Author's Note: Inspired by a scene in one of the episodes where Tuvok expresses his consternation at the thought of giving ships a personality. It must be a human thing.
She looked at the chronometer with gritty eyes, knowing the regimental read-out would not bring her good news. Oh-three-hundred hours: a damn-awful time of night. Kathryn Janeway watched another minute pass and heaved a sigh, turning back to the computer terminal and scrolling through the data. The characters blurred in front of her eyes, losing their tenuous relevance and fading into nonsense. She was too tired for this. Not just tired in mind but drained in spirit. She barely had the strength to lift her coffee mug to her lips, and the bitter liquid was not an adequate reward for her efforts.
Staggering upright Kathryn recycled the lukewarm coffee and input strict instructions into the replicator. It bleeped obligingly, bringing her request into being with a mechanical purr. Steam billowed from the lip of the cup and she snatched it up, inhaling it gratefully as her feet charted their own path across her Ready Room. If Chakotay knew she was still in here he'd probably place a report on her file, or worse, set the Doctor on her.
Her faint smile at the prospect faded as she realised the truth. There had been a time when Chakotay would have all but carried her back to her quarters himself, but those times had passed. Where there had been strength and certainty there was now only resignation. The captain knew her own mind, and she had rebuffed his efforts to soothe her weariness one time too many. Now he was leaving her to work herself into an early grave.
It was not that he did not care. She could see his pain and worry whenever she took her seat at his side. There was no hiding the dark circles under her eyes or the angular exhaustion in her body, especially from him. He could see through every façade and veneer she chose to wear. He had simply stopped trying to make her do things his way. Somehow she knew that if the worst came to be then he would help pick up the pieces, but until she was utterly broken he could not interfere.
Another sigh escaped her lips, scattering the steam from the coffee in front of her like wraiths before the winter wind. Reaching out her left hand she braced herself against Voyager'sbulkhead, angling her body towards the sleek metal walls as she stared out into the vista of space. The star-strewn velvet of the darkness raced past as the ship knifed its way through at warp six, heading for home with a dogged determination that was neither flattering nor heroic; it was routine.
It had not always been this way, Kathryn thought as she stared into space with an ambivalent gaze. Once upon a time she would have seen the stars and imagined the worlds they nurtured, the civilisations that flourished on the lands of the planets and the adventures waiting to unfold. Now she saw nothing but shades of grey. Colour vision had faded to a bleak monotone, and the years and miles stretched ahead of her, impassable.
Automatically she took another sip of the coffee, tasting the sharpness without noticing its presence, swallowing without thought or feeling. The hum of caffeine in her blood was a background drone to the heavy, tired rhythm of her heart. It was as though she had stopped living and begun to merely exist. She could not pinpoint the moment when the change had occurred, when even the adrenaline of battle failed to stir her being into wakefulness. All she knew was that, as surely as the sun rose over Earth's distant horizon, Voyager had died with her. Captain and ship had entered an eternal slumber, unable to stir themselves into the real world once again. They could only pace impassively through space and try to hide their indifference. Even when wounds bled and the hull was torn and battered neither of them felt the pain. It was as though, together, they had withdrawn from the real world and now stood on the sidelines, uncaring spectators to their story.
Tuvok had occasionally expressed his curiosity at the human habit of bestowing inanimate objects with gender and personality. Janeway felt a stiff frown cleft her brow as she thought of her stoic tactical officer. His words would always be delivered with the calm tone that only a Vulcan could muster, but the message was the same. To be human was, by definition it seemed, illogical. They took shelter in their compassion, their pain and imaginations. They found meaning where there was none, and bent passion to their will while remaining its helpless victim. Humans were unpredictable, and treating Voyager as though she were alive was just another example of their perplexing nature.
She had tried to explain it to him, but found herself stumbling clumsily over unfamiliar words. Instead she had shaken her head and walked away, unable to define the reasons that shored up her certainty. Eventually she had looked to the rest of the crew and seen within their faces that she was not alone. She was not the only one who thought that there was more to her ship than bulkheads and circuitry.
