Disclaimer: Voyager and crew belong to Paramount, not me, and that just annoys me to no end, but it's no less true for that fact.

Rating: M for violence and mature subject matter – kids, go elsewhere. There's really nothing I'd call graphic in here per se, but plenty of adult themes (just about all of them) are discussed, referred and alluded to (it's just what I do, sorry). If you're squeamish at all about violence of any kind, you may just want to skip over this.

Notes: This is a blend of two specific requests made almost a year ago, finally finished. For both Cheshire and Lita, and I do hope the two of you like it, especially after all this waiting! The story is completely written but long, so I'll be posting a section every week or so, maybe less as I go through the final editing for each chapter.



I can't see Whitmore. Damn it, but after that last explosion, I haven't seen or heard from her. I should check on her, as soon as…

"Tom, hard to starboard! I've got a fix on the–"

The catch of the alien tractor beam is too much for the Flyer's already fried circuitry, and a shrill whine is our only warning. The control panel practically explodes in her face, and the captain flies back a few meters, hitting the science console behind her with a sickening crack even as I'm thrown bodily from the helm.

The Flyer is trapped in the pull of the stronger ship. With the engines shot to hell, there's no way I'm going to be able to pull us free now. Instead of wasting precious time trying, I crawl through thick smoke toward the woman I can spot lying in the corner. It takes longer than I want to reach her. The engines are still sputtering and straining against the tractor beam, and a few rough tugs and harsh jerks send everything not permanently attached hurtling across the shuttle...including me. The engines die a shrill, whining death, and when I finally stop rolling around the cabin like a pinball in a machine, I've managed to reach her, somehow.

Her blood is everywhere. Staining my hands, her uniform, the floor. Her blue-grey eyes are staring, frozen, and I know even before I manage to crawl back to her side and press shaking fingers to her neck: we've lost her.

Ashley Whitmore is dead.

Damn it, I really liked her. The captain did, too. Whitmore was chosen for this mission in part because the captain wanted to get to know her better…shit. I blink back tears. Another good person down. Another one lost.

She will be mourned, I tell myself. We'll have a proper funeral service, and we'll all honor the remarkable, loving woman that Ashley was…but not now. Now, I need to find the captain.

At first, I panic; I don't see her. She isn't anywhere in sight. I'm terrified she must be trapped somewhere in the smoky cabin, maybe impaled by flying shrapnel just as Whitmore was. The captain could be bleeding out somewhere close, waiting for me to come and help her, and God damn it, but I can't see more than a few centimeters in front of me…

The Flyer jolts once, hard, then is still. We've been docked.

"Tom," I hear croaked from just behind me as a familiar grip closes over my shoulder.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Or rather, I try to: a tickling sensation at the back of my throat has me hacking and coughing, instead. The captain's smoke-singed face is leaning over me, her hand closing around my arm now, helping pull me to my feet. A good portion of her uniform jacket is blackened over her forearms, and some of her hair is burnt around the edges, but otherwise, she looks uninjured. She must have been able to throw her arms up just in time to shield her face from the worst of the exploding console.

"Are you all right?" I hear her shout over the blaring alarms the computer refused to silence before it went offline.

Better than Ashley is, yeah. I nod curtly and start to make a move for the phaser locker, but the captain puts a hand on my arm again, squeezing hard. "No," she barks out shortly, shaking her head through a deep cough. "There's nothing…to be gained by that now. The size of that ship, we'll be outnumbered…at least…a hundred to one."

She's most likely right, now that I think on it. We're both coughing for a minute, unable to speak. Plasma fumes are harsh on the human lung. The alarms are silenced as blackness descends over us. The power has been cut, whether due to mechanical failure or outside interference, I don't know. I probably don't really want to know.

"Whitmore?" the captain manages gravely, once her coughing has subsided for the moment.

Now there's only the hiss of leaking plasma to soften my response.

"Gone," I inform quietly. Her eyes close briefly, and she reaches out a hand to rest on my shoulder just as the emergency lighting finally flickers on overhead. Better late than never, I suppose. My right hand closes hesitantly over hers on my shoulder.

That's when I realize something strange. The captain is surveying the damage all around us, and I can see her mind already working as her eyes dart from one area to the next, but she isn't moving to do anything at all. And she doesn't seem inclined to anytime soon.

