AUTHOR'S NOTE:

In the darkest hours, kindness is neither irrelevant nor illogical.

This little slice of Voyager life was written for Cerulean Phoenix 7, for the VAMB "Secret Summer" challenge in which she requested "A Seven/Tuvok friendship story set during the Year of Hell." Thanks, CP7, for making me stretch outside my comfort zone. And special thanks to Runawaymetaphor, for her invaluable advice and reassurance when I was flailing around with unfamiliar voices. Your always patient responses when I send those "does this suck?" messages buttress all my stories.

The characters, setting and background plot – down to those piles of scrap metal and flickering lights on the bridge – belong to Paramount, but the words that connect the various dots are mine.


Efficiencies

By Alpha Flyer


Day 105

Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, is no stranger to the smell of burning circuits, to darkness and flickering lights, or to the sound of metal grinding on metal. She has seen, heard, and felt these things many times before this - through direct sensory inputs and through enhanced cybernetic technology, always amplified by the simultaneous experiences of thousands of her peers.

But she also still hears still the chorus of voices that sings the collective onward through death and destruction, through darkness and pain, the refrain that extols the need to adapt, to comply, to perfect: Harmony in discord.

Seven hears the echo of those voices now; it has become ever more insistent since the crew has been evacuated from Voyager and two of the senior officers have disappeared. With only herself, the Captain, Lieutenant Torres, Ensign Kim, the EMH and Neelix remaining onboard, the call for efficiency and effectiveness that sings in her mind becomes an imperative she cannot resist.

And so she observes, watches, and learns. She will adapt. They will all adapt. The collective must not fail.

She watches Tuvok across what remains of the bridge as he takes his station at Tactical. His hands run along the edges of the console, as if to reassure himself of its dimensions before he can trust his fingers to find their place on the keypad. It is an odd gesture, one that betrays a hesitation Seven has not previously observed in the Vulcan.

It has been fifty-eight days now since his ocular nerves were irreparably damaged, and Seven is convinced that he is not adapting as well as he ought to be. The superior acuity of the Vulcan's other senses, together with the absence of any emotional burden resulting from his loss of vision, should have brought an almost complete return to efficiency by now.

Other members of the crew continue to be driven by their emotional responses to the present crisis. Take Lieutenant Torres, for example. Since the disappearance of Lieutenant Paris and Commander Chakotay thirty-five days ago, she has taken to picking up the occasional piece of debris and hurling it across the room, or kicking at a defunct console, usually while emitting a guttural noise that can only be described as an animal growl. She will generally throw whichever item has attracted her ire onto another pile of refuse, converting kinetic energy into sound at the highest possible decibel level. To Seven, the act seems pointless.

She has sought to question the Lieutenant's behaviour once or twice, but Captain Janeway has stopped her each time. This morning, when it happened again, the Captain pointed out that Lieutenant Torres is not causing any harm to equipment that is already beyond all hope of repair, and that even the noise her actions generate is short-lived.

"But surely, hurling debris from one part of the bridge to another or further damaging an item that is already beyond repair is an inefficient use of the Lieutenant's physical energy, Captain," Seven had observed.

She had not bothered to keep her voice down, since the engineer had just stormed off the bridge and towards the nearest Jeffries tube, on her way to Engineering. The turbolift system, of course, has been down since the day Tuvok lost his eyesight.

"Neither action serves to repair the ship, nor to clear the bridge of extraneous material."

"Yes, Seven, that is true," the Captain had replied, with that mixture of fatigue and patience in her voice that seems to be there all the time now.

"But the energy B'Elanna expends in this … act allows her to rid her mind of extraneous feelings, of anger and anxiety, and especially of the uncertainty over what might have happened to Tom. And it is far better, believe me, that she lets those feelings out on a piece of useless paneling than on you or me, wouldn't you agree?"

Seven concedes that the Captain has a point with this last observation: If the action benefits Lieutenant Torres' effective functioning within the collective, she will learn to tolerate it - even if Seven herself cannot see the salutary connection between a broken console, or the noise resulting from its displacement, and Lieutenant Paris' disappearance nearly two months ago.

