He could only stare at the damage reports for so long before the stress of the situation got the better of him

The End of Unimatrix Zero

By Eydie Munroe

July 2000

Disclaimer:

This is what you won't see when the actual, Paramount authorized version of Unimatrix Zero II airs this fall. And to TPTB, if you're listening (and I know you are), feel free to use any ideas here. You've obviously hidden a secret camera in my living room somewhere anyway, so who am I to mess with tradition?

Please send any thoughts, criticism or good dessert recipes to eydiemunroe@hotmail.com

It had been almost four weeks since Torres, Janeway and Tuvok were assimilated. So far the plan seemed to be going smoothly, but Tuvok had been the only one that actually appeared in Unimatrix Zero. Chakotay had to remind himself that the Doctor had warned him, just after they had escaped from battling the tactical cube, that the possibility of any of them appearing in Unimatrix Zero was slim at best. So he had nodded solemnly and listened to the reports that Seven gave every time she slept.

There were so many variables in this plan, so many things that could go wrong. The virus that had been implanted in their bodies was designed to interrupt the operation of the central plexus, and there was a chance that it would act as a beacon for Voyager when they came back to retrieve their officers. This was all provided that the Doctor had been completely thorough in removing any knowledge of the virus from the three. If any inkling of the plan remained in their memory engrams, this would all have been for nothing. And Janeway, Tuvok and Torres would have been sacrificed in vain.

The whole thing gave Chakotay a permanent headache. Try as he might, he wasn't quite able to hide his uneasiness during these weeks, and it progressively got worse. The only person that could truly understand what he was going through was Tom Paris, and even though he knew he needed it, Chakotay wasn't ready to talk to anyone yet. There was still too much up in the air, too much uncertainty. And Paris had pretty much clammed up, just as much as he had. So he went through the motions every day, waiting until the signal appeared that would let them jump back into action.

He could only stare at damage reports for so long before the stress of the situation got the better of him, and he retreated into the ready room. Kathryn's ready room. He stopped just inside the doors, wondering if it was really prudent for him to be in here without her. It had only happened a handful of times before, starting, oddly enough, during their initial confrontation with the Borg. This was her place of safety, her sanctuary when she need to think or to be just be alone. She spent far too much time here as far as he was concerned. A faint smile played across his lips as he remembered the many times he had come here, trying to coax her out and into an evening with him, and with the crew.

He shook his head. She wasn't here. And he wasn't sure if he would ever have the chance to try and coax her into anything again. After finally deciding that it was alright for him to use her office space, he sat down behind her desk and attempted to get back to work. The uncertainty manifested itself in the form of a headache, pounding through his temples and behind his eyes. He groaned as he dropped the padd to the desk, his hands coming up to support his head.

It was no use. He was haunted. Haunted by that last look, the one that never quit from the moment she reached for his hand till the second she disappeared through the turbolift door. The moment that he had dreaded since starting the journey home was upon him. It was entirely possible that he would never see his Kathryn again. She would be lost to him, never knowing the full force of his love for her or that she would be able to acknowledge her love for him. And to be left in the clutches of the Borg was a fate worse than death. It left Chakotay in a highly unusual stir of helplessness - all he could do was wait.

"Chakotay..."

His head snapped up, rewarding him with an extra hard pound through his temples. Her voice, clear as day, had just echoed through the room. A look around brought him to her terminal, where it had been unceremoniously tossed to the floor underneath the desk during the fight. No one had been in here to clean things up since then. He slid out of the chair, down onto shaking knees as he turned the screen upright. The Federation logo was placed in the centre, with a script saying message waiting... displayed underneath. He stared at it for a moment, then finally hit the activation key.

The logo was instantly replaced by her image, a nervous smile on her face. "If you're seeing this now, this means that you've come into my ready room for the first time since I left." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "I know that it hasn't been easy for you to support me on this, and I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that a part of me wishes you would have fought me till I changed my mind. But I think that you know how much your support means to me ... how much it has always meant to me."

Chakotay watched in silence, his back against the leg of the desk and the terminal balanced across his knees. "I have no intention of these actually being my last words to you," she continued, "but it's important that a few things be said here. If I am irretrievable, don't destroy Voyager trying to get me back. Make sure that our mission is accomplished, and then head for home. Voyager will be your ship, and I expect you to pick up where I left off. If you don't, don't doubt for a second that I'll come back to haunt you."

She seemed to know just when to pause, allowing time for him to chuckle at the twisted humor in her last sentence. "As for you, I want you to remember this ..." She drew a breath to steady herself. "I have never considered myself an incomplete person where my relationships are concerned - even when Justin died or when Mark got left behind in the alpha quadrant, I grieved for them but never felt I was personally missing a piece of myself. But once I met you, all of that changed. You have been my sounding board, and you've always helped centre me when I needed it. You let me run, and you point out that I am not always a reasonable woman." She let out a small laugh. "I think that's how you put it that time. But above all, Chakotay, I am so grateful for your companionship - and your love, even if I couldn't acknowledge it until now." Kathryn smiled, this time genuinely. "I love you. And I'll see you soon." She reached forward, touching her fingertips to the screen before the transmission ended.

Chakotay shook his head, then played the message three more times before he even moved out from under her desk. Her words bolstered him, and he now found that he would be able to ride this out a little more easily now. "Computer," he called out, "transfer Captain Janeway's message into my personal database."

"Message transferred."

***

Seven of Nine looked around the lush forest, immediately spotting Axum standing with Laura just outside the structure. He saw her almost as quickly as she did him, and he called to her, "Anika!"

She quickly made her way over to the pair, sensing their anticipation. "You have news?" she asked flatly, remaining as non-committal to him as she had become when she remembered their past history.

