Aren't the Krenim wonderful? With all the messing around of timelines they've done, we've got tons of alternate universe stories we can write in. This is one of them. In this one, "Day of Honor" has a very different and much sadder ending. Because Tom and B'Elanna are not on *Voyager*, subsequent episodes would necessarily be very different. Here is my concept of how their absence might affect things shown during the first half of the fourth season.
General Disclaimer: The characters all belong to Paramount and to Viacom. So do some of the story elements and lines quoted from episodes. I just played around with them a bit. No disrespect was meant, and no claims for ownership for these elements, either. I admit only to having a too-active imagination and a word processing computer to let others in on my fantasies. Proceed at your own risk.
Rest assured, writing this story will cost me money, not make me any!
Much of the dialogue at the beginning of the story between Tom and B'Elanna is taken from the script, "Day of Honor," by Jeri Taylor. Some other lines of dialogue were quoted from other episodes, including "Revulsion" by Lisa Klink; "Scientific Method," also by Lisa Klink with a story by Sherry Klein and Harry Doc Kloor; "Mortal Coil" Bryan Fuller, and "Waking Moments" by Andre Bormanis. If you follow the show, you'll know which ones they are. The same characters don't always deliver the lines, though, or if they do, it may not be in the same context, so you'll have to pay attention!
Summary: After Paris and Torres are stranded in space on the Klingon Day of Honor and die of asphyxiation, Kathryn Janeway, Chakotay, Harry Kim and Seven of Nine learn to appreciate how precarious--and precious--life can be.
Relationshipper's Warning: As noted above, three relationships are taken for granted in this story and will be portrayed in one form or another. If you actively hate one of these pairings, be forewarned--you will encounter them all in this story.
Other stories I've written can be found at: http://members.aol.com/jamelia116/meander.html
Thanks: To the PTFever mail list, especially Marianne, Kim, Margaret, Niomi, Julie, Julia, Patti, pjs, Monica & Courtney, for their help with this story.
Feedback, Please, to: email@example.com
Those Who Are Left Behind
by J.A. Toner
Space is infinite, dark, and empty. Airless. Cold. Light coming from widely scattered stars occasionally reflects off wisps of gas in nebulas or bounces off a solid body of matter that, for a moment, tumbles into the path of radiation in the visible spectrum. A brief flash illuminates the darkness, a scant moment in the scope of limitless time, before disappearing again into the ether.
Most of the time, said objects are inorganic bits of rock of various sizes. Some are planets, some mere grains of sand. It is rare, in the vastness, for the object to ever have had life. Rarer still is the object that is still alive in that emptiness.
At one set of coordinates in the area that beings from one culture refer to as the Delta Quadrant, two living creatures, clothed in white pressurized suits and tethered to each other by a thin line, clung barely to life. Their legs were linked together; the only sound audible over the intercoms of their EVA suits was labored breathing and a tinny computerized feminine voice reciting, ::::Warning, oxygen level at one hundred four millibars and falling.::::
"Tom," murmured one of the white-encased bodies, shaking her companion.
"Tom, come on, open your eyes."
"I was having a dream. A really nice dream. We were home . . ." Meeting her eyes through the plexiglas visors guarding them from vacuum and the almost absolute zero temperatures of space, he smiled, "Don't be afraid, B'Elanna. It's not going to be hard. It's going to be . . . peaceful."
Another warning of falling oxygen levels halted B'Elanna before she could continue, "Tom, there's something I have to say . . . "
"Me, too. I'm glad . . . the last thing I'll see . . . is you . . ." His labored breathing could not obscure the message beneath his words as he pulled her into his arms with his vanishing strength, his eyes conveying more of his longing for closeness than either speech or his actions could.
"No, something else . . ."
Her breathing was almost as labored as Tom's as she continued, "I've been a coward . . . about everything . . . everything that really matters . . ."
His clear blue eyes gazed softly upon her, his face open, as it always was when he was not hiding behind the masks he had always been able to assume too readily. There was no more time for hiding from the truth, no mask over his face but the clear one that concealed nothing from her. "You're being a little hard on yourself."
B'Elanna's Klingon half would not be dissuaded. "No, I'm going to die--without a shred of honor. And for the first time in my life, that bothers me. So I have to tell you something. I have to--"
::::Warning, oxygen level at seventy-one millibars and falling.::::
During the interruption, Tom's eyes began to close again, although his arms still held B'Elanna close. She breathed out his name again, "Tom--"
Dragging himself back to consciousness, he said, "I'm here. It's okay. It won't be long now."
"I have to tell you the truth."
"The truth? About what?" He was interrupted by another warning. Sixty-two millibars of oxygen left now. Seconds of life remained. His mouth seemed to move in slow motion as he encouraged, "Better say it now. We don't have much longer."
Lightheaded, she took as deep a breath as she could, finally getting out, "I love you, Tom."
His eyes went wide, even as his mind seemed to slip away from the enormity of what she had said, the incongruity of the setting. Nothing came from his mouth as his head nodded, eyes drifting closed. That was not what B'Elanna was seeking, and she demanded in an intense whisper, "Well, say something!"
His eyes opened as a half smile graced his face. He looked at her again, searching for the words which finally came with a wistful sadness, "You picked a great time to tell me."
At another time, B'Elanna Torres probably would have slugged Thomas Eugene Paris for that statement. At another time, he undoubtedly would have delivered the line with a sarcastic swagger and a cockily raised eyebrow. This time, his words were merely a statement of the obvious. A slight smile that matched the one he wore came to her lips. Their gloved hands stroked the outsides of their helmets in vain attempts to caress the faces within. There were no more words to be said. Their hearts spoke now in the silence, in the embrace they shared as their heads moved as close to touching as the plexiglas would let them. Two bodies knotted together, adrift in the loneliness of space, finally at peace with each other.
When the transporter beam locked onto the bodies of Lieutenant Torres and Lieutenant Paris and reassembled their molecules in Sickbay two hours later, Tom and B'Elanna still embraced each other in death.
Two data chips rested in his hand. Ensign Harry Kim of the Federation Starship *Voyager* didn't feel much like listening to either one, but he knew he had to. Tom Paris, who had saved him from the greed of a Ferengi barkeep on Deep Space Nine, and B'Elanna Torres, who had first dubbed him "Starfleet" when they were being held in a medical facility far beneath the surface of the Ocampa homeworld, had entrusted him with the duty and the privilege of listening to thoughts that were to be shared with him only after their deaths. Because of his friendships with them, he had to listen, even if he felt like he'd lost his best friend.
He had. Both of them.
Slipping the first chip into the player, Harry noted that B'Elanna had recorded it a few days after Kes had left *Voyager* so spectacularly. That wasn't surprising. Many of the crew had decided to update their final messages after Kes' death/transformation to a new life form--whatever had happened to her, she was no longer visible. Harry himself had recorded updated messages for his friends. His messages to them could be trashed now. Tom and B'Elanna would never see them.
As he listened to B'Elanna's message, he felt both smiles and tears come to his eyes. There wasn't anything in the message he hadn't suspected long ago. He wished Tom could have heard it.
Harry was struck by the similarity of Tom's message to B'Elanna's. He wasn't really surprised at the contents of Tom's, either.
Listening to both messages at the same sitting, one after the other, Harry easily grasped what neither had been able to say directly in words. A depressed Harry was certain that his friends had never been able to express their true feelings towards each other, either. Not before . . . .
Thinking of the twin torpedo casings being readied for the next morning's services, Harry realized he had a message of his own to give--to his captain.
::::Ensign Kim to Captain Janeway.::::
"Janeway here. Yes, Harry, what is it?" Kathryn Janeway looked wearily up from the data PADD in her hand and glanced briefly at her first officer where he sat in his customary seat in her ready room. What *had* been Chakotay's customary seat up until recently, when their working relationship had been strained by their differing positions toward the Borg--one of whom was now a de facto member of *Voyager's* crew.
::::Captain, I just reviewed the data chips that Tom and B'Elanna left me. I think you should see them, Captain.::::
"Thank you, Harry, but they're your private messages."
::::I know, but I think you might want to adjust some of your plans for them . . . I mean, for their bodies. I don't think they'd mind if I showed you, Captain. You should call Commander Chakotay, too.::::
"He's already here in my ready room. If you think it's so important, come."
::::I'll be there in a few minutes. Kim out.::::
As the message began, her smile brightened quickly to a broad grin, to quickly be replaced by a grim smile. "Hello, Starfleet. If you're listening to this, I must have died. I hope it was 'with honor,' so you can go to my mother when you get back to the Alpha Quadrant and tell her that her daughter 'went to Sto-Vo-Kor' the way she'd always wanted me to. Let her know about the chief engineer thing, too. She'll like that. She was always sure I was going to amount to something. I never told anyone that before, Harry. I always talked about the way we didn't get along, I know. It wasn't all bad, though. There's a data chip for her, too, Harry. Please make sure she gets it."
The image looked down towards her feet for a few seconds before again looking out squarely from the computer screen. "Harry, I want you to know how much your friendship always meant to me. You were the first person I ever knew who wasn't more interested in my being a Klingon woman than you were in B'Elanna Torres, your friend, the engineer. That may seem like a simple thing to you, but it isn't, Harry. I know.
"I hope you remember all the good times we had together. The meals in the mess hall. Sandrine's. Swimming at Neelix's resort. All those all-nighters working on the Warp 10 Project. You've always been there for me when I needed you, Harry. I really loved being your friend. Thank you, for everything.
"Harry, speaking of the Warp 10 Project, there's one more favor I need to ask of you. It's about Tom. You know how he's been lately. I mean, I'd have to have been blind not to know that . . . well, you know. With the dating, and all, we've gotten pretty close, and . . . well, I have a hunch he's going to take this pretty hard. Me dying, I mean. So, Harry, please help him through this. Stay with him. Don't let him go back to being 'Pig Paris' again. He's better than that, even though he tries to hide it. Maybe he hides it from himself, I don't know. I just know that if anyone can keep him from going over the deep end, you can.
"I don't know what else to say, Harry, except, maybe, ride herd on my engineers so they keep *Voyager* together. Get home safe and sound. Good-bye, Starfleet. Remember your 'Maquis.' "
The ready room was completely silent while Harry exchanged Tom's data chip for B'Elanna's in the computer. Harry blinked when the image of the pilot appeared on screen. Tom's tall, lanky form was perched on the edge of a table, blue eyes staring down the recording device for his final message, almost as if he were daring it to record his thoughts accurately.
"Hey, Harry. Hope you're doing well. I guess I'm not. Well, I don't think anyone's too surprised that I bought it; I've skirted on the edge most of my life. I just hope that when it finally happened, the only one who ended up dead was me. I wouldn't want that on my conscience. I've got enough dead people in there already. I always told you I wasn't a good luck charm, Harry! I hope you have better luck with your next best friend.
"And that's what you were to me, Harry. You were just about the best friend a guy could ever have. The moment I laid eyes on you in that bar on Deep Space Nine, I felt like you were the little brother I never had. But you turned into a lot more than that. Hell, most people fight all the time with their little brothers; we hardly ever argued. About anything important, I mean. And what fun we had! Sandrine's. The holodeck programs. Dating the Delaney sisters--and Harry, I *am* sorry I laughed about you and Jenny and the gondola, even though it was really funny at the time. And about that holodeck babe that turned out to be an alien, too. I shouldn't have done that. But we did have fun, didn't we?
"But Harry, that isn't what I really need to thank you for. It was for not believing what Cavit and Fitzgerald said about me--hell, what *I* even said about me. For being your own man. I told you to stay away from me, but I'm glad you didn't listen. I was a pretty despicable person when I first met you in that Ferengi's bar, but whatever good I ended up doing on *Voyager*, it started with you believing in me. That means a lot to me. Meant a lot. I never could figure out how you're supposed to talk doing one of these things. But Harry, you know what I mean, I hope.
"When you get back to Earth--when, not if! I know that Captain Janeway and Chakotay and Tuvok are going to get you home someday--I'd like you to look up my parents, if they're still alive, and my sisters. Tell them I wasn't always a screw-up, and that I got to do what I loved doing the most. I got to pilot a starship again. I hope they'll care. Whether they do or not, I care. So let them know.
"There's one other thing, Harry." Tom's eyes looked off to the side, as if to look at something in the distance, and a look of stabbing pain crossed his visage, just for a second, starkly visible during the brief hesitation in his speech. "I don't know if you've noticed, but there's someone who's really become special to me the last few months. B'Elanna. I want you to take care of her, Harry. I don't know how much she'd really care about . . . whatever happened to me, but . . . I . . . just in case she does care, I . . . " Tom looked down at his hands and clasped them, saying, "This is silly. It's not like we're married, or anything, but I'd like you to be there for her, Harry. Be good to her. I'd like to think that maybe you could make her happy. Hell, you'd be better for her than I ever would be. I should try to fix the two of you up! But I won't. Not while I'm still around--but hey--if you're listening to this message, I'm *not* around any more. So, go ahead, Harry. Make your move. But Harry, just make sure that she gets home okay, too."
The image of Tom Paris stood up, and at least a suggestion of the cocky grin he habitually assumed lit his face again. "So, anyway, Harry. Take care of yourself. And thanks again, for everything."
Tom's image flickered away as the message ended. Kathryn Janeway's hand closed reflexively on the chips in her left hand, holding the final personal messages directed to her by her chief engineer and helmsman. She hadn't looked at them yet, thanks to the lingering complications the Caatati had caused for *Voyager*. She'd only had time to review the public messages, detailing the funeral arrangements each had wanted. Simple Starfleet services for both, with their bodily remains to be shot out into space, to spend eternity in the stars.
"Captain?" Chakotay was concerned by the grief-stricken, far away look he read upon his superior's face.
Her eyes met her first officer's, focusing upon his face for a moment and nodding slightly before they met those of the young operations officer again. "Thank you, Harry, for sharing these with us. I hadn't had a chance to play mine yet. You said you thought we might want to adjust our plans for the services tomorrow, based on these messages?"
Harry took a deep breath. "Yes, Captain. I know you were getting two torpedoes ready, to shoot out one after the other. But after seeing these, and seeing what they felt about each other . . . Captain, no one will ever know if they ever said anything to each other at the end; but from the way we found them, the way they were holding onto each other--I was thinking maybe they wouldn't have wanted us to waste the resources by using two casings. I think maybe, if they're going to be floating in space for as long as the galaxy lasts . . . one capsule is enough for both of them. So they can be together at last."
The captain nodded her head, mouth tightly pursed. From the look on her face, Chakotay could see that words would not come easily to her for several minutes. He took it upon himself to say, "See that it's done, Harry. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Dismissed."
After Harry left, the two senior officers sat silently in the captain's ready room for several minutes. When Janeway finally trusted herself to look at her first officer, she could not see his face. His head was down, his eyes on his folded hands. Then he looked up, and a gleam of unshed tears was visible in his deep brown eyes. A slight choking sound escaped her lips, and his glistening eyes flew to her face. Her right hand flew up to conceal her eyes from him, but he caught a glimpse of what he fully expected to see in her blue-gray eyes.
Chakotay stood and took the three steps needed to cross the space between them. The awkwardness of the last few weeks vanished as he touched her shoulder in comfort. Her left hand dropped the two data chips upon her desk before she reached up, crossing her body, and grasped his wrist where it rested upon her shoulder. More emotional displays would come when they were alone in their quarters, reviewing the last words of their own personal reclamation projects. Projects which had come to untimely ends.
Long after he knew the torpedo bearing his friends' remains could not be visible, Harry looked out at the stars receding behind *Voyager* as it raced towards the Alpha Quadrant. So much space. Such a little capsule.
It was a good thing that Tom was tall and lean while B'Elanna was diminutive. There hadn't been much space for two bodies in the capsule; their final resting positions were not flat on their backs, but tilted towards each other and side by side. Tom, in the red uniform of command that he'd worn proudly the last few years of his life, was lying to one side of the torpedo, arms wrapped around the golden-uniformed B'Elanna. She was lying on her right side, left arm thrown over his body as if they were lovers in bed, asleep. A casual position, but the captain and commander had agreed to this breach in the usual protocols. It simply seemed to be the right thing to do. The faces of the two lieutenants looked even younger than their years, all worry smoothed out of their expressions, peaceful in death. The bad luck and loneliness each had endured in their lives had come to an inevitable end.
Since the bodies had been in stasis from the time they'd been found, rigor mortis had not yet set in when they'd been laid to rest in their capsule, barely an hour before the brief memorial service. After the captain had finished those few and inadequate words she could say about her engineer and pilot without breaking down, the torpedo was launched. Aimed into space in the direction of the Alpha Quadrant, the coffin moved gently, not at any great speed relative to that of *Voyager*, to drift among the stars of the Delta Quadrant. The lives of B'Elanna Torres and Thomas Eugene Paris had changed for the better during their last few years in the Delta Quadrant, yet all were in agreement: it was appropriate their path still led towards home.
At the conclusion of the joint service, the off-duty crew had drifted to the mess hall for a quick meal in honor of the deceased. It was a good one. Neelix had been preparing it for Tuvok's promotional dinner, scheduled for the following day. The newly-minted Lieutenant Commander had suggested this use of the rations would be more beneficial to the crew than having a dinner in his honor. Under the circumstances, Tuvok noted, it would be illogical to celebrate his promotion. Janeway agreed, giving him his new rank pip in a private ceremony. Chakotay was the only other attendee.
As he watched the stars stream by the mess hall windows, Harry was startled by a short, flamboyantly-garbed figure suddenly appearing at his elbow. "Ensign Kim, may I offer you more of my special coffee blend?"
Harry made an attempt at smiling. He was about to decline the beverage, but changed his mind. One look at the Talaxian's face told Harry just how hard Neelix had taken the deaths--not surprising, coming as they did so soon after the loss of Kes. Dealing with them had been hard on everyone. For Neelix, it had to have been worse.
"Sure, Neelix. I was thinking of going to get myself another cup. Thanks for coming over." He held up his cup as Neelix poured it out. It was thick but drinkable.
"I was thinking about calling it 'B'Elanna's Blend,' you know. She had a little just the other day with the rokeg blood pie I'd made her for the Day of Honor. Just before she and Mr. Paris . . . well. She'd liked it when I gave it to her then."
"I'm sure she'd like to be remembered that way," said Harry, although he had exactly the opposite opinion. There was no point in hurting Neelix's feelings.
Neelix didn't move on after pouring. The crowd had thinned, and he seemed to want to talk to someone. As Neelix sank down into a chair, Harry turned his body toward the cook, resigning himself to listening to more reminiscences. That was how it had gone with almost everyone, all that day.
"You know, Ensign, that day she asked me if she should go forward with a holodeck program. The one that Tom had helped her write to observe the Klingon Day of Honor. Do you know about that?" At Harry's nod, the cook continued, "I told her that I thought traditions were good, and I thought she was going to do it. I never heard, though. Did she go through with it?"
"I'm not sure, Neelix. I know she ran the program, but with everything that happened that day, I'm not sure she was able to finish it."
"I see. You know, that day I offered myself to Lieutenant Torres to be her pressure valve. Let her yell at me, blow off steam when she needed to lose her temper. I *am* the morale officer, after all. She could be so tense sometimes. Then she'd blow up at anyone over nothing. Especially Mr. Paris."
Harry smiled in recognition. "She sure did. Tom got it more than anybody. Of course, he *asked* for it more than anybody. You know, when the Nyrians were taking over the ship? B'Elanna was demanding I tell her if she ever got hostile. Tom told me later she'd been swinging a bat'leth at him after they'd gone to the holodeck for an exercise program. I didn't know that then, but still, what could I say? 'Yes, B'Elanna, all the time?' She looked like she was about to breathe fire! I'm not even sure if I answered her, because the next thing I knew, I was transported to the Habitat . . . " Harry was about to say, "and met up with Kes," but he decided he'd said enough already.
"And what about the way they appeared back there, in each other's arms. There was a lot of talk about how they'd been keeping warm in that other habitat." Neelix was chuckling as he grinned. "Tom took a lot of ribbing about that, but he never said anything. I notice they seemed to be together a lot after that. It was inevitable; I already knew that. The way she bit him in those mine shafts--well, Ensign Kim, if you'd seen that, you'd have known where they were heading, even before what happened in the Habitat."
"That was the start of it all." And might as well have been the end, Harry realized. Tom had been circumspect about the extent of his relationship with B'Elanna, but Harry was sure they hadn't become lovers yet. No wild Klingon mating for Tom, although Harry knew he'd hoped for it. No time. His eyes began to sting again. Harry couldn't meet Neelix's gaze. If he did, he knew he's start blubbering again. He didn't want to do that, particularly not here in the mess hall in front of everyone.
Depressed, Harry looked out the window again. So many people had died already on this trip, and here he was, still being faithful to Libby, at least in body. Not much longer, though, and certainly not in mind, not anymore. Who knew how much longer they'd be out here, or whether he'd even live long enough to deliver those chips to B'Elanna's mother and Tom's family? How long was he supposed to put his life on hold, waiting to get back home to the Alpha Quadrant? Maybe it was time for Harry Kim to do the *carpe diem* thing--find himself someone to love before he ran out of time, too.
Except there wasn't anyone who excited him on *Voyager*, especially now that the two most attractive women, B'Elanna and Kes, both were gone. Seven of Nine was beautiful and exciting, of course, but making love to a Borg woman was unthinkable. Talk about intimidating! He'd already been clunked on the head by her once.
*No, thanks*, thought Harry. *I'll be keeping a wide berth from her. No sense asking for trouble*.
"Sit down, Ensign Kim. The captain and I have an assignment for you. We've been talking about modifying some of the equipment on *Voyager*."
Harry took the seat that Commander Chakotay indicated. "What kind of modifications, sir?"
"The Astrometrics Lab. It hasn't been upgraded since *Voyager* left Space Dock."
Harry immediately felt enthusiastic about the project. Work was just what he needed to keep from dwelling upon the loss of his friends. "I'll start right away."
"Good. I've assigned Seven of Nine to work with you. She's agreed to provide us with the navigational data on this area she acquired during her time with the Borg."
Harry's face must have fallen, for Chakotay added, "Is there a problem?"
"No, no problem." Even to Harry, this sounded patently false.
"Try to make her feel like part of the team," encouraged the commander.
"Right. Part of the team."
"I'm sure you'll do fine, Ensign. Seven could use your assistance fitting in with the rest of the crew."
"Yes, sir. Will that be all, sir? I'd like to get started."
"Of course, Harry. Dismissed."
As Harry backed out of Chakotay's office, he felt a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was not looking forward to this at all.
By the time Harry found himself standing before the doors of Cargo Bay 2, his stomach was no longer doing flips, but he didn't relish the assignment. Taking a deep breath, he entered the cargo bay, calling out his co-worker's name. "Seven?" There was no sign of her in any of the regeneration cubicles along the side of the cargo bay wall.
The sound of footsteps descending a ladder alerted him to her presence. "I am here," she proclaimed. Despite himself, Harry couldn't draw his eyes away from her shiny bodysuit, which accentuated every curve of her provocative body. If Seven had been anyone other than a Borg, Harry would have found it impossible to resist her. The stray thought that, in her case, resistance truly was futile brought a smile to Harry's lips. As she turned towards him, she asked, "Am I to work with you?"
"Oh, Hi, uh, yes. I thought we'd start in Jeffries Tube 32B--enhance the Astrometric sensors. If that's OK with you. Unless this is a bad time . . . " Harry avoided taking a backwards step as she moved towards him, but he couldn't stop himself from flinching as she came within hitting distance.
Approaching him, Seven observed, "Ensign Kim, you seem . . . apprehensive."
"No, otecat all." *Liar*, Harry thought.
"The last time we worked together, I struck you at the base of your skull and attempted to contact the Collective."
"These things happen." *God, what is wrong with me? Really acting like Starfleet's Finest today, aren't we, Harry?*
"I assure you, it will not happen again."
"That's good to know."
"I've designed new navigational sensors. Some of the alphanumerics are Borg."
"No problem. I . . . I always wanted to learn Borg."
"That is difficult to believe." It seemed impossible, but she said this even more flatly than she had said anything else.
"I was kidding. It was a joke. You know, humor . . . "
"I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior."
Despite himself, Harry chuckled. Maybe this would go okay after all.
Harry found that both his initial pessimism and subsequent optimism were misplaced. Working with Seven of Nine was neither as problematic as he expected, nor was it a wonderful experience. Sometimes she was easy to talk with, particularly concerning technical matters; at other times it was impossible to converse without frequent, intense declarations that the subject in question, especially if it were a personal one, was "irrelevant." Harry was confident that "irrelevant" was her favorite word.
He soon saw that the very concept of "personal" was something she needed to work on. Seven didn't understand the concept of "personal space" very well. She was constantly intruding upon Harry's comfort zone--not unexpected when her anatomical endowments protruded as far away from her body as they did. It made it difficult, however, for Harry to concentrate on work. He may have muttered that "hormones are irrelevant" a few times, but unfortunately, he didn't really believe it. They were all too relevant, a fact which was uncomfortably confirmed on several occasions, always at a very inconvenient time or place.
Seven *was* almost as efficient as she believed herself to be, however, to a degree which often surprised him. Confidently stating that "My experience as a drone has taught me to be efficient and precise," Seven was initially insulted on one occasion when Harry checked her work on the optical assembly with a tricorder.
"Just checking. Standard procedure," Harry assured her, but she was chagrined when he found that she had misaligned the optical assembly by point five degrees. She fixed her error promptly and, it must be admitted, efficiently.
When Harry tried to introduce the concept of small talk, he received only limited responses. To a query of what she did "for fun," Seven replied that "I regenerate in my alcove. I study the Starfleet Data Base. Or I contemplate my existence." Harry had mumbled that that was a lot of time spent by herself, and she agreed, succinctly, "It is."
