The Choice

by jamelia

"Will the defendants please rise?"

From the corner of her eye, Kathryn Janeway could see her chief engineer and helmsman clasp their hands and lean forward, as if they wanted to stand up in support of the five in front of the court martial judges. No, they were her former chief engineer and helmsman now. She had to remember that. Sighing mentally, she narrowed her focus to the four men and one woman who stood rigidly before her. She found herself holding her breath. If she felt so nervous for them, what must they be feeling?

"Noah Lessing, Marla Gilmore, James Morrow, Brian Sofin, and Angelo Tassoni. You have been charged with Murder in the First Degree for your parts in taking the lives of members of an alien race and using them as fuel while serving as members of the crew of the U.S.S. Equinox. Throughout history, military personnel have used the defense your counsel presented for you in this case: that you were carrying out the orders of superior officers.

"History has taken a very dim view of this defense; the Federation looks upon genocide as an intolerable act. Under ordinary circumstances, you would answer fully for these crimes.

"However, this court cannot ignore that you were not living under ordinary circumstances when these events occurred. After the first death occurred, which appears to have been accidental, it can be argued that the alien's attacks upon the Equinox crew introduced an element of self-defense to your actions. The use to which you put the corpses of your attackers was heinous; but, undeniably, you were acting under the orders of your superiors. To punish five of the most junior officers of the Equinox when their superiors are well beyond the reach of any court's prosecution seems unjust, particularly in regards to the testimony of your most recent commander, Captain Kathryn Janeway. By all accounts, you have all performed exemplary service aboard Voyager, accepting the punishment meted out by Captain Janeway without complaint. Your sincere expressions of remorse have also been duly noted; indeed, you will be forced to live with the knowledge of your actions for the rest of your lives. To require additional retribution when all the circumstances of this case are considered could be construed as cruel and unusual punishment.

"This court therefore finds the 'Equinox Five' not guilty of the charge of murder. At the recommendation of Captain Janeway, you will be restored to the ranks you had attained at the time of your initial posting to the Equinox. Whether you are to remain in Starfleet or leave of your own accord shall be your personal choice. This court martial is dismissed."

The expectant hush in the courtroom was quickly dispelled as a hundred people began to clap and speak at once. Kathryn watched her five crew members-former crew members, she really had to remember that-hug and shake hands with each other and their defense team, as well as with others who began to push themselves through the clot of people that sprang up behind the defendant's bench as soon as Admiral Clendenning pronounced the word, "dismissed."

Despite the noise and tumult of emotion surrounding her, Kathryn could not help feeling somewhat isolated. Disconnected. She had grown to value the individuals who were standing at the front of the courtroom. She knew them just about as well as she had all the others who had served on Voyager during its six and a half year journey homeward. Thanks to "Starfleet Protocol," of course, there were very few she knew well.

At the beginning of the voyage, she had tried to buck the strictures. She had shot pool in Sandrine's and attended picnics at Neelix's resort. By the time the Equinox crew came on board, however, about the only public activity she attended with the crew was the holodeck recreation of an idyllic Irish town of the sort that was a fantasy even at the time period in which it was set. Even then, she went mostly her own way. It had seemed to be safer, although it was a lot lonelier. There had been one captain on board other than Kathryn Janeway, of course, but she had transformed him into her first officer at the very beginning of the trip, eliminating him as a person with whom she could safely socialize.

Now was not the time to ruminate about past decisions that could no longer be changed. Taking to her feet, Kathryn inched her way towards the aisle of the hearing room amongst those who were trying to get to the defendants to express their relief.

One of those attempting to move forward, she noted, was a woman hampered by the squirming of the toddler in her arms. She was making little headway in the jostling crowd. With a few, judiciously placed jabs of the elbow, followed by a sincere sounding, "Oh, I'm so sorry," Kathryn was able to get next to the woman to help clear the way for her. "You're not helping your aunt very much, Aimee," the captain remarked, with mock sternness, to the toddler in front of her.

Aimee turned her broad face to the captain. Totally unintimidated, the child gurgled a laugh and reached out to brush her hand on Kathryn's cheek.

What was a captain to do? Keeping a straight face was no longer an option. Catching hold of the child's chubby fist, Kathryn gave it a quick kiss. The woman holding the child turned around, momentarily startled, and then gave the captain a grin. "Captain Janeway! Isn't it wonderful!"

"Yes, it is. Where is your son? I thought he'd be running interference for you."

"He's already up there with Marla! He abandoned us, he was so happy with the verdict."

"As was I."

"It sounds like we have you to thank for putting in a good word for them."