"So we just…sit here and wait for them to come in after us?" I assumed she would have a plan by now, and I can't help the incredulous note in my voice, but the captain doesn't seem fazed by it. Surprise of surprises.

She shakes her head, coughing dryly before managing, "They could have taken us out with one more decent shot. They had plenty of time to make it, but they didn't. They want us alive…at least for the moment. Until we know what we're dealing with, it's best not to give them reason to rethink that notion. Understood?"

I manage a nod as a heavy thump is heard against the outside of the rear of the hull. Both of our gazes are drawn to the back of the shuttle before the captain reaches up to her collar and feels along the pips there. To my surprise, she yanks off two of them and swiftly tosses them under the helm console, where they roll out of sight. The movement sends her into another coughing fit, and I automatically reach out a hand to brace against her arm. She turns to me, and I feel her reach up to my collar, removing one of my pips before it, too, soars out of sight to join its fellows under the helm.

Obviously, she's worked out plenty that I haven't yet.

I know what she's trying to do by discarding the pips, though. The people in this sector are real sticklers for rank equaling respect. Not one of the dozen or so species we've encountered lately has failed to ask after our system of ranking. By now it should be fairly common knowledge around here how to discern our relative ranks just by looking at the number of pips on our collars…she doesn't want them to know how high ranking either of us are.

The people who've just captured us don't have particularly benign intentions: the hull of our best shuttle bears the obvious evidence of that. The repairs we're looking at having to make…well, let's just say I'm not particularly looking forward to facing B'Elanna later. Every piece of hardware is basically fried. This is weeks of reconstructive work here, especially since she's on limited duty, now that we know we're expecting…

My heart seizes up in a sharp pang. I can't think about the family I have waiting for me back on Voyager right now. It might just kill me, maybe even literally, and I have to be concerned with the family I have standing right next to me.

Through the haze of venting plasma exhaust that will kill us within another minute or so, I can see the captain's face. And, for just a second, I think I see a flicker of apprehension there, but it's gone immediately, so I could never really be sure it was there at all. She meets my eyes as the doors to the shuttle suddenly blast out, leaving a hole venting plasma exhaust in the rear. I turn to watch, to move in front of her, but she pulls back on my arm again and shakes her head. She looks grim.

"This may get…unpleasant for us, Tom. Do your best, but don't be unnecessarily heroic, understand?"

I have no real idea how much she is saying to me in this moment. It's only a long while later that I understand the origin, the true weight of these words, but when Kathryn Janeway gives you that narrow-eyed look of steel, you just nod and shut up.

"Yes, ma'am," I acknowledge tightly, watching her step forward with her hands raised. Somehow the picture of authority, even in this submissive posture. But she's worried: the grip she'd had on my arm told me that, but I'm not immediately sure why. Voyager's days away, sure, but I also know better than to think she's worried for her own safety. This is the woman who manually launches torpedoes and walks straight onto Borg cubes so she can allow herself to be partially assimilated. So I can't understand what her concern could be…

And then it hits me, of course: the captain is specifically worried for me. She's stepped out directly in front of me.

Not a good sign.

I don't have time to think about it. About six dark, helmeted figures storm the cockpit. These aliens aren't huge by human standards, but they make up for their lack of brawn in other ways. Now that they've decided upon entry, they come in with weapons flashing, all speed and menace and purpose. The smoke is thinning rapidly, and they have no trouble either locating or reaching us.

The captain opens her mouth to speak, to give her standard address (minus the "captain" part, I assume), but they aren't interested. Our raised hands are grabbed, twisted behind us and held there. In the confusion, something small and slightly painful is fitted over our noses. It pinches.

We're being yanked out of the Flyer with considerable speed now. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the soldiers bending over Whitmore's fallen body, inspecting her closely, and I instinctively bristle. I'm not sure if the captain sees this, but if she does, she doesn't mention it.

We're led out into a huge, gleaming hangar. She doesn't make any effort to hinder the movements of the unnamed aliens herding us into a huge hangar, and I take my cue from her; I don't resist, either.

I take this to be the aliens' shuttlebay, but their shuttles must be considerably larger than ours, because it's about twice the size of Voyager's shuttle bay. Black and silver are the color schemes here: black for the soldiers' uniforms and helmets, and silver for their weapons and bulkheads. The combination screams power. Danger.