As they moved down the Jeffries Tube to the main power supply access node nearest their work location, Harry was struck by just how isolated this woman was. Even B'Elanna, with all of the rejections she'd suffered during her life because of her half-Klingon heritage, had not been subjected to the degree of verbal abuse that the former Borg woman had by the angry Caatati, at least, as far as Harry knew. The crew as a whole still expected Seven to recontact the Collective and turn them all into drones. The remaining implants visibly marked her as Borg, and few really trusted her. She, in turn, was heedless of her own safety, risking her life to handle billions of gigawatts of power because she was sure her remaining exoskeleton would protect her. Safety procedures for a race that absorbed species whole, for whom each drone was easily replaceable, probably *were* a waste of time. To the one hundred forty-five souls on *Voyager*, careful adherence to safety procedures was a necessary condition of survival.
It didn't help when one attempt to keep her from hurting herself brought him nose to nose with her, looking into those huge blue eyes of hers. He became uncomfortably aware of his hands upon her shoulders and gasped for breath, simply from touching her.
There were good moments between them, though; and it certainly helped that whenever Harry was with Seven, he found his mind so occupied with the tasks they were doing that he didn't have much chance to dwell upon his recent losses. It took all his concentration at times simply to communicate, thanks to their very different life experiences; yet Harry found her offbeat phrasing and observations could be fun. Sometimes it seemed Seven was playing along, trying to provoke him into a smile. Her response when he discovered the error she'd made with the optical assembly charmed him. "It must have been my humanity reasserting itself. I will correct the error."
He also enjoyed her instructions regarding the removal of a piece of Borg equipment left behind. Without the proper tool to remove it, since the Doctor had discarded that attachment as extraneous when he'd removed most of her implants, Seven said, "I suggest a radical dislocation." At his puzzled stare, Seven clarified, "We need to pull it out."
And they had--but not without an injury to Seven. "I've been damaged!" she had cried. "As a drone I would have regenerated within seconds. I've become weak!"
Comforting her, Harry told her, "No more than the rest of us. You'll be fine. I'll walk you to Sickbay." During the walk there, Harry found his feelings were a mixture of concern for her welfare and pleasure that he was able to help such a strong, independent being. *I just hope I'm not going to fall in love with her*, Harry thought, not realizing then it might already be too late.
"Lieutenant Carey needs more selenium and gallicite for the shuttle that's being built to replace the *Cochrane*."
"Have we been in contact with anyone who might be able to supply our needs?" asked Captain Janeway.
"No. Fortunately, he also said the *Sagan* has been repaired and is coming back into service. We're only two shuttles down at the moment."
*One lost with Kes, the other with Tom and B'Elanna*, rang in Chakotay's head. Glancing up at the captain, he could almost see the same thought flicker across her mind.
The captain sighed. "Move selenium and gallicite to the top of the 'critical supplies needed' list."
"Very well, Captain," replied the commander.
"How is Mr. Carey doing in Engineering?"
"He has it well in hand. The staff seems to have settled in. We should be all right as long as there aren't any major problems with anyone in this area, at least, not until the period of adjustment is over."
"The Bridge staff seems to have adjusted, too. How's the Astrometrics Lab progressing?"
"Harry and Seven are working well together. They're making good progress, I understand. As soon as they report on their plans, I'll give orders to begin construction."
"Good idea. A major project like that will be good for everyone. It's already been good for Harry. I was really worried about him, Chakotay. He was so depressed when we found Tom and B'Elanna, I didn't know what his reaction would be. He's young, though. Resilient."
"I was worried about him, too. Of course, youth isn't the only thing that's helping him bounce back." The dimples in the commander's face deepened with his smile.
"Oh, really?" The captain, whose eyes had been resting upon her PADD in front of her during most of the earlier part of the conversation, met her first officer's eyes. "What else is helping him? Or should I say, 'Who is helping him?' "
"Who, definitely. I know I wasn't particularly happy about Seven of Nine staying on board, but from the effect she's had on Harry, I'm glad she's here."
"He's not falling in love with her, is he? She isn't ready for anything like that yet," the captain said worriedly.
"Oh, I'd call it more of a crush at this point. She certainly can light up a room in that silver suit she wears. He's not the only male who has trouble knowing where to put their eyes when she's in view."
A throaty laugh erupted from the captain. "Her therapeutic suit is rather attention-grabbing, I'll grant you. I believe the Doctor will be allowing her to wear something a bit less provocative in a week or so. Her body has healed from most of the implant removals, but she'll be wearing some kind of corset thing under her clothing for a long while--it might even have to be permanent." Janeway shifted in her chair and looked over at Chakotay, saying in a lightly teasing tone, "So, Commander, have you been having trouble knowing where to put your eyes, too?"
His dimples deepened. "I can't say I'm totally immune. She's a beautiful woman, there's no doubt about it. And the implants that the Doctor left seem to accentuate rather than detract from her looks. But my eyes are usually on another woman, particularly on the bridge. I've been worrying more about her lately."
The atmosphere chilled perceptively. "I don't think you need to worry about her."
"I can't help it. It's my job."
"Chakotay, I appreciate your concern, but I'm fine."
"Kathryn . . . " Chakotay hesitated. Not long ago, when threatened by the Borg and Species 8472, they'd endured the most serious break in their relationship since Tom Paris had gone undercover as a malcontent to uncover a spy. Their rapprochement was still tenuous, but Chakotay could not remain silent. "Maybe everyone else isn't. You've been spending a lot of time with Seven, and that's commendable. But there are other people on this ship that need some of your attention. I don't think you've noticed their needs lately."
"Really? Who?" she drawled, getting even more annoyed.
Might as well get it over with. "Me."
"You? Chakotay, what's wrong?"
He remained silent, gathering his thoughts. He hadn't intended to bring any of this up now, in her ready room, but perhaps this was the place. Her turf.
"I'm reconsidering an agreement we made between us some time ago. An agreement about 'parameters.' "
"I'm sorry, but I haven't changed my opinion about that."
"Even after what happened with Tom and B'Elanna?"
That brought her up short. She couldn't deny that the circumstances of their deaths had affected her deeply. Chakotay knew that the data chips to the captain had conveyed even more clearly than Harry's had how much they'd cared for each other. So had his. Because of their delay, they'd died without expressing those feelings to one another.
"Kathryn, I'm not saying we need to pick up exactly where we left off on New Earth. We both agreed not to continue the life we had there. We never expected to have anyone else but each other for the rest of our lives then. It's more complicated here; I realize that. But I *do* want to have my confidante back, and I hope she wants hers. It's not like we have anybody else of an equivalent rank out here to serve that purpose."
"You just want to talk to me?"
He smiled again, sadly. "I'd like a lot more than that, Kathryn. I'm sure you can figure that out. The longer we remain out of touch out here, the more difficult it is. The lonelier it is. Especially when I remember what we had there."
"We agreed to sacrifice that life for the sake of the ship, Chakotay. In fact, as I recall, you were the one who said we couldn't go on 'fraternizing.' That we'd set a bad example for the crew."
Chakotay looked down and shook his head, and said softly, "We also agreed we could change our minds later, and *I've* changed my mind. If nothing else, seeing what's happened to B'Elanna and Tom made me realize the truth in that old saying, 'Seize the day.' Kathryn, we've made progress towards home, but we're still more than five decades away." He stood up and arched his tattooed brow with a melancholy grin. "I don't think even the highest ranking admirals in Starfleet ever expected the 'loneliness of command' to be this complete, for either of us."
Her smile matched his. "Perhaps not, but I'm not ready for anything else."
"As you say, Captain. Will that be all?"
Feeling an unexpected pang at his return to formality, she nodded.
After he left, she moved to the couch in her ready room and sat there for a long time, staring out the window. Her mind traveled back to a time and place where strong hands scrubbed her back while she bathed in an al fresco tub. She remembered how those hands had made her entire body feel afterwards, at a time when *Voyager* had seemed to be part of their past, when they had lived together in intimacy and joy. Back to a time when they had thought the rest of their lives would be very, very different than they were turning out to be.
*Personal Log, Harry Kim, Stardate 51106.7.
*Working with Seven of Nine is getting a bit awkward. Anything more than friendship is a bad idea, I know. I really need to be careful. Seven was a Borg only a few weeks ago. No matter how beautiful she is, I know that inside she's still got a lot of Borg in her. She doesn't know who she is herself, let alone what it would be like to be with anyone.
*But I can't help it. There really is a woman in there, with a subtle, offbeat sense of humor. I can't stop thinking about her. My mind is in such a jumble. I know I shouldn't indulge myself like this. I wish Tom and B'Elanna were here now for me to talk to. Tom would tell me to calm down, or laugh about me falling head over heels for a woman who doesn't know what love is. I'd love to hear B'Elanna ask, "Hey, Starfleet, what's up?" so I could talk this thing with Seven out. I bet she'd set me straight in a hurry about "The Borg."
*I'll just have to try harder, because it's way too soon to even think about that kind of relationship with Seven--for her, or for me.*
Harry sighed as he closed his log entry. It was true. He knew it. Every word he'd just dictated was the truth. Too bad he wasn't going to listen to himself. He picked up the PADD he'd just been working on. Maybe he should just ditch it. Save it for the morning. Yes, that's what he *should* do.
Instead he hit his comm badge. "Harry Kim to Seven of Nine . . ."
"You wished to see me, Seven?" Chakotay took to his feet as Seven strode authoritatively into his office. It was irksome to always stand around Seven, but she had been quite vocal about the fact that sitting was uncomfortable for her. He seldom could bring himself to sit while she stood. His Academy training in behavior proper to an "officer and a gentleman"--of whichever gender--always asserted itself at times like this.
"Here are the schematics for the Astrometrics Lab, Commander."
"That was quick," he commented as he accepted the PADD.
"With the exception of Commander Tuvok, Ensign Kim is the member of the crew with whom I have the least difficulty in completing tasks. Quick results can be expected. We work well together."
"Ensign Kim's behavior is usually predictable, and it is reasonably efficient."
"I'd have to agree with your being efficient, Seven. You must have been burning the midnight oil to get this project done so quickly."
"I do not comprehend your meaning, Commander. We burned nothing to accumulate this data."
"It's just an expression. It means you worked a lot of extra hours on the project beyond your scheduled duty shifts."
"Oh, yes. You are correct, Commander. We worked on it together until late last night. I do not believe it was 2400 hours yet, however. In the mess hall."
"You worked last night in the mess hall?"
"Yes. Ensign Kim said that he'd had a 'midnight inspiration about reconfiguring the astrometric projectors' last night. He gave me the data, and I worked on it for several hours when I was not regenerating."
"I see. He didn't help you?"
"Not at that time. There was insufficient lighting to work long in the mess hall, although Ensign Kim did not appear to notice. I left him there after my lesson."
"That is the proper terminology, is it not? When someone teaches a person something in a group or individual session? That is what Commander Tuvok calls it."
Chakotay straightened his posture. Seven did not seem at all perturbed, but the first officer could not help being somewhat suspicious. A late night rendezvous in a darkened mess hall to work? And then Harry lets her leave with the work? That didn't sound right to him.
"Tell me about this lesson, Seven."
"It began with a request for assistance with the Astrometrics project, but I believe that this was not the true lesson Ensign Kim wished to convey. He has been helping me explore complex human social interactions. This one appeared to be concerned primarily with courtship rituals."
"I see. What makes you say that?"
"At first, he stated he wished my help with the project. He said, 'This is tricky stuff,' and that it could use 'my touch.' He also claimed he needed to utilize the vision of my artificial eye, although I am not sure exactly what benefit he expected from this. I could see nothing in the data that the attributes of my eye could elucidate."
Chakotay stifled a smile. "What exactly did he say to you, Seven?"
"He said he wanted to utilize 'my way of looking at things.' Perhaps I misunderstood. Is this another alternate expression?"
"Yes, Seven. He thought that your thought processes might uncover something in the data that his had not. It had nothing to do with your eye, but with your brain."
"Ah, yes. I see. Thank you for explaining this, Commander. I confess I find many of Ensign Kim's expressions perplexing at times. I will need to study idiomatic expressions more diligently."
"That would be helpful. So, what did he say next?"
"He asked me to sit down. I told him that I preferred to stand. He told me that I would be more comfortable sitting. I said that comfort is irrelevant; that we were there to work."
"And . . . "
"After I activated the PADD to examine its contents, I informed him that there was insufficient lighting to see adequately. He said that lower lighting levels were relaxing. Then he began to speak out of context."
"Out of context?" Chakotay said, as he backed up far enough to lean his buttocks against the edge of his desk. It wasn't exactly standing, but it wasn't quite sitting, either. He had a hunch, by this point in Seven's recitation, that it was going to take a while for him to get to the heart of what had happened. Seven may have preferred to stand, but he didn't.
"He said that *Voyager* wasn't all cargo bays and Jeffries tubes. I am fully aware of that fact. I determined from this comment that Ensign Kim did not wish to talk about the Astrometrics projectors at all."
"A logical assumption."
"Then he suggested that when we had completed our task in the mess hall, we should go to the holodeck. He wished us to experience the K'Tarian moonrise simulation together. He expressed the opinion that it was beautiful and that I would 'love it.' I informed him that beauty is irrelevant. It was then I had a revelation. I asked him if he wished to change the nature of our affiliation. He asked me what I meant, and I told him."
Chakotay had a clear premonition that this evening had not gone as Ensign Kim had planned. Since it was his duty as the officer in charge of personnel, however, he knew he had to find out exactly what had happened. "What did you tell him, Seven?"
"I informed him that while I may be new to individuality, I was not ignorant of human behavior. The ensign has made many attempts to engage me in idle conversation, and I had observed the pupils of his eyes dilating when they looked at my body. I have also noted the increase in his respiration rate when we speak together. When I asked him if he wished to visit the holodeck in order to create a romantic mood with me, he claimed not to know what I was talking about. I do not believe that was true, Commander."
Chakotay's shrug was noncommittal.
"I asked if he were in love with me. He said he was not. From this response, I presumed his true intention was that he wished to copulate with me. When I told him to remove his clothing, however, he refused. I promised not to hurt him, Commander, but he said that he only wished to make me 'part of the team.' Then he suggested that we quit for the evening. I took the data with me when I left to work on the data on my own. Is something wrong, Commander? I thought I heard you choke."
He gasped and said, "No, I'm fine, Seven. I got something caught in my throat. Just let me clear it out." The commander coughed several times, his hand covering his mouth politely, as Seven had been told was appropriate by the Doctor.
While waiting for the commander to finish clearing his throat, Seven pondered what had transpired between her and Ensign Kim the previous evening. "Commander, I find that all of these elaborate rituals of deception are quite confusing. I did not anticipate that becoming human again would be such a challenge. Sexuality is particularly complex. As Borg we had no need for seduction, nor did we spend any time on single cell fertilization. We saw a species we wanted, and we assimilated it. Nevertheless, I was willing to explore my humanity, yet Ensign Kim was reluctant. I did not expect him to refuse. From my studies of human sexuality, all the signs appeared to be present for him to be sexually attracted to me. Was I in error, Commander Chakotay?"
"I don't think I care to address that at this time, Seven. I think you will need to take the subject up with Mr. Kim again in the future. But, if I may, a word of advice?"
"Give him a little time before you bring up the subject."
"A few days?"
"I would say several weeks would be better, unless he brings it up with you again himself."
"Your advice is acceptable. I did not know how to proceed. Do you think that Ensign Kim will wish to discontinue his association with me? He appeared to be quite distressed when I asked him to remove his clothing."
"Oh, I don't think you'll have any problems as long as you don't ask him to remove his clothing again. Particularly in public. But what about you, Seven? Do you have any reservations about continuing to work on the Astrometrics project with Ensign Kim, in view of what's happened?"
"Certainly not. As I told you, I can complete my tasks more efficiently with Ensign Kim or Commander Tuvok than I can with anyone else on board *Voyager*. Will that be all, Commander?"
"Yes, you are dismissed, Seven."
When he was sure that Seven was gone, Chakotay finally felt free to release the guffaws he'd been painfully holding in through most of his conversation with the young woman. *Changing the nature of their affiliation! I'll just bet!* He laughed for several minutes, until the tears ran down his cheeks. Then the tears continued, but without the laughter. This had been the first real laughter he'd enjoyed for quite a while. Long before they'd lost B'Elanna and Tom, really. There'd been too many losses, for a very long time. His father. Too many of his colleagues in the Maquis. His Maquis crew that had died coming here, and so many, both Maquis and Starfleet, since they'd boarded *Voyager*.
But this double loss was the worst. B'Elanna, so tough, so vulnerable, and the best engineer he had ever had the privilege to know. Tom, the cocky traitor who had turned out to be a brave and unselfish officer--and just as good a pilot as he'd thought he was. One a good friend, one never quite a friend, though they'd learned to work well together. Both gone now.
Chakotay found himself looking out the viewport of his office at the stars, wondering exactly how far that torpedo with their remains had traveled toward the Alpha Quadrant in the few days since they'd shot it away. Not very far. Not that it mattered for the two of them.
It was the rest of them, the ones that B'Elanna and Tom had left behind, that mattered now. And especially one person. Harry Kim. He'd been best friend to both of them. If Chakotay felt so badly about losing them, what must Harry be feeling? No wonder he was so eager for a friend that he'd approached the least likely person aboard ship. Smiling sadly, the commander realized, *But that's Harry. Defender of the outcast. He's doing it again, just like he did with B'Elanna and Tom. This time, it's with Seven of the Borg.*
Turning around to face his desk, Chakotay began, "Dictating:
*First Officer's Personal Log, Stardate 51108.3.
*Seven of Nine came in today with a hilarious story about what happened, or more accurately, did NOT happen, between Ensign Kim and herself last evening. She assured me that she preferred working with Ensign Kim over anyone aboard ship, with the possible exception of Commander Tuvok, despite this miscommunication between the ensign and herself.
*If we were in the Alpha Quadrant, splitting them up as much as possible or even transferring one of them off the ship would be recommended. Out here, I have the opposite inclination. I cannot think of a more honorable young officer than Harry Kim. His refusal last night to take advantage of Seven's lack of sophistication in sexual matters is the proof. If anyone can help Seven with her social skills, it is Mr. Kim.
*By the same token, Ensign Kim's loss of his two closest friends on this vessel demands that he become involved in some ongoing project until such time as he has been able to complete the mourning process. Keeping him with Seven on the Astrometrics Lab project is a calculated risk, but it's one I'm willing to take. If anyone can distract Mr. Kim from his troubles, it is Seven of Nine.
*If this action blows up in our faces, I will take full responsibility. I could be accused of encouraging crew fraternization by doing this, I realize. But who, realistically speaking, can this crew fraternize with in the Delta Quadrant other than each other? It's time we recognized this fact and acted upon it. There are too many lonely people aboard this ship, and I, for one, am no longer willing to accept being alone.
*End personal log.*
As he ended his personal log entry, Commander Chakotay turned again to view the stars streaming by his viewport window, thinking about how far they'd already come on this journey--and how much further they had to go.
"You know, I really tried very hard to keep the grin off my face while Harry gave me his report. I didn't want to humiliate him. A few times, though, he said things that were really hard to ignore. Finally, when Harry tried to say that Engineering could take over the project now, I couldn't help myself. I told him I thought he'd want to supervise the work himself. After all, the Astrometrics Lab was his baby. He tried to tell me it wouldn't be the best use of the ship's personnel, I said, 'I can rearrange the duty shifts.' "
Pausing with another forkful of her omelet in the air, the captain shook her head and laughed. "I never knew you could be so cruel, Chakotay."
He nodded, chuckling in agreement at this assessment of his character as he went on, "You should have seen him, Kathryn. He was just about stuttering. 'Oh, no, Commander, Seven can handle things without me.' I asked if he was having a problem with her. 'A little misunderstanding, that's all. Just your basic Borg-human cultural differences.' So I told him that Seven didn't say anything about that when she spoke with me."
"You told him she'd come to you? You truly are an evil man, Chakotay!"
He laughed with her outright this time. "I usually try to keep that part of me well hidden away, Kathryn, but I couldn't help myself. When I heard the panic in Harry's voice when he asked me what Seven told me, I almost relented. Almost. I let him know she thought he was 'reasonably efficient' and that we were all happy with their progress. Then I mentioned she'd said something about how he'd been helping her learn about our complex social interactions. 'Do you have any idea what she means by that, Ensign?' I thought he was going to faint."
The tears were running down the captain's face.
"Finally, I told them that the two of them made a good team and I wanted to keep them together on this project--and maybe others in the future. And then . . . I really do feel guilty about this, but I couldn't resist . . . I told him to 'have fun.' "
"You didn't! Chakotay!" They both laughed hysterically.
As she wiped the tears from her face, Janeway remarked, "I really feel guilty, too, laughing like this over poor Harry. But it really is funny. Was it as horrible as I think it was to keep a straight face through all of this?"
"My sides hurt holding in the laughter during both meetings. Seven was just so innocent about it all, and Harry was . . . Harry. He really is an 'officer and a gentleman,' Kathryn. Maybe it was cruel of me to keep them working together. I don't know. Time will tell."
Still smiling, but now a bit more sedately, Janeway nodded, "It does slip fairly close to encouraging them to have a relationship. Not the kind of behavior I'd expect from the man who was so against crew fraternization, Chakotay."
"I know. I dictated a personal log entry and an official one afterwards, taking full responsibility if there are˛F´blems because of this. You know that I've been rethinking my whole position on the fraternization policy, anyway. It really doesn't make sense to enforce anything like the regular rules out here; I can see that now. I'm not saying we could make everybody happy by ordering everyone to 'fraternize' with each other. But who else do we have? How many aliens are going to be willing to come along with us, the way Neelix has? If Rynax hadn't been destroyed, we wouldn't even have him with us, and I think Kes was the one who convinced him to come along, at that."
"I think you're right about Kes. She was so adventurous in that quiet way of hers." Janeway studied him intently for a moment, then said, "You don't have any other agenda for discussing the fraternization issue now, do you, Chakotay?"
"No, Kathryn. I'm talking about the crew, not anyone in this room." *I may be thinking it, but I'm not going to say it. I'm just happy that we're even having a conversation like this, over dinner in your quarters, instead of a formal meeting in the ready room . . . *
She gave out a quick, disbelieving little puff of air. *Very astute of her*, he thought, but said aloud, "Do you think we should just leave things as they are as far as the policy goes? I know of a few pairings already where the couple is living together in all but name."
"Let me think about that. I don't want to go on record about it if it isn't needed, although one couple has come to me about wanting to start a family already. Naomi is one thing. There wasn't anything we could do about her. She 'stowed away' inside Ensign Wildman! We really aren't equipped for a lot of children on board. But the longer we're out here, the harder it will be to ignore the urge to create new families. I realize that."
"Perhaps we could consider issuing a directive that as long as relationships do not interfere with on-duty performance, anyone wishing to change the 'nature of their affiliation' or the location of their quarters may do so?"
The captain mused for a few moments, then said, reluctantly, "Perhaps. That might be the best way to handle it, all things considered."
"So, not to change the subject too abruptly, but how is Lieutenant Carey?"
With an audible sigh and relieved expression, the captain said, "The Doctor says he'll be fine. He's still quite upset that a hologram could have attacked Mr. Carey. Dejaren was obviously insane . . . "
They chatted for some time after that about the almost-disastrous away mission that the Doctor and Lieutenant Carey had survived, although just barely. Chakotay felt that they were easier with each other than they'd been for a long while--since before the Borg had intruded on their journey homeward. They had nothing more to say about the trials and tribulations of Harry Kim or Seven of Nine. Any further reference to the state of their own relationship was avoided. The subject of Tom and B'Elanna never came up at all.
"Don't fear the clay."
"I fear nothing."
Of course not! Janeway sighed to herself. Encouraging Seven to allow her imagination to run free was a huge undertaking, she was beginning to see. Sculpting had seemed like the perfect choice, since Seven's engineering abilities suggested an ability to work in three dimensions without much difficulty. Plus, it was a very forgiving medium, permitting the imagination to take flight, yet easily modified because of the plasticity of the clay. Besides, Seven needed to free herself of inhibitions. *What better way than making mud pies?* she had thought. Now, the captain was not so sure.
Patiently, she tried again. "Let your hands and the clay do the work, Seven." Handing her a lump of clay, Janeway suggested, "Here. The nose of this head could be a little stronger. You try it. You can use me as a model."
After examining and rolling the lump in her hand with an air of distaste, Seven shoved it into the
"Seven, working with clay is a wonderful way to relax. Just give this a chance and . . ."
"As a Borg, my time was spent working at a specific task. When it was completed, I was assigned another. It was . . . efficient. I had no need for relaxation in the Collective."
"You're not part of the Collective now. You need to learn how to relax, even play, It's an important part of a human being's life. Imagination frees the mind. It inspires ideas and solutions and provides a great deal of pleasure. Human progress, the human mind itself, couldn't exist without them. Look around you at Master daVinci's workplace. He was one of my great childhood inspirations. I even built many of the items in his workshop when I was a child, to emulate the Maestro."
"He was a very busy man," said Seven.
"Oh, yes, a prolific artist and a scientist as well. Far, far ahead of his time. He created a model of an airplane four centuries before one was actually built."
Seven looked up to where the captain was pointing. She had noted the object before and dismissed it as irrelevant. The model didn't seem like it could actually fly from the way it had been engineered. Now, however, Seven felt herself pulled away from the workshop on the holodeck. In fact, she seemed to be pulled away from herself. Another Seven of Nine flashed before her, running. Pursued by Borg.
The hum of many synchronized voices resounded in her ear. "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."
