatening. And, besides, we needed mounts." The last sentence sounded a bit flippant, and she instantly regretted it.
"Is that what it is like, being a Maquis?" She still did not face Torres.
The question took her by surprise. "I got used to it. There was a purpose, you know, it wasn't simply fighting for the thrill of it. We had a cause. Sometimes it's just kill or be killed, Kes. No ethical dilemmas. No shades of grey. The only sin is giving in. You protect yourself and what you believe in, or you and everything you care about fades away." She nudged her mount, which was falling behind the steady pace of Kes's. "I just regret you had to be there."
"I don't." The voice was very small.
"I... don't understand."
"I wanted them dead." Very small, but steady. No tremble. No quiver. She knew what she was saying and accepted it. Small but strong. Just like the Ocampa herself. She stretched her shoulders and then continued. "While you were fighting them... I was remembering. Through him. They were hostile. In fact, those two guards helped to torture Tom."
Torres was speechless. /Why didn't you tell me? But, then again, what would I have done differently if I had known? It's not like I could've killed them again. She almost smiled in spite of herself. I would've enjoyed it more, though./ She returned from her reverie to find Kes considering her intently. The expression was like a cold splash of water.
"I don't know how you've managed, Kes. You've held us and them together."
She shook her head and looked away. "All of us are affected, B'Elanna. Your help has meant a great deal to me, though."
"Can I ask you something personal?" Torres dropped the volume of her voice instinctively, so that Kes had to lean slightly on her wallibeve to catch her query.
"When Chakotay was hurt, you called me to take you to his quarters. How did you know to do that?"
She snorted, the undignified noise forcing a shocked grin onto Torres's face. "Who should I have called? Tuvok? And gotten a lecture on controlling my emotions and rationing my telepathic contact? You were much more helpful. I know he was worried for me, I don't mean to sound ungrateful. But that's not what I needed."
"I, uh, meant why did you think I had Chakotay's security code?"
She seemed stunned. "You did, didn't you?"
"Good. I've lost long periods of time. I must admit, I can't remember that night. But I thought you'd helped me...."
"Why did you think I would have it?"
"Because Chakotay trusts you more than anyone else on the ship."
Spoken as a self-evident truth, her words struck Torres forcefully. "How much do you know, Kes?"
"Enough." No sarcasm or mystery. Simple fact.
/When did she become so elusive?/
Before the engineer could speak, Kes shot a wicked glance at her. "Don't your legs hurt?"
"Um-hmmm." She bared a feral grin. "It's great." /You're smooth, too, aren't you?/
"Let me guess, that's the Klingon half answering, huh?"
"Oh yeah." /So much for personal questions.../
They took their cue from the wallibeve, stumbling groggily from its hibernation, that spring was awakening their mountain home. It was not a moment too soon. Kim was unsure if they would starve, freeze, or annoy themselves to death. Now springtime meant a sweet release in many welcome ways.
"I know my limits. I am not a fool." Chakotay rubbed the flank of the wallibeve affectionately. Quieting, settling his tone, he turned to Kim as to a fellow man he had to convince, rather than as to an inferior officer. "I know I'm a slow, crippled man. But I'm being rational about this. I spent a long time learning where trap-setting was most effective, at which watering holds I could spear a catch from the saddle. Even though I'll be slow, it will still be faster for me to go than for you to have to relearn all that I know. Besides, if you go hunt, I will have to do your work here with the plants, and I will be doubly slow from my leg and my lack of knowledge." He leaned back stiffly on the highly carved crutch, one of his winter projects, one they had come all too close to burning for fuel, and sighed. "If I can't do it, I will concede the point and help you as best I know how. But I must try before I give up."
Kim nodded and gave him a brief, encouraging smile. He had no intention of standing in the Native American's way. He had offered in order to give Chakotay the option. He was not surprised at the decision. "Do you, um, need help mounting?"
"I've got it. Thanks. I'll make this trip a short one, for starters."
Kim patted the animal once before stepping away. Chakotay did not move. It suddenly struck Kim that the commander was waiting for him to retire, so he did so quickly, without a word.