"I only told the truth, Mrs. Wilson."

Before they could say any more, they were joined by a tall young man and Marla Gilmore, who once again was a Starfleet Ensign. The baby cried out an excited, "Mah!" as Marla reached them.

"Honey! Come to Mommy! Let me hold you!" Tears of joy trembled at the edge of Marla's lashes, waiting for the slightest excuse to roll down her cheeks.

The baby promptly flung herself at Marla, who kissed her baby as soon as she was safely wrapped in her arms. Somewhere along the line the threatened tears disappeared from Marla's face. Her eyes were still somewhat moist and red, but a genuine smile lit her face.

Kathryn hung back a bit to observe the family group until Marla addressed her. "Captain Janeway, thank you so much for putting in a good word for us. I'm very grateful. All of us are."

"You earned it, Ensign Gilmore. I couldn't have asked for you to have acted with any more courage than you all did once you became 'assigned' to Voyager. And then to take in our little refugee, here . . ."

Marla smiled and planted another kiss upon her daughter's broad brow. "You know that was no hardship, Captain. It's the best decision I ever made."

"Now that you've got your commission back, what duty will you ask for, Aunt Marla?" asked the tall youth standing next to Ensign Gilmore's sister.

"I haven't decided to ask for anything specific . . ." Marla hedged.

"You must have some idea, Ensign," Kathryn asked.

"Well, I know what I don't want. I don't want posting to a ship."

"After traveling the length of the Delta Quadrant, that's not exactly a surprise."

Marla and her family joined Kathryn's laughter, but then Marla replied, more seriously, "It's not only that. The Doctor assured me the Borg implants in Aimee's brain shouldn't cause her any trouble, but I'd still prefer to stay close to a variety of medical specialists. She's such a special case. Besides, Aimee needs to learn what life on a planet is like. I want to stay put for a while."

"Most of the time, it's better for your career to have two or three postings to ships before taking a planetside post."

"Some things are more important than my career. You know what I mean?"

Kathryn sighed, "I do. Best of luck, wherever you end up, Ensign."

"Thank you, Captain." Marla extended the hand which wasn't cradling her child. Kathryn shook it firmly.

As she turned to say something to Angelo Tassoni, who was next in line, Kathryn became aware of a voice which she had known very well for so many years, although she had not heard it in a while. As Kathryn worked her way down the line, several times she caught the eye of her former first officer, chatting amiably with Noah Lessing. When Kathryn finally arrived to give Mr. Lessing her own wishes for a successful future, she could sense Chakotay's presence as he stood beside her, just as he had for so many years on Voyager.

"It's good to see you again, Chakotay. You look good in mufti."

"You're looking good yourself, Kathryn. I hear congratulations are in order."

"Congratulations? For what?" she answered, genuinely puzzled.

"Promotion to admiral. It's a sure thing, I understand."

"Oh, that! Just rumor. You know how that goes . . . especially after Voyager!" she laughed.

"You know what they say about rumor. Where there's smoke . . ."

She shook her head, smiling playfully, "I'm really not interested in a promotion now, Chakotay. I just got back to the Alpha Quadrant! One mission, no matter how long, doesn't make me ready for the Admiralty."

"Going to be like Picard?"

"And be a captain forever? No, I don't think so. But I'm just not . . ."

Chakotay whispered, "He's on his way over here."

Kathryn turned her head. As Chakotay had said, the most senior captain on the court martial jury was on his way over, smiling warmly in greeting. Kathryn freshened her smile for her fellow captain, although having another person join her discussion with Chakotay now was the last thing she wanted or needed.

"Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay. Or should I say Admiral Janeway and Captain Chakotay?"

"No, not admiral. I was just saying to the commander that I didn't feel quite ready for that position yet. But Captain Chakotay-that does have a nice ring to it."

She glanced his way. His smile as devastating to see as ever, but she thought she could detect an edge of sorrow in it that anyone less familiar with the man might well miss.

Picard said, "I would have to agree with Captain Janeway about your worthiness to become a captain."

"Thank you, sir, but that won't be happening." He hesitated a moment, fixing his gaze on Kathryn. "The truth is, I've just resigned my commission."

"I'm sorry to hear that," intoned Picard. Kathryn was unable to respond at all.

"I've accepted an offer to become part of a civilian scientific expedition. Head of the anthropology/archaeology team. It was an offer I couldn't pass up."

"Ah, well, then, I understand, even though I regret losing you to the private sector. In fact, I envy you. Archeology has always been a passion of mine . . ."