She was running down the confines of a long ship's corridor with Borg cubicles and junctures spaced along the way. Her heart was pounding, her breath came in gasps. A huge bird with a wide wingspan flew at her, accompanied by a cry, sailing above the nightmare screeching of the bird. A human voice called out, "Annika! Annika!"
A strange prickling attacked her limbs as she tired of her flight. Why was she feeling like this? These were her own, the Borg. Why was she running away, not toward them?
After a struggle, the emotion strangling her with its power yielded up its name. She, Seven of Nine, felt it. Fear. Paralyzing, petrifying fear.
A quick uptake of breath, and Seven became aware of another voice. A woman's voice. "Seven, are you all right?"
A jumble of objects came into sight. Tables. Paintings. Tools. A lump of mud on a pedestal. Blinking at the light flooding in from the window, Seven finally could answer the one whom she now recognized. Captain. Captain Janeway. Captain Janeway had asked her a question. An answer must be given.
"What's wrong?" repeated the captain.
"I don't know," Seven whispered.
Wearing his usual "examination face," the Doctor peered at Seven. "Describe these visions you've been seeing."
Reluctantly, Seven related, "I have been subject to a series of disjointed images on three occasions. Each experience is similar--I'm pursued by the Borg. They want to assimilate me. I'm running from them, and then, each time, I see . . . a large, black bird, flying toward me. Shrieking at me. Attacking me."
"Hmm. I would say you're exhibiting classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: dreams, flashbacks, hallucinations.
"That makes quite a lot of sense, Seven," seconded the captain. "You were assimilated by the Borg as a child. You've gone through an intense, prolonged trauma."
"I was not traumatized--I was raised by the Borg. I don't see them as threatening.
Why would I experience fear?"
"I can't explain it, Seven. Until I can, the Doctor's diagnosis is as good as any."
"Well, if you experience any more of these visions, notify me immediately. There may be some other tests to try, of course, if you stay here in Sickbay and let me examine you over time . . ."
"No." She was emphatic. "I do not wish to alter my routines in any way."
"Well, I'm afraid you're going to have to alter them somewhat. It's time that you commenced ingesting foods as well as liquids to supplement the energy you receive during your regeneration cycles. Here's a list of the nutrients you need to consume to maintain your health. I'm reluctant to impose this additional stress upon you, since Mr. Neelix will have to provide the food, but it can't be helped. Bring this list to the mess hall so you can begin your new menu immediately. And if you feel any visions after eating, relax. It's probably just a nightmare brought about by Mr. Neelix's cooking."
Seven looked at the list the Doctor plopped in her hand. Eating. Another step away from the Borg. What would be next?
::::Personal Log, Ensign Harry Kim, supplemental:
::::Captain Janeway's team has finished combing Seven's "quarters" in Cargo Deck Two, trying to find anything which might explain what happened to her after she attacked Neelix in the mess hall. Did the fact she was taking in foods again suddenly unbalance her metabolism in some way? Obviously, when her Borg implants started to grow again, it would affect her, perhaps causing her to return to a Borg-drone state. But what made them start growing again? What mechanism was operating? Is this something that will happen over and over again in the future, after we get her back? I refuse to think we won't get her back safely.
::::I hate to admit to myself how hard I'm taking this. I mean, I know we only had a working relationship, but spending time with her has helped me so much since Tom and B'Elanna were . . . since they aren't around any more. And I thought the two of us were learning to work so well together. Even confide in each other a bit. I guess it was all one way though. She never mentioned having any problems on board the ship to me. Maybe I could have helped. But now that she's attacked Neelix and stolen a shuttle, who knows what will happen if Chakotay and Tuvok do catch up to her? And with all of that B'Omar saber rattling, I just hope Chakotay and Tuvok manage to catch up to her first.
::::I told the captain that I would try to translate the Borg data-link, which appears to be a succession of log entries written in Borg alphanumeric code. I'm getting pretty good with the Borg language, so I think I can translate it okay. It's funny. That time we first talked about the Astrometrics Lab project--when I told Seven that I always wanted to learn Borg--it was a joke. I studied it anyway, and now, I find I'm really glad I did it. I guess the joke was on me.
::::And at least it gives me something to do while I'm off-duty.
::::End Personal Log::::
Harry replayed his log entry. For a few seconds he considered erasing it and starting over, but he decided to leave it as is. It was his personal log. You're supposed to record your personal feelings, after all. It's not as if he'd recorded anything inappropriate. Still, he hadn't realized just how dependent he'd become upon being with Seven. While working with her during the building of the Astrometrics Lab, he had concentrated so much on the task itself he'd been able to ignore (most of the time) the fact that he needed to be in her company. Now he felt at sea because he couldn't go find her to work on the "social skills training," as the Doctor and he had come to call it, which had replaced building the Lab as an excuse to spend time with her, helping her to explore human social customs so that she would fit in better with the crew. *You'd think that with both of us working with her, she'd have come along farther than she has.*
He had to admit to himself, however, that even if they had made more progress, it may all have been washed away under the influence of those implants. And he felt so helpless. He couldn't do anything about it.
*First Tom and B'Elanna. Now Seven. Becoming my friend seems to be the kiss of d . . . No! I won't think that!* Harry shook his head, as if to shake off the wave of loneliness that swept over him. He needed to occupy his mind with something constructive.
Harry returned to his studies of the data-link, trying to tease out some of its secrets, to see if there was some way he could help. With the B'Omar keeping them from doing a proper search for Seven, however, the ensign couldn't shake his feelings of dread--that it was already too late for them to get Seven back.
::::Captain's log, supplemental.
::::I've been trying to retrace Seven of Nine's footsteps . . . her actions during the last few days. But I'm still no closer to understanding what's happened.::::
Holding herself absolutely rigid, Janeway attempted to clear her mind of her individual thoughts, trying to imagine what it felt like not to be Kathryn Janeway, the captain of the Starship *Voyager*, but Seven of Nine of the Borg. One of many, with specialized tasks but one mind, her thoughts those of everyone--or perhaps, more properly--shared with everyone. Just thinking about what it would be like to be linked to the one hundred forty-six souls on *Voyager* made her head spin. No, make that one hundred forty-three, with Seven, Chakotay, and Tuvok off the ship. Finally, with a deep sigh, she gave up. Whatever it was that the Borg were to each other, it was beyond her comprehension. Jean-Luc Picard was the only one she knew who really understood. It nearly had destroyed him.
The ring of a pair of footsteps on the deck warned her that another was approaching, making her acutely conscious of the fact that she was looking rather foolish for a starship captain. Her eyes snapped open upon the friendly face of Ensign Kim, PADD in hand.
"Am I disturbing you, Captain?"
"Not at all, Harry. I think I've gone about as far as I can go in this exercise." She smiled slightly as she stepped down. Harry's hand twitched, almost as if he were about to offer her a hand as she left the cubicle but decided that he shouldn't, since she was the captain. Manners were engrained into the very fabric of the man, at war with his respect for her position as captain. It's something she'd noted Chakotay doing upon occasion.
As she stepped down, she noted that the ensign's smile never reached his red-rimmed eyes. "How are you doing?" she asked, a maternal note in her voice.
He stuttered, "Oh, I'm okay, I guess, . . . " before shrugging his shoulders. "I haven't been able to sleep very much. It's given me a lot of time to work on Seven's logs."
Nodding sympathetically, the captain gestured for the PADD he held. "Have you made any progress, Harry?"
"I've managed to decipher her log entries. There's nothing that indicates she was planning to leave the ship. The entries are pretty unremarkable. She describes her daily routines, the number of hours spent regenerating, that sort of thing. There were some personal log entries. Mostly observations about the crew's behavior." He shuffled his feet a bit and coughed before proceeding. "I'm . . . mentioned in quite a few of them. Apparently, she finds my behavior . . . easy to predict. Whatever that means."
"Don't take it personally. Coming from Seven, that's probably a compliment," the captain replied with a laugh. She was relieved when Harry eked out a wry chuckle of his own. *The poor boy. His affection for her is so transparent. Our "prescription" for helping him get over the loss of his two best friends seemed ideal--until now. And if she's gone for good, this will be exceedingly painful for him.* Realizing that anything she might actually say along these lines would probably only hurt him more, however, she merely held out her hand for the PADD. The Borg glyphs were in one column, while a Federation Standard translation was neatly transcribed in a second column to the right.
Harry's words broke into her consciousness. "The most recent entries are kind of strange. Descriptions of bizarre images--almost like a record of her dreams."
"Maybe so. Sometimes she's in a Borg vessel running . . . or hiding behind a bulkhead. Falling down a shaft. Borg everywhere, chasing her. Nightmarish stuff."
"Have you seen any evidence of a 'bird'? Seven mentioned something about it in sickbay."
"She mentions it several times, Captain. It flies at her, shrieking. I don't know what it means."
The captain read from the PADD, " 'The feathers are black. Wingspan approximately one and a half meter. The eyes are yellow and it has a powerful triangular beak. When it looks at me . . . I am paralyzed. I cannot move. It seems to know me but I don't understand how that's possible. It's merely a bird, an inferior form of life. But the sight of it fills me with fear.' It sounds like she's describing a member of the corvidae family. Like a crow, or . . . or a raven . . ." The sudden image of a nightmare bird invaded her own thoughts for a moment, but a memory teased at her as well. Another connection between Seven and Nine and "Raven" suddenly clicked into her mind.
"She's describing a raven!" As the captain strode briskly out of Cargo Bay Two, Harry hustled to keep up with her.
"Why is that important?" asked Harry.
"Because now I know what to look for. Harry, we need to calibrate our long-range sensors to scan for any Federation signature other than our two shuttlecraft."
"Captain?" Harry asked in confusion.
"Yes, Harry. We need to bring the ship about and lay in a course for B'Omar space. I think I know what she's running to. Now, all we need to do is find out where that something is."
As she sped to the rendezvous point in the shuttle, she could hear him, species 3259, moving occasionally behind the force field she had erected around him. Her prisoner. Her mentor. She did not fully understand why she had decided not to assimilate Tuvok. He would be a great asset to the Collective. Yet, somehow, she knew she could not do it. Perhaps it was because he had tried so hard to help her understand the Others on board the ship. Tried to make her see how being an individual could have its rewards, as well as its limitations. With his own otherness, he had been able to help her recognize that her uniqueness was not necessarily a threat to *Voyager*.
But she had damaged the ship when she had escaped. She had damaged the shuttle carrying Commander Chakotay, leaving him adrift in the space of a hostile race. She had attacked Commander Tuvok. *No, no, no. I must not think of it. I must rejoin . . . why must I rejoin . . . why am I doing this . . . wait. I am Borg. I am called back home . . . *
An image of a shrieking black bird filled her mind, obliterating her view of the shuttle console. She could hear her captive ask her what was wrong. Her blood hammered so loudly in her ears, she was prevented from formulating an answer. Tiny needles seemed to be assaulting her scalp. Her breath came shallow and fast. Her limbs felt heavy, as if she had run a very long way, under conditions that were . . . she could not identify the emotion for a moment, but then she knew it for what it was. Terror. She was terrified.
Seven of Nine moaned softly to herself and ignored the queries of the man behind her. This man, who had acted a father's part to her, was not her father.
Why, then, did she want to call out, "Papa! Help me!" over and over again?
The homing signal called her to the moon of the gas giant. They would be there, waiting for her. Yet when tlongarrived, there was no Borg cube. There were no life signs of any kind, Borg, human, or B'Omar. Nothing but the signal itself, calling her to one place on the surface. One manufactured object on an otherwise primitive world, minus any life form higher than plants and simple animal life.
She turned to her companion, the representative of Species 3259. "The resonance signal is coming from the lunar surface. The Borg are waiting for me there." Returning to her controls, she tried to stem the emotions threatening to overwhelm her. There was no reason for her to feel this way! Yet she could not find the calm center of rationality of a drone. *That is it. When I have been linked again, I will be fine.* The very fact that she could even conceive of "fine" and "not fine" was resolutely pushed out of her mind.
The voice of her companion was soothingly calm in comparison. "You appear to have lost your confidence in taking this action, Seven. Are you frightened, for some reason?"
"Why should I be frightened?" She hesitated, however, before admitting, "I don't know why I'm frightened. They are my people."
"We can turn around. Return to *Voyager*. You will have no reason to fear anything there. You know the captain will welcome you back."
"My fears will go away once I'm again part of the Collective." Stiffening her back as if this would quell the rising tensions in her body, Seven turned her attention back to the sensor readings. The homing signal was in an area pocked with anomalous readings. Metal filled peaks and gorges made her attempts to pinpoint the location difficult, given the limitations of Federation technology. As an image came to mind she fought back the lump that rose unexpectedly in her throat. *Ensign Kim could have helped me find the best place for a successful transport. No, I will not think of that!*
"Deactivate the force field. I will accompany you to the surface. You do not need to go alone."
"But you will be assimilated."
"I don't believe I will. I think the situation is not what it appears."
"What else could it be?"
"I am uncertain, but I am willing to go with you to the surface to find out."
For several minutes, Seven stared into the face of her mentor. The chaos in her mind was not reflected in her expression. She did not wish to endanger Tuvok. Finally, however, she touched the control panel and lowered the forcefield. "As you wish," she said quietly.
The surface was just as wild and rocky as she had said it would be. That this would be so he had accepted without question. Tuvok knew her capabilities. What was unexpected was that they would have to walk several kilometers before they saw it, perched at the edge of a rocky eyrie--had there been any eagle or similar creature around to build a nest on this desolate world, with so limited a repertoire of organisms. She called out in surprise, however, at the sight.
No, perhaps it was not so much surprise as recognition. The tricorder readings confirmed it. Here, impossibly far from Federation space, was a ship that had undoubtedly been built in the Alpha Quadrant. At least a fifty-years journey had taken place in order for the ship to have reached this final port of call--yet Annika Hansen had been born a mere twenty-four years ago in the Alpha Quadrant. How had this ship come to rest here?
Although she did not appear to be eager to explore this artifact, Seven followed him along a knife edge of rock until they could enter the ship. Federation registry numbers could be seen on very familiar looking doors. As they entered the ruin through a huge gash in its side, Tuvok's sensitive hearing picked up Seven's gasps and quickened pace of respiration.
"It happened here. This is where it began. This is where I was assimilated. This was our ship. We lived here. We lived here for a long time. My father did experiments. They were very important, and we had to travel a long way."
This was not the voice of the logical, coolly disapproving human/Borg woman Tuvok had been tutoring in the ways of her congenital heritage. This was Annika, not far removed from the child she had been the last time she had been on this world. "I had my birthday here. My cake had six candles on it and . . . and one more to grow on." Her voice trembled. "And then the men came. Papa tried to fight them, but they were too strong. I tried to hide. Maybe they wouldn't find me because I was little. But they did. Then Papa said we were going to crash and the big man picked me up and then suddenly, we
weren't on this ship anymore. We were somewhere else."
"And then I became Borg."
Tuvok considered all that Seven had stated carefully. Seven's family--Annika Hansen's family--may have had to travel a long way for their experiments, but how had they accomplished it? Had the Borg found them at the edge of the Alpha Quadrant and brought them here to assimilate them? This was not at all consistent with the habits of the Borg as the Federation had come to know them. With the Borg, every assimilation could result in a change in *modus operandi*, of course. Perhaps it had been different eighteen years ago; yet somehow, he did not believe this would be so.
From the reports to which he become privy as chief security officer of *Voyager*, Tuvok knew that Q had claimed the Borg had been decades away from discovering the Federation before Q's interference had brought Picard and the Enterprise to their encounter with the Borg deep within the Delta Quadrant. Yet here was evidence that the Borg had at least known of the Federation's existence much earlier. Seven's very existence confirmed it. This ship, *The Raven*, was here, deep in the B'Omar's Delta Quadrant sphere of influence. They had not bothered to come to the Federation for their technology. Why?
Had they already gotten a very desirable technology from the Hansens?
He turned his tricorder toward the propulsion system, or to where he surmised the propulsion system should have been. It was not there. He turned to the computer system, virtually dead for many years. The main files of the computer had been pirated, just as the propulsion system had been. Only the homing signal had been active, calling out to the prodigal to return home. The fact that the homing system had worked, however, bespoke of a power source of some kind, still active despite being unserviced for eighteen years. And if there were back up files anywhere in the computer, critical information still might be intact, available to be downloaded.
Had he been a human, Tuvok may have cried out in amazement as sufficient power up the computer for a transfer of backed up files flickered through the system. It was weak, and it wavered even as the tricorder signaled that it could hold no more data. Since Tuvok was not human, his face gave away nothing about what he was thinking or, possibly, feeling, about the information he had just obtained. Any reaction he might have been hiding was quickly suppressed, however, as the concussion of weapons fire struck next to *The Raven*.
The B'Omar had found them. Fortunately, a moment later, Tuvok's comm badge was activated as well. *Voyager* had found them, too.
"I've got them all, Captain. The shuttles are both aboard, too."
"Excellent, Mr. Kim. Ensign Hamilton, let's get out of B'Omar space, immediately, if not sooner."
"Aye," responded Hamilton.
No saucy "Yes, ma'am." Just "Aye." Harry sighed deeply. With a wolf pack of angry alien ships chasing them out of the system and out of B'Omar space, this was one of those times Harry really missed Tom. His presence at the helm always made everyone feel confident that *Voyager* would escape from a situation like this. Hamilton was doing a good job--but Just-in-the-Nick-of-Time-Getaways had been more of a sure thing with Tom at the helm.
In almost no time, however, Harry was able to report that the B'Omar ships were giving up their pursuit of *Voyager*, just as the turbolift doors swished open behind the captain. Chakotay strode onto the bridge. To her unspoken question, Chakotay replied, "Tuvok's taken Seven to sickbay."
"Is she hurt?" asked the captain, concern evident in her voice.
"No, but she was pretty shook up by what they found on the planet."
Harry opened his mouth to request permission to go to sickbay, but before he could, the captain was leaving the commander in charge to go to sickbay herself.
"No shortcuts this time, I take it, Captain?" Chakotay asked as he took over the conn.
"No, no shortcuts this time," she replied with resignation.
Harry checked over the changes in course that would be required to go around B'Omar space. They would actually be backtracking a bit before being able to head toward the Alpha Quadrant again. Harry sighed. At this rate, Tom and B'Elanna's coffin might get to the Alpha Quadrant before *Voyager* did!
The holodeck illumination was very low, provided only by means of the flickering candles the holomatrix provided the scenario. Captain Janeway could not help thinking about the last time she'd entered this scenario when it was lit like this--when she decided to take the actions which had resulted in the presence of the very one who was standing above her, on the balcony. Seven was staring at the Leonardo Plane, as she had the day her hallucinations had overwhelmed her. Today, however, Seven was looking at daVinci's invention from a much less intimidating angle than that day.
Softly, so as not to startle her, Janeway said, "There you are. I wanted to tell you that the doctor said he could adjust one of your implants so that you won't receive any more homing signals."
Seven's gaze slipped from invention to person. "Thank you. I hope you don't mind that I activated this program."
"Not at all," Janeway replied, kindly.
Looking back to the plane, Seven added, "I've been thinking about what you said . . . that this was a place to encourage your imagination."
"Is that appealing to you?"
"I'm not certain. I find myself . . . constructing scenarios. Considering alternative possibilities. What if my parents and I had not encountered the Borg? What would our lives have been like? I would have been raised by them, learned from them. They would have influenced what I became . . . who and what I am."
"And you would have done the same for them, you know. If you'd like to learn more about your parents, there's information in the Federation database. It seems they were fairly well known for being unconventional, as well as for some rather unique scientific theories. You might like to read what's there. It might . . . encourage . . . your imagination."
As Seven gazed uncertainly back at her, Janeway recalled what Tuvok had discovered about these theories. *"There is little doubt now where the Borg obtained the transwarp technology. The tricorder could only hold so much data, however, not all that we would need to reconstruct their experiments. Those fragments it does carry convey tantalizing hints, indeed, as well as leads we can follow. Coupled with Seven's knowledge of the Borg's refined technology, someday we may be able to utilize the theories of Seven's parents to find our way home."
Janeway had agreed with Tuvok's assessment, but she was not going to rush into conducting any experiments. Unlocking the imagination of her young charge might be the key to the successful implementation of this technology in the future--and, incidentally, might help Seven rediscover her humanity.
"Oh, excuse me, Captain. I didn't realize you were here." Harry, unaware anyone was with Seven until he'd heard the captain's voice, awkwardly halted his hasty entrance into Leonardo's studio. When he'd checked the computer for her location, she had been alone.
"No, don't leave, Harry. I was just leaving." Turning back to Seven, Janeway continued, "Just think about it, Seven."
"Perhaps I will, someday." She nodded her head slightly, acknowledging Janeway's request.
Harry fidgeted a bit after the captain left. He had hoped to meet with Seven alone as soon as he could after her return, but he hadn't been free until now. Obviously, he had interrupted a private conversation.
Seven seemed distracted as she walked down the balcony steps. Approaching Harry, she asked, "Ensign Kim, you wished to speak to me?"
Upon closing the gap between them, Harry opened his mouth to greet her. No words came. Suddenly, he was sure that anything he could possibly say would be unbearably inane. He could not speak. The puzzled young woman gently touched his cheek to catch some of the moisture that ran out of his eyes instead. "Tears? Ensign, I do not comprehend why you are crying. I have returned safely."
Harry nodded mutely, acutely embarrassed. Holding her right hand firmly to his cheek for several more seconds, he brought his flayed emotions back under control. Finally, he managed, "They're tears of joy, Seven--*because* you came back."
Her quizzical look was not completely erased, but she stood next to him silently for another minute or so, leaving her hand in his even after he'd lowered them from his face. After several deep breaths helped him become calmer, Harry extended the invitation he'd decided to offer her on his way to the holodeck. "I was wondering, would you like to come to the mess hall with me for something to eat? The Doctor told me that you'd be needing a 'nutritional supplement' right about now."
She looked away from him. "I did not plan to eat in the mess hall tonight."
"That's okay. If you don't want to, we could replicate something in my quarters and eat there, in private."
"Harry Kim, the last time I ingested nutritional supplements I attacked Neelix and stole a shuttlecraft. Have you no concern that I might do the same thing again?"
"No, Seven. I don't think you're going to do that again. Are you worried you might?"
Her large blue eyes met his gaze again. "I do not believe so, Ensign, but I cannot know for certain."
Harry's spirits brightened perceptively as he took her concern for him as a good sign. "Then maybe it would help to talk about it. That's a good thing to do over dinner, you know. Talk about things that are bothering you."
"You would wish to hear about my remembrances of my parents?" She hesitated. "You would wish to listen to me talk about my . . . confusion . . . about what I have discovered? I no longer know who I truly am. Am I Annika Hansen? Or am I Seven of Nine?"
"I think you're both of them. Seven, who is also Annika. You shouldn't try to separate them. Both of those names simply represent different parts of your life story. You'll have to reconcile them someday, I guess. Most of the time, people don't have such different lives, with different names. Other than that, though, you're just like everyone else, trying to live your life the best way you can."
"That will be . . . difficult."
"Sure. It always is. That's why it's good to have friends to help out."
"You wish to be my friend, Harry Kim?"
"Yes," he said sincerely, thinking, *There are never enough friends in this life.* Aloud, he continued, "In fact, as far as I'm concerned, I already am your friend. So, how about that dinner? My quarters, or the mess hall?"
She considered this a moment. "Your quarters. I do not wish to consume nourishment in public view. It is too soon since . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"Of course, Seven. My quarters." He extended his elbow out to her. She gazed at it intensely for a few moments before recognizing it for what it was--an offer to escort her out of the holodeck.
When they paused outside the entrance to the holodeck to close and save the captain's daVinci program, Harry Kim lightly touched Seven of Nine on the back to guide her into the corridor. He felt a strange thrill go up his spine as his hand made that contact but put it out of his mind, immediately. Romantic feelings were totally out of place. Totally. He simply was feeling great relief he hadn't lost another friend, especially since he had barely gotten a chance to know her.
Anything else was just--impossible.
Had her Borg ocular implant been properly calibrated, she would have been able to detect another life form shadowing Harry and Seven down the corridor. Out of phase and therefore invisible to anyone existing at *Voyager's* level of existence, this being studied the medical instrumentation held in her hand with approval, checking on the adjustments to Harry's and Seven's endocrine systems that had been made moments before via an equally invisible implement while the couple, totally unaware of what was happening, stood outside the holodeck entrance and closed the daVinci program.
The being nodded her head in satisfaction. This promised to be among the most interesting of all the biochemical experiments planned upon the test subjects. She could barely wait to begin gathering the data.
At the sound of Seven's voice, Harry's heart jumped. Leaped might have been a better description.
As he turned toward her he tried to control his errant organ's increasingly rapid pace. This was ridiculous. He couldn't understand why the simple sound of Seven's voice could be so . . . so stimulating to him. Every single time he was with her, all Harry wanted to do was throw her on the floor and make love to her. Passionately. And he knew he couldn't. She was still a child emotionally. Her recitation to him of her experiences with Tuvohang *The Raven* during conversations in the mess hall and in his quarters made it all perfectly clear. Harry had been right. Seven was not yet emotionally ready for romantic entanglements.
But oh, that body! Was that ever ready!
He tried to hide his disquiet by keeping his voice even and calm as he addressed her. "What can I do for you, Seven?"
"I require your assistance. We must make adjustments to the power couplings in Jeffries tube thirty-seven Alpha. The view screen will be damaged if the fluctuations in the power supply to Astrometrics continue."
"Of course. Lead the way."
The entire time they were walking to the nearest hatch for Jeffries tube thirty-seven Alpha, Harry tried to tell himself to "cool it," the way Tom would have if he'd been around to give Harry advice. Fortunately, they met only a few crew members along the way, and Harry was able to position himself behind Seven in such a way as they passed so that his personal discomfiture was not obvious to anyone. He hoped.
