The Rose and the Yew Tree

THE ROSE AND THE YEW TREE

by Peg Robinson and Little Otter. c. 1997

Overture: Janeway

“Reader, I married him.”

That’s where it’s supposed to start, isn’t it? It’s a good line. I’ve
always loved it, ever since I read ‘Jane Eyre,’ back in my tormented youth.
Yes, I’m a closet romantic. Why else would I love those holonovels? Even
four-pip-science-officer starship-captains can be romantics, at heart. But
that’s not where this starts.

I know. A woman gets a proposal, the next thing a person would expect to
hear would be her answer. But the man *was* moving a little fast. Even he
knew it, once he got the words out. Proposing after one date?

To our credit, we managed to get past it without too much embarrassment. I
didn’t even laugh at him. If there’s a Book of Virtues being kept in some
“great beyond,” I want that written down to my credit.

After that we did pretty much what you’d expect. Tiptoed around trying to
get used to each other without shaking up the new balance we’d found. Tried
to keep that “first blush of love” headiness going, and found we couldn’t.
Discovered that we pleased each other anyway.

Discovered the crew wasn’t going to have conniptions–at least, not right
away. I had the feeling the whole thing was on probation, as far as they
were concerned. If we made it work, then no problem. If they had to pay the
price for “us”–that would be another thing altogether. On my side, I knew
Tom Paris and Tuvok were both keeping a sharp weather-eye on Chakotay,
ready to disembowel him if I so much as looked peaky one morning. I’m sure
there were some on “his” side of the crew with similar reservations. And
there were a few who, in spite of Delta Quadrant conditions, wanted
“business as usual”–which included “no fraternizing” as the general
standard. But, all in all, folks were willing to wait it out, and see what
happened. Which, in a way, was what Chakotay and I were doing, too.

Otherwise, it was all pretty low-key.

No major explosions. No epic fights. No agonized revelations of hidden
traumas, lurking insecurities, or sordid secrets left out of the personnel
files. Not much in the way of angst. No melodrama.

No good reason why there should be. Starfleet officers may be fruits and
nuts. “Weird” may be what we do. But, all in all, we’re a pretty stable
lot. That is the point, after all: Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan and Isolde
may make good theater; but from Starfleet’s point of view the energy is
better expended on less intimate matters, and the dramatic litter of
corpses should properly be those of armed enemies of the state. The
recruitment officers and counselors generally go out of their way to
discourage the sexually distraught from entering the fleet. They’re funny
that way.

So, by logical extension, when you throw two mature, experienced Starfleet
officers together in a romance, the odds are that no serious drama is
likely to happen. The first months of a happy, consensual relationship just
don’t constitute a story. Not unless something else comes up to complicate
things.

Of course, life being what it is, ‘something else’ is sure to come up,
eventually. In the immortal words of Tom Paris, “Shit *always* happens.”

Murphy rules the universe.

The real story happened later.

————————————————–

————————————————–

Section I: Janeway.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,

Every poem an epitaph. And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

T. S. Eliot, from “Four Quartets: Little Gidding”

We had cameleopards in our cupboards, griffons in the corridors,
bandersnatches under the hatches, heffalumps and woozles in the cargo
holds, jugglers in the hangars, and acrobats performing hand springs in the
middle of Neelix’ cafeteria. We even had an escaped Ztothan slime
serpent–if you can be said to “have” a serpent that has most assuredly
escaped.

There was a darker aspect to it all.

There were the Hakaalt cruisers driving everything before them to the
killing zone. The final showdown with Kilpatrick and Bintar. The refugees.
The dead. The damage to Voyager. The misery of my crew, and the
overcrowding. The illnesses that swept us, and the injuries. The
replicators were down. So were the internal sensors, which was why we
couldn’t find the damned serpent. Life support was looking pretty shaky. We
had more damage than we knew how to deal with.

Voyager was slowly dying; and if she didn’t expire on her own, the Hakaalt
intended to “purify” us in the Waren-Pyre.

It didn’t start that way.

We were about nine weeks out from Abbyzh-dira when it began; twenty-seven
days since leaving orbit around Izary, where we’d parted ways with the
Talaxian caravan.

The first sign of catastrophe came early in the evening, though I didn’t
recognize it at the time. No reason to. It was a quiet night, there were no
indications of trouble. The sector of space we were traversing showed few
signs of being regularly occupied. Most of the warp signatures we’d come
across were old. “Business as usual.” We were breaking in a new officer,
Otheris, at the comm during swing-shift. He was a bit edgy, and that was a
nuisance. The shift crew was holding up, though, even under his unsteady
hand. The rest of us were all just doing the things you do when you aren’t
on duty. It was eight o’clock, and all was well… within reason.

I was getting ready to go to Tuvok’s for a few hours. A welcome relief.

No, I wasn’t angry with Chakotay. Not *angry.* Just…

I stood at the door of my bedroom, sewing bag looped over my shoulder, and
reviewed the disaster of my living area.

The relative sparseness of the furniture in Chakotay’s own quarters had
been deceptive, inclining me to believe the man was neat. I’d learned too
late that he just didn’t own enough stuff to remain cluttered for any
period of time. Take him out of the vast, empty spaces of his own rooms,
and drop him down in my own quarters, with the books, and the mementos, the
decor I’d carefully put together as much as a professional statement as
anything, and the illusion dissolved. Not that I had any particular
inclination to get righteous: my quarters were the way they were because
they weren’t mine–not in the way my house back in Carver was, or even the
way the cottage was. There I’d never thought twice about leaving a towel
drying on the back of a chair, leaving a book or a PADD on an end table,
not clearing away the dishes ten seconds after I’d put my fork down for the
last time. My quarters on Voyager were different: they were *The Captain’s
Staterooms.* A place to invite timid young officers for their first private
evaluation with the captain. A place to hold informal meetings. They were
as much a sign of rank, and part of my professional presence, as my pips
and my readyroom. Maybe that should have changed once it became clear that
those rooms were likely to be my only home for a long, long time. But, as
in many other ways, I’d been slow to change, holding on to the dream of a
fast return that would make all adaptations unnecessary.

Then Chakotay became a regular visitor, and change was thrust upon me.

On the coffee table was a pile of smudge sticks: tight-tied bundles of
herbs for the ceremonies of his tradition. Next to them were piled loose
bundles of the component plants–a treasured horde. The last of his stock
from home, the precious few that Kes had been able to propagate in
aeroponics. Some strange, alien ones he thought might be appropriate, even
if they’d never been heard of by any ancestor known to him. There were
piles of PADDs stacked on any available flat surface, and boxes of memory
chips. His uniform jacket tossed across the back of the sofa. An empty
juice glass on a bookshelf, a plate covered with crumbs at the side of my
desk, along with a mug. Everywhere I looked there was Chakotay-kultch.
Sometimes I felt like we might just as well not have bothered to maintain
separate quarters. His presence was as firmly established as if he’d moved
in; lock, stock, and Chessie.

At my desk, in a pool of lamplight, was the perpetrator of the chaos. He
was staring into the screen of my desk terminal, one knee wedged tight
against the desk edge, forcing the chair to tip so far back I kept waiting
for him to topple over. He had yet another mug braced on his sternum. One
hand idly spooled down pages of blueprints and materiel lists, and he…

He was *doing* it again.

OK. Everyone has little mannerisms. I drink coffee, and pace. It’s human.

Chakotay whistles. Not a bright, chipper, melodic whistle. No. Not him.
When he gets too involved in a “think-project” he’ll start this windy,
wandering, atonal thing, punctuated with rhythmic clicks and even a sort of
drum patter with his fingers. So near as I’ve been able to determine, he’s
not even fully aware of doing it. But it goes on, and on, and on.

All right, it’s not a criminal offense, and most of the time I don’t have
any trouble ignoring it. Sometimes I even enjoy it, as I enjoy the friendly
click and pad of a dog on hardwood floors–a healthy sign of habitation.
Companionship. But other times… other times I want to shake him. That
night was one of those times.

Which was why I was going to Tuvok’s. Sometimes even loving, happy couples
need some time apart.

I settled the strap of my sewing bag more securely on my shoulder, and
crossed to the desk, leaning over to drop a kiss on crisp, cropped hair.
“I’m going, now. I should be back in a few hours.”

For a second I thought he wasn’t even going to notice: he was that deep in
his project. At first the only response I got was “Uhhhuh…” Then the hand
that was free of the mug snaked back, fingers cupped around the back of my
neck, and he drew my head down, turning his face up and brushing his
forehead over my cheek. “OK. Sorry. I’m not much company. You said a few
hours?” He let me go, and let his hand rest on one of mine, where it held
the strap of my sack.

“Mmm-hmm. The usual: tea, music, and the last of the piece-work on the
quilt. I don’t think I’ll be late, but…”

“But you need to get out.” He grimaced at the screen. “I don’t blame you. I
should have set this up in my own quarters, but somehow I didn’t think it
would take this long. ‘Sokay, I won’t be forever. I should be done with
this by the time you’re back–or at least, I should be so sick of it I’ll
be ready to quit for the night. Have fun.”

I chuckled. “I suppose it is fun… in a Vulcan key.” I kissed his head
again, and pulled away. “Don’t let the blueprints drive you too
crazy–there’s time.” I started for the door.

The comm link cheeped. “Otheris to Captain Janeway.”

I stopped in my tracks. One of the drawbacks to being captain: like
doctors, and vets, and firefighters, a call can come at any time. It can
mean anything from a minor update, to a declaration of war. The only
unvarying rule is, if they call, you answer. “Janeway here.”