"Yes." Laura answered first, clearly filled with excitement. "Everyone has started retaining the memories here when they wake. It's been two cycles now."

"Which means that it won't be much longer before the queen realizes it," Axum added. "We're already working toward severing the hive mind. It will probably take another two cycles."

"We'll need a distraction," Laura told them, her Starfleet training kicking in now. "Something to occupy the queen while we plant the new virus into the central plexus."

"If your ship is going to do something, it will have to be in the next twenty-six hours," Axum reminded her.

Seven looked from one to the other, noticing the mixture of excitement and apprehension that filled both of them. "I will inform the commander," she assured them, then winked out of their existence as she woke herself up.

***

The final staff meeting was a tense one. They were here to confirm everything. "Our first priority is going to have to be incapacitating the drones on the cube," the Doctor had started.

"Incapacitating them?" Neelix echoed, really not understanding why.

"The normal drones will be disoriented when they are severed from the hive mind," Seven explained, impatience threading through her tone. "They will not have any rational thought process of their own. It is quite possible they will start trying to assimilate the first beings they see."

"So let them assimilate each other," Tom said, his own voice oddly cold.

Chakotay had noticed this hardening of personality in Paris since B'Elanna was assimilated. "If they do that," he reminded him, "they'll kill each other. And quite possibly our people with them." This information silenced the helmsman, and Chakotay once again turned his attention to everyone. "The question is how do we do it?"

"Normally it would just be a matter of dispersing a sedative like Nezandrizine into the ventilation systems," the Doctor offered. "But being Borg, that may not be enough."

All eyes fell on Seven. She returned their gazes, feeling slightly uncomfortable at the sudden scrutiny. She thought about it for a while, and then the solution came to her. "It is very possible that when the connection to the hive is severed, the vinculum will still be online, which means that the internal connections between drones will still exist. We could simply instruct them to sleep."

"Sleep?" This time it was Chakotay who echoed her.

She nodded. "The first Borg cube that traveled to Earth was incapacitated when the command to sleep was given through Locutus," she informed them. "It then self-destructed. A cube cannot function with all of its drones in regeneration cycles at the same time."

The first officer looked at her, and wanted to confirm, "So what you're saying is that once we do this, we will only have a few minutes to find our people and get them out?"

"Precisely."

"Wait a minute," Harry spoke up. "Can't we just instruct the drones that are already regenerating to stay there, and then put the rest to sleep with the sedative?"

Once again all eyes turned to Seven. She immediately said, "It might work."

Everyone gaped at her, wondering if that was really the best answer she could give them. Before anyone could say anything, the Doctor added, "The question is ... what do we do with them then?"

"What do you mean?" Tom asked, nervous about the answer.

"We are going to be faced with thousands of drones disconnected from the hive mind," the EMH explained. "It's a good bet that they will all react the same way Seven did. We can't just leave them all to die."

Though the thought crossed all of their minds, the Doctor was right. "Maybe if we can keep them incapacitated, it will also keep them in their current states," Harry suggested quietly. "If the cube doesn't blow up, that is." He squirmed under the sudden attention he was getting, being silently chastised for even suggesting the worst.

The first officer nodded and then ordered, "Get to work on incapacitating them first. We have to be ready the second that the connection to the hive is severed. Then we'll worry about whether or not we can save them. Dismissed." He watched everybody leave, then turned out to look at the unmoving stars as his thoughts took him over again. Even after her message the week before, his brooding took him through everything again, reliving every exchange, every word, and the way her eyes never left him as she headed for the turbolift. Just hang on, Kathryn, he silently whispered to the stars, we're coming to get you.

***

The Doctor ran his tricorder in a pattern encircling Seven's head, then tapped his communicator. "Doctor to Bridge."

"Go ahead, Doctor." The anxiety in Chakotay's voice was unmistakable.

"Commander, she's been disengaged from Unimatrix Zero," he reported, continuing to run his scans.

On the bridge, Chakotay's fingers instinctively curled around the arms on his chair. "Understood Doctor. Mr. Paris, set course for the cube, warp nine."

"Aye Sir." Paris tapped the instructions into the conn, a grim look setting into his features.

It set into everyone's features. This was it.

***

No sooner than Voyager had dropped out of warp, the cube opened fire. They started to lay down fire, aiming for the primary weapon and regeneration systems.

"I've located B'Elanna and Tuvok!" Harry shouted triumphantly over the din.

"Can you get a lock on them?"

Manipulating his controls, the ensign's grin broadened. "Yes sir."

"Beam them to Sickbay. Bridge to Sickbay."

"Sickbay here."

"Doctor, we've located Tuvok and Torres," Chakotay informed him. "You're going to have to do this without Tom." He turned to Parsons at Tactical, who nodded her response to him. "Security is on its way."

In Sickbay, the Doctor was already moving out of his office and into the tiny ward. "Understood, Commander," he responded, then moved on to call his medical volunteers in. The ship shuddered under another enemy shot, the deck lurching beneath them as the two drones materialized in the middle of the room. They stood facing each other, immediately starting to scan their new surroundings. "Doctor to bridge. We have them." Their biggest obstacle was severing them from the hive mind, which nearly didn't happen. But being skilled at what they were all doing, after five minutes it was done, and the pair were finally sedated.

They exchanged volleys for nearly half an hour before the cube's firepower suddenly turned off.

"Parsons?" Chakotay nearly shouted from the command seat.

The lieutenant at Tactical eagerly read through her scan results. "The cube is powering down," she reported quickly.

"Their link with the Collective has been severed," Seven reported from the aft station.

"Can you get a fix on the captain?" Chakotay questioned, turning to the tactical station.

Lieutenant Parsons shook her head. "Nothing yet, sir."

