"The ABC's of Parenting"

A Star Trek: Voyager Story

By Lal Soong Part A: First Comes Marriage

Even Harry had found it amazing when the question suddenly popped out of his mouth. "Will you marry me?" He and Seven had not been dating for that long. Hell, they hadn't even been *on* a date when the moment hit him.

There they had been crawling through a Jeffries tube, trying to repair damage to the power relay, when Harry began thinking about how well they worked together, both on and off duty. Thank God Chakotay had insisted that they team up to solve problems!

Anyway, as they made their way across, Harry had casually mentioned the possibility of them spending some shore leave together. Then wham! The words had come out and there had been no way to take them back.

Seven had stopped, twisted around to face him. He had expected her to react in one of two ways: either dismiss the proposal as impetuous and continue on as though it had never been suggested, or fill his ears with a few choice words.

Instead, she responded, "Yes Harry. I will agree to that affiliation."

Something about her response nagged at him. A voice in the back of his mind told him, he was rushing. Seven was still figuring out how she fit into the human universe. Or was it just Tom Paris admonishing him every chance he had? "Harry, she was a Borg for eighteen years! The doctor may have removed her mechanical parts, but she can't so easily shed the emotional link to the collective."

Although he understood where his friend was coming from, the simple truth was that Harry was already hooked. He was infatuated with Seven of Nine, former Borg, and he didn't want to fight his desire for her. On a small starship with a crew of less than one hundred and fifty moving in one direction, his choices for a mate were rather slim.

And he loved Seven. Didn't he?

*****

They originally had made plans to have the wedding ceremony in the mess hall as Tom and B'Elanna had done for their's. However, Voyager happened on a welcoming beacon from a resort planet known as Haldik P'rim only days before the wedding ceremony. The signal turned out to be much more than a beacon, containing a large data stream of information on the pleasures Haldik P'rim had to offer, and the couple quickly changed their minds about where they wanted to be married.

"I've often thought about being married," Harry told his best friend as Tom helped him prepare for the ceremony. They were inside Tom and B'Elanna's quarters, while B'Elanna was with Seven, offering the bride assistance. "But I'd never actually given much thought to how I would get married. Why am I so nervous? I've had weeks to prepare!"

"Harry, from my experience, it doesn't matter how little or long you have to prepare for a wedding," Tom replied. "The event changes your life forever and that's a pretty scary thing."

"Thanks for making me feel better," Harry said sarcastically as he undid his tie for the third time. "Maybe we should have opted for wearing casual clothes to the ceremony. It's suppose to be a pleasure planet, anyway."

Tom grabbed his friend by the shoulders and gently spun him around to assist with the tie. "When it's all over with, you'll be glad you wore this monkey suit. Besides, think about Seven walking down that aisle or rather beach wearing a long white gown. She'll smile at you, perhaps shed a little tear."

"Seven?"

"Don't underestimate the power of love, Harry. As she's walking toward you, closing the gap between your mutual destinies, you may become a bit emotional yourself. But you'll cherish the memory of that moment for the rest of your lives. Not to mention the one of stripping that gown off her after the celebration."

"Tom!"

"B'Elanna to Tom," the lieutenant's wife came over his commbadge. "Is the groom ready to beam down to Haldik P'rim."

"Of course, he is," Tom replied with a smirk. "Give us five minutes to make it to the transporter room ahead of you. We don't want the bride and groom accidentally meeting in the corridor and jinxing their marriage. The groom's nervous enough."

"So's the bride." When Seven of Nine had first come aboard Voyager, B'Elanna had openly demonstrated mistrust and hatred of the former Borg, but since Seven and Harry had started dating, the chief engineer had reevaluated her relationship with her. Even so, Tom had been surprised when his wife offered to serve as Seven's matron of honor. "All right. I love you and I'll see you down on the planet."

*****

The P'rimarian beach was crowded not only by Voyager crew members, but many natives as well, waiting for the bride to arrive. Most P'rimarians, it turned out, were quite romantic and they would probably add this wedding ceremony to the data stream in their welcoming beacon.

A soft P'rimarian melody began playing and Tom and B'Elanna strolled arm in arm down the beach to take their places on opposite sides of the groom. The tempo of the music picked up and the crowd turned expectantly.

The moment Harry saw Seven walking in the Doctor's arm along the beach toward him, his fears dissipated with the calm breeze of Haldik P'rim. She loved him. They were really going to spend the rest of their lives together. Pausing only a few meters before Harry, the Doctor leaned forward and kissed Seven on the cheek. He'd been a great influence in Seven's life since she'd been severed from the Collective and he was the closest man she had to a father in her life. She joined Harry and after sharing a knowing smile, they turned to face the captain.

"Harry, Seven," Janeway began, "it gives me great pleasure to stand here today and unite two of my best crewmen in marriage. Most starship captain's are fortunate to perform a marriage ceremony once or twice. At least the Delta Quadrant has afforded me one luxury in that this is the third I've been asked to perform." She glanced over at the other two married couples, first Tom and B'Elanna standing with the bride and groom, then Walter Baxter and Susan Nikoletti. Susan was holding their infant son in her lap. The entire crew smiled back at her and she was certain there would be more requests in the coming months.

"Harry, will you honor, cherish and obey Seven in sickness and in health?" Janeway asked.

"I will," he responded.

She asked the same of Seven. "I will," the bride responded.

"Harry and Seven have opted to write short vows to one another," Janeway informed her crew. "Harry?"

Having practiced before an amused Tom, Harry hoped he could tell Seven how he felt about her without choking on any of his words. "Seven, when you first came aboard Voyager, you were like a lost child. You didn't understand how to be an individual or how to interact with people who were not collectively linked to you. Since then, you've not only learned to accept a new identity, but new friends as well. You opened yourself up to me and allowed me to share your joys, your sorrows, your triumphs and your defeats. You've grown into a remarkable young woman and I promise to you now before all these people, our crew mates and our friends, that I will stand by you from this day forward."

Silence fell between them as the former Borg took in her husband-to-be's words. She glanced inquiringly toward their captain and Janeway nodded her encouragement. "Harry," Seven began with a deep sigh, "in the beginning of our relationship, I was both rude and presumptuous toward you. Others warned you about becoming involved with a former Borg. Yet despite all that, you encouraged me to search within myself for my individuality. For a long while, I felt as though I had no home. While I had no desire to return to the Collective, neither did I share the crew's enthusiasm to make it back to the Alpha Quadrant. Although I'm still uncertain about where I want to be, I know with whom I wish to make my home. Wherever Voyager and time takes me, I plan to remain loyal by your side."

Both bride and groom turned expectantly toward their captain. "With the power vested in me," Janeway said, "I now pronounce you husband and wife. Harry, you can now kiss your bride." As Harry leaned forward and planted his lips firmly on Seven's, the crowd clapped and whistled to cheer them on.

Neelix was the first to get up from his chair. "Let the celebration begin!" he exclaimed. Of course, Neelix had insisted that they leave the details of the reception up to him and they were not disappointed. Even the food tasted good. The natives of Haldik P'rim were delighted to host the celebration.

Instead of spending one festive night there, Harry and Seven had made a honeymoon out of Haldik P'rim, with the captain's permission . Haldik P'rim had proven itself the perfect pleasure planet, and most of their fellow crew members partook in its luxuries right along with them. One of their council members, Derax, helped Neelix select the perfect location off the shores of the Great Haldik Ocean.

"Thank you, Mr. Neelix for giving us this excuse to take a day away from our duties and enjoy ourselves," the council representative said to the Talaxian as he handed Neelix a drink.

"Derax, I was under the impression that your people celebrated many holidays." He took a sip of the drink and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet liqueur flavor. "Delicious. I'll have to obtain the recipe before we leave Haldik P'rim. Back to the subject of holidays, though, I hear quite a few of them center around your children."

The two men turned toward a group of children running and playing nearby. Naomi Wildman and Jeremy Paris were among them and Neelix waved when Naomi met his gaze.

We must take pride in our children," the councilman said. "They are our future."

"That they are. Voyager has only three children on board, but I have a feeling there will soon be more."

"Yes. Your newlywed couple Harry Kim and Seven. I do not believe they will wait long either."

"I babysit the Voyager children often while their parents are on duty. Naomi and Jeremy love the holodeck adventures. Andrew is still a baby, but he loves spending time in the mess hall listening to me bang my pots and pans while I cook."

"You cook as well?"

"Ah yes. I have many duties aboard Voyager. I've been their guide, morale officer, and adviser. Tuvok has taught me a bit about security and Captain Janeway even appointed me as her official ambassador."

"Ambassador! That's impressive."

"Much about our Talaxian friend is quite impressive," Janeway said as she and Tuvok walked up to them.

"Indeed," the Vulcan said wryly. "Even I must admit that he has made considerable strides in tactical defense."

"Why thank you Mr. Vulcan," Neelix said. "Coming from you, that means quite a lot."

"Wonderful party you two have assembled," the captain said, smiling as she looked toward the beach where the newlyweds were dancing to the native music. "Harry and Seven not only seem to make a great couple, but along with Tom and B'Elanna, I believe we have ourselves the beginning of a couples social group forming among Voyager."

"As morale officer, Captain," Neelix began, "I am pleased to note that several more crew members have paired up. I wouldn't be surprised if we had three or four more weddings to attend in the next year."

Janeway smiled. Although she'd once had her doubts about her crewmen pairing up and attempting to raise families this far from home, she know realized that nothing could help get them through the journey that still lay ahead more than a soul mate and the knowledge that they could live on through their children.

*****

"This reminds me of a pleasure planet in the Alpha Quadrant called Risa," Harry told his new wife during their second day on Haldik P'rim. They were sitting on lounge chairs, sipping exotic drinks served to them by natives.

"Oh? And who did you take to this planet of pleasure?" she asked with a hint of jealousy.

"No matter who I've loved in my past, you do know that I love only you now?" As he spoke, Harry thought about his time with Libby. It now seemed a lifetime ago. He thought about his feelings toward B'Elanna and wondered if Seven doubted his infatuation for her was over.

"Of course," she responded just as Tom and B'Elanna came to join them, sipping at their own drinks.

"The service here is wonderful," Tom told them. "If we were to settle down in the Delta Quadrant, this would be it. What do you think, Lanna? Could you see us raising our children on this world?"

"As relaxing as this is," she responded, "I think I would miss Voyager and her engines, and I know you'd miss having a ship to pilot. I don't think either of us were meant to settle down-not on a planet."

"There's an old saying about having too much of a good thing," Harry mused. "I think we've come pretty close to that kind of perfection. And I don't mean just here on this planet. I mean the four of us. We've done good."

Tom tilted his head back and closing his eyes, grinned widely. "Leave it to Harry to get sentimental on us."

A figure stepped up from behind them, and Harry craned his neck to get a good look at the man. He was wearing a hooded robe that obscured most of his features, but his narrow crystalline eyes burrowed through Harry's repose. He was not one of the natives, but the citizens of Haldik P'rim extended their hospitalities to many off-worlders. "You are the newlywed couple from the starship Voyager?" he asked in a gruff voice.