“Captain, just thought you should know: the sensor readings are picking up
an increase in recent warp signatures. Nothing out of the ordinary. But it
looks like we’re crossing a minor travel route. There have been at least
five ships through here in the last three days.”

“Any signs of ships nearby? Hails, territory markers, observation probes?”

“Not so far. Want me to run long-range sensor sweeps?”

Otheris was a youngster: only six years out of the Academy, only his second
extensive duty post. If it weren’t for the circumstances, we wouldn’t have
been asking him to hold the bridge–he was still pretty green. But he’d
been doing well. He just needed a bit more hand-holding than an older, more
experienced officer might. Some nights were worse than others. My policy so
far had been to let it ride, and give him the reassurance he needed. “Good
move, lieutenant. Do it. Anything else?”

“No, captain. Otheris out.”

“No rest for the wicked.” Chakotay sounded amused.

I glared at him–or tried to. “There’d better be, or I’m giving you the con
tomorrow morning and sleeping in.”

“Want me to have a word with Otheris about overdoing the updates? That one
wasn’t strictly necessary.”

“No, ‘Abba.’ Give him time. Anyway, I’d have wanted to know soon enough.
Wouldn’t you, when you held Crazy Horse?”

He shrugged, and grinned. “Different situation. We just think there may be
folks who’d want to shoot us. Back in the Maquis, I knew any ship was
likely to shoot first, collect a reward afterward.”

I turned, and headed back towards the door. As I stepped out, I shot back,
“Sounds like you were well and truly chased after. You must have loved it,”
and we shared as grin as the door closed.

I seemed to have a dozen interruptions on the way. Magda, Tom, Anyas.
Another call from Otheris, this one simply to confirm an order I’d placed
in the log earlier in the day. I began thinking maybe I would take Chakotay
up on his offer to have a word with him. It’s nice to know your officers
have an edge–but honed that fine, they can snap. He had to relax a bit.

Then Chaim and Cherel tagged me in the corridor outside Neelix’s, asking if
I wanted to sit in on a ‘jam session’–mostly Chaim’s beloved 20th Century
“rock music.” I passed, but pointed out that Tom was the real 20th Century
aficionado on ship–and had as good or better a voice as I did.

I stopped at Neelix’s to pick up a bowl of fruit as a guest gift, knowing
Tuvok would have made an extra effort for me.

But finally I was safe in Tuvok’s “Vulcan away from Vulcan.”

He already had a pot of spice tea brewed, a little table set out for me by
the sofa, and music pouring out of the speakers: a piece I was unfamiliar
with, though I suspected it was one of the rare Rihannsu pieces to slip out
of the Romulan Empire into the Federation. It had that odd feeling of being
passionate, and yet still, somehow, rather Vulcan.

As he took my offering of fruit, I settled in the sofa with a relieved
sigh. “I was beginning to think I wasn’t getting here. Life was easier when
I didn’t have all these connections with the crew. I’d make up my mind,
grab my things, leave my quarters–and be where I was headed in five
minutes or less. Now? Between Chakotay, and Otheris, and chats with half
the rest of the crew, it’s all I can do to get here in half an hour. I
thought I’d never escape.”

Tuvok poured out a cup of tea for each of us, dark eyes evaluating me, not
as discretely as he thought. “You felt in need of escape?”

I chuckled as I took the cup, and took my first sip. “Yes and no.
Chakotay’s working on the family quarters expansions–and he’s turned my
place into a mess. Nothing serious. Just ‘settling in blues.’ If it were
serious I’d deal with it. I just hope Paris doesn’t catch on I ever need
‘time off’ from Chakotay. I’d be afraid he’d jump to conclusions. I think
he’d wring Pesh’s neck in a second, if he thought he was causing me any
grief.”

Tuvok frowned, slightly.

I looked up at him, relaxing my shoulders and enjoying the dim, familiar
exoticism of Vulcan decor. “It’s just a figure of speech.”

He nodded. “I am aware of that, captain.” He sat at a table of his own,
where he had his gardening tools out, and several pots of orchids arrayed
for work. Without looking at me, he said quietly, “If I didn’t believe it
to be unnecessary, I would make the offer myself.”

I had to laugh. “You and Tom are something else. I’m not sixteen, and
Chakotay’s not some rake from out of one of my holonovels. We’re fine.
Just–”

“Just settling in.”

I looked up at him, and smiled. There was a hint of amused, rueful
nostalgia in his face. “Yes.” I thought about the expression on his face,
trying to figure out what the wry mockery was about–then laughed. “As I
recall, T’Pel had a few things to say about your first months together.”

His voice was prim, but his eyes laughed. “I’m sure she did, captain. She
certainly had some things to say to me, at the time.”

I grinned, and Tuvok came as close as he ever does. T’pel had been quite
tart about it, to tell you the truth. The comment I best remembered was to
the effect that it was easier to housebreak a sel’hat than to civilize a
husband. Having met both her husband and her sel’hat, I’d always felt she’d
done a rather good job on both.

The comm link beeped. Again. I knew before I tabbed it on, but…

“Janeway here.”

“Otheris, captain.”

Obviously. “Yes, lieutenant?”

“Um, just wanted to let you know that we’re picking up some high energy
traces on the sensor sweeps.”

I closed my eyes, trying to fight down frustration. “Can you be a bit more
exact?”

His voice was abashed. “Well, it could be a lot of things. One of the ships
could have vented its drives, they could have been taking practice shots at
space junk. We’ve picked up traces of atomized metallics.”

“Have you picked up indications of any sentient life forms currently
present? Any anomalies, any signs of traps or passive weaponry? Any
indication that there’s any threat to the ship?”

“No, captain.”

“Then I tell you what: why don’t you keep up the long-range sweeps, and in
the meantime have ops run an analysis on the energy patterns and
particulate matter. It can’t hurt; and, even if it isn’t anything, it’s
good practice.”

“Very good, captain. I’ll keep you informed. Otheris out.” He was off the
line before I could suggest that, all in all, I’d as soon he *didn’t* keep
me informed until he had something a lot less nebulous to pass on.

Tuvok cleared his throat. “It would appear that Lieutenant Otheris is being
a bit–overzealous tonight? Do you wish me to speak with him?”

“No. I want to give him a little more time to settle it out for himself.
And Chakotay’s already made the offer. If I decide Paddy needs special
handling, it’s really his job.”

Tuvok wasn’t entirely pleased–he still wasn’t completely happy that
Chakotay had been fully ‘activated.’ I think he secretly longed for the
second seat, among other things. And, for so long, he was my right hand–my
most trusted officer. Sometimes, my only trusted officer. It was hard for
him to see me share that trust with anyone. But he’s logical. And decidedly
professional. And he does respect Chakotay, in his own way. Sometimes he
even likes him. He nodded, and let it go.

We were quiet, then, for a time. I bent over my sewing, Tuvok worked on his
orchids. The music played, changed, and played again. For a while the
mountain-rill, new-green-haunted notes of Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring”
filled the room.

After weeks of the disconcerting intimacy of my new relationship with
Chakotay, it was a pleasant change. Placid and undemanding. Not that I
wouldn’t want to return to my own quarters soon enough. But still,
beginnings aren’t always easy–even happy ones.

After a while, I leaned back in the sofa. “Is there any of that spice tea
left?”

“If not, I can obtain hot water and make more.”

I lifted the little ceramic pot. It was only half-empty. “No need.” I
poured more into my cup. “Do you need a refill?”

“Not at the present time, captain. Perhaps, when I have finished pruning
the Talaxian pseudo-cymbidiae. They appear to have responded exceptionally
well to the fertilizer Kes and Neelix developed.” He frowned at the plant
in front of him. He didn’t sound all that pleased by its exceptional
responsiveness. “Had I realized that Talaxian pseudo-cymbidiae need to be
pruned like Terran bonsai, I would not have accepted Mr. Neelix’
recommendation of them. Orchids demand sufficient labor and maintenance as
it is, without the added complication of regular pruning.” He gazed
reprovingly at his plant, and returned to his labor.

I looked at the pseudo-cymbidiae ranged on the table, all waiting for work.
They were rather hairy-looking. Tuvok had quite a job serving as their
barber. That was all right. He’d never come out and say it, but every snip
was a labor of love.

I refilled my cup, and drew in the tangy scent. It isn’t really tea, but it
has the same kind of bright, moist savor. Not the dark explosion of coffee,
but something more poignant, and pensive. There’s something about Vulcan
spice tea that reminds me of foggy spring weather. Delicate, decidedly
there, and full of promise.

Then Tuvok surprised me. Veered unexpectedly into deep waters.

“Have you told Commander Chakotay your decision, yet?” His voice was as
controlled as ever, but I read the curiosity and concern behind the
question. I hadn’t expected it. He usually stays determinedly out of human
relationships. Too confusing, and too personal. He really was playing the
role of ‘protector’ to the hilt.

I took a long sip of spice tea, looking at him over the brim. After I
swallowed, I shook my head. “No.”

“Have you made your decision?” His face was still; his hands moved gently
and precisely among the branching sprays of orchids. When I didn’t answer
he looked up, dark fingers poised. The short-bladed shears rested,
open-jawed, on a fleshy stem. “You haven’t.”

I looked down into the plum-red depths of the cup, and shook my head again.

A second later I heard the click of the shears.

