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: This is presented with grateful thanks to Ruth Ann, Larry, Kt, and my mother.

And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago,
one still exists.
I think I know
which one it is--
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city...

Rainer Maria Rilke

"My name is Kathryn Janeway. I am the Captain of the Federation ship Voyager. We meant you no harm. We were only looking for trade. If you release us, we will leave this place and never return. All we want to do is go home. I don't know L'Reena. I don't know the Band of MiTrellet. I have no information to give you about terrorist activity. We are strangers on your world."

The dull whisper carried no inflection. She'd said the words countless times with calm, with anger, and then with desperation. Now she said them out of habit, staring at the slick white floor, not bothering to meet the eyes of her interrogators. They knew she would say the words, just like she knew they wouldn't believe them. This duet was familiar. The ache of her exhaustion grew with every passing day.

The irony struck Janeway anew that moment in her antiseptic cell. She and her hybrid crew had faced a host of deadly challenges on their trek toward the alpha quadrant - some known, such as the Romulans and the Borg, and many more previously undiscovered, like the Vidiians and Hirogen - and survived each one. And now, she and three of her finest officers might be defeated by a simple case of mistaken identity.

It was the waste that horrified her. The purposelessness of it all. She chose not to hear the questions any longer.

Janeway believed herself to be a moral woman. But she found herself wishing for the discovery and death of this terrorist leader L'Reena and her entire renegade Band of MiTrellet as she gazed sightlessly, oblivious to the curses aimed at her. Yes, she wished for that. And a phaser. And, dear God, a cup of coffee.

The loud voices battered at her. She did not respond.

The next morning began like the last and the one before it.

"My name is Kathryn Janeway -"

"Captain Janeway," the Vhandi general coated the name with unmistakable sarcasm to communicate his disbelief, but the words nonetheless broke through Janeway's despair. Her head jerked to meet his eyes.

"Captain Janeway," he repeated, "we have arranged a pageant for your edification. I hope it will persuade you to abandon this charade and give us the Band of MiTrellet. One word," he measured a centimeter of air between thumb and forefinger, "one bit of information, and it stops. You need only speak." He leaned forward, his breath hot on her face. "I know how you love to be powerful, Ok-Stat'n L'Reena. In control. Just think: three lives depend on you today. They live or die by your choice. How does that feel?"

Helpless tears filled her eyes before she fully processed the words. "Not my men," she breathed. "They are innocent. They know nothing."

"Then tell us!" He raged, and signaled for the guards to open the door. "Signal the guards that you're ready to talk and the festivities stop. Until then, enjoy your view." A careless finger pointed to the single window of the cell. Then he was gone.

"NO!" She screamed, throwing herself to the door and twining her arms through the heavy bars. The guards - like the other Vhandi, so humanoid in appearance they could pass for Terran-born - stood beyond her reach in the hall, dispassionate and silent. "Listen to reason, please. Don't let him do it. Don't let him hurt my men. This is all a mistake. We've done nothing wrong. I'm not L'Reena."

Her pleas met silence.

The Vhandi and the human stared at one another through a latticework of cold metal.

Finally Janeway turned her back to the guards. Tuvok and Voyager would not come for them, thanks to her hurried orders moments before they'd taken her commbadge. The situation had appeared bleak then; it appeared bleaker still now. At least the ship and its crew were safe. Only the four of them here would suffer for the crimes of other Vhandi on this planet.

This planet. She didn't even know its name.

A raucous chorus of cheers roused her from her thoughts. Janeway looked to the window.
"Harry! You okay?" Lieutenant Tom Paris threw the words over his shoulder as the guards propelled him down the prison hallway in a quick march.

"Yeah." The ensign's manacled hands smoothed filthy hair from his eyes, but each jogged step tumbled the locks forward again. "Could use a bath. You?"

"Same here. Have you seen the Captain or Chakotay?"

"Enough! Silence!" The lead guard slowed them as they reached the end of the hall. "No more talking." With a heaving tug he opened the heavy door and directed them to cross through it.

The open amphitheater unfolded in impressive scale. Built of a bright alabaster stone, like Earth's flawless marble, the parallel to ancient Terran Rome immediately struck both men. A low platform extended before them; to their left, a raised dais held a primitive rack-like construction and a variety of chilling instruments, and to their right, hundreds of Vhandi pressed hungrily together in a sunken spectator pit, cheering at the arrival of the two Starfleet officers.

Paris swallowed at the look of comprehension on Kim's face. They were brought here to entertain. And to die.