Sliding the crutch into the side of the saddle, Chakotay proceeded to stirrup the foot of his good leg and gingerly bring the stiff, maimed one over the beast with his hand. Tears sprang into his eyes as he settled himself on its back. Pains through his leg and knee, pains that would never heal, tore him. /I actually feel old enough to be Kim's father./ Of course he was. But he had never before felt his years. It was as if he had lost his youth and his prime on that cliff months ago. /This is a new life in many ways./
But with no further ado, he led the wallibeve back along familiar trails.
Indoors, Paris was incredulous. "You let him go? Harry, he can hardly walk!"
Kim groaned melodramatically. "There was no 'letting' involved. He was right. He should try. That's what he does, he has the experience. Besides, he'll be in the saddle most of the time."
"Which is how he was injured in the first place -"
"Would you rather keep him company all day?"
"That was low, trying to use guilt on me."
/We have plenty to go around. Each of us stays haunted by the sacrifices of the other two. If we ever did use it on each other, Tom, none of us would be left standing./
"Just trying to keep you off guard." He winked and Paris smiled. Then he slipped back out into the sunshine before his real mood grew too heavy to mask. Spring meant another season. Stranded. Alone with what-could-have beens. There were moments when he could not remember Libby's face.
But there were leaves to gather and wood to chop.
Kes knew they were close. It was she, in fact, who suggested splitting up that morning. Torres let her wallibeve make its own way though the mountainside. She herself listened and watched with the unswerving attention of the outlaw she had been - and still was, in another quadrant.
The animal naturally sought water. Instinct caused the wary engineer to halt it prematurely, though, and approach the spring with stealth. Her instincts rewarded her. There, beside the spring, knelt a hunter with a fresh kill.
The old man bent over the carcass on one knee, touching it with his hands and murmuring quietly to himself. Then with swift surety the trussed it, so that his nearby mount could carry it. When he was done, he slowly rose, straightening, it seemed, painfully, until he swayed on the once-bent leg. He moved a practiced hand to the other leg, the one that had remained outstretched to the side as he knelt, and pulled it inward until both legs were straight beneath him. His movements were methodical and calm. Every motion spoke of self-reliance and practice. He drew the tall staff from the ground beside him and leaned on it heavily.
Then the leathery visage turned to look at her slowly, calmly, as if the hunter had known she had been there all along. Her gasp cut the silence and her hand instinctively closed over her own mouth, as if she feared she would cry out. The man still showed no signs of alarm. In the softest possible voice, he asked, "B'Elanna Torres, are you a vision?"
She did cry out then, her face betraying a mixture of pity and exhilaration. She drew a breath and could not speak. Swallowing, she tried again. Her voice seemed oddly intrusive in this still scene. "No, Chakotay, I'm not a vision. I'm real... And I've been looking for you for so long." With exaggerated care she dismounted, walked purposefully across the rocky streambed, and climbed onto the bank until she stood face to face with her commander, her former captain, her mentor. She could not hide the expression on her face.
"I have changed." No grief. No anger. Simple self-awareness. Of course he knew. He had caught the occasional look of surprise when the firelight painted his face and found its deep grooves, defining the shadows below his cheekbones and the lines around his eyes. He had noted the veiled concern that met him when he returned from the hunt as grey as the frosted mountains he traveled. He knew the locks that slapped his cheeks in the rain no longer showed a trace of the blue-blackness he had always known. He knew it and he felt it. The constant weight on his shoulders, the refrain in his vision quests. Keeping them alive. Keeping them sane. Keeping them together. It was his and he embraced it. It was not a destiny to be fought or hated. It simply was. And he had met this destiny as he could.
And spent himself in the process.
He repositioned the crutch without looking at it, and drew himself up taller.
She nodded honestly. Then she reached out a hand to touch him, to be certain that this encounter was real. He had never been a man given to physical displays. An occasional hand on her shoulder was all she had ever received from him, and even that small gesture spoke to their close friendship. He was private. Apart. But now, as she moved to touch the white hair that framed the weathered face, he almost imperceptibly leaned into her palm and let it cradle his jawline. This simple, human act of need and of reassurance flooded her heart and soul. It told of his doubts, his anguish, his faith, and his joy. The tears she had fought sprang unbidden to trail down her cheeks. She let them. They stood that way for several moments, his eyes closed, drinking in her reality, and her silent, tender tears blurring the image of this gentle, quiet man. They were two tired warriors come to the battle's end.