Tom spoke to the vessel as his fingers caressed her controls, pushing her to the limits and guiding her through the perils of space. His touch was competent and caring, pushing buttons and creating a fulcrum of balance in the midst of a thousand variables. To fly a star ship was not a matter of training; it was about understanding. The pilot was part of the ship. Without him Voyager would be stranded, her potential never realised. The same could be said for Tom. Without Voyager he was nothing but the failure he fought so hard to leave behind.
B'Elanna shouted, cursed, begged and cajoled the engines to optimal efficiency, all the while healing wounds in the ship's core and emanating pride. This was her chance. This was her way of proving that there was nothing that could stop her. Voyager had helped her grow and move beyond her temper. Yet neither engineer nor ship smothered the other. They knew one another's boundaries and, like perfect partners, they did not request more than the other could give.
Sickbay had seen pain and death, recovery and joy, and the Doctor's pride was well deserved, but more than anyone he was in touch with the essence of Voyager. Janeway saw it in his eyes whenever they were under attack. It was as though, enclosed as he was within the computer core, he felt the ship's pain. She was the one member of the crew he had not the power to heal. He had to entrust her to the capable engineers, and in the darkness of the night he returned to her: a sanctuary of mechanical wonder that could restore his program to its full. The ship was his healer, and he repaid the favour by salving the pain of her crew.
The sensors were Voyager's eyes, and it was Harry and Seven who directed her gaze. They were at the hub of the network, completely in control, but even the Borg had been heard to thank the machinery. Her tone may have been puzzled, not understanding her need to express gratitude to the unreciprocating consoles, but she felt it none-the-less.
Harry understood. Human and machine had two options: conflict or alliance. Voyager was his ally in his battle to get home, and he treated her with the respect she deserved. No questions asked.
Neelix cooked up a storm in the ship's social heart, all the while thanking this alien vessel for carrying them through space with such care. The bad may be out there, but the Talaxian insisted that Voyager and her captain would never let the worst befall them. To him this had begun as a great adventure into the unknown. Now he felt as though he had found his own home within her hull. He was far more settled here than anywhere else in the quadrant, even without Kes. Life without Voyager was unimaginable to him, at least for now.
Their stories were written on their faces everyday, and Kathryn never grew weary of seeing their love for the ship in the tilt of their expression or touch of their hands.
She set her coffee cup down on the table and lowered her weary body onto the couch. The cushions yielded just enough to make her grimace as her aching muscles relaxed from their painful knots with sharp flutters of discomfort.
Inexorably her mind wandered to Chakotay. He was the same, and yet so different from the other members of her senior staff when it came to Voyager. Each of them had a feature to admire: a small part that filled them with joy and pride.
Chakotay saw the whole of her. Every flaw was exposed and every darkness seen, and yet he did not hide his face or turn away. Instead he reached out and touched her, feeling the smooth purr of her within the prison of her walls. Every time he walked down the corridor he would stroke a finger down the bulkhead, renewing the bond between himself and the ship. He would place his hand, palm down, on the turbolift walls as he waited to arrive at his destination. His skin was always next to hers, warm and living next to cool and mechanical. He had never left her side. There was always a tenuous link waiting to be renewed between Chakotay and Voyager. Sometimes the bond was broad and solid, strong and demanding. Others it was frail and weak, drained by distance or pain, but it never failed. Never.
Chakotay loved her. Even when she pushed him away for his own safety, he loved her.
That left Kathryn Janeway. Captain. She could remember when she had first stepped onto this ship. She had felt it. Within the air and metal and constructs of this newborn vessel something had stirred, fluttering into wakefulness as though it had only been waiting for her presence. In those first weeks it had been innocent, and as overjoyed as she was at the prospect of travelling through the known realms of space.
Kathryn remembered the first breathless moments when they had undocked from Deep Space Nine. It had been a moment of fly or fail and, timidly at first, Voyager had spread her wings. Kathryn's heart managed a tiny thrill at the memory, but it was only a flicker of embers in the ash as recollections continued to remind her of what had been.