Janeway held her breath when Paris and Kim were led to the middle of the platform. Gripping the thin bars of her window, she squeezed with white-knuckled rage. And then the guards forced Chakotay onto the highest stage and fitted him into the bizarre contraption of torture. Spread-eagled, toes barely grazing the bright rock beneath him, he hung vulnerable to the boisterous crowd.

"Me for them," she whispered. "Tell them to take me."

"As replacement?" One of the guards asked.

"Yes. For all of them. For any of them. I'm their Captain, dammit -"

"You are L'Reena of the Band of MiTrellet. Without information concerning your terrorist activities, this will not stop."

"Arm them both with knives. Then stand away." The gathered Vhandi let up a cry of approval at the order.

Kim looked from the general to Paris and back again, a bewildered question on his face. Paris, on the other hand, divined with sickening certainty the game at play. These Vhandi looked human; indeed, their culture mirrored the worst of humanity. This surreal nightmare was the stuff of which classic Earth epics - and horrors - were made.

Paris didn't consider himself martyr material. Hero, occasionally, but never martyr. Yet as he accepted the knife given him, he realized that he wanted Kim to live much more than he himself hated to die.

The general's raised hand brought silence to the arena.

"These two conspirators will fight to the death. The winner will join the other," he indicated the trussed Chakotay, who turned his face away, "in a lingering death by torture. It is their choice, who will die easily and who will die in slow agony. This should prove a most interesting battle!" Celebratory shouts thundered at them.

"So let it begin." With dramatic sweeps of his arms, the general abandoned the two men on the platform.

Kim stood still, glaring at the knife trembling in his sweat-slicked fingers. For a moment the sight of him brought shady memories of Akriteria back to Paris. He recalled Kim's face, twisted in hysteria. He recalled the knife, the wound, the pain. And he recalled the kind ministrations of this gentle ensign. "I'll take care of it," Kim had said. "This man is my friend. Nobody touches him." He remembered Kim holding his hand, gazing at him with worry-bright eyes, begging Paris to sleep.

And now those same eyes looked up at him with a mixture of affection and murder in their depths.

"Easy, Harry," Paris hissed. "Stay still. We don't want to give them the satisfaction of a fight. Just hold tight, and I'll," he choked on the word, trying to imagine taking his best friend's life, "I'll make it as quick as I can."

"No, Tom." The response was flat. Determined. "I won't let you."

"Dammit, Harry, don't do this." With one step forward Paris initiated a slow waltz between them, both circling slowly. "I'm your superior officer -"

"Which doesn't mean much right now." Harry compensated for every step Paris took. It dawned on the lieutenant that, for every dirty trick he'd picked up in Auckland, Harry had a year's youth on him. Kim wasn't a large man but neither was Paris. And both of them were in excellent condition. A fair fight between them might not be a swift or easy thing.

Paris tried another strategy. "I've caused deaths before, Harry. I've made mistakes, bad ones. I can't die with you on my conscience, too."

"That's low." Anger darkened the ensign's face. "That's shit." Then, quieter, "Don't be like that, Tom. Not now."

The circle dance became a dodging weave as adrenaline made both of them hyperaware of their surroundings and their peril. Catcalls and cries of impatience filled the air around them.

And suddenly it all made sense to the Starfleet pilot. He imagined the look on that Vhandi general's face, and he nearly smiled.

Without warning, Paris rushed Kim. He pointed his own blade away and caught at Kim's knife hand, bringing them both down in a graceless tackle. "No knives, no knives," he panted as Kim struggled beneath him, "no knives, just talk."

With a grunt Kim rolled them over and straddled the lieutenant. "What?" he gasped, struggling to free his hand.

Pressed by Kim's weight, Paris arched his back off of the cold stone only to be wrestled back against it. Tears of frustration blurred his vision. "Trust me? Do you trust me, Harry?" He spat the query at Kim's face, twisting the younger man's wrist for emphasis.

Kim moaned with the effort of maintaining hold on the knife. "Always have," he allowed through gritted teeth, then pressed bare fingers against Tom's throat. "No games, Tom. No tricks."

"Yeah," came the wheezed reply. Kim removed the pressure and Paris released Kim's other hand. "Follow my lead."

They grappled together another minute more in silence while Paris tried to determine if Kim really would follow through without knowing the plan. Guileless eyes matched his own as the two men tumbled across unfeeling rock. Then, at last, Paris drove Kim back, pinning his legs but leaving his arms free.

"You're the best friend I've ever had." The words were a rush as he placed his knife at Kim's throat. "Do it, Harry."

Beyond them, the guards gave a warning cry.

Eyes widened in surprised comprehension. The action was swift. "Me, too, Tom. Me, too." With one hard thrust, Kim buried his knife to the hilt below Tom's ribs, angled toward the heart.

