The transporter beam resolved into the figure of a woman, totally swathed in voluminous robes and veiled.
"Welcome to Voyager, Lehthea," Kathryn said.
The woman hesitated for a moment, then stepped off the transporter platform. "Captain Janeway. Thank you for giving me permission to visit your ship."
"I'm glad you came, although I am a little surprised after what happened when we contacted the station. We didn't expect any contact with us would be permitted." The captain gestured to her visitor, who followed her out of the transporter room and into the corridor, headed to the turbolift.
"And none has been, officially. It is how things are done among my people. As long as the truth is not publicly acknowledged, it is sometimes possible to accomplish what must be accomplished, despite our policy of isolation."
"You disobeyed your own rules?"
"I have lived on our station for many years, Captain Janeway. It has given me a somewhat broader view of life than that of our communicationist, the man you spoke with. He just came from our home world and is very rigid, compared to the standards of most space travelers, from my experience. My previous communicationist would have been just as shocked by the image you showed us, but he would have hidden it better. He would have been less . . . insulting . . . in the manner of his sending you away."
"But we would not have been permitted to proceed any further to your trading outpost by him, either?" Kathryn ushered her visitor inside the turbolift and said, "Deck Five."
"No, Captain. You would have proceeded no further, but you would have had no need. He would have let you know you had come to those who had the answers you seek."
The turbolift door opened onto Deck Five. Their destination was only a few steps away from the lift. The two women said nothing more until they had entered sickbay.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Paris stood by the biobed where Aimee was seated, supported by her foster mother's body, her hands circling the baby's waist. Harry Kim stood next to Marla Gilmore. Ensign Wildman and Icheb stood behind Tom. No one said a word as the veiled alien woman, seemingly floating because her costume completely hid her feet, approached the biobed. Small sounds, like that of someone inhaling quickly, could be heard coming from beneath Lehthea's veil. Kathryn wondered, with some vexation, if the woman were laughing at the child.
Slowly, the woman lifted up her veil, revealing a face that was much broader between the eyes than a human's, with a bulge over each eye that made her forehead appear bifurcated. A noticeable depression formed in the middle, where the bulges met at a low point. Lehthea's eyes were overflowing. "She has my daughter's eyes! Oh, Dehlea! My daughter! She is almost your image!" A slight choking sound came from out of her throat.
Tom stepped forward. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
Lehthea reached out and accepted Tom's arm, leaning heavily upon him. "No, I am not all right. I never will be again. But I will survive, young man . . . " She began to gasp again, and tears began to flow down her cheeks. "Forgive me, Captain Janeway. I apologize for the scene I am making." Lehthea put her hand to her eyes, as if she were trying to hold back her tears.
"Scene?" Kathryn asked, looking around, puzzled.
"Captain, if I'm not mistaken, our guest is hysterical," Harry whispered.
"Yes, Captain. The baby's cry was always so weak, we wondered if she were sick. But now . . . I think Marla was right. Her people just don't cry very loudly."
They waited a minute for Lehthea to bring herself together. Tom went to get her a chair, which he placed next to the biobed. The baby sat very still, gazing quietly at the visitor. Lehthea did not sit down, however, preferring to lean against the end of the biobed.
When her gasps became farther apart, indicating she was getting over her crying bout, Kathryn bought her guest some more recovery time by introducing her to the crew members in attendance. ". . . and we call the child Aimee," Kathryn said. "You said she looks like your daughter?" Kathryn said it cautiously, wondering if mentioning such a sore point would provoke another outburst.
"Yes, Captain," Lehthea said quietly, but calmly. "Her eyes, so green! Just like Dehlea's eyes. My daughter disappeared one cycle ago, leaving me a message that she had run away with one of the traders to our outpost. I was so worried for her. Where could they have gone? They could not have gone to his home planet. She had fallen in love with a young man who was of a race even less willing to come into contact with others than ours. The Shellisti trade only with us. Since we are so careful not to become involved with other races, they believe it safe to have contact with us."