"Yes, we are," Harry replied.

" For the good of my people and their enemy, I would like to present you with a gift as a symbol of a truce." He pulled a small stone statue out of a voluminous pocket.

Graciously, Harry accepted the token. "Thank you, but who exactly are your people?"

The alien ignored Harry's question. "I wish you continued luck in your journey and long health to your children." With that, the figure walked away from the foursome.

"Very odd," Seven said, studying the small stone statue in her husband's hands. "He does not know us and yet he generously shows us goodwill with this......thing."

Harry furrowed his brow, replaying the strange alien's words inside his mind. 'We're not at war with anyone. So what did he mean by a symbol of truce?" He flipped the statue over and studied it from all sides. A face was carved into one side, its mouth formed in a solemn expression. Harry could barely make out the outline of hands below as though the carver had not yet finished his work.

"What was that about perfection, Harry?" Tom asked. "I think you just jinxed us."

"Well, Tom, if you really believe that, then why don't you hold on to this little talisman," Harry said, tossing the statue into his friend's lap. "I think I can live without it's luck."

******

A few weeks after leaving Haldik P'rim, Seven went to the Doctor complaining that Neelix' food was giving her worse indigestion than normal. She suggested that maybe she had given up her bio-nutrients too soon and was surprised when the Doctor informed her she was pregnant. Seven was carrying Harry's daughter.

Harry had once gone to Tom Paris for advice on how to approach women. These days, he asked Tom countless questions about being a parent.

"How do you hold something as delicate as a baby?" Harry asked as they stepped onto the turbolift after bridge duty. "How much do you feed it? How often do you change it?" he asked before his friend had a chance to answer the first question.

"Harry, it'll all come to you naturally." He instructed the computer to send them to the mess hall. "Raising a child is a day to day learning experience. I don't have all the answers. No parent does. But I'm sure your daughter will be in good hands with you and Seven as her parents to guide her." Tom sighed heavily. "Besides, as you recall, Jeremy didn't stay at the infancy stage very long. Tom was also a bit anxious, for he had learned only days ago himself that B'Elanna was pregnant with their second child.

The turbolift doors opened and they stepped out and across to the mess hall. They found Neelix in the kitchen supervising while his two little helpers cleaned up the dinner mess.

"Jeremy, your Daddy's here to pick you up," Neelix said.

The boy turned around to rush into his father's arms. "Daddy!"

Harry watched as his friend scooped the boy into his arms and knew in that moment that he couldn't wait to embrace his daughter and hear her call out excitedly to him.

*****

t B: Then Comes Labor Six months later.....

"You know, we have to decide soon," Tom said as he came up from behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her enlarging belly. She was standing in front of their dresser, using the small mirror to comb her hair.

"I know, I know," she said, agreeing not for the first time. "I just want our baby's name to be perfect." She had had only two weeks to come up with their son's name. Yet she had not found the task difficult at the time, naming him after her human grandfather, a man she'd never met. Was she now making it harder than she had to?

"Then let's run through the whole alphabet if we have to. How about Abigail if it's a girl or Albert if it's a boy?"

B'Elanna wrinkled her nose and set the comb down in front of the small statue they had been given on Haldik P'rim. Although Harry had given it to them as a joke, Tom viewed it as his good-luck charm and insisted that they keep it in full view at all times.

"Ok. Barbara for a girl...Benjamin for a boy."

Their four-year old son stepped into their room and climbed onto their bed. Wiping at his eyes, Jeremy tried to focus on his parents. He had only just awoke and was still wearing his one-piece pajamas.

Pulling away from her husband, B'Elanna said, "We better head for the mess hall, or we'll be late for our breakfast date." She dashed toward the exit door with an amazing speed for a woman beginning her third trimester.

Tom scooped his son into his arms. "How about Cassandra or Christopher?" he called out as he tried to catch up with her. "I've heard of pregnant cravings, but are you really in that much of a hurry for Neelix' cooking?"

"Actually, I'm ravenous," she admitted as they stepped onto the turbolift. "And I don't want to think about baby names on an empty stomach."

Jeremy began squirming in his Father's arms, and Tom released the boy. "You know, while we're in the mess hall, we could get some of the crew to suggest names." This earned him a quick jab in the stomach before the turbolift door opened. "What did I do?" Silently, he wondered how many more of B'Elanna's mood swings he could endure. He had heard that pregnant women often suffered through hormonal imbalances, but this was getting a little ridiculous.

As they entered the mess hall, Tom spotted Harry and Seven and waved in their direction. Jeremy ran ahead of them to sit beside Harry. In the past several months, he had grown attached to the ensign like a favored uncle. B'Elanna, however, was more interested in flagging Neelix down as the Talaxian walked out of the kitchen with a large bowl of some type of esoteric casserole. "Don't worry. There's plenty for everyone," Neelix was telling her as Tom gently grasped her by the shoulders and directed her toward Harry and Seven's table.

Neelix followed them and began serving up the dish. Tom didn't have the heart to tell his friend that it didn't look or smell like anything his stomach could handle for breakfast.

"You call this a serving?" B'Elanna complained. Quickly, Neelix obliged her with another scoop and she did not hesitate to start eating. Although she didn't seem to have as voracious an appetite, Seven of Nine found the food palatable.

Tom and Harry eyed one another leerily. They understood each other's plight. Only three more months, Tom thought, and he tried to convey that sentiment to his best friend through a slight nod.

Harry sighed and raised a bite of the questionable dish to his mouth. Deciding he could stomach it--barely, he took a second bite. He turned toward his wife, wondering if the dish was agreeing with her sensitive stomach. Besides dealing with pregnancy, her body was still adjusting to being weaned from the bio-nutrients that had been her energy source for nearly two decades. She looked a little pale to him.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She nodded wordlessly and wiped at her mouth with a napkin. Although unsure, Harry decided to wait until they were alone to question her further.

"B'Elanna and I have not been able to choose a baby name yet. We're going through the entire alphabet today if we have to," Tom informed them. "We're on the D's....how about Daphne for a girl or Desmond if it's a boy?"

"Oh, I don't think so!" B'Elanna exclaimed. "Daphne sounds like a wallflower." in

"Ok, then you try the E's."

Sighing reluctantly, B'Elanna said, "how about Elizabeth?"

"I had an Aunt Elizabeth."

"Good."

"She babysat me a lot when I was little. Made me sit in the corner for hours at a time with a data padd memorizing passages from the Bible. She used to tell me 'Tommy, frolicking is a sin. I won't have any relative of mine running around making a fool of himself.'"

"Well, there aren't any boy's names beginning with 'E' I'd care to name my son."

"May I interject with a Talaxian name?" Neelix asked. They turned toward him a bit reluctantly. "My best friend as a little obe.was named Eljoah."

Tom and B'Elanna looked to one another, reflecting for a mere second before shaking their heads and uttering in unison, "No, thanks."

"Suit yourselves." Moving away from their table, Neelix began offering the casserole to other crew members.

"Frank or Farrah," Harry offered. "What do you think, honey? You want to suggest a couple names beginning with G?" Gently nudging Seven, Harry realized that her attention was not on the conversation at their table. He followed her gaze to Ensign Wildman, who was having breakfast with her daughter, Naomi. Why was Seven so interested in what Wildman was doing? "Seven?"

She turned back to their group and tried to smile sweetly--something she hadn't quite mastered. "I am sorry, Harry, for being so easily distracted."

"We were just tossing around names for Tom and B'Elanna's baby. I'm glad we decided on a name right away." Their little girl would be named Annika, the name Seven of Nine was forced to abandon when she became assimilated by the Borg.

"How about it?" Tom said. "Know of any decent "G" names?"

"As Borg, we dealt solely with designations. However, since my reintegration with humanity, I have partook in a few holonovels. There was a character named Grant in one of the simulations."

"Well, that's not so bad," Tom said and turned toward his wife, who was vigorously shaking her head.

After dishing out a few portions, mingled with a few declines, the Talaxian noticed Tuvok enter and sit at the middle table. It was time to switch to his role as morale officer. Setting the bowl aside, he did not bother offering the Vulcan a serving. The security chief's taste buds were too bland.

"I couldn't help noticing that most of our fellow crew members have paired up," Neelix began as he sat down. "And yet day after day, you continue to eat breakfast alone."

"I prefer not to engage in idle conversation," the Vulcan said, less than hopeful that Neelix would recognize the hint.

"Don't you ever get lonely? Everyone around us seems to have someone." He gestured around the room. "But you and I are part of the unlucky few."

"Need I remind you that I have a wife back on Vulcan."

"In the Alpha Quadrant, thousands of light years away! I'm sure she would understand if you wanted to seek companionship in her absence."

"I have no desire. You are displacing your own loneliness upon me. Your desire to find a mate is commendable, but I neither share it, nor foresee myself partaking in what has become a ritual on board this ship. Why is it that although you have now known me for several years, you still continue to attempt to invoke emotion in me? "

"I suppose I've always enjoyed a challenge."

"It will never work."

"You really are as bland as the food you eat," Neelix finally realized.

"On the contrary--"

"Janeway to Commander Tuvok," the captain came over the commlink.

Neelix furrowed his brow, trying to determine whether or not he saw relief in the Vulcan's expression over the interruption. He quickly dismissed the notion as he listened in on the conversation between the captain and tactical officer.

"Sensors have picked up a rather large starship," the captain informed him. "Its engines are powered down although we are unable to detect anything physically wrong with the ship."

"Nor should we conclude that they are a hostile force," Tuvok countered.

"Nonetheless, I'd prefer to have my chief of security by my side when we meet up with them. Report for bridge duty immediately."

Although Tuvok had not been scheduled for bridge duty until the beta shift, he was nonplused by the change in plans. Indeed, he thoroughly expected that duty would require him to work through both the alpha and beta shifts. "Understood." He stood and addressed Neelix before leaving. "We will have to continue this conversation at a later time."

If it were not for his Vulcan keen sense of hearing, he would have missed the Talaxian's response as he walked toward the exit. "Quite all right. I can find someone else a jngage in lively conversation."

*****

Tuvok stepped onto the bridge and insinuated his place at the tactical alcove. Scanning the area, he worked out a mental picture of the fleet they were about to encounter. Janeway looked back at him from her chair, a strained expression on her face. Beside her, Chakotay also awaited the Vulcan's analysis, but looking a little less pained.

"They do not appear to be powering up any type of weapons system. Nor does their position appear defensive," he informed her. "However, the fact that they are floating in space without any visible signs of engine trouble is reason enough for concern. Recommend we go to yellow alert."

"Agreed," the captain responded and Tuvok activated the yellow-alert klaxons. "Ensign Wildman, Take us in at warp two, but be prepared to use evasive maneuvers if necessary."

"Aye Captain," Samantha responded.

They were in a no-choice situation, Tuvok knew. To her credit, the captain never backed down. She lived by the motto that the captain would go down with the ship if necessary. Tuvok trusted her judgment and instinct told him that if there was a way past any dangerous situation, Captain Kathryn Janeway would lead them through it.