Kathryn stood quietly between the two men as Picard chatted with Chakotay for several minutes about their mutual field of interest. She barely heard what they were saying, too lost in contemplating the irony. For once, she would have been of the same rank as Chakotay, had he accepted a promotion and she turned down one of her own. Of course, the chance of their being stationed anywhere close to one another was highly unlikely. Their meetings would have been rare, even though Starfleet protocol would allow them to explore what she had shunted aside on their long journey home. How clever, really. To follow the protocols exactly was to deny a personal life to the captain one way or the other, unless a couple had the good fortune to meet when both were junior officers.

". . . have a meeting with my new employers this afternoon, but I wanted to stop by and hear the verdict. Kathryn?"

"Yes, Chakotay?" she answered automatically.

"I have to say good-bye now. I will see you again before I leave for my new position."

"Of course. We'll have to plan a get-together for the whole crew right away, or they'll all have scattered to the four winds."

"Or the four quadrants," Chakotay quipped.

Laughter, all around. Why did it sound so hollow? His steps, going up the aisle and to the doorway, echoed loudly. The courtroom had emptied while the three had stood there, discussing captaincies and scientific expeditions, archaeology and anthropology. She turned her full attention to her fellow captain, whose expression was sympathetic. "It's always painful to say goodbye to those who have served with you for a long time, particularly a first officer."

That was an opening she couldn't resist, even in her current, somber mood. "I understand that's something you haven't had to experience for a very long time, Jean-Luc."

He laughed. "You're right. Commander Riker has been amazingly faithful. He'll die as first officer of the Enterprise unless I move on and cede him the captain's chair."

"Any chance of that happening soon?" she asked out of the side of her smile.

"Someday, but not that soon." He sobered. "The truth is, a ship's complement does become one's family, does it not? I'm no more eager to leave the Enterprise, for that reason, than Will is."

"I understand perfectly."

"I'm sure you do! More than most, I expect. What you did to bring your crew home-rescuing others along the way-it's one of the most stirring events in the annals of Starfleet history. I don't know if I could have done it."

"I didn't do it alone."

"Of course not. You had your family to help you."

"And now they're all leaving the nest."

"And what does Mama do when the babies all fly away? Raise a new family? Become an admiral?"

Kathryn could not quite stifle a groan. "Not you, too! I thought you, of all people, might understand. I was never interested in becoming an admiral."

"I do understand, Kathryn. More than you know. But after your achievement, there will be more pressure on you to become an admiral than I experienced. The daughter of a famous, much- loved officer; a modern-day Odysseus who, unlike the original, managed to bring most of her crew home after an unimaginably long journey . . . I don't envy you if you feel you must turn down the promotion, not at all."

"How have you dealt with this, Jean-Luc? I know they've asked you more than once to step up to the admiralty."

"Indeed they have. Several times. I simply remember why I wanted to be a Starfleet captain in the first place, and then I evaluate whether or not I've reached the goals I've set for myself to achieve before taking that next step. So far, the answer has always been 'no,' so I've been able to say, 'no,' when they've asked me. What about you? What does Kathryn Janeway want for herself?"

"Truthfully, I don't know any more. I did, in the beginning. I was going to be the best damned science officer in the 'Fleet. And when I became interested in command, I was going to be the best captain I could be. I was, too, but sometimes . . ." She sighed and confided, "I had a lot of help being the best captain I could be. I'm not sure I'm confident I'd be the best admiral in Starfleet, even if I accepted a promotion."

"I don't think anyone really is asking you to be the best admiral."

"I'd have to believe I could be, whether or not I actually was. At this point, I'm not sure I even believe I could be the best captain any more. Especially since you're still around."

He laughed again, but as he clasped his hand gently on Kathryn's shoulder, his compassion was palpable. "Good-byes like this are always stressful. It might be colouring your judgment just a trifle, don't you think?"

"It's not that. Some of the decisions I made ended up well more because we were lucky than I made the right choice, or because Chakotay's advice and support made the difference. He won't be around from now on to tell me one of those made up 'legends of my people' to help me see what I'm missing. I depended upon his guidance, Jean-Luc, even when I didn't follow his suggestions. If it had only been up to me, I'm not so sure Odysseus would have come home at all."

"Perhaps it's not too late to make him a better offer than he's gotten from the Questor Group."

"Becoming an adjutant to a fledgling admiral doesn't sound like a better offer than leader of a scientific . . . did you say, 'Questor Group'?"

"That's the foundation that is mounting the expedition, yes. You didn't hear Commander Chakotay mention that when we were discussing it?"

"I must have been distracted. Yes, I must have been," she said bitterly. The Questor Group. More irony. "I was under the impression they were only a 'philosophical discussion' group."