After the moments passed, she let her hand fall away from his face. She did not wipe away her tears; he had shown her his vulnerability, so she would allow hers as well. Clearing her throat, she dared to ask. "Tom? Harry?"
"They are alive." She exhaled heavily, reeling with relief, so full it felt heavy. Before she could speak again, he leaned to her ear and whispered, "But they, too, have changed."
Harry was chopping wood behind the cabin, humming one of Paris's songs quietly to himself. The days would soon be hot again, but they knew enough to prepare for the chill nights. /We've done this before. We know we can make it through anything now./ He could not explain the strange jauntiness he felt on this day. But the melancholy loneliness was gone for the moment. He knew it sprang somehow from his confidence - confidence in himself, in their survival, in the very seasons. Spring had returned and he was still alive and strong enough to withstand whatever it would bring. And he would see the others through as well. /"Well, all right. Well, all right. We'll live and love with all our might. Well, all right. Well, all right..."/
A sudden movement, a sense that he was being watched, an instinct clutched the lyrics from his mind and hurtled him toward his ever-near bow. He slowly walked to the front corner of the cabin, facing the clearing. Whatever it was, it paused at the edge of the tree line, hidden. He drew himself up to his full height and stood, ready to defend his home and the friend within it. He waited.
And then it emerged.
And then he was running.
Ocampa and Human met halfway in an whirling embrace and breathless laughter. When they finally parted, she looked up at him and studied him carefully. To Kes, he appeared like the classic heroes of Human legend she had studied. His long black hair, braided back from his face, hung down a back framed by almost impossibly-wide shoulders. His thick arms, his bronzed chest with its laced animal-skin vest, his proud carriage - they were not a part of the young, naive, hopeful ensign she had known on Voyager. They attested to Kim's own metamorphosis, to the provider he had become. Kes understood how Paris's despair and Chakotay's pain had failed to suffocate the valiant officers. This - man - in front of her could carry a world on his broad shoulders.
As Kim silently smiled at the young Ocampa, his thoughts were quite similar. Dressed in survival gear, booted for the mountains, she nearly glowed beneath the drab colors of Starfleet standard issue. Her eyes were so bright, so piercing, he had no trouble believing that she could have seen through the atmosphere, down upon the three men. Now that he was so close to this power, this warmth, this very source of their survival, he felt that he were experiencing something more holy than mortal. Surely not a delicate life that would burn out in a mere decade. And how much of that short life had she spent on their plight? How many months had she lost forever?
"Thank you. Thank you for everything." It seemed ridiculously little to say. But she seemed to understand.
She smiled. "B'Elanna should be here shortly. May I see Tom?"
/Not 'Is Tom alive' or 'Where is Tom.'/ Kim chuckled inside at the awe he felt. /She knows./
"Could I have just a minute?"
She nodded. This, too, was expected. Leaving her in the middle of the clearing, Kim dashed for the cabin door.
[From "Well...All Right," written by Holly-Allison-Petty-Maudlin and first performed by Buddy Holly.]
Kim burst into the cabin, shocking Paris so that he scrawled a haphazard line across the hide logbook in which he was writing. The ensign grinned at the reclining lieutenant with unabashed joy.
"Tom, they've found us." Paris bolted upward and Kim caught him by the shoulders. "Kes is waiting outside."
His friend responded as he had anticipated. "Help me... I don't want her to see me this way." Kim helped him locate and lace up the vest and finger-comb his hair. They wrapped his feet and grabbed his cane. As Kim eased him to a stand, Paris hugged him tightly.
When he finally pulled away from the embrace, Paris consciously broke away from Kim, leaning on the cane and stepping forward slowly on his own. Kim let him. As soon as he cleared the doorway, Kes was there. He stood for a moment, held up by a slender cane and slender pride. When he opened his mouth to speak, no words came.