Tom Paris stepped onto the bridge and Samantha Wildman yielded the conn position to him.

A light began flashing on the Vulcan's console. "Captain, we are being hailed," he informed her. He barely waited for her to order it on screen before doing so.

An alien with angular facial features and beady eyes appeared before them. "You are the starship Voyager from the Alpha Quadrant, are you not?" he asked.

"Why yes," the captain responded, standing. "How have you come to know of us?"

Instead of answering her question, he issued a demand. "We wish to speak with a member of your crew, a Talaxian named Neelix."

About two years had passed since Voyager left the last region of space familiar to their Talaxian guide. There was no discernable way this alien should be aware of Neelix.

"How do you know about Neelix?" she asked cautiously.

"Our friends from Haldik P'rim have done nothing but extol his virtues."

While their stay on the planet where Harry and Seven had officially taken their honeymoon had been pleasant for the entire crew, Janeway could not fathom what Neelix might have done to warrant such attention. Not that Neelix wasn't outgoing enough to catch the attention of anyone within ten kilometers of him, Janeway mused with a slight smile. But how had news of their Talaxian guide-turned-ambassador gotten this far?

She wanted those answers, so Janeway decided to grant the alien's request. She smiled at him and said, "He'll be with you momentarily." She tapped at her commbadge. "Captain Janeway to Ambassador Neelix." She didn't often use the title she had graciously given him some time ago, but felt it was appropriate now.

*****

Inside the mess hall, Neelix had been cleaning up after breakfast and preparing some food stuff for a couple new dishes he planned to serve for lunch. Naomi and Jeremy were mixing ingredients for him and getting nearly as much on them as inside the bowl. Neelix admonished them to be more careful, but the crux of his attention was on B'Elanna, who had lingered to munch on some leftovers. How could she eat anymore? He wondered. "Don't you have something you need to take care of in Engineering?"

"Engineering is currently in Lieutenant Carey's capable hands. I'm working the beta shift, barring any emergencies, until after the baby is born." She slipped a papaya stick in her mouth and spoke in between chewing. "You know any good names beginning with 'K'? Before Tom went on bridge duty, that's where we'd left off."

Neelix sighed as he half-turned to stir a dish he'd just placed on the burner. "There's Kathryn, of course."

"How would the captain take it if we named the baby after her? Would she be honored? Or would she be embarrassed?"

That was when the captain's page came through. "Captain Janeway to Ambassador Neelix."

Taken slightly aback by the use of his honorary title, Neelix was slow to answer. "Ahh, Neelix here. Yes, Captain?"

"You're presence is needed on the bridge."

"On my way." After severing the link, the Talaxian turned his attention back to the dish he was stirring. "Caerilian pate sauce. It'll ruin if not stirred every couple of minutes."

"Don't worry," B'Elanna said. "I can play cook while your gone." She glanced back at her son and Naomi Wildman. " And babysitter."

Studying her radiant face, Neelix wondered when family life had domesticized her. He shrugged and stepped out of her way as she came around the counter and entered the kitchen. "Just keep stirring it until it's a thick paste. Then take it off the burner and cover it. I'll be back as quickly as I can."

*****

"Seven, we need to talk," Harry said as they stepped into the Engineering alcove where they were working on their latest project.

"We will talk as we work," she responded, picking up the data padd that contained their notes.

He grabbed her by the wrist. "No, this is too important. I want you looking at me while I'm talking to you." He removed his hand, suddenly feeling conscious of his forcefulness.

"All right."

"I saw how you were looking at Ensign Wildman."

"I was looking at her little girl and wondering if our daughter would be similar in nature."

"No, that's not what you were doing. Maybe on the surface. Maybe you even believed that was what you were doing. Seven--" Harry caught his breath. "Maybe we were hasty about getting married. I should have given you more time to explore your humanity. I mean, I can understand if you're having feelings that are confusing for you. I just want you to be honest with me."

"Honest with you? I do not know how to lie. As a Borg, we drones shared everything."

"Okay, lying was a poor choice of a word with you. I want you to be *open* with me. You are no longer a Borg. I cannot read your every thought--nor would I want to. But I need to know the important stuff like....are you attracted to Ensign Wildman?"

"Such feelings are irrelevant. I belong to you. I am having your baby." She rubbed at her abdomen.

"No, you don't belong to me. You are my wife, and I do love you, but no one belongs to another person."

"I love you, too."

"I believe that," Harry said, placing a hand on her hip. "But I also believe that you are still in the process of fully discovering who you are."

"Do you wish to sever our affiliation?" Seven's hand was still rubbing at her abdomen.

"No! I just felt that this was something we had to address. Can you promise me to open yourself up as you continue to realize who you are?"

"Yes, of course."

With a heavy sigh, Harry reached for the data padd. "We better get to work. We'll discuss this more later."

*****

Janeway studied her Talaxian ambassador as he stepped off the turbolift and frowned in consternation as his gaze met up with the alien on the viewscreen. "Captain, how can I be of service?" he asked diplomatically.

Before Janeway could respond, the alien on the screen spoke. "You are Ambassador Neelix, the one our P'rimarian friends spoke so highly of?"

"Ah, yes....I'm Neelix."

"Good. I am Telar. We need your help. Our planet has been at war for a very very long time, and we have finally reached the point where both sides have agreed to discuss a treaty. Problem is, there are still a lot of individuals, some of them high up in the ranks, that harbor a lot of animosity. We need a neutral mediator. That's where you come in. If you agree to serve as our mediator, I assure you the rewards will be great. We could supply your ship with enough cargo to sustain you for the next several months."

"That's a very generous offer."

The captain raised an arm to stop Neelix before he agreed to the job. "I'm sure it is," she said. "But we need more information. Why have you been fighting this war?"

"Several millennia ago my people, the Vardin, and our enemy, the Balia lived on the same planet; that which is stiare ur homeworld. The majority of their people left voluntarily when they developed warp capability....a technology they refused to share with my ancestors. You can probably imagine the difficulties the remaining Balia suffered at the hands of my people. They were blamed and ridiculed for the actions of their government."

This reminded Janeway of her own refusal to share Federation technology with the Kazon. They had declared war on Voyager and she and the majority of her crew had been lucky to escape Kazon territory in tact. "And this continued for a long time, I take it?" Janeway asked. She wasn't sure which side to sympathize with. Their was seldom a clear line in warfare.

"It still occurs today. Probably even more so since my people developed a warp technology of their own. That's when the slave auctions began. The main Balia force soon learned of this practice, and attacked our homeworld and many of the off-world colonies we'd established in defense of their fallen comrades. My people did not fair well as the Balian's weapon technology far superceded ours. Soon it was as if we were the slaves and they the masters. I'm sure, Captain, that you can understand our strong need to end the age-old war."

"Or risk annihilation. Give us a few this to confer among ourselves." Glancing back at her tactical officer, she wondered what Tuvok had to say about this exchange. Should they trust this alien? She gave the Vulcan the hand signal for mute.

"I believe he is presenting us with an accurate, yet somewhat vague, account of his people's history," Tuvok told her. "I suggest we learn more about them before proceeding."

Turning toward her first officer, Janeway sought his wisdom. "If they meant to attack us, they would have done so by now. I say it wouldn't hurt to talk with them."

"Captain," Neelix interjected, "might I remind you that our food supply is running dangerously low? We need to consider the crew, the ship. These supplies they offer could allow us to live in comfort for several mnteds. I know you are concerned about my well-being, but I am only one member of your crew. Let me take this risk for Voyager."

Although Neelix often exaggerated their chances of starving, Janeway realized that their current supply wouldn't last more than a couple weeks. "Mr. Tuvok, reconnect me to the Vardin ship."

"Captain Janeway, have you reached a decision?"

"Telar, I understand your desire to end your conflict, but we simply need more information before we can agree to this exchange. Would you permit our beaming you aboard our ship, so we can discuss this more openly with my senior staff inside our conference room?"

The alien nodded. "Very well, you may beam me aboard your vessel. However, I have one small request. May my sister accompany me?" A woman nearly as tall as Telar moved to stand beside him.

"Of course."

I look forward to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement. Telar out."

The captain activated her commlink. "Attention. This is the captain speaking. I want all members of the senior staff to report to the conference room immediately." She severed the link. "Tuvok beam them directly to the bridge," Janeway ordered.

"Aye Captain," the Vulcan responded.

A moment later, the aliens appeared about six meters in front of Janeway. "Welcome to Voyager. If you'd follow me, we can sit comfortably inside my conference room." She gestured toward the direction of the room and after Telar nodded, she led him and his sister inside.

First Tuvok, and then the other members of the senior staff joined them.

Harry, Seven of Nine, B'Elanna, and the Doctor were quickly briefed by Chakotay and the conference commenced.

"Please Telar, tell us more about your situation," Janeway said. You've already told us that your slave auctions continue today. Why should we sympathize with you?"

"There are those among us who do not sanction the auctions." Telar nodded toward his sister and she offered a polite smile. We believe the Balia natives should be permitted to live freely where they choose. I personally have helped many slaves escape to the Balia homeworld. Ralea has been giving out food and first aid to refugees."

"You should see them, captain," Ralea said. "Many of them hide away in underground camps."

"And what are your government's views?" Janeway glanced at her first officer, seeing a possible connection between Telar's group and the Maquis.

"They are opposed, of course. We stand in the way of their profits. However, they are unaware of my involvement with the freedom fighters, and since I'm high enough in the official government, I've been able to negotiate a peace conference."

"Why exactly do you need Neelix to mediate these talks?" Chakotay asked.

"The war has been going on for far too long. We need input from someone who can remain neutral--from someone who has nothing at stake."

"What do you have at stake?" Tom asked. " Maybe we can sympathize with you if you gave us a little personal information."

"Our children," Telar responded. "Their lives are in danger."

"We hope to see them again before we die," Ralea added. "So our world may live on."`

"A commendable motive," Tuvok interjected. "For them, the war should have ended long ago. What has changed to make now seem like the appropriate time? And, even if a truce is called between the Vardin and the Balia, what of your own faction? Are we looking toward the outcome of a civil war?"

"Our mission has been to end the slave auctions and to free our children. We hope to accomplish both during the negotiations."

"I understand your need to end this war," Janeway said, "but why do you believe a man you've never met can solve problems your people have been unable to work through for decades?"

"Our friends from Haldik P'rim, they've been scouting for a suitable candidate for the last several years. I trust their judgment."

"Haldik P'rim, the pleasure planet!" Harry exclaimed. "We visited their world nearly six months ago. You know of them this far out?"

"Captain," Neelix began, "we did become friendly with the locals. I told one of their council members quite a lot about myself. I'd say if Telar is friends with the P'rimirians, then that's good enough for me."

Telar smiled. "I promise you, Captain Janeway, we will be very generous in supplying you with necessities to make your journey more comfortable."