I try to avoid breathing through my nose. I'm not sure this device doesn't contain poison or something else harmful, and with the small round cap completely covering both nostrils, there'd be no way to avoid inhaling any substances it might contain.

But the atmosphere is far too thin in the hangar. Breathing through my mouth quickly has me lightheaded enough to stumble, and in the process of being jerked sharply to my feet, I'm forced to inhale through my nose anyway. Immediately, the lightheadedness disappears, and I inhale the additional oxygen gratefully. Apparently, the atmosphere in this hangar is too thin to breathe comfortably, and these devices are designed to compensate for our lack of ability to withstand it.

Apparently, the aliens knew this about us. Probably not such a good sign, but I can't help being grateful for it, anyway.

"Who are you, and what do you want with us?" the captain demands as we're led down the ramp to stand at the bottom. Her voice is more nasally than usual, but that's because of the device fitted over her nose.

The soldiers escorting us ignore her.

There are about twenty more of them standing in a semi circle around the Flyer. All are standing at the ready, and all have weapons drawn and pointing in our direction…

No, that's not true. There's one at the very center of the circle who doesn't have a weapon drawn. He's standing with his arms behind his back, surveying the whole scene with what I take to be interest. He isn't wearing a helmet, and I can see that this is a race we haven't encountered yet. It surprises me. Since the first disastrous trade attempt with Kaelo, we've been scrambling to negotiate with every space-faring civilization within thirty light years. I thought we'd met them all by now.

Obviously, I was wrong.

I try to meet the captain's eyes, but her gaze is focused dead ahead of her on the alien in front of us. There's movement behind me, and I feel the cold weight of metal encircling my wrists now. The finality of the smart clicks locking the restraints in place is daunting. I can feel myself being pushed to my knees, and beside me, I see the captain positioned likewise. The soldiers aren't gentle, but they're not really hurting us, either. They're only using about as much force as they have to in order to subdue us.

"Why did you attack our shuttle?" she demands, her hard voice crackling out again into the relative silence of the hangar.

The leader steps forward, his hands still behind his back. I gather the atmosphere in the hangar must be suited to their comfort then, because he wears no breathing gear. He strides right up to us – or rather, to her. He ignores me completely. One of his minions follows him, staying about an arm's length behind until they stop only a foot or so in front of the captain.

A guard behind her keeps her kneeling with a heavy, gloved hand on her shoulder. She can only look up at our abductor from the floor, but it doesn't seem to faze her. I know her better than to think it ever would have.

"We're on a peaceful trade mission. We mean you no harm," she asserts, not at all intimidated by their weapons, their posturing, or their silence.

His pasty, almost transparent flesh is stretched tightly across his ridged cheek bones as he surveys her with intense scrutiny. He doesn't speak. Through four narrowed red eyes, he takes in her rumpled appearance, from the smoke-tinged features and mussed red hair to her two-pipped collar and uniform. As his eyes pass over her collar, I think I can see a hint of a smirk on his face, but it's impossible to tell from this angle.

No one seems to be breathing. We're all waiting expectantly: me, her, and the soldiers surrounding us.

Suddenly, one of his black-gloved hands shoots out, catching her at the throat, and I instinctively tense. The guard behind me notices. The grip on my shoulder tightens to the point of pain, and his weapon digs into the tender skin just below my ear in an unmistakable warning. I choke back on the gasp of pain. I would already bet six months worth of rations that this won't be the worst of the pain coming my way. At any rate, I won't be moving to defend the captain anytime soon, so I can only hope this doesn't get too rough too quickly.

The leader's light yellow eyebrow quirks upward, I assume in concentration. He looks like a pale Romulan really, I think, taking in his sharp features. With two sets of eyes, of course, but the bone structure and hair style are similar. So is the superior attitude as he finally speaks.

"You're Janeway?" he demands gruffly. "Captain of Voyager? Or is it the one in the shuttle? The dead human?"

She doesn't move a muscle. Doesn't even tense, nor does she hesitate.

"Who wants to know?"

A little surprised, I suppress a proud snort of laughter.

But how the hell does he know who the captain of Voyager is? Of course. It hits me: the scout ships. The "shy" ships that have been popping up on the fringes of our sensors for weeks now but never once responded the captain's friendly hails. This ship had the same signature, I remember the captain noting when we'd first come under attack. Her actions just before we were boarded make a little more sense now; she'd already put together what I hadn't, until just now. They've been stalking us.