She does think of the pilot at times; he was the first member of Voyager's crew to speak to her in what she now knows as kindness. The absence of his voice on the bridge makes some days seem … incomplete. Once or twice she has found her fingers touching the transverse bulkheads that he constructed, now successfully deployed to cut off areas of the ship where the hull has been breached. But she also knows that this curious impulse does nothing to alter the fact that no one knows whether he and the First Officer are alive or not, and that there is nothing anyone can do to change this.

While she is considering her present collective, Seven's fingers dance over the keyboard. She carries out her routine assessment of which planetary systems may have disappeared overnight, and which may have newly (or re-) emerged. The new Astrometrics lab, which she and Ensign Kim had managed to restore only thirty-five days ago, is now inaccessible thanks to a hull breach on Deck Ten. She is pleased that she had thought to proactively install a back-up link of some of its systems to the bridge, and so she can carry out work from there.

Voyager's present coordinates have placed the ship in a curious area of space the composition of which changes almost daily, albeit without apparent cause. As a result, Krenim attack ships can come virtually at anytime, and from places that Ensign Kim has not entirely inaccurately described as out of nowhere. And just the other day, Voyager almost flew into a planetoid that had not been there when Seven had charted the course an hour earlier; fortunately, Ensign Kim has become reasonably adept at the helm and was able to enter the necessary course corrections in time to avoid a catastrophe.

The work Seven does is necessary, but it requires only a part of her concentration. She is able to continue her observations of the ship's crew and their activities as she works, learning their responses and looking for efficiencies in their interactions.

Ensign Kim seems to have switched off all those impulses that require more than what is contained in the crew's life now, but this does not mean he is without needs. He no longer smiles, although he frequently touches Lieutenant Torres, even embracing her occasionally while she whispers something almost inaudible about "Starfleet". Whether this action is intended for the Ensign to seek reassurance or to provide it, Seven has yet to learn, but she suspects it is the former. She resolves to ask him soon though, curious about the extent to which such exchanges may be contributing to the ongoing, near-flawless effectiveness of the young Ensign's performance.

The EMH comes online only when one of the crew has been damaged. With Sickbay inaccessible, his supplies are greatly reduced and it appears that his facial subroutines have become looped in a grim frown as a result. He appears to be functioning within expected parameters when activated.

Neelix - even after searching her memory for what she has learned from the assimilation of members of his species, Seven considers him an enigma. She has overheard Ensign Kim say that the Talaxian suffers from nightmares, something that is quite inconsistent with his cheerful daytime persona if not surprising, given his personal history. But as someone used to living with adversity and deprivation he seems to be functioning well enough. He has so far managed to meet the nutritional needs of the carbon-based members of the crew at sufficiently regular intervals, and so Seven dismisses him, too, from her immediate thoughts.

The Captain … is the Captain. Always. In a way, she reminds Seven of her former Queen – always in control. Except that Janeway can be irritable, even irascible at times and exhausted at others, but she continues to make quick and effective decisions regardless. If she does not get enough sleep or nutrition, as the EMH claims whenever he is online, such deficiencies are not reflected in her performance. Her interactions with crewmembers inevitably improve their efficiency; remarkably, Seven has found that even her own performance appears to benefit from speaking with the Captain from time to time. She is beginning to see what Commander Chakotay meant when he once described the Captain as the one that holds us all together, and Seven is convinced that doing so, in turn, sustains the Captain.

This leaves Lieutenant Commander Tuvok as a subject for contemplation. She appears to be coming back to him, again and again. Of course, the Vulcan never gives any indication of discomfort. Seven has been observing him over the last few days, however, and his steadily decreasing efficiency is becoming a matter of concern to her.

Several matters give her pause. He has become, if anything, less communicative than before he was damaged. More problematic, though, is the fact that the hesitation in his step and the seeming unease with his surroundings serve to extend the time required for the completion of his tasks, far beyond the 17.89 percent lapse that can readily be ascribed to his disability.

His lack of grooming is another issue. For the first thirty-odd days following the explosion that destroyed his ocular nerves, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok made considerable effort to remove his facial hair daily, despite occasional damage to his skin. Seven had challenged him on it repeatedly then, in particular with regard to his choice of tool, but Tuvok had made it clear that shaving was an important part of his daily routine which, if disrupted, would lead to his personal discomfort.