As soon as they descended the stairs and entered Jeffries tube thirty-seven Alpha, Harry scanned the area with his tricorder, giving special attention to the power couplings. The readings surprised him. "Seven, it looks to me like you've aligned the power couplings perfectly."
"If you're so sure, then why did you need me to look at them?"
At this declaration, Harry looked at Seven. Seeing her face made him lose his ability to breathe for a moment. Sternly, he forced his diaphragm to lower into his abdomen, then squeeze back up again, but Harry couldn't be equally severe with other parts of his body. The blood squeezing through his heart at an accelerated rate began to pound in relentless waves against his temples, increasing his feelings of confusion. "Seven, I don't understand. What's going on?"
"I have spent a great deal of time studying the database concerning human relationships since our miscommunication in the mess hall some time ago. I have discovered that humans sometimes require a . . . pretext . . . for being intimate with one another."
"Intimate?" Incredibly, the blood was rushing through Harry's extremities even more insistently at the word.
Seven grabbed Harry's shoulders, slamming him back into the wall of the Jeffries tube.
"Resistance is futile," Seven whispered, seductively wrapping her arms around Harry's neck and pressing her lips against his. Her inexperience was obvious, yet he couldn't prevent himself from responding to her. His lips moved against hers, demonstrating the action of a kiss far more effectively than any database ever could.
But it wasn't right. One of the hardest things he'd ever had to do in his life was to break away from that kiss, but he did it. Pushing Seven away, Harry tried to control his runaway emotions.
"Harry," she said, breathlessly, as their lips separated. "This is teaching me a great deal about my humanity. Do not stop now."
"Seven, we can't do this. Someone may see us."
"Who can see us here? We are not in a public corridor."
For a second, that almost sounded reasonable, but then Harry was able to choke out, "A Jeffries tube isn't private space either, Seven. We need to go someplace else. My quarters. Maybe your cargo bay. If we . . . we want to continue."
"No. I want to continue here. Now."
Seven thrust Harry against the wall again. As they kissed, all thoughts about Seven's emotional immaturity were erased from Harry's consciousness. Confusion was replaced by a desire for Seven so overwhelming, he could not summon up the will to stop. Resistance was, indeed, futile. Harry's mind became oblivious to anything but the delectable body pressing against his. *Not my mind. It's my body that's aware of her,* he thought, losing himself totally in the sensations rippling through him as he explored her mouth. Moaning slightly, Harry felt himself losing control of his hands as they began to travel slowly down her body, reveling in the feel of her beneath his fingertips. An avid student, Seven began to mimic Harry's motions with her own hands. Various noises escaped from both of them as their hands explored each other.
When they sank to the metal grid of the floor, Harry experienced a sudden, brief flash of mental coherence. The thought that the floor of a Jeffries tube was not the most comfortable place to initiate Seven into the joys of carnal knowledge crossed his mind, but just as quickly, the thought fled. There were worse places than a Jeffries tube for this. Much worse places. In fact, a Jeffries tube was just about the best place he'd ever been, right about now. All things considered.
The clearing of a throat from the ladder above their position momentarily disoriented Harry. He managed to disengage himself from Seven long enough to look into the searingly dark eyes of an unflappable Vulcan.
"T-Tuvok!" Harry stuttered, pushing a very reluctant Seven away from him.
"That is, indeed, my name. I am pleased you are aware of it. When you did not answer Captain Janeway's hail a few minutes ago, I came to look for you. Your presence is required in the conference room, Ensign."
"Oh, yeah, of course. Sure. I'll be right there." Scrambling to his feet, Harry straightened his uniform but could do very little to repair all of the evidence of Seven's eager explorations. Tuvok turned away; but Harry knew that what Tuvok knew, Captain Janeway would be sure to know, and soon. He was not looking forward to his next meeting with the captain.
She knew she looked terrible. The excruciating migraine headache made her feel even worse than she looked. Even the prospect of investigating a unique phenomenon like the binary pulsar system that *Voyager* had just encountered was not enough to distract her from the pain.
And now this. The most trustworthy ensign in Starfleet, hah! Chakotay had said he would take full responsibility for any repercussions. Janeway certainly was going to hold him accountable for that promise, but first, she needed to assess the damage to Seven. Before any other action, however, the captain had to find a way to drag her attention back to the meeting.
". . . circling the two pulsars at a minimum distance of eighty million kilometers should minimize the radiation damage."
"I think we might need to increase that distance because of the danger from proton bursts."
"Fine. Hamilton, let's make sure our position stays over ninety million kilometers from the pulsars." Hamilton acknowledged the order with a silent nod.
Turning to Tuvok, the commander added, "Let's raise our shields to maximum. Everyone needs to be on the lookout for any unusual occurrences. No matter how small, report any problems to me immediately."
"Thank you, Commander. Is there anything else?" When no one else spoke up, Janeway dismissed the staff--with one exception. "Ensign Kim, please remain. I need to speak with you about an important matter."
Harry stood at attention in front of the captain, dreading what she might have to say. His apprehension was well-founded.
"I don't usually pry into the personal lives of my crew, but in this case I have to
question your recent conduct."
Harry closed his eyes as Janeway's voice rose in volume and in pitch. "You are a senior officer and a valued member of my staff. I expect you to maintain the highest of standards for the sake of the rest of the crew. But your behavior with Seven today makes me question my faith in you. To indulge yourself with an assignation inside a Jeffries tube is unconscionable, particularly with someone as ignorant of appropriate sexual behavior as Seven is!"
Stung, Harry opened his mouth to reply but thought better of it. What could he say to defend himself? 'It wasn't that way, Captain! Seven came on to me, and I didn't have the self-control to stop myself from taking advantage of her!' It wouldn't help. It would probably make things worse, a lot worse. Chastened, a guilt-ridden Harry listened as the captain tore into him for several minutes. ". . . and if you choose to pursue a relationship with her, that's your business. But consider yourself under orders to use better judgment about it! I don't want her naivete taken advantage of, is that understood?"
"Yes, Captain. I'll be more careful in the future. I would never do anything to hurt her, believe me."
Harry almost crawled out of the conference room. How could he take advantage of Seven's innocence? Yet how innocent was she, really? Could she be responding to her memories from all those assimilated Borg? If so, why now? *Whatever it is, the only way I can be sure not to lose control is to stay out of her way. Don't be alone with her, ever.* As he relieved Ensign Lang at Ops, Harry promised himself that the only thing he was going to think about was work.
Then he caught a whiff of Lang's perfume, and his mind went racing off into visions of hot, wild sex with his coworker, who was very much involved, as Harry well knew, with the ex-Maquis Larson. When Harry finally managed to wrest his fantasies away from Lang, his mind was immediately awash with thoughts of Seven again.
Harry redoubled his efforts to concentrate on his tasks, completely baffled. Why did he want Seven so badly? Why did he suddenly want *IT* so badly that he could barely think of anything else? What was wrong with him?
The Doctor did not like to admit this to anyone, especially the captain, but he was stumped. There was nothing available in his data base that was remotely like the symptoms that Commander Chakotay was experiencing. Well, almost nothiide,There was that rare child's disease, but Chakotay was a man in his prime.
Had been a man in his prime. Now he was a man in his dotage. "I've found bone decalcification, tissue necrosis, decreased visual acuity--all classic signs of aging--but they've developed within hours, Captain."
"Any theories?" Chakotay asked, weakly. His skin was hanging from his face and body. His tattoo, faded as if from age, extended from his left temple and back over his ear. The part usually buried beneath thick black hair was open to view. His hair was totally gone.
"There's a rare genetic disorder, progeria, which causes children to age prematurely, but there's never been an adult case, and it was supposedly eradicated two centuries ago. Even so, I took a close look at your DNA. These strands regulate your body metabolism. My scans indicate that they've been hyper-stimulated somehow."
"What's the prognosis?" inquired the captain.
"I can't speculate on that until I've identified the cause. There's no sign of an infectious agent."
Approaching her first officer, the captain noted, "We've just spent several hours near a binary pulsar that was emitting intense gamma radiation."
"Our shields were operating. I don't see how I could have exposed to it," Chakotay said shakily.
"We can't afford to rule out anything. I'm going to take a closer look at the data we've collected."
His voice was a shadow of his usual tones as he said, "We should run scans of my quarters, my office and the bridge. Everywhere I've been recently." Chakotay sat up to swing his legs off the edge of the biobed to follow his own suggestion.
The Doctor intercepted him. "I'm not prepared to send you back on duty yet, Commander."
"I may look pretty strange, but my mind is perfectly clear. I'd rather stay busy than just sit here."
"I have no idea how your symptoms may progress. You should remain in Sickbay for observation."
"He's right, Chakotay," she agreed. "I'll keep you informed." Her intervention had the desired effect of obtaining the first officer's acquiescence. The Doctor left the two alone together for a few moments to give them the opportunity to speak privately, noting that the captain's discreet pat on Chakotay's thigh lingered rather a longer time than necessary. Hmm. An interesting development. He rather doubted that a pat on the leg from the EMH would have had such immediate results on Chakotay. Other, fascinating avenues of inquiry resulting from this observation would have to wait, however. First things first. He had to make sure that Commander Chakotay's condition did not become life-threatening. If it progressed much further, the Doctor feared it could be.
When the captain approached her chief medical officer, out of range of the commander's hearing (not far, since Chakotay's aural as well as visual acuity was much reduced because of his condition), the Doctor told her, "Whatever is affecting the Commander's DNA is working at a sub-molecular level. I'd like to set up an electron resonance scanner in the science lab to get a closer look."
"Use whatever you need. And ask Harry to give you a hand. We're a bit short in Engineering right now."
"I understand." Short in Engineering and Sickbay, as well as at the conn, because two key members of the crew were permanently unavailable for duty. "I don't have anyone but Samantha Wildman far enough along in their studies help me in Sickbay at the moment, but she'll do. She's shown herself to be competent to handle the run-of-the-mill emergencies and is well aware of her own limitations. She'll call me in case anyone else comes in with unusual symptoms."
The captain was rubbing her temples again, noted the Doctor. He really should give her another quick scan. Her pain had been going on for far too long. Carefully, he inquired, "Still having headaches, Captain?"
"I don't need any more lectures about working too hard! Commander Chakotay's the one who needs your attention right now," she told him forcefully.
If he'd had a real head instead of a holographic one, the EMH suspected that she might have bitten it off. Frankly, he wasn't in the mood to test the strength of his holographic neck by sticking it out any further at the moment. "I'll get to work on the scanner right away," he replied. His self-improvement program in "Learning When to Back Off" was paying dividends.
Her headache still hammered away at her; but with Chakotay incapacitated, Janeway couldn't hide out in her ready room while her first officer took care of the bridge. The headache made her a bit short with everyone, but the bridge crew was very understanding. Tuvok was at Tactical, of course. Ensign Lang manned the Ops station with her usual steadiness. Hamilton had settled in as the chief conn officer, although he would never have the flair for the job that Tom had had . . . No, that was something she didn't want to think about now. She turned to analyze the data from the sensor sweeps that had taken place since they entered the binary pulsar star system.
A careful review of the sensor readings during their circuit of the pulsars revealed absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. The shields should have protected everyone. Certainly, she could find nothing that would indicate why first Chakotay and, shortly afterwards, Neelix, had suffered hyperstimulated DNA segments. The fact that Neelix had not suffered an accelerated aging process but instead had had recessive genes inherited from a Mylean great-grandfather suddenly become dominant was another piece of the puzzle that didn't fit. If her head didn't hurt so much, maybe she could make it fit.
Leaving the bridge to Tuvok, the captain returned to Sickbay. Fortunately, Ensign Wildman was on duty and willingly dispensed an analgesic (not that Janeway expected it would help) without imposing any personal opinions about the captain's tendency to overwork herself.
As she passed through the medical office, Janeway could see the area where Neelix and Chakotay were lounging. She approached, planning on asking how the two of them were feeling, pausing when she heard what the two of them were talking about.
". . . this could be worse. I still have my home on *Voyager*, my friends . . ."
"Your hair," responded Chakotay gloomily. The captain briefly smiled at that before the piercing sensation in her temples made her grimace again in pain.
"True, but I'd gladly lose my hair if I could get my taste buds back."
"At least you're not losing your eyesight. See that display over there? It's nothing but a blur," Chakotay's voice quavered.
"Do you think that's bad?" parried Neelix. "The Doctor said that my pupils have dilated sixty percent. I can't even *look* at that display. It's too bright!"
"Yeah, well, I've got chronic arthritis in my fingers. I can't even hold this glass without trembling." Chakotay held out a glass of water to demonstrate his shaky grip.
"That's nothing. My spinal column is fusing together. In a matter of days, I won't be able to walk."
"I've got you beat. I can barely walk now."
Janeway was about to put an end to this litany of old men's ills when Ensign Wildman rushed out of her office. "Captain, I'm going to have to release Neelix and Chakotay to their quarters. I'm getting reports of medical emergencies from all over the ship. Sickbay is going to get very crowded, very soon. Could you make sure they both get to their quarters safely?"
With Neelix on one arm and Chakotay on the other, the captain and her escorts made a strange procession down the corridor to the turbolift. After dropping off Neelix, Janeway brought Chakotay to his quarters. Settling him in his chair, she asked, "Do you need anything, Chakotay? Something to eat? Drink?"
"No, I'll be all right. What about you? Your headache is still pretty bad, isn't it?"
"I'll manage. That medication Samantha Wildman gave me helped tremendously," she lied.
"You take care of yourself now." He sounded so much like an old grandfather, she wanted to laugh.
On impulse, Janeway stroked him on the side of the head, over the spot where the hidden part of his tattoo had been unveiled by his hair loss. In answer, Chakotay reached out a wrinkled, arthritic hand to softly hold her hand in place. His eyes looked deeply into hers, full of a longing that made her catch her breath. Her first officer, yes, but also her friend. And, for a brief while when they thought the rest of their lives would be lived on a planet where their only other neighbor was a monkey, her lover. Bending down, she gently kissed the top of his forehead. They stayed close together for a moment before she backed off, briskly announcing that she needed to get back on the bridge. "And you, Mr. Chakotay, are under strict orders to rest!"
"Aye, Captain," he answered. His voice bore only a shadow of its usual rich tone.
As soon as she exited Chakotay's quarters, Janeway grabbed her head. The pain in her temples was throbbing harder, but there was a greater pain in the captain's heart. Seeing Chakotay looking so frail, she knew what the Doctor had not told her about his condition. *If we can't find a cause and a cure soon, we might lose him. He might die! From natural causes--and barely forty years old!*
By the time the EMH had returned to the science lab from treating the flood of new patients in Sickbay, he was desperate to make progress--any progress at all--towards finding a cure. With so many varied medical conditions, some grave, cropping up among the crew, *Voyager* was clearly in crisis. When Harry asked if everyone was bound to be affected, sooner or later, the Doctor refused to give a straight answer. He knew this was not exactly comforting, but he could not, in conscience, tell the ensign anything more optimistic.
After he'd checked the scanner settings one more time, Harry turned the equipment over to him with a confident, "All right, Doctor. Give the scanner a try."
Beginning with Commander Chakotay's sample, the Doctor intently examined the hyperstimulated DNA. He thought he saw something odd, a contamination of some sort that hadn't shown up on the first scans. Calling for maximum magnification, the Doctor peered into the eyepiece for several seconds before gazing off speechlessly into the distance.
Because of the extended silence, very uncharacteristic of the Doctor, Harry looked up and asked, "What's up, Doctor? What do you see?"
"I'm not exactly sure," the Doctor answered, his uncertainty evident in the tone of his voice. "See for yourself." The Doctor stepped aside, permitting Harry to look into the scanner.
At first, Harry didn't see anything. When he notice something, however, he was as surprised as the Doctor had been. "I'm no microbiologist," he said, "But that doesn't look like it belongs there."
"Believe me, it doesn't. I've never seen this. This level of sub-molecular technology is well beyond anything Starfleet has developed."
"What are those markings? Some kind of alien writing?"
"I wish I knew. It might help us determine where it came from."
"Who could have put something like this into the commander's cells with his knowledge?" Harry mused. "Let me see if a compositional analysis will tell us anything."
The EMH took another slide and put it into the scanner. He had to study it for only a few seconds before confirming, "It's in Mr. Neelix's DNA as well."
"Do you think this is causing the mutations?"
"A good scientist never jumps to conclusions, Ensign. But I'd say it's a distinct possibility."
Grunting in acknowledgment, Harry said, "I'm having trouble getting a clear reading from this sample. It looks almost as if this--whatever it is--could be slightly out of phase."
"That must be why my initial scans didn't reveal it."
"Could be. I'm compensating for the phase variance." After fiddling with the controls at his console for several seconds, Harry stared at the readings in disbelief. "You're not going to believe this, Doc, but I'm picking up an energy signature. This thing is transmitting some kind of signal!"
"I don't know. It's too weak to travel very far. Access the internal sensors and set them to a phase variance of point-one-five."
The Doctor moved to the sensor control panel to follow Harry's instructions. When his holographic image began to flicker wildly, however, the EMH called out a strangled, "Ensign!"
Harry ran to where the Doctor was flickering ominously. "Doctor! Your program is being deleted!"
"How?" the Doctor asked, in a panicky tone of voice.
"I don't know, but I'm transferring you back to Sickbay." Harry worked frantically, but before he was able to transfer the Doctor, the ensign started to choke and collapsed at his work station.
"Mr. Kim!" It was the Doctor's turn to scurry over to his patient, but the EMH began to flicker again. Activating the communications system and punching several other controls, the EMH said, "Science lab to the bridge. This is the Doctor." Before he could get any further, he flickered out. With nothing but air to hold it aloft, the holoemitter clattered to the floor of the medical lab.
As she strode across Sickbay towards the bed Captain Janeway stood near, Seven tried to analyze the data about the many medical emergencies occurring on board *Voyager*. It was perplexing, not to mention dangerous, now that the primary provider of medical care was missing. Samantha Wildman, who was now the acting chief medical officer, clearly was out of her depth. There was a shrillness to the woman's voice that Seven believed was panic. If Lieutenant Paris were still available to provide care, the situation might not be so grave. From her perusal of the ship's logs, Seven had learned the late helmsman had been a competent field medic, as well as the best pilot on *Voyager*.
When she reached the biobed and looked down at the still form of Harry Kim, an unexpected sensation made Seven's spine shiver, even though Ensign Wildman was saying she had succeeded in getting Harry on life support in time to save his life. The alveoli in his lungs had ceased to process oxygen. What event could possibly cause that to occur? Harry had been well only a short time ago, in the Jeffries tube, when . . .
Seven of Nine carefully compartmentalized that thought, even though she could feel her body reacting to Harry lying before her. He was unconscious--damaged--Harry needed to regenerate! She must not think about what his lips felt like when they had touched hers. She must think of her duties. An answer must be found that would permit Harry to breathe on his own again. Permit him to kiss her again.
No! That was not what she needed to contemplate. She must find an answer so that all the crew whose health had been affected, including Ensign Kim, would recover. It was imperative to discover the root cause of these problems, because if many more of the crew became ill, the ship's safety could be compromised. This close to the binary pulsars, the captain would . . .
:::: Seven of Nine, this is the Doctor. I've tapped into your audio implants so only you can hear me. It's imperative that you tell no one. Make any excuse to get out of there and report to Holodeck Two. I'm hiding in the daVinci simulation. I'll explain everything when you get here. ::::
Startled, Seven almost answered him aloud. Realizing her error, she tried to appear to be her usual efficient self while listening to the captain and Wildman discuss Harry's condition. She could sense the activation of the implant near her right ear, verifying that the information she had received could have come from the EMH.
"Seven? Are you all right?"
"Oh. Yes. Captain." Seven blinked and looked at Janeway. The doubled voices of the captain next to her and the Doctor from inside her had confused her. How strange. She who was once part of a hive mind found that two human voices (or, in the case of the Doctor, a human-type voice) were harder to interpret than the entire Collective echoing in her head at once. "I was . . . distracted for a moment."
"I asked what you've been able to find out from the lab where Harry and the Doctor were working."
"I examined their work area in the science lab. There was no record of any findings. The electron resonance scanner appeared to be malfunctioning. Computer logs show that the Doctor had been trying to transfer himself to Sickbay. Something must have gone wrong while he was in transit, since he did not arrive. Mr. Kim apparently activated his comm badge to summon Ensign Wildman as he fell; but again, there is no computer verification of this."
"That's impossible, Captain. The computer always logs an emergency signal like that," Ensign Wildman interjected.
"You were able to reach Ensign Kim in time. That's what's important." Janeway soothed the science officer, but she was unable to completely expunge all the worry from her voice.
Seven offered, "I could return to the science lab and attempt to repair the electron resonance scanner. Perhaps I could obtain more data to delineate a course of action."
The captain agreed. Seven slipped away, stopping only briefly at the science lab before going to her real destination, the holodeck.
Seven raised an eyebrow, Tuvok-style, at the sight of the Doctor, happily socializing with the buxom female hologram model who was posing for several "art students" in the daVinci program. When he saw Seven enter the holodeck, however, he immediately came to her, confiding what Harry and he had discovered before they were attacked, as well as his narrow escape to the holodeck.
"I can only conclude that someone has implanted these microscopic tags in the DNA of the crew to cause genetic mutations."
"For what purpose?"
"I don't know, and I get the distinct impression they don't want us to find out." The Doctor, continuing to play at being a mere recreational hologram, picked up a sketch pad and worked on a rather distorted rendition of the model.
"Explain," Seven ordered.
"When Ensign Kim and I started making progress in our investigation we were both incapacitated. Call me paranoid, but I don't think *that* is a coincidence."
Seven looked around her, perturbed. "If you are correct, then perhaps our actions are being monitored."
"Precisely. That's why I couldn't risk contacting anyone over the comm system."
"Our first course of action should be to collect more information."
"My thinking exactly. Harry wanted to adjust the ship's internal sensors to a phase variance of point-one-five. I'd like to do the same to your Borg sensory nodes."
Calling for a type-four micro inducer, the Doctor adjusted her ocular implant to the agreed-upon frequency.
"Now, take a look around the room, and tell me what you see. Do you see anything unusual? An energy signature, or perhaps something that might be transmitting a signal?"
Seven carefully looked around the holodeck before answering, "No."
"Good. That's one room down, two hundred and fifty-six to go. Report to me on comm frequency Epsilon-two. I've isolated it from the rest of the system."
"And Seven," the Doctor added, "be careful. Someone out there could be watching."
At first, she was aware of little but the distortions in her field of vision. Her biot thcal eye interpreted reality the way it always had, while her implant viewed her surroundings in the new phase variance. Everywhere she looked, there was a greenish glow which, surprisingly, brought to mind some of the effects she'd seen in artwork Captain Janeway had shared with Seven during "leisure time" training in daVinci's studio. It was not unpleasant, but a certain amount of time getting acclimated to perceiving things in this new way was required.
Because she had been concentrating so hard on her new visual mode, Seven almost missed Lieutenant Ayala walking by, his head adorned with a metallic contraption that glowed with the out-of-synch phase variance. Ayala himself appeared oblivious to the construct or the androgynous being that scuttled near him.
Seven halted in her tracks, stunned, when she the anomaly registered. Remembering that she was not supposed to be able to perceive either the object on Ayala's head or the being near him, however, she resumed her walk to the turbolift.
All of her efficient Borg adherence to task was needed when the alien that had been walking near Ayala joined Seven on the turbolift and inserted a probe inside her body. Stoically, Seven permitted the molestation to occur. She was not ready to grant these alien beings the awareness that she knew of their existence. It became more difficult after the probe was removed, however. Seven felt a sudden rush of blood to her extremities and face--along with another sensation she could not have fully comprehended before experiencing it in the Jeffries tube only a few hours before. Sexual desire.
This time, the close proximity of Harry Kim was not enticing her into this rush of sensation. Harry was lying in Sickbay, deathly ill. This emotional response had been prompted by a probe, a medical instrument of some kind. Taking a biological reading of some sort? Or injecting her with some substance to increase sexual desire? Seven was repulsed and agitated by the thought that she herself must be a subject of some alien experiment. How many others on *Voyager* were also?
She soon had her answer: Ayala was far from unique. When she reached the mess hall on Deck Two, she stopped dead in her tracks at the sight. Strange appliances were attached to many of the crew. The various constructs on their persons were being tended to by more of the slender, invisible-to-anyone-but-Seven aliens. Large numbers of them were buzzing busily about while the crew members, casually chatting over their meals, were totally oblivious to the unseen experimenters all around them. Some of the devices were so grotesque that if she weren't used to seeing mechanical attachments on humanoids from being with the Borg, Seven doubted she could have completed her task.
After a hasty consultation with the Doctor while pretending to obtain nourishment, Seven rushed to the captain's ready room, prepared to tell the captain all.
But she could not. Of course. How could Seven have missed the obvious? Captain Janeway's headaches were not due to any normal physical cause. They were attributable to the half dozen spikes being bored into her skull. Two of the aliens were present at that moment, monitoring the captain's instruments of torture. Seven could not say anything to the captain without revealing her knowledge of their existence to the invaders.
"Seven, what is it?" the captain asked sharply.
"My attempts to fix the Doctor's resonance scanner have failed. I require assistance."
"Ask Lieutenant Carey if he can spare Ensign Vorik."
"Yes, Captain," Seven said, as she slipped out of the ready room. Carefully looking around to make sure she could detect no more of the out of phase aliens, Seven returned to the daVinci simulation to create an alternate plan of action with the Doctor.
". . . there could be more. They seem to be conducting experiments on the crew and monitoring the results."
"As if *Voyager* were one big Petri dish!" The Doctor said indignantly.