Again, not a good sign.

The leader frowns, his pale, pasty flesh marred by the ugly lines. He stares at her. Doesn't answer. I doubt she really expected him to, anyway. He steps back a pace, nodding to the henchman who's stood waiting behind him this whole time.

The guard moves toward her. The captain is pushed forward by her arms, courtesy of the man behind her. She falls forward, almost hitting her face on the shiny grated floor until he pulls back abruptly. They're moving her hair aside and ripping open her collar.

"Hey!" I growl, not that anyone's listening. "Take it easy!"

It's the last thing I say for some time. Something dark is swiftly crammed into my open mouth and shoved so far back into my throat I gag, choking. It tastes like sawdust…scratchy fabric. Now, I can only make grunting sounds. I do. Loud grunting sounds, because the guy in front of her has something in his hand.

A cloth is shoved into the captain's mouth, too, as she starts to protest. The instrument the guard holds looks like a weapon. It's dark. Mottled silver with a handle and a short barrel. The end of the barrel is pressed into the side of her neck. At least I think it is, but she's obstructing my view of the strange device, now that it's so close to her. I watch in horror, held still, as the captain tries to move her head to the side to avoid what's coming. The guard in front of her isn't having that, though. He takes her jaw firmly in his free hand, keeping her still, and then her features twist briefly into a grimace of pain.


I can't move, damn it, and it's too late, now. I hear a hiss and then a stifled groan from her. I watch on in helpless terror, wondering what the hell they're giving her until the guard lets go of her. He backs away slowly, taking the device with him, cradling it in front of him like it's a precious artifact. The one in charge, the only non-helmeted alien, waits with something long and flat in his hand. He takes another object from his pocket. It's difficult to see from several meters away…wait a minute. It's hair. It's a small twist of red hair, hardly more than a few strands…

What the hell is going on here?

Our "host" puts the tiny swatch of hair into a small, circular impression along the thin device he's holding. The lights flash a siren red, and he places the swatch of hair back into the small pocket at the side of his black uniform. I can't help it. I'm staring in fascination now. The leader takes the instrument from his subordinate and carefully presses the tip to the same circular impression in the padd. I see lights blink green and then flash siren red.

He smiles. Lifts his strange eyes, and I'm sure I see pleasure in his expression this time. He meets the captain's eyes, now that she's been pushed back into her original, kneeling position. She looks furious, but he isn't affected by her glare. He says one word:


A cheer erupts through the hangar.

And we're just piling on the bad signs now.


So much for protecting my identity and, by default, for protecting Tom or Voyager. It's not the ship they're after. It's me.

As soon as our captor took that hair out of his pocket, I knew everything I needed to know. There was only one place he could have gotten it: Kaelo. The prefect of Jifan. The bastard had ripped that hair right out of my skull. Of course, that was after I nearly broke his arm – admittedly not the wisest or most captainly course of action, but even I have my limits.

We've been in desperate need of several refined supplies, as usual, and this was the first populated sector we've come across in some one hundred light years. Kaelo greeted us first, and as his planet was the center of most trade in the system, it was with him that negotiations were most likely to have to be conducted.

In the beginning, I held out hope that I'd convince him to trade with us, despite his blustering and overbearing nature. And he pretended to consider it, at first, but he soon revealed himself to be rather less interested in friendly trade than he'd initially appeared. It took a little time to realize it, but the ruler of Jifan was somewhat of a sociopath – a megalomaniac, at the very least. Unwarrantedly paranoid that we were a threat to his power in the quadrant. Convinced we had ulterior motives for approaching him and desperate to subjugate us before that imaginary threat could be realized.

Kaelo didn't seem to believe our assurances that we were just passing through the sector. He feared we would ally with his enemies and, most particularly, with a radical group on his own home world. He was desperate to bring us under his control before that happened, and he seemed convinced that the way to do that was through me.

It quickly became apparent that his…demands…weren't going to be anything I could stomach – not for any amount of supplies. After only a few hours planet-side with him, I even half tried to pawn off negotiations on Chakotay. He would have taken over with a little more relief than was strictly first officer-like, but Kaelo clearly couldn't stand him, and the feeling was too obviously mutual for the idea to have any real merit.