In the background the computer changed over to a new musical piece, a
septet by T’Trosh. The introductory solo for Vulcan lyrette is lovely, but
I prefer the third movement, scored for lyrette, koto, and Welsh harp–a
delicate matrix of notes set off by the following flute passage.

I set the cup on my little table, and bent over my piece-work again, making
sure the stitches were set straight, and solid. It was the twenty-eighth
block of thirty-two, not counting the wide band-edging and the unpieced
filler squares of the quilt. I’d be finished soon. Not bad for nine weeks’
work.

Tuvok didn’t pursue the question of me, Chakotay, or marriage. That didn’t
stop my own mind from mulling over the topic.

I smiled over my sewing. In spite of all Tuvok and Tom’s wary concern, it
had been a good nine weeks.

No. A wonderful nine weeks.

Chakotay was really very sweet. I suspected he was working at it a bit: he
still hadn’t recovered from that spur-of-the-moment impulse to propose–in
the middle of the night, no-less, in full dress uniform, down on one knee,
for all the world like one of the heroes from the old Victorian romances I
love, and the holonovels based on them. Which is all well and good for
holonovels, but… in real life? It had taken all the discipline I could
come up with, still half asleep and totally unprepared, not to laugh at
him. Or tell him the next time he pulled a stunt like that to at least have
the kindness to bring along a pot of coffee. To his credit he made ‘maybe’
easy. He was flustering so hard that all it took was a “hush,” and a gentle
drag to the bedroom, to resolve it for the time being. No matter how
sincere he was, I secretly thought that was what he really wanted that
night anyway: an excuse to curl up beside me and hold me like a child holds
a teddy bear. Safe and loved. I found that so flattering I’d almost said
‘yes,’ just in reaction to the compliment. It’s an incredible thing to be
cherished.

Since then? I’d spent a lot of time looking down at him as he slept.
“Shibui.” Beautiful, and very dear.

I wanted it to go on forever. I very much feared it wouldn’t. Pessimistic
of me, I suppose. But still, I hoped.

The snip of the shears continued, unpunctuated by comment from my Vulcan
security chief.

The lack of conversation can be more devastating than a shout. After about
ten minutes of ‘snip-snip,’ I couldn’t take it any more. “Penny for your
thoughts.”

He kept his eyes focused on the plant in front of him. “I fail to see what
use I would make of a unit of archaic Terran currency.”

“Fine: a replicator credit.”

“I have no needs beyond those already met by my own replicator budget,
captain. Nor would I presume to comment on the intricacies of human
conjugal arrangements.” He pushed aside the plant he’d been working on, and
drew another towards him.

I lowered my hands, letting the nearly finished ‘Wild Goose’ block rest in
my lap, the needle secured in the cloth. “Tuvok–I’m your friend, as well
as your captain. You used to feel free to comment on my choices, and give
me advice.”

“You were younger then.” Only the lowered brows and the troubled crease
between his eyes gave any sign of disturbance. I wasn’t sure if he was
reacting to what I’d said–or to the spot of fluffy, white something on one
of the orchid stems. He prodded the spot cautiously with the tip of the
shears. “There were no questions of protocol, and no reasons for me to
doubt my ability to form an unbiased opinion.”

“Ah. I see.”

Another dead end. I picked the square back up, set three more stitches
backward along the seam to secure the thread, and reached for my own
scissors. I cut the thread, and put the finished block in the basket with
the others. Then I picked up another magno-tacked bundle of black, white,
grey, and blue pieces, and started another ‘Wild Goose.’

I designed the pattern myself. Looking through the computer files I’d found
several patterns of geese, but none that had satisfied me. So I’d worked up
my own blocks: a traditionally geometric goose-in-flight, and a difficult
one with curving seams that formed a maple leaf blowing in the wind.

It’s been interesting exploring my ‘artistic’ side–I always thought that
was my mother and my sister’s turf. Seems not. My life is expanding.

I’d bought the fabric on Abbyzh-dira, and had spent a lot of time over the
past few weeks working on the blocks–when Chakotay didn’t make a mess of
them luring me away from my sewing and into one of our bedrooms. He’d tried
once on the sofa, with the sewing scattered around, and gotten a pin in a
particularly vulnerable place as a reward for his impetuosity. Sex and
sewing seldom mix well.

Of course, just as I finished the next square, and was ready to start
another, the comm blipped again. Fortunately, it wasn’t Otheris this time.
Stellar was forwarding me a report, garnered from our files and Anyas’
limited information, about the region of space we were entering. Not much,
even for a preliminary run-down. Out here, it was never much, though–even
with the Escher Effect information, and what the files held from our
attempt at transwarp, we didn’t know very much. But they were sorting what
we did know, and were sending me the first summary to review the next
morning.

Once they were off the line, I sighed. “No rest for the wicked…”

“Captain?”

“Nothing. Just something Chakotay said.”

“I see.”

Calm as ever. Vulcans are hard to read, even when you know them as well as
I know Tuvok. Silence is hard to decipher. But…

His uneasiness reminded me of something I’d always wanted to ask. “Tuvok?”

“Yes, captain?”

“During the Maquis Strike, after that circle when Chakotay told about Chief
Joseph: you were angry with him…”

Tuvok put his shears down on his table with a sharp click. While he met my
eyes, he did so with a reserve beyond normal Vulcan formality. “I was
displeased, captain. Not angry. Vulcans don’t get…”

“Vulcans do get angry.” I closed my eyes. “Tuvok, why were you
so–displeased?”

“I do not find it easy to deal with the commander.” The words came slowly,
as Tuvok struggled with conflicting needs and obligations. “He is a man
of–chaotic inclinations. Illogical, though by no means unintelligent.” He
met my eyes. “It is difficult for me to determine an appropriate approach
to working with him. As you once said, he was worthy prey.”

“And?”

He folded his hands on the table in front of him, fingers steepled in the
classic Vulcan mannerism, providing a focus for his thoughts. “Captain, why
have you not answered the commander’s proposal yet?”

“You’re changing the topic.” He didn’t answer. “I don’t know. I want to say
yes. But…. Tuvok, if I say ‘yes’ it has to be permanent. I don’t know if
I can do it.” I sighed. “I don’t have a sterling track record for
‘committed relationships.’ I don’t have any track record, really. A few
friendships, a few comfortable affairs. I was engaged, once. Still wonder
how that might have turned out. But nothing like marriage. I suspect I
don’t have the talent for it.” I brushed my fingers across the flying goose
I was forming. I had to force the next sentence out. “I’m not sure he does,
either. He’s always left things too easily. His tribe, Starfleet, Seska. I
don’t know if this is any different.” What I couldn’t say, not even to
Tuvok, was how much I wanted it to be different.

“Where there is insufficient data, there can be no certainty. You can only
act as you believe you ought, and then deal with the results. Even results
that differ from your expectations are not always wrong.” Tuvok kept his
eyes on the tips of his fingers. He was pushing so hard I could see the
flesh turn yellowish around the point where they came together, and under
the nails, where the blood was forced away. “Life is neither logical, nor
just. Years ago I struggled to master the Kolinar. I presumed to be a holy
man. I failed. But Commander Chakotay–I look at him, and my senses tell me
what I do not want to know. He is a holy man. Given the differences between
us, that is often hard to accept.”

I frowned. “What….”

“Allow me to finish. The night the commander told of Chief Joseph, he
offered the pipe and told us what it meant to his culture. I believed I
understood: it was the principal of the IDIC. I was shamed that I had
desecrated that, as an agent on Crazy Horse. When the pipe passed, I was
determined to listen. I chose an action, believing I understood the context
and could foresee the outcome. And then he raised up the Maquis, left no
room for the Fleet personnel at all: there was no truth in that circle but
Maquis truth. And then the Maquis rebelled. I felt betrayed: by him, and by
myself. Because I had expected his perceptions to match my own, because I
had begun to trust the commander as a–friend, I had failed my own
obligations. I am the chief security officer for Voyager, and I had taken
part in a ceremony that endangered my ship.” And now his eyes met mine.
They were like eagle’s eyes: lit to golden brown where the light crossed
their darkness. Hot. Intense.

He was fighting his own culture, his own distaste for the humanly personal,
to try to tell me a truth that cut two ways. Cut him. Cut me.

“I see.” I dropped my eyes to my sewing, watching the tip of the needle
dodge in and out of the fabric. “So you’re saying the gamble is too big.
That he isn’t trustworthy…”

“No, captain. It isn’t…he isn’t the issue.” He rose, and drifted silently
across the room. Chose to light the peace-vigil oil lamp that rested on his
family shrine. It allowed him to avoid looking at me. “When I chose to
leave the discipline of the Kolinar, I felt I had failed. T’Ristar, one of
the High Masters, took me aside the day I left, and tried to tell me
something. I only began to understand it much later–and I still have not
mastered the concept. She said that the simplest levels of Kolinar were
concerned with eliminating emotion, and controlling one’s life and actions,
but that the highest levels were concerned with allowing that control to
pass also. That the heart of holiness is freedom–and that the discipline
could be found in my marriage to T’Pel as easily as it could on the plains
of Gol, if I allowed myself to find it there.” He raised his head, turned,
and looked at me, his expression coming as close as it ever does to a
smile. “She was correct; but I still struggle with the paradox–that
control can come in release, and that discipline need not imply a lack of
freedom. I fear I may never master it. I am not a clever student, and I do
not like disorder, or uncertainty. And… I am not a holy man. But, still,
it is true.”

“So you’re saying I should say ‘yes.'”