"And you believe that Aimee is your daughter's child?" Kathryn asked.
"I am sure of it. Few of my people ever leave our home world. My communicationist Tedender was correct. And she looks exactly the way a child of a Shellisti and a Bardarean would look, and so much like Dehlea, I . . ." Lehthea paused, then said, "I came here in person so that I could be certain . . . and so you could be certain. With your technology, you can compare my heredity with hers, can you not? You can test us both?"
"Yes, I can do that easily," Tom answered.
"Let us proceed," Lehthea said gravely.
"Just let me swab inside your cheek. That should give me enough cells to test your genes if you're like 99% of the other humanoid races we see. I already have a record of Aimee's genes on file," Tom said, taking the sample confidently as he chatted to distract his patient. Kathryn was pleased to see how quickly Tom put Lehthea at ease. The legendary Paris charm was certainly an asset when it came to situations like this! She thought, wryly, that when the Doctor came back, she might suggest his next self-improvement project might be to incorporate a little more Paris into his matrix.
Tom handed the swab to Icheb, who immediately placed the swab in a medical instrument. Before the gap in the conversation became too awkward, the young Brunali called Tom. Tom shook his head knowingly as he viewed the results of the test. Turning to the interested parties grouped around Aimee. "There's no doubt about it, Captain. Almost 26% of Aimee's genes match up with Lehthea's. Exactly what one would expect of the sample from one grandparent, if a small number of the genes of one set of grandparents were common to them both, as is apparently the case here. And the mitochondrial DNA passed down from mother to daughter is a perfect match, too."
"I believe that is the confirmation you needed, Lehthea." Kathryn smiled weakly at her guest. Just behind her, she could see Marla's already reddened eyes fill with tears. Harry put his arm around Marla, who leaned her head against his shoulder. Kathryn felt terrible, knowing that all of Marla's worst fears had been realized.
"Yes. This is Dehlea's child. My granddaughter."
Marla wiped her eyes, saying, "I can have her ready to go with you in a few minutes. I just have to let Noah know so he can finish packing her things, and then I'd like a little time to say good-bye to her . . ."
Lehthea inhaled sharply, tears coming back into her eyes, "Oh, no! It is impossible for me to take my granddaughter back to the station with me!"
The humans stared at the Bardarean woman in shock. "You have no intention of taking her home?" Kathryn asked.
"I would love to bring her home, but how can I? You saw what Tedender's reaction was, and all he saw was her image! Can you imagine how it would be for her? My people would treat her as an abomination because of her . . . impure blood." The woman's voice broke several times as her breath caught in her throat.
Kathryn asked, "What about her father's people?"
"Captain, I cannot believe they would be willing to take her. As I told you, they have very little contact with others, even with us. This part of space has an unhappy history. There is much strife among our neighbors. The Shellisti protect themselves the same way we do, by staying apart. A child of mixed blood could never be accepted, not by my people, and not by the Shellesti." Lehthea stroked the baby's face tenderly with her hand. "Captain Janeway, could you find a home for her, one where she will be accepted . . . and loved, as she deserves?"
"Yes, she can find her a home," Marla said quickly. "Let me keep her, please? I've wanted to adopt Aimee from the first moment I saw her, but I thought it would be impossible." Marla was weeping again, but this time, Kathryn thought, more from relief than sorrow.
The Bardarean woman reached out to Marla, touching her cheek just as she had the baby's. "You are a good person, Marla Gilmore, to love a baby not of your own people."
"She *is* of my people. In my heart, she has always been the same 'people' as me."
Lehthea stood with her head bowed for a moment, catching her breath in what Kathryn could now see was a great sadness. When she spoke again, it was with a husky tone. "I wish my people had hearts like yours, Marla Gilmore. When I first saw Davon, I could not imagine my daughter could share souls with him. All I could see was how narrow his brow was. Now, when I see his face mixed with Dehlea's in Aimee, I know Dehlea's heart was open, more like that of your people. She could see beauty that I could not. If we were all like you, she would not have been lost to me. Dehlea is dead, isn't she? She would never leave her child unless she were dead."