Not that I liked the man any better, but we needed those supplies, and Kaelo was as interested in negotiating with Tuvok as he was with Chakotay. And so, I tried to stick it out. After all, we've had our fair share of difficult negotiations before and still managed to pull them off. I told myself this was yet another test of my supposedly refined diplomatic skills.

It baffled me that the prefect could be so suspicious of our motives and yet so seemingly intent upon seducing me, but I think he genuinely thought that once he got his hands on me, I'd be so infatuated that I wouldn't consider undermining his position of authority in the sector. Or maybe he only hoped that if he did it publicly enough, he could discredit me in the eyes of his followers…and perhaps, even in the eyes of my own followers.

I did my best to disavow him of the notion, but he wasn't particularly receptive to the word "no" – something Chakotay and Tuvok really loved, as I recall now with a dry, inward smile. I hadn't let it intimidate me, especially as Kaelo had the ability to fulfill all of our requirements in one stop.

He'd humored me, but as time went on, I found his true motives painfully obvious. He was more interested in interrogating us and strangely, in neutralizing the image of power he seemed to see and fear in Voyager…in me. Eventually, I'd had enough of his poorly veiled threats and not-so-innocuous innuendo, and we'd walked away from the bargaining table after three grueling days of trying my best to negotiate with him.

The less-than-amicable terms under which we departed must be the reason for this unprovoked attack on our shuttle now. Kaelo sent these men after me. I should have realized he hadn't gotten over what I did to him so easily, though even now, I can't quite bring myself to regret having done it.

It wasn't so much the shockingly indecent proposal he arrogantly whispered into my ear as he leaned over me at the banquet table; I've heard those before. Maybe never in such an assuming, cruel sneer, but I've certainly heard them. All right, and so the fact that it wasn't even a proposal so much as an announcement of his intentions might've helped me decide, but that really wasn't it, either…

No, I'd have to say it was his wandering hand under the table, edging up along my inner thigh, that finally pushed me over the edge.

He spoke up at my terse refusal, repeating his proposal – loudly – as though the reason for my demurral was that I hadn't heard him properly. At that point, several of the closest heads turned in our direction, and I could tell from the amused, unconcerned expressions on his subordinates' faces that this was typical behavior for the arrogant bastard. Those trade ministers were all eagerly watching for my reaction, even had broad smiles on their faces. Apparently, everyone at the table expected me to capitulate – then.


It was more than enough to make it clear that we weren't going to be reaching an agreeable resolution with the authorities of Jifan, after all. Particularly as his insistent hand continued to try and progress further upward between my then clenched thighs while we argued.

He ignored my perfectly polite request to remove his hand, and as there appeared to be something wrong with his hearing, I did what came naturally; I removed his hand for him. In the process, however, I'm afraid I couldn't seem to help nearly snapping his wrist or making him scream out in pain.

The look in his eyes in that moment in which I released him was telling: it was raw, naked hatred. He saw the shock on his face mirrored on that of his trade ministers, and those strange, glittering eyes promised to make me regret humiliating him.

He tried to do it then. Incidentally, I'd no idea Ayala could move that fast, and I hadn't even thought him observing the exchange very closely, but one minute, I felt the searing pain in my scalp as Kaelo's hand tightened in my hair, and the next, I was practically ripped away from him. Some of my hair pulled loose by the roots, making me blink back sharp tears of pain, but even before I could react, Mike had shoved me behind him so fast I nearly lost my balance.

The rest is somewhat of a blur. The remainder of the security team was surrounding me, shielding me with their bodies and calling for a beam out, shouting out over the din as Kaelo's guards stood in shock, hands hovering near their belts. The transporter took hold of us all shortly thereafter, but through the entire wait, Ayala stood unapologetically with a phaser pressed to the prefect's throat.

We left immediately. I gave the order from the transporter platform, hailing Chakotay almost instantly. As there had been no shore leave negotiated for the general crew, breaking orbit took only a few minutes. From there, it took about three minutes more for B'Elanna to fire up the warp core, and we left without a backward glance.

Of course Kaelo didn't take our abrupt departure well, as we'd soon found out. He'd made trading for the supplies we so desperately needed all but impossible. Most of the people in this sector are terrified of him, and he'd put the fear of holy gods into them, warning them not to trade with us. As a result, we've been turned away, practically shunned by every species we met afterward.

