It wasn't even 0400 hours when Seven woke. Her portable regeneration unit clicked off, letting her return to consciousness. Her eyes snapped open. As usual, there was a half second of disorientation as she stared up at the ceiling and worked out where she was.
Another body moved beside her. It was larger, warmer, and hairier.
Seven smiled and turned to look at her sleeping husband. His chest rose and fell evenly, deeply. As he was so deeply asleep, Seven didn't need to be too careful as she rose and went to the bathroom. Chakotay didn't even flinch as the bathroom light flicked on.
It didn't take long for Seven to shower and dress. She exited the bathroom a half hour later, pulling a crewman's jacket on. After a quick breakfast, she went to grab her bag of clothing for her trip.
She paused at the doorway, watching Chakotay with a tiny smile. His breathing sped up as she did, sensing eyes watching him.
"Morning," he mumbled, peeking at her.
Seven came over to the bed and leaned down to brush her lips against his. He surprised her by grabbing her around the waist. Seven laughed as she fell down to the bed, nestled in Chakotay's arms. He was pleasantly warm. "Good morning."
"You weren't going to leave me here all alone, were you?" Chakotay asked. His eyes were bright in the light filtering in from the bathroom.
Seven shook her head, all innocence. "I wasn't planning on it, but the Captain might be upset if I ignore my duties."
He lowered his lips to whisper in her ear, gratified when she trembled in his arms. "Maybe we'll just tell her you slept in." He nibbled at her neck, teasing enough that Seven's breathing became erratic.
"I don't think -" Seven gasped as his teeth grazed a sensitive spot "- anyone would believe that."
"I don't care." Chakotay rolled to cover his wife, whose smile widened. He kissed her, running his hand up and down her body. He could have stayed there all morning, but they both had responsibilities. He knew when it was time for Seven to go. She sighed and pulled away from him, reluctance in every motion.
"Raincheck?" Seven asked.
Chakotay smiled. "As soon as you get home," he promised. He rolled off her and snatched at his uniform on the chair beside the bed. "I'll walk you to the shuttle bay."
"You don't need to. Go back to sleep."
But Chakotay was already half dressed. He gave Seven a quick kiss then pulled his shirt on. "I want to."
Seven grabbed her bag and together they left their living quarters. Chakotay put an arm around her waist, keeping her close.
In the shuttle bay, they were greeted by B'Elanna, who was wishing her own family farewell, Crewman Urik, a recent addition to the crew who joined them through a marriage, and Crewman Tal Celes. Her goodbyes were already done and she'd put her things away on the shuttle. Still of a nervous disposition when it came to working around superiors, she had arrived an hour early.
Seven set her bag in a corner of the sleeping quarters on the Delta Flyer and returned outside to say goodbye. She wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him close as they kissed. A polite cough from behind interrupted.
B'Elanna smirked as Chakotay glared at her, all in good humour. "Are you coming or not?"
"Well, I don't know," Chakotay said before Seven could reply. "I haven't packed or anything."
Seven and B'Elanna laughed at his serious expression.
"I'll be right there," said Seven. She turned back to Chakotay as B'Elanna returned to the shuttle.
"What do you want for dinner when you get back?"
"I don't know, but I know what I want after." She kissed him once more. He held her in place for a few extra seconds then let her go. She jumped into the shuttle with a cheerful wave.
The away team found luck not even an hour into their mission.
"There's a Class M planet two light years away," said Seven.
When they came to the blue-green planet, they exchanged happy smiles. It wasn't often they got to see such a clear reminder of home and such an easy assignment in one day.
"Got any good places to land?" B'Elanna asked as they flew lower over a green continent. The large, green mass of land looked beautiful from above, but the trees hid the underlying terrain well.
"Stand by. I'm having difficulty getting a clear reading from some areas."
"What's causing it?"
"I can't tell. Sensors can't get through, but I'm not detecting anything to suggest anyone is down there."
"A natural source," Urik said.
Seven had to readjust their sensors and work around the blind spots for a few minutes, but eventually found something promising. "The tectonic plates on this planet aren't perfectly stable, but we should be safe if we stay on the lee side of the mountains."
B'Elanna nodded and set in a course.
"There's a clearing in the trees three kilometres away."
B'Elanna stepped out of the Delta Flyer and looked around, tricorder already beeping excitedly. They'd landed on a relatively flat section of a mountain. Besides their clearing where only tall grass could grow in the shallow dirt, everything else for miles around was dense jungle and steep hills. It would be rough terrain, but they didn't intend to cover the whole forest in their short stay.
"Anything interesting?" Urik asked as he exited behind her. He squinted in the bright sun, his greyish skin seeming almost white.
"Lots of plant and animal life." She paused, running her tricorder over a wider range. "Seven is right. There's strong interference all over the place. If I didn't know better, I'd say it's a cloaking device."
In the imposing mountain range a volcano rumbled. A plume of black smoke rose and dissipated with the higher winds.
"Anything we should be worried about?" Celes asked, appearing at the shuttle door. Celes handed Seven a specimen container, which she passed down to Urik.
"I'm not detecting any large animals, just birds and insects." B'Elanna paused as her tricorder vocalized an anomaly.
Celes and Seven unloaded three more specimen containers.
"There's something interfering with my readings." B'Elanna tapped the controls. "There seems to be some sort of natural interference coming from the rocks." She nodded to a set of steely blue boulders not too far from them. Beyond those and a curtain of trees, waterfalls and denser jungle marked the steeper incline of the rising mountain. "It's not everywhere though."
"We'll have to use pattern enhancers to transport the containers to the Delta Flyer," said Seven, her own tricorder out.
B'Elanna nodded. "We're too close to the interference to use them for anything larger than a cargo container."
"Tastes like peppermint." Urik swallowed the herb and made a face. "It's strong, but if Chell waters it down, it should taste just fine."
Urik and Seven were on a craggy edge that sloped down into a green valley. They were both waist-deep in shrubs and grasses. In front of them, great mountains covered the brightest rays of the sun. They were all volcanic, some active and some merely dormant. A dense forest took up the rest of the landscape around the clearing. It was a view few people would or could see. Seven and Urik were lucky enough to possess strength and agility beyond their human companions, which had allowed them to climb down the treacherous cliff.