"Yes. She and Davon died at the hands of the Borg. You know of them?"
"Oh, yes. One of the reasons we hide is because we hope the Borg will never find us." She glanced over at Icheb, warily, who shifted his weight from one foot to another and looked away from the woman's close regard of his remaining facial implant.
"We have been able to rescue several people from the Borg, including your granddaughter and Icheb. I'm sorry we could not save your daughter. She and Davon were already dead before we encountered the cube." Kathryn briefly considered telling her the rest of what she knew of the deaths but decided against it. Unless Lehthea asked directly, what good would it do to let her know the details? Instead, she shared something which was just as bitter, but which must be said. "Lehthea, we are headed back to our home, half a galaxy away. Once we leave here, it is doubtful Aimee could ever come back to visit you. You understand that if you let Marla adopt Aimee, she would almost certainly be lost to you forever."
"I understand. It cannot be helped," Lehthea replied softly, and lowered her head once more. After she lifted her head again, she slipped her hand within her robes and removed several objects that looked like data chips. "When we scanned your vessel from the space station, we saw you used this sort of technology for data storage. Are they compatible?"
"Let me check," Harry said, accepting one of the chips and moving to a computer console in the main office of sickbay. He emerged a minute later. "It works fine. I've got the translation algorithms working. It looks like it's full of literature files."
"Yes. Great literature, as well as information about our culture. This chip has what little we know about the Shellisti contained in it. And this one is for you, Doctor Paris. It contains information about physiology and body chemistry, mostly about the Bardareans. We have little information about the Shellisti's bodies, but what we do know is here, too. I am breaking many laws by giving these to you, but I want my granddaughter to know something of her people. I was going to ask you to share them with the person who will care for her, Captain. I am glad I can give them directly to you, Marla Gilmore."
"Lehthea, wouldn't you like to hold your granddaughter?" Marla asked.
The woman whispered, "Yes. You will permit it?"
"Of course," Marla answered.
Carefully, the Bardarean woman lifted up the child. Wrapping her arms around Aimee, she rocked her, murmuring to her softly, her broad face half hidden by Aimee's head. Finally, after a final hug, she handed her back to Marla.
Lehthea breathed in and out deeply and said, "My granddaughter . . . Aimee, as you call her . . . will be happy with your people. I am sure of it, and I am grateful. But I have a question."
"What is it?"
"This name you have given to my granddaughter? Does it have meaning? For my people, a name must always have a meaning. My own name means . . . joy." An ironic edge entered the woman's voice, which was anything but joyful.
"That's true for most human names, too. Aimee means 'beloved' in French, an Earth language," Kathryn explained.
"Who gave this name to her, Captain?"
"Marla Gilmore did."
Lehthea stroked the baby's face again, in what was clearly a gesture of great endearment. "If you have given my granddaughter such a name, I know you are the one who should raise her." She gazed beseechingly into Marla's eyes. "Please, do not think badly of me for not taking my granddaughter home. It is in Aimee's best interests to go with you. It is not in mine. She is all I have left of my only daughter and my husband, who died long ago . . ." Lehthea's voice broke. She quickly lowered the veils over her face again, but now there was no mistaking the sound of a very soft keening wail that came from beneath the concealing cloths. The cry of the Bardareans was, indeed, a quiet sound of desperation.
"Naomi, Mezoti, you don't have to wait here. I can call you when they come in."
"No, Ensign Mulcahy. I want to stay. I don't want to miss the chance to say good-bye," Naomi said.
The ensign said, "OK," and went back to his work at the console.
"Is it so important to say a ritual phrase when someone is leaving the ship?"
"This time it is, Mezoti," Naomi said sadly. "We won't be saying 'hello' to Aimee any more. She won't be coming back."
"She is being returned home to her family. Isn't this what the captain specified as the plan for all of us?"