We were lucky, to Chakotay's way of thinking. He'd felt sure the prefect would send his small fleet of warships after us. At first, I'd been inclined to agree with him, and we proceeded cautiously for several days thereafter, but we weren't pursued. That the prefect hadn't sent his ships after us was a relief, of course…

It was only after stopping at the planet Ramor and unsuccessfully trying to forge an alliance with the Ramorans that we learned of the devastating terrorist attack that had taken place on Jifan barely a week after our departure. Apparently, the underground resistance had finally made its move against Kaelo, and with devastating consequences. The attack killed thousands of Jifans living within the capital city limits. Though we were a good week away, on Ramor, I sent my condolences and an offer to help in any way we could. I may fundamentally agree that Jifan would be better off ruled by a democracy, but I can't condone violence as a means of achieving that end, and according to the reports, the attack had been truly devastating. Thousands of innocent lives were lost. Despite our disagreement, I felt an obligation to at least extend a sympathetic hand.

As I expected, our offer was ignored, but afterward, trading did seem to go a bit easier. I assumed Kaelo had forgotten us entirely amidst the chaos of the attack…that, or he'd forgiven me my "insolence".

As I kneel on the harsh grated floor of these aliens' hangar, I can see how grossly inaccurate my assumption was. Kaelo had neither forgiven nor forgotten anything. He'd gone far enough to put a bounty on my head…a big enough bounty to have this group of alien headhunters stalking us for weeks. These are the same strange, unknown people whose small vessels have been appearing on the fringes of Voyager's sensors for the past few weeks. I hadn't regarded them as potential hostiles – merely as a curiosity – but they'd shown no interest in establishing communications, so I assumed the ships belonged to a more isolated race of people. They'd shown no signs of aggression, and our scans hadn't revealed them to be a threat to Voyager in any way.

Of course they wouldn't have, as I realize now. They were scout ships. Reconnaissance vessels. Expressly designed to cause little or no notice as we went about our primary mission to procure the supplies we needed. They'd been stalking us the entire time, right in plain sight.

I could cheerfully kick myself for having been so naïve. Our captor planned this well, and I played right into his hands by taking the Flyer to negotiate for deuterium while Chakotay took Voyager to the slightly more dangerous Bahni home world to try for some of the more critical food supplies.

Whatever price Kaelo has put on my capture, it's clear from the amount of trouble these aliens have gone to in order to capture me that it's a big enough sum to make all that trouble worthwhile.

But the bounty is on my head and mine, specifically. Kaelo never met Tom and could have no interest in him. Ayala, I could see him despising, Tuvok or Chakotay even, but…

My suspicions are confirmed when the instrument is brought over to Tom, and he's pushed forward as the tool is pressed into his skin with a hiss. I don't move yet; there's no need. As far as I can tell, the device isn't harmful. They extract some of his DNA, and the same procedure is followed by our captor. This time, there is no hair produced, of course, but a small vial is quickly tapped against the impression. Again, we can see a flash of red, and the instrument is pressed into the same circular interface. Flashing green…then blue. I assume then that Ayala's skin cells were collected, or maybe Chakotay's, probably from the surface of something they'd touched while planet-side. And of course Tom's sequence isn't a match.

"Unknown," our captor frowns, further confirming my assumption as the dry cloth in my throat continues to suck every drop of moisture from my already smoke-raw throat.

My heart skips beats. Unknown. Or, to a bounty hunter, expendable.

"What do we do with him?" his attentive guard inquires.

Our captor meets my gaze again. I try to speak through the gag, willing him with my eyes to take the cloth out of my mouth so I can address the point. A small smile lights on his pale face while he appears to consider.

I could kill him. This is the life of one of my crewmen at stake; nothing could be less humorous. He toys with me for a seeming eternity. Finally, he nods to the guard behind me. The cloth is pulled out, and I choke, spluttering as the scratchy material chafes against the roof of my mouth.

"Let him go," I try immediately, as soon as I'm able to meet his red eyes again. I cough violently against the dry tickling at the back of my throat, but even the tears that form in my eyes because of it aren't enough to make me silent. "He has no part in this." I hope my voice is infused with the proper amount of steel, but it's so hoarse by this point I'm not sure I succeed.

In fact, I'm rather sure I haven't as he laughs harshly.

"Out of the question," he assures me. "You will be with us for a short while, and I cannot have Voyager tracking our movements by the account he gives of your capture."