As she did every day since they'd been flung into the Delta Quadrant eight years ago, Janeway thought about all the obstacles that stood in their way toward getting home. A miracle had brought them this far. Right from the beginning, she had known that they could not pass up any opportunities along the way.

"Permission granted," she responded.

"Thank you, Captain Janeway," Telar said. " If you bring one of your shuttlecrafts to our planet's surface, we will load it full of cargo before the talks begin as a gesture of goodwill. And if all goes well, there will be much more to follow."

As the commander of this vessel, it was her duty to remain suspicious during any first contact. Right now, she questioned the validity of the Vardin's need for help. Although she couldn't shake this nagging doubt about the outcome of these talks and felt Tuvok's scrupulous eyes upon her, Janeway couldn't refuse this gesture. They were near the point of zero replicator rations, and she didn't relish the thought of living without coffee.

" Tom, Harry, you will escort Ambassador Neelix to Vardin and help load our gifts onto the Delta Flyer. Voyager will establish orbit around the planet."

"Captain, might I suggest that you permit me to make the journey as well," Tuvok said.

"Agreed." The captain returned her attention to Telar. "Allow us fifteen minutes to prepare."

The alien nodded his approval. "Very well, Captain. I appreciate your willingness to help."

"Captain Janeway," Ralea began, " while my brother is helping load your shuttlecraft, would it be permissible for me to have a tour of your lovely little ship?"

Over their journey through the Delta Quadrant, Janeway had offered many such tours to other alien. She saw no reason to deny this one. She turned to her former Borg officer. " Seven, would you do the honors?"

*****

"Would you mind my asking you about your facial jewelry?" Ralea asked as she and Seven headed toward Engineering. They'd already visited the hydroponics bay, stellar cartography and holodeck 2.

"I was once Borg," Seven responded. " Surely you've heard of them." The Vardin woman shrugged. "You're very fortune. The Borg conquer other species and assimilate them into their collective to gain knowledge and power."

"How does this work?" Ralea asked, raising her hand toward Seven's cortical implant. Flinching, Seven grew suspect of the alien's motive.

"It enhances my visual cortex, allowing me to perceive spectrums invisible to my human eyes." They stepped inside Engineering and Seven was eager to change the subject to the warp core and other mechanisms of Voyager. "This is main Engineering. Before us is the warp core, which holds plasma specifically designed to sustain Voyager at warp speed for several days if all systems are at optimal." She went on to explain the layout of the ship's engines. "Since we are thousands of light years from any Federation outpost, we rely heavily on trade negotiations to keep all systems at minimal acceptable levels."

"Yes, I understand your predicament. Your warp technology is similar to ours. Perhaps we can be of some help to you in that capacity as well."

"Excellent. The captain will be pleased."

"Thank you for the tour. Now, do tell me how long before your baby will be born?"

Startled by the question, Seven hesitated. She brought her hands to her belly and thought about the day when labor would come. "Approximately three months. Since Harry and I know we are having a girl, we've already chosen Annika for her name. It was my name before I became Borg."

"I too am looking forward to bringing my child into this world."

"You are pregnant as well?"

"No. I am unable to have another child. My son is in the Sierra. The Balia placed him there." Grabbing Seven by the hand with the cortical implant, Ralea grew tense. "You will help me retrieve him!"

Seven didn't know how to respond. She wouldn't make a promise she might have to break. Why did this alien believe she had the power to help her anyway?

*****

"I can't believe you asked her that!" Tom said as he and Harry walked toward the shuttlebay.

"You told me once yourself that I shouldn't rush into a relationship with a former Borg."

"Yeah, but that was months ago. She wasn't your wife or about to have your baby back then."

Harry nodded reflectively. "Maybe she was only looking at the little girl and wondering what motherhood will be like as she claimed. Why am I being so paranoid and jealous?" He wished desperately for a chance to apologize to her before he left for this mission and knew there was no time. "I'll have to make it up to her when I get back."

"Harry, sometimes a little jealousy is healthy for a relationship."

"Is that the voice of experience talking?"

Tom chuckled, not admitting any guilt. "Maybe, but you don't have to be jealous of another woman."

Harry hoped his friend was right. Although Seven had given him no reason to doubt he wasn't satisfying her sexually, she was still exploring her humanity. What if she suddenly discovered another woman could satisfy her better?

"So, what other names have you considered?" he asked, trying to redirect the conversation as casually as possible.

"Lisa, L'Tok.......Mary, Matthew.....Nellie, Nathan.....we kind of got stuck on the O's."

"How about Opal or Oscar?"

"I'll tell B'Elanna you suggested that," Tom said wryly. "She might go for an odd name after her visit with the doctor. I only wish I could be there."

"To hold your wife's hand?"

"No. To protect the doctor." Both men chuckled as the shuttlebay door opened for them.

Neelix and Tuvok were waiting for them. "We will all carry concealed phasers," Tuvok said, handing one each to Paris and Kim.

"Anticipating an ambush?" Tom asked.

"One can never be too prepared for any outcome."

"Right," Tom said sarcastically as they boarded the shuttlecraft. Silently, he was inclined to agree with the Vulcan Security Officer.

*****

"If you don't hurry up and choose a name soon, your child will be as nameless as I am," the holo doctor warned.

After the Doctor's routine exam, B'Elanna was in no hurry to get up from the biobed. "Oh, you're one to berate about name choosing. How many years now have you been trying to find the perfect name for yourself?"

"That's a little different. When one is given a name at birth, it defines who she or he is to become. They literally grow into the name. Since I was already the equivalent of an adult when I was activated and no one had seen fit to give me a name, I've dealt with the plight of searching for the perfect appellation. A man should not have to name himself."

"Okay. What do you suggest, then?" she asked. "Tom and I are running through the alphabet. Before he left this afternoon, we'd made it to 'O'."

"O? One of the doctors used in my matrix was named Olivia."

"Hmm. Not bad. O-liv-ia."

"Of course if it's a boy-" The Doctor hesitated. "Perhaps, you would be better off with another letter. For P, there's Paul or Peter; Paulette, Pauline or Patricia. As for Q--"

"Thank you, Doctor." Deciding she didn't want to spend all day extolling names with the Doctor, B'Elanna climbed off the biobed. "If you'll excuse me, I suddenly became hungry for some of that stew Neelix made before he left."

" Don't blame me if you come back to sickbay with a case of indigestion!"

B'Elanna barely caught the Doctor's warning as she stepped onto the turbolift.

Ensign Wildman was watching Jeremy, so she could take advantage of the chance for a little peace. Besides, she needed something to distract her from thinking about Tom and food was a good substitute. Missions took Tom away from her often, and she was used to it, but that didn't mean she had to learn to like it.

Four other crew members were already in the mess hall, preparing their own lunches. Neelix wouldn't be happy when he returned to find his kitchen ransacked. He obviously had neglected to place anyone on cooking duty before his hasty departure. Shrugging, B'Elanna joined the others and before long, they were serving a buffet to anyone who walked in.

"Have you chosen a name for your baby?" several asked her and when she shook her head, suggestions were kindly offered. She promised to pass the names onto Tom, although she doubted any would be suitable no matter how many times she repeated each inside her head. She'd never thought that naming a baby would be one of the greatest challenges she ever faced!

*****

The Delta Flyer followed the Vardin ship into the planet atmosphere until reaching a large warehouse. Tuvok voiced his continuing suspicions of the aliens' motives along the way. Why send a ship to escort one Talaxian ambassador to their planet? Tom agreed with the Vulcan and stayed alert for the need to take evasive maneuvers.

Tom landed the shuttlecraft safely inside the warehouse. Telar and two other Vardin greeted them as they exited the Delta Flyer.

"Good to see you made it safely," Telar said.

Tom studied the alien man, trying to determine if he were serious or leading them into a trap. He felt the phaser pressing against his hip and was glad Tuvok had insisted they each carry one.

"Yes, Mr. Paris saw to that." Neelix responded, pointing a thumb toward Tom. "We want you to know how much we appreciate this gesture of goodwill." Neelix held out his hand for a handshake, but Telar only looked at him quizzically. "Well, maybe your culture shows gratitude in other ways." The Talaxian brought his hands to his chest, unsure what to do with them.

Telar nodded, perhaps a universal gesture, and turned sideways. "Follow me." The alien led

"Wow!" Tom exclaimed. "You certainly have enough to feed an army." After the words were out, he realized how absurd he sounded. Of course, the Vardin were at war.

Nudging his friend, Harry leaned toward Tom and whispered, "This looks better than any emergency rations I've seen."

Tom quickly overcame his faux pas. "Hey Telar, do your people drink coffee? Our captain would just die for it."

Harry shook his head in obvious disgust and stepped closer to their security officer. Noticing this, Tom smirked. Why couldn't he have a little fun if it hurt no one? Besides, Telar's culture was probably so different that he didn't understand the humor anyway. Or was Harry worried that Telar would take the captain's death wish seriously? That thought sobered Tom a bit.

"As you can see, we're plentiful on civilian supplies. We have a dozen more rooms like this inside this warehouse alone, but it will do us little good if we don't have enough people left to consume it." Turning toward Neelix, he grasped the Talaxian by the arm. "Please, tell me you can help my people! We need to save our planet for the children."

Tuvok stepped forward and forced the alien to remove his grip on Neelix. "We will do our best if you cooperate with us. Do not show any force again."

The Vardin stepped backed and tapped his right foot three times. "I humbly apologize. Select whatever supplies you desire and my men will help you load them onto your tiny ship."

The next twenty minutes were spent loading mostly food onto the shuttlecraft while Neelix shared the details of recipes he would prepare for the Voyager crew. Tom feigned interest and believed Harry and Tuvok were as well. None of them were looking forward to sampling each of Neelix's experiments. I should be grateful we won't starve, Tom mused and thought about his family. B'Elanna was taking her food cravings very seriously. "You know, Neelix," Tom said as they were loading the last of the supplies onto the shuttlecraft, "you'll be lucky if your kitchen has anything left in it when you return."

"Ah." The Talaxian suddenly turned quite pale. "I forgot to leave someone in charge of cooking detail." He grasped Tom by each arm. "Mr. Paris, will you see to getting my kitchen back in order after you rendezvous with Voyager? I have no idea how long I'll be down here and-"

"Say no more. Consider it done. I rather look forward to telling my wife to slow down on her 'eating for two' theory."

"Your wife is with child?" Telar asked from behind them. The two Voyager crew members turned toward the seemingly over interested alien. Why do I get the impression that his grandfatherly instincts have kicked in? Tom wondered.

"Yes," Tom responded. "The chief engineer, Lieutenant Torres. You met her during the conference meeting."

"Ah yes. There was another one expecting at the meeting as well."

"That would be my wife, Seven," Harry informed him with pride. "They're both expecting around the same time. Our children will almost be like twins."

"Harry and Seven knew immediately what they wanted to name their baby, but B'Elanna and I are having trouble choosing a name for ours. Do you have any personal favorites from your culture?"

Although Telar smiled warmly, his eyes grew distant. "I have two children of my own, a boy and a girl. Their names are Hemiro and Irixus."