"I don't want to see you go. Or Azan or Rebi, either. You're part of Voyager's family now, just as much as I am, or Icheb, now that we've rescued him from the Borg again."
"When we arrive at the Alpha Quadrant, everyone on the ship will be going home, with the exception of those of us from the Delta Quadrant. The Voyager family will be forced to say 'good-bye' then."
"Yeah, but the captain will work something out for all of you. Maybe you'll stay with Seven, and I can still see you a lot."
"It is possible."
"But that's still not the same. Aimee was so little when Marla started to take care of her. Marla's the only mother she knows. Even if this Lehthea knows who Aimee's family is, they're still going to be strangers. Aimee's real parents died. Marla should be able to keep her. And she probably would have, if I didn't mess things up by figuring out Aimee was a hybrid, like me." Naomi face and voice reflected her complete misery at being the instrument of this injustice.
Hesitantly, Mezoti put her arm around Naomi's shoulders, as she had seen Ensign Wildman do on other occasions when Naomi was upset about something. Naomi was often upset, Mezoti found, but then, Naomi had never been Borg. Having been Borg seemed to make it easier for Mezoti to accept things that could not be changed.
When the door to the transporter room opened, the two girls stood up. The Bardarean female entered, followed by Crewman Gilmore, Ensign Kim, Captain Janeway, and Ensign Sam Wildman. Mezoti moved away from Naomi to permit Ensign Wildman room to stand next to her daughter. She behaved as Mezoti had expected, placing her hand on Naomi's shoulder, just as she had just done herself. None of the adults appeared to be emotionally upset, although Crewman Gilmore's eyes were red from previous crying episodes.
"Do you want to hold her again?" Crewman Gilmore asked the Bardarean female. The woman nodded her veiled head and accepted the child into her arms. Mezoti saw Naomi duck her head down and place it against Ensign Wildman's body. It appeared to the Norcadi girl that Naomi may not be able to say farewell to Aimee after all.
The captain said, "Lehthea, there is one thing I've been meaning to ask you. Will there be serious repercussions for you from the manager of your station because you came here?"
The veiled woman made a strange noise in her throat. "No, Captain. I can assure you the manager of the station will give me no trouble . . . I am the station manager."
Mezoti was surprised to see that, for once, the captain was speechless.
The woman rocked the baby in her arms for a moment. "I have been on the station for many years, but I will not be serving there much longer. I have been expecting to be recalled home at any time to retirement."
"You will be returning to your home planet?"
"Yes, Captain. And the people on my home planet are not as . . . tolerant . . . as those here on the station and the outpost tend to be."
"Your communicationist is a tolerant person?" The captain clearly did not believe the Bardarean female.
"For my people, yes. He is relatively liberal. You see now why it is impossible?"
The captain nodded, a frown upon her face. "Yes, Lehthea, I can see."
As Aimee began to pull on the woman's veil, Crewman Gilmore stepped forward and disentangled the infant's hands from the cloth. "Aimee, you mustn't do that."
"Here. Take her back, Marla Gilmore. It is time I returned to the station, before they are forced to acknowledge my absence. If that happens, there may be problems."
Aimee was passed from one woman to the other. Once Crewman Gilmore had the baby in her arms again, the alien woman remained close to her for several seconds, her hands resting on the Voyager crew member's shoulders, the baby between them. Although Mezoti still had not had an opportunity to see the Bardarean's face, Crewman Gilmore seemed to be communicating with her in some way. Suddenly, in a swirl of robes and veiling, the woman called Lehthea ascended onto the transporter platform. "Good journey to all on your ship, Captain. Marla Gilmore and . . . Aimee."
"To you also, Lehthea," the captain said.
Ensign Mulcahy, at the captain's nod, punched in the code to activate the transporter beam. The mechanism hummed briefly, and in swirl of light not unlike that of the fabric the Bardarean woman wore upon her person, Lehthea was gone. Aimee was still being held in Crewman Gilmore's arms.