“No, captain. I am saying you must decide, and then live within that
decision. Once you have chosen, life will happen, and much of it will be
beyond your control. But that will be true whatever your choice: the
obligation is to choose.”

“It’s my job to stay in control. I’m the captain.” My head was ducked down,
my hands moving too fast. I’d have to pick apart the block and re-stitch
it, later.

The comm link beeped.

It was Otheris. This time, though, he wasn’t just crying ‘wolf.’

Even he knew the difference. His voice was tight, and there was no
hesitation in his delivery. “Captain, trouble. We’ve picked up a distress
signal six parsecs from here. A ship under attack. We haven’t been able to
identify the caller, but we did a scan. They’re being harried by at least
two other ships, maybe more, and they’re headed this way. Do you wish to
take the bridge at this time?”

I was already shoving my sewing in my basket. “On my way, lieutenant.” I
addressed the computer. “Chakotay, action on bridge. Tuvok and I will meet
you up there.” By the time his “Aye, captain” came back, Tuvok and I were
already halfway out the door. Chakotay was as fast. The three of us met at
the turbo lift. We made a sight: the three top ranking officers on Voyager,
all in our civvies, and all looking tense.

The evening shift crew looked up as we strode through the doors. Otheris
rose from my chair with a nod, and a relieved look.

Chakotay, Tuvok, and I took our places. Otheris and the other officers we’d
displaced moved quietly to back-up positions, manning the secondary
stations on the bridge. I turned to Dvorak, on ops. “Is the distress signal
still coming in?”

“Aye, captain.”

“Put it on screen.”

Dvorak bent over his panel, and a second later a static-warped image
appeared, accompanied by a hissing, popping audio transmission.

“Rodria Bright March, of Starmarch Shipholding, calling the kin. Rube
alert–repeat, rubes gone rogue. Don’t come to the call–clear the dome and
leave the hicks hollering. Scarper!” The tiny, winged woman wiped sweat
from her brow. Smoke clouded around her.

The room she was in was dim and dusky, hard to make out. It was crammed
with mismatched, makeshift equipment. I suspected most of it had been in
bad shape even before the attack began. It was in worse shape now.

It was chaos in there. There were hints of bodies moving behind her. The
wail of alert-sirens nearly drowned out her voice. She kept on anyway,
apparently prepared to man her post and deliver her message to the very
end. “Rodria Bright March calling the kin. Rube alert. Repeat, rubes gone
rogue. Starmarch is lost–no aid possible. If you’re in range, and a
ring-runner, cash the tickets, cut your losses. If you’re of the kin, the
cleansing has started–The Hakaalt have lit the Pyre. Clear the zones and
look for cover. Pass the word to all the kin–Hakaalt Ashindar is rogue.
The black procession. Pull your ships and stay clear.”

The Universal Translator was apparently scrambling to keep up–half the
words had meanings but no context. All that was clear to me was that it was
an emergency and that, whoever they were, they were at their last
barricade.

I lifted a hand to flag Dvorak’s attention. “Give me an overview of the
situation–I want to see what’s happening.”

“Aye.”

The view shifted, and I saw a small, chunky ship, built more like a
freighter than anything, being harried by at least two larger fighters. I
thought I saw the flicker of smaller assault ships, but I wasn’t sure. The
sensors can only scan so far before resolution gives out. As the ships
flashed, and bright darts of weapon-fire sparked across the screen, the
audio portion of the distress signal continued.

“This is Rodria Bright March, calling the kin. Rubes gone rogue–no hope,
no help. Run fast, and spread the word….”

I turned to Dvorak again. “Bring back the visual portion of the distress
signal, and open hailing frequencies. I want to contact that ship.”

“Aye, captain.”

As he hurried to open the connection I looked over at Chakotay. “Any of
that make sense to you?”

His eyes were locked to the screen, where the delicate woman still manned
her post, sparks spitting around her and lighting her face in actinic-blue,
nightmare flashes. “Not much. ‘Rubes’–I think that one’s old circus slang
for the customers. A bit like ‘suckers’ or ‘johns’. Other than that, no.
Just trouble, and trouble bad enough that they aren’t calling for help, but
warning people off.”

I nodded. I hadn’t recognized ‘rubes’, but his interpretation of the rest
matched my own.

“Hailing frequencies open, captain.”

I stood, stepping forward. “Captain Kathryn Janeway hailing the attacked
vessel–can we render assistance?”

The woman on my screen looked up into her pickup, face suddenly tight with
despairing hope. “Tava! Oh, bright landing. Who are you? What kin-calling?”

“None you’d know–we’re a long way from home. I repeat, can we assist?”

She drooped. “I can’t… just a minute…” She looked back over her
shoulder. “Qiral–it’s backup. We’ve got a ship offering backup. They want
to help. What do I tell ‘em?”

From out of the gloom a massive form rose, and moved towards the pickup. As
he approached I saw he was a marvel: he looked as much like the minotaur
from out of Terran legend as a Tellarite looks like the piggier versions of
the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast.” Dark. Very dark, with solid black
eyes ringed with panicked white, and ivory-gold horns curling from his
brow. He was dressed in a showy, vaguely piratical shirt and a vest so
theatrical I knew that Neelix and Anyas would both drool over it–if it
hadn’t been torn, and marked with scorches and what looked like chemical
burns. He leaned one broad, spatulate hand on the edge of the control
panel, and peered at me. “Who *are* you?” His voice was like the bottom
note on a cathedral organ. Deep and bronzy, and so strong my bones trembled
with the harmonics.

I cut to the chase. “Friends. Can we help?”

“The Hakaalt are right bastards, and they’re armed like a vilark. We’re
done for anyway. You’re safer if you run, unless you’re something pretty
special.”

They were being sliced to pieces, and he still tried to give us warning,
and an excuse not to risk it. I liked that. “Nothing’s stopped us yet, and
plenty have tried.”

In the background lights blazed up, and someone went down screaming. His
head jerked back reflexively, then he forced his attention back to our
image on his screen. “I’ll take what I can get. But if you’re outgunned,
run–and for us, spread the word: the Hakaalt are rogue, and the
cleansing’s begun. Tell the kin…” There were more explosions and screams
in the background. He turned away. Technically it was rude, but it I wasn’t
about to be offended under the circumstances. I addressed Rodria Bright
March. “We’re on our way. Janeway out.” I gave the order to Bloddwyn Jones,
at the com. “Plot a course, and proceed at maximum warp.”

“Sure you want to risk it?” Chakotay was restrained. It’s a trick I’m
beginning to understand: his way of making sure he doesn’t influence me too
early, before I know my own mind. He knows I don’t like being pushed.

I nodded. “Sure enough. That’s no warship–and their enemies have a sick
sense of humor. They’d be radiation and scrap metal by now if their
attackers weren’t playing pounce and toss. It may be none of our business;
but I don’t feel like watching a bunch of sadists play blood games if we
can help even the odds. And we have a legal and moral obligation to answer
a distress signal.” Which was true enough. It’s one of those things that’s
expected of us. One of the many expectations we have to balance out against
each other.

He nodded, and allowed a feral grin to escape; ready to show his own
feelings, now that I’d committed myself. “Sounds good to me.”

Tuvok spoke from behind me, his voice concerned. “Captain, I’ve been
examining the sensor readings. It would appear that the ‘Hakaalt’ fighters
are using an unfamiliar weapons system. I have initiated a computer search
for similar readings, but at the time I cannot make a firm evaluation of
our preparedness to engage.”

“No guesses?”

He frowned. “Insufficient data, but there is no indication that our shields
would not hold. I would not evaluate our chances as being unusually poor.”

I crossed over to his terminal, looking at the information he had pulled
up. The weapons appeared to utilize coherent light, much as lasers and
phasers, but the frequency modulations were peculiar, and I had the
disturbing sense that we were missing something. However, I agreed with
Tuvok–I couldn’t see any outstanding reason not to risk it. It seemed
about par for the course, if you could say such a thing about any encounter
with an unknown aggressor. Each one is unique, and you have to deal with
it. “We go for it.” I addressed the computer. “Red alert: battle posts.
Prepare for combat.”

It was only a matter of minutes before we came into range.

The embattled Star March Shipholding was small, and gaudy–or it had been.
Its once bright paint was scorched and blistered where it had taken fire
from the attacking vessel, and one side was a molten wreck. It wasn’t
fighting back–my own estimate was it couldn’t. It had once been shielded,
but all that was left of its defensive systems was a weak flutter of force
field over the port prow. Now we were in range, we could see the Hakaalt
ships, one about the size of Voyager, one slightly smaller, accompanied by
several small, run-about sized vessels. They were all picking away at the
Star March in a leisurely fashion, aiming a shot here, a shot there,
playing with their victim. The lazy sadism of it curdled my stomach.

Dvorak, taking readings as fast as our sensors could pull them in, whistled
under his breath. “They aren’t going to make it, captain. The bastards made
a point of hitting them in their impulse reactors–even if some of them
make it to escape pods, they’ll only die of radiation poisoning later,
unless they can get some competent medical aid soon.”

“Patch me through to the attacking vessels. Then see what you can learn
about them now we’re in closer range.”

“Aye.”

The image that filled the screen was a chilling counterpoint to the view
we’d had of the command center of the Star March. This bridge was clean,
and orderly, and evenly lit, decorated in soft, soothing mauves and plums,
and muted grays. It was open, spacious, and it looked like new. Even the
workstations had a restrained beauty, though they were obviously designed
for use.