"What is its nutritional value?" Seven asked from where she crouched in a bed of fern-like plants. The roots of the adult specimens contained a vast amount of protein and amino acids.
"Vitamins, minerals... pretty healthy little plant actually." His greyish skin grew a pinkish hue with his pleasure. He tucked the plant into a container and removed a few more.
Seven nodded to herself, already studying a new species. "Even the grass has high nutritional value."
Another volcano grumbled in the distance. Seven aimed her tricorder in the direction of the sound, but couldn't get a reading. She frowned and snapped her tricorder shut. It was too frustrating. Pausing, she remembered a trick Chakotay had shown her while on their honeymoon.
Seven leaned over and splayed a hand on the ground. She closed her eyes and put her other hand about a foot head of the other and waited.
The volcano rumbled again.
Seven felt the subtle undulation of the ground and smiled.
"What are you doing?" Urik asked, watching Seven curiously.
"I was curious about the magnitude of the eruption." She nodded towards the rising smoke.
"I'm not as good at it as Chakotay." They laughed.
Seven grew sober and looked around again.
"What is it?" Urik asked, tasting a piece of bark he'd stripped from a nearby bush. Seven had to smother her amusement at the sight. Were he crouched he would have looked much like a large ape.
"We haven't seen one predatory species."
"So?" Urik gathered the containers they'd filled and set them down in a group together. "Isn't that good for us?"
Seven nodded, but her frown remained. "Yes."
"So what's the problem?" He tapped in a command to his tricorder and their containers disappeared from the ring of pattern enhancers, replaced with new ones.
"It seems unusual that a planet this fertile would be devoid of complex life."
"I take it you don't mean animals."
"Not every M Class planet has humanoid species. Maybe no one else has bothered to come out this way before."
"Perhaps," Seven agreed, but she still cast a wary glance around. There was nothing but the wind and a distant rumble from one of the volcanos. She had no explanation for it, but every nerve in her body told her something bad was coming. Perhaps it was the knowledge that there were large plots of land they couldn't properly scan.
B'Elanna and Celes found the same abundance of food that Seven and Urik did. Because they wandered downhill, they also found numerous traces of minerals Voyager was in need of. The sources would be higher up as what they were able to detect was only the result of erosion and glacial deposits, but it was still very promising.
"We need to get Voyager here," said B'Elanna as she read her tricorder. "If I could have a month on this planet, I could tune Voyager up so well you'd think she never left dock."
"You think it's that good?" Celes looked around the mossy forest. The rocks beneath her feet didn't seem that impressive, but then again, she had no idea what was in them. She pulled out her own instrument, but B'Elanna was already on the move. "Hey, wait!" Celes called, jogging to catch up. "Are we heading back already?"
B'Elanna nodded and continued on. "There's no way we'll be able to carry everything back. I might not get a full tune-up, but if I can get some of these materials mined, we'll be set for at least another year, maybe more."
Seven couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. Urik said she was imagining things. Their tricorders didn't pick up any signs of complex life besides birds and rodents. They listened over the comm to B'Elanna send her message to Voyager and Captain Janeway happily agree to join them, the communication full of static and slightly broken, and continued collecting samples.
Urik chattered on happily as they worked. He didn't require any replies and so Seven's unease went unnoticed for the better part of two hours. He finally looked up and caught her sweeping the forest with her tricorder.
"There's no one out there."
"So this," she held up the tricorder, "says."
"It's not like you to doubt proof."
"I'll admit, even after nine years on Voyager, I have a difficult time trusting intuition alone, but..."
"But you think someone is watching us?"
"The hair on the back of your neck stands up and you feel like if you turn around, you're going to see someone staring."
"Oh, you're just paranoid." Seven gave him a dirty look, but he ignored it. "Don't worry. There's no one there."
Seven had no reply.
"Was that thunder?" Celes looked around. They were back at the mountain range.
"I think that was an engine." B'Elanna's gaze searched the sky. For a short moment she thought she saw the black outline of a ship, but it disappeared and she could only assume it was a trick of the light.
Seven and Urik stood at the sound of an engine coming closer. For only a moment, they saw a dark shape rise from the trees and disappear.
Seven, having better eyesight, recognized it as a small black ship, not unlike the Delta Flyer.
"I think we should get back," said Urik. His pale eyes roved over the empty sky.
"Seven of Nine to Lieutenant Paris."
B'Elanna tapped the silver badge on her chest. "Go ahead."
"Have you come in contact with other intelligent species?" B'Elanna paused. She and Celes shared a look.
"What do you mean?"
"Urik and I just saw an alien ship leave the surface. It cloaked before we could get a reading on it."
Celes began packing up their equipment as fast as her hands could move.
"We saw it too. Return to the Delta Flyer. We'll meet you there."
Seven was already moving, two of the four pattern enhancers clasped tight in her hand. Urik kept pace just a step behind her.
They broke through the trees and sprinted across the unprotected meadow to the Delta Flyer.
B'Elanna and Celes appeared from nowhere and they ran together for the shuttle. Though nothing chased them, they knew through instinct that they shouldn't linger.
There was a hole that none of them saw, hidden as it was by the long grass. It was small, just the size that could have been made by a burrowing rodent. Seven's foot found it.
With a gasp of shock, Seven felt her toe catch on something and trip her up. She tucked her body into itself so that she rolled instead of fell on her face. Celes, the slowest member of their group, saw it happen. Her hands, usually so unsure and trembling, were like iron under Seven's arms.
Seven felt the sharp pain in her ankle. It wasn't broken, but it hurt like hell. A bad sprain, her body told her. Her leg wobbled and throbbed when she put pressure on it. It hurt to set it down, but Celes was tugging on her arm and they had to go. Seven's hesitation and assessment took all of half a second. She chose to ignore the pain and ran as fast as she could. Still, she lagged, Celes pulling on her hand the rest of the way to the shuttle. Seven was incredibly relieved when her uninjured foot landed on the Delta Flyer. A bit of pressure and she was in the ship. The others were already at their stations and working to get the Flyer into the air by the time Seven limped to her seat and began running scans.
Celes was already relaying a message to Voyager while B'Elanna started the engines, but there wasn't much to say.
"Run the standard greeting on all channels," said Janeway over the link. Her voice was slightly distorted at first, but grew clearer the higher the ship rose in the atmosphere, away from whatever interference was on the surface.