With thieving hands the array had taken Voyager: damaged her, bruised her and torn her from the sanctuary of familiar territory. Lost and confused the ship had fought and run, doing what had to be done and learning the first hard lessons: to sacrifice for others, to do the right thing and not what was easy, to uphold the principles of her crew.
Days passed, becoming weeks and months and years. At first it was an adventure, a silver lining to the tempestuous fear and danger that they faced. They were the first, and how bold and heroic they would be! Voyager would earn her place in the history books alongside her captain and crew. Their names would never be forgotten.
The promise of fame had faded. Heroism turned sour and each daring victory seemed lessened by the growing certainty of eventual failure. Principles became harder to recall, and the stark loneliness was a gnawing ache. There were no friendly ships out here. There was no memory of Earth but what the crew carried, and with each passing moment those memories faded towards nothing.
Voyager had lost her innocence and Kathryn her optimism, and together they had tarnished until they were as cold and black as the space outside.
She was supposed to be the guiding hand of Voyager, making decisions to put her ship to good use and steer her through the perils that lay ahead. Theirs was not a partnership. There was no alliance or conflict. She and Voyager were one and the same. Her skin was both flesh and metal; blood and plasma ran through her veins. The role of captain was a constant need for the ship. One occupant may fall and another may take up the job but they would all be filling a requisite, and each would both change and be changed by the vessel under their command.
In her stammering explanations to Tuvok she had claimed that the ship was so much more than a machine. She had a soul. Something indescribable that somehow gave her an added dimension of existence. Ships did not simply fail; they died. They did not only soar, but they lived. Perhaps it was because she did not only offer sanctuary, but could actively defend her inhabitants if necessary. There was a distinct feeling that this vessel was more than just a tool to be used at their whim, and now, in the darkest hours of the night, it was most apparent.
Of course she could take Voyager apart piece by piece and never find a fragment of metal or a scrap of vapour that could be defined as a soul, but the same could be said for any higher organic being of her choice. Warp core for heart, arm for nacelle, circuitry for veins… they were all a collection of components, but it was the sum of those parts that somehow captured the essence of themselves.
Yet she and Voyager were broken. Their wholes had fallen into fragments, and their spirits had somehow escaped. The crew saw it in their captain and felt it in their ship. Both were functioning tools and figureheads. They did their jobs without fail, striving hard to uphold the empty promises that they had made, but there was no fire anymore. There was nothing but stony silence and blank masks.
They tried to compensate and rekindle what had been lost, but with every attempt there came nothing but failure. Captain made the ship made the captain. She knew that it was tortuous logic of which Tuvok would greatly disapprove if he could, but it made sense to Kathryn. Several times she had considered handing over command to Chakotay. Perhaps his balance and calm would bring back the missing fragments of Voyager, but something warned her that it was not his task. The ship he reclaimed would not be the same as what had been lost. He could not step into the captain's shoes and make it all right.
With the slightest flex of her neck she pressed her forehead to the transparent material that separated her from the fatal embrace of space. Her skin tingled at the cool touch and she shut her eyes, seeking solace in the soft vibrations that always shivered through Voyager's frame. She could remember the genteel power of the Enterprise, a mirror of Picard's own temperament braced in every bulkhead and glimmering in every console. The vessel was polite and warm, but underneath was a hard core of ferocity. It lay dormant until her crew were threatened. Then she spurred forward, driven to fight and protect.
Even Deep Space Nine, spinning so unerringly on its axis, resonated with the bustle of the thousands of people who made their way through her corridors. She was an anchor, pinning the chaos in place. She was all about barter and trade, negotiation and battles of words. Deep Space Nine was neutral ground, and in every traced pattern of circuitry there was inestimable patience. She would watch and wait for her moment, the matriarch of too many Starfleet vessels to count: defenceless but always protected by those who sought her hulking presence.