"And I suspect I am among them. In the turbolift, one of the aliens probed me with a medical instrument." Seven thought for a brief moment about telling the Doctor of the reaction she had felt to the probe but decided against it.
Fortunately, the Doctor had already jumped to the next part of the equation. "We cannot allow them to continue."
How to stop them, however, was a problem. Seven suggested using a precisely modulated phaser beam to reveal the interlopers to view. The Doctor, however, rejected it. "The aliens might retaliate by inflicting lethal mutations on everyone. It's too risky."
"What do you propose?"
"The genetic tags seem to be the key. A ship-wide neuroleptic shock should knock out the mutated DNA sequences. Unfortunately, it would be rather painful, but not fatal. The difficult part will be that everyone on board would have to be treated simultaneously."
Seven needed only a few seconds to come up with a plan to reconfigure the power relays. "I will have to bypass several safeguards in order to do it. It will take time."
The Doctor's answer was succinct. "Then you'd better get started."
For the past several days, Tuvok had been unable to find his normal center of balance. Too many things all over the ship were going wrong. Now, even Seven was acting illogically. She was in Engineering, tampering with the EPS Relay System and refusing to stop when requested, despite his warning that she could compromise the power safety protocols. Her assurances that she knew what she was doing and should be allowed to proceed were patently false, as well. All his attention needed to be devoted to the bridge and the tactical console during this crisis, yet here he was, entering Engineering to prevent Seven of Nine from engaging in her dangerous activities.
Tuvok did not expect that even when they were face to face she would continue to attempt to deceive him, proceeding with the operation upon which she had embarked despite his order to cease. He certainly did not expect her to suddenly steal his phaser from his belt and fire it at nothing.
The alien that suddenly came into view when Seven fired her phaser at seemingly empty air was something else he had not predicted.
Perhaps, if he followed up on the facetious suggestion he had made to his captain earlier, he would need to include himself on the list of the crew members to be flogged for their transgressions. In his case, for short-sightedness.
Janeway wanted to throttle the alien experimenter sitting in the brig, who was calmly admitting her people's torture of Janeway and the rest of her crew for weeks. All the suffering, regrettably, was simply a necessary part of their work. Certainly the captain, as a scientist herself, could understand. The alien spoke with all the detachment of any researcher. Janeway felt her stomach turn, thinking of what had happened to Neelix. To Harry. To Chakotay, who could die of old age because of these experiments! There was, of course, a noble purpose to the tests. Millions could be relieved of suffering . . . even if it was at the cost of "some discomfort" to Janeway and her crew.
Janeway heatedly informed the alien, "I'm sure you'd see things differently if your people were the ones being subjected to these experiments."
"Just as your perspective would change if your people were the ones to live longer and healthier lives as a result. Don't forget, we've been observing you, Captain. I know the most important thing to you is the welfare of your crew. You'd even kill to protect them."
Kathryn whispered, "If necessary," unable to expunge the vision of her hands closing around the neck of the egotistical scientist, of shaking her into unconsciousness.
The urge grew even stronger as the alien rationalized the experiments. "Of course you do. You take care of your own, just as we do. We're really more similar than you care to admit."
"That's where you're wrong. What you're doing isn't self-defense. It's the exploitation of another species for your own benefit. My people decided a long time ago that that was unacceptable, even in the name of scientific progress." The dangerously low tone of voice in which Janeway responded was something the alien was unable to comprehend--or else chose to ignore.
"You're a remarkably strong-willed individual. I've been very impressed by your self-control over the past several weeks. We've been increasing your dopamine levels, stimulating various aggressive impulses to test your behavioral restraints. There's been a great difference of opinion about how much more strain you can bear."
Kathryn's fragile emotional tether snapped. Slamming the alien against the bulkhead, she replied, "Not much," before reestablishing control of her temper and releasing the alien researcher.
"I'd hoped you'd be more cooperative once you realized the importance of our work."
"Sorry. These lab rats are fighting back."
The alien scientist's continued aloofness was infuriating. "I'm afraid that you will not succeed. We are monitoring your attempts at breaking our control."
"You might find you've underestimated us."
"Consider what's in the best interests of your crew. We will be continuing our research. If you make no further attempts to interfere, I assure you that the fatality rate will be minimal, though there may be some deformities." At this chillingly casual threat, Janeway's stomach churned. "And I would be willing to share our final data with you."
"You can't possibly expect me to accept that."
"If you don't, then the entire experiment--and its subjects--will be terminated."
An impotent Janeway, her head pounding ever more insistently, stalked out of the brig to find what was left of her senior staff. To find some answers before the alien could carry out her threat against Janeway's crew.
Seated in her ready room, where harsh, implacable stars could be seen winking outside through her window, Janeway rubbed her temples in anguish. *I wonder how many needles they're sticking into me now?* she thought grimly, as the waves of searing pain increased. The news from Tuvok and Seven did not exactly help. The aliens--whoever they were--were blocking their every attempt to disable the tags. The idea that *Voyager* might be lost to a race of underhanded, sniveling cowards was more than she . . . .
::::Captain, there's a medical emergency on the bridge".::::
The captain ran in. Ensign Watson, the gentle young woman who occasionally could be found discussing holonovels with her captain, was lying on the floor, her body jerking in spasms.
She was so busy trying to save the young woman, Janeway barely heard the Doctor when he halted the CPR effort. Ensign Watson's arteries literally blew up when her artificially stimulated adrenal gland boosted her blood pressure to fatal levels. Although the medical terminology for what had happened to Emily Watson was a cerebral hemorrhage complicated by a heart attack, Janeway could put a better name to it. Murder, all in the name of science.
"There was nothing more we could have done," Doc tried to assure the captain as he pulled her away from the young woman's corpse.
The captain stood over the body for a few seconds, trying to control her anger. She could not, snarling, "This ends right now." Descending to the helm, Janeway said, "You're relieved." Ensign Mbete, who was at the helm because Hamilton was incapacitated by a severe palsy, ceded the conn to the captain. Janeway immediately set a new course.
When he realized the heading which she had implemented, Tuvok asked, with a certain intensity, "Captain, what are a Kdoing?
"I'm running a little experiment of my own," Kathryn replied, adding, "Red Alert!"
The viewscreen became filled with the raging glare of binary pulsar stars which emitted an angry soup of radiation into the surrounding blackness of space. Tuvok was struck by their disquieting similarity to a pair of furious eyes, staring covetously at *Voyager* as gravitation pulled the ship and its occupants within the bestial grasp of the system.
Tuvok considered his options carefully. Even allowing for the torture the experiments were inflicting upon his captain and seeing the distress that Ensign Watson's death had etched upon her face, Tuvok never could have anticipated that he might be forced to relieve her of command. That could be the case here. Before he had a chance to act, however, Seven reported, "One of the aliens has entered the bridge."
"Understood." The captain's voice was determined.
Janeway did not appear to have lost her faculties, despite the hazards of the course she was taking. Tuvok decided not to take any action, announcing. "We're less than a million kilometers from the pulsars. We must change course to avoid being caught in their gravity."
"No! Keep going," Janeway commanded.
"This is a far more reckless course of action than I've come to expect from you, Captain."
"It certainly is."
Tuvok was taken aback by the captain's bluntness. Perhaps his hesitation had been inappropriate. His current analysis of the situation, however, suggested that it was already too late to do anything other than follow her lead. He trusted that the probabilities for their survival he was calculating was inaccurate, although he knew such an error was highly unlikely. "Hull stresses are at thirty teradynes and rising," he intoned.
"I'm strengthening the structural integrity field, but against the gravitational pull of the pulsars, it won't help for long, Captain," broke in Lang. Her voice shook ever so slightly.
One of the alien beings suddenly materialized beside the captain's left shoulder. "What do you hope to accomplish by this?" the being asked.
"Flying into a binary pulsar? It seems like I'm trying to crush this ship like a tin can."
"It's more likely that you're trying to intimidate us." The alien's tone of voice was smug.
"You're welcome to stick around and find out."
Tuvok reported, "Hull stresses at forty-five teradynes and rising."
The alien tried to access helm control, unsuccessfully. "Our course is locked in. Only my authorization can release it," Janeway explained with a humorless smile.
The being, less smug now, stated primly, "You're not behaving very rationally."
"That's what you were trying to accomplish, wasn't it? Hmm? Pumping up my dopamine levels to push me to the edge? Keeping me awake for four days straight with the constant pain of your devices drilling into my skull? Well, this is the culmination of your work, and guess what? You're going to be right here to collect the final data."
Tuvok announced, "The shields have failed."
Lang echoed hollowly, "Structural integrity is down to twenty percent."
"Enter the authorization code and change course immediately!" ordered the alien, panic evident now in her voice.
"I don't think you realize that you are not in control here anymore."
"I can kill you and your crew in an instant."
"Go ahead. Without us, you won't be able to prevent this ship from being torn apart by the pulsars. And even with my crew working together, I'd say the odds of us getting through this are . . . what? One in ten?" She turned towards Tuvok slightly as she estimated their odds.
"One in twenty, at best, Captain," he replied.
Janeway addressed the alien, "I'm willing to take that chance. Are you?"
With the alien's shocked realization that Janeway had finally reached the end of the dopamine experiment--yes, the captain had finally lost her sanity--the being disappeared from view, shimmering differently than when it appeared, as if it had engaged a form of transporter rather than a phase shifting device.
The bridge crew barely noticed, as Tuvok called out, "Outer hull temperature has reached 9000 degrees. The hull is beginning to buckle."
Seven announced, "Captain, two alien vessels are attempting to disengage from *Voyager's* hull."
A moment later, Ensign Lang added. "Captain, the alien vessels have disintegrated."
If the young Ops officer thought this would permit their escape, Tuvok knew that it would not. There was another enemy, totally indifferent to their plight, who now must be conquered. The readings on his console accurately predicted his captain's next words: "I can't break free of the gravitational forces."
"Divert all power to the shields," suggested Lang.
"No! We go in full throttle."
"Assuming we survive we'll need all the momentum we can get to reach escape velocity on the other side. Everyone, hang on. I hope you were exaggerating about those odds, Tuvok."
"I was not." Tuvok's visage was grim as he felt *Voyager* shaking apart beneath his feet. He stoically announced the increasing hull stresses, culminating in breaches on several decks. As the viewscreen was increasingly filled by the looming menace of the binary stars, the ship protested its close approach. Helm control was lost, then main power went off line. Tuvok tried to hold to the belief that his captain was right, that *Voyager* was carrying enough momentum to break free of the stars after passing through their immediate vicinity. Tuvok himself did not care to calculate the odds any more precisely than he already had.
The wait was agonizing, even though only a short minute passed before *Voyager* slipped past the binaries and broke out to the other side. The stresses on the hull eased, and the Vulcan commander heard Ensign Lang murmur, "I don't believe it. We're alive."
As the background noises coming from the crew on the bridge began to sound again like those of people at work, not the momentous silence of those in immediate danger of death, the captain addressed her tactical officer in a bantering tone of voice. "I never realized you thought of me as 'reckless,' Tuvok."
"A poor choice of words. It was clearly an understatement." Tuvok took in her smile of relief and wondered, not for the first time, what had possessed him to reenlist in Starfleet.
"Enter." Harry was nonplused to see Captain Janeway standing in his doorway. "Oh, Captain. Hello. I thought you would be someone else. Can I help you with something?" he stammered.
"No, Ensign. I'm just stopping by for a moment. I . . . I believe I owe you an apology."
"An apology, Captain?"
"The Doctor explained that he had to treat you and Seven for dramatically increased hormone levels. He mentioned he was surprised you could function at all."
Harry smiled. "No, it's all right Captain. I do need to be careful around Seven. It *is* a relief to know that there's an explanation for my lack of control besides it being, well, my own lack of control."
"I still need to apologize to you. I'd like to think it was my headaches that made me jump all over you like that."
"I'm sure that was it, Captain," Harry agreed with a smile.
Walking over to the table, conspicuously set for two, the captain asked, "Since you weren't expecting me, who's going to help you eat this meal? It smells very good."
"Seven. I asked her to come over to discuss a few things. I thought it would be good to do it here, in private."
"No wine, I see."
"No, she isn't ready for that sort of thing. And I don't want to be tempted. We've been out of control enough lately when it wasn't our fault. I don't want . . . " The chiming of the door interrupted Harry. This time, Harry's anticipated dinner guest was standing in the entrance when the door swished open.
"Well, I'll be going then. I just stopped by about that small matter. Enjoy your dinner, Seven, Ensign Kim," she excused herself.
As she walked down the corridor, the captain breathed a sigh of relief. *I really don't have to worry about them. Harry will be careful with her. Chakotay was right about him. I should have known.*
At the thought of Chakotay, the captain realized she had one more stop to make before retiring for the evening.
"Why was the captain here?"
"Oh, nothing much. Why don't you sit down right here, and we can start in on our salad. I've replicated a special meal for you. All easy-to-digest things."
Seven hesitated for only a second before carefully bending her body to sit in the chair Harry was holding out for her. "You had no need to tell me you replicated this. The smell is less offensive than the meals in the mess hall."
Harry smiled. Settling her at the table, he poured her a glass of white grape juice and served her the first course. The salad was of extremely mild and tender greens with a relatively bland dressing. The main course was a replicated chicken and rice dish, easy on the spices. Harry had checked with the Doctor before planning his menu. It paid off when Seven admitted, "Taste is irrelevant, but I find that this food is more . . . pleasant to eat than Neelix's meals."
She didn't eat a great deal, but Harry expected that, too. The Doctor had explained to him that Seven's nutritional needs were still partly met by the regeneration process. While Harry was finishing his own plate of food, Seven actually played with what was left on hers for several seconds. Harry was pleased to see it. An irrelevant action, by Seven!
"Ensign Kim, I have a question to ask you."
"After our recent experiences, I have been reconsidering my actions towards you in the mess hall several weeks ago. In the Jeffries tubes, under the influence of the alien's sexual hormone experiment, you did not appear to mind my proposal. Yet on your own you refused. Does this mean that when you are not under an alien influence, you are . . . unattracted to me?"
"No, no! Absolutely not! I'm very attracted to you."
"Then why did you refuse me?"
"Seven, we need to go slow. This thing the aliens did to us rushed you into something you aren't ready for. Both of us, really, but especially you. Before anything else, what I want from you is friendship. I miss what I had with Tom and B'Elanna. I could talk with them about just about anything. Now, I don't have anyone I can talk to about certain things. I'd like us to be able to do that. Maybe later on, we can become more than just friends to each other. First, I want you as my friend."
Seven considered this for a few moments. "I do not know how to be a friend, but I will research it."
"I'll be happy to help you in your research. Explain things for you, whenever you're confused."
"You would demonstrate what I wish to experience, if I asked?"
He hesitated. This answer would have to be phrased very carefully. "I would be happy to give you a 'demonstration,' Seven, but only within the parameters of 'not rushing things too quickly.' There's no need to hurry." A passing thought about Tom and B'Elanna not moving quickly enough strayed through his mind, but he suppressed it. This was a totally different issue.
"Agreed. There is one thing I wish to ask you. Would kissing me constitute an unwanted acceleration of the scope of the parameters?"
"Kissing? You want to kiss me?" Visions of what happened in the Jeffries tube swirled into Harry's mind.
"Yes. When we were kissing, I found it to be a compelling sensation. Since our actions were being prompted by our increased hormone levels, however, I do not know if the sensation would be as desirable when we are not under such an outside influence. I wish to explore this with you."
"As long as you understand it would be only one kiss, I'd be willing."
At his answer, Seven turned towards him and pursed her already full lips to receive the kiss. *God, she is so beautiful. I hope it is only one, or I'm not going to be able to stop.* Putting his hands on her shoulders and leaning forward, Harry gave her a chaste kiss on the mouth--only a gentle touch of the lips, although it lingered quite a while, longer than most "first kisses" do. The groping in the Jeffries tubes really didn't count, as far as Harry was concerned. That wasn't Seven and him, not really. It was the creation of those alien experimenters.
When Harry broke contact and opened his eyes, he saw that Seven's eyes were still closed. Her breathing sounded a bit ragged. He was willing to bet, had there been anyone around to bet with other than Seven, that her heart was pounding at a higher rate than usual. Slowly, her lids raised, and she was looking directly into his eyes. Into his soul, he suspected, although he would prefer not to look into his feelings too deeply. He had promised himself he would not lose control again. That wasn't an easy vow to keep, with Seven still in his arms.
"Ensign Kim . . ."
"Call me Harry, Seven."
"I believe that kissing is irrelevant."
"Perhaps." Harry couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed by this remark.
"But I must concur with the literature. It is also very pleasant."
"I'm glad to hear it." Harry's mood brightened.
"Harry, I know you said you wished only to demonstrate one kiss. May I request just one more kiss?"
"You may. But only one, and we should wait until you're ready to leave." *Or else we may end up with a repeat of our kissing in the Jeffries tubes, and it really *is* too soon for that.*
Her responding "oh" was a very small sound for Seven.
"But I could demonstrate something else. How would you like to find out what it's like to sit back with my arms around your shoulders?"
As Seven settled into his arms and relaxed, Harry rested his cheek against her hair. This was very nice. A good night kiss was something to look forward to. For the first time in too long a time, Harry was content.
"I'm glad to find you're back to being your 'old self' again--or should I say 'younger old self?" Janeway remarked as Chakotay ushered her into his quarters. "But why haven't you had your hair regenerated yet?" His missing hair was disturbing; it made her think how close she came to losing rest of him, too.
"The members of the crew that saw it liked my 'whole' tattoo, so I thought I should leave it this way," he teased. At her visible shudder, he relented. "I'll have it regenerated after a few more days. I'm just giving all the crew a chance to see the tattoo first. Let me ask you something. Why did you cut your hair? Because of the headaches?"
"Yes, I've always had them with my hair pulled back--nothing like those experimental ones, though! But I'd been thinking about cutting it for a while now. It should be easier to keep, and maybe I won't be getting any more headaches. I'd be happy if I never had another one again!"
He reached out and took a strand of her now chin-length hair, wrapped it around his fingers, and observed, "I can understand that, Kathryn. Your hair looks good on you this way."
"I'm glad it meets with your approval, Chakotay." Laughing, she tried to control the shiver she felt going up her spine. She couldn't help feeling uneasy, knowing how close he'd come to death. Too close. Much too close.
She tried to turn her attention towards studying his tattoo to get her mind off her uneasiness. The tattoo itself *was* fascinating, and the temptation for her to touch it, overwhelming. Gently, she raised her fingertips to his temple and traced the outline of the entire design, front to back and back to front again. His eyes bored into hers, glinting with a light she had seen in them before. The Angry Warrior had always had the capacity to stare at her with an intensity that made her body vibrate with longing. Kathryn tried to do what she had done so many times before--to push him away, to refuse to let her memory tempt her into doing something she might regret.
Then an image flashed into her mind, of a single photon torpedo casing, sitting ready to be launched into space. Two bodies were lying there, wrapped within each other's arms, holding each other in death as they never had in life. In a flash, the image changed, and only one body was in the casing. A tall man with a tattoo, faded by age. How close she'd come to having to cast his mortal remains away into the indifferent embrace of the frigid, eternal ether. The image burned itself painfully into her consciousness.
She knew how good it felt to lie within the circle of his arms. Pushing him away no longer seemed to be an option, as it had for so long.
Kathryn found she could not stay her hand. Memories washed over her; then memory itself was shunted aside by the touch of a hand on her face. Releasing the lock of her hair, he'd moved his fingers to trace her features softly. She caught her breath as Chakotay's was expelled upon her face when he leaned in to kiss her. Not since New Earth had she felt this way. *I should stop this now, I should.* But she did not. The remembered feel of his arms around her gave way to the reality. She rested herself within his embrace and gave in to being Kathryn Janeway, not Captain Janeway.
It had been so long for them both. The trail of kisses across her cheek and the touch of his hand told her what he was willing to give her, and without reservation.
Had it been a mistake to deny themselves this when they returned? Would the crew have understood? Had she been foolish to give up the comfort he offered? She was no longer sure they had made the right decision then, even though both of them had been convinced it was the only proper course at the time. If he would no longer stand in their way, should she? Kathyrn had been alone and lonely for a very long time. So had he.
As his expressive lips reacquainted themselves with her face, Kathryn offered her mouth to him. No more waiting, no more hesitation. Death was always waiting, seconds away at any moment. Perhaps it was time to pick up life again and enjoy it for as long as it lasted.
"Chakotay," she murmured, when he finally released her lips. "I forget. Do you have a bathtub in your quarters?"
"No, but I could build one for you, if you want."
Later, as he held her, a smile crossed Chakotay's face.
Kathryn shifted herself in the bed so that she could look into his face. "What is that evil grin doing on your face now, Chakotay?"
"Oh, it's nothing."
"Are you going to keep secrets from me? That's not a very good way for us to begin all over again, is it?"
"I was just thinking. If I'd known it was our hair that was keeping us apart, I would have chopped off your ponytail and shaved my head a long time ago."
Her rich laughter warmed him. After all they'd been through lately, it was good to be able to laugh.
There was one task that no one had been willing to perform--until now. Enough time had passed for Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay to face up to the inevitable. The quarters of B'Elanna Torres and Thomas Paris had not been entered since the young officers' lives had ended on the Klingon Day of Honor, well over a month before. It was time to pack away the belongings of those who were gone, making those possessions the souvenirs of lost lives that they had become.
At first, Chakotay had offered to clean out both cabins. Janeway demurred. "It wouldn't be right, Chakotay. I can clear out Tom's; and you, B'Elanna's." It seemed the logical, if painful, choice. Neither remembered afterwards who suggested it, but they decided to draw straws to divvy up the onerous chore. The impersonal decision of the straws was for Janeway to take on the clearing out of her former chief engineer's quarters while Chakotay accepted responsibility for Tom's. "We'll just pack up their things and put them in storage. We won't need to catalogue anything. When we get home, their families can do that." Janeway hesitated a moment. "Or else we will, if their families won't. But why worry about it? How much mass could their things occupy, anyway?"
As it turned out, not much.
At 1934 hours during the first day of *Voyager's* orbit of the homeworld of the race that called themselves the Mari, Commander Chakotay walked into Tom's quarters carrying a large, empty crate. He found it was not needed. A half-packed crate sat on the floor of the sleeping area. "Harry, I didn't know you were coming here."
"I heard you were doing this today, so I thought I'd help as much as I could. There isn't all that much here. I just can't decide what to do with the personal items."
"Just throw them all in the crate, Harry. Tom didn't have much when he came on *Voyager*. It's no surprise there's not a lot here."
"You're right. PADDs, some clothes, some keepsakes, and that's about it." Harry picked up a colorful item from the bed. "If you don't mind, I'll save this Hawaiian shirt, Commander. It'll remind me of good times on the holodeck. I don't think these jeans and shirts Tom wore when we went back to the 1990's on Earth will fit me, or I'd take them, too."
"I'll take them, Ensign."
Harry and Chakotay turned to face Tuvok as he walked into the room. "I may find them of use. I recall Mr. Paris telling me on several occasi. . that they were comfortable garments." Tuvok picked up the two shirts and blue jeans, stroking the worn, soft nap of the denim. "I will also take the PADDs, Commander. Mr. Paris had several holonovels in various stages of completion. I will finish those that I can."
"I'll help you with them, Tuvok," offered Harry.
"Thank you, Mr. Kim. I regret that any future holonovels will lack Mr. Paris' inimitable 'touch' and detail, but I'm sure the crew will enjoy them, nonetheless."
All were silent for several seconds before Chakotay walked to the closet and took out some very casual clothes. "I didn't realize he still had these. Remember? From when we went after the Ferengi? Look, he even saved the ears."
"Yeah, Tom used to wear those all the time when he was just hanging around here. Said they were even more comfortable than the blue jeans."
"Almost anything is after wearing a uniform all day long." Even Tuvok nodded sagely at this comment from the first officer. "Do you want them, Harry?"
"Sure. I'll take them. What about the uniforms?"
"I doubt anyone will want them. Recycle them."
The ensign removed three uniforms from the closet and stuck them in the recycler. Without saying anything, he also picked up several small holographic images of Tom with Harry, B'Elanna, and Sandrine. One, larger than the rest, was of the entire senior staff, pool cues in hand, after a memorable tournament which Harry actually won, even though he wasn't teamed with Tom. Harry stared at them for several moments, unaware that his superior officers were silently watching as a succession of emotions flickered across the younger man's face. When he became aware of what he was doing, Harry muttered a quick, "Sorry," and moved to put them in the crate.
"Why don't you take them, Harry?" Chakotay acknowledged Harry's assumption of the images with a slight nod. "You have as much right to them as anyone."
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate . . ."
::::Lieutenant Ayala to Commander Tuvok. The authorities on Mar would like to speak with you, Commander. They want your answer about the offer to come down to the planet to visit their security facilities while one of their security officers tours our ship. What shall I tell them, Commander?::::
"Tell them I have not yet had an opportunity to discuss their offer with my superiors and will get back to them, Mr. Ayala."
The commander interjected, "Mr. Ayala, you may tell the planet's authorities that permission is granted for Commander Tuvok's visit and for a reciprocal visit by one of their representatives."
::::Thank you, Commander. Ayala out.::::
Tuvok raised an eyebrow in Chakotay's direction. The first officer responded, "The captain had already been asked about it, Tuvok. There's no problem. I presume you don't mind going?"
"Not at all. The opportunity to visit with another telepathic race is intriguing. I will take my leave now." Tuvok did not exit the room immediately, however. He spent several seconds looking around before remarking, "I was only in these quarters once before. I regret I did not have more of an opportunity to get to know Mr. Paris on a casual basis. We spent time together only when on duty or when we were programming our adventures for the crew on the holodeck."