I can't look at Tom. I hear the words, the sense they make, and my heart is sinking into my stomach like a hunk of iced titanium. I hope it doesn't show on my face: desperation is never a good standpoint from which to begin negotiations.

There's no sense in arguing his point. Our captor is a professional, or so I gather from his actions thus far. He'll never take the chance, and we both know that Tom would do just that.

I try again. "Whatever price you're being offered, I can–"

His laughter rings out again, cutting me off. "Oh, I doubt that. I highly doubt it. Even if you could offer me something comparable, you cannot guarantee our safety when the client is made aware of my double crossing."

"He doesn't have to know," I urge, grateful that I'm being given so much information to work with. I've completed successful negotiations with far less of a starting point before. And I refuse to admit defeat with so much at stake.

Our captor shakes his head curtly, stopping me in the middle of another logical argument. "But I'm afraid he does." He, I note, not that I needed him to confirm my suspicions; I know who's behind this. "We've already sent word."

Damn it. My mind is spinning, working through logical solutions. "Then keep him," I urge, willing our captor to see things my way. "Keep him until your…exchange." I do fight the distaste from showing on my face, if not in my tone. No sense in insulting him, however tempting it might be. "You can release him afterward. He'll be no threat to you then."

Our captor kneels down in front of me until his strange double row of eyes is centimeters from mine. For a long minute, he's peering intently at me. I don't back away – not that I have the choice, really, with a guard standing so closely behind me. The point is that I don't try, and I believe he respects this.

"Alive and relatively undamaged," he informs me carefully, "you are worth fifteen million lycca."

My eyes want to widen, but I don't let them. In this sector, that's the equivalent of a Voyager-sized ship. It's also final confirmation of who has set this bounty. No one else could afford to pay such an exorbitant amount of money.

"Kaelo," I spit, confirming his identity aloud.

The prefect certainly knows how to hold a grudge. It's beyond belief that he has maintained this level of venom toward me over the simple spurning of his self-serving advances. Tom tenses beside me at the mention of Kaelo's name, but our head bounty hunter only smiles knowingly.

Right now, it's Tom's life I'm concerned with. I focus on what our captor is saying to me as he speaks again.

"Dead, you are worth five million," he furthers. He gives a cold little smile, skirting around the issue of the client's identity entirely. "It seems you've angered…someone…enough to want the pleasure of killing you personally."

I could have put this together for myself. He didn't have to lay it out for me. And he knows this, of course; he's toying with me. My eyes harden. "Your point?" I demand curtly.

My reaction seems to please him, as I anticipated from his response at my refusal to break eye contact before.

"Good," he grunts approvingly. "No begging. That is preferable. I may not have to keep you gagged for the entire trip if you can keep it up."

The word "bastard" comes to mind, but I only say it with my glare. I'm well aware of Tom's trusting presence beside me. So aware, in fact, that I can detect every slight shift in his movement, every change in his breathing pattern, which is audible through the atmosphere converter clipped over his nose.

His breathing, I think. He's still breathing. I will do whatever is necessary to make sure he continues doing so. I can't think about how I've already failed Ashley Whitmore in that regard. She's gone. I can't afford to dwell on that failure now; it could so easily cost me another.

Our captor still smiles coldly. "I am not a man who likes trouble, Captain," he informs me, oddly, I think at first, but then he continues, "In fact, the less fuss, the better. It would be easier for me to take the five million and kill you now. I can pay off my debts with fifty thousand and my men with an additional one million."

Charming. He's letting me know in no uncertain terms that he loses little by killing me. Flaunting the fact that he has the upper hand. "But obviously, fifteen million is preferable to five million. I would rather keep you alive for now and collect the maximum fee." He pauses for a dramatic few seconds. "Your cooperation would go a long way in ensuring that sum. I won't have to use…harsher methods of restraint."

If he's trying to frighten me, he should try a little harder. He's giving me the answer I need, I realize numbly. There isn't room for the surge of joy that wants to shoot through me or for the absurd gratitude I feel toward him right now. My voice is sure, and I don't for a moment look away from those strange eyes.

"Let him live, and you'll have my full cooperation," I promise evenly.

He darts a glance over to Tom. I don't. Not yet.

Our captor's steady gaze returns to me. He nods once, and I do my damnedest not to sag with relief. "Acceptable. I will see if our client is interested in negotiating for this one in addition to you. In the meantime, this agreement will be on a limited basis. Any trouble from you – or from him – will result in his termination," the alien warns.