"I'll suggest those to my wife when I return to Voyager," Tom responded honestly. Maybe B'Elanna would go for a name completely foreign to either of their cultures.

*****

After their fellow crew members left in the Delta Flyer, Neelix and Tuvok were ushered across the street by Telar. The streets were populated by the citizens of Vardin, all apparently in a hurry. Neelix studied them as any good ambassador would and noticed something very strange about all of them.

"Where are all the children?" he asked.

"They are why we are so desperate for your help," Telar replied. "We need your assistance in getting them back."

"Are you telling us that all your children were kidnapped by the Balia?" Tuvok asked.

"Our children are held captive inside the Sierra because of the Balia. Unless we can end this war and reopen the Sierra, our children will be lost to us forever."

Neelix pondered over this upsetting news as they reached an odd-shaped building constructed from a titanium alloy. While the front side had two stories, the back appeared to contain no more than a crawl space.

"Why are there no windows?" Tuvok asked. "Are you hiding something from your citizens? Or are you keeping something locked up?"

"For privacy purposes, all windows are contained behind doors. A security code will open them whenever deemed necessary. This is a classified government building and was constructed for war purposes to protect our highest officials. You will be safe against any potential assault in here. Please." He gestured toward the open door.

Although both Voyager crewmen followed the alien inside, Neelix felt a rising fear growing in him and he was certain he saw the Vulcan move his hand a few centimeters closer to his weapon.

Ralea greeted them, bending one knee and lowering her head before making eye contact with them. "It is wonderful to see both of you again. I have enjoyed my tour of Voyager and hope you have in turn enjoyed your view of our homeworld. Now, will you graciously accept my offer to put you up here during your stay on Vardin?"

"We would be delighted," Neelix responded. He felt his unease slipping away as Ralea smiled sweetly at him.

"I'm sure whatever accommodations you've arranged will be suitable," Tuvok interjected. "When do you expect the Balia representatives to arrive?"

"Very soon. Might my sister and I entertain you until then?"

While Tuvok took note that Telar a. Bred nervous and agitated, he nodded and allowed the two Vardin to lead him and Neelix further into the compound.

******

Anxiously awaiting news from the away team, B'Elanna sat next to the captain in the center of the bridge. Seven of Nine was busing herself at the Engineering alcove, but she too occasionally glanced nervously at the viewscreen. Everyone expected Tom and Harry would depart with their supplies soon and although the Vardin had seemed amicable, no one would rest until their crew members checked in.

"Delta Flyer to Voyager," came Tom.

"Voyager here," Janeway responded with a big smile.

"We've just finished loading all the supplies and are preparing to leave Vardin's atmosphere This shuttlecraft is jammed pack with food stuff. No one should go hungry for a while. Captain, tell B'Elanna, Paul or Patricia if it begins with "P."

B'Elanna smiled at the coincidence of Tom choosing two of the names suggested by the Doctor.

"Tell her yourself. She's right here." She turned back to the officer at tactical. "Ensign put Mr. Paris on screen." A large image of Tom and Harry appeared on the viewscreen.

B'Elanna stood and Seven wandered away from the Engineering alcove to stand beside the tactical officer. "If the baby's name is to begin with 'Q,'" B'Elanna began, "we'll choose Quintin. I knew a man by that name when I was a little girl. He was one of the few people who were kind to me."

"But what if it's a girl, dear?"

Harry laughed as Tom spoke. "Do me a favor and skip 'Q' altogether. It brings back too many bad memories." He looked toward his wife. "How are you doing Seven?"

"I am fine, sweetheart" she replied. She was working on sounding more human, adding inflections to her voice.

"Don't worry guys," B'Elanna said. "We're both taking care of ourselves. The Doctor is seeing to that. He did lecture me this afternoon about our not having chosen a name yet. When you return, we'll work on nothing else until we've made up our minds. We'll run through the alphabet a thousand times if we have to."

Tom nodded. "Agreed. And B'Elanna, while you're waiting for me, think about Renee or Robin. I love you and will see you in a few minutes." He severed the link, and B'Elanna joined Seven of Nine at the Engineering alcove so they could both busy themselves while they finished out the wait.

*****

As the Delta Flyer emerged from the planet's atmosphere, Voyager opened its shuttlebay to admit their crew members. Almost in the same instant, a giant ship decloaked and began firing on the shuttlecraft.

Janeway jumped out of her chair and exclaimed, "Mr. Chell, fire phasers at the alien ship and attempt to bring in the shuttlecraft with a tractor beam."

"Aye, Captain," the tactical officer replied. The alien ship retaliated by striking Voyager. "Captain, they've taken out our tractor beam."

"Evasive maneuver pi omega three," she ordered. They were going to place voyager in between the invader and their shuttlecraft. Once they'd established their position, Janeway ordered Chell, "Open a communications link. This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. Why are you attacking us?"

A woman with crystalline eyes emerged on the screen, wearing a long flowing gown. Other officers behind her were similarly dressed. Not the formidable foe Janeway had expected. The alien bridge was twice the size of Voyager's. "I am Ulewa of the First Order to the Balia Council. Do not be alarmed," she said. "Please forgive me for detaining your officers."

"Detaining them! You call firing on their shuttlecraft and holding them against their will detaining them? Where I come from, we call that an ambush."

"You are holding our children hostage. Give us the portal and we will allow your ship safe passage through our space."

"Portal? I assure you that we have nothing that belongs to you. Until today, we've never been in contact with any of your people."

"We were told you were given the portal for safe keeping. Please, without the portal, we have no way of opening the Sierra."

"Captain," B'Elanna said. Janeway glanced back at B'Elanna and Seven. They had abandoned the Engineering alcove to stand anxiously next to the Bolian security officer. "I believe we were accosted by a Balia on Haldik P'rim."

"Yes," Seven agreed. "He presented Harry and I with a stone figure, perhaps a talisman of some kind."

"Yes!" Ulewa exclaimed. "Bring it to me now!"

Janeway raised a hand toward the large image of the alien woman. "Hold on just a minute. Ioyala, mute communications. Silently, the Balia woman continued urgently beseeching the Voyager captain. Janeway ignored her, instead addressing her engineers. "Where is this talisman now?"

"Harry gave it to Tom."

Janeway shifted her gaze to B'Elanna. "It's setting on my dresser," the half Klingon informed her. "Tom thought it would bring us good luck if we left it out in the open where we could look at it every day. I can retrieve it."

"Do that lieutenant." After she watched B'Elanna step onto the turbolift, Janeway ordered Ioyala to re-establish sound communications. "Ulewa, my apologies for cutting you off, but I had to confer with my officers."

"Captain Janeway, you must give me the portal immediately. Would you rather have the blood of millions of children on your hands? They are trapped innocents."

"Ulewa, I have sent my chief engineer after your portal. We will exchange it for the safe return of our crewmen. Now please, transport my crew members back to Voyager."

"When I have the portal in my hand, not a moment sooner."

The captain closed her eyes and counted to ten. It would do Tom and Harry no good if she couldn't control her temper.

"Perhaps, you could at least allow us to speak with them," Chakotay said. "Assure us that they're all right and not being mistreated."

Ulewa nodded, about to give her consent. Then B'Elanna emerged onto the bridge, the stone statue in her hands. "That's not the portal!" the Balia woman screamed. "That's only a braktae. It's used to guard over a child while he sleeps. It is of no use to me."

Glancing at her first officer, Janeway wondered if his knowledge in Indian rituals and spirt guides would give him an insight into this alien dilemma. "If you will permit us time to conduct a search, we will attempt to locate your portal. Please, will you consider a cease fire for the sake of your children?"

The Balia woman nodded and severed the connection.

"Voyager to Delta Flyer," the captain said, watching as the small craft floated aimlessly across the screen. No reply.

"Captain, sensors are picking up no life signs from the Delta Flyer," Chell told her.

*****

As sensors indicated, B'Elanna, Seven and the Doctor found the shuttlecraft empty. Using tricorders, they discovered an alien transporter signature. "They may still be alive," B'Elanna said.

"Quite likely," the Doctor responded as each of them began rummaging through the storage boxes for anything that resembled a doll. "If the Balia wish to have our cooperation, they will not harm your husband's. They have taken them as a bargaining chip. Why else would they kidnap Paris and Kim?"

"To gain technological knowledge," Seven suggested "What is more valuable than knowledge? The Borg thrive because they have combined hundreds of cultures."

"Yeah, and their victims are as good as dead afterward." B'Elanna didn't apologize for her blatant jibe at Seven of Nine. The former Borg showed no offense anyway. "Let's hope Tom and Harry haven't--" B'Elanna couldn't finish her thought as her throat grew too tight to speak.

"I believe you're both wrong," the Doctor said. "The Balia ship appears more advanced than Voyager. What would they stand to gain from us? They could destroy us if the wanted, therefore, I believe their plight for a missing portal is sincere."

"There's nothing in these boxes, but food and clothing. The Vardin did not give us this precious portal. What kind of game are they playing?"

"UNA hwn," Seven said, without emotion. This received a raised eyebrow from the Doctor and she modified her response. "I wish I knew."

B'Elanna tapped her commbadge. "Away team to Voyager."

"Janeway here. What have you found?" the captain asked.

"Nothing that resembles this portal," B'Elanna responded. "As far as I can tell, the Vardin didn't give it to us."

"Captain," the Doctor said, "might we consider that without this portal, the Balia will lose all interest in the peace talks. I'd suggest we get Mr. Neelix and Mr. Tuvok away from the conflict before they become unfortunate victims.."

"Agreed. Prepare for transport back to Voyager. Janeway out."

****

Once her female engineers were back safely on the bridge, Janeway ordered Chell to open a communications with Vardin. The Vardin representative answered Janeway's page, within a couple of minutes. "Telar, My two officers returning in the shuttlecraft were attacked by a Balia vessel. I regret that I must order Commander Tuvok and Ambassador Neelix to return to Voyager."

"I'm afraid that's not possible," the Vardin responded. He glanced cautiously to his right and and his sister stepped into view. "Thanks to my sister." The words were spoken in contempt. "She has canceled negotiations."

"You see, Captain Janeway," Ralea began. "I've decided to hold your crew members until you return what is rightfully ours. Give us the portal!"

"What?! We took only what you offered us, food stuff, some much needed supplies. We were offering you aid in return. Besides, the Balia have made the same demand. We have searched for this portal to no avail. We do not have it!"

"Our sensor readings indicate that you do indeed have the portal."

"If your sensors are picking it up, then beam it off my ship. We don't want it. All we want are our crewmen back safely."

"You do not understand. The portal is too delicate for transport. It must be handled with the utmost of care. Despite what my foolish brother believes, the Balia don't want to make peace with us. He thought we could invoke a truce and request the portal from you diplomatically."

"I assure you, we believe in diplomacy. Please, let us see our crewmen so we know they're all right."