"Some of them were pretty wild," said Harry, grinning. "You made a good writing team."
"Yes, we did, Ensign." After several seconds of awkward silence, Tuvok exited Tom's quarters to begin final preparations for his transport to the home of the Mari.
Packing the rest of Tom's things took only a few more minutes. Harry picked up the crate easily; it didn't weigh that much. As he walked to the door, Harry stopped and pivoted on his heel, looking around the suite of rooms. It was completely neat and sterile. He shook his head and sighed. "I've got so many memories from coming here, Commander. A lot of them of me handing over replicator rations I lost to Tom playing pool. But it feels real now. He's not coming back from some away team mission. These quarters don't belong to Tom anymore."
Chakotay, holding the unused crate in his hand, shook his head. "It does seem final now, doesn't it?" The two men stood motionless for several seconds, lost in their own thoughts, before they walked into the corridor, leaving the late pilot's quarters empty and silent.
While Harry walked to Cargo Bay Two to deposit Tom's crate in storage, Chakotay went to B'Elanna's quarters. Entering, Chakotay was bemused to find Kathryn standing in the middle of the living area, holding a bat'telh at arms length. She glanced up at her first officer's approach.
"I seem to have an extra crate. Need it for B'Elanna's things?"
"I don't think this will fit in there, do you?"
He shook his head with a grim chuckle. "Not unless it's a collapsible model."
"I wonder how many replicator rations Tom had to win playing pool in Sandrine's to get her this?"
"A lot. And it must have taken some time. He had to avoid playing you."
She smiled at the joke, carefully laying down the weapon on the table near the wall. "Do you remember how they were in the briefing room when the Nyrians were taking over? When they had that argument, right after he gave her this? They didn't know how to stand, what to do with their hands or their arms . . ."
"You should have seen them when they ended up back in the Habitat. They were wrapped up *in* each other's arms. To keep themselves warm, of course."
"They were so much alike in some ways--but so complimentary in others. I miss them so much." A slight catch came into her voice.
"So do I. I even miss Paris cracking jokes from the helm."
"And those looks B'Elanna would send across the bridge at him when she was at the engineering console, whenever he got off a wise remark . . ." She sighed at the memory. "We have to get home now, Chakotay. I want their parents to know what good officers both turned out to be."
Chakotay gave Kathryn a brief hug, not sure what words he could say to take away the pain in her voice. If B'Elanna and Tom had not been lost, would the two commanding officers finally have defied protocol to be together? Chakotay doubted it. He was happy, yet, even at the cost of his personal happiness, Chakotay would have willingly done anything he could to save the two lieutenants. It simply hadn't been in his power.
"Sensors indicate that the shuttle's primary systems are off line. Life signs . . . only two," intoned Tuvok. Captain Janeway hurried out of her ready room to stand before her seat, briskly ordering *Voyager* to an approach vector as close as possible to the damaged shuttle. Two life signs--but three had been aboard that shuttle when it left the shuttle bay for its mission.
Harry, Neelix, Chakotay. Whose life sign was missing?
She eyed the nebula with a jaundiced eye. What was it about these formations of glowing gases that always attracted her so? Yes, she had a scientist's mind. Nebulas were worthy of study--but at what cost? The bilious gases were implacably beautiful, loaded with compounds and sources of energy that were desperately needed--but oh, so deadly! The captain agonized over her decision to send any of her crew into it before resigning herself to the truth. For the chance at obtaining some protomatter, it had been worth the risk. She'd hoped she and her crew could cheat death again. Not this time, apparently.
Pacing back and forth for the entire time it took to jockey *Voyager* through the powerful, shearing forces of the nebula until a transport could be attempted with at least a modicum of safety, Janeway's thoughts tumbled through her brain until her head pounded. Shorter hair could not prevent a headache that stemmed from a sore conscience.
After ten minutes that felt like ten hours, she asked impatiently, for the fifth time, "Are we within transport range yet?"
Four times before, the answer had been negative. This time, "Affirmative," was the welcome response from Tuvok.
"Beam them directly to Sickbay. Ensign Lang, put a tractor beam lock on that shuttle."
"Aye, Captain," answered Lang. A second later, she continued, "The two life signs and an inert body have been beamed directly to Sickbay."
Janeway resisted the urge to run into the turbolift in an unseemly manner. Maintaining the decorum befitting a Starfleet captain, she moved swiftly, but without undue haste, to the upper level of the bridge. As she prepared to exit the bridge, Janeway stated, "Tuvok. You've got the conn. I'm . . ."
::::Chakotay to Captain Janeway . . . ::::
Closing her eyes, she answered, "Janeway here, Commander. What's the situation?"
::::It's Neelix, Captain. He's dead.::::
All the way to Sickbay, Janeway felt guilt assail her. Nebulas. Damn them all.
And especially, damn that feeling of blessed relief that had weakened her knees when she first heard his voice--and knew he wasn't the one lying lifeless in Sickbay.
Seven of Nine always monitored the bridge when she was working in Astrometrics. It was much more efficient to know which orders the captain gave as she was giving them. Seven could better anticipate any requests that might come her way as a result. Sometimes, the answer to a given question was ready before the captain had even finished asking it. Efficiency was relevant. And, as Harry had told her once, "It impresses the Boss." Seven was starting to see that in a hierarchical structure such as Starfleet's, "impressing the Boss" was also relevant.
When the initial distress call from the damaged shuttle arrived, however, her ability to devote herself to her tasks was drastically reduced. She found it difficult to concentrate upon anything other than Ensign Kim's status as one of the occupants of the shuttle. The probability that he was one of the surviving members of the away team was 66.67%, yet somehow, this knowledge did not keep her attention from wandering to the chilling possibility that he might be the one of three whose life signs were not detectable. It was a most peculiar sensation. A very undesirable sensation. Seven's efficiency level plummeted.
Attempts to turn all of her formidable mental resources to her tasks in Astrometrics were surprisingly unsuccessful. After the fourth such attempt, Seven succumbed to impulse. Using the Astrometrics sensors, she evaluated the condition of the shuttle and its occupants as *Voyager* sped towards it. She had no trouble concentrating on that task.
Communications, power, and propulsion were apparently all off line. Her instrument readings were weak and erratic, however, despite all efforts to clear away the interference from the nebula that was disrupting her findings. The imprecision of the readings bothered her. She resolved to work on improving the efficiency of the equipment when he returned to help her. As soon as he returned. If Harry returned.
Tuning her instrumentation to a narrower band width to sharpen its resolution, Seven noted that the two life signs she could detect appeared to be of a heterogeneous nature, suggesting the non-human on board was the casualty. Because there was no great variance between Talaxian physiology and that of humans, despite the significant difference in appearance, however, Seven could not be sure of this. When the presence of errant readings due to interference from the nebula was factored into the equation, the "two life signs" could represent an echo. Might two of those who were in the shuttle be causalities, and only one true life sign be present?
Seven did not wish to consider that possibility.
As she waited for further data along with the rest of the bridge crew, Seven found herself contemplating what her continued existence would be like if any of the three men at risk had ceased to function. Seven had been at odds with Commander Chakotay since she first came to *Voyager*. He was an able officer, and his presence would be greatly missed if he had expired, especially by the captain. Neelix was cook, morale officer, ambassador-at-large, baby sitter, and, in general, *Voyager's* "handyman." That most curious term had been researched by Seven after she overheard Ensign Bristow utilizing it in regards to Neelix during a recent conversation. The term fit. The Talaxian, initially a guide, filled a most diverse set of roles on *Voyager*. He also would be missed.
And Harry. Ensign Kim. Seven could always count on him for an honest, patiently delivered answer to any query concerning social customs, actions, mannerisms, or a crewman's motives. He was particularly helpful in explaining what she had done wrong when someone became incensed by her failure to follow some obscure rule about interpersonal relationships. The recreational activities to which he had introduced her, such as kissing, might be irrelevant, as all such activities were, but she could not deny they were both pleasurable and powerful, in their own way. Harry's permanent absence would be most disruptive to Seven's functioning.
An inkling of the grief she had observed Harry experience when he had lost his friends Paris and Torres trickled into her awareness. Seven resolved to think of something else before her efficiency rating became further impaired.
She was unable to distract herself for long, however. All three of the shuttle's occupants performed necessary tasks for this group. Even with their availability to complete their assignments, the amalgamation of inefficient, barely cooperative beings that comprised the crew of *Voyager* was painfully far from perfection. A loss of any would be more damaging to this ship than the loss of a hundred or more drones on a Borg vessel. The surviving drones would quickly assume the tasks of the ones who were gone. The memories, experience, and knowledge of the missing would not be lost. They would continue to be available as a resource within the Collective consciousness. Those drones replacing them in body could consult with the non-corporeal drones through the neural interface. It was a highly efficient method of dealing with the loss of an individual's existence.
That is, if there actually had been a loss. The ability of the Borg to revive an expired drone's corporeal body was unparalleled by any other species. No totally biological race could retrieve and repair their people the way the Borg could.
On *Voyager*, however, there was one who was not totally biological. Two, actually, if the Doctor were to be counted. He had the knowledge to revive members of *Voyager's* crew through his medical acumen. Seven, however, was uniquely qualified to provide assistance to the Doctor when a member of the crew had expired. With consternation, she realized she had not even thought about accessing that aspect of her Borg functioning since the other eight of the Tertiary Adjunct to Unimatrix Zero-One had been snatched away from her by the vacuum of space.
Seven thought about that ability now. Although the Doctor had modified her nanoprobes after the homing signal from *The Raven* had caused Seven to sprout new implants, she doubted his alterations had impaired the remarkable ability she possessed to provide medical treatments to a Borg drone. The more she considered it, the more certain she was that she could be of assistance, even though the unfortunate Ensign Watson could not have been saved by this technique. Her neural pathways had been damaged beyond repair by the traumatic effects of adrenaline overload, which raised her blood pressure beyond the degree that the delicate capillaries of her brain could resist exploding. Blood had flooded out into the brain, causing complete necrosis of the cortical and cerebellar tissues. This degree of damage might not be present in the unknown expired, however. If the nature of the injury permitted it, a resurrection might be possible.
Tapping her comm badge, Seven announced to the officer in charge of the Stellar Cartography unit, "Ensign Delaney, I will need relief in Astrometrics as soon as the occupants of the lost shuttle are transported aboard this vessel." Jenny Delaney answered the command in the affirmative, as standing orders from the captain demanded.
Five minutes later, Seven of Nine was on her way to Sickbay to offer her services to the Doctor--and to the damaged person from the shuttle.
"I ran a complete post-mortem analysis. There was nothing either one of you could have done." The Doctor kept his voice at what he hoped was a calm and reassuring level, although those listening to his words seemed to be neither calm nor reassured.
"I knew we were too close to the protomatter. I should have said something! If Tom had been there, I'll bet we never would have ignited that protomatter. My piloting skills weren't up to the job. I'm sorry, Captain."
"Don't blame yourself, Harry. I was right there at the conn, too. There was no way to predict this," Chakotay said, trying to comfort the ensign.
"How shall I proceed, Captain?" asked the Doctor solemnly.
"The Talaxians mourn their dead for a full week, in a specific burial ceremony, and that's just what we're going to do." She mournfully patted the still hand of the Talaxian, which had prepared its last meal.
Quietly, Chakotay said, "I'll inform the crew."
Nodding her appreciation, Janeway said, "I'll check Neelix's personal database. See what I can find out about the ceremony." She walked between her first officer and Ensign Kim, resting a comforting hand on each of their backs before turning to the exit. "We'll have it in the mess hall. Somehow, that seems appropriate."
Before they could leave, Seven of Nine strode into Sickbay. After hesitating for the split second it took her to look deeply into the sad eyes of Harry Kim, she asked, "Neelix is dead?"
"I'm afraid so," the Doctor replied, taking a step back at Seven's entrance.
"His neural pathways, are they intact?"
"Yes," answered the EMH, "but there's no metabolic activity."
"How long has he been dead?"
The captain intervened. "Seven, I understand that . . ."
"How long?" Seven interrupted imperiously.
"It's been eighteen hours," Chakotay said quietly.
"Then it's not too late to reactivate him," Seven pronounced briskly.
"What are you saying, Seven? Can you bring Neelix back to life?" A faint hope stirred within Harry.
"That's precisely what I'm saying. The Borg have assimilated species with far superior medical knowledge than your own. We are capable of reactivating drones as much as seventy-three hours after what you would call 'dead.' "
Chakotay noted, "Neelix wasn't a Borg drone."
"We will adapt."
"What does this procedure involve?" inquired the EMH.
"Nanoprobes are used to reverse cellular necrosis while the cerebral cortex is stimulated with a neuroelectric isopulse."
"But there's nothing to stimulate! His brain functions are gone!" the Doctor stated.
"By your narrow definition, perhaps, but not by mine. You will extract seventy micrograms of nanoprobes from my bloodstream. I will modify them to match his Talaxian physiology." Seven paused to look down at the lifeless figure on the biobed before adding, almost as an afterthought, "His function in this crew is . . . diverse."
"We have to try this, Captain," pleaded Harry.
Chakotay gave Harry a warning look the ensign missed. Seven, however, plowed on. "If you wish to salvage him, we must proceed immediately."
"Hold on a minute, please," the captain admonished. Turning back to Seven, Janeway asked, "No one's ever been resuscitated after eighteen hours. If this procedure does work, what are the chances that Neelix will come out of it . . . unaffected?"
"She's right. The damage to his cerebral cortex was severe," the Doctor insisted.
"The nanoprobes will compensate for any cellular degradation. Captain, a decision has to be made quickly."
Janeway, paused a moment to consider the ramifications, then made the call. "Doctor, give Seven whatever assistance she needs. Proceed."
"But Captain . . . "
"Do it. If there's a chance we can revive Neelix, we've got to take it. Keep me informed."
Shaking his head sorrowfully, the Doctor acquiesced.
As Harry left Sickbay, Seven spared him a look of satisfaction and . . . but no, it couldn't be. Harry was sure that there was nothing else in that look. Surely, she wasn't looking at him with relief, was she?
The Doctor found himself in the unaccustomed and most unpleasant position of acting as the assistant in his own Sickbay. Words tripped out of the mouth of Seven of Nine, yet he could barely comprehend half of what she was saying. The epitome and distillation of all the medical knowledge possessed by the Federation--and he was the nurse! Even when he had a cogent thing to say, Seven rebuffed his efforts. She treated him as if he were a biting insect buzzing around her ear as she ordered him about.
"And they say I have a lousy bedside manner," the EMH muttered, aware that he was whining and well past caring.
As Seven worked over Neelix, however, the Doctor began to comprehend what she was doing. After quickly repairing what damage to the Talaxian's body that she could by conventional means, she introduced the nanoprobes extracted from her own bloodstream into Neelix's. Just as the EMH's modified nanoprobes had healed Ensign Kim after Species 8472's attack, Seven's began to work healing Neelix's tissues from the inside of his corpse. Mr. Kim had not died, however, while Neelix had been dead for many hours. It wasn't very likely that . . .
The Doctor's path of reasoning took a jolt when he noted that the texture and color of Neelix's decomposing skin was reverting to a more normal color and pattern. In fact, Neelix's flesh was beginning to look much more . . . lifelike. After Seven administered several neuroelectric isopulses in measured dosages, Neelix's brain functioning began to revive, to the good Doctor's shock. Before he knew it, Mr. Neelix was sitting up, breathing, and stuttering, "Doctor? What happened? Why am I here?"
For a dead person, Neelix was giving a very good impression of someone alive.
Putting aside his shock, the Doctor recorded his observations to add to the medical database. While the most efficient method of producing medical nanoprobes might be Seven's body, the presence of a former Borg would not be essential. More primitive nanoprobes were already being manufactured by the Federation, and in mass quantities. The EMH realized that with these more sophisticated microscopic wonder workers, death and serious injuries could be reversed in many more instances than they already were. They would constitute a formidable addition to the arsenal of weapons at the physician's disposal! And he would help bring their use to the forefront of medical science!
With some slight acknowledgment to Seven for her technical expertise, of course.
"Dead?" asked Neelix of his captain, who was standing before him, holding his hand in her delight at his resurrection.
"For 18 hours, 49 minutes, 13 seconds," The Doctor replied helpfully. "Congratulations, Mr. Neelix. You've just set a new world record."
"That's impossible. You mean I lost consciousness. I was in a coma . . ."
"No, you were dead," concurred Seven emphatically.
"I'm stunned; I'm amazed; I'm . . . grateful. Thank you, Doctor."
"Actually, you can thank Seven. The procedure was her idea," corrected Janeway.
"The Borg assimilated the technique when they absorbed Species 149," Seven said, in response to the captain's acknowledgment. Belatedly remembering her social skills training, she added, "but . . . you are welcome."
"Am I as good as new?" Neelix asked the Doctor.
"That remains to be seen. There's no way to tell if your body can successfully take over the functions the nanoprobes are serving."
"Nanoprobes!" Neelix started to jump up in alarm.
Janeway reassured him, with a pat on his arm, "It was necessary to repair the necrotized tissues."
The Doctor added, "Until I'm certain the damaged tissues can function independently, you'll have to be injected with nanoprobes on a daily basis."
"Well, as long as I don't start assimilating the crew or sprouting Borg implants, I'm sure I can live with it," Neelix joked.
The return of Neelix's sense of humor was taken as a sign of his recovery by the Doctor. Reasserting his authority in his own Sickbay, the Doctor said, "I'm releasing you to your quarters. Your body's been through quite a shock, so try to get some rest. Report to Sickbay at 0800 hours four your next injection.
Seven watched Neelix leave, contemplating the reactions that a being with a finite life span must have when reminded of their own mortality. She was glad, since she was Borg, she did not have to worry about such things.
Later, however, Tuvok pointed out that her separation from the Borg meant that all of her experiences since shortly after her arrival on *Voyager* were just as finite as Neelix's. She found she did not enjoy that feeling of impermanence any more than Neelix had.
When the captain came to the bridge and announced that Neelix had been released to his quarters, Harry felt the same surge of elation that everyone else must have felt, judging from the unprofessional but heartfelt comments that passed among the crew before the captain's not-very-stern command of "as you were" was given.
This buoyant feeling lasted about as long as it took for him to wonder why, if Seven had this ability, she had not used it with Tom and B'Elanna. They'd been dead for a lot less time than Neelix. There hadn't even been any unusual damage to their bodies, as there had been with Neelix's. Lack of oxygen, that's all it took to snatch his two best friends away from life. Why couldn't she have saved them, too?
The more he mulled it over, however, the more Harry was able to rationalize his irritation away. He was being unfair. When Tom and B'Elanna had died, Seven herself had not yet fully recovered from the surgery the Doctor had performed on her to remove the Borg implants her body was rejecting. She probably hadn't been capable of healing them. After much soul-searching, Harry decided he would not even ask her if this were the case. It was too late to do anything for Tom and B'Elanna now. Why bring up painful old wounds that could not be healed?
A hint of an idea tickled at the back of his mind when he thought about this, but when Harry tried to catch it, whatever it was slipped away, out of his reach. If it was important, he'd think of it again, he was sure. Instead, like everyone else on board *Voyager*, Harry threw himself into the preparations for the upcoming festivities of Prixin. He vowed to celebrate with greater enthusiasm than he ever had before. The Talaxian Celebration of Family--what a great way to give thanks for Neelix's narrow escape! Harry looked forward to explaining the holiday, and all it represented, to Seven.
*This is a dismal excuse for wasting time. At least when I'm conversing with Harry Kim, we share useful information,* groused Seven (who would have denied emphatically that she was doing anything so useless as "grousing," had she been confronted with that accusation). She was not having a good time. The festivities included moving in rhythm with another crew member to music while "dancing," indulging in mindless chatter, and imbibing beverages and eating snack foods that one would not consider ingesting at any other time because of their relative lack of nutritional value. And that was compared to Neelix's normal fare. Because the snacks were of Talaxian origin by and large, the taste was far more objectionable than his usual cooking, as well.
What was the most disquieting, however, was that she was ordered by Captain Janeway to indulge in mindless chatter--or, as the captain put it, "small talk"--but no one wanted to listen to the topics she wished to discuss. A simple discussion about how the Borg handled the raising of the offspring of the newly assimilated had driven Ensign Wildman away from the party. While Seven was able to speak for a short period of time with Commander Tuvok about the problem they'd been having with the new sensor nodes, he excused himself because, as he explained, "mingling" was expected of him. Later, she overheard him speaking with Ensign Golwat about the insignificant topic of Bolian games of chance.
After several other attempts to engage members of the crew in some sort of discussion failed, Seven looked for Harry. He would be willing to converse on something minimally worthwhile--if nothing else, he would help her understand why her choice of subject matter was so uninteresting to the rest of the crew. Being with him was never a complete waste of time. Seven could not find him, however. She finally learned Harry had volunteered to go to the bridge to permit Ensign Lang, who would be on duty for the entire time period scheduled for the party, a chance to attend for a couple of hours. When she heard that, Seven retired to Astrometrics, spending several peaceful hours evaluating the data from the previous day's long range sensor sweeps.
She was interrupted by the Doctor's hail. ::::Seven, I need you to complete a hematological scan on Mr. Neelix. He failed to come in for his check up prior to the festivities. I am concerned he may be overtaxing his strength.::::
"Understood," she replied. At least performing that task would be a productive use of her time.
The remains of the party greeted Seven when she arrived at the mess hall. Despite the lowered illumination levels, a multitude of unrecycled cups, plates, and utensils could be seen scattered in disarray around the room. Seven arched her brow in disapproval. Some of the crew were very messy individuals. She speculated on the concept that this might explain the derivation of the term "mess hall."
A clash of dishes from the cooking area alerted her to the location of the being whom she sought. "Neelix, the Doctor asked me to run a hematology scan."
"It is necessary to regulate the dosage for your next nanoprobe injection."
"Go ahead," Neelix grumbled, tossing his hands in the air in surrender while submitting himself to Seven's demands before asking, "How much longer will I be needing these injections?"
"Until your damaged cells can function on their own."
"I really don't like the idea of having Borg technology swimming around inside me."
"That is irrelevant. You need them to live."
"Living? Is that what I'm doing? Living--I'm beginning to wonder."
"By most definitions, you are alive."
"Part of me isn't alive."
"To which part are you referring?"
"I don't know! But a part of me is missing! I don't feel like Neelix anymore. Maybe Neelix is gone, maybe he died, and I'm all that's left."
Throughout this outburst, Neelix bustled about the Mess hall, forcing Seven to follow him around as he made his haphazard rounds. Clearly, Neelix was avoiding her and onl Tuvetending to clean up. He was moving things from one table to another without any semblance of a plan of action. After several scans had been disrupted by his abrupt movements, Seven had had quite enough. Brusquely, she ordered, "Stop moving and allow me to complete the scan."
"I didn't ask to be brought back!" Neelix shouted.
"You were dead at the time." Having made this eminently reasonable observation, Seven attempted, once again, to complete a scan of her patient.
"What right did you have to violate me?"
"There was no alternative."
"You Borg think you can fix anything--well you didn't fix me!" Neelix raged. "Get out of my Mess hall! Leave me alone! I said, get out!"
"I would be negligent in my duties if I did that."
This comment seemed to enrage the small man even more. Slapping away Seven's tricorder, he yelled, "I don't care about your duties! Why did you have to interfere in the first place! You should have left me for dead! You didn't bother to revive Tom and B'Elanna! Why me? Why did I have to be the one you . . . "
Suddenly, as if the words he couldn't say fast enough were choking him, Neelix began to gasp desperately for air. With alarm, Seven noted that Neelix's face was being transformed--almost as if his skin were sloughing away from this skull.
"What's happening to me?" he panted, his anger at Seven dissipating as his appearance began to revert to the way it had looked when his corpse was brought out of the nebula.
This time he held still for the scan, which Seven was able to complete without any interruption. Neelix's panic rooted him to the floor of the mess hall. After rechecking her data, Seven answered with a calm she did not feel. "Your cells are reverting to a necrotic state. We must get you to Sickbay."
"Help me, Seven . . ." Neelix begged, his anger squelched by fear. Seven grabbed the Talaxian around the shoulders and supported him--half-carried him would be more accurate--to Sickbay. Seven and the Doctor made further modifications to the nanoprobes to deal with this new crisis.
Once his condition had stabilized, Neelix called for Commander Chakotay, wishing to speak to him about a personal matter. After the first officer addressed Neelix's concerns, the Doctor released Seven from her duties.
While returning to her cargo bay to regenerate, Seven was revisited by the images of what had just occurred. With every step, Neelix's words echoed in her head: "You didn't bother to revive Tom and B'Elanna . . . You didn't bother to revive Tom and B'Elanna . . . Why me? Why me? Why me?"
She realized, with increasing distress, that she didn't have an answer.
The cargo bay seemed darker than it usually was. The vacant Borg alcoves crackled with emerald flashes of energy, but the figure he expected to find regenerating in the one occupied alcove was not in any of them. "Seven? Are you here?" Harry called out.
Just as Harry was about to hit his comm badge to make sure Seven had not left the cargo bay between the time he'd checked the computer to locate her and his arrival, he heard a soft, "Yes, I am here." Harry went to the end of the line of regeneration cubicles and looked down. Seven of Nine was sitting on the floor. Her back rested upon the side of the last alcove. Huddled into a ball, Seven had caught her knees tightly to her body within her arms.
He didn't think he'd ever seen the expression on her face he now saw. Harry crouched down to be at eye level with her, saying gently, "I didn't know you could regenerate in that position. Or are you contemplating your existence?"
"It is not my own existence I am contemplating, Harry Kim."
He thought he heard pain in her voice. "Neelix will get over this, Seven. I'm sure he didn't mean to upset you with his . . ."