There was no smoke, no mess, no haphazard jumble of people and
technology–and no one screamed in pain and fear in the background.

The officers who manned the stations were calm, controlled, neat in their
dark uniforms. In comparison with the beings they were destroying, they
were almost freakish in their apparent “humanity.” There was nothing to
differentiate them from an all-human crew from the Federation, beyond a row
of dapples in an arch across their cheekbones: large ones like thumbprints
near the bridge of the nose, graduating to the tiniest speckles as the
curve swept up towards the outer corners of their eyebrows. Their hair was
uniformly a glossy red, and short-cropped–even that of the female
officers. They all exuded a cool, brisk air of professionalism.

“This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the starship Voyager, of the United
Federation of Planets, hailing the attacking vessels.”

A man in the center seat looked up as our hail was transmitted to him. His
expression was reserved, superior. Very lordly. There was something about
him…

You knew his nails were clean and trimmed, his boots polished, and his
underwear freshly laundered–and you knew that it mattered to him that this
was so.

“This is Alte-Commander Vegeis, in command of the Purge-ship Splendid Pyre,
of the Hakaalt-tche, to the offending vessel Voyager. You interfere with a
rightful cleansing. If you do not wish to be classified with the vermin,
retreat. This is not your affair.”

He was the Immaculate Warrior–splendid in his virtues, unwavering in his
certainties, absolute in his control.

His crew continued with their work, undisturbed by our presence. Throughout
the entire exchange they picked away at the civilian ship, completely
undistracted by their leader’s conversation. They had a discipline that
would have done a Starfleet crew proud, for all I was perturbed by the
object of all that discipline.

I tried again. “There is no indication that these people deserve to be
massacred, Alte-Commander. Even if they have committed some crime, you
don’t have to –”

He cut me off. “They are eftri: unclean. It is necessary that they be
purged. There is no other way to ensure righteousness, and the safety of
the Ordained in the Heavenly Garden.” He crossed the wide, tastefully
austere expanse of his bridge. The small badges of rank on his chest
gleamed softly in the mellow lighting. “I repeat: leave this area at this
time. You are Not-Hakaalt, you have entered Hakaalt territory, you
contaminated the Heavenly Garden with your presence. You trespass on a
rightful cleansing. Leave, and you may live. Stay, and we will purge you
with these eftri vermin. Consider yourselves warned.”

Nothing blurred or softened his resolve. The only flaw in the image was a
slight annoyance and repugnance. The isolate majesty of it made me wonder
if his “we” hadn’t been intended as the imperial “we.”

Nothing was going to move this man, besides direct force. I didn’t really
want to use that: it was on the edge of breach of Prime Directive. The
blurry edge. We’d received a distress signal, and that’s rated as high as
complying with the PD, under some circumstances. And what we’d found was an
atrocity. But it wasn’t our space. Getting involved was technically
interference, for all the Star March had sent out a call, and been willing
to take help. How to weigh the choices? When push came to shove, I’d choose
to fight. But, first, try diplomacy… not that I had much faith in it.

I had to try anyway. “Alte-Commander, this is butchery. I cannot stand by
and…”

He bent his head towards one of the young officers sitting at a station,
one hand resting paternally on the young man’s shoulder. “You see what they
are like, Reiark? Beyond reason. No sense of law, or the fitness of things.
Mere animals. They cannot be taught, they will not submit, they cannot be
contained. So it is demonstrated to us: the cleansing is just.” As the
young man looked up, an almost worshipful expression on his face, the
Alte-Commander made a single gesture, and the transmission ended.

From that point on things started happening fast.

“Captain, they’re targeting us–weapons initiated. I’ve raised our…”
Tuvok’s voice was lost in the blast that followed.

The bolt from the alien weapon hit us hard. Even with our shields up, and
at maximum, the energy from the beam came through, and Voyager shook like
the windows in my house back home, when a winter nor’easter was pounding
the coast.

“Tuvok, return fire.”

“Arming phasers, engaging–fired.” The tight beam from the forward phaser
banks lanced out. When the light hit the Splendid Pyre her shields became
visible around the point of contact, radiating a beautiful violet glow.
They held for the space of a few seconds, burning brighter and brighter,
then they fell, our phasers cutting through and scarring the sleek flank of
the port side. In an instant the supporting ships turned away from the Star
March, and began to close on us.

“Captain.” It was Dvorak. “There’s a message from the Splendid Pyre to the
other ships.”

“Put it on.”

It was only an audio signal, but the crisp voice of the Alte-Commander was
instantly recognizable. “Stand aside. The vermin have insulted the honor of
a Hakaalt-tche Purgeship. They are mine. Standard Bieltar formation, no
interference. Be prepared–the cream of Hakaalt-tche will test them. If we
fall, mourn us, mark them, and gather them into the fires to redeem our
souls.”

The ships fell back, and the Splendid Pyre approached.

“They have succeeded in reformatting their shields, captain. They appear to
be underpowered, but they are by no means unprotected. ” Tuvok’s voice was
as controlled as the Alte-Commander’s, but somehow it didn’t seem as
bitterly inhuman to me. He leaned over his console, and frowned. “Captain,
there’s an inexplicable concentration of energy forming in the prow of the
ship. I don’t know…”

From the forward tip of the Splendid Pyre light blossomed: the same violet
haze the shields had generated. The effect was peculiar: it seemed to
gather, like a bubble of water forming in null-gravity, billowing and
swelling. Then it opened out, long tendrils spreading out in a lazy, slow
star-burst pattern, with finer filaments stretching between the expanding
rays, like a delicate spider web.

Dvorak was already running scans. “Energy field of some sort. No immediate
referents in the computer. Damned if I know what it is, but it’s packing a
punch.”

Chakotay was bent over his own terminal, brow wrinkled. “I don’t like
this… It’s spreading like a net, and they seem to have control over the
pattern. It’s too complex to be just a random effect. I say we pull back
for now.”

I could have argued about whether the complexity indicated control–but I
wasn’t about to. That glowing web made me nervous, too. “Agreed. Jones,
take us back to observational range.”

Blodd started to comply.

As Voyager pulled away, the tips of the long rays arched towards us. Their
movement was so perfectly synchronized with our own there was no doubt in
my mind that it was in direct response to our actions. As we moved, the
rays moved–two actions with one motivating cause. The thing was ‘smart.’

“Tuvok, shields at maximum.”

“Aye, captain.”

The rays were approaching, vaulting over us, wrapping us in the filigreed
web.

“Dvorak, reverse the tractor beams and see if we can push that thing away
from us.”

“Aye.” Dvorak was busy for a moment, then there was a brilliant flare on
the screen, as our tractor beams intersected the arcs of the web. “It’s
having some affect, but…”

“Captain, the Hakaalt ship has launched a missile. Attempting to intercept
with phaser fire…”

The screen suddenly blazed–light everywhere, beyond the sensors’ ability
to filter. All around the bridge heads snapped aside, eyes squinting. Tuvok
was scrambling to shut off the phasers. Dvorak was slapping buttons and
closing down systems at high speed. Then a concussion rocked the ship–a
bad one. Almost as bad as the shakeup when we’d come through the
Caretaker’s beam. It was as though space itself had grabbed us by the
scruff, and shaken us like my dog Molly used to shake her chew toys, when
she was a puppy. I managed to hang on to my seat for a few seconds, but
ended up on the floor, belly down, fingers sunk into the pile of the
carpet, trying to maintain a grip. It seemed to go on, and on, with bodies
tumbling through my field of vision, lights dropping except for the backup
telltales at the work stations. When it finally stopped I scrambled back to
my seat, too busy to evaluate the conditions on the bridge until I had some
idea of what we had to deal with from the Hakaalt.

I prodded the buttons of my console, trying to bring up information.
Nothing. “Dvorak, get me some sensor readings.” The backup lights had come
on, low, but at least we could see.

Chakotay’s voice carried to me from behind the ops station. I didn’t know
when he’d gotten up there. The last I’d noticed he’d still been in his seat
beside me. “He’s gone. He’s…anyway, he’s gone.” I could hear him start to
gag, then draw a breath and steady himself. “I’ll see if I can bring
anything up.”

“Captain, the primary and secondary sensors are down, but I’m getting some
information in on the tertiary backup systems. The Splendid Pyre appears to
have been destroyed; however, the other ships are re-grouping.” Tuvok was
still at his post. That was one thing that had gone right.

Otheris limped down from the secondary engineering station to Chakotay, at
ops. “Commander, you want me to take this station?”

“No–take over for Jones. I’ve almost got this thing–shit….” Chakotay
slammed a fist on the ops panel, and started over. Otheris didn’t wait to
hear more, but continued down to the comm station, where Blodd Jones was
nursing what appeared to be a broken wrist. Otheris wasn’t in very good
shape himself. Half of his face was already turning a dark reddish-blue
that was going to turn into a dilly of a bruise if it wasn’t seen to, and
his nose was bleeding. At least his eyes and hands all worked.

Chakotay was still muttering over the ops console. After a few false starts
he gave a triumphant growl. “Got it. It’s not great, but I can give you a
picture, and some sensor feed.”

I nodded. “Put it up.”

“It’s not great” turned out to be a hell of an understatement. It was like
looking through six or seven holes blown through a heavy sheet of
plasti-board. Bits and pieces–and even where the sensors were giving us
information, it was low-grade, and dirty. I could just make out the Hakaalt
ships gathering in a cluster in the center. There wasn’t any sign of the
Splendid Pyre, but there was a lot of debris drifting around. The ship we’d
come to rescue tumbled languidly, drifting away from the center of action
with no sign of control. I hoped they were still alive over there.