But ever since the remaining crew's forced relocation to shared quarters, she has noticed that he seems to have abandoned this so-called routine. Even in the dim light of his console she can discern the stubble on his dark chin. Seven spends a full 11.5 seconds considering whether she should ask him about his changed attitude, but then decides against it. She used to ask him many questions during their daily walks, when escorting him to and from the quarters he shares with Ensign Kim and Neelix, and has discovered that he is 68.3 percent less likely to provide a substantive response to personal inquiries than he is to professional ones.

"Vulcans value their privacy," he has told her more than once and she has come to understand that this is a polite way of conveying a sentiment similar to the one Lieutenant Torres once expressed when she told her to "piss off, Seven." Seeking an answer when it is almost certain that none will be given is an inefficient use of time, Seven knows, and now most of their walks take place in silence.

But for some reason, those words of Tuvok's echo in her mind again as she works through the morning, observing and cataloguing the small, damaged collective that remains on this shattered and darkened ship.

Vulcans value their privacy.

Just before Neelix arrives with his latest attempt at rendering Starfleet rations more interesting, Seven makes a useful discovery and hastens to inform Captain Janeway.

"Sensors indicate a Class Nine nebula approximately two point five light years from here, Captain. Its spectrographic emissions make it virtually impenetrable to external sensor readings. It was not there yesterday, so we must assume it was the result of the time ship's latest manipulations. But while it exists …"

Captain Janeway completes Seven's sentence for her, her voice carrying an animated inflection for the first time in days.

"… we could use it to take shelter, and carry out some needed repairs. Excellent work, Seven."

She turns to Ensign Kim.

"Harry, lay in a course. Then tell B'Elanna she'll have that time she's been asking for. Or at least some of it."

She sighs, and puts her hands on her hips. "With any luck, we won't be stopped on our way there."

Later that night, the Captain seems to address no one in particular, or maybe all of them –they all hear it, anyway, and are curiously buoyed - when she punches her left palm with her fisted right hand and whispers hoarsely:

"We may be down, but we're not out."

…..

Day 108

With the ship hanging immobile among swirling purple mists, Seven has been spending her days assisting Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Kim in effecting repairs to the engines and other essential systems, such as reinforcing the temporal shielding. Neelix has been tasked with salvaging essential items from areas of the ship that are accessible only with EVA equipment. He sets about his work with an odd amount enthusiasm, chattering to anyone who will listen that this is what he was born to do.

When the Talaxian returns from recovery operations on Deck Four he seems a little distraught, though, but he walks up to Lieutenant Torres with a determined stride. Seven watches from a corner as Neelix hands the Lieutenant a small item that he had stuck into his tool belt, indicating he had "found this in Tom's quarters".

The former drone's eidetic memory, after initial hesitation, identifies the near-shapeless piece of hairy fabric as approximating the form of a Klingon targ. Unlike the other items Neelix has brought to Engineering this one is clearly not relevant to ship maintenance, but it elicits by far the strongest reaction from the Lieutenant. For a moment she stands uncharacteristically still, before embracing the Talaxian for a very long time. She resumes her work with an apparently damp face but seemingly renewed energy, the tattered textile item resting on an overhead shelf as if it could observe what was happening.

During this otherwise busy period, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok's activities, due to his physical limitations, have been restricted to eliminating debris from the bridge and feeding it into the recyclers. It is valuable and important work, providing needed energy to generate new materials, but it does not escape Seven's notice that he is not fulfilling his task with maximum efficiency. Moreover, he repeatedly injures his shin on the same piece of protruding metal, eventually requiring Lieutenant Torres' intervention to activate the EMH so that he may effect repairs to Tuvok's knee.

And throughout, Seven observes. She calculates, and she considers.

Finally, she acts.

Her decision takes several days to implement, but it does not reduce her effectiveness in completing her mandated tasks. She does have to curtail the next three regeneration cycles, skipping one altogether. Finally, though, she has to seek Neelix' advice and is both surprised and pleased when he can provide almost immediate assistance in the procurement of the last item, which had proven elusive.

When she has completed her undertaking, she finds herself awaiting her next interaction with the Lieutenant Commander with an unusual degree of anticipation. The day seems longer than usual, even though she has been able to verify that the time ship has not been active in recent days.

…..

