Disclaimers: See prologue
Notes: Taking a moment to thank Cheshire yet again, not only for her beta efforts of this entire massive thing, but also for her life-saving help with this epilogue. A good portion...almost half of this last bit...was her. Thank you, Chesh! And thanks to everyone who has stuck with this story and reviewed!
*morning after Warhead, just on the verge of Equinox*
My hand shakes as I reach for the newly-formed cup of coffee in my replicator tray. I hesitate, flexing my fingers as though that will solve the problem and use my other hand to grasp the warm mug instead. It isn't shaking any less, but I choose not to notice. I didn't sleep well last night. Not that that's any kind of surprise. I can't honestly remember the last time I truly slept.
Turning my chair so that I can sink into its embrace, my mind is stuck on how we…I…had once again almost lost my ship yesterday.
No, not lost…destroyed. I'd almost given the order to destroy Voyager. With all hands onboard. Because I'd told myself I'd had no choice. No choice but to sacrifice the lives of all those I hold most dear.
And for what? Why? Because some programmed weapon was so damned smart it had effectively taken away my options. Because it wanted to reignite some obsolete war that its own people had long ago abandoned. It was ridiculous.
It was chilling.
And yet – once again – I'd been prepared to kill us all just to stop it. To save the lives of others. People I'd never even met. Looking at my log entry from last night, it seems…plausible. I would have killed everyone on board Voyager simply to save the lives of strangers on some random planet we've never even been to. Starfleet would have approved my decision. I'd have gone down in the records as a tragic hero, dragging my crew with me by default. Through no choice, or fault, of their own.
And why not, really? It was a good enough cause. Die to save the lives of thousands of others. Kill…willfully slaughter my own crew, my family, to save the lives of an entire race of people. Sounds almost noble, doesn't it?
And I've murdered before for less cause than that.
I'd killed Kashyk simply to prevent him from shaming me in front of the crew. It is, of course, arguable that I was not in my right mind at the time. But even if that were true, then it still wasn't less than a couple of hours later that I'd bluffed the new Devore lieutenant with the self-destruction of Voyager. I'd told him that I'd rather blow up my own ship and kill my crew myself than to allow them to end in the hands of creatures like the Devore.
At least…he'd thought I was bluffing.
He hadn't known me very well. I hadn't been bluffing at all. Not then. Not by that point in the evening, I wasn't.
"Turn it off, gaharay," he ordered sinisterly.
I ignored him and his guards with their weapons aimed at me. I even choked out a mirthless laugh as I looked him directly in the eye. "Make me," I challenged flatly.
There'd been nothing left in me in the way of emotion anymore. Flat, hard, was all I had left.
He grabbed my arm, fully intent on coercing me to his bidding, to showing him how to use the formula for finding the wormhole when the computer politely reminded us that we had two minutes before the warp core overloaded and destroyed Voyager, everyone on it, and probably did significant damage to the Devore ship, as well.
I jerked free of his grasp and headed to my command seat. Muted pain shot through me as I relaxed into the familiar seat which felt somehow alien against me now. I could only imagine how bad it would have been without the doctor's painkillers coursing through my veins. Without his hurried, horrified and desperate attempts at patching me up before this confrontation had to take place.
But that specific pain, like so many other things, I was ignoring. "You have fifty-five seconds, Lieutenant," I informed him calmly. So calmly. "I suggest you leave now, while you can. Once you do, I'll extend the destruct cycle by two minute increments until we are out of Devore space. If you come near us again with your ship, or anyone else's, I'll take us all out. My own ship and crew included. If you do somehow manage to get on board again, I assure you, there is nothing you could do to me in less than two minutes to make me disengage it."
He smoldered at me. Darting his murderous, disbelieving gaze between me and his shrugging, growing-increasingly-alarmed subordinates.
I raised a cool, solitary brow. "Forty seconds."
I think at that point he'd seen the deadness in my eyes. He'd known then that I wasn't bluffing. And considering what he'd already been a part of doing to me earlier in the evening…I'm pretty sure he realized then that what I spoke was the deadly truth. Nothing less. And he feared what I was capable of. What he himself had painstakingly helped make me capable of in my own quarters earlier that night. He should have feared me. In that moment, at least, he should have.
In that moment, I had been afraid of nothing. Death would have been a welcome reprieve from mere existence.
Ironic, as I had endured so much at their hands that evening only to save the lives of my crew.
He'd gone. And he must have managed to convey my message to the rest of his cronies in the Imperium. We'd been left to continue on out of Devore territory. We saw no indication that they were continuing to shadow us, but we knew there were near, using whatever cloaking technology Kashyk hadn't given me. Probably trying to work out a way to come back to finish what they'd started, but they didn't have time. I kept my promise. For six hours straight, and then an additional two days to make absolutely sure, I kept resetting that sequence. Nerve-wracking for the rest of them, I'm sure, but I'd muted the audio warnings for their sakes.
And then we were through. Out. Free.
And none of my own had paid for my mistake – yet another mistake when I opted to drag us through that hostile region of space – with his or her life. It was enough for me. It was enough because it had to be. It was certainly all I had left to cling to by that point.
And now with yesterday's events, I had been willing to throw it all away yet again. My initial sacrifice that night would have meant nothing, in the end. We still wouldn't have reached Earth. I still wouldn't have fulfilled my promise to get them home.
Maybe it had always meant nothing. I'm no longer entirely sure.
Now, a slow, burning anger directed at the Delta Quadrant itself simmers deep in the pit of my stomach. How many times does this damned harsh quadrant want me to be responsible for killing my entire crew? How many times does it plan to push me to that limit, force me to make that decision? It's already happened too many times. And at least once, in another part of the universe, I'd succeeded, that I knew of.
I can only take so much. Simply getting out of bed and making my way to the bridge every day is damn near killing me. If I only had support, I think for the millionth time in this harsh quadrant. Chakotay tries, but it isn't the same. It isn't his decision, or his ultimate responsibility. It's always mine. Only mine. If I had so much as another captain to share the burden with…
Wishful thinking, as I damn well know. I shake myself out of those pointless, useless and self-pitying thoughts. I'll pull through without support from Starfleet. I'll do it because I have to. I made a promise to this crew.
Still. It would be so much easier. So much less suffocating if there was someone who truly–
"Seven to the captain."
The headache that is my constant companion these days pulses behind my eyes at her voice. What now? If it's those coils again, I swear I'm ordering B'Elanna to rip them out of the bulkheads this time.
I sigh tiredly. "Go ahead, Seven."
"I am in Astrometrics, and we are receiving a distress call."
I close my eyes and let my head tilt back until it hits the back of my chair. I don't have the time or the energy for this. Don't the spirits know that the command crew of this ship is doing the best it can just to put one foot in front of the other each day at this point? Does fate really feel the need to throw something more at us? Right now?
Her voice is hesitant and unsure. Not qualities usually inherent to Seven. She has my full attention again because it's nothing less than she deserves, I remind myself sharply.
"It is a Federation signal."
I freeze. Open my eyes. Truly alert for the first time today.
Maybe… Maybe fate has decided to be kind today at last. Maybe she recognizes how little I can take anymore.
I'm already on my feet, heading for the doors. My steps feeling slightly lighter than they have in months. "I'm on my way."