Sisko was the same. When faced with his large frame Kathryn had been surprised by his gentle patience. He was an unmoving constant in the whirlpool of the space station, and his crew were his defence. Every one of them had their personal loyalties to him, and every one of them would fight for him. Voyager had fledged there, built in DS9's port and under Sisko's interested gaze. One day she would return to give her thanks. One day.
Kathryn opened her eyes, looking beyond her pale reflection as her smooth expression creased again. What would they see? Sisko and Picard, Enterprise and Deep Space Nine? Would they mourn the loss of both ship and captain? Would they feel pity, sorrow, disgust? Would they feel anything at all or did they already know that, out here, in the abyss of deep space, there was no hope for Voyager and her captain? Did they know that woman and ship may return in body, but something far more integral would be left behind?
The denial was a small susurrus in the quiet of her Ready Room, barely intelligible above the constant sounds of the ship around her. Her eyes shifted focus, meeting the gaze of her translucent effigy. Pale skin created the canvas of her face, drained of vitality by her own demands. Blue eyes were sunken and shadowed, mere phantoms of their former selves. Her lips, bracketed by lines of concern, seemed unable to form a smile. Any attempts mutated into a sneer or grimace.
She lifted her chin with a sharp motion, preferring the defiant stance. Pay no attention to the fragments; they are only part of the whole: the captain, the woman, the Janeway. They would not return shattered. It was all or nothing, and it always had been. She could get this crew home and she would. She drove all her energy into it, and perhaps that was what had spent her passion and existence. Perhaps between them both herself and the ship had given more than they could.
They had lost their bond somewhere in the furore of the long race home, and both of them had suffered. Blame was hers entirely, she knew. The adventurous innocence had been hers to share, and with each passing day the tarnish had gathered at her core. It would tear them apart if it continued to fester, but perhaps she had strength enough for this.
The doors to her Ready Room hissed open as she approached, guided more by instinct than logic. The skeletal Gamma shift looked up in surprise, giving polite greetings as they watched her warily. Had none of them realised she still resided in her sanctum, lost in her own web of thoughts? She looked around at the young faces, aged now by hard years. It was comforting to see them; lower ranked but happy to strive while the rest of the crew slumbered. It also gave her a quick jolt of relief to see that Harry was not sitting in "the big chair". Rather it remained vacant, as the officers preferred their stations at various consoles.
'You're dismissed, Ensign,' she said calmly to the young woman at the helm who rose without question. Tom would have been hesitant and unsure whether to relinquish his grasp on the controls. He was fraternal towards the ship in that respect. Protective and cautious he would have let rank slip away as he demanded her purpose. At least the ensign still had a healthy sense of respect and knew when to get out of the way.
Around her the Gamma shift turned to their consoles, putting on a façade of work as every heightened sense focussed on their captain. She sat poised, her fingertips mere micrometers from the sensors that would give her full control of her ship. The viewscreen showed a vast expanse of streaming space, and with one quick motion she dropped out of warp, watching the stars become fixed and Voyager's manoeuvrability return. At warp the vessel was a bullet from a gun, practically unstoppable and barely influenced by outside factors. Now, as she initialised thrusters she was a surgeon's needle, precisely stitching her way through the fragments of the planetary systems that surrounded her.
Nearby the baleful vermilion eye of a red giant cast a ruddy glow on the hull, turning the white paint silver and pink. The planets circling the dying star, already chilled by the fate of their sun, were glistening orbs of ice and dead atmosphere: a silent audience as the ship slowly began to go through her paces.
She was slow to respond to the unfamiliar fingers at her helm at first, shivering with the uncertainty of that touch. Kathryn could feel the ship's confusion, and half expected her to complain in the computer's emotionless tones. They rarely flew together, content instead to keep their distance, but this was the only way she could think of to put the pieces back together.
Gradually, like a recalcitrant child, the ship's sluggish movements gained grace and ease. Slowly, as the years of disuse fell away and command was shorn from her, Kathryn recalled the thrill of flying for the sake of it. Not as a means to get home, but to enjoy the sensation of speed and the thrill of the dance through the stars. It was gentle at first, a tickle of excitement that gradually seized her. Her fingers grew more sure, and Voyager responded more eagerly to the demands on her, executing manoeuvres that had not tested her before.