“Tuvok, what’s our weapons status?”

“Phasers down, shields down, maneuvering capacity– I do not trust these
figures, captain, but if the computer is correct we have only 42.7934% of
our optimal maneuvering capacity. Our tractor systems appear to be entirely
disabled. However we still have the use of our photon torpedoes, and we
were able to restock on Abbyzh-dira and Izary, and have almost completely
replaced our complement of photon mines.”

I turned to Chakotay, trying to ignore Dvorak’s limp body, half-exposed
behind the ops station. “Hail the Hakaalt ships.”

“Aye.”

Before he could make contact a flicker of motion on the screen made me spin
back . Even as I watched, Tuvok provided narrative. “Captain, the central
ship has launched a projectile. Intercept in three seconds.” His hands
flashed over the panel, but there was no response from Voyager’s systems.
The slender device slid past our normal shield line without slowing for a
moment, and shattered against our hull. I waited for the end.

It didn’t come. Whatever the affect of the impact, the results weren’t
obvious.

Chakotay hadn’t wasted the time. “I’ve got the Hakaalt on line.”

I nodded, frowning. It seemed like a waste of effort to lob dud missiles at
us, but right then I had other things to deal with. “This is Captain
Kathryn Janeway, of the starsh–”

The screen sprang to life, and I suddenly had a clear view of the interior
of one of the cruisers, and the furious features of a red-haired Valkyrie
in her middle years. “Be silent, eftri murderer. If Warla… If the
Alte-commander hadn’t… Tethe-hosht!” She was just short of spitting mad.
“Don’t think you’ve won, vermin. You’re marked, and I will remember you at
Waren-Pyre.” The screen cut back to open space, and, before I could have
Chakotay try to raise her again, the entire group shifted into warp–and
were gone.

“Son of a bitch…” Chakotay sounded addled. “They had us. All it would
have taken….” He trailed off, completely at a loss.

Tuvok sat down at his station for the first time that evening, dabbing at a
thin track of blood that trickled from a tiny cut at the corner of his
mouth. “It is illogical–but hardly to be regretted. We would not have
survived another attack.” He glanced across his panel.

The hair on the nape of my neck rose at the absolute certainty in his
voice. He was not guessing–he was sure. We would have died.

“What happened, anyway?” Blodd Jones is always curious, and I think she was
trying to keep her mind off her wrist, too.

“I don’t know. Tuvok, run a sensor check, if you can. We may just have
gotten lucky, but I want to know if there’s any reason to worry about that
last shot they fired.” He nodded. I turned to Chakotay. “See if B’Elanna
can tell us anything–and while you’re at it, call in the med teams. Even
Dvorak may be –”

“He isn’t. He’s gone.” Chakotay’s voice left no room for hope. A second
later he’d gotten through to the sickbay, been told “If it isn’t an
immediate emergency, you can wait” by the holodoctor, and had continued on
to contact B’Elanna. The news wasn’t good.

“Sorry, captain, but we’re damned near dead in space. We still have warp
and impulse drives, but almost all the electronic relays are about as much
good as eight-day-old gakh, with none of the nice bits. The computer’s in
bad shape–gel packs blown, I don’t know. The ship’s biotech was hardest
hit. Whatever hit us toasted the primary and secondary systems, the
tertiaries are–well, we have some of the tertiary. Quaternary seems to be
fine, but the only things we have on quaternary are life support, and
really basic navigational–we won’t be safe going much above warp three, if
that–and a few odds and ends. As for the rest of the ship’s functions,
I’ll get back to you as soon as I have any idea. Oh, don’t count on much in
the way of sensor readings for a while. That burst burned through most of
the pickups.”

I paced across the deck, over to the rail near ops. “How long until you
have a complete evaluation?”

“Days.”

“Torres, that’s not acceptable.”

Her voice was edgy, and frayed. “I told you once–I don’t pad my estimates.
If anything that one’s optimistic. Whatever the hell hit us, hit us hard.
The only reason we still have the holodoctor is that he’s designed to
function in emergencies. But don’t expect any–”

“Captain.” Chakotay’s voice cut across the angry monologue. “We’re being
hailed by the other ship. They’re in trouble.”

I closed my eyes. All the sympathy I’d felt for them seemed thin, and cold,
and distant as I looked at the wreck of my bridge. We’d paid a high price
for our altruism. “Put them on.”

The minotaur-man appeared on screen, and my sympathy returned instantly.
His deck made mine look immaculate. The damage was everywhere, visible in
hazy patches through a shroud of poisonous-yellow, smoky fumes. Ripped
metal. Exposed wires that spat and arced. Corpses. Too many corpses. It was
impossible not to feel for the man. His world was destroyed.

On his lap he held the little woman who had manned the communication link.
There was no way to tell from her limp, bloody body whether she still
lived, or if he simply wasn’t ready to release her to death.

“Captain Janeway?” His deep, belling voice was raw.

“Yes? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten…What was your name?”

“Master Qiral. Kin-master Qiral atche eftri, manager of the Star March
Shipholding. Once of Roalt. Not that it matters. Qiral will do.” He looked
around, blank and vague, as though he had forgotten what he called me for
and was wandering in his mind. Then he closed his eyes, and when he opened
them again there was no doubt of the intellect and focus behind that
strange bovine face. “Captain, I’m sorry to ask for more, when you’ve given
so much at such risk. But my drive systems are down, and we won’t be
bringing them up. The containment fields around the core of my impulse
drive are damaged beyond repair, the radiation is being carried through my
ship by the ventilation systems, and we can’t afford to turn them off or
we’ll suffocate. The hull’s been breached in dozens of places. We’ve
managed to seal off some of the leaks, but…it doesn’t matter. The details
don’t matter. Star March Shipholding is dead. If you could take *any* of my
people aboard–the children, at least…” His head dropped down. “I think
we have a few lifeships still whole. We could fit maybe twenty of our
little ones aboard, if they didn’t have a long trip to survive. If you
could take them? See if you can help them past the radiation sickness, or
give them a soft death if you can’t? They’ll die hard, here with us.”

Chakotay’s eyes had met mine, as we listened to the request. He nodded. I
looked at Tuvok. For a moment, I almost hoped he’d object. We were in
sufficiently bad shape ourselves that the idea of taking on a greater
burden wasn’t ‘expedient.’ As security chief, and as a Vulcan, he would
have been perfectly in character pointing out the madness of mercy at such
a risk to ourselves. But he nodded, too.

In spite of the risks involved, I was pleased. I didn’t want to leave these
people to die, not even in the name of expedience. Being a captain is more
than just saving your ship–sometimes it’s more a matter of saving your
standards. Kobayashi Maru time. Times when you choose righteousness over
survival. I hoped this wasn’t so bad. But I wasn’t about to draw back from
fear that it was.

Under my breath, to Chakotay, I said “Find out from B’Elanna what the
status is on the transporters. If that’s no go, start pulling together any
pilots who are still fit to ferry the survivors over.” I turned back to the
screen. “I may be able to do better than that. How many still alive on your
ship?”

His head lifted, and I was disconcerted to see his nostrils flare, like a
scent-hound testing the wind. “I’m not sure. Our original complement was
four hundred, but… a lot of the areas the Hakaalt hit were the
residential sections. We may have lost most of the kin-calling.”

“We’re on. She’s having to patch around a lot, but she can give us three
transporter stations.” Chakotay’s voice was quiet, and happy. Something
good had happened. He’s able to appreciate that. I think he’s better at it
than I am.

“Do we have enough sensor capacity to locate the living and pull them out
just by readings, or do we have to go over and find and tag them all
individually?”

“She’s sending out one of the shuttles–their sensors aren’t damaged, and
they’ll relay the coordinates to us. She’s even going to use the shuttle’s
transporter. But it’s a ‘go.’ We can get on it right away.”

I turned back to Master Qiral with a smile. “Things are looking up. We’re
going to start pulling your survivors out immediately. Just don’t be
surprised when your people start disappearing into thin air. We’ve got some
tricks up our sleeves that aren’t run of the mill in these parts. If you’ll
excuse me, now, I’m afraid I have my hands full over here. Just hold on.”

I turned from the screen, not waiting for the transmission to end, and was
about to ask Chakotay to fill me in on the status reports coming in fast
and furious when he reached out and touched my forehead. When he brought
his hand away it was bright red, and I was suddenly aware of the sting and
ache of a laceration somewhere on my upper scalp, and the tickle of blood
seeping down through my hair. Chakotay looked wryly at the sticky stain on
his fingers, and down at me. “You are going to get that seen to, aren’t
you? Now that the shooting’s over?”

For the first time since we’d gotten the distress call I thought of him as
my lover. The feeling was a disruption, making me feel as though I’d woken
up in strange quarters and smashed into a wall in the dark, lost in
unfamiliar territory and feeling my way. Wrong mode, wrong pattern. Wrong
something. I wanted to snap at him. I also wanted to reach out and caress
him, fiercely proud that he’d never by so much as a gesture interfered with
my job, until now, when the luxury of ‘mother-henning me’ was not only
allowable, but necessary. As near as I could tell he hadn’t even thought of
it–or had thought it, and known so deeply not to that the temptation
hadn’t caused a ripple in the smooth performance of his own job.