"The drones are starting to wake up," Harry called from his station. "The life sign readings are going through the roof!"

"How many are you counting?"

Kim studied his readouts for a few seconds, the information stunning him. "Four thousand ... five thousand ..." He looked up with wide eyes. "Six thousand and climbing."

Chakotay called up the information on his own console, his headache returning with the prospect of being faced with more than six thousand possibly angry and definitely disoriented drones. "Chakotay to the Doctor."

"Go ahead, Commander."

"Time to put everybody back to sleep," he ordered.

In Transporter Room Two, the Doctor, accompanied by full security and medical compliments, did a last minute check of their supplies. "We're on our way," he reported back to the bridge, stepping onto the pad and being surrounded by armed guards. "Energize," he told the technician.

The entire group materialized deep inside the cube, in the middle of a long stretch of regeneration alcoves. The drones were in various states of consciousness, some still in oblivion, some alert and definitely disoriented. He quickly surmised that with their implants and no controllable thought, they were in a dangerous situation. The second and third transports materialized only moments behind them, and the Doctor immediately spearheaded the move toward what passed for the Borg's environmental controls. Once there, he was able to distribute a sedative through the air at the same time that Seven planted her sleep command for those drones that were still stuck in their regeneration cycles.

The medical team scanned around their immediate area with tricorders, and after they reported back to the CMO he tapped his communicator. "Doctor to Voyager."

"Go ahead."

"The drones seem to have been incapacitated for the moment," the hologram reported, "but for how long, I can't tell you."

"Understood. You can start transporting your surgical cases as soon as needed."

"Yes sir." The Doctor instantly beamed back to Voyager, leaving the teams to set to work, each taking the drone nearest to them.

Back on Voyager, Chakotay's anxiety was rapidly building to a head. "Can you find her yet?" he snapped at Parsons.

She shook her head again. "No sir."

"There are so many human readings," Harry interrupted, "that there may be no way to tell one from the next." He watched his commander for a moment. "Now what do we do?"

"We go look for her ourselves." Chakotay leapt out of his chair and headed for the tactical station, now filled with a sense of purpose. "Lieutenant," he addressed Parsons, "organize search teams to start working through the cube. Use anyone that is not involved in repairs to this ship. Let me know as soon as they're ready to beam over."

He then blew past her and into the turbolift, the doors closing so quickly behind him that her response of, "Yes sir," was to open air and the remaining bridge crew. She exchanged glances with Harry before starting to organize the teams.

The first officer blew into Sickbay a few minutes later, his expression unreadable. "Report."

The Doctor was already busily engaged in removing the implants that ringed the back of B'Elanna's head, with Sam Wildman assisting him from the other side of the biobed. "They're going to be fine," he said hurriedly, wishing that the commander could have found some other place to be at the moment. On the other side of the ward, two more volunteers were working, through the Doctor's instructions, on Tuvok's outer implants. One of them called for the hologram, and he left some departing instructions with Sam before crossing the ward. "The plan worked," he continued, stopping to allow the crewman to explain what the problem was. Once he had rectified the problem, the Doctor took a few seconds to address the first officer properly. "We were lucky. The virus that we originally implanted in them to infect the central plexus also affected their regeneration technology. That's why we were able to beam then off the cube."

***

The search teams were spread thinly throughout the cube, which was now hanging dead in space. For the moment things seemed to be stable, and there were no indications of a self-destruct mechanism being activated. More than eighty of the Voyager crew had transported here, with tricorders in hand, on a desperate search to find their captain among the drones. Many forewent sleep and meals to continue. After all, they all knew that Janeway would have done the same thing for them.

Chakotay threaded his way through a block of regeneration alcoves, actively scanning each body he came across. After nearly nineteen hours, there were no further ahead than when they started. With each negative result, his heart sank a little more, and his frustration leapt another notch. Any hope of finding Kathryn was rapidly fading, but he couldn't give up. He wouldn't give up.

He had been in silence for an hour or so, having left the necessity of repair updates and injury lists to Harry Kim. Kim also continued his efforts from his Ops station, trying to refine his scans to locate a single human female. So the sound of a voice through his communicator made Chakotay jump out of his skin. "Voyager to Chakotay."

A rushed breath passed his lips, and with an inaudible groan he took his attention away from his tricorder. What now? "Go ahead, Harry."

"We found her, Commander." The ensign's relief was unmistakable. "She's been transported to Sickbay."

The news was overwhelming, almost enough to buckle Chakotay's knees under him. But somehow calmer thinking prevailed. "Acknowledged. Tell Parsons to start recalling the search teams. And I want a meeting of the senior staff in twenty minutes."

"Aye Sir. Kim out."

He tapped his communicator. "Chakotay to Sickbay. Do you have the captain?"

Samantha had to suppress a small grin when she saw the Doctor's holographic eyes roll up into his head. He was still making his initial assessment and diagnosis, and definitely did not need to be disturbed. "She's here, Commander," he answered sharply. "I'll let you know as soon as I have something. Sickbay out."

Chakotay was stunned for a moment, then slowly shook his head as he folded his tricorder shut. He should have known better. If there was one thing that he was sure of concerning the doctor it was that, his medical responsibilities aside, he had an unwavering and protective attitude toward her. An attitude that a lot of people shared.

He signaled for his own beam out. Now that they had succeeded, they had to figure out the next step.

***

This meeting was emotionally charged, each person demonstrating a great deal of restraint in the intent of functioning smoothly. Tom's mood had lightened considerably since B'Elanna's return to the ship, but until she could speak to him he was still quite uneasy. Chakotay, after having been summarily dismissed by the Doctor, was deep into his own brooding. Neelix was running himself ragged, trying to make sure that everyone's fears were being appeased and needs being met when their duties didn't permit leaving their posts. Harry was fighting overwhelming exhaustion, having refused to leave the bridge until the captain was back on board. Joe Carey was silent, having been too busy in Engineering to have attended the first meeting and nervous to be here now. Parsons was a little unsure of what to think, still not adjusted to filling in for Tuvok at these meetings. At least I know now that it's only filling in, she reminded herself.