"That's all they were, for many years. Recently, they've obtained the backing of a private foundation. They've branched out, funding a very successful research expedition to the Beta Quadrant two years ago, among other projects."

"I see. That's what comes from being out of the loop for so long," she said ruefully.

The two captains took a few steps in silence before Picard offered, "Kathryn, may I give you a word of advice?"

"Of course."

"Chakotay and I are not the only ones certain you will receive an offer of promotion. It's a foregone conclusion. But if you feel uncertain about accepting it for any reason, don't hesitate to decline the honor. As it is, your name will be mentioned in the same breath as any of the legendary captains in Starfleet history. Your place in the pantheon is already secure after all you've accomplished-with the help of your crew, of course! Don't be afraid to be cautious, or, for that matter, to strike out in a totally new direction. Whatever you do, be comfortable in your choice. It is your life to live, not anyone else's."

"Thank you, Jean-Luc. It's good advice," she said with sincerity.

There really wasn't much more to be said. After slowly moving towards the exit while exchanging good-byes, Picard walked out of the courtroom briskly. Kathryn followed more slowly, lost in thought. There was a lot for her to chew over; Picard was certainly right about that.

One path of life stretched ahead, as easy to see as the vacant corridor in front of her. She knew the rumors were true. At one word from her, she could become an admiral, her reward for surmounting the seemingly impossible odds to bring Voyager home. While she had never really lusted after the position of admiral, she had never been averse to becoming one, either.

That future now seemed a colder one than she had ever imagined. Admiral Janeway, married to her work. Administrating. Filling in a niche in the admiralty that needed to be filled, until someday, she might be lucky enough to end up with an assignment in the scientific side of the command structure, analyzing data from the Stellar Cartography departments of all the ships in the fleet. Evaluating scientific phenomenon was something she might actually enjoy-but how would she feel about working with the discoveries made by others instead of doing the discovering and studying herself?

If she did turn down an offer to become an admiral, could she start over again, building a new crew and a new family? She could probably recruit Tuvok again, perhaps a few others, too. It wouldn't be the same, of course. It never could be. Many had already chosen to follow much different paths in life. Chakotay, Tom and B'Elanna, Samantha Wildman-all of them had chosen to leave Starfleet for various reasons. Still, if she asked for another ship posting, at least she might be able to explore new spatial anomalies herself. She wouldn't be reduced to receiving data about them weeks, even months later.

That was assuming she was assigned to a scientific mission, which had been the plan when Voyager had first been given to her. As it turned out, it had become her mission in a most unexpected and spectacular way. Who could have dreamed her brief foray into a simple military rescue should come close to becoming a lifetime's journey of discovery? Bringing back a drive that rivaled the transwarp conduits of the Borg in speed should have cemented her value in that sort of assignment.

Circumstances could change, however. After the stunning losses incurred during the Dominion War, assuming duties that were more military, more defensive in nature, might be the greater need. She might even become a diplomat of sorts, trotted out for publicity value. That was Picard's role much of the time. And if another war like the one she had managed to miss thanks to blundering into the Delta Quadrant should begin, she might have to send many people to their deaths, whether she was a captain or an admiral. She knew how devastating that had been for Tom's parents, who had only just begun to put the pieces of their marriage back together, now that Admiral Paris had publicly come out in favor of releasing the last of the imprisoned Maquis.

Dark thoughts began to tug at her, threatening to drag her into dangerous shoals. Once, Kathryn had known the paralyzing bonds of depression, chaining her to a bed when she'd watched her father and Justin perish, helpless to do anything to save either one. She'd been brushed by it again on the journey home, when the endless night of the Void had reminded her a little too much of that time in her life. The prospect of spending two years seeing nothing ahead or behind her had been too symbolic of her time of grief. Taking actions that allowed them to break out of that prison of darkness had been her lifeline then-not that her crew and Chakotay didn't have a great deal to do with that, too.

And now this-all this praise showered upon her for bringing everyone home should be for someone else, not her. After all, so many had died. She hadn't lost everyone; that should matter to her. But now she was beginning to feel just as helpless as she had when she'd lost her father and her fiance. Her ability to shape her own destiny had slipped out of her hands, seemingly again out of her own control. There were choices to be made, but none of them seemed palatable.

She had chosen this life. She had always known the risks. Now, after spending years in the Delta Quadrant, struggling to survive and to get as many of her people safely home as possible, the "normal" life of a command officer didn't seem nearly as appealing as it once did. How had she wandered so far from this life she had always wanted?