Ralea laughed. "This can only be handled diplomatically if you hand over the portal to us. Then your men will be returned safely to you. If the Balia take the portal from you first, our children will suffer the consequences. Please, Captain Janeway. I beseech upon you. You have one hour to prove your diplomacy. Otherwise, we'll be forced to use other means."

"I don't see how we could have your portal. My chief engineer has a small statue, a Balia talisman known as the Braktae. She received it about six months ago on Haldik P'rim. The Balia told us it was a protector, nothing more. We having nothing else from either of your people."

"Yes!" the alien woman said excitedly. "Tell me, how did you transport it aboard your ship?"

"With a transporter beam."

Ralea screamed in a fit of rage. "Nooooo! You've destroyed the portal. Don't you see? The portal was hidden inside the Braktae. Only a select few know of this."

"And how do you know of this?" Chakotay demanded.

"My brother is a member of the high council."

"Yes, I foolishly shared everything with my sister," Telar admitted, bowing his head.

"You have destroyed our only hope, Captain Janeway," Ralea spat. "This was my people's only chance at beginning anew. Sadly, I was growing fond of Mr. Neelix. It will be a pity to have to end his life. Another casualty of war."

"Wait!" Janeway exclaimed, "Perhaps, we can find a way to repair the portal."

"Unlikely. However, I can tell your concern for your crewmen is sincere. I will give you three hours. No more." Ralea severed the link.

"We have to prepare a rescue mission! Mr. Chell--"

"Captain," Chakotay said in an even tone. He meant to calm her down, so she could think rationally. The trick worked. "We have four crewming ost as prisoners of war, split between the two sides. If we are to save all four of them, we must plan carefully."

"We don't have time, Chakotay! Neelix and Tuvok could be executed."

"If they are, then attempting a blind rescue mission would not save them and would undoubtedly cost us the lives of more crewmen.

"We must not choose a side," Seven informed them from above. Her voice sounded toneless and the captain and first officer turned to gauge her expression. Janeway hoped her former Borg officer wasn't completely suppressing her pain. "I want my husband back more than anything, but it would be foolish to fight a battle in hysteria."

"Even if we choose a side," Chakotay began, "we don't have this portal to bargain with. I'd say, right now, our top priority is opening this Braktae and seeing if there isn't a way to repair the portal."

Janeway nodded in agreement and as they turned toward B'Elanna, they found her already attempting to find a way to open the talisman without causing any further damage to the portal. It snapped open and the chief engineer looked up at them startled. "Captain, it's empty! The portal must have dissipated in the transporter beam."

"No. The portal is somewhere else on this ship, otherwise the Vardin's sensors wouldn't have picked up its signature. Ensign Ioyla, open a ship-wide commlink," Janeway ordered.

"Yes, ma'am," the young woman at ops responded.

"Attention all hands, this is the captain speaking. If possible, I want you to stop what you're doing and begin searching for anything that might serve as an alien portal. The hostiles who attacked us are demanding its return and unless we have it to bargain with, we're about to become the target of both sides of an alien war."

*****

Pacing the small holding cell, Paris wondered if he would ever see Voyager, his wife and son again.....whether he would ever hold his new baby in his arms. What did these aliens want from them? Was Captain Janeway bargaining for their return?

"Tom, sit down," Harry pleaded. "I can't think with you moving around like a tiger."

"What's to think about, Harry?" Tom asked, stopping anyway. "Our kidnappers haven't even come to check on us. I suppose we should be grateful that we can probably rule out gaining information by means of torture. But since they haven't shown their ugly faces yet, death by starvation is becoming more likely by the minute."

"If they wanted to kill us without talking to us, they would have blown up the Delta Flyer with us on board. I'll guess that they want something Voyager has in exchange for our safe return."

"Harry, remember the Kazon? Captain Janeway will never share any Federation technology. She'll seek out all alternatives first."

"She'll attempt a rescue mission. If we only knew who we were dealing with!"

"From what Telar told us about the Balia, I'd assume they're our abductors. Maybe someone from their side took us, because they don't want peace negotiations to take place."

"You are quite wrong!" a female startled them. Both Voyager officers turned to discover a woman standing only a few meters outside the forcefield. Now maybe we'll get somewhere, Tom thought. "We want nothing more than for our children to return safely to a peaceful existence. The Vardin don't want to negotiate. They want to steal the portal from us so they can enslave our children."

"But how does kidnapping us help you get this portal from the Vardin?"

"The Vardin do not have the portal. You do!"

Kim got up from the bench to stand next to his friend. "That's why you've taken us. You want Voyager to return this portal as an exchange for us."

Looking into the alien woman's crystalline eyes, Tom came to a sudden realization. "The stone statue we were given on Haldik P'rim. It contains the portal."

"That is what I believed, but when your crew mates offered it to me, I did not sense the portal inside it. The Braktae was meant as a protector. Alas, it is only hollow matter. The portal has been removed."

"If Captain Janeway finds the portal and gives it to you, will you set us free?"

She nodded. "If they comply, no harm will come of you."

*****

Part C: Then Come the Children

B'Elanna and Seven of Nine were busying themselves with repairing the tractor beam from the Engineering console on the bridge when a blonde girl suddenly appeared directly in front of Seven. She seemed to be floating directly behind the captain toward the former Borg. "Please Mommy, save me!" the girl exclaimed. As Seven raised her hand to her cortical implant in sudden pain, the girl moved into her and vanished.

Seven collapsed, hitting her head on the engineering console and toppling to the floor.

B'Elanna knelt down to quickly examine Seven and tapped her commbadge. "Medical emergency on the bridge. Beam Seven of Nine directly to sickbay. Seven vanished in a transporter beam.

"B'Elanna, you were closest to her. What happened?"

"I think she just fainted, but then she hit her head on the console."

"Let's not take any chances. Report to sickbay, Lieutenant and have the doctor check you over as well."

"Understood," B'Elanna replied complacently against her nature. She couldn't lose both her husband and their baby. Stepping onto the turbolift, she instructed the computer to take her to Deck 6.

When she entered sickbay, she found the doctor administering to a weak, but conscious Seven. "How is she, Doc?" B'Elanna asked.

"I'm still trying to determine the cause of her collapse. As far as I can tell, something activated her cortical implant, bringing on a hallucination."

"Hallucination?"

"Unless you or any other member of the bridge crew saw a little girl."

"She was begging for me to save her," Seven told B'Elanna.

"Could this little girl have been a manifestation of your younger self?" the Klingon asked.

Seven thought for a moment, replaying the image inside her head. "No, she did not look like me. She did say 'mommy' but I'm uncertain she was speaking directly to me. It was more like intercepting a subspace transmission. Besides, given Harry's oriental background, our daughter is likely to have dark hair."

*****

When the captain called him to her ready room, Chakotay didn't expect to find her sitting on her sofa, gazing at the planet and drinking a cup of coffee.

"Captain?" he questioned. "Have you decided how to handle their demands?"

"Yes. We're going to tell both sides that we have repaired the portal and that we're willing to return it to them."

"That's a tricky Trojan horse to play. How do you plan on convincing them?"

"First we'll contact the Balia leader and request that she beam aboard Voyager to personally receive the portal. She will have to lower her shields during transport and Mr. Carey will seize the opportunity to locate Tom and Harry and accessing the site to site transporter, beam them directly to sickbay for the doctor's thorough examination."

"What if she refuses to beam over to Voyager? She's going to see through this ruse."

"That's where Seven's hallucination comes into play. The doctor believes that she did not experience a hallucination but rather her cortical implant somehow reacted to this sierra similarly to how the actual portal would work."

"Are you saying that these aliens may believe we have the portal, because they detected Seven's implant?"

"Precisely. Balia will want to come over to Voyager, because, according to her, the real portal cannot survive a transporter beam."

*****

Sudden pain. Seven screamed out and the doctor rushed over to her, followed closely by B'Elanna. "What's happening to me?"

"You've gone into labor," the doctor responded. He glanced up at B'Elanna and pointed at a cart a few meters away. "Hand me that hypospray."

"Labor! It's too early for that! The baby will not survive."

"Try to relax, Seven. Remember, the baby can sense your duress." He accepted the hypospray from B'Elanna, adjusted its settings, and pressed it against Seven's neck. Activating the biobed's support frame, he set it to monitor Seven's contractions. "When you feel the next labor pain, I want you to describe the intensity of the pain. I need to know if it is more or less than the first. If they do not lessen within the next few contractions, I will have to attempt an alternate procedure." The doctor walked over to his console to change a few of the settings there to also help with monitoring Seven's condition.

Grabbing B'Elanna's hand, Seven pleaded, "Promise me, if my baby dies, you'll name yours Annika."

"Don't be ridiculous," B'Elanna replied. "Your little girl is going to be just fine."

"Of course," the doctor interjected. "You are in my capable hands. Now relax, both of you. Lieutenant Torres, I'm releasing you to your quarters. I expect you to get at least a few hours of sleep before returning to duty."

"How can I sleep with our husbands in danger?"

"No arguments. You're jeopardizing the condition of my patient and yours as well."

B'Elanna removed her hand from the patient's, but before she could move away, Seven screamed out in pain and clutched at her cortical implant. As the doctor rushed to her side, the chief engineer backed away. Would Seven lose her baby despite their assurances? " Is she having another contraction?"

"No!" both doctor and patient yelled.

Suddenly, B'Elanna's attention was distracted away from them as she noticed a shadowy figure dart across the room. "We have an intruder!"

*****

After entertaining his Voyager guests with music and literature of his people for better than an hour, Telar told them it was time to set up for the meeting. He led Tuvok and Neelix into a conference room and promptly excused himself with the claim that he needed to greet the delegates at the front door. When he realized that the alien was taking an unreasonably long time returning to them, Tuvok became suspicions and began examining their surroundings more closely. First, he realized that the door had been sealed from the outside and that there were no other exists. Then he attempted to contact Voyager only to discover that their commbadges had been deactivated. While Neelix continued to search desperately for an escape route, Tuvok took the next logical step.

"What are you doing, Mr. Vulcan?" Neelix asked, both discouragement and curiosity getting to him.

Having spent the last several minutes studying the Vardin computer system through the wall panel access with little success, Tuvok did not welcome the Talaxian's interruption. Nonetheless, he knew from experience that Neelix would only grow more insistent if ignored.

"I am attempting to understand the Vardin code, so we may find a way to override the lock on the door."

"Good thinking! Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Yes. You can stay out of my way and keep quiet."

Although Neelix backed up a couple of steps, he continued to look on earnestly as Tuvok deciphered the code. They were both startled when the door slid open.

"Get away from there!" Ralea exclaimed, waving a phaser at them. "You will not be leaving here or have any contact with Voyager until Captain Janeway has returned the portal that rightfully belongs to my people."

"You are too late," Tuvok responded. He tapped a button on the panel and suddenly Ralea's image shifted.

"What have you done?" Ralea clutched at her grotesquely aged face.

"Obviously, I have revealed your secret and that of your people. Perhaps now is a good time to explain yourself."