"Understood." B'Elanna partly turned her head, but kept her eyes on the controls. "Celes?"
"This is Lieutenant B'Elanna Paris of the Delta Flyer. If there is anyone there, please respond." She paused.
"No response," said Celes.
"We are peaceful explorers. We came to this planet in search of spare resources. If this is your territory, we were unaware."
Celes shook her head when B'Elanna turned to her. They were all tense, and none of them exactly sure why.
Before B'Elanna could continue, a flash of light blinded them. The shuttle jolted to the side, nearly dislodging the crew from their seats.
"Shields down to fifty percent."
"Where did that come from?" B'Elanna asked part in amazement and part in anger.
Seven's voice was steady, but her wide eyes expressed her shock and unease well enough. "Twenty metres to starboard."
This time B'Elanna did turn. "What? How can they be that close?"
"They must have superior cloaking technology. I can't detect any other ships in the vicinity."
"This is Lieutenant B'Elanna Paris of the -"
The second shot was worse than the first. Several circuits exploded in a shower of sparks and shields went down to almost nothing, as did many other systems.
We can't fight what we can't see, thought B'Elanna. "Send a message to Voyager. We'll have to land."
"Are you crazy?" Urik shouted. "They'll pick us off easier than ants."
"We've already lost this fight." She took a steadying breath. "We have to land or we'll be blown to pieces out here."
The third shot, though B'Elanna tried to dodge it, hit them directly on the port side.
"Hull breach -" Celes' sentence cut off as a circuit in her console snapped. She only just managed to get away without being terribly burned.
They had entered the atmosphere. The Delta Flyer shook, bits of the hull coming off as the atmosphere burned and buffeted the spacecraft. It quickly became apparent that they wouldn't survive the landing.
"Drop the shields," Seven shouted over the screaming of burning metal and quaking shuttle parts.
B'Elanna just about let go of the controls with her shock. "Are you crazy?"
"That's the only thing keeping us together," said Urik.
"Trust me," said Seven. "On my mark drop the shields."
B'Elanna nodded, knowing that Urik would see her nod of assent.
They waited, all around them the sounds of their shuttle breaking apart.
"One... Two... Mark," said Seven.
As soon as the word escaped her mouth, their vision went black.
Five minutes after attack:
Celes regained her composure first. Her eyes burned as though she'd been staring into a bright light for too long, which, she supposed, she had. The fire that had enshrouded the Delta Flyer as they entered the atmosphere had all but blinded her. When her eyes adjusted, they were filled with the sight of a green forest, the very same she and the others had run through not even a half hour ago. A rocky outcropping behind them had broken shrubs and flattened grass. The general ache in Celes' body made her think she might have rolled down the hill.
Urik jumped to his feet as soon as his eyes opened. He regretted it immediately. A pain in his upper, right leg and left shoulder were jostled by the movement and he collapsed with a groan.
Seven, who had maintained full awareness, kneeled over B'Elanna's prone form, checking vitals.
"What happened?" Celes asked, looking around. She assessed herself before shuffling over to Urik, who stifled his groans of pain.
"I needed the extra power to boost transporters."
"What were you aiming for?"
"Anywhere further into the mountains. The natural interference is stronger there."
"You wanted us to end up in there?" Urik pointed in the direction of the mountain chain. A distant rumble emphasised his disbelief. "You do know there are active volcanoes there, right?"
"There's also a natural cloaking. If we're lucky, they'll have as much difficulty as we did."
A tiny moan escaped B'Elanna, though she remained unconscious. The others quieted at the sound.
"We need to get somewhere safe. Even with everything we had diverted to transporters, it wasn't enough to get us inside the shielded area."
"We found some caves when we explored around here," said Celes. "We couldn't use our tricorders thanks to the interference so I don't know the exact location."
"About three kilometres." She looked down at B'Elanna's prone form and Urik's bleeding leg. "How are we going to get there?"
Seven pulled out a simple medical kit. "First thing is first."
Four hours after attack:
When they had done all they could with the med kit, Celes and Seven put together a stretcher made of young saplings and their jackets for B'Elanna. Seven silently thanked her husband for the survival lessons. Together they carried her through the forest. Urik, who limped along as fast as he could, told them the moment they entered the naturally cloaked area. His tricorder didn't go dead, but it might as well have.
"I can't even tell how large an area this covers."
"We'll have to improvise then," said Seven. She and Celes rested the stretcher with B'Elanna's prone form on the least rocky part of ground they could find. Celes wiped her sweating brow. "How close are we to these caves?"
"I'm not sure." Celes looked around. It was difficult to see too far into the forest with all the dense shrubs and thick trees. "It all looks the same."
Seven, though tired and on edge, made sure to keep her voice soft, very aware of Celes and Urik's anxiety. "Please, try."
Celes nodded and took another look around, but all she could think of was how they were counting on her. She felt the familiar panic of indecision and inadequacy surface. Her eyes darted around and around.
Seven, once a figurehead Celes feared for many reasons beyond the Borg components, placed her human hand on Celes' shoulder. Tempered as she was by so many years on Voyager and by the calming influence of Chakotay as her husband, Seven recognized her companion's need for support. "Just take a deep breath and look for something that seems familiar."
She paused. "I might know where we need to go. Wait here." She ran through the trees a little to the left of their little group.
"Where are you going?" Urik asked, but Celes was already through the underbrush and out of sight.
Celes' voice floated out from the flora. "I'm just checking."
Urik shrugged and Seven managed a tiny smile.
"So," said Urik, "how long do you think it will take Voyager to get us?"
"I am uncertain. They know our location, but if they are attacked as well, they may be destroyed before we can be rescued."
"You think whoever attacked us will be able to get through Voyager's shields?"
Celes took that moment to appear from the foliage. She jumped out like a jackrabbit, twigs and leaves in her hair. Her smile was exhilarated. "I know where we are."
Nine hours after attack:
Smoke filled B'Elanna's nostrils and fogged her brain. Her pleasant dream of her, Tom, a night alone and a bottle of wine turned to an evening of trying to stamp out a fire.
"Careful," a gentle, woman's voice soothed B'Elanna and two hands pressed her back down onto a hard, uncomfortable surface. It took her a moment to realize that it was Seven talking. A pile of hastily abandoned firewood lay a few feet away from the ex-drone.