The only person who didn't show any real signs of stress was Seven of Nine. The unflappable woman merely sat back and regarded those around her, not missing the educational aspect of the situation. She had always thought of humans as weak, never including herself with them. But the events of the past two days proved that these people were indeed strong, stronger than the Borg would have given them credit for.

"What's the status of the cube?" Chakotay finally said, pacing behind the chair that Janeway usually occupied. He didn't dare sit down – if he did, he'd be asleep.

"There's no signs of regeneration in the central plexus or the vinculum," Parsons reported instantly, still sounding a bit overanxious. The result of her recent promotion to bridge officer. "All systems appear to be powered down and stable."

"Any sign of other Borg activity?"

"None," Kim added, desperately trying to hide his yawn.

"That doesn't mean that there won't be," Seven reminded them. "We must remember that we only know for certain that this cube has been disengaged from the Collective. And that Unimatrix Zero has disappeared."

They all looked to each other for a moments, silence filling the space between them. "So now that we have this cube, what do we do with it?" Tom mused.

"Is there any way to access their transwarp technology?" Chakotay directed at Seven. "Can we access it in order to make Voyager travel at transwarp?"

"I will have to investigate," she replied.

Suddenly an idea popped into Carey's head. "What if we did one better," he offered.

"What do you mean?" the executive officer questioned, his curiosity piqued.

Torres' second in command lit up when he said, "What if we used the cube itself?" he said, his excitement building. The looks he got were ones of pure shock, so he explained his logic. "The last time we tried to open a transwarp conduit, we ended up dumping the core," he reminded them all. "Think about it. The cube was constructed and designed with transwarp flight in mind."

"So in other words, steal the cube," Tom mumbled, slowly warming to the idea.

Every other person in the room had the same reaction, but it was pretty obvious that the possibility was worth the effort it would take to find out. Chakotay had been blind-sided by the idea, but had to admit that it did have merit. He thought about it for a minute, then finally said, "Carey, you and Seven get to work and see if it's still possible to go to transwarp." A collective sigh filled the room, then everybody was dismissed to get started.

***

Chakotay sat in his chair in the bridge, rigid. He had forced himself to stay here and concentrate on the work at hand. The Doctor would have thrown him right back out of Sickbay. Besides, they had a newly acquired Borg cube to secure.

He worked hard to keep his mind occupied, and hours had flown past when the Doctor finally summoned him. He strode into Sickbay, immediately seeing Tuvok and B'Elanna recouperating in the biobeds on the left hand side. Their implants were gone, a few replaced by dermal regeneration patches, and their skin had reverted back to its normal color. Chakotay noted their progress in his mind, then looked around for the EMH. He found him in the surgical bay, standing over their latest recovery.

The sight of her nearly stopped his heart. He knew that she would still be in the form of a drone, but on his way back to Voyager his exhausted imagination had envisioned Kathryn, whole and restored. He hadn't seen her since her return, and it took everything he had to start breathing again. "Report," he said stiffly, trying to get himself back into order.

The Doctor shook his head. "It looks like the queen found a way to exact some chaos of her own." He directed Chakotay to the medical console to show him his findings. "She has been infected with a very specific virus, one that I believe was designed particularly for her."

"Another virus? Is that what kept us from locating her with sensors?"

"Most likely. It was triggered when I tried to remove the first Borg implant, and it collapsed her autonomic nervous system. She's on life support for now. So far I have not been able to find an anti-viral agent that will counteract the effects." He paused, watching as the first officer's eyes wandered up from the screen to stare at the drone in the surgical bay. "Commander?"

Despite appearances, Chakotay was still listening to the medical report. Acutely. "How do we proceed?" he questioned.

"That's the problem."

Chakotay turned toward him, now giving the doctor his undivided attention. His lips pressed into a tight line, effectively hiding the nervousness that was permeating his entire body. The Doctor continued with, "I am at a loss. But we also have another problem - her human physiology is already starting to reassert itself. I am reluctant to remove the implants until the virus is eradicated, but if I don't start removing the implants soon, they will kill her."

The key word hit him like a ton of bricks, and Chakotay's eyes immediately flicked back over to the drone. "What do you suggest?"

"Perhaps there is some information in the cube's database that could provide us with a cure," the hologram suggested.

The other nodded. "Give your findings to Seven of Nine so she can access the Borg database."

"Aye sir." The doctor headed into his office.

He left Chakotay standing in the middle of Sickbay, with no distractions to keep him from her. Caution filled his steps as he walked over to the biobed, apprehension filling him. The first sight of her had stopped him cold, now he wasn't sure what to think. He still couldn't figure out why he hadn't expected to see a drone when he came in - for some reason he had been hoping that she would be Kathryn again before he got there. Or that she would be conscious at the very least. But she lay silent, the rise and fall of her chest the only indication that she was indeed alive.

Silence filled the surgical bay as he finally reached her side. He wanted to touch her, wanted to somehow assure himself that it was indeed Kathryn Janeway under all that technology. Her skin was ashen, invaded by implant after implant scattered among the dark gray lines that streaked through her complexion. The implant that the doctor had tried to remove before was one of the tubes that had been burrowed down into her skull, and it uselessly lay on the mattress beside her head. There was no movement under her eyelids – nothing to let him know that it was actually her.