I settled for smiling at him, and nodding. “If you insist, Abba. But since
the comm system seems to still be working, I want you to keep me up to date
on the evacuation.” He nodded, and I turned to Blodd. “Why don’t you come
along, too? It’s going to be awhile before the med teams make it to the
bridge–and we may as well save them the work.” We entered the turbo-lift,
and were soon in the corridor outside sickbay.

There was a line. A long line. Voyager had taken major damage, and so had
my crew. I wondered who had died–and turned my mind away from the thought.

Kou came through, doing triage evaluation. I wasn’t surprised when I got
sent to the back of the line. Blodd was sent forward, but not by much. That
worried me. A broken wrist isn’t a major injury, but to have so many ahead
of her who were worse off–I wasn’t pleased. I tried to comfort myself with
the thought that they had merely arrived earlier.

Seating was in short supply. Several of the junior officers tried to offer
me makeshift seats dragged in from other areas. I considered it for the
sake of command dignity, but the crates and duffels and cushions were
neither dignified, nor comfortable. In the end I chose to sit with my back
against the wall, legs crossed in front of me. I closed my eyes, suddenly
realizing that it must be about three thirty in the morning by “my” time.
Late. My eyes were tired, my back and shoulders ached. My head ached, from
stress as well as the dull throb of the cut on my scalp. I set myself the
goal of relaxing.

I’d almost fallen asleep when my comm badge peeped. “Captain? Torres here.
The Old Man told me to ask you what you wanted me to do. We’ve got the
first life sign readings on that ship. There’s two of everything that ever
lived on board, and some of them are *big*. It might as well be an ark.
We’ve tried to raise Qiral, but we’re not getting any response. After the
beating they took, the comm systems may be down. Anyway… As it stands
there are over a hundred and fifty survivors, and some of them won’t fit
anywhere on Voyager except the holodeck, the cargo holds, or the shuttle
bays. And most of our crew is going to have to double up if we’re going to
find room for the rest.”

I ran one of my hands over my hair, grimacing at the stiff, sticky texture
where the blood had coagulated and dried. When I drew my hand away, my
fingers were dusted with rust-brown flecks and speckles. “It sounds fine,
Torres. Do whatever you have to.”

“There’s also–captain, most of them are in bad shape. Radiation burns,
poisoning from all sorts of leaks and spills, broken bones, cuts ,
contusions–you name it. Is there room up there for the injured?”

I looked at the lines. “Not a chance. Set up a med station in one of the
hangars, and send whoever’s your emergency medic to try to evaluate them on
the spot. The worst you can beam up here–but try to keep it down. We’re
already overflowing out into the corridors.”

I’m not sure how long it was after that that the first of the casualties
from the damaged ship started silently shimmering into existence. I wasn’t
tracking time very well at that point. Once it started they seemed to flow
on, and on. I couldn’t argue with the med-tech’s decision to send them up,
though, even with the overload already facing sickbay. The only thing more
amazing than the motley variety of them was the appalling extent of their
injuries. There were sobbing children, clinging frantically to adults who
bore no more relationship to them than an Andorian has to a Horta. Their
faces were marked with hot, sore burn marks, bruises, oozing wounds, and
the tracks of tears.

I saw one lanky woman with the tottery grace of a giraffe lean as lightly
as possible on the shoulder of another woman who was built along the lines
of the minotaur Master. Both had injuries that made my stomach turn. The
bovine one had a cloth wrapped around her belly, stained deep,
blackish-red, and smelling of fecal matter. I was grateful that our medical
technology could probably save her–and more grateful that it was her, not
me.

My own people stirred. Some just looked at the newcomers dully, their own
injuries keeping their minds more on their own problems. Others goggled.
Even for a Federation crew, it was an unusually sight. You don’t usually
see so many varied species all in one place, at one time, in such bad
shape. And a lot of my people are young. There’s a lot they still haven’t
seen before.

*I* hadn’t seen anything like this. I’d seen Wolf 359, and that had been
bad enough. Captains of exploratory ships, particularly science-type
captains, aren’t usually on the front lines of disaster relief. Even I
found it–bad. Very bad. No reason to think my crew wouldn’t too.

The air in front of me hazed, thickened, and the master himself
materialized on the corridor floor. He still clutched the tiny, winged
woman to his chest, one broad hand stroking her hair in almost automatic
tenderness. He was humming, the sound so deep and intense it made the wall
behind me tremble. I wasn’t sure he even knew he’d been transported.

Then he opened his eyes, and looked around. As soon as he saw me, he
dropped his head in a very odd, formal little half-bow.

“My thanks be with you, Master Janeway, and my gratitude for the
hospitality of your ship.” He looked down at Rodria Bright March. Her face
was pale–too pale. “I hope your doctors are as wondrous as your
teleportation machine.”

I tried to ease my way up, to present a more dignified front. After all, I
was the host. It was foolish, but I felt uncomfortable greeting a guest in
such disarray. I like things to be better run than that.

He waved me back. “Can we be of any help to you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe after we’ve sorted things out a bit I’ll have a better
idea. In the meantime do anything you can to make this easier for your own
people, and to make them comfortable. After you and your friend have been
treated I’ll introduce you to my first officer and security chief–and my
‘morale officer.’ Between them they should be able to help work things
out.”

There didn’t seem to be more to say.

Qiral returned to his low humming. Kou was back, slowly working her way
down the line of new arrivals, sending some ahead, giving some into the
hands of strong-armed volunteers from other departments, who manhandled
them as gently as possible onto anti-grav gurneys. A few she simply shook
her head sadly over. As she moved away from those, the sound of mourning
would start. Many voices, many languages, but the grief carried,
regardless.

My comm badge peeped again. This time it was Chakotay. For a wonder his
voice was cheerful–or at least, he was doing a good imitation.

“Heya-Kath. I’m down in shuttle hangar B, and I have a question for you:
what’s black and white and red all over?” Before I could respond, he came
back with the answer. “A M’R-kathian elephant. Where do M’R-kathian
elephants sit? In shuttle hangar B. And the big question: What do
M’R-kathian elephants eat?”

This time I cut in before he could fill in the answer. “I have no idea–but
I’m sure you’ll find out for me, won’t you, Pesh? And if all that means
what I think it does, I have one for you: what do Maquis first officers
have on their hands?”

His voice was steeped in ironic amusement. “An elephant-sized job. That’s
what. I’ve arranged to have Tuvok and Tom Paris take the bridge tomorrow
morning. I’d like to think that we’ll be able to get some sleep. But I’m
not counting on it.”

He was right. It was a long time before we slept.

But meanwhile, I had a cut to have attended.

As I waited, watching the line creep along ahead of me, I smiled a little,
wondering how Chakotay was doing with his “elephants.”

End Section I

—————————————

—————————————

Section II: Chakotay

I felt like Hannibal. Except my elephants were red and I just wanted to get
them from the hanger bay into a cargo hold. I may as well have been facing
the Alps.

I’d just gotten off the comm with Kathryn. Now I spoke to the air, let out
a little of the frustration I hadn’t wanted to show her. “Don’t these
people have their *own* animal handler? Elephants weren’t in my job
description.”

“I can see it now: Starship Seeks First Officer with Elephant Experience.”

I spun. Anielewicz stood behind me, grinning.

“Smart ass,” I muttered, then asked, “Shouldn’t you be in sickbay with
something broken that needs fixed?”

“Nope. I’m one of the lucky few who didn’t get a bruise. Tuvok sent me down
to give you a hand. What *are* those things?”

“M’R-kathian elephants. Or at least, I’m calling them elephants until
someone tells me otherwise.”

Chaim moved closer. “Well, I guess that’s fair. They have trunks. At least,
I think that’s what that is.”

My M’R-kathian elephants were no more pachyderms than Bajoran cinnamon is
really cinnamon…but they were close enough for government work. Or the
circus.

“‘Grey as a mouse, big as a house, nose like a snake, I make the earth
shake as I tramp through the grass; trees crack as I pass…’ um, I don’t
remember what comes next. But it ends ‘If you’d ever met me you wouldn’t
forget me. If you never do, you won’t think I’m true; but old Oliphaunt am
I, and I never lie.'”

I grinned at him. Chaim never ceases to surprise me with the odd things he
knows. “Who wrote that? Kipling?”

“No. Tolkein.”

“Ah.” I didn’t know the name but from the way Chaim said it, I supposed I
should. Another bit of white man’s culture I’d missed somewhere. One thing
I admired about the Jews: they were a well-educated bunch. He could quote
Byron or the Baal Shem Tov with equal facility; every once in a while he
surprised us all –including Cherel–by quoting the Prophets.

In fact, the elephants…or whatever they were…were among the more
familiar-looking of the animals. We had crazy things: animals out of
legend. I kept expecting to turn a corner and run into a unicorn, or
griffin, or old Windigo– the Snow Beast. There was even an entire
hundred-gallon tank of bright blue frogs with yellow polka-dots. I had no
idea whether they were for an act, or for somebody’s lunch. Maybe Master
Qiral’s.

Chaim and I had just finished moving the tank when Cherel showed up. She
walked gingerly, her arm in a sling. “What happened to the regenerators?” I
asked, eyeing her arm.

Sitting on a crate, she shook her head. “There’s limited power and
supplies. They’re reserving regenerators for people with more serious
wounds than a broken arm.” She shifted slightly. “Kes looked ready to drop
by the time she got to me. There are”– she paused, her eyes haunted–
“there are so *many*, and so badly wounded. I felt like I was back in the
camps. The children….” She trailed off.