Lowering her arms and placing her phaser in its holster, the Vardin woman nodded defeatedly. "We're dying and we have only ourselves to blame." She moved toward the commpanel and Tuvok stepped out of her way. She initiated a code and a window on the far wall appeared. "Look outside," she encouraged them.

As Neelix and Tuvok looked through the window and scanned the area, they saw several natives stopping to examine one another in horror and then clutch at theembewn aged faces. Screaming broke out as one of them began slapping himself in self-mortification. "It appears as though you have a bigger problem than you let on," Tuvok said. "If this delegation truly was a ruse, then I suggest you contact your government representatives immediately and tell them to come here right away."

Ralea laughed, but it sounded more like an anguished cry. "Contact our government? This delegation was a delusion created by my poor addle-minded brother. He forgets that the last member of our government died nearly a decade ago. He appointed himself a council member to help feed his delusion. Amazingly, it's served the remaining citizens well, because they listen to him. Look out there again." She paused for them to do so. "How many people do you count? Eighty-seven percent of the people you saw when you arrived were holograms. The citizens of this town, other than a few nomads, are all that remain of Vardin. They are all members of Telar's so-called faction."

"Amazing," Neelix exclaimed. "But why go to the trouble of luring us into a trap?"

"Would you have helped us otherwise?"

"Perhaps, you're guiding your mistrust toward the Balia erroneously toward us," Tuvok suggested. "We have on several occasions answered a cry for help without any promises of a reward afterward."

"Does that mean you are still willing to help us now?"

"If you allow us to return to our ship and commit no more deceptions, it is likely our captain will continue to offer you aid."

"Very well. You may contact your starship."

Neelix tapped at his commbadge, not surprised that it now worked. "Good work, Mr. Vulcan! Neelix to Voyager."

"Chakotay here," the commander responded. "Neelix, it's good to hear from you."

*****

Seven watched as the captain and the doctor spoke inside his office. Obviously, the girl she'd seen on the bridge and then sickbay was not an hallucination, since B'Elanna had seen her as well. If not an hallucination, then what?

Although the contractions had lessened, she feared that the cause was still present and the baby would remain in danger until they left Vardin. She agonized over choosing between her husband and their child. What were Janeway and the doctor deciding for her?

They looked in her direction, apologetic expressions on their faces. After a moment, they stepped out and approached her. The captain looked almost as though she were in as much pain as Seven as she addressed her former Borg officer. " Seven, the Doctor and I have reached a hypothesis about the cause of your condition. Doctor?" Janeway stepped aside so the Doctor could move closer to his patient.

"I believe that as long as we remain in orbit of Vardin, I will be unable to stabilize your condition. I cannot guarantee that I will be able to save the baby if you deliver now. If we leave immediately, your chances of making it to full term are excellent. But that would mean leaving Tom and Harry behind."

"I won't order you to risk the life of your baby," Janeway said. " Nor will I order you to give your husband up without a fight. From your description of your so-called hallucinations, I believe your cortical implant is behaving similar to the portal these aliens are looking for. With a little tweaking from B'Elanna, I'd theorize that your implant could open the Sierra and save the children of Vardin."

"At the risk of sacrificing my own," Seven said dourly. She turned on her side away from the Doctor and Janeway. " If I lose this baby, I will not adapt."

Before either of them could respond, Chell paged the captain from the bridge. " Janeway here," she responded.

"I think you want to access the viewscreen from sickbay," Chell said. "Commander Tuvok wishes to speak with you."

Rushing past the Doctor and making her way around to the console, Janeway tapped into the bridge's viewscreen and smiled as her old Vulcan friend greeted her. "Captain, the Vardin have been deceiving us."

She laughed at how ludicrous his logic sounded and then nearly cried with joy to see him unharmed. "We've learned a secret or two about them from Voyager as well," she told him. "If we could meet again in the conference room, I have a proposal to make to both the Vardin and the Balia."

Tuvok raised an eyebrow. "I am curious to learn of this proposal."

*****

B'Elanna had every intention of following doctor's orders. She had slipped into her nightgown and under her covers, then had closed her eyes, but had been unable to block out the internal noise. She was worried about Tom and Harry and she was worried about Seven. She had tossed and turned until finally, her rumbling stomach made her discard the notion of getting any sleep. So she'd changed into a casual maternity dress and headed for the mess hall. Compulsory, she'd grabbed the talisman from off her dresser on her way out. Although she knew she was being superstitious, she felt Tom closer to her with the Braktae in her possession.

Lieutenant Baxter was currently serving up dinner and B'Elanna attempted to eat what he was passing off as beef stew. She never thought she'd feel nostalgic for Neelix' cooking.

B'Elanna did not get far into her meal when Samantha Wildman along with Naomi and Jeremy walked over with their dinner trays. "Thank you, ensign, for watching my son all day," she said. She took Jeremy's tray from him and set it down on the table. He walked around to the other side and sat next to his mother.

"You are welcome as always," Samantha replied. "Would you mind if Naomi and I join you? I thought maybe you'd like another adult to talk with."

"Thank you for the offer, but I'd rather be left alone right now. You can't truly understand how I feel anyway. Your husband isn't being held on an alien ship."

Samantha grew flush, belying her level response. " Are you forgetting that I left my husband behind in the Alpha Quadrant? Unless a miracle returns us home, I will never see him again. Naomi will never know her father."

"I'm sorry. I sho buthave thought before I reacted. It's just that I'm so tired and on edge." She said the Braktae at the tables center and it almost seemed as though it were staring mockingly at her. " I've thoroughly scanned this little beast and I can find no trace of anything ever having been inside it."

Despite B'Elanna's insistence that she wanted to be left alone, Samantha sat down across from her and Naomi followed suit. " I wish I could offer you some reassurance," the ensign said, reaching out to gently squeeze B'Elanna's arm. "We both know that Captain Janeway won't leave them behind without exploring every option."

"You may not have heard that Seven is in sickbay. She will lose the baby if we don't warp away from this area soon. Unless we can somehow find another way to open this Sierra.

"I hadn't realized," Samantha responded, growing distant. "You know what happened with Naomi when she was born. I thought I could not bear living another day before Harry Kim approached me with the greatest bundle I've ever received."

"What happened with me, Mommy?" Naomi asked pleadingly.

"I'll explain everything to you when you're a little older." The ensign turned back toward B'Elanna. "How are you doing? The stress can't be good for your baby either."

"The Doctor examined and released me with strict orders to get some sleep. I tried to shut off all the noise inside my head and finally decided that maybe a hot meal would do the trick."

"I'm not scheduled for another duty shift until tomorrow morning. Why don't I keep Jeremy over night?"

"Yay!" both children exclaimed together.

"They don't like the idea at all," Samantha said sarcastically. B'Elanna managed to smile despite her adversity.

*****

Minutes after speaking with her chief of security over communications, Janeway assembled another conference meeting with Chakotay, Tuvok, Neelix and the two Vardin also present. The Doctor was also ready to provide his input through the emergency medical holographic channel. Ralea and Telar looked as though they could pose as the great-grandparents of their former selves. How much time did their people have before extinction was inevitable?

"It is my opinion," the Doctor began, "that Seven's cortical implant can be used as a portal to open this Sierra with only minor adaptations. While this will certainly serve " He glanced at the aliens. " *your purpose*, my first concern must be the health of my patient and her unborn child. Frankly, the child's best bet is to get as far away from Vardin space as possible. But that option would leave Mr. Kim and Mr. Paris behind and Seven refuses to choose that option. She has decided to attempt to open the Sierra. Once the Sierra is open and the alien children out safely, I believe Seven's condition will stabilize and she will be able to carry her baby to full term if she makes it through the procedure."

"Doctor, how is Seven doing now?" Janeway asked.

"I've managed to stop the contractions. Her condition is stable at the moment, but I cannot make any guarantees if we hold off much longer."

"Captain Janeway," Telar began, "allow this to happen. An entire civilization is at stake."

"You may not approve of my tactics," Ralea said, "but certainly you understand our cause."

Janeway turned toward the ancient aliens. "My first duty is to my crew. You took advantage of our goodwill. You deceived us, held my crewmen hostage and now you ask us to continue offering our help without any guarantees."

"Captain, if it helps persuade you any, we were not mistreated," Neelix said. "Ralea was wrong to hold us against our will, but think of the children. They are innocent. They deserve the chance to prove their own worth."

"Mr. Neelix speaks for the both of us," Tuvok responded. Janeway thought she would never hear her Vulcan officer agree with the Talaxian. "The children do not deserve to be punished for their parents' crimes."

Janeway wondered if she would be bringing the children into a new peaceful world or into one where they would soon learn to hate and fear one another. Could either civilization be saved or were they doomed to extinction?

"We are overlooking one important matter," Chakotay pointed out. "We don't know if the Balia will release Tom and Harry when the portal is open. Before we continue, we must bring the Balia in on this arrangement. Their children are trapped inside this Sierra, too, and we were asked to mediate their peace negotiations."

"Agreed," the captain replied. She nodded toward her chief security officer. "Mr. Tuvok, hail the Balia ship."

"Aye captain," the Vulcan said, accessing the terminal closes to him.

Ulewa answered the hail immediately and Tuvok transferred her image to the larger viewscreen on the wall opposite them. "Have you discovered a solution?" Ulewa asked.

"We believe we have," Janeway responded.

The Balia woman's gaze shifted toward her enemies. "I see your holographic interface is no longer functioning." Her smile revealed her pleasure over their misfortune.

"We all know you use the same technology," Ralea spat. "You're no raving beauty either."

The captain raised a hand. "Please. We cannot accomplish anything through bickering. If we ever had the real portal, it most likely was destroyed by our ignorance. A crew member of mine is a former Borg and the Doctor believes her cortical implant can be modified to simulate your portal. I'm offering you a means to rescue your children, but first you must return my crewmen unharmed.

"You must first prove you speak the truth. Introduce me to this former Borg."

"She is formerly inside our sickbay, where she is being treated by our doctor. She's pregnant and proximity to the Sierra has caused her to go into premature labor. So you see, more than two members of my crew are in danger. Our offer is sincere. Why else would we place Seven and her unborn baby in jeopardy? But if you want further proof, I can have you beamed directly to our sickbay and you can witness the procedure first hand."

"No! How do I know this isn't a trick? You want me to lower my shields so you can retrieve your crewmen and warp out of our space without helping us save our innocent children."

"Fine," Janeway said tersely, glancing at her first officer, who gave her an I-told-you-so look. "Will you accept it as proof if we route your commlink to sickbay?"

The alien nodded. "That is an acceptable alternative."

"Doctor." The captain turned to her small viewscreen. "Are you and Lieutenant Carey ready to proceed?"

"The sooner the better," the EMH replied.

"Very well, Commander Chakotay and I will arrive in sickbay momentarily."

The two Vardin stood. "Captain Janeway," Telar said in an urgent tone. "These are our children. We insist that you allow us to oversee this procedure as well."

"Granted," Janeway said with a nod and everyone exited the conference room.