The two had much to discuss. Kim watched Paris sink down onto the stump-stool in front of the cabin, crying, sobbing small words into her shoulder. Kes was holding him, rocking him, nodding to Kim over the thin shoulder. She could explain his dreams and tell him he had never been alone. And he could set her free. Kim raised his eyebrows mutely. /Will you be all right?/
She nodded silently. /Yes. Everything will be better now. It just has to be./
When Torres and Chakotay arrived at the cabin, Kes used the distraction to quietly consider the three men. She was amazed that Chakotay could move at all with his crushed limb. And Paris's condition posed so many unanswered questions. With characteristic tact, she managed to discreetly offer painkillers to the proud commander and the fragile lieutenant. Her empathy was rewarded as she watched the pain-etched lines around the dark brown and light blue eyes ease, if only a little. Another hypo lessened Paris's coughing a bit. She feared to do more until his disease was better understood.
That night the five of them ate stew and told stories. They agreed to journey back to the hidden shuttle in the morning light. The rescuers observed the three men intently as the talked. Chakotay shifted in his custom-made chair, used to the burden of his leg. Stained stones by the fire, colorful hangings on the walls, and dyed paintings on his tunic echoed the ancient symbols they knew from his quarters. He spoke little, but smiled more often. Paris's appearance and obvious frailty shocked both of them, but equally unexpected was the practiced behavior that he had learned to accept, the small ways in which they helped him that were so routine they remained unacknowledged by all of the involved parties. A steadying hand, an extra blanket, a cup of tea. His comrades paused when he coughed and listened intently when his husky voice spoke. Their demeanor revealed that he was better than he had been, but that his condition had been known to change suddenly. Harry played the recorder like Kes had imagined he played the clarinet. His music smiled. And the self-assured man who played it was as beautiful as the melody he produced.
Torres and Kes curled on fur mats like Kim before the fire. And everyone talked about Sandrine's.
There were three wallibeves and five of them. Paris and Kes alternately sat behind Kim and Torres, allowing themselves to lean heavily against their strong shipmates. Chakotay rode alone, so that no companion would jostle his leg. They loaded his mount with their sparse belongings. Some furs in case they should need to spend the night outdoors. Food for the trip. The logbook.
They traveled in relative silence, the women allowing the three officers time to gradually get used to company once again. They made frequent stops to let Paris lie back and rest and Kes stretch her legs. Often Chakotay would simply remain in the saddle, wishing to forego the arduous process of dismounting.
Kes could not shake the utter bewilderment she felt. She was thankful she no longer led the rescue. Torres knew where they had left the shuttle. All Kes had to do was rest her head on Torres's shoulder or Kim's strong back and think.
Nothing had changed. This was the day for which she had been living for so long. But the climax she had anticipated as she embraced Paris did not materialize. On the one hand, they were still far away. Chakotay was still enigmatic, a contradictory blend of assured calm and uncomfortable alienation. He was withdrawn now, more than ever. Paris, well, Paris was difficult. It was him, obviously, wounded inside and out, staring from behind those pale eyes. No cockiness was there, though. Had he somehow found a shred of dignity in the midst of his humiliation? And Kim seemed more the leader than the child of the three. Tested in fire and now quietly self-assured, even protective of the lieutenant and the commander.
Yet even though they seemed hard to reach, more subjects of study than friends with whom to sympathize, she still felt them inside, as intimate as ever. Stoic. Patient. Wounded. There were ancient words and beautiful music and joking laughter inside them. And multiple shades of guilt. Hurt, fading away. Excrutiating self-awareness, recognition of change. /This will be harder to let go than I imagined. I still don't know where I end and they begin. How can I sever this tie? How can I be Kes again? It's been so long, do I even remember how to be her anymore?/ Neelix's embrace, the Doctor's sickbay, Tuvok's tutelage, they seemed like images from another life. As if Kes were another lost crewmate she was trying to contact, whose life she was catching in fragmented glimpses. /Now I fully understand why they warned me... Is there any 'me' left?/
Time. She needed time.
They reached the shuttle within a day. The small craft seemed crowded with five aboard, but no one seemed to mind. They were going home to a waiting, welcoming Voyager. They would find their way back, in more ways than one.