"Kathryn..." He breathed her name after a long, hard look at her. She remained infuriatingly still, his desperate eyes trying to see some movement in her. "I know you're in there somewhere," he reminded her softly. The only thought in his head was that she may still die, may still succumb to the Borg. And to Chakotay, that was simply unacceptable. "I don't know if you can hear me," he whispered, "but I want you to remember something." His hand lifted from the cool surface of the medical scanner to cradle her cheek, and he told her, "I'm not ready to let you go yet."

It was then that Kathryn reappeared for a brief second, unconsciously nestling her cheek into his palm. The movement tore a gasp from him, but he didn't pull away. He waited for a few moments to see if she would surface again, but she slipped back into the drone she had been only seconds earlier. At least he knew now. She wanted to come back to him. Chakotay found himself smiling down at her assimilated face, and he gently brushed his thumb across her cheekbone before quickly turning around and leaving Sickbay.

The Doctor released both B'Elanna and Tuvok a few hours later, advising both to take some time off. Tuvok did, retreating to his quarters for some necessary meditation and rest before resuming his duties. Torres, on the other hand, decided that she needed neither sleep or reflection at the moment, and instead fearlessly turned her energies to helping secure the Borg cube. She would not allow herself to cower from memories of her own assimilation. They had an advantage now – a chance to get home, and the Borg be damned. It had taken her only long enough to have a quick sonic shower, get into a fresh uniform, and unconditionally dismiss both Tom and Chakotay's protests before she was back on the cube.

At around that time the Doctor paged the first officer back to Sickbay. Chakotay strode into the office, his brow furrowed. "Status, Doctor?"

The EMH looked back from the wall console when the other man entered. "Seven's new anti-virus appears to be working," he announced, gesturing for Chakotay to join him. He pointed out the readings as he explained them. "So far, the viral levels are dropping at a rate of five percent per hour. And I believe that once it drops below forty-five percent I will be able to start removing her implants."

Chakotay nodded, some relief creeping into his expression. "Prognosis?"

"Guarded," the Doctor confirmed, "but optimistic. It will take time, but I believe the captain will make a full physical recovery." He could see that the meaning of his words were not lost on Voyager's first officer. "She's drifting in and out of consciousness. It would be helpful to her if she saw a friendly face when she comes to again."

Chakotay blinked – the doctor had read his mind. But he was torn. Kathryn hated that kind of sentimentality, especially when it was directed at her. If it was him in the bed, she wouldn't be able to do it, partly to maintain her position and partly to keep herself busily distracted. He knew his place was by her side, and he also knew that this was only the beginning of a new shift in their relationship. It was small, but he hoped that the gesture would be a help to her. So he nodded his acquiescence to the Doctor, and settled himself into a chair to wait at her bedside.

Hours later, Kathryn's eyes started to slowly open. The first thing she saw was the dimmed lights in the ceiling, barely illuminating the sculpted bulkheads above her. She was completely calm, very aware of where she was before even waking up. She knew that if there was a problem with her, she would now be flanked by the Doctor and Tom Paris. Taking comfort in that fact, she allowed her eyes to slowly scan the room.

Her eyes wandered lazily, seeing the soft light that shone through the window of the office. But she sensed a presence beside her, and her head carefully turned toward her right. He was asleep at her side, his head resting on the arms that he had folded over the edge of the bed. She could see his face, peaceful in slumber, and she couldn't help but wonder what was drifting through his dreams. A small smile played at the corner of her mouth, and she lifted a heavy hand to rest it in his hair. Her thumb rubbed at the curve of his ear, but only for a second or two before she fell asleep again.

B'Elanna Torres strode into Sickbay a while later, her face covered with grime and a wide grin. The sight that greeted her stopped her just inside the door, and she took a moment to take it in. Both Chakotay and the captain were asleep, her hand resting on his head. It was something that made her heart skip a beat, something that she had wished would happen for years. And it was something that she hated to break up. But they had work to do. So she carefully stepped up and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Chakotay?"

He awoke with a slight jump, momentarily startled by the fact that his left eye was partially covered. But then he remembered where he was, and as he took Kathryn's hand into his he smiled sheepishly at Torres. "What's your status?" he questioned, his voice thick with sleep.

"We're just about ready," she reported, her hands rubbing together to alleviate some of her excitement. "The cube is in good shape, you didn't manage to inflict too much damage on it. We should be able to take over its operations in about two days. And Seven is sure that it will be capable of transwarp."

"Any signs of transwarp conduits or Borg activity?"

"Other than ours, none."

He nodded, taking a deep breath. "Well, let's get to work on getting control over those systems. If no one comes to bother us, I'd like to wait until the captain is back in one piece before we set off." His gaze turned back to his friend, whose hand he was still tightly clutching.

"Actually, that's why I came. Tom and I wanted you to look over some of the specifications for the conn link. And you didn't answer when I called you." B'Elanna rested her hand on his shoulder again, moving a step closer to take a look at the patient. "She's going to be fine, Chakotay," she reassured him, her hand rubbing across his shoulder blade. "She's going to be very happy with what's you've done here."

"What we've done." He turned back to her, reaching his free hand up to her. "Are you okay, B'Ella?" he asked, squeezing her hand tightly.

She nodded. "I will be." Torres looked at him, struggling with the words that she wanted to say. An inward curse filled her thoughts – she had always been lousy at this part, even though Tom assured her she was getting better at it. "Thanks," she told him softly, "for coming to get us."

Chakotay didn't say anything, just merely nodding his response. He leant down and whispered in Kathryn's ear, "I'll be back soon, Love." Then he carefully laid her hand down on her torso and followed Torres out of Sickbay.

***

"Sickbay to Commander Chakotay."

The amount of anxiety the first officer felt with that call had slowly managed to lessen each time he heard it. This time he was heavily embroiled in the salvage operation, helping establish the links that would allow Voyager to take control of the cube's primary systems. "Go ahead, Doctor," he answered, instinctively looking up into the air.