Mezoti looked at Naomi, who was staring up at her mother in amazement. "You mean Aimee isn't going away?" the half- Ktarian girl asked.
"No," her mother answered gently. "Aimee's grandmother decided it would be better if she stayed with Marla and with all of us on Voyager."
"Yay!" Naomi cried, giving her mother a quick hug and running over to where Marla was standing. "I'm so happy for you, Marla. And you, too, Aimee!" Naomi threw her arms around Crewman Gilmore, who smiled down at her and then looked at Mezoti.
"Are you happy for us, too, Mezoti?" Crewman Gilmore said, smiling at her.
"Yes, Crewman Gilmore. I am." Mezoti felt her own lips quirk into a smile as she approached Aimee and her mother.
Naomi said, "You know, I felt awful when I realized you were going to lose Aimee because of my discovery."
"You don't have to feel awful any more. I should give you my own personal commendation, Naomi. You too, Mezoti. I would have been worried sick the whole trip back to the Alpha Quadrant, thinking I might have to give Aimee up someday. Now that we know who Aimee is and that her grandmother wants me to adopt her, I don't have to worry anymore."
"And we have all kinds of medical information on her people now, too, so that if she gets sick again, it will be easier to treat her," Naomi's mother added.
"Is this a happy ending, Mom?"
Ensign Wildman laughed. "As close as we're going to get today. Maybe we should all clear out of here so Ensign Mulcahy can do his work?"
"Oh, don't mind me. I like listening to a story with a happy ending every now and then," he said. "Accept my congratulations, too, Marla."
"Hey," Tom greeted B'Elanna, as he entered the mess hall. "What is this, a party?"
"Just about. Although it's nothing compared to what Neelix is planning for later in the week. We're going to be celebrating Aimee V. Gilmore's official adoption with what Neelix says is a 'baby shower.' "
"Actually, I think it's supposed to be 'Voyageuse.' That's the feminine ending our little traveler should have for her name. I forgot all about that when Marla first took her in."
"Don't rock the boat, Tom. I think everyone is happy enough with the Gilmore part. No one is going to care what her middle name is. By the way, are you off this evening? Or are you pulling helm duty tonight again?" The hint of a whine slipped into B'Elanna's voice at the idea that they would be apart once again for the entire night.
"Baytart's at the helm tonight. After dinner I'm on sickbay duty until 2400, but with any luck, it'll be a quiet night. Maybe you could come by later and . . . keep me company?"
B'Elanna's grin matched his at this so very casual suggestion. One quiet night in sickbay they had kept each other company in a most satisfying way. With any luck . . .
"Good evening, Captain, Commander," Tom said, cutting B'Elanna's musings short as she echoed his greeting. "Are we back on course to pick up the Doc?"
"We are, Mr. Paris. What is this, a party?" the captain asked.
"Just about," Tom responded. Kathryn and Chakotay waved to the group crowding into the lounge area of the mess hall, but they opted to take a table in the corner after choosing a meal. "Maybe we should get something to eat, too? To fortify us for later?" Tom remarked.
"Sounds like an excellent idea to me . . . Doctor Tom."
"Cheer up, Flyboy. Playing doctor with me is nothing like regular sickbay duty, and you know it!"
Tom's expression immediately became cheerful, just at the thought.
"Chakotay, look at Aimee, on Marla's lap. She gets so excited now whenever Naomi or Mezoti play Peek-a-boo with her. A few weeks ago, she didn't even know how to react to such a simple game. Now look at her."
"Naomi's 'boo' seems to be getting a much bigger reaction than Mezoti's."
"I don't care. Mezoti's playing with the baby! That's progress enough for both of them."
Chakotay grinned and nodded in agreement before taking a sip of his drink.
Kathryn took a sip of her coffee, observing her crew interacting with one another: Harry Kim. Sam and Naomi Wildman. Tom and B'Elanna. Marla and Aimee Gilmore. Noah Lessing. Seven of Nine. Icheb, Azan and Rebi. Neelix. Jenny and Megan Delaney. Ensign Golwat and Chell. Sue Nicoletti.