Janeway sat on the bridge, rubbing her nose self-consciously. /Hold it, hold it, hold it./ Why she ever let the Doctor talk her into testing the aromatherapy program in her quarters, she did not know. Now she smelled it on her uniform. /Yes I do. The prime motivator - guilt. There is so much of it these days. I feel sympathy for what he has been through, although I don't agree with how he has handled it. But I have been hard on him. So I let him use me as a guinea pig. Why Egyptian musk, though? Why would he think that was 'me'?/ She gave up her nose-rubbing. She could fight it no more. She sneezed.
It was one of the moments on board the ship where the hum of the engines, the rhythmic blink of the console lights, and the familiar pattern of the stationary orbit lulled Janeway into momentarily believing that all was right with her crew and her command. In the next moment, the bridge exploded into the frantic turmoil that reminded her that all that stood between the crew and the deadly cold of space was a slender, repaired, destructible metallic hull.
"I'm reading a vessel on wide scan heading this direction -"
"Can you identify?"
"It's Vidiian, Captain."
She spun around to look at Tuvok. /If you're back on my team, old friend, it's time to play now./ "Heading?"
The young woman standing at the console that had once been Harry Kim's shook her head with frustration. "It looks like a cruise path, but it will take it right past Voyager."
"How soon will they detect us?"
"A Vidiian ship? At present speed? Within, um... three minutes."
Janeway was on her feet, circling her chair. She struck the side of the officer's console sharply. "I haven't come this far only to have my crew harvested for body parts."
The navigation officer swiveled to face her. "Captain, we've got to get out of this system!"
"We are not leaving five men and women on that planet while we turn tail and run."
"But we can't -"
But Janeway had closed her eyes in thought. Everyone on the bridge turned to stare at her. Moments were passing by, bringing them closer second by second to the Vidiian's attention. She snapped her fingers.
"Tuvok, can we assume that the planet's atmosphere would block the Vidiian's sensors as it did ours?"
"Considering their technology, Captain, it seems highly probable."
"So if we assumed a stationary orbit on the opposite side of the planet -"
"- The Vidiian ship would be unaware of our presence."
A sharp nod. /Now we're getting somewhere./ "Helm, get us to the other side of the planet, maximum impulse. Then establish a stationary orbit."
"Ensign Vaughan, project the Vidiian's path and determine the second, and I do mean second, we can return to our original position without being detected."
"You do realize, Captain, that this will leave a window in which the shuttle could emerge -"
"I know. They could return three months from now, or three minutes from now. It's a risk." She sighed. "It's the best we can do." /Grey. Lots of grey. The color of my world./
"Okay, brace yourselves, this is where it gets tricky." Torres played the console like a keyboard and fought to lean forward as the shuttle picked up speed. "We're shutting her down now!"
The shuttle went black. They were flying on momentum, utterly blind. The engineer counted silently to herself. No one spoke. Then she repowered the craft as they cleared the atmosphere, rapidly putting all systems online before they plummeted back down again. Thrusters. Life support. Sensors.
The viewscreen flickered then cleared.
It was completely filled with the image of a Vidiian ship.
They were flying directly into the belly of a deadly enemy.
"What the -"
"Evasive maneuvers!" Chakotay hissed. Torres shook her head, clutching at controls and cursing. They were too close. They could not turn around. And even if they could, they would simply be captured and dissected.
Kim felt Paris's thin frame tense beside him. Acting instinctively, the ensign grabbed him bodily and hurled him toward the panel. In concert with Kim's reflex, Chakotay twisted out from the second chair, moving so quickly he simply let himself slide onto the shuttle floor. Propelled by Kim's strength, Paris caught the back of the chair and fell into it. Smooth as silk. They had learned each other well.
Paris's fingers were a blur across the console. /Don't think. Just do. You're the best pilot in this quadrant./
Kes, sitting behind Torres, scooted forward and wrapped her arm across the shoulder of Chakotay, who now sat at her feet. The embrace was a protective one, and the startled commander squeezed her hand in return.
It happened so fast. Paris was mumbling in between the quiet coughs he no longer concentrated on suppressing, his voice hardly loud enough to carry to Torres. "What's the... deck on this?"
"You have two hundred meters before you're fried -"
"No, and no residual traces. They're not here and they're not destroyed."
"Hard left, c'mon... c'mon baby -"
"You're too close!"
"C'mon baby -"
"Fix on... their path?"