As she reached the steps, ready to leave the dark confines of the building where the courtroom was located and step out into the bright sunshine of a rare San Francisco day, she shook her head to free herself from her grim reverie. /Never satisfied, are you, Kathryn?/ she chided herself. But another side of herself countered, /But maybe there's more to life than your past choices permitted. Maybe now is the time to take stock and change direction. What more could anyone expect to achieve than survival, in the face of the odds you managed to beat? How many more times can you expect to do that? Who would pay with their life next time?/

She squinted in the light. Down the walkway, to her right, Picard was striding resolutely towards the main Starfleet Headquarters building. To her left, a small knot of people that she recognized as newsvid reporters who had followed the trial were gathered. It wasn't difficult for Kathryn to figure out why they were there. At the first sight of Voyager's captain, they came dashing towards her, shouting out requests for her reaction to the verdict. /Better to get this over with,/ she thought, smiling brightly for their recorders. ". . . a just verdict, under the circumstances, as the judge stated in his remarks. I'm happy they will finally be able to go on with their lives, as the rest of Voyager's crew members have been able to do."

Waving off their requests for further comment, Kathryn fled down the rest of the steps and hurried along the center walkway. In the copse of trees a hundred meters down the walk she thought she had glimpsed a dark-haired man with a distinctive tattoo speaking to another man, clad in civilian clothes.

As she neared the two, she realized she recognized both voices. The resonant tones of one belonged to her former first officer, as she had expected. The other voice she had heard only through comm lines for many years, and only once since her return home, several months ago. They had spoken of the dog she had left in his care almost seven years before; Bear would now remain with him for the rest of her life as a remembrance of what they once had meant to one another.

Kathryn misstepped, not enough to lose her balance, but enough to draw the attention of both men. The one with his back to her turned and asked, "Kath?"

"Mark!" she answered, extending her hands to him. "It's good to finally see you again."

He wanted more than a handshake. Pulling her into an embrace, he admonished gently, "When you called, you promised to come see us."

"I'm sorry, Mark. I've been tied up with things."

"As always," he laughed.

As he released her, she had to admit her fears at seeing him had been groundless. She was happy to see him again. He had been her friend, after all, for many more years than he had been her lover. It was easier than she had anticipated to slip back into that older role. Enough time had elapsed for the open wound of his loss to heal over, though the scar might remain forever. "You could have come to see me, too! It's not like you didn't know where I was. And how is your wife doing?"

"She's fine, Kath, and you're right, of course. I'm sorry I couldn't make it sooner. I should have, I know, but you know how things are. Busy, busy . . ." His voice died away.

"Well, what have the two of you been talking about? Have I interrupted that 'business meeting' you were going to this afternoon, Chakotay?"

"As a matter of fact, you did," he replied.

"I'd better leave you to it then. I don't want to disturb you . . ."

"No, Kath, don't go. We were discussing business, but this wasn't the meeting we're going to have this afternoon. We were discussing you."

"Were you, now?" She arched her brow.

"I think that's my cue to be leaving. I'll see you this afternoon, Mark? And Kathryn, call me later. I'd like to know your reaction to what Mark has to propose to you."

She brushed Chakotay's arm as he passed by her, trying to ignore how much it hurt to think that such a simple touch would soon be impossible to share with him. Starship captains never dwelled on such matters for long-not if they knew what was good for them. Smiling enigmatically, she turned to Mark. "Propose to me?" Her expectation of what that word might mean regarding her former fiance had a much different meaning at one time than it would now, as it surely would for him as well.

"I do have a business proposition for you, Kath." He nodded to Chakotay as he retreated from them. Gesturing towards a nearby bench, Mark cleared his throat as they sat down. At last, Mark was facing her again. "Chakotay was an excellent officer to you, I gather."

"The best. That's why you're hiring him away from me, aren't you?"

Mark looked stunned for a second, and then laughed. "I was under the impression he wasn't going to be assigned to your command again."

"Probably true," she answered quietly, hoping these simple words would not reveal too much of her feelings to Mark. From his penetrating stare afterwards, however, Kathryn knew that was a vain hope. Mark had known her for far too long, despite their long separation, to miss the emotion beneath the phrase.

Mercifully, he chose not to pursue it. "I was asking Chakotay's opinion about how you might react to our little proposal. Not that what he said would stop me from asking you anyway."

"Ask away."

"If Starfleet offers you the chance to be an admiral, will you accept the position?"

"Not you, too, Mark!" she said in exasperation.

"Do I take it that it's not a foregone conclusion? You might be open to an alternative?"

"Depends upon the alternative."

"Good," he said, grinning. "It will take several months to get everything all squared away, but here's what the Questor Group has in mind . . ."