It could be their translators that chose the specific word "termination", but somehow, I don't think so. The hard glint in his eyes tells me he has no qualms about killing Tom, and the terminology he uses to refer to the act confirms this hypothesis.

"And I make no guarantees for the end of the journey. If the client will not have him and I haven't found a suitable method of disposing of him efficiently by then, he will have to be terminated."

I open my mouth again to argue the point, but he cuts me off with a stern shake of his head. "Don't press your luck, Janeway. It's the best offer you will receive," he assures me.

I believe him.

Tom's breathing is steadier now. So is mine. It's something: a reprieve, albeit a brief one. I'll take it – for now. I nod my agreement.

I already know this ship is capable of warping almost as fast as Voyager. Jifan is almost two weeks of steady travel away from these coordinates, but the Bahni home world is still two days away from here, and our next scheduled check in is tomorrow. Our communications were taken out before the distress call could be transmitted, so it will take at least that long for Chakotay to know something's wrong. From there, they'll travel to our last known location…here…and that will be two days added to the one. And then they'll have to work out which warp trail to follow. Chakotay is an excellent tracker, a throwback from his days in the Maquis if not earlier, but this is a relatively highly trafficked passage. There will be dozens of signatures to choose from…

The point is that in the best of scenarios, there's no way Voyager will beat us to Jifan. They won't even know to begin the journey for several days yet. At least when they find the trail ends abruptly, they'll know we've been taken by someone.

I find it hard to pity this man when Chakotay eventually does find him, but I certainly don't envy him, either. And my first officer will find us, of that I have no doubt. Less pleasant is the sure knowledge that if he doesn't, he will die trying.

It's as though our alien captor hears my thoughts. He stands, turning away from me, and addresses his attendant. "See to things here. Complete the arrangements, then put them in holding. I'm anxious to depart immediately."

His officer nods, and I'm left to wonder what "see to things" means, but only for a moment. The leader strides out of the hangar without another glance at me. Tom and I are pulled to our feet, and I exchange a brief glance with him. I smile slightly, trying to reassure him, and I'm shocked to find that he does the same. For a heady instant, I'm transported backward through time and the man I see standing next to me is my superior, not my subordinate. My head aches, and I can almost hear faint screaming coming from far away…

The vision is wrenched from me as another soldier strides up to us, and then he and the guard who'd been restraining Tom each move to take one of my helmsman's arms. I don't have time to dwell on the tricks my mind has just played on me as they hold him still. Another guard moves forward, and I feel my arms grabbed from the sides as well. Something cold is pressed to my exposed neck, and then my uniform jacket is being sliced open. So is my turtleneck, and the air against my skin gives me chills even though it's still warm in the hangar. I can hear tearing fabric next to me, too, and a quick glance at Tom reveals the same treatment being applied to him.

I cringe only inwardly. We're being stripped. Wonderful. But they stop at our undergarments, leaving them mercifully intact. Our torn clothing is gathered by a single guard as we stand shivering, watching him take the discarded uniforms into the shuttle. My protests that we need our commbadges in order to be able to communicate with them are ignored. In fact, instead of answering me, they shove the damned cloth back into my mouth, and I could scream – except, of course, for the fact that I can't.

Things are moving quickly now.

The soldier returns from the shuttle empty-handed, and then we're ushered behind a vast black line that separates one half of the large hangar from the other. A forcefield snaps into place behind us, and the heavy bay doors are parting on the other side of the field. Pulses alight beneath the damaged, fire-singed Delta Flyer, and she slowly rises to hover in the air several meters above the grated deck. I watch, mesmerized in spite of myself as the ship is ejected back out into space. They aren't keeping the shuttle, I realize. Why aren't they keeping the

And then I look on in horror as two bright yellow pulses leave this ship from a location we can't see at this angle. The pulses strike the shuttle simultaneously. There's a brief fire of exploding plasma snuffed instantly by the vacuum of space, and a huge burst of shattering metals and alloys.

And then the Flyer is gone. Ashley Whitmore's body is gone; not even that can I take back to Voyager if we escape.

In the shuttle's place floats a sparkling nebula of tiny, glittering fragments. Like a winter sun over a war-ravaged battlefield, the cold and final realization dawns over me. Voyager won't be coming for us, after all.

They're going to think we're dead.