******

When they arrived in sickbay, Carey was nearly finished with the modifications of Seven's cortical implant. Seven was directing him as the alignment with the Sierra became visually clearer to her. Janeway thought about B'Elanna as she watched and wished her chief engineer was well and alert enough to join them. B'Elanna was getting much needed rest for herself and the baby now and the captain felt comfort in knowing B'Elanna would be back on her feet in time to welcome her husband back aboard Voyager.

"The modifications are complete," the engineer said and stepped out of the Doctor's way.

The Doctor quickly scanned his patient and nodded his ascent to continue.

"How do you use the portal to open the Sierra?" Janeway asked the Vardin.

Seven of Nine answered instead. "Captain, allow me to demonstrate." She raised her hand to her Borg implant and as she tapped it, her pupil began to glow. The light radiated out several meters, broadening as it inched across sickbay. Voyager crew members backed out of its path, while the Vardin embraced it. Soon, no one was afraid of the Sadila. It shown white, then blue, then purple. Janeway could barely force herself to look away from its brilliance, but she had to know if Seven was all right. Her former Borg officer was lying against the biobed an enthralled smile on her face. Rarely did Seven show such emotion.

Returning her attention to the Sierra, the captain saw small figures coming into focus. "How many children are inside there?"

"Six hundred nine thousand, three hundred and twenty three," Ralea responded. She knelt to one knee and welcomed the first child, a boy of about three, into her arms. To Janeway's relief, she noticed the child was a Balia. Maybe the children would help bring about an end to their racial differences.

"It will take days to recover all of them," Tuvok stated the obvious.

"They have been trapped inside the Sierra in stasis for nearly a century. A few more days of waiting is nothing compared to the long years we've waited for this bitter war's end."

"We have time for this, Tuvok," Chakotay said, smiling broadly as a little girl ran up to him.

"Indeed," Tuvok agreed. " However, Voyager is only large enough to accommodate a few hundred of them at a time. We will need to beam them down to the planet in groups."

Janeway turned toward the small viewscreen that permitted Ulewa's view. "Will you allow your children to be beamed down to Vardin until you can arrange for their transport?"

Ulewa studied her long-time enemies suspiciously. "Captain Janeway, have you forgotten about the slavery of my people practiced by the Vardin. Our children are young blood for them to exploit."

"I promise you that slavery will be completely abolished. Members of my group will guard your children closely. "

"You must reach an agreement," Janeway said insistently. "The children cannot all remain on Voyager, nor could you possible house all of them on your ship."

With a growing ease, Ulewa watched as Telar and Ralea welcomed both groups of children equally. "I will allow the children to be transported to the planet," she responded. "What choice do I have? All that remains of my people are aboard this ship with me now." As she began crying, her face was mixed with both joy and sorrow.

"Ambassador Neelix," the captain said, "help Mr. Tuvok round up children and escort them to Transporter Room 1 in groups."

"I'd be happy to, captain," Neelix replied and clapped his hands to get the attention of several children nearby him. He encouraged them to play "follow the leader" and travel to the great transporter that would take them back to their parents. Although Tuvok shared the same goal, getting the children off Voyager, he took a less-puerile approach. Janeway was amazed at how easily the children trusted strangers

"Telar, please provide them with appropriate beam-down coordinates and then you can assist Commander Chakotay in escorting children to Transporter Room 2. We'll keep both transporters functioning around the clock until the last child is safely on the planet's surface."

"Of course," the Vardin responded. "Please allow me to use your commlink to notify my subordinates to expect the children's arrival."

Janeway gestured toward the Doctor's panel with a nod. She turned and approached Seven and the Doctor, placing a comforting hand on Seven. "How are you doing?"

"I am very tired," Seven replied. "But I am well and content."

"I will give you a sedative," the Doctor offered. "With all the hustle and bustle inside sickbay, it's the only way you'll get any sleep." He picked up a hypospray and administered it before she had a chance to argue with him.

"I will comply with my need for sleep." Seven grasped the captain's hand. "But you must see to my husband's return."

"He'll be back aboard Voyager before you open your eyes again."

Nodding, Seven closed her eyes and succumbed to exhaustion.

"Take care of her, Doctor," the captain ordered unnecessarily and walked over to the small viewscreen from where Ulewa was still watching raptly.eresll right, Ulewa. We've activated your portal and your children are emerging safely in droves. I believe you promised to return my crewmen unharmed."

The Balia leader nodded. "I'll have them beamed in the corridor outside your sickbay. A direct beam inside sickbay might disrupt the Sierra."

"That's acceptable."

*****

B'Elanna was dreaming. How else could she explain the warm hand brushing against her arm or the lips closing around hers? Tom's aftershave tickled her nose. Could one smell in a dream? She stirred, fighting the physical urge to come fully awake. She didn't want to disturb the dream and lose her memory of Tom forever. "B'Elanna," a soft voice caressed her ear like a melody. And then she did open her eyes and wrapped her arms fully around her husband.

"Oh Tom," she exclaimed, showering him with kisses. "I thought "

"Shh, shh," he silenced her. "I want to lie in bed and hold you for hours, forget about all that has happened in the past couple of days. But first, there's something you have to see. Get dressed."

"What? Where are you taking me?"

At first B'Elanna could see nothing beyond the brilliant glory, but then after careful study she was able to make out several small figures. "What has happened to sickbay?" she asked in horror.

"It's wonderful," Tom told her. "They managed to open the Sierra with seven's cortical implant." A child ran toward them and nearly plowed into Tom before the pilot moved out of the way. "Now they're rounding up the children and beaming them in groups down to the planet."

"I've been informed that my sickbay will remain occupied for at least another two and a half days," the Doctor said, coming up from behind them. "I had to move Seven of Nine to her quarters a few hours ago. Since I can do nothing about the situation, I've decided to join them." He clapped his hands and began grabbing children by their shirts. "Come along. It's your turn now."

In session the captain, Chakotay, Tuvok, and Neelix followed the Doctor to round up more groups of children. Curios B'Elanna stepped inside sickbay and approached the open mouth of the Sierra. "B'Elanna?" Tom questioned concerned. When she turned around and smiled at him, her hand rubbing at her protruding belly, he knew she was thinking the same thing as him. "We left off with 's'" he voiced the realization and she nodded enthusiastically.

*****

"Seven," the Doctor said softly. Knowing the sedative he'd given her earlier was about to wear off, he'd entered her quarters to examine her thoroughly. After determining that she was suffering no ill effects from the Sierra, he decided to gently coax her awake.

She began stirring and mumbled, "Doctor? My baby!"

"You're baby is fine. Neither of you have suffered any permanent effects from your experience. I have someone else here with me." He moved aside so Harry could step forward.

"Harry!" she exclaimed with more emotion than either of them had ever heard her express. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around him and coaxed him into bed with her.

"I'll leave you two alone," the Doctor said tactfully and left.

Caught up in one another, neither Harry nor Seven acknowledged the Doctor's exit. After several kisses, Harry pulled back slightly. "Seven, you know what I said about Ensign Wildman before I left for Vardin?"

"Of course. You think I have a latent attraction for her."

"I've had a lot of time to think about that." He hesitated.

"And?" she insisted.

"And I was being stupid. You were watching her interact with Naomi and dreaming about the future with our daughter."

"Correct. I will forgive you....this time."

After sharing a quick laugh, they resumed their cuddling.

*****

Three days later, the last of the alien children were beamed down to Vardin and Janeway, and Neelix met with the representatives from both sides in Voyager's conference room.

"We have helped you recover the most precious gift," Janeway said. "Through your children, your cultures can live on if you allow your grudges to end. Don't spoil this opportunity by rearing old animosities. Neelix?" She nodded in her appointed ambassador direction.

The Talaxian was clutching two data padds against his chest and brought them to the table. "Since you requested my ambassadorial services, I've taken the liberty of drawing up a preliminary agreement between your two peoples. Mind you, I haven't had the chance to study both your cultures thoroughly, but I think I've done a reasonable job."

"How did you find the time to even write this?" Telar asked as he accepted one of the data padds and began scrolling through its contents. Ralea leaned over his shoulder to browse along with him.

Neelix handed the other padd to Ulewa. "I thought it through inside my head while we were rounding up the children. It was only a matter of writing it all down before this meeting. You'll note, the first item on the list is probably the most important issue: the end of all slavery practices. Then much of the rest of it deals with provisions for the children. Many of them no longer have living parents and unfortunately, appropriate guides are dwindling."

"You're suggesting that my people live on the planet with the Vardin!" Ulewa exclaimed.

"It would offer the children the best hope of survival when the last of the elders have past on."

"He's right," Ralea admitted. "The children depend on our cooperation." Her brother nodded in agreement.

Everyone looked expectantly at the Balia representative. "If I am to agree to this, I want equal treatment of my people's children. They will receive adequate housing, clothing and food. And they will be offered the same education as your children."

"Provisions we have much of," Telar promised. "And as far as schooling goes, we will expect equal instruction from your elders."

Ulewa nodded and Neelix filled the room with his resounding clap. "Great! Glad I could be of service to you."

*****

Epilogue: (or "Plenty of Letters Left in the Alphabet")

Tom Paris stepped into his newborn daughter's room to peer down at her sleeping form. "Sweet Sierra," he said with a smile.

"Don't wake her," B'Elanna whispered into his ear as she came up from behind him. "I just got her to sleep ten minutes ago."

"I just wanted to give her this." He unfolded his arms to reveal the Braktae. "The Balia believe it will watch over a child while she's sleeping and protect her." He set the small statue on Sierra's dresser. "I need to know my family is safe." He placed his arm around his wife and they walked out of the room together.

"Our bed is warm and safe," she teased, smiling flirtatiously at him.

He bent down toward her, offering her an open-mouthed kiss, his tongue darting in and out to brush playfully across her lips. "How many children did you say you wanted?" he teased back.

She laughed as she took his hands into hers and escorted him into their bedroom. "There's still plenty of letters left in the alphabet......"

And they will be offered the same education as your children."

"Provisions we have much of," Telar promised. "And as far as schooling goes, we will expect equal instruction from your elders."

Ulewa nodded and Neelix filled the room with his resounding clap. "Great! Glad I could be of service to you."

*****

Epilogue: (or "Plenty of Letters Left in the Alphabet")

Tom Paris stepped into his newborn daughter's room to peer down at her sleeping form. "Sweet Sierra," he said with a smile.

"Don't wake her," B'Elanna whispered into his ear as she came up from behind him. "I just got her to sleep ten minutes ago."

"I just wanted to give her this." He unfolded his arms to reveal the Braktae. "The Balia believe it will watch over a child while she's sleeping and protect her." He set the small statue on Sierra's dresser. "I need to know my family is safe." He placed his arm around his wife and they walked out, buthe room together.

"Our bed is warm and safe," she teased, smiling flirtatiously at him.

He bent down toward her, offering her an open-mouthed kiss, his tongue darting in and out to brush playfully across her lips. "How many children did you say you wanted?" he teased back.

She laughed as she took his hands into hers and escorted him into their bedroom. "There's still plenty of letters left in the alphabet......"