The general scrabbled up the platform stairs, cursing.

Paris didn't even cry out. He just slumped, letting the weight of his own body slide the knife across Kim's throat. The ensign was gone even before the dying lieutenant fell to rest protectively over him.

Their blood ran together in dark rivulets against the white stone.

Three days later, Chakotay spoke.

The Vhandi officials had decided that, if their female prisoner hadn't talked by now, perhaps she never would. So they made the same offer to their current victim, now dangling above the ever-restless spectators, bare and bloody and broken in a dozen mortal ways. The guards explained to Chakotay that his torture would end immediately in a merciful death if he just talked. And on the third day of his ordeal, he did.

The fragile rasp made by the fading commander did not carry. The general ordered a voice enhancer to be raised to the swollen lips, and the crowd cheered once again. Then everyone in the arena grew silent to hear the terrorist's confession.

Within her cell, Janeway prayed that Chakotay's lies were good ones. None of hers had convinced the guards. She'd confessed to a dozen crimes the moment she saw them place a knife in Harry Kim's hands, and she had lied her throat raw throughout Chakotay's hideous experience. If his imagination found the words the Vhandi craved, perhaps he would finally know peace.

Despite her quiet awe of her first officer, she was amazed that he had survived this long. She suspected that the only thing forcing him to endure was the knowledge that his death would signal hers as well. But without him, and Paris and Kim, Janeway feared little. If she met her end now, in fact, she knew she would embrace it.

The microphone hissed as it brushed Chakotay's cheek. For his part, the commander did not raise his bowed head or open his eyes. He continued his litany as if he had no audience.

"I... am... far..." the pained words dragged slowly, "from...the... bones..."

"Of your fathers," Janeway finished the prayer for him in the quiet of her cell. "Sleep well, Chakotay."

Her tears were spent. Her sobs were dry.

Vhandi guards were marching her to replace the late Chakotay on the dais when the hallway exploded in flame. Screams tore at the morning sky as spectators fled the scene, trampling one another in the process. Janeway remained where she'd fallen. She listened to the disorienting sounds with only vague interest. Shouts of pain. Brittle cracks of flame. Multiple concussions, like a dozen small detonations. And cries of defiance, angry and triumphant. The captain focused on those. Death to the empire, the disembodied voices seemed to chant. Death to the empire.

A warm hand closed on her shoulder. "Careful with this one," a gruff voice ordered. "She's a prisoner."

Janeway opened her eyes to stare into a fierce scowl.

"Let me guess," the captain slurred. "You're L'Reena."

"Long live the Band of MiTrellet," came the answer.

"You're a murderer. You've killed Vhandi officials," Janeway continued, reciting the words into the uniform of the dead guard who half buried her.

"And this day I've blown up the prison as well," the woman answered with a trace of dark humor.
Incredibly, Janeway laughed.

Strong hands supported her as she found her feet.

"Give me a weapon," she mumbled, brushing debris from her ragged uniform. She closed her eyes to gain her balance and saw the faces of Chakotay, Paris, and Kim gazing back at her. "Anything. Any weapon."

Several other gathered behind their leader, all studying Janeway.

At long last Janeway moved on her own, bending down to retrieve the sidearm from the holster of the dead Vhandi guard at her feet.

"They thought I was a terrorist," she whispered. She didn't even see the ragged little band anymore. She felt, really felt, the blaster in her hand. Its weight began to thaw the numbness deep inside her. "By God, that's what they've made me." With an experimental squeeze of the trigger a bright laser burst from the gun, as bright white as any star.

"Yes," she smiled. "Death to the empire."


Postscript: This alternate universe vignette was written in 1998 as an homage to, and twist upon, a scene in the 1960 film SPARTACUS. In that scene, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and his young friend Antoninus (Tony Curtis) are forced by Crassus (Lawrence Olivier, representing the Roman Empire) to fight one another. The loser of this one-on-one battle will be crucified. This is a terrible fate: as Spartacus says, "Don't you know how long it takes for a man to die on the cross?" The friendship of the two characters works against them, because each wants to spare the other such a horrible death, and so they have a serious fight before Spartacus at last prevails and kills Antoninus. Spartacus then dies on the cross. It's a terribly wrenching and wonderful scene, but it is also frustrating in two ways: 1) the two gave Crassus and his forces exactly what they wanted, a great show, before the end; and 2) it seems that if they'd really been clever, they could have outsmarted the system and spared each other torture by somehow coordinating their attacks and killing each other simultaneously. Granted, I'm sure most people, myself included, wouldn't think so quickly if put in that kind of situation. But I was hoping that Tom Paris just might...