"Not enough data yet -"
"They're as surprised... as we are. They're holding so still -"
"We're gonna -"
"No, not by... a hair."
And with that they cleared the ship with a piloting feat more likely to tear the shuttle apart than to avoid ramming the hull. But it worked.
Torres looked over their shoulder. "They can lock onto us at any minute. If we go down they still know we're there. If we stay they'll board us-"
Chakotay stiffened and looked up to the engineer. "What's the planet like -"
"Nearest body of water -"
She whirled, searching for coordinates by memory. "I don't understand what -"
"Hurry people -" Paris wheezed, his eyes glued to the screen.
"Head for it. Above the atmosphere." Chakotay seemed so self-possessed it chilled Kes. "Then cut the juice and plunge down."
Kim was nodding vehemently. "They'll follow -"
"Incoming, almost point blank!" Paris whispered, and the shuttle rocked violently. Kim lurched to steady Chakotay, still on the deck.
"Can you get there, B'Elanna?" The commander asked.
She was nodding, feeding data into Paris's console. They lurched and turned again, skimming the underside of the massive Vidiian vessel like a fly beneath the stomach of a lion.
"The damage will make this harder -"
"Returning control... to you for power-down."
The small shuttle followed a frantic scatter-pattern as Torres figured its position above the planet.
"I think we're well above the ocean now." She glanced at Chakotay, who nodded.
And they were falling.
Chakotay was sliding. Kim and Kes fought to hold him and themselves. Paris's coughs echoed in blackness.
Again, Torres felt her way along the controls, repowering the ship. "We're gonna have to get pretty low to build up enough speed. Better get out of the neighborhood first -" The viewscreen showed them skimming the waves of an endless blue ocean.
"Dandy, Harry... how low do you want... to go, B'Elanna?"
"This'll do. Barely."
It was as if a million voices were screaming in their ears, rending apart the sky. "They're coming, they're coming -"
Behind them, the Vidiian craft plunged into the ocean, as powerless as the first Starfleet shuttle had been so many long months ago.
Torres was not looking. "Hold on. We go now or not at all." She pointed the shuttle's nose up and begged the controls for speed. The last sight the viewscreen held before it went dark was the thirsty waves of water displaced by the sinking ship reaching up to pull the helpless shuttle down into the ocean.
"Fly," Torres whispered quietly. /The stakes just went up. If we can't punch through this time, they'll be no crash-land for us. We'll be fish food. Just like the Vidiians./ She felt no sympathy for her former torturers. /Kill or be killed.../ "Now! We made it!""
For the first time in months, Tom Paris sat at navigation, staring into the stars. Despite Kes's painkillers, the sudden frantic exertions had reawakened the agony inside his lungs. He leaned forward heavily, exhausted. But he dug his fingers into the panel and held himself in place, steeled as if to prevent any hand of fate from taking him away from the helm again. He was already home.
"Janeway to Torres."
"What is your status?" /You know what I mean./
"We've been waiting for you, Captain."
"'We'?" She was holding her breath.
"Yes, Captain, we thought we might hitch a ride." The voice was quiet. She could hear a feeting smile in his calm tone.
"Chakotay..." Her voice caught, and she took a breath. "It's good to hear your voice."
"You sound... pretty good yourself." A gravelly whisper.
/Can it be? Tom?/ "I'm flattered, Mister Paris."
"Hey, I want to say something!"
She laughed. "I think you just did, Mister Kim. Welcome home, gentlemen. We will beam you directly to sickbay as soon as you are in range -"
"With all due respect, Captain, I believe we would like to go to sickbay under our own power."
/Thank you, Chakotay. You read my mind. Now I know that the three of you are okay./ "Very well, Commander. I will meet you in the docking bay. By the way, I know this will sound inadequate, but I'm sorry about our absence, B'Elanna. A Vidiian ship -"
Torres groaned. "We've, uh, met."
"That explains the damage to your hull we are reading. And?"
"We almost rammed them when we cleared the atmosphere. We ended up leading them back down. They crashed, without power, in the ocean. They're gone."
It took a moment to register. "Good work, lieutenant. You saved not only those on the shuttle, but the inhabitants below."
"Well, I wouldn't have stayed up nights to mourn their fate..."