"Can you come down here?" The EMH gave no other explanation.

Chakotay nodded, a frown furrowing his brow as he replied, "I'm on my way." He turned to leave, feeling B'Elanna's hand on his arm to reassure him. A tired smile was his response. He then headed down to Deck Five as fast as his legs and the turbolift would carry him, making him a little out of breath when he reached his destination. The Doctor was at Janeway's bedside, running a tricorder across her newly restored body. Turning at the sound of the doors, Chakotay could see the smile on his face. "Doctor?" the commander simply requested.

"The virus has been eradicated, and the captain's implants have now been removed." The Doctor glanced down at the tricorder readings before quietly closing it and stepping toward Chakotay. "I want to keep her here for a couple of days for observation." The other nodded his approval, but the Doctor felt the need to add, "I'm going to need a little help convincing her of that." This prompted a full fledged smile from Chakotay, the first that he had felt in more than a month. "She's asleep now, but I thought you might like to be here to wake her up," the Doctor continued. "She seems to respond better to you."

"Alright," Chakotay finally said, laughter filtering into his voice as he effectively cut the EMH off. He stepped up to the right side of her bed, taking her hand into his and leaning down to whisper, "Kathryn?" She stirred, but her eyes remained closed. "Kathryn?" he tried again. "You in there?"

Much like the last time, she was aware of who was surrounding her even before she realized she was awake. Her eyes opened slowly, immediately coming to rest on her friend. She licked her lips, and with a cracked voice whispered, "Hi..."

"Hi yourself," he replied, his smile broad and the furrow finally gone from his forehead. "How are you feeling?"

It took a minute for Janeway to answer him - she had to take stock and see how her body responded. Finally she simply said, "Tired."

"That's to be expected," the Doctor informed her from his place on the opposite side of the bed. "You've been through a lot, Captain."

"You're going to have to stay here a couple of days," Chakotay added.

She absorbed that bit of information and then asked, "The Borg?"

He mentally shook his head. She was never going to change. "Deactivated," he told her. "The hive seems to have stopped functioning. And Unimatrix Zero has disappeared."

Kathryn paused again, for the first time listening for the myriad of voices she had become so accustomed to. Only silence greeted her expectations, and she sighed a little. "Good."

Chakotay looked up at the EMH, who nodded. "You can stay as long as you like." And with that, he collected his medkit and headed down to the cargo bay, which had been turned into a ward for the recovering drones.

The first officer watched him leave, then turned his attention back to his captain. Her skin had returned to its former ivory complexion, and her reddish-brown hair had started growing back on its own. The Doctor would stimulate it later, but for now it sparsely covered her head. There was a large, oddly shaped dermal regeneration patch on the front right side of her head and one on the back of her neck, but other than that she seemed whole to him. Her grip on his hand was strong, and Chakotay found it reassuring. He didn't realize that he'd been staring until he felt a squeeze on his fingers. "Sorry," he whispered, his grin turning self-conscious. "I've missed you."

"Me too." Her eyes slid closed, but he knew that she wasn't asleep.

"I have some good news," he told her softly. "We're securing the cube that you were on. Seven and B'Elanna are working on taking over its systems. When it's done, we may have just found ourselves a way home."

She looked at him, and he saw a familiar glimmer of hope pass through her. "Home?" she repeated, unbelieving as she lifted her head slightly.

He nodded. "We can use the transwarp technology to get back to Earth."

Her head fell back against the pillow, her eyes closing again. "Earth..." she murmured, her tired mind wrapping around the information he had just provided. After a while she squeezed his hand again, and without looking said, "You're too good to me."

"Well somebody has to take care of you."

The slight, tired smile played at her lips again, and her eyes opened halfway to look at him when she whispered, "I love you."

Though she was exhausted, she knew exactly what she was saying, and she wouldn't have missed his reaction for anything. Chakotay didn't disappoint her either. Even though he had heard her say it in her message, his jaw still dropped. If she hadn't still been examining his face, he would have been sure that she had spoken the words out of some delirium. He knew that she was serious, that she would remember saying it when she was fully recovered ... and that she absolutely meant it.

Kathryn pulled her hand from his and reached upward, barely touching the skin of his jaw before her shaking arm dropped back to the biobed. He picked the hand up again, but this time he reached forward to caress her cheek in his hand, just as he had the first time he'd seen her in Sickbay. "I love you," he assured her, "more than anything."

Satisfied now, she let sleep overcome her again. He stayed there until B'Elanna called him again for help with the transition of the Borg systems.

***

The senior staff were all assembled on the bridge, nervously awaiting the return of their commanding officer. She made her appearance a few minutes after 0800, wanting to make them sweat a little. The Doctor had accompanied her in the turbolift, making sure that she was indeed going to survive this non-recommended trip. He had told her repeatedly that she was supposed to be resting. She in turn had told him that rest could wait – they were about to start on the last leg of their journey home, and there was only one place on this ship she should be. Chakotay had fully briefed her on the situation, and told her they were ready. With that she returned to her quarters to get herself arranged before allowing him to travel to the bridge with her.

Tuvok called, "Captain on the bridge," when the turbolift doors opened.

She took enough steps out to let the hologram step up behind her, and she surveyed everything. It was battle-scarred, with some conduits that were still in the process of being repaired, and a large burn mark across the bulkhead on the right side of the viewscreen. But all in all, it was intact, and it was home.

All of the crew were at their stations, facing her at attention as they waited for her to speak. They could see the reaction in her, her eyes lit up and her posture lifted as soon as she returned to her bridge. "It's good to see you all," she finally said, quickly traveling down the steps that would lead her to the command centre. To Chakotay she questioned, "What's our status?"