Chaim came over to sit beside her, took her dark hand in his. Something
about her manner struck me as…fragile. It seemed at odds with the Jinn
Cherel I knew. She glanced at me, then back to her husband. “What is it?”
he asked.

Fragility gave way to a flash of anger, then faded into a stunned
expression. “I’m….”

She stopped. We waited. She looked at me again. I began to think maybe I
should leave, but she spoke before I could do so.

“I’m pregnant, Chaim.”

He whooped. He danced a little Jewish jig. He tossed his yarmulke and
shouted in Yiddish. I’ve seen men less happy receiving a Silver Palm.

I found I was grinning hard enough to hurt my cheeks.

Cherel wasn’t.

“Chaim– stop it!”

He stopped, more or less. He came back over to kiss her on both cheeks,
then on the mouth, hug her fiercely.

“Chaim, we’re in the middle of a war! This isn’t good news!”

“Of course it is!” he said.

She scrambled off the crate and glared at him, then at me as if I were
guilty just for sharing the male sex. “You…idiots!” She was so angry, she
was spitting. “You think having a baby now is something to *rejoice* over?
You didn’t see what I saw up there; you didn’t see the wounded. These
Hakaalt are *monsters*. I heard the refugees talking. The Hakaalt are as
bad as Cardassians. Maybe worse.”

For a Bajoran to admit that anyone might be worse than a Cardassian was a
vicious insult indeed.

She had taken a deep breath, now let it out. “I don’t want this baby. Not
till we’re out of this. During the Occupation, I saw women give themselves
abortions with wire from the fences. I saw women slit their childrens’
throats to save them from dying at Cardassian hands. I don’t want this
baby!”

She was crying, and as close to hysterical as I’d ever seen her.

Chaim’s manner had altered entirely. He came over to take her in his arms,
whisper, “Hush.” I felt like a voyeur. “Listen to me, motek.” Sweetness.
“Children…they’re the future. Our future. This baby is our future. My
people learned that, down the years. All children are precious. They mean
survival, they mean the old ways won’t die. We hoarded them like jewels,
told them our stories and taught them our traditions. You lived through
half a century of Occupation. That might be enough to make a people
despair. We lived through almost two millennia of the Diaspora and
persecution. That’s enough to learn to look past despair, celebrate birth.
Children hold death at bay.”

On that note, I slipped out of the cargo bay doors, left them to the
elephants and the frogs and each other. I considered hunting up Magda, if I
could find her in this madhouse. Cherel’s fears were none I could address.
I’d never had children; after Seska’s deceptions, the very idea was bitter.
I wondered if Janeway wanted children; I’d never asked. She’d been
remarkably good with Riaka when Kes had been incapacitated. But as to our
own…we hadn’t gotten so far yet. Maybe we didn’t need them; we had a ship
full.

Right now, though, I didn’t have time to go looking for Magda. If I bumped
into her, I’d tell her about Cherel. If not, it’d have to wait till I had a
free moment– which didn’t look like it’d be for a while.

We were already two and a half hours into alpha shift and I hadn’t even
noticed. Nor did I have time to do more than grab a bite of the emergency
breakfast Neelix had whipped up. It looked and tasted like grits with a
little butter and salt. Still, it was food, and of such a bland sort, it
was unlikely to offend any alien palate that wasn’t exclusively
carnivorous.

I took my bowl and started off for my office. “Commander!” Neelix called
after me; I turned. “Would you mind eating here?”

“Why?”

“Because we don’t have enough plates to go around. I’ve got Gerron and
Alvarez washing dishes in the back as people finish with them, so I can use
them again.”

For once, there was nothing cheerful in his manner, no attempt to play
morale-officer. He was probably doing well just to play cook to this many
people. Even two hours after breakfast, the cafeteria was still packed,
mostly with refugees. If these people were going to be with us for more
than a day or two, I’d have to get him some help. He had Riaka in a tiny
crib in one corner of the kitchen. No doubt, her mother was too busy in
sickbay to watch her; so, really, was Neelix, but the kitchen was a safer
environment than the sickbay.

Of course, my readyroom would be safer yet– and quieter in the bargain.

I slipped into the kitchen. “I’m going to be spending the next couple hours
reworking cabin assignments to accommodate our guests.” I nodded to his
daughter. “It wouldn’t be any trouble for me to keep an eye on her for you.
I’ll just be in my office.”

I have rarely been graced with such a look of profound gratitude. “Could
you? I’d be ever so grateful…!”

“Think nothing of it,” I said, to cut him off before he started in on a
catalogue of his woes. But in truth, he was too busy for woes. Another
small clump of refugees had come straggling in and he hurried off to see
them fed. I stood in a corner and wolfed down my grits while surveying the
people assembled. They sat together in variegated clumps, talking softly,
some weeping. A few looked over at me. I smiled and tried to appear
non-threatening. Nearly all bore evidence of some physical trauma. I didn’t
want to guess at the emotional trauma I couldn’t see.

There were all manner of physical types; I felt like I’d walked in on a
congressional meeting of the Federation Senate. Most were bipedal, at
least. I saw everything from little winged people like the Star March
Shipholding’s communications officer, to minotaur-types like their captain.
There were reptilian aliens who would have looked too much like Cardassians
to make me comfortable, except that their hair was bone white and their
skin came in iridescent metallic shades: copper, gold, silver, even a
bronzy-green. I saw tall, ethereal black-skinned aliens of indeterminate
sex with silver hair that fell as long as they were tall. I saw small
stunted people who, for all the world, looked like Irish leprechauns. And
off in a corner, I saw three of the only non-bipeds in the room: they
appeared to be large hyenas, but had prehensile tails and their front
“paws” had not just one, but two opposing digits.

Finished at last, I took my bowl in to Gerron, then collected Riaka and her
things, headed up to my office. Luckily, the baby had just eaten, so she
was sleepy and content to doze in her crib. Sometimes she made baby noises:
a burp or sigh. It was…pleasant, to have her there. The sound of her
helped soothe my frazzled nerves. And the longer I spent with the list of
cabins and the list of refugees, the more frazzled my nerves became.

Where the hell was I supposed to *put* everyone? Voyager was never made to
hold this many people. The refugees had more than doubled our population.
I’d cleared out the hanger, but they wouldn’t all fit in there, and some
were too ill to sleep on camp cots in any case. I was forced to double-up
even our officers. Paris got Harry. I put Sam Wildman and Puff in with Kes,
Neelix and Riaka. B’Elanna got the Delaney sisters– *that* would be
interesting. They could compare notes on Paris. Even Tuvok was given a
roommate: the Vulcan ensign Vorik. It only seemed fair to inflict them on
each other; at least they wouldn’t quarrel over the climate control. Other
matches weren’t nearly so easy, or so obvious and, in the end, most of my
work had to be scratched and redone. In any case, there was no longer a
question of Kathryn and I putting off sharing a cabin but, seeing our names
together on the roster, I hesitated, hit my communicator pin. “Chakotay to
Janeway.”

She answered promptly. “Janeway here.” I wondered where she was and what
she’d been doing and if she’d had that gash on her head seen to or had
decided it would take too much time and gone off to some other task.

“You got a minute? Can you come by my office?” I didn’t want to discuss
this over the comline.

“Is it urgent or can it wait half an hour?”

“It can wait.”

“Fine. I’ll be up as soon as I can, commander.”

‘Commander.’ She must be where others could hear. On duty, she avoids too
much familiarity in front of anyone but the bridge crew, and she doesn’t do
it there often. Then again, I don’t call her ‘Kath,’ either: another of the
small ways we try to keep our private and public life separate. We probably
worried about it more than our crew did, with a few exceptions like Tuvok
and Paris. Both of them had adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards me,
so I’d been on my best behavior of late. And not just for them. After that
idiot stunt of proposing to Kathryn in the middle of the night, I was
nervous of putting my foot in my mouth again.

She’d been very good about it. She hadn’t laughed at me, or gotten angry
and thrown me out. She hadn’t even said ‘no.’ Of course, she hadn’t said
‘yes’ yet, either– she hadn’t given me any answer at all– but under the
circumstances, I chose to consider that a ‘definite maybe.’

It had taken only twenty seconds and the totally stunned look on her face
for me to realize that I’d not only jumped the gun, I was halfway down the
race course while she still stood at the starting gate. So I’d scrambled to
my feet and started apologizing before she could reply, just to keep her
from saying ‘no.’ She’d finally put a hand over my mouth, then hauled me
inside her cabin and let me stay the night. It hadn’t, quite, been a
consolation prize. But since, we hadn’t discussed my proposal and I’d
consciously refrained from bringing up anything–like sharing a
cabin–which might make her feel pressured.

While I waited for her to arrive, I put through a call to Tuvok, as well. I
feared the presence of the kin on Voyager was going to produce more
problems than just cramped quarters. He answered from his duty station on
the bridge, which was convenient. This was a conversation I didn’t want our
guests to overhear.

“Tuvok, I’d like security to keep an eye on crew and kin both for the next
few days. I have a feeling things might be a little bumpy as they settle
in.”

A long pause. “I had already intended to do so, commander.”

Did the irritation in his voice stem from getting an order from me, or from
having me impinge on what he perceived to be his turf?

Whichever it was, I decided to ignore it. “Good, I’m glad to hear that.
Chakotay out.”

“Commander,” he said before I could close the link.

“Yes?”

“What precisely did you mean by ‘bumpy’?”

I tapped idly at a PADD while considering how