"Understood. And agreed. But you did the right thing. Now get back here. I just want to look at all of you."
The end of the transmission brought silence to the shuttle. The five of them eased back into relieved silence. They still had a few hours ahead of them.
The first thing Kathryn Janeway did was replicate a mug of vanilla cappuccino. Fragrant, creamy, achingly sweet. Congratulation coffee. How long had it been since she had celebrated with it? There had been so few laurels to rest upon recently. Survival now seemed such a monumental accomplishment.
Alone in her ready room, she cleared her throat and put herself on shipwide audio. /Listen, my allies, my detractors, my rebels, my mutineers. I have news./
"This is the captain speaking. In approximately three hours, a shuttle will dock in our shuttle bay. Returning to us will be Lieutenant Torres, leader of the rescue mission, and Kes, who located the missing officers. They are bringing with them Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Paris, and Ensign Kim. I have spoken to all of them. They are alive and anxious to return to their ship. We have succeeded, my friends."
"As soon as they are safely boarded, I will order Voyager to leave this system. We will find food and fuel and, eventually, our way home. I will not rest until all of these are ours. As we have so recently succeeded, so we shall succeed again."
There was a short pause. "I realize that we have had our differences in the past months. Groups have splintered, divided by opinions about how the rescue effort was being conducted, who was involved, and what our priorities should be. I suggest that we have weathered this storm, and it is time to put it behind us. We have all felt the strain of these unusual circumstances. But our number shall soon be whole once again. And once again, we can rally around the desire to see our family, friends, and comrades, to leave this quadrant behind and return to Starfleet space."
"We have shared traumatic events together, including the last months. If we cannot agree about what we experienced, then let us at least agree that we survived it. If we are to survive others, we must work together and find, discover, or rebuild the unity necessary to do so. That is our challenge. Those are my orders."
"And the best way to begin is to celebrate the return of those who were lost to us."
"Congratulations to us all. Janeway out."
She sank back into the sofa, rolling her neck and curling her toes deliciously. The chime rang immediately. "Come." She smiled, and patted the space beside her. "Come sit with me, Tuvok."
She was the only one in the docking bay. Neelix was preparing some surprise in the sickbay, much to the chagrin of the Doctor. Tuvok was on the bridge. Janeway had come to sit in the deserted hangar almost an hour before the shuttle's estimated time of arrival, just waiting. Preparing herself. Wondering. When the small craft finally halted before her, she rose. No fanfare. Quiet, intimate welcome. Closure to all of this. For all of them. The kindest gift possible, putting it all to an end.
The first to disembark was B'Elanna Torres. Garbed for survival, she stalked off the shuttle, Amazonian in intensity and carriage, more warrior than officer. She seemed sated by her success. She had turned a planet inside out and even taken a Vidiian ship down before she had stopped. Not bad. She smiled at Janeway, a flashy, toothy grin. "Permission to board, Captain?"
"Not a minute too soon, Lieutenant. Good work. Congratulations."
Torres nodded briefly and turned to stand beside Janeway, allowing the captain's attention to strain against the darkness behind the shuttle hatch.
Booted feet. Leathery leggings. A soft hide tunic, laces straining against a powerful chest. Muscular, impressive, able. Long black braid falling between wide shoulders. An older, more seasoned grin. He was so beautiful.
/Has this man been here all along?/ She stepped forward, drawn to the figure. "Welcome back, Harry." Unshed tears thickened each syllable she spoke.
His handshake was firm and vigorous. "Thank you. It's good to be back, Captain." He stepped backwards, against the shuttle, as if he were waiting. He flashed a brilliant smile at Torres.
And just then another set of feet appeared in the hatchway. They were covered, not in boots, but in soft animal skin. A slender cane patted out each short, tentative step. Janeway held her breath against the laborious effort of this descent. So terribly gaunt. A fur vest, covering the slender chest. A full beard of dark blond curls. Eyes, once so blue, now an aquamarine shadow, transparent, sunken. But the brows were drawn together with the same familiar blend of self-depreciating, bemused concentration.
She encircled him with an arm, and he returned the embrace tenderly. She felt the rumble of breath in his chest before she pulled away from him. He straightened and shuffled to Kim's far side, where an unobtrusive arm was extended to steady him should he need support.