Day 112

He stands at his console, running one last round of checks before retiring for the night. The nebula outside has made accurate sensor readings nearly impossible, but it appears that there are no enemy vessels in sight. Ordinarily, logic would suggest that he does not need to re-examine the data as frequently as he does, but the frequent changes in this area of space also increase the probability of fluctuations in potentially harmful external emissions by up to 4.72 percent. This is a figure sufficiently high to warrant extra precautions, and so he considers it equally logical that he should take them.

Tuvok pretends not to have heard Lieutenant Torres' muttered comments about Vulcan paranoia as she passes the Tactical station. Peculiar personality traits such as the Engineer's impatience and the EMH's testiness tend to be magnified by difficult circumstances; all of them, including Tuvok himself, have found their tolerance tested on occasion.

So far, Tuvok considers, everyone has succeeded admirably.

Take the unfathomable enthusiasm with which Neelix persistently endeavours to enhance or at least vary the flavour of ration bars. The Captain has regularly lauded all these attempts, regardless of their decreasing success, without any doubt so as to make Neelix feel accomplished.

With the Talaxian well out of earshot, Ensign Kim briefly engages in speculation as to what Lieutenant Paris might have said about his latest and particularly egregious culinary effort. This, in turn, elicits the first smile from the Captain in several days, and Tuvok realizes it may have been precisely that effect which the young officer intended. It has not been lost on Tuvok that the Captain misses the companionship of her First Officer, as well as the pilot's frequent and inappropriate attempts at humour.

He raises an eyebrow in the direction in which he hears Lieutenant Torres' footsteps retreating, in anticipation of the particular clang – yes, there it is – that she has been producing for several days now every time she crosses the bridge. He resolves to speak to her about these temper outbursts when he next sees … is in physical proximity to her, just as a new sound reaches his ear. Whatever she has been kicking at so ardently and so frequently appears to have come loose, and he hears the sound of a piece of metal being picked up off the floor and flung aside with an ear-splitting clatter. He will doubtless have to include it in his ongoing recycling efforts.

Tuvok understands perfectly well that as a half-Klingon, Lieutenant Torres feels the absence of her mate keenly. The distance between himself and T'Pel is too great for even the most residual fiber of their telepathic bond to reverberate; there is an enduring emptiness in his mind where her essence should reside.

He becomes aware, unbidden, that he has lived without T'Pel's presence for nearly three years, six months longer than Lieutenants Torres and Paris have even been mated, and is momentarily grateful that his inner eye was not damaged. He recalls her image perfectly before he succeeds in summoning kolinahr and his serenity – however belatedly - returns.

The arrival of Seven of Nine by his side is a not unwelcome distraction. She has come to take him to the quarters he shares with Ensign Kim and Neelix, where he will consume his evening ration bar before attempting to meditate. He has not been successful in this effort for some time, though, since the Talaxian resolutely refuses to accept the fact that as a Vulcan, Tuvok prefers tranquility and solitude to cheerful and inconsequential chatter, however kindly meant.

Neelix' ever-present compulsion to emit sound stands in stark contrast to Seven's relative silence as they make this second of their twice-daily walks. At the beginning of their routine she used to ask many questions, but appears to have come to understand his reluctance – not dissimilar to her own, really - to participate in non-essential communication.

She places his hand in the crook of her elbow and covers it with the cool fingers of her left hand; he can feel the duranium reinforcements through the thinning fabric of his tunic. If she were still Borg, this is the place from which the assimilation tubules would emerge. Seven uses those digits now to indicate - with only the slightest pressure - where he should turn left or right; he does not resist, and her directions never fail him.

When she does speak these days, it always has a purpose. She will say things like, "At the thirty-first step past the turn, lower your head. A ceiling fixture has come loose overnight." Or, "Lift your right foot higher now. There is a tear in the floor panel."

On this particular day, her first comment is to remark that, "You may go straight now. Lieutenant Torres has succeeded in dislodging the bent panel of the environmental console."

With something akin to respect in her voice she adds, "It appears that her most recent acts of violence may not have been entirely random."

Tuvok stills for a moment as he realizes that Lieutenant Torres' target had been the very piece of metal on which he had repeatedly injured himself; but she left some time ago and so he cannot express his gratitude. Clearly, though, the reprimand he had intended for her repeated attacks on the ship's damaged equipment suddenly seems inappropriate.