"I am not contemplating Neelix's existence."
"That of Lieutenant Paris and Lieutenant Torres."
Harry was puzzled for only a moment. The regret which had haunted him for the last several days, which he had so carefully avoided discussing with her, obviously had visited her as well. His heart ached for her, as it did for his friends; but there was nothing he could do for Tom and B'Elanna. It was more important to ease the suffering of the living. "Seven, it's Neelix we have to be concerned about now. He's been shaken, but he'll come around. Commander Chakotay has offered to help with a spirit quest . . . "
"I'm sure the commander will assist him greatly, but I'm not concerned about Neelix. He will live. I know that. It is my failure to act appropriately two months ago that is 'upsetting' me."
"Worrying about something that happened over two months ago is an inefficient use of your time, Seven." Harry's attempt to joke about this sounded so hollow to his own ears that he fell into a deep silence, not knowing how to fill in the gap that stretched between them as he floundered for something else to say that could comfort her.
Finally, Seven turned her eyes up to him, saying, "Ensign, do you think that Lieutenant Torres or Lieutenant Paris would have been angry if I had used the Borg technology to return them to life after they died?"
"Not if they'd both been returned to life, I don't think . . . " Harry's voice trailed off. He had vowed he would not ask this question. His resolve crumbled away, but he was saved from having to ask her in the face of Seven's own insatiable curiosity.
"Are you not going to ask me why I did not offer to bring them back, as I did Neelix?"
"I was trying not to ask that, Seven . . . but since you mention it, why?"
"Because I did not think of it. I was not accustomed to the idea of returning someone who was not a Borg drone to life. It never occurred to me. It is just as it was with the Caatati. If I had offered to build them the devices to generate thorium isotopes sooner, there would have been no need for them to steal the warp core of this ship or blow up the shuttlecraft carrying your friends. Paris and Torres never would have died in the first place. My failure to consider that option cost this group the lives of two of its most valued members." Seven lowered her head to look at the floor as she recited this litany of error. Harry did not hear the dispassionate tones in her voice he was used to hearing. There was another quality there--misery.
"Seven, you can't blame yourself for not thinking of something! We do the best we can to remember the important things, but something like that . . . it isn't as if anyone could remind you. No one expected you to have knowledge like that. You can't blame yourself for not having an idea occur to you! Even a computer won't come up with every eventuality unless the information is requested properly. If you don't ask in the right way, it won't give you all the options. And you'd been with us for such a short time then. It would be different if you did remember but never said anything about it to anyone. That would be a knowing deception."
"But they were your best friends."
"Yes, I know; and I wish it could have been different. I wish you'd thought of it in time to save them. But it's all right, Seven. No human being is so perfect they can always come up with every answer. I wish it were so! But it just isn't. Don't be upset about it. I don't expect perfection. No one can. Only the Borg expect that!"
Seven's gaze was still averted away from him. Harry felt as much anguish over his inability to relieve her distress as he did for Tom and B'Elanna, who almost certainly could have been saved by this technique. There hadn't been any real damage to their neural pathways. They'd simply slipped off to sleep as their oxygen ran out, their bodies drifting in the cold darkness of space until *Voyager* came, too late, to rescue them.
Cold of space. Darkness of space. *Voyager* came. A rescue. The ephemeral thought which had flitted just out of reach a few days ago suddenly reappeared and permitted itself to be caught. A revelation exploded into Harry's perception, blinding him for a moment to the presence of his companion, who turned a puzzled face to him and asked, "Harry?"
"Seven, I want to ask you something--about this seventy-three hours after a drone's death. Were any drones ever revived that long after the body was preserved in very cold temperatures, such as the cold of space?"
"No, this is for a corpse existing at normal humanoid temperatures. When there is a hull breach of a Borg cube, the drones cannot be salvaged. The destruction of the cell membranes during explosive decompression from exposure to vacuum precludes the option. The damage is too extensive for the nanoprobes to repair."
"What if there was no explosive decompression?"
"Harry Kim, whenever a ship is destroyed in that way . . . "
"Seven, what if the ship wasn't destroyed by a hull breach? Let me explain. A year or so ago *Voyager* found a Borg cube. It was lifeless, or at least, it seemed to be. Parts of the cube had suffered hull breaches, that's true, but much of it was intact. All of the power sources were disrupted, though. The Borg that survived were separated from the Collective and fled to a nearby planet. The Borg bodies that remained on the ship were preserved in the cold of space. Wherever the atmosphere remained, there was no loss of pressure until long after the bodies had frozen. Some of us went over there and brought back a corpse from one of the intact areas for the Doctor to study.
"At one point, after the corpse had warmed up, the Doctor touched a control unit and the drone seemed to come back to life. The Doc said it was just a mechanical reaction--that the Borg was really dead. I wonder, though--if you had been with us then, could you have brought him back to life all the way with your nanoprobes?"
"I am unsure. I'd need to consult the Doctor's database. How long was the drone lifeless in the Borg cube?"
"About four years."
Harry had become quite adept at interpreting the subtle changes in Seven's features that marked emotion. She was obviously shocked, but her mind quickly grasped Harry's point. "Do you think the bodies of Lieutenant Torres and Lieutenant Paris might be returned to life, months after their deaths?"
"The torpedo casings are sealed and should have remained pressurized--certainly long enough for the bodies to be frozen. There's no heat source in the casing. The bodies would have become as cold as space in a very short time. Their corpses were kept in stasis after they were found, too. I would guess that at most, four hours, maybe even less, passed when the bodies were in conditions favorable to decomposition."
"I must see the Doctor's records about Lieutenant Torres and Lieutenant Paris--and of this Borg drone, to see what his condition was. Is his corpse still available?"
"No, I'm sorry, Seven. The Doctor used it for research. That's where we obtained the knowledge about Borg nanoprobes we used in our fight against species 8742. That's where he got the nanoprobes that saved me. But I'm sure he has very complete records."
Harry put out his hand to help Seven stand up as she said, "We must get to Sickbay immediately." She no longer looked upset; instead, she seemed intent upon unraveling the problem before her. Could the bodies of B'Elanna Torres and Tom Paris be resurrected so long after their deaths?
If there was a way, Harry knew she would find it.
"Captain, we have a request."
"Yes, Harry? What is it?"
"We need to go back to find Tom and B'Elanna. We think Seven can bring them back to life, the way she brought back Neelix."
Janeway stared at the two young people who were standing before the desk in her ready room.d shh wore extremely determined expressions on their faces. Considering her next words very carefully, she admitted, "If I hadn't seen with my own eyes what you did for Neelix, Seven, I wouldn't even consider it. But having seen, I'm willing to listen to why you think this might work."
They explained. Before they'd even finished, a hopeful Janeway had heard enough to notify Chakotay on the bridge of a change in course. *Voyager* turned back, past the Mari world, yielding a wide berth around the disputed space of the Krenim, and well outside of B'Omar space. There was no time to waste. They had a torpedo to find.
Space is infinite, dark, and empty. Airless. Cold. Light coming from widely scattered stars briefly illuminates any object blundering through the darkness before the object again disappears into the ether. Such a vast place to look for so small and insignificant an object as a photon torpedo casing.
The improved sensors in Astrometrics were a godsend, but the critical factor in finding the shiny black object as easily as *Voyager* did was not dependent upon complex equipment. Since Janeway and Seven and Harry Kim knew the heading *Voyager* had been taking when the burial torpedo had been shot away, they knew the heading the capsule would maintain by simple inertia. Advanced sensors were helpful, but basic mathematics projected its position. They found it easily. Sir Isaac Newton could have calculated its location, had he been able to travel to the Delta Quadrant to help them.
Once found, *Voyager* sped to intercept the coffin at full impulse, scooping it out of space with a transporter beam that deposited it directly into Sickbay. As the frigid capsule appeared, the temperature in the medical bay plummeted. It was so cold that one of the torpedo's occupants would have been complaining bitterly about the conditions, had she been fully conscious and capable of registering her opinion. The casing seemed to radiate cold the way a sun radiates warmth. This was an illusion, of course. The steam rising from the cold capsule and its covering of frost suggested the truth. The warmth in the air within the ship was being absorbed by the cold torpedo as its molecules sought to vibrate on a parity with its new environment.
A judicious use of the lowest setting on a phaser helped warm the molecules on the capsule's surface. When the coffin was warm enough, it was opened. The corpses within were frozen, but intact. The pressure seal had held. Before they were lifted out, the EMH already had begun the process of bringing the corpses back to temperatures compatible with life, utilizing special blankets and heating units.
Only when the two had been warmed sufficiently were the bodies moved to share a single biobed. It was at this point that Harry entered Sickbay while on a break from the bridge. *They do look like lovers, lying there. I hope we can bring them back*, he thought sincerely. *They look so right together like that*.
His ruminating was interrupted by Seven rushing by, all crisp efficiency, ordering the Doctor around imperiously in his own domain, just the way she had when she was working over Neelix. Harry hid a smile as he watched Borg and EMH dance around the biobed, the Doctor barely able to contain his impatience at being the junior member of the medical team in his own Sickbay once again.
Harry had to return to the bridge to complete his shift, but when he was again off duty, he came down to Sickbay and stood in the corner--out of the way, yet there, in case he was needed. Seven's eyes met his several times. Harry could read them. *Yes, things are going fine, Harry. Relax*.
He nodded slightly. *Message received*.
Sliding out of the bright light. The face. So familiar. *Yes, Pete. Okay, Pete. I'll go, Pete. You don't have to push me now, Pete*.
A sudden deep shuddering, soul deep. Gasping, stunning intake of air. A cough. Two more. A growl. A pair of brown eyes flip open to harsh white lights. A long groan. And then a face swirls into view.
"B'Elanna, welcome back," said Harry, grasping her hand and clenching it tightly.
Hoarsely croaking, "Harry?" several times, B'Elanna finally choked out what she had been trying to get out. "Did you get the warp core back yet?"
"Oh, yeah. We did." *Almost three months ago, but I don't think I want to tell you that yet*.
"B'Elanna," the voice of the captain could be heard, followed closely by that of Chakotay saying the same thing. "Welcome back to the land of the living."
"It's good to be back, Captain," the engineer replied, hoarsely. "I'll get on the warp core as soon as the Doctor lets me out of here."
The captain looked up at Harry and smiled. "It's under control, B'Elanna. All fixed while you were . . . unconscious. Lieutenant Carey and your staff took care of it."
"Calibrations . . . "
"Are all done, B'Elanna. When you've got your strength back, you can check up on us," reassured Harry.
B'Elanna moved her head from side to side, as if negating the idea that anyone other than she herself could properly calibrate her warp engines. The movement of her head brought something within her field of vision, however. Suddenly pulling hard on the hand of the young operations officer, she raised herself to a sitting position and stared at the biobed next to her, where Seven and the EMH were working over Tom's body. His still, motionless, waxy-faced body.
Then her eyes flicked further back, to the opened photon torpedo casing beyond Tom's bed.
Whipping her head around to the captain, B'Elanna whispered, "Tom, is he . . . "
Harry watched his captain. Doubt, concern, deliberation, acceptance. Sympathy. Each, in turn, could be seen cascade across her face. "Yes, Tom's dead. Seven is trying to revive him with her Borg nanoprobes."
"Her what?!" B'Elanna's voice ascended several decibels as she swung her legs off the biobed. Harry and Chakotay each seized one of her arms while Neelix, who had been watching the proceedings from the edge of Tom's bed, approached B'Elanna to stand next to the captain.
"Her nanoprobes. They brought me back to life. You, too." Neelix patted B'Elanna's hand comfortingly as he spoke.
"I have that Borg's . . . things running around inside of me right now?" shouted B'Elanna. "Get them out of me, Captain!" There was a desperate note in her voice.
Sighing, the captain admitted, "We can't do that yet, B'Elanna. You'll need them for some time to come to work on repairing the damage to your body from your death."
"My death? You mean the Doctor needed that Borg to help resuscitate me, too? Why?" B'Elanna looked down at her body, studying her limbs and body as if to make sure that everything that should be there still was.
For several seconds there was an awkward silence. "What's wrong? What's going on?" asked B'Elanna. Her voice was stronger now, almost normal in volume and only slightly hoarse. "And what about Tom? What's happened to him?"
At the sound of panic in her engineer's voice, the captain reluctantly told her, "B'Elanna, there isn't anything really wrong with you. It's simply taken a much longer time than usual to resuscitate you. That's why the Borg nanoprobes were necessary."
"How long was I--I guess I was dead, right?"
After another pregnant pause, Janeway calmly stated, "Eighty-eight days."
B'Elanna did not scream in shock or howl in protest. Her eyes stared into her captain's, searching for the truth. She found it. The only words she uttered were, "And Tom? Will he be all right?"
"Seven is doing all she can."
B'Elanna's hand tightened on Harry's wrist as her eyes bored into his. He winced slightly as he said, "It's going to be okay. Seven's done this before, with Neelix. See, he's fine. You're fine. So Tom is going to be fine, too."
Her face turned back to where Tom was lying, as still as death. Across B'Elanna's countenance paraded another chain of thoughts--no, this time they were emotions. Every single feeling Harry had perceived in the data chip message she'd left behind for him was visible on her face as she murmured something he'd never expected to hear B'Elanna Torres say. "If he isn't fine, Harry, I'm going to be sorry you brought me back. I don't want to be here without him. Not any more."
The vigil was long. Several times Seven confidently announced, "He should be reviving now," but there was no flicker of life in the Tom-figure lying immobile on the biobed.
B'Elanna finally insisted that the EMH allow her out of bed so she could pace. No caged feline ever stalked the wild any more intently than B'Elanna Torres did Sickbay that day. Several times when she came within a meter of where Seven was working, Harry was sure he heard a low growl emanating from that general direction.
The fourth time Seven pronounced that her patient should be reviving, something did happen: a shuddering intake of breath, a wheezing gasp, and then several coughs in quick succession. The first was shallow, the next few deeper, until the last two were deep, from far inside Tom's body. At the first sound, B'Elanna was there, hovering over the pilot. He literally coughed into her face, but she did not move away.
Finally, his chest was raising and lowering at an even pace. The coughing stopped, but his eyes did not open right away. Then, a fluttering of lids could be seen. As his head shook from side to side the lids opened to reveal the aquamarine eyes of Thomas Paris, casting about for only a split second before fastening their gaze upon the face of the one hanging over him. His left hand arose unsteadily from where it had been stretched out by his side. Clumsily, his hand made contact with B'Elanna's chin. It was almost a slapping motion, but B'Elanna did not cringe or become hostile. Instead, she grabbed the hand as it tried to contact her again and laid it carefully at the side of her cheek.
"Welcome back, Tom," she said.
One of his quirky half-smiles spread across his lips. "Guess we cheated death again, huh?" he rasped softly.
"Yeah, looks like we did," she answered.
His eyes drifted closed again. B'Elanna glared at Seven and the Doctor before being reassured by the EMH, "He's just fallen asleep, Lieutenant Torres. Mr. Paris doesn't have all of those redundant Klingon systems to fall back on like you do. He's coming along quite nicely, actually. Excellent work, Seven."
If B'Elanna Torres still cared about the means of her revival, it was no longer apparent. Insisting that a chair be drawn up next to Tom's biobed, B'Elanna sat as close to Tom as she could, refusing to allow her hand to be separated from his. All of the Doctor's admonishments to return to her own biobed to rest were of no avail. As Janeway and Chakotay quietly left Sickbay, the chief engineer of *Voyager* and the chief helmsman, for far too long away from the ship on detached duty, remained where they were while the helmsman slept.
In a soft voice so as not to wake up Tom, B'Elanna demanded to be told about all that had happened. Between Harry, Seven, and the EMH, B'Elanna learned where she had spent the last eighty-eight days and why a single torpedo casing sat in Sickbay. She absorbed it all with a calm that astonished Harry. Even the details of her resurrection were accepted in silence. After a time, Harry saw what was happening. For every painful revelation, the sleeping pilot's hand was gently squeezed and his chest was studied intently. His even breathing was her tether. She was alive. So was he.
Eventually, even B'Elanna's redundant Klingon systems were unable to keep her from falling asleep, with one arm flung over Tom while the other still held his hand. After a hurried consult codn with the Doctor, Harry and Seven of Nine fetched a few ordinary pillows from ship's stores and propped them around the chief engineer so she would not fall. They were careful to leave B'Elanna's head where it rested upon Tom's chest, with her hand as it was, clasped over his.
::::Everything is going well, Captain. Both of our lost lambs are sleeping the slumber of the righteous::::
"Glad to hear it, Doctor. Let us know if there's any change. And if there are *any* questions *at all* of a metaphysical nature, I want you to contact Commander Chakotay and me immediately. We don't want a repeat of Mr. Neelix's experience."
::::I believe that Seven and I are better able to deal with those issues this time. After what B'Elanna said to Harry, I don't think there'll be any danger unless we lose one of them. That doesn't seem likely at the moment. They're both doing well.::::
"Keep me informed. Janeway out."
"The Doctor seems to have been dipping into some poetic literature again."
She chuckled at her companion's comment as she shifted her position in bed to delicately trace his sharply defined mouth with her pinkie. "Well, with B'Elanna back to monitor his program again, I'm not going to be too concerned. She knows how far he can go before purging his memory banks of clutter. Lieutenant Carey's gotten pretty good at it, too. Has he said anything to you about his impending demotion, Chakotay?"
"Only that he's happy to step aside, under the circumstances. I understand everyone in Engineering cheered when word was announced that B'Elanna was awake. I don't think the transition will be too difficult. I've already told Carey about the commendation we're planning to put into his record about his service. It'll be good for his career when we get back home."
"Oh, so now we're getting home in time for this trip to be a good career move? I'm glad you're so confident, Commander."
"Very confident," he whispered with a smile, nuzzling her ear and pulling her on top of him. "Now that Seven's bringing people back from the dead, can a successful transwarp conduit experiment be that far behind?"
"So, you aren't so sorry now that we kept my 'pet Borg' on board?"
"No, she's been fitting in fine." His chuckle bounced her body against his. "Harry's been doing a wonderful job making her part of the team. Haven't you noticed?"
"Oh, I've noticed, Commander Chakotay. I've also noticed you seem to have gotten over your aversion to crew fraternization," she teased.
His voice became serious. "I have. How about you? Are you worried about what Starfleet is going to say about a female captain having a relationship with her first officer?"
"The days when Starfleet didn't name women to command vessels are long gone, Chakotay, and no one seems to have questioned Captain Kirk about his relationships with anyone. Or should I say, with everyone! If they aren't ready for this, then maybe it's time they got ready, isn't it." This last was not a question.
"Aye, aye, Captain," he said heartily, prompting another laugh. Still, there was something more she needed to say.
Kathryn halted his questing hands for a moment, saying, quietly, in a solemn tone of voice, "I'm so glad you're here to talk with me about this."
At her changed mood, he met her eyes, "Kathryn?"
"I still feel guilty, Chakotay. When Neelix was killed in the nebula? When you sent me that message over the comm when you were back on board, all I could think of was how grateful I was that it wasn't you lying dead."
"I can understand that. That's the reason I called. I wanted to let you know about Neelix, of course, but I needed to hear your voice, too--and to let you hear mine. I knew you'd be worried."
"Thank you for thinking of that. It's so . . . sobering, knowing that next time, it really might be you. I could send you off on a much more innocent kind of mission than that one and have it turn out all wrong. Maybe we shouldn't have started being with each other again like this. It will make it so much harder if it does happen . . ." There was more to that thought, but for several seconds, her eyes was overflowing, as was her heart, with feelings she did not even want to think about, let alone say.
He moved his hands up to her face, his thumbs gently smoothing away the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. "Then there's something I need to tell you now, Kathryn, just in case 'next time' ever comes. I wouldn't trade one second of the time we've had together for a longer life without you, not even the time we spent arguing over scorpions or Borg or anything else that's come our way the last few years! None of us ever knows when time will end for us while it goes on for everyone else. I treasure you. You are my best friend and my love; but before anything else, you are my captain. If the worst does happen, forgive yourself, Kathryn. Because I will."
"Thank you," she murmured. There was so much more she could have said after this, should have said, perhaps--yet so little she could put into words at that moment.
Instead, she laid her head on his chest over his heart, listening to its steady thump, hoping she would never be responsible for its ceasing to beat. Of course, he was right. She had accepted the heavy responsibility of making the hard decisions for a ship and its crew a long time ago, when she first had accepted the promotion to captain. Whatever it took to keep the majority of her people safe, that was what she would do, even if he were the sacrifice. She knew it, and so did he. His voicing of his acceptance of this fact was a precious gift. She accepted it gratefully, and with love.
Her love. How amazing life was. So many tragic, insane, and hysterically funny things had happened since she had entered the Badlands in search of this man over three years agce oeaning to make him her prisoner. And here he was, in a way, her prisoner--as she was his. Their hearts and souls were in each other's keeping.
Her mind wandered ahead, anticipating their arrival home. The political question with the Maquis--where did that stand now? Kathryn wanted to get home to clear the names of all the Maquis crew and of Tom Paris, certainly, but more importantly, to bring her people back to the families they'd left behind.
To everyone they'd left behind.
She hoped that Mark had moved on with his life by now. She certainly had. If not, there was unfinished business for her when she finally did get back. But, if transwarp conduits or some other miraculous invention turned out not to be an option, they still might be a couple of generations away from getting home to the Alpha Quadrant. Thinking about a journey generations in length brought to mind a different kind of family. Young families.
Her train of thought was disrupted by the pair of hands wandering down from her face. His intention was clear: to bring his captain back to a more personal, pleasurable matter than the one consuming her attention. Before she allowed herself to indulge in his touch, however, Kathryn came to a decision about her future, a decision that would impact greatly upon the life of the man who was touching her so intimately. Breathing deeply, she broached the subject.
"Chakotay, we need to make sure there are enough crew members available for duty assignments when they're needed--even if we need them twenty-five years from now. We may have gotten our chief engineer and helmsman back today, but that doesn't mean we'll be so lucky next time."
"I'm always ready to discuss crew personnel matters with you, Kathryn."
She smiled at the playful tone in his voice. As usual, he seemed to be keeping up with her. "I'm open for suggestions."
"Good, because I've got a few suggestions for you. Do you want them in writing, or can I just demonstrate?"
"Showing is always better than telling, isn't it?"
He stirred slightly. Vague memories were coming back to him. Floating. Darkness. Tinny voices talking about space walks and Academy classes and stubborn, domineering pigs. Forgiveness. A revelation. A shocked reaction, and then acceptance. Some things were not ever meant to be. Arms clasped around each other, bulky suits getting in the way of the kiss he wanted to share with her. A last kiss.
Peace. A drifting off, or a falling down, or falling up--or was it sideways? Who knew? Hovering in a long tunnel, headed towards a bright light. A figure, blocking the end, motioning him not to come any further. Standing in the tunnel of bright light for so long, so long. The face. It was Pete. Pete Durst, his face whole again, saying, "Not now, Tom. It isn't time yet. Go back." Gasping for breath. Gasping, gasping . . .
A sudden pulling in of air. Oxygen. Blessed, blessed oxygen. His eyes were still closed, but even though he knew it must be an illusion, he imagined he could feel that wonderful stuff rushing into his lungs with every breath. He was conscious as he so seldom was of the rise and fall of his own chest, the pulse thrumming in his neck. And weight. Not weightlessness, but blessed, blessed weight. His own body, and another body--or at least, an arm, thrown over his waist. Something was on his chest. His hand was clasped in that of another. A warm hand. Bare skin to bare skin. No gloves.
Cautiously he opened his eyes. Sickbay. Again.
Tom turned his head. The weight lying on his chest was the head of B'Elanna Torres. Her hand grasped his firmly, even though she was asleep. She was sitting in a chair, propped up with pillows, leaning against him. B'Elanna Torres. Sleeping with him--sort of. Finally.
He drew his right hand over his body to gently cup the back of her head. Her hair was surprisingly soft to the touch. Idly, Tom wondered i way had been her Klingon mother or human father who had bequeathed to her that thick but silky hair he lovingly touched.
She stirred slightly but did not waken. Enjoying her closeness, Tom let his mind wander back. Obviously, they'd been rescued. He hadn't really believed they would be. There was something he needed to remember now, since they'd been saved. What was it? What had they been talking about? Just before breathing became so painful, and he had patted her on the back, and they had . . .
It came back. What she'd said to him in those last moments, when they'd both accepted that they were going to die on the Klingon Day of Honor. Her last honorable act, to admit something to him. Something important. Something stunning.
His hand moved a little more roughly over her hair as he remembered.
She stirred again, this time moving her head from side to side against him. Her hand tightened upon his as she sighed into his chest; her eyelids fluttered open. He saw her freeze suddenly, then raise her head so that her eyes could look into his face. As he returned her gaze, he knew he should say something; but for the life of him, he couldn't think what it should be.
B'Elanna pulled herself back and tried to extricate her hand from his. He wouldn't let her. Finally, a word came to him to say. "Wait."
She looked at him, but reluctantly, as if she wanted to run away from him. A stab of pain invaded his chest. Suddenly, he knew. It hadn't really been the truth. The honorable act may not have been what he thought it was, but he had to know.
"B'Elanna . . . "
"I know. We need to talk."
"Yes, we do. I think I remember something. I don't know, maybe it was some kind of hallucination, but I thought you said something to me out there, in space. I know that maybe it was from oxygen deprivation, and we were literally seconds from death . . . "
"Actually, we did die, Tom."
"Well, unless this is a very strangewildsion of Paradise, we aren't dead now. So, I mean, well, I know you said that . . . you loved me. But I guess you really didn't . . . you didn't mean it."