B'Elanna looked around.
They were in a dark cavern underground. Through a hole in the ceiling, the entrance to the cave, pinpricks of stars twinkled. A small campfire glowed in the centre of their refuge, casting shadows on the walls. Urik slept soundly on the other side of the fire, but Celes was nowhere to be found.
By the deeper blackness B'Elanna could tell there were other chambers branching off from theirs. A high-pitched whistling above them indicated the presence of a fissure to the outside world.
It took B'Elanna a moment to realize that as uncomfortable as her body was, her head rested too comfortably to be lying on the rocky floor. She turned her head a bit to the side, towards Seven's voice and fabric brushed her cheek. Seven crouched in front of her, a standard short-sleeved shirt and pants her only protection from the cold night. It was Seven's shirt B'Elanna rested on.
"We transported to the planet. The Delta Flyer was destroyed."
B'Elanna tried to smile, but the pain in her side made it more of a grimace. "Tom won't be happy."
"I think he'll forgive us if we get you back to Voyager safely."
B'Elanna nodded. "I feel like I fell off a cliff."
"You're not far from the truth."
A spasm of pain made B'Elanna groan. Her side ached terribly and she knew that if her injuries hadn't been dealt with yet, then whatever ailed her was too serious to be helped with a med kit. "How bad is it?"
Seven paused, but B'Elanna stared at her too hard for Seven to lie. "When I programmed the transporters, I couldn't give the computer an exact location to transport us to. Unfortunately, we re-materialized on the edge of a steep hillside."
"No wonder I feel like I've been tenderized."
Seven nodded. "I'm sorry."
"You did your best," she glanced around, "and you did manage to keep us alive."
Seven paused as she gathered her courage to give B'Elanna her diagnosis. "You have internal injuries that the med kit can't help with."
"How long do I have?"
"Two more days, maybe less."
B'Elanna sucked in a breath. That wasn't long at all and they had no idea how long it would be before Voyager could help them. She pushed back her anxiety and focussed on the present, all too aware of Seven's large eyes watching her. "And you?"
"We escaped with less serious injuries. Urik will need to see the Doctor too, though, if he is to regain full mobility."
"Gathering more firewood. I thought we should pile as much as we can in case it rains or we need to stay hidden."
"Seven," B'Elanna laughed quietly, "if we want to hide, then we shouldn't build a fire."
"We are in one of the cloaked sections of the forest you and Celes explored earlier. Besides, the air is so saturated that there should be too much fog and mist tomorrow morning for anyone to see our fire."
"Oh, you're awake," said Celes as she entered the cavern. Her arms were laden with dry sticks. She dropped her bundle in a corner where a small pile had already been started.
"And wishing I wasn't," said B'Elanna with a smile. She winced as she tried to find a more comfortable position on the rough ground.
"Oh, don't worry. We'll be back on Voyager in no time, sleeping in our own beds."
A grumble of thunder started up in the distance and the pattering of rain outside gave them a chill.
The morning was misty, just as Seven had predicted. Fog and low-lying clouds enshrouded the whole landscape. A few birds chirped in the canopy, flitting in and out of the silver mist like living intruders in a land of ghosts. The trees were like dripping sentries, the architecture to Nature's cathedral.
"If Voyager doesn't hurry, she's not going to make it," said Seven, staring out at the dew-covered trees. She and Celes stood outside the cave. The twisting entrance ensured them privacy.
"What can we do?" Celes looked back, her expressive eyes filled with worry.
"The biggest problem is going to be the natural cloaking. If Voyager can't detect us, they won't know where to begin searching. We need some way of signalling them to our location."
"But then everyone will know where we are."
"I am aware of that."
Celes paused, watching Seven's solemn expression. The ex-drone's eyes were pinched with stress but filled with determination. "You have a plan already."
Seven smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I wouldn't go so far as to call it a plan. It's more like a bad idea."
"Someone needs to go outside the protected area so Voyager can pick up our life signs when they return."
Celes gaped at Seven, almost certain the ex-drone was joking. "You can't be serious."
"It's either that or we risk being too late. Every minute they waste looking for us on this planet is another minute B'Elanna gets closer to death."
"And whoever has to sit out in the open will certainly be killed by whoever shot us down."
"I can wait for Voyager on the edge of the cloaked area if you stay here. My cybernetic implants provide me with superior senses. I may be able to hear an attacker coming and get back to safety in time."
"That's a pretty big maybe."
"What choice do we have?"
Twenty hours after attack:
Celes let out a sigh. She had no idea how long Seven had been gone, but it couldn't have been more than a few hours. There was still a muted glow coming from the small hole in the ceiling and slanted cave doorway, the only indication that sunlight was trying to make its way through the canopy and thick mist.
With Urik and Lieutenant Paris sleeping most of the time and collecting food or firewood her only chore, Celes was becoming increasingly bored. Fear of discovery by their attackers kept Celes on edge, but with nothing to do besides look after her injured comrades, it wasn't long before she wished for companionship. Even Seven was preferable to the circular worries that plagued her mind.
B'Elanna moaned in her sleep. Celes looked over, but her superior officer remained unconscious.
"Celes?" It was Urik. His pupils, normally so small in what others considered normal light, were eerily large with only the flickering of the fire.
"Yes?" Celes crawled over to him so they wouldn't wake B'Elanna.
Urik looked around the cavern. "Where's Seven?"
"Keeping an eye out for Voyager." Urik's eyes searched hers. Celes looked away.
"She's outside the cloak, isn't she?"
"Yes. It's the only way for Voyager to find us."
"What if it's not Voyager that gets here first?"
"Then she'll return and we'll have to hide until they leave."
"I don't like this." He looked over to B'Elanna. "It leaves too much to chance."
"I know, but what choice do we have? We just have to be prepared is all."
Twenty-four hours after attack:
A droning noise alerted Seven to the presence of a ship. She looked around, knowing it would not be Voyager.
She ran as fast as she could, until she had reached the edge of the cloaked zone. From the safety of the trees, Seven watched.
Sure enough, a dark shape formed in the sky. The black mass came closer and closer until it disappeared in the trees less than a kilometre away from Seven's location. It was too close. The ship had to have spotted her, or at least picked up her life sign.