"All systems are ready and integrated, all preparations in the cube are complete." He grinned at her. "We're ready whenever you are."

She nodded, then felt a surge of responsibility and energy pulse through her body when she settled down into the command chair. This was her place – it always had been – and she lived for this job. "Very well. Mr. Paris, take us into the hangar."

"Aye Captain." Paris resumed his station, as did everyone else. With the experience that his captain trusted implicitly, he turned the ship and headed her toward the opening in the cube's hull. A slight jolt shook them when the docking forcefields took hold of Voyager, gracefully suspending it in the middle of the vast cavern. "We're docked," he announced, unable to keep the smile off his face.

"Transfer all of the cube's systems to Voyager," Chakotay added, unable to keep his eyes off his captain. He wanted to see her reaction, wanted to know that she truly believed they were on their way.

One by one, each station acknowledged the receipt of control from the Borg systems they had integrated into Voyager. Seven stood behind the command centre, making sure that all the translations from the Borg algorithms and language were functioning flawlessly. When she was satisfied, they were ready. The image of the cavern disappeared from the viewscreen, replaced by a clear starfield that was being relayed from the newly placed sensors on the cube's outer hull.

Janeway nodded. She looked over at Chakotay, who she knew had been keeping his eye on her. "Open the transwarp conduit," she ordered, her eyes locking with his. The screen filled with a slight green glow, and when the conduit was open she told the helmsman, "Take us home, Mr. Paris."

"Yes ma'am." The cube moved into the conduit, then took off toward the alpha quadrant.

***

Later on, Captain Janeway was in her ready room, standing in front of the windows that usually allowed her to see out into space. It was a strange sight, staring at the inside of the cube, to say the least. To any other starship captain it would have been unnerving, even terrifying. But for one of the lucky who had been saved from the Collective, it was oddly calming - only because she knew that she had complete control over it.

When Chakotay told her that they had secured the cube and that they would be able to use its transwarp technology, she thought she was hallucinating. But he worked hard to convince her that it was indeed true, and along with Tuvok's help, her fragmented memories as a drone started to clear. She remembered functioning during the battle against Voyager, remembered hearing the voice of the others, oblivious to the attempt at her own rescue by her crew. Most of all, she remembered the moment that the all of the individuals' conscious thoughts entered the Collective. It instantly created chaos, overloading drones and disabling the queen. The unfortunate result of the destruction of the hive was that there were thousands of drones that were suddenly without the structure that maintained their bodies, and the hurriedly expanded medical team from Voyager could only work so fast. They had only managed to save two dozen before their implants killed the rest.

Her musings were broken when the door chime sounded. "Come in," she answered automatically. She didn't turn, but saw who it was by their reflection in the window. "Are you checking up on me?" Her question was laced with the sarcasm that had become standard when discussing her own medical condition.

Chakotay stopped at the base of the step, the same place he had been when she announced her intentions of helping the members of Unimatrix Zero. But this time, he couldn't help but smile. "I went back and checked the directives from Starfleet Command – it's actually in my job description."

She laughed a small laugh, glancing briefly over her shoulder at him before turning her attention back to the inside of the cube. He moved up to take his place beside her, following her eyes out into the cavern that surrounded the ship. "How are our new passengers?" she questioned.

"Stable," he reported. "The Doctor says that they should start coming around within the next few hours. And it sounds like they will probably have just as hard a time readjusting as Seven did. There's no way to know how long ago they were assimilated."

Her words were soft, barely audible when she confessed, "I don't envy them what they're about to go through."

A long pause settled between them, both of them staring back out through the windows. Chakotay unconsciously lifted his right arm and wrapped it loosely around her shoulders to soothe her uneasiness. Her instinctive response was to lean in against his shoulder, though her arms remained folded across her chest. His other hand came to rest on her left bicep, effectively surrounding her. Kathryn reveled in his presence, completely devoid of any of the usual thoughts of protocol and parameters. He was the most important thing in her life - she finally admitted that to herself, and to him, when she had reached for his hand on the bridge five weeks ago. He had calmed her, centering her on the task at hand before letting her go to do what she had to.

Chakotay let his eyes slide closed, sighing when he felt the top of her head rest against his jaw. There was something calming and peaceful about the moment, one that he certainly hadn't seen in the four years since New Earth. He was unsure of what was going to happen next, but was incredibly thankful that he had been given the chance to find out. After a while he whispered, "You never mentioned my surprise. I like to at least have my gifts acknowledged, Kathryn."

She smiled, lifting her palm off her own arm to link her fingers with the hand at her elbow. "A Borg cube? Now there's something that nobody's ever thought to give me before. When I told you to surprise me, this isn't exactly what I had in mind."

"Well it wasn't easy," he murmured to her, his lips close to her ear as he tightened his hold around her. "I had to get everybody's help."

Chakotay chuckled behind her, and now she turned in his arms to look up at him. He lifted her hand to his chest, placing it flat down over his heart before covering it with his own. She looked up into his eyes, her voice barely a whisper. "After all these years of searching to find a way home, all I had to do was look to you to find it."

His gaze softened even more, a small smile playing at his lips. "I ran out of time to get the carpets cleaned – this was the best that I could do."

Their eyes locked, and he just knew that the time was right. A hand reached up to tuck the hair back behind her ear, and he leaned down to gently kiss her. It was soft, one that both approached with the careful passion that the other had fully expected. She felt him pull her closer, his fingers still resting in the hair over her ear. Her hand climbed up from his chest to wrap around his neck, the other wrapping around his back to hold him.

