The bridge is silent. The crew has disembarked, although in all likelihood we face several days of quarantine by Starfleet before we are allowed to see our friends and family in person. I stand alone, and as I draw in a shaky breath, I suddenly realize that my life as I know it is over. I run my hand over the conn, where Chakotay sat only a few moments ago, and turn to look back at my one true friend, the ship that has been my tried and constant companion for the greatest journey of my life. In my mind's eye, a thousand memories flash before me. Over two thousand days, seventy-thousand light-years, and seven years...
I see a young Harry Kim, bursting with enthusiasm, calling me "sir," on the first day that I met him. I see Tuvok, my old friend, standing faithfully at his post, ever my logic, ever my sounding board. I can see him raise an eyebrow, telling me that I am being "irrational" or "reckless." The picture makes me smile. Admiral Janeway came back for him, I know. I run my fingers over the conn and I see an angry, resentful Tom Paris, cocky as hell, taking the helm for the first time. "You were faithful to the end," I whisper, but I'm not talking to Tom. I'm talking to my ship. I see a conflicted half-Klingon woman, struggling to find her place in a universe that she feels doesn't accept her, and then I picture her now; confident, caring, nurturing, a mother. I see the Doctor, who came so far in our journey on a journey of his own, from a brash and churlish holographic annoyance to a respected colleague of everyone on board. I don't know what will happen to him now. But I don't have to think about that yet.
I see those who are no longer here - Neelix and Kes who both became such important pieces of our family, but who left to pursue their own lives in another place, far away from here. I see those who never lived to see this day; who would see our beautiful Earth again. Joe Carey. If only Admiral Janeway had come back a few months earlier, she could have saved him, too. Lon Suder, Lyndsay Ballard, Hogan, Cavit... The list could go on, but I shake my head, pushing that list away. I'm sure in the days to come, I'll have to account for all of their deaths. But I don't have to think about that yet.
I see my cherished Seven of Nine. Perhaps now that we've returned to Earth, she'll finally decide to be called Annika again. Of all my accomplishments, of all the battles I have fought and won over the past seven years, she is the one of which I am the most proud. When I separated her from the collective and forced her to become an individual, I had no idea what a caring, compassionate, intelligent, beautiful woman she would become. She has far exceeded any expectations I might have had, and has gone from being one of my "personal reclamation projects," as Chakotay once said, to being one of my closest friends, almost like a daughter to me. I can't imagine what it would do to me to lose her. But I don't have to; Admiral Janeway came back to save her.
Slowly, I walk across the bridge, the sound of my footfalls echoing as if in an empty cavern. One last time, I lower myself into my chair. I run my hands along the armrests, feeling their smoothness, and I cross one leg over the other. An empty cavern. This ship is about to become one. My constant companion is about to be turned over to Starfleet to be studied, examined, perhaps even dismantled. But I don't have to think about that, yet.
Deliberately, I force myself to look to my left, to the empty chair beside me. When the Admiral told me that he had married Seven of Nine, I felt as though she had kicked me in the gut and knocked the wind out of me. I suppose it's only natural. Whatever was between us was a long time ago. I always have known that he wanted someone special in his life; someone that he could care for, make things for, have a life with, perhaps even have a family. I could never give him that, and we both knew it. But I have to admit that there were lonely nights when I would lie in bed imagining that someday, we would get home, and that the spark we both once felt so clearly would reignite under the blue skies of our home planet. None of that matters now, though. We are home, and I am here, alone. I wonder if he is already seeing her. His taking a rain check for lunch suddenly makes so much sense. I wonder why he didn't tell me. As I feel a lump rise in my throat, I know that that is what really hurts. Why didn't he just tell me? I'll have to ask him sometime. But I don't want to think about that right now, and I push the thought away.
Instead, I think about the moment that he materialized on my bridge for the first time, clad in leather, weapon in hand, and I told him he wouldn't need his weapon here. I think about the day that he offered to show me my spirit guide, the touch of his hand on mine for the first time; so gentle, yet so strong. I think about two months on a deserted planet, with a homemade bathtub, Talaxian tomatoes and a primate who would never leave us alone. I think about a moonlight sail on Lake George with champagne and roses, about a compassionate voice telling me I'm not alone. I think about the only hand I would hold in public, on the bridge, before sending myself to be assimilated by the Borg. I think about the man who sat beside me for seven years; an angry warrior who found the true meaning of peace in a woman who has never had peace herself; a man who always stood by me, no matter what; who put my needs first, no matter how hard it was; who was my compass and my conscience and my strength. My body shudders and I realize that it's trying to emit a sob, but the tears won't come. Even as I stare at Chakotay's empty chair, I can't simply cry. I draw in a shuddering breath and let it out slowly, controlled once more. I never needed to ask her. I know it was for Chakotay most of all that Admiral Janeway returned. And she accused me of being idealistic.
"We did it," I had said in disbelief when we emerged from the transwarp conduit. We did. I could never have done it alone; I know that. Every member of this crew contributed in a vital way to that moment when we burst into the Alpha Quadrant, finally achieving the goal that we set for ourselves seven years ago. We did it together, but there was only one Captain, and only one who, ultimately, must bear responsibility for all. I swore so many times that I would get this crew home. I told myself that I was willing to do whatever it took, and in the end, that was true. Admiral Janeway sacrificed herself so that we could be here today. And despite how at-odds we seemed with each other, I have a sneaking suspicion that she is the only person who ever really understood me.
I force myself to stand from my chair for the last time, and I look around the bridge, and at the blue and green planet that appears before me on the view screen. I can't delay the inevitable much longer. I will have to go and join my crew at Starfleet Command to begin the long and tedious debriefing process. But I want just one more second, just one more breath, just one more chance to savor this moment, just one more moment to live in this life. As I look at Earth, I feel strangely calm. This is the goal I have sought for seven years, and here it is in front of me. I think that I should be jumping for joy. I should be hugging every member of my crew, bubbling over with happiness. I should be celebrating. And while I do feel immensely happy, it is a quiet joy, one that can't be shared, and it is tinged with a melancholy too deep to express in words. As I look around my empty bridge for the last time, I don't think I have ever felt so alone.
My life as I know it is over. The single most important mission of my career completed, what will I do now? What will be as invigorating as the last seven years have been? Is there such a thing? This is a question I've never considered before. I shake my head; I can't afford to think about it right now.
I will do what I have always done. I will pick myself up and move forward. I will make myself stronger. I will make myself better. I will find the means to help others in any way I can. My work has always been my motive power, and though its form may change, I know that it will continue to drive me forward. "Well, Voyager," I say, with one last glance around at my beloved friend, "thanks for the journey." I turn on my heel and exit my bridge for the last time without looking back, and I smile discreetly to myself. Is Starfleet ready for Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager? I doubt it. My grin widens and I stride forward confidently. I am ready to face the music.