Chakotay had already lumbered halfway into view by the time Janeway turned back to the shuttle. She gasped, taken by surprise, at his methodical, crippled gait, at the leg hanging uselessly from the muscled thigh. When her eyes reached his face she stood, stunned, speechless before the white-headed, weathered commander. He saw the expected look in her eye and felt the stab of sadness. /I am still useful to you, Kathryn. Do not judge me too quickly./ But he could not hold back his half-smile for long. At the sight of his dimple, she released the breath she had been holding and tentatively reached out to him. His almond-toned hand took hers, callused fingers rubbing over her slender knuckles.
"Welcome home, Commander."
"Thank you, Captain." From beneath his arm he produced the logbook, and handed it silently to her.
Kes had remained in the shuttle, braced against the waves of emotion she knew would assault her as each man alighted and met Janeway. Even so, the intensity of the experience shocked her. Great joy, bursting from a deeper, more mature satisfaction. And respect, as if from a son for a mother. /Harry./ Fragile tenderness, and loyalty to his captain so desperate it was almost painful. /Tom./ Peace, marred slightly by regret. And beneath it, an unyielding, quiet love. /Chakotay./
Trembling with the aftershocks of the telepathic ordeal, Kes rose to disembark herself. /Home. I'm home. The sickbay, the mess hall, my quarters... The Doctor. Tuvok. Sweet, sweet Neelix./
The echo of her thoughts seemed deafening. She gasped in sudden wonder. Her own emotions, memories, hopes - they were almost as clear as words shouted in an empty room. She was Kes. And the force of her personality was reasserting itself, overpowering the remnant of the other voices, other souls that had indwelled hers for so many months. The spirits had been friendly ones, but now was the proper time of her exorcism; she could let the spirits go without losing the men to whom they belonged.
The first step from the shuttle was Kes's first step back to herself.
They stood there for a moment, frozen, the same question on each face. /Is this it? It's just... over?/
Janeway's voice finally broke the introspective mood. "Gentlemen, shall we go to sickbay?" Her eyes met Chakotay's. /Do you still prefer not to beam over?/
He nodded. "Ready?" Kim and Paris both agreed.
And so Torres led the weary band to the shuttle bay doors. As they opened she stopped, stiffened in surprise, and stepped aside. The hallway was lined with crewmembers.
Painfully slowly, but proudly, Paris stepped into the corridor, followed closely by Kim. Chakotay followed several steps behind. The trip would be a very long one, due to the halting paces of the frail lieutenant and hobbled commander, but it meant everything to the three to take it. As Janeway, an arm around Kes, entered the hall behind Torres, she gasped in grateful astonishment. The crewmates who lined the walls neither cheered nor spoke. They stood at respectful, mute attention, shoulder to shoulder. And the three returning men straightened under the honor of the silent salute.
As they paced themselves behind the dignified procession of the returning officers, Kes leaned against Janeway. Quietly, the captain leaned to speak into the delicate ear. "Congratulations, Kes. Are you all right?"
"It doesn't seem... finished, does it?"
A small shake of the blonde head.
"I don't know if it ever will be, completely. We are all here for you, you know that?"
She understood. In her own way she had been injured as surely as Paris or Chakotay. Healing would take time. And pain. As did any restoration.
"I've learned something, Kes. There are no easy solutions, or breathless climaxes, or perfectly happy endings." The captain's voice seemed oddly free and liberated, as if this perplexing truth, spoken behind the line of injured refugees before them, did not disturb her. "There are only degrees, Kes. Variations." /Such as the fact we are two crews, serving together on a voyage to another quadrant over a lifetime away. And all of that's on a good day./ She sighed. Maybe it was the caffeine talking, or the sight of the lost officers, or the fact that the crew had spontaneously gathered in a show of solidarity in welcoming the team home. They completely lined all of the corridors, in fact, from the shuttle bay to the sickbay. Perhaps she simply sensed the first step in the re-creation of their lives.
Janeway continued to whisper to the Ocampa. "This healing process has just begun. But right now, things are better. We've made them that way. You've made them that way. Can that be enough?"
Kes smiled up at the captain, a flash of resilient spirit apparent behind the tired blue eyes. "For now."