"Look at them, Chakotay. Everyone from the original crew to Maquis members to Equinox crew to former Borgs . . . all of them are Voyager crew members now-even those that weren't even born when we first came to the Delta Quadrant. It's so wonderful to see them together like this, happy and content for once. We don't usually see the crew in such a relaxed and happy state of mind, do we?" Kathryn said.
"We don't usually see anyone's fondest wish granted, Kathryn."
"No, we don't, do we?" She took another bite of her meal which, for once, was being eaten in relative anonymity, thanks to the celebration at the other side of the mess hall.
After chewing another bite of his food, Chakotay said, "You know, Voyager has been a little like 'Kathryn's Ark' in the last year or so, only instead of two by two, we seem to be getting them in batches of five."
Kathryn laughed, but her expression evolved into a melancholy one. "We've lost people in bunches so often. I'm glad we're gaining some ground."
"True. And after what's happened with Icheb and Aimee, I hope we never have to give up Mezoti or the twins."
Kathryn snorted. "From the disinterest the Norcadi have shown Mezoti, that's not too likely, is it? And by the law of averages, I'd say we're getting further away from Azan and Rebi's home. I can't believe we'd be going the right way for all five of them, can you?"
"Hard to say. I hope you're right."
"Whatever happens, they have a home here on Voyager as long as they need us-and a home in the Federation, when we get there, too," Kathryn vowed.
"Think you'll have to fight for it when we get home?"
"Oh, no doubt about it. I'm going to be doing plenty of fighting when we get home-for the Maquis, for the Equinox crew, for Neelix. Everyone on this ship has done all I could ever have asked of them, and more."
"Are a few promotions in order, then?"
Kathryn smiled. "I have to undemote Tom first."
"Maybe you'll have to clear that with Admiral Hayes, now that we're going to be in regular contact with headquarters."
Kathryn grinned crookedly. "Fat chance. If I want to promote someone who deserves it, I'm going to promote them. Not that I've forgotten about our response to the admiral. Thanks to the Doctor's house call, I put it off, but it's about time we got back to going over our draft."
"Absolutely not! Tonight I'm going to relax, just like the rest of my crew. It was an emotional day for me, too, you know."
Chakotay couldn't disagree with that. "Fair Haven is running on Holodeck One tonight. Are you going?"
Kathryn placed her coffee cup with the rest of her empty utensils on her dinner tray. "No, I don't think so. I think I'd rather spend a quiet night-or maybe not so quiet a night," she amended ruefully, as loud squeals of excitement coming from the lounge area drowned out what she meant to say. "Just a nice night at home with 'the family.' "
Chakotay picked up her tray along with his own and walked to the recycler to dispose of the dishes before joining his captain and their crew for an evening's relaxation.
The faces all around her tonight were ones she knew very well. That was good.
The little faces were playing the funny hands-over-eyes-and- then-say-boo-game. That was the one she liked the best right now. It made her want to kick her feet up and squeal whenever they did that with her. She tried to get her hands up like they did and say boo, too, but it didn't work out right just yet. She'd have to keep trying.
She wasn't sure, exactly, what had been happening for the last little while. Something had been going on with Mommy. Her face had been wet a lot. Ever since that very strange face left today, though, everything had gotten much better.
The big faces all seemed to be talking to one another tonight. Although she couldn't understand what all those big words they were using meant yet, she could tell from the intonation and the way they were saying them that they were very good and happy words. She heard them say her name, Aimee, and Mommy's other name, Marla, a lot, but mostly, she didn't care what they were saying. She would worry about trying to understand them tomorrow.
Right now, all she wanted was to feel all warm and cuddly and secure with Mommy and the rest of the family. And suddenly, realizing she did feel that way, she just had to crow so loudly that everybody stopped their games and their talking and looked at her with their smiling faces on for her to see.
And then she knew. They were happy-and so was she.