"Oh, I meant it, all right. But that's okay. You don't have to reciprocate, or anything. In fact, let's just forget I ever said anything about . . . "
He felt himself becoming lightheaded, suffused with joy. "Shut up," he ordered, as he felt her try to pull away from him. Her babbling ceased abruptly as he dragged her the rest of the way onto the biobed and gathered her into his arms. When her mouth came within reach he fastened onto it in a deep, satisfying kiss--the one he'd been longing to give her ever since he'd forced himself to stop kissing her in the gallicite mines, knowing if he didn't, he would lose control--when she'd confronted him with suppressed feelings that he couldn't bring himself to believe--when he'd admitted his own hopeless longing for her, foolishly, he had thought then. Now, he only felt foolish he'd waited so long to give her this kiss. Their bodies collapsed against each other. They fit so well together. How could he have been so stupid not to force the issue before?
His thoughts and the kiss were both interrupted by the Doctor. "I'm detecting elevated hormonal levels. If you two don't take it easy, I'll have to declare a medical emergency." The EMH waved a medical diagnostic probe officiously over the two of them, although he did not appear at all concerned. The hormone readings were telling him very clearly that the two sharing the same biobed were very much alive and doing remarkably well, as their present activity was illustrating beautifully.
B'Elanna snorted. "Doctor, we were dead! How much more of a medical emergency can there be?"
"You mean we really were dead?" Tom stared into her face, frankly unbelieving.
"Yes, for three months. They buried us together, in that."
He turned his head to stare at the torpedo casing before finally saying, "Good thing they put us together. It must have saved them time when they came back to find us." He turned back to her and continued, "Lieutenant, I think I need a thorough debriefing."
She arched her eyebrows and said, "You've got that right, Lieutenant." With her mouth lowered next to his ear she added, in a whisper, "I need to fill you in on a lot of the details, too."
Even a whisper was detectable by the EMH, who rolled his eyes melodramatically. "Not in here, Lieutenants. Save that for your quarters. Talk only, for the next few hours. Then, we'll see if your hearts are ready for more strenuous activities."
B'Elanna glared back at the Doctor for a second before defiantly stretching herself out on the biobed next to Tom. Tight quarters, but, as they could see from the torpedo casing, they'd been sharing tight quarters for quite a while. Settling in next to him and speaking in a hushed voice, B'Elanna explained to Tom just how they'd spent their last three months.
Harry peered into Sickbay, which was fairly crowded, considering the fact that the only patients there were being discharged. He came in anyway. He had a task to perform to justify his being there. It might be stretching the point, but it was enough for Harry. He was fairly certain it would be enough of an excuse for Tom and B'Elanna--and for Seven, too.
As he approached the Doctor's office, Harry could hear Seven explaining to Tom and B'Elanna of the need to monitor their nanoprobe levels over the next few weeks to make sure that the relapse which had afflicted Neelix when his nanoprobe level fell suddenly during the Prixin festivities did not occur. "You must be very careful what you eat. You must avoid foods heavily spiced with Talaxian seasonings."
"We'll do our best to follow that order. Neelix, you don't mind, do you?" asked Tom, with a slight grin. Harry had no doubt his friend wanted to yell, "Alleluia," but wouldn't, not wishing to hurt Neelix's feelings.
The Talaxian shrugged his shoulders. "And I had some wonderful dishes planned for your 'Welcome Home' party, too. I'll just have to hold off on them until you're ready."
"You won't have to worry about running out of rations, even though you'll be needing to replicate meals for quite a while. I've authorized the allotment recommended for medical recuperation periods, as a matter of course; but you're also being credited with the rations you should have gotten while you were on your . . . away mission, let's call it," the captain said, sharing a warm look with her first officer, who stood across the room from her. It was odd, but even though they were standing some distance from each other, Harry could swear they were linked in some way. Very strange.
Harry suddenly realized he had the perfect opening to complete the task he was using as his excuse for being in Sickbay. "About your possessions--you'll need to replicate some clothing and personal articles, but we saved most of your things. I just put the crates into your quarters so you can unpack. Uh, Tom. Some of your off duty casual clothes were 'borrowed' by a few of us while you were gone. I hope you don't mind."
"Don't mind at all, as long as I get them back," he laughed.
"Did you return B'Elanna's bat'telh to her quarters safely?" Chakotay's eyes danced.
"My bat'telh! You saved that?" B'Elanna's expression suggested that the crew would have done her a favor by losing, breaking, or otherwise disposing of it.
"Maybe we can start following a Klingon workout plan, to get back into shape, B'Elanna. After all, our muscles have just been lying there frozen for all those months."
B'Elanna shot Tom a baleful look, but Seven was the one who interjected, "That will not be necessary. The nanoprobes have compensated for your lack of activity." After noting Harry's expression, Seven added, "You may find such a regimen beneficial for your future physical conditioning, of course." Harry thought he detected the barest of smiles from Seven as he nodded approvingly at her response to his nonverbal hint. He glanced over at the Doctor and caught his grin. Seven's social skills training was coming along very well!
Commander Chakotay walked over to the captain but addressed all of those in the room. "I need to get back to the bridge. Before I go, I want you to know that if you want to talk about this experience, *please* come to me, or to the captain, right away. We're happy to get you back. We don't want to lose you again!"
"The commander is correct. Anything you want to talk about, just ask." Although both seemed a bit confused, Tom and B'Elanna responded to their commanders' comments affirmatively.
"Good. Now, I need to get back to the bridge myself."
After the captain and the commander paced out of Sickbay together, Tom turned to Harry. "What was that all about?"
"Oh, it's about me, Tom. Didn't anyone tell you about my trouble?" asked Neelix.
"You mean how you almost died a second time during the Prixin celebration?"
"Not that. About my suicide attempt."
"Your what?!!" Tom and B'Elanna both looked aghast at Neelix.
"After I almost died a second time, I asked Commander Chakotay to take me on a spirit quest. I was upset because I didn't see what I expected after my death. There was no Guiding Tree. No family waiting. It's all just a myth. But when my spirit quest didn't go very well, I wasn't honest with the commander about what I'd seen. If it weren't for Naomi and Samantha Wildman, I probably wouldn't even be here now. So Commander Chakotay's been counseling me about my experiences ever since, trying to help me get back my perspective. He's very good at it. I'm sure he can help you, too. Although I'm not sure you have any after-death myths to worry about, since you're both human. Or half-human . . . I'm sorry B'Elanna . . . I don't know enough about Klingon beliefs. I should have researched them!"
Neelix took a deep breath as if he were going to continue, but the Doctor intervened. "I'm sure they both want to hear all about your experiences and your myths, Mr. Neelix, but right now I'm trying to discharge them from my care. Some other time, perhaps."
"No, Doctor, I think I want to talk about it now," said Tom. "What was it exactly you expected to see, Neelix?"
Neelix quickly ran through the legends of his people, of how the family members that had gone before would be waiting in the Great Forest, to greet him to the Afterlife beneath the Guiding Tree on the ninth day after his death.
B'Elanna quirked an eyebrow at Neelix. "But you weren't dead on the ninth day, I thought. Seven had already brought you back to life by then."
"Nine hours . . . nine days . . . what does it matter?" asked the Talaxian.
"Maybe a lot, Neelix," answered Tom. "I've read about 'out of body' death experiences reported by human beings. You know about them from the medical literature, don't you, Doc? The long corridor, the white light, somebody you know telling you it isn't your time yet . . ."
"Of course, Mr. Paris. What does that have to do with what happened with Mr. Neelix?"
"It happened to me. The classic scenario, with Pete Durst telling me I couldn't come through to the 'other side' yet--but I had to wait a really long time before I came back here!"
"Tom, that happened to you? Pete pushed me away, too!" B'Elanna grabbed at Tom's hand. "But I didn't sense you there with us."
"I couldn't feel you there, either, but I know it happened to me. I remembered it so clearly when I woke up in Sickbay, and I remember it now. So, Neelix, maybe a Talaxian really *does* need to be dead for nine days or whatever it is to see the tree."
Neelix stood between Tom and B'Elanna, his mouth agape. The two lieutenants each grabbed onto one of his arms, prepared to hold him upright if necessary. Neelix looked like he was about to faint. Finally he managed to squeak out, "I guess I'll have to talk a about this with the commander."
"You do that, Neelix," Tom said, kindly. Turning to Harry and Seven, he added, "And I can't thank the two of you enough for talking the captain into coming back for us. I know I've said 'I owe you one' before, Harry, but this is the biggest 'one' there could ever be. Thank you so much for my life, and for B'Elanna's." Something in the way Tom said B'Elanna's name suggested that saving B'Elanna had been far more important to Tom than saving his own life had been.
"Believe me, the pleasure is all mine! It didn't take much to talk the captain into turning around. I can't tell you how good it feels to have both of you back." After saying this, Harry threw his arms around Tom and B'Elanna, giving them both a tremendous hug.
Noticing that Seven was standing awkwardly, several paces away from them, B'Elanna cleared her throat."Seven, I don't know if you'd even want to give me a hug, but I have to say that . . . well. I know we weren't getting along too well before what happened to us . . . happened . . . but, uh, I'd like to say thanks to you and Harry, too. For what you did. Coming back for us, and giving us your nanoprobes so we could be alive again. I really do appreciate it."
Harry stepped aside to allow Seven to be embraced by the ones she'd saved. Seven stayed where she was, nodding slightly in acknowledgment of the gratitude being offered to her, but still rather aloof. *She's surprisingly stand-offish today, considering the progress she's been making lately,* worried Harry. In his happiness at the restored health of his friends, however, Harry didn't think about it for long, setting his concern aside until he had more time to think about it.
"So, Doc, are we discharged now?" asked Tom, breaking the awkward pause that ensued after B'Elanna's comment.
"Yes, Mr. Paris. I'd very much like you and B'Elanna to stop cluttering up my Sickbay. Try to avoid coming back here for a while--except for scheduled duty shifts for medical training, of course."
"Doc! I thought Sam Wildman was working out fine as your nurse. What do you need me for?" moaned Tom.
"She's made excellent progress, but if there's one thing this episode has illustrated beyond question, it's the need to have sufficient backups available to cover in an emergency. Your field medic training at the Academy, along with the little bit of training you permitted me to instill in you when you first came on board *Voyager*, makes you eminently qualified for further medical studies. I'll discuss your assignment with the commander and Captain Janeway after you come back on full duty. And B'Elanna, I'll be seeing you in another week or so for my checkup?"
"Of course, Doctor," B'Elanna said mildly, amusement in her voice.
"There, Mr. Paris. You see? *That* is a perfect example of a good bedside manner. You may benefit from a few lessons from Lieutenant Torres. You haven't ever considered a career in medicine, have you, B'Elanna?"
After seeing the glare on the face of his prospective student, the Doctor did not proceed any further in this line of inquiry. Instead, he smiled knowingly. Everyone in the room (except, probably, for Seven) interpreted it readily. *Bedside manner, right. Smooth, Doc,* thought Harry.
"I think it's time we 'stopped cluttering up' the Doc's Sickbay, don't you think?" said Tom.
It was unanimous. As they filed out of the medical bay and walked to the turbolift, Harry said, "So, Tom, B'Elanna. How would you like to come down to the mess hall with us for a little pre-Welcome Home Party celebration?" Harry bobbed his head to include Seven and Neelix in his invitation.
"Thanks for the offer, Harry, but since I've got all these replicator rations to spend, I think I'll use some of them to catch a bite in my quarters. I plan on spending the evening quietly. I've got some unpacking to do."
"Me, too," B'Elanna agreed.
"That'll be all right with all of you, won't it?" asked Tom.
"Sure, we understand, don't we, Seven?" The Borg woman, standing close enough to Harry for their shoulders to touch, nodded her head ever so slightly in agreement.
B'Elanna added, "Maybe we can all meet at breakfast tomorrow morning?"
"I'll make sure it's one of my extra special breakfasts," said Neelix, "And there won't be too many spices."
"Breakfast it is, then, at 0700 tomorrow morning, sharp. Gee, it's great to have you back," Harry said with enthusiasm. Busy as he was giving both Tom and B'Elanna another hug before he followed Neelix onto the turbolift, Harry never noticed the change of expression on Seven's face as she watched Harry with of his friends. It did not escape the notice of Tom and B'Elanna, however, who were left standing in the corridor after the turbolift door had closed.
"Did you see that shadow crossing over Seven's face?" asked Tom.
"Yes. I wonder if she's regretting she lent out her nanoprobes to save us," B'Elanna sniffed.
"I don't think that's it. She acts different when Harry's around. Does she seem a little possessive about him to you?"
"I don't know . . . well, maybe," she admitted, grudgingly. "He hasn't had us around for a while, has he? The two of them might have gotten a lot closer to each other while we were gone. Hard to believe, but anything's possible, I guess."
"Speaking of getting closer, Lieutenant Torres. How would you like to come to my quarters so that we can splurge on a . . . private meal."
"I thought you'd never ask, Tom."
Leaving the turbolift, they turned down the corridor to head towards Tom's quarters. Now that the moment had come, both of them were silent. In the back of his mind, Tom prepared himself for the possibility that this was just a dream--perhaps a last illusion before that eternal bright light surrounded him again, this time without a Pete Durst to block the way to push him back towards life. Hesitating a second before the door, wondering if it would recognize him, Tom stretched out his hand and rested it on the plate near the door. Its opening swish was a welcome sound. Tom stood aside to permit B'Elanna to enter before him.
"It's so cold, isn't it? Not like your quarters at all," B'Elanna said as the door closed behind them.
"It'll be better once I get my things back up. Here's the crate." Tom walked over and peered inside to evaluate its contents. "I'll be needing this pretty soon," he grinned, grabbing his blue terry robe and shaking it out. If she were going to change her mind and run to her own quarters, now would be the time.
"Do you think it would be a good idea for me to replicate one? To leave here, I mean," she inquired.
He nodded agreement. "It's not like we don't have plenty of replicator credits."
B'Elanna walked over to the replicator and ordered a robe in her size to match Tom's, along with a few personal products that would be useful to leave in his quarters. Tom tried to control his hammering heart as the implication sank in. *B'Elanna plans to be spending a lot of time here. She'll be waking up here. She really means it.*
Blindly, Tom picked up a few garments of his and hung them up in the closet. No uniforms. He'd have to replicate more of those. Underwear, too. There didn't seem to be any in the crate. *Paris, you're jabbering to yourself,* he admonished. Turning around, he found B'Elanna standing next to him, handing him her new robe to hang away next to his. He looked into her eyes and felt his soul expand until it was an incredibly airy and light presence. So many dark demons he had been carrying around for far too long were banished by the intense look in those dark eyes.
"So, you want something to eat?" *Terrific start, Paris.*
"Yes, I do, Tom, but don't you want to get comfortable first?" The intense look in her eyes became predatory, and a seductive growl entered her voice.
A slow grin spread from one side of his face to the other. Taking her into his arms, he began to kiss her eyes and forehead. Gradually, he led her to his bed and sat down on the edge, with B'Elanna more in his lap than on the bed. The movements of their hands and lips became more insistent as they explored each other with a hunger that could be assuaged in only one way. There was no doubt in either of their minds that, at long last, that hunger would be sated.
B'Elanna startled suddenly when Tom pulled away from her, although he still held her within the circle of his arms. She looked quizzically at him, reaching up to touch the tear forming at the corner of his eyes. He'd felt his eyes sting in the gallicite mines, although he'd managed to avoid actually having a visible tear in his eyes then. Not that Tom cared about displaying what could be considered a sign of weakness to her--he suspected his face already betrayed the same vulnerability he'd felt then.
The look of confusion on her face lasted for only a few seconds more, however. It cleared when he grazed his fingers over her lips before brushing the tips up to stroke the sides of her face tenderly. The briefest of smiles lit her face, in recognition.
"I wanted to touch you like this so badly, out there," he whispered. "I couldn't. The helmets . . ."
She nodded. B'Elanna understood.
The sounds in the mess hall were different today, Harry thought. A glance in the cook's direction gave him a clue. Neelix's smile was brighter than he'd seen it at any time for over three months. First Kes, then Tom and B'Elanna had left. Neelix himself had died, only to return to life with his most cherished personal beliefs torn asunder. Now, that Tom and B'Elanna had given him some hope that perhaps his beliefs weren't so foolish after all, and with all that had happened in the last few weeks--could Kes' return be very far behind?
"Ensign Kim, Seven, what can I get you?" the Talaxian inquired genially as Harry and his companion approached.
"Which of these foods have been spiced the least?" Having learned under Harry's tutelage a few necessary defenses regarding the intake of food prepared in Neelix's kitchen, Seven poked a few pieces of fruit in a bowl inquisitively. "What do these taste like? I cannot recall seeing them offered for consumption before."
"Nice and sweet, Seven. I'm sure you'll just love them for dessert. They go especially well with my Pleeka Rind casserole."
"I thought I smelled that. I'd love some, Neelix," enthused Harry.
"This Pleeka Rind casserole is . . . palatable?" Seven said hesitantly.
"Oh, yeah, Seven. Haven't you tried it yet? It's one of Neelix's best recipes. Uh, I don't mean any offense, Neelix . . . "
"None taken, Ensign Kim. Everyone has favorites. It doesn't mean you don't like the rest of my cooking."
Seven and Harry exchanged glances before Seven exhaled deeply and asked for a plate of Pleeka Rind casserole.
The buzz in the room increased as the two took their seats. Lieutenants Rollins and Ayala, Ensigns Brooks, Lang, and Nicoletti, and Crewmen Chell, Stanton, and Dalby, all stopped by to inquire about Tom and B'Elanna. The answer from Seven of Nine was always succinct and identical. "Both are alive and well."
Between bites of Pleeka Rind casserole--which, Seven allowed, was "a reasonably inoffensive comestible"--she asked Harry, "Not many of the crew have approached me previously when I've ingested a meal. Why are so many of the crew addressing me today?"
"They're all grateful to you for what you did for Tom and B'Elanna. That's not surprising. Tom and B'Elanna are very popular and important to *Voyager*. Everybody missed them. It's a miracle that you've brought them back. They want to thank you. And, I guess they're all thinking that you'd do the same for them if they died in the future."
"Of course I would. But I was only performing a function which I have the capacity to fulfill. Why should I require any special attention for having done what is essentially my duty?"
"Maybe you don't 'require' special attention, Seven. But doesn't it feel good?"
The partially Borg woman stared out into the field of stars behind Harry's head, considering this question. Feeling good. "That is a very human response."
"You're human. Mostly."
A wisp of an emotion crossed her face, but it was not one Harry would have expected to see. Pride, pleasure, a sense of accomplishment--none of these were evident. He could not even sense any of her unique, subtle sense of humor.
"Seven, what's the matter? I thought you'd be happy with what you've done, whether it's something you expected of yourself or not. Tom and B'Elanna aren't going to spend the rest of eternity floating dead in their coffin! Don't you feel good about that?"
The Borg appliance accented the eye that bored into him. "They will experience a very short lifetime even under optimum conditions and then spend the rest of eternity dead, Ensign Kim. Perhaps together, perhaps apart. With the Borg, in the event that a drone dies, the drone's consciousness remains immortal as part of the Collective."
"Yes, that's true. We aren't immortal, like the Borg, but the Borg may not be so immortal either. If another race like Species 8472 comes along and destroys the Collective, even that consciousness will be killed. At least now Tom and B'Elanna will have a chance to experience a life together instead of spending from now to eternity dead. I think if you ask them, you'll find they'd rather have this chance at sharing their individual lives, even if it is only for a short span of time compared to eternity, then sharing their consciousness with the entire Borg Collective."
Seven considered this, finally saying, "Perhaps I will ask them tomorrow at breakfast. Since you asked me how I 'feel,' I will tell you I feel satisfied I will have the opportunity to ask Lieutenants Paris and Torres any questions at all. A few days ago, that would have been impossible. Is that answer sufficient?"
"It is, Seven."
"And you, Ensign? How do you . . . feel . . . about having your friends back?"
"I'm ecstatic!" He was about to go on, but her face changed again. To his eyes, now attuned to Seven's slightest mood, he could perceive the tiny drooping of her mouth at the corners. Her eyes slipped away from meeting his again to stare distantly at the stars over his shoulder. Altering the course of their conversation, he added, "And I feel grateful to you for bringing my friends back to me. I'd hoped you'd be happy about it, too, but I can see you're not. Seven, please, tell me what's bothering you. Can I help?"
She was quiet. Harry tried once again, as he had on so many occasions, to probe inside that beautiful head of hers, to read what was going on within her incredibly complex, technologically augmented brain. He was about to give up and change the subject to some innocuous topic when she said hollowly, "You will be spending much time with them again. They are your best friends."
A warm feeling rolled through Harry from his toes to his head. His right hand strayed to her left, Borg-enhanced hand. Slowly his thumb stroked the visible part of the network of Borg circuitry that was an integral part of her. *A very precious part*, Harry thought, *because she helped bring my friends back. And because it is part of her, as much as any human cell is*. A slow smile widened his mouth as he looked deeply into the soul she had just unknowingly revealed to him.
"Yes, they've been my best friends. But I think they're each other's best friends now. I think I need to look for a new best friend for myself, Seven. Got any ideas about who might suit me?"
Her right, human eyebrow arched very much like Harry had seen her mentor Tuvok do a thousand times as she replied, "I will review the crew manifest with you for candidates, if you wish. What are the search parameters?"
"Oh, how about tall, blonde, intelligent, independent. Spent her childhood with this race that likes to assimilate people. I don't really want to be assimilated by all of them, of course. But a two person Collective sounds about right."
"You wish to be One of Two?"
"Or Two of Two. I'm not fussy."
For the first time, but fortunately, not the last, Harry Kim saw a smile--yes, an actual smile--on Seven of Nine's face. And he smiled back at her.
Burying her head into the shoulder of Tom's robe, B'Elanna sighed contentedly. "This is nice. We should have done this long ago."
"Absolutely. It's not as if I hadn't been trying, you know."
"I know. I was just playing hard to get. Payback for your being so noble in the gallicite mines."
"No noble act ever goes unpunished."
"True. Say, has that wine breathed enough yet for at least a taste?"
"What's your hurry?"
"No hurry, exactly. I know we've got all night." She nipped his cheek playfully, "But I was wondering whether the wine tasted as good as your lips."
His eyes twinkled as he picked up a glass and splashed in a small sample from the open bottle in front of him. "In that case, let me see. Good color. Nice bouquet." Waving the glass beneath his nose, Tom took a small sip and squished it audibly around his mouth, drawing a laugh out of the woman cuddled next to him on his couch. "Mmm. Excellent choice, if I do say so myself. Want a sample?"
Accepting his offering, she sipped a bit. "Umm. Very nice. Now let me do the comparison test." She leaned into his body and kissed him deeply. "Yes. Very nice. It's even better when it's on your lips. I thought so."
He laughed and then said in a low, seductive voice, "You can drink it from my lips all night if that's your pleasure, but I'll get you a glass of your own if you want one."
"You're too good to me."
A noncommittal grunt issued from his throat, but he obligingly poured her some of the golden liquid before pushing himself back into the cushions of his sofa. They both took a few sips of the wine in silent contemplation before Tom remarked, "It seems so strange to think about being dead and buried for three months--not to mention having all those microscopic Borg machines running around in our veins, doesn't it? I keep waiting for some kind of hardware to sprout out of my nose or something."
"That actually happened while we were gone, you know." They had avoided discussing their feelings about being dead before. "Gone" was as graphic as either of them had gotten, although neither had realized their circumspection with one another until now.
"Hardware sprouted out of my nose?"
"No, from Seven's hand . . . Oh, okay, you got me. Walked right into that one, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did."
"I guess if we had a coordinated set of hardware, it wouldn't be so bad," she slipped her hand down to tease the tie of his robe open. He smiled in response.
"Um hmm. Well, I don't care about a few implants as long as I didn't get hooked into the Collective permanently. I prefer being able to reproduce the old fashioned way, thank you very much. Although if it means we'd still be able to make love as spectacularly as we just did, even though we were dead yesterday, I guess I wouldn't mind."
"Is making love all that's ever on your mind, Tom Paris?" she asked him.
"No, but whenever you're here with me like this, it's going to come up fairly often, I do believe." He pressed his lips into her hair as she pulled his robe a bit farther open, a little further down his body.
"I certainly hope so," she said, smirking at his double entendre and enjoying the feel of his hand as it stroked down her back. Her fingers glided down his fuzzy chest, coming to rest upon his belly just above the navel.
He chuckled; but then, for a moment, his voice turned husky and serious. "You know what I said out there? About how I was glad that the last thing I would ever see is you?"
"Yes," she replied, just as seriously.
"I still hope that's the way I'm going to go, when I have to go." He sighed, then tightened his arms around her. "I just hope it won't be for a very long time."
"Me too, Tom." She kissed him gently, before adding, "And as bad as the Day of Honor always seems to go for me, I hope I'm going to see a whole lot more of them, together with you."
"I'll do my best to have them go better for you from now on."
B'Elanna snuggled more closely into his arms. Their embrace was close, intensified by the feel of their bodies exposed to the touch of two pairs of roaming hands. His long fingers gently traced the side of her face. Responding to his caress, B'Elanna bent her head back and bared her throat to his exploring lips.
They kissed again, knowing where it would lead, happily following the path they had chosen--celebrating life, which was more precious today than it had ever been for either of them before, for so many reasons.
A vast field of stars glistened through the viewport of Tom's quarters, faintly illuminating the pair twisting on the sofa. The clear viewport blockaded them away from the cold, inhospitable vacuum of space. Tom and B'Elanna, protected inside the shell of *Voyager*, breathed deeply of the ship's friendly atmosphere as they enjoyed the sensuous feel of her skin sliding across his in loving, intimate contact.
And infinite Space stayed outside, where it belonged.
Return to Meandering With Jamelia in the Delta Quadrant
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