Seven turned into the forest. She hadn't taken more than two steps before she hesitated. She looked down. Her tracks were obvious in the soft ground. The twigs and foliage she'd crushed in her hurry to reach safety were a blaring signal pointing out her path.
She changed direction, hurrying to make a false trail before circling back to the cave.
Seven rushed into the cave, her entrance so quick that Celes and Urik jumped.
"What is it?" Urik asked, immediately on edge with the dishevelled state his comrade was in.
"They're here," said Seven through her gasps for air. "They landed not far from my position."
"Did they detect you?" asked Celes.
"I took a detour before coming back. They followed me until I lost them in the riverbed."
"So," said Urik, "they know at least one of us survived the crash."
"What about our tracks?" Celes demanded in a sudden panic. "They'll know we all survived and how to find us."
Urik shushed the petite Bajoran and Seven reassured them. "The rain yesterday took care of that. I checked."
"We'll just have to be careful," said Urik, "keep watch so they don't sneak up on us."
"And if they do? We can't run, not with B'Elanna in tow and Urik can barely walk let alone run."
"Celes," Urik warned.
"No, we need a plan. We can't just sit around waiting to die."
"I agree," Seven interrupted. "I managed to observe them for a few minutes," she said and explained how she'd watched them from the edge of the riverbed. "If they find their way here, I think it likely we'll be killed."
"So?" Celes prompted. "What should we do if we can't run?"
"Well," Seven hesitated. "Two of us can run." Just as she expected, there was a stunned silence. She hurried to explain. "Celes and I can lead them through the forest, away from the cave."
"When will you go?" Urik asked. He didn't know Seven well, but he knew her well enough that he recognized the determination in her stance.
"I think we should wait for the morning," said Seven. "Celes and I can leave at sunrise, lead them into the mountains. Hopefully the terrain will slow them down."
"If it doesn't slow us down more," said Celes, hysteria rising in her voice.
Seven tried to use her most soothing tone, "Calm down."
"Calm down?" She took a deep breath and her nerves did steady a bit. "We could be killed. I say we stay here. There's nothing to suggest they know where we are. We can hold out until Voyager gets here."
"Voyager won't be able to do anything if they can't find us or if we're dead," said Seven, real irritation rising in her voice. Their attacker's determination during her romp through the forest had been all too unnerving for her to allow complacency. She had no doubt that they would be found and killed if they remained in the cave, waiting for a rescue that might not happen.
"Are you sure they'll keep looking for us?" B'Elanna interrupted.
"Yes. I was able to overhear part of their conversation. This planet is in their territory. They're afraid if we are allowed to escape, we'll tell others about it."
"Of course," said Urik. "A planet with so many resources would be worth protecting to the death."
"Did you see anything to suggest they have transporter technology?" asked B'Elanna.
Seven shook her head. "No, and they have just as much trouble detecting things inside the cloaked zone as us."
Urik nodded. "It could at least buy us some time."
"All right," B'Elanna sighed. "I guess there's nothing else to do." She gave both Celes, whose brows pinched together with fear, and Seven a stern look. "But you two have to be careful."
"I didn't plan on choosing this situation to learn carelessness," said Seven.
B'Elanna's lips twitched. "Not funny."
"I thought it was."
Celes sighed and curled her legs into her chest. She didn't want to be afraid, but she was not like the others on Voyager. She had never been a soldier or hero. She wanted to help, to make sure B'Elanna and Urik remained safe and survived to return to their families, but she didn't want to give up her own life for it.
B'Elanna stretched out a hand toward Celes. She could only reach Celes' foot, where she placed her palm. "It will be all right, Celes. If you don't want to go, I won't ask you." She had to give Seven, who was ready to retort, a warning look.
Urik nodded, sensing the need to calm his comrade. "Maybe they don't know about the caves. The entrance is pretty well hidden. They might just pass by or look somewhere else."
Celes avoided both their gazes, feeling utterly ashamed. It was easier to glare back at Seven than it was to see B'Elanna's understanding, especially knowing full well that her fear would likely mean B'Elanna's death. "Thank you."
B'Elanna nodded. Urik smiled in encouragement. Seven frowned, but held her tongue.
The morning was foggy again, the mist covering everything like a blanket. It had rained during the night and turned the forest floor into a soggy conglomeration of moss and mud. The sun was just cresting the mountains, but the forest remained dark.
Seven stood outside the cave entrance, looking out at the green, silver, and brown. Despite her Borg enhancements, even she couldn't see much through the silvery cover. The cool morning air and need to remain inconspicuous among the foliage made her glad she had changed her wardrobe to the usual Starfleet uniform.
A boot scraped the rock behind her and Seven twisted to see Celes.
"You're still going even if I stay here, aren't you?" asked the Bajoran.
Seven turned back to watching the forest and nodded. "They won't stop. I know they won't. Not until they find us."
Celes nodded. "Then I'm coming with you."
Seven looked at her surreptitiously, hope rising. She was prepared to die for this, but the two of them working together might mean she wouldn't have to. "Are you sure?"
"I don't want to." She took a deep breath. "But if you're right, then I couldn't live with myself if I was the cause of us being captured..." she thought of their time limit, "or B'Elanna's death."
"They seem much like us. They won't have any advantages in the forest that we don't have."
"Except that they've been here before."
"I do believe we can succeed."
Thirty-five hours after attack.
B'Elanna woke, feeling weaker than she could ever remember feeling. Even after giving birth to Miral she had felt stronger, more connected to life. Now, she could feel her link to the universe slipping from her with every breath and every hour that passed.
"Seven?" Her voice sounded weak even to her and she couldn't turn her head to see who or what was close by. Urik's face appeared in front of her as he leaned down over her.
"They left an hour ago. Seven wanted to get going before the fog burned off."
"Good idea." Her mind felt fuzzy and sluggish. "Are they going to send Voyager a message?"
Urik hesitated. "I suppose they could try," he answered slowly, confused that she didn't remember they had no means of sending a message.
As B'Elanna sighed and closed her eyes again, Urik took out a medical tricorder and scanned her. His worried eyes rose to her face, but she was asleep.
Death was not too long away for her.
Celes ran for her life through the jungle, her lungs on fire and her limbs ready to fall away or simply stop. It had been an hour since she and Seven split up and every minute that passed put more fear in her that none of them would get out alive.
Ducking behind an outcropping of grey, fern-covered rock, Celes paused to look around. She held her breath, listening for sounds of pursuit. There was nothing. Taking the opportunity to catch her breath, Celes leaned her back against the rock. She rested her forehead against her knees, trying to get her heart under control.
Once she could breathe properly, she took out her tricorder and tried to get a reading on where she was. Relief mingled with disquiet that she was still within the relative safety of the shielded area.
A monkey whooped in the distance, the sound echoing around the forest. The usual symphony of birds was somehow haunting and beautiful. Chakotay would have loved to hear it. In her tension, the sounds threatened Seven's sanity.
Seven crouched low beneath leaves bigger than a grown man, halfway up a hill, the top of which was hidden from view by the foliage. Every leaf and string of moss dripped with cool moisture.
Her attention was on a group of five humanoids approximately twenty feet below her, walking alongside the same hillside. They were deep in the forest, deeper in the mountains than Celes. Seven had begun her day with her companion.
The aliens looked very much like humans in stature. As Seven watched, one stumbled over a tree root. They had a dark green skin tone, much like the leaves of a forest. Their ears were smaller than a human's, but their eyes were large and their noses flat and wide, designed for predators searching out their prey.
Seven had to hide quickly as a female turned in her direction, nostrils flared, lips pulled back briefly to reveal sharp teeth. The female sniffed a few times, but the leader of the group spotted one of the false trails Seven had managed to set up and they eventually moved on, leaving Seven to sigh in relief.
Celes' head whipped around at the snapping of a twig not too far from her. Ducking behind a tree, she pulled out her tricorder. It gave her nothing. The jungle was silent but for the dripping of dew onto the leafy floor. She peered around the huge trunk, but pulled back quickly. Three aliens were making their way towards her. They weren't rushing, making Celes think they hadn't detected her.
Silent as ghosts, the two males and one female tread as though they were born to the forest or at least very used to the terrain. Though each of them had a tricorder on their utility belts, they held only a weapon in their hands.
Celes waited until the aliens moved on before getting up from her crouch. Moving a leaf as big as her body out of her way, Celes decided it was time to head back to the cave. She was too exhausted to even try making it to an unsheltered area where Voyager could detect her. Most likely, she would only meet more of the aliens anyway.
As she stood, Celes sensed danger. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up and she turned in time to see the female alien staring at her from behind an enormous tree. Their eyes met. For a long moment they just stared at each other, and then Celes ran.
The female shouted for her companions and Celes picked up her pace.
Seven stood on a steep hillside at the edge of a small clearing, both a break in the trees and the natural shielding. Her faith in Voyager pushed her to stay outside the protection of both for one minute and then another. Instinct made her feet shuffle, itchy to return to some semblance of safety. She made herself stay where she was. The longer she could hold her ground, the more likely it was that Voyager would detect her.
She'd been waiting for almost an hour when her Borg-enhanced senses detected someone approaching. Downwind, Seven caught the smell of male and female sweat, but it wasn't anything like her crew's scent. Like wind and rain and something that had been in a bog for too long, the alien's odour somehow matched their wild looks.
Hopes that she'd detected them before they noticed her were dashed when they emerged from the trees ahead of her and immediately took up the chase. Knowing she had to keep them away from the cave with B'Elanna and Urik, Seven headed in the opposite direction, deeper into the mountain.
She paused before leaving the unshielded area entirely. Taking her badge from her chest, Seven dropped it at the edge of the natural shielding.
"Any sign of them?" asked Janeway as they drew closer to the planet. Voyager rocked violently as their attacker's weapons grazed the shields. Beside her, Chakotay's big hands gripped the armrest of his seat in a white-knuckled grip. It wasn't just the attack that had him on edge. His wife was down there and though he'd maintained a stony exterior, Janeway knew he was beyond consolation. He busied himself with reviewing all the data streaming in and issuing orders to the lower ranks.
Harry Kim shook his head. "I can't get through the interference. We need to get closer."
"Understood." She didn't need to tell her subordinates what to do. They'd gone over this several times already.
Tom steeled himself at the helm. He didn't want to get much closer. It was all too obvious that their attacker's viciousness was bent on preventing just that, but his wife was down there too and he'd do anything for her. His shoulders squared and he bent his mind wholeheartedly to his task, dodging and speeding away from the sleek, black ship that shot at them over and over. Ever so slowly the planet grew bigger on the view screen.
As Voyager skimmed around the planet, scanning such a narrow strip of land at a time that it seemed it would take forever, the alien ship continued to bombard them. Just when Harry let out a deep sigh, almost ready to call it quits, he found something.
"I've got something directly below us. It's Seven."
Chakotay's head snapped up as did Janeway's. "Get her up here," she ordered immediately. "Any sign of the others?"
"Nothing," said Harry with a shake of his handsome head. He continued to scan as their enhanced transporters whirred.
In the transporter room the officer working the station was excited at the prospect of having at least one of their officers back, but his anticipation dissipated into confusion and concern quickly. Instead of the usual large form of a human taking shape on the platform, there was just the smallest of shimmers.
Ensign Jamil tapped his own badge and called Captain Janeway. "It was only her combadge, ma'am."
On the bridge, Janeway and Chakotay stared at each other, horrified. It seemed the bridge crew held their breaths.
"She's down there," said Chakotay suddenly and quickly, desperate hope and determined assurance in his blazing eyes. "She left her combadge where it would be found so we would have a place to start searching. They're probably camped, protected by the natural shield."
Janeway nodded, but didn't comment. "Keep searching in this area and radiate out," she ordered. She thought it more likely that they were all dead or at least one of them was, but she couldn't dash her good friend's hopes. Until they found proof of what happened, they'd search.
Voyager began to scan with even more determination. They flew over the shielded area, picking up flicks and spikes of life. And then...
"I have them!" Harry sent the information to the transporter operator as he spoke. "Urik, and B'Elanna." He widened his search area and found a familiar figure heading closer to their position. "Celes is down there too."
Janeway held her tongue, but turned her eyes to him, hoping for yet another miracle. Chakotay was stiff as a board, his chin tucked down as though he were only watching the data stream by on his personal computer. His eyes were suspiciously still and his features tense though.
Harry could offer his commanding officers nothing further. Pressing his lips together, he raised his eyes to Janeway's and shook his head. She sat back. She didn't need to tell them to continue searching while the rest of the away team was transported up.
Ensign Jamil sighed in relief as the figures appeared, normal and whole if not perfectly healthy. He immediately sent B'Elanna and Urik to sickbay, briefly warning the doctor to expect them.
Lungs afire and injuries aching beyond endurance, Seven narrowly avoided death from the alien weapons by dodging behind some thick trees.
Despite her exhaustion she would have continued on but for the wall of rock blocking her path. It was steep, rising high above and gleaming with damp, slippery rock and water-loving plants. There was no way Seven could climb it.
Seven turned and was confronted by a line of enemies, each holding a phaser to her. The female grinned. From four feet away she couldn't miss. She took another step closer for good measure and fired. Seven threw herself to the side. The explosion surprised them all.
There was a crack, the energy from the alien weapon igniting a line of minerals within the rock wall before exploding outwards to release the pressure. The aliens were far enough away that all but the female managed to run or tumble out of the way. Seven was too close to avoid any of the falling rock. Several pieces clipped her head and shoulders, knocking her to the ground and blacking out her vision.
When Seven woke there was nothing to indicate how much time had passed or how much rock covered her. All she could determine was that she was buried, gravely injured, and in perfect darkness.
Seven jolted awake at the male voice, uncertain when she'd drifted into unconsciousness again. Though she tried to hold her eyes open, the blackness around her and the promise of peace lured too well.
It was her father's voice. She was sure of it, but it was impossible for him to be there. It was impossible for anyone to be with her. The sharp edges of boulders and knifelike stones pressed at every inch of Seven's body. There was no space for anyone else and the density of the fallen rock blocked even the sound of birds and chattering monkeys from Seven's ears.
Her eyes closed yet again, but this time the blackness faded until Seven saw the bright lights of Voyager's sickbay. The Doctor wasn't there. The computers sat silent and solitary. Seven looked around and saw someone she never expected to see again in life.
"How are you here?" Seven heard her own voice as though it came from the bottom of a well, far away and unclear, but she couldn't understand why.
"Hello Annika. I've missed you."
"You're not dead. You're a Borg drone."
"You're not dead either, yet here we are." With that, Erin Hansen turned and left the room. Seven reached out, but her movements were slow and sluggish. The doors slid closed on her mother's figure and Seven covered her teary eyes with trembling, fully human hands.
"Don't worry about her," said a new man's voice.
Seven looked up and saw Chakotay leaning casually against the Doctor's office doorway. He smiled like he knew a great secret that she didn't. Seven didn't care. She was just happy to see his face and rushed to embrace him, but she passed through him as though he were no more than smoke. She had to turn, confused to see him across the room.
"You have to wake up," said Chakotay, his grin undiminished.
"I'm not asleep."
"No, you're dead."
Seven opened her eyes and knew she was awake by the pain that encompassed every inch of her body. There was no escaping it, no way to shift even an inch so that the jagged edges didn't cut into her stomach or keep her broken ribs spread from each other. The fingers of her right hand were the only parts of her body able to move and she stretched them without thought.
Her fingertips touched something soft, fleshy, and growing increasingly cold. It was the hand of the dead female alien. Still within her clutch was her weapon.
Forcing her uncooperative hand to clasp the cold metal of the phaser, Seven tried not to think about the possible consequences of what she was about to do. She could only hope it would work to her advantage instead of kill her instantly. There was no instruction manual and the haze in her mind would not allow her much time to experiment so Seven simply pressed the largest button she could feel on the weapon.
"Captain, sensors have detected an energy discharge ten kilometres from here," said Harry. There was little relief in his announcement. What good could come from an explosion?
The only relief the crew of Voyager could really feel at that moment was that Tom's piloting skills and some quick battling had pushed the alien attackers away for the moment at least. The reprieve was greatly needed.
"Anything specific?" asked Janeway.
"Not from this distance."
"We can send a small team to take a look," said Chakotay. He looked ready to leap out of his seat to be part of the team. Janeway knew better than to send a husband to a dangerous planet after his own wife, but she also knew there would be nothing she could do to stop him.
Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Harry Kim, Ensign Jim Cardell and Ensign Samantha Wildman made up the party and were on the planet's surface in less than five minutes, pattern enhancers and tricorders in hand.
Harry led the way immediately to the spot where he'd detected the explosion. The interference from the minerals in the rock was so strong that neither Voyager's sensors nor his tricorder could detect much of anything. He worried his focus on the explosion might be distracting them from finding Seven who could be miles away, but it was the best data they had.
It didn't take long for the team to find a jumble of fallen rock at the base of a partly collapsed cliff. Beyond the pile of stone and running throughout the rubble they could see veins of the silvery metal that confounded their sensors.
A hole at the edge of the rock piqued Chakotay's curiosity. He leaned over, shining a light into the tiny opening and almost collapsed with relief.
"She's here!" Using the pattern enhancers, they quickly moved the largest of the boulders. Janeway called down to advise she was sending more equipment and people, but Chakotay was already digging with his hands, the other three bloodying their fingers along with him. They shouted for Seven as they did, their efforts growing more frantic for every moment she didn't answer.
Samantha Wildman touched flesh and almost shouted out, but quickly realized it was a deceased alien by the green tinge to her skin. Shuffling over a bit, she continued her efforts.
Chakotay uncovered Seven's human hand first and doubled his exertion at the sight of the limp appendage. The promised assistance arrived in time to place more pattern enhancers around Chakotay as he pulled Seven's unmoving body to his chest. For good measure he placed his combadge on her uniform.
"Chakotay to Voyager. Initiate emergency transport." The sweaty faces of his assistants and the deceptively beautiful landscape disappeared to be replaced by the clean, grey sterility of the Doctor's territory. Urik had already been released, his wounds treated by an ensign recruited for medical duty a few months ago.
The Doctor was at the other end of the room with B'Elanna and Tom when he noticed the new patients, but he quickly grabbed a medical tricorder and rushed over. The short distance was a little too much.
Chakotay hadn't taken his gaze from his wife's face since he pulled her into his arms on the alien planet and was gratified for a brief moment when the blue orbs met his own. Seven smiled, but didn't say anything. There wasn't the strength in her body or clarity of mind to formulate a sentence.
"I love you." There were a million things Chakotay wanted to say to her in that instant, the moment he knew without needing to be told that she wasn't going to survive. It was an unbidden knowledge, a feeling as opposed to a clear thought. He wasn't sure she heard or understood his words, but they were all he could think of to say and all he could think of to do was to hold tight and continue looking into her face. He watched, his own heart erratic, as the glimmer of life and joy at their reunion faded into the glassy blankness of death.
The Doctor fell to his knees at their side, one glance at his scans telling him there was nothing he could do. His tears were proof that fully programmed holograms could feel and grieve as well as any physical being.
Tom and B'Elanna held each other, sad for their friends and yet relieved that their own fates were happier.
Janeway came to sickbay two hours later to pry Chakotay's stiff arms from Seven's body. She had been unable to make herself go to sickbay before then. Her grief was paralyzing. It was only the Doctor's request for help dealing with Chakotay that prodded her out of her chair, the seat of power that suddenly felt like a cage.
"You need to let her go, Chakotay," Kathryn said, tears spilling from her own eyes. They fell onto the shoulder of Seven's filthy uniform where Chakotay's weeping had left a damp spot. Chakotay didn't answer, but she saw his hands tighten around the broken body. "Let her go."
"I can't." It was a tiny, hoarse whisper and it broke Kathryn's heart as much as the sound of Tom and B'Elanna's crying. Icheb had been called down and though he'd gone to Seven and Chakotay, he'd since gravitated to the biobed to embrace the other weeping couple. They made a strange trio, the former Borg, half Klingon, and human pilot, but they seemed to be gaining comfort from their shared grief. Kathryn tried to ignore them, her greatest concern in front of her. She understood, but he couldn't stay there forever.
"She loved you, Chakotay. You need to honour her now." He didn't look at his captain as she said this. "Let her be cleaned up, Chakotay. Don't let her lie on the floor like this. I know it's not what you want for her." It wasn't really a logical argument and if he chose to ignore her, there would be little else she could think of. However, Kathryn knew she'd gotten through.
Chakotay kissed Seven's cheek and allowed Kathryn to pull his arms from her body.
The Doctor had been watching and came forward immediately. He took Chakotay's precious burden as tenderly as though handling a breakable infant. She would be cleaned and placed in the morgue, but he waited until Captain Janeway had led Chakotay out of sickbay.
Kathryn held back a wince every time they passed someone in the hallway, afraid of the gossip and more afraid one of them would say something to break the momentary calm. His face was set in a carefully blank mask. It made him look stern and harsh, but Kathryn could see through it. His mental calm was hanging on by a tenuous thread. She held tighter onto his tense arm and led him all the way to his quarters. Not letting go until she'd sat him on his couch, she left his side just long enough to get them each a cup of tea. It calmed her to be taking care of him. It meant she didn't have to focus on her own pain, the circling image of Seven's lifeless body cradled in Chakotay's arms. She knew it was an image she'd never get out of her head.
The chamomile and lemon tea was placed on the coffee table, but neither Kathryn nor Chakotay moved to take it.
"I'm sorry," said Chakotay, his voice breaking. "I'm so sorry."
Kathryn didn't ask what he was sorry for and knew he wasn't speaking to her. When Chakotay placed his head in his hands and allowed his mask to fall she wrapped an arm around his back and laid her head on his shoulder.
The tea sat untouched, growing cold as they stayed that way the rest of the night.
Morning came and brought no relief, but Captain Janeway was able to leave the fragile widower with Icheb while she returned to her own duties. Chakotay wouldn't be working for a while. That was out of the question. Janeway tacked his chores onto her own and set about organizing Seven's funeral and for a friend to be with Chakotay around the clock should he require it. She took refuge in her job, hating it at the same time. She wanted to curl up in her quarters and abandon the universe, but she couldn't.
Many hours later, late that night or early the next morning depending on how one looked at it, Janeway stood alone in her ready room facing the stars, but saw nothing. Many thoughts ran through her head, most flicking in and out without taking firm hold. Some did circle back though.
Janeway couldn't help thinking of her Starfleet classes on time travel theory, but dismissed these errant thoughts as preposterous.
"Kathy, I know what you're thinking and I want you to stop it." Q's droll voice didn't surprise Janeway or even annoy her as it usually did. It would be nice to have a distraction.
"What am I thinking?" she asked without turning from the passing stars. He sat on the corner of her desk, his arms crossed and face stern. She could see his reflection in the glass.
"You want to change things and while I would normally applaud your desire to escape the mundane Starfleet morals you feel so obliged to follow, this is one of those things you shouldn't meddle with." He rose and approached the railing behind her. "Time travel is a messy business for mortals."
"Don't be ridiculous, Q."
"You deny it, but I can see it churning in that human brain of yours. It's too dangerous. You shouldn't even consider it. Kathy, look at me." He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket when she finally did. Her eyebrows rose and she stepped forward, curious. "You're grieving for your pet Borg and I won't fill your head with false hope. What's done is done and it can't be changed."
"What-" Janeway took the paper he extended to her, but her question was hushed by his stern expression.
"I can't help you except to remind you of your limits." He watched her read the paper and look up at him with astonishment. He smiled sadly. "You and your crew sort of grew on me."
"Thank you, Q."
"Be safe, Kathy." With that, Q snapped his fingers and was gone, leaving Janeway with the crumpled paper.
She sat and read it several times. It was well into the next morning when she finally put the paper away. As much as she wanted to utilize the information scrolled there, she knew Q's words were better than his actions. Time travel was dangerous for many reasons.
She placed the paper in the bottom drawer of her desk and closed it firmly, determining that no one would know of Q's appearance or the information he'd so generously provided. Despite her love for her crew, she would not attempt something as dangerous as meddling with the time line. It was out of the question, ludicrous, insanity to consider. It went against all that she stood for as a Starfleet officer. Her decision was the resolution her strained mind and bruised heart had been looking for. She felt herself begin to unwind and sleepiness creep in.
Exhausted and finally ready for some real rest, Kathryn moved to exit her ready room.
She made it halfway to the door before turning to stare at the desk. It felt like her eyes could drill a hole through the metal. She could picture the paper where she'd dropped it, see the careful scribbles as clearly as though it was already in front of her again.
Squaring her shoulders she forced herself to leave her office. Her resolution was strong. Her crew was strong. They would get through this difficult time together and move forward as they always did.