When they parted and pulled away a little, they discovered that there were tears in the other's eyes. Chakotay pulled her tight against him, stroking her hair as he rested his cheek against her head. She in turn laid her ear against his collarbone, burying her face in his neck. Both shed the odd silent tear, but their embrace relayed all the emotion coursing through them. "I never thought I'd see you again," he confessed, rocking her a little as he held her. "You scared the hell out of me."

"When we were watching the battle from the Delta Flyer," she murmured, "all I could think about what whether or not I was ever going to see you again." With their close contact came the freedom to admit, "I was so scared for you. And then when we were on the cube, I was terrified ... for me..." Her voice trailed off, choked by the emotions that constricted her throat.

He pulled her even tighter to him, kissing the top of her head and reassuring her, "It's okay, Love. You're safe now..." Chakotay felt the slight woman shudder in his arms, and he knew that she could no longer hold her tears back. It left him at a momentary loss – he had never seen her cry like this. The odd time she had shed a tear or two when listening to the Doctor sing opera, or at the memorial service of a lost crew member. But even then, her captain's demeanor had been so tightly secured that she would never allow any more than that, and she was usually embarrassed that she had shown that much loss of control. He carefully guided her to the couch, never breaking his connection with her, and consoled her as her barriers crumbled.

Kathryn didn't even realize that she was sobbing, only that it was something that was consuming everything she was. The work with Tuvok had brought order to the shards of memories that had confused her, but that was the only positive thing it had done. She was ridded with guilt and couldn't even begin to explain why. Kathryn finally stopped trying to explain it and just gave in.

He didn't say a word – he was still somewhat stunned by the sudden emotional upheaval, on both their parts. Sadness drifted through him as he wondered whether or not the kiss they had just shared would help or hurt their relationship. She obviously had not even dealt with the instability that had become her life in the past two days. She couldn't have been thinking straight. His eyes closed, and he shook his head a tiny bit when he realized how selfish the thought was. Just be here for her now, he scolded himself. You'll work the rest out later.

After a long while her shuddering ceased, evening out into a calm, regular breathing pattern. When she returned to some semblance of peace, he noticed with a flicker of amusement that she had fallen fast asleep against him. Chakotay smiled. As usual, she hadn't slept since her departure from Sickbay that morning. It was only noon, but the excitement of starting their trip home, combined with the exhaustion that permeated her still-recovering body, overwhelmed her and forced her to rest. He continued to hold her, not wanting to disturb her.

An hour later, just as Chakotay was himself nodding off, the silence was broken by a call over the comm. "Sickbay to Captain Janeway."

He started, a rush of adrenaline surging through his body. Then he remembered where he was, and was a little surprised when he looked down to see that Kathryn was still asleep in his arms. A quick sigh escaped his lips, and he looked up into the air as he quietly called, "Chakotay here."

"Where is Captain Janeway?" the Doctor questioned, somewhat annoyed that the subject of his communication hadn't answered herself. "She was supposed to report to Sickbay half an hour ago."

Chakotay glanced down at her, the corner of his lips curling into a smile. "She's asleep."

There was a distinct pause on the other end of the line. The fact that she was actually resting took a moment to sink in on the Doctor. "Asleep ... very good. Commander, please make sure that the captain reports here when she wakes up."

"Of course, Doctor."

"Sickbay out."

"Checking up on me again?"

He lowered his head even further, now seeing that she was smiling, her eyes still closed. "Part of my job, remember?" he softly reminded her.

"You worry about me too much."

"I don't have a choice."

She slowly raised her head, her eyes barely open as she looked up at him through the rapid onset of her headache. "I don't like you to worry," she whispered.

He smiled a bit more, tucking the hair back behind her ear again. "Then stop making me do it, Kathryn."

Any doubts he had about their kiss evaporated when she pushed herself up to kiss him again. And when she was done she breathed, "I love you."

His eyes slid shut, letting her words wrap around him and settle into his consciousness. An outstretched hand was his response, and she wordlessly folded her fingers into his. His eyes opened at her touch, and he leaned down to kiss her once more.

"Now that's more like it."

The pair both jumped at the sound of Q's voice, finding that he had appeared at the bottom of the step. "What are you doing here?" she quietly demanded, trying to cover as much of her exhaustion as she could.

"Relax, Madame Captain, I'm not planning on staying," Q assured her, raising an appeasing hand. "I just wanted to check up on you."

Chakotay's head bowed as he grinned. Her eyes slid shut, biting off the sarcastic remark that was at the forefront of her mind, and instead simply stated, "I'm fine, Q."

He regarded her for a second before commenting, "Yes, I supposed you are, aren't you." Then he turned his attention on the first officer that was still seated next to her. "I'm impressed, Chakotay. Destroy the Borg, and get yourselves a way home at the same time? It's ingenious for someone of your lower species."

"Thank you." Sometimes the easiest way to deflate your irritator was to simply humor him.

Q did a double take at Chakotay, then clapped his hands together in front of him. "Well Kathy, I'll be going now. Just wanted to make sure you're alright. But I'll be back..." He snapped his fingers and was gone, leaving the command team to stare at the space he had just occupied.

Kathryn sighed, her hand instinctively raising to try to rub the headache out of her temple. "Great. That's all I need." She looked to her first officer. "You put him up to it, right? How many other people are going to be checking up on me, Chakotay?"

He chuckled again. "As many as it takes, Kathryn." Chakotay looked at her for a moment or two, just taking her in. "You ready to go to Sickbay?" he eventually asked.

Kathryn shook her head. "Not just yet. The Doctor will be ecstatic if he thinks I've gotten this much sleep."

Chakotay laughed, pulling her close to him as he settled back into the couch. "I love you, Kathryn," he murmured, kissing the top of her head.

They eventually both fell asleep, and were left there undisturbed until late in the afternoon.

Go to the sequel – As Promised

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