They proceed down the corridor but then, at step twenty-eight, Seven unexpectedly directs him sharp right, rather than to continue straight ahead. Tuvok raises a questioning eyebrow.

"This is not the way to my current quarters," he says.

"That is correct," Seven informs him. "We have reached the door to your former office."

The office of the Chief of Security had been destroyed in a secondary explosion in the third Krenim attack, and since Tuvok was able to carry out his functions better on the bridge in any event, the office had simply been left as it was after the initial salvage effort. His arm tensing slightly under Seven's guiding fingers, he allows himself to be led across the threshold.

"I have cleared the floor, ceiling and walls of debris so you run no risk of injury, Commander. There are only two pieces of furniture, your cot from the men's quarters and a small nightstand for your clothing and comfort items. Both are located against the back wall, at twelve steps."

Tuvok advances and, as indicated, on the eleventh step he senses that he is approaching something solid. He reaches down and feels the bed, turns and sits down on it slowly.

"What is the meaning of this?" he asks. "Captain Janeway ordered that quarters be shared, in order to conserve energy."

"That is correct," Seven replies, matter-of-factly, as she states everything.

"But Captain Janeway also understands that you require no lighting, and that the environmental controls for the bridge include this room, so no extra energy is being expended. She agrees that you would benefit from time spent without companionship, provided you could do so without any extra drain on the collective. It was logical to make this room available to you."

Tuvok is momentarily at a loss for words, but recovers quickly.

"I do not recall the Captain or myself requesting a cleanup detail for this area of the ship."

"You did not. I did this work in my private time. Neelix helped me procure one of the additional pieces of equipment from Deck Four, and Ensign Kim moved your cot and nightstand. Please, allow me."

He can feel her reach for his arm and gets up, intrigued by what else she wishes to show him.

"Four steps forward, and four to your left," Seven instructs.

Tuvok reaches forward with his hand, and finds it touching a sink she must have mounted into the wall. On the shelf beside an oddly configured tap he finds a razor and a tube he recognizes, upon touching them, as having come from his old quarters.

"The storage tank connected to this unit holds a sufficient quantity of water to permit grooming for eighteen days. It can be refilled, of course."

Tuvok's hands move along the smooth metal contours of the sink almost involuntarily, feeling its outline, locating the tap. Finally, a thought occurs to him and he reaches for the wall. And although he knows there is no logical reason that the thing he is seeking to locate should be there, he feels its smooth, hard edges almost immediately.

"Careful, Commander. The mirror is not complete; one of the edges is quite sharp. It came from the quarters belonging to the Ensigns Delaney on Deck Four, where Mr. Neelix recalled seeing it. He was unfortunately unable to retrieve one that was fully intact. Do not damage yourself."

For a full minute, Tuvok's silvered eyes stare straight ahead at the partly broken mirror. And even though he cannot see the tired, unshaven face reflected within, he knows that that it is there, looking back.

"I am grateful for what you have done," he says eventually into the silence. "But a mirror is not a logical item to have spent effort on procuring."

He senses the slight displacement of air beside him as Seven nods her agreement.

"Quite," she confirms.

"But based on my recollection it appeared to serve as the central locus of your daily shaving ritual, regardless."

He frowns again but cannot dispute the truth of her observation, however illogical. And so he nods, reaching for the small tube. Because he knows that she is watching, he starts lathering his cheeks, facing the mirror.

"I am most grateful," he says.

Seven - however inexperienced she is as yet in matters of social nuance – readily understands that this is as much of an expression of appreciation as it is a dismissal.

"I will let you have your privacy then, Commander," she says, and silently heads for the door.

But he senses that before leaving the room she turns to watch him. The blade in his fingers begins to travel across his face, slowly and deliberately at first, but increasingly sure of its path.

His head is held high as he faces the mirror he cannot see and allows the silence to enfold him.

…..

The ingestion of her nightly nutrition complete, Seven settles into her regeneration chamber and sets the instrument for the usual cycle. She calls for the lights to dim, and closes her eyes.

Her features relax into a near-smile as she indulges in 24.8 seconds worth of speculation concerning the probable improvement she might be able to observe in Tuvok's efficiency over the coming days.

As it turns out, her estimate is rather conservative.