Kathryn was unaware of the Gamma shift around her discarding their pretence of work and stopping to admire her capability. They realised that something more significant was taking place than the eye could see. This had not happened before, and it was a thrilling honour to observe. Some looked on with envy at her skill while others eyed the ship's consoles in surprise. Efficiency increased as tiny, problematic malfunctions were smoothed away by the flight. It was as though the ship had risen to the challenge, pulling herself free of her own decay to cease flying and remember how to soar.
One by one Kathryn's senses awoke. The monotonous veil slipped from her vision, and faint colours glowed with vibrancy and life. Her fingers slid across the glossy surface of the console, every interruption in its smoothness a jolt of sensation against her skin as she manipulated the controls. The weak warmth of the dying sun struck her face, making her cheeks tingle with its caress as Voyager turned a wide arc through the system. She could taste her excitement, and felt her nerves thrill with the eruption of sensations as she guided the ship above the wide sweep of an ice field of a planet's rings.
The tarnish was fading, polished away by the roar of feelings both real and imagined. Life was swirling around her, undeniably in its strength and passion. Even as the system through which they danced entered its dying years the power of it was apparent. Perhaps she was not the same woman who had left the Alpha Quadrant far behind, and maybe this was not the same ship that had entered the Badlands with such naivety, but that did not mean that they had been weakened by their experiences.
Dimly she felt a surge race up her arm and realised that Voyager had increased her speed, surging forward towards the outer edge of the system. Like a child running for the thrill of the speed her ship was sprinting through space, pouring all her energy into the thrusters. Logically Kathryn knew she must have initialised the command, but she did not remember moving her fingers. Shaking the brief concern away she let the sensation of it soothe her as a smile curved her lips.
'That's my girl.'
The minutes seemed to blend into each other as Voyager treated the star system as her playground, twisting and turning, cruising and diving through the star be-decked space. The inertial dampers were given a thorough test by their manoeuvres, and Kathryn felt her smile expand as one of the ensigns quietly said that structural integrity was still at one hundred percent. Sometimes it took a true challenge to make a person realise her strength, and now she knew that the detachment had been just that: a challenge to be overcome.
Distantly the hiss of the doors and the heavy pace of footsteps reached her ears, but she was too engrossed in the feel of Voyager around her to pay it any heed. The view screen filled her entire vision, and the ship enveloped her awareness. She could almost feel the distant warmth of the sun on the hull and the breathless silence of space pressing in on her ears. It was as though her human senses were fading away to be replaced with something far more vast.
Heat, not far away but nearby, was the first feeling that told her of Chakotay's proximity. Nerves flooded with the feeling of flight gradually eased their exhilaration, prickling instead with awareness of his closeness. He placed his hand on the console next to her right hand, brushing her skin with his touch for a breathless moment that made Kathryn tremble. He was stood slightly behind her, a permanent presence to reassure her: a constant that would never fail.
She tore her eyes from the view screen and looked at his hand pressed firmly to Voyager's console. Could he feel the change that sang through the ship's bulkheads and circuitry? Did he sense the spirit returning to their vessel as surely as Kathryn could feel herself re-awakening to the thrill of living?
His words were a quiet whisper meant only for her ears, and she met his dark gaze as her fingers stilled on the controls. The smile on her lips widened to a grin and she felt a trace of heat warm her cheeks as his other hand rested on her shoulder, connecting her and Voyager through his touch.
There were no more broken pieces, only completeness. Perhaps the cracks still showed, and maybe there were still weaknesses in which to find their strengths, but Kathryn could feel the song in her soul, and knew that the spirit of Voyager played perfect harmony to her melody.
There was more to a ship than bulkheads and circuitry. They did not fail; they died. She could never explain it to a Vulcan like Tuvok, but she knew the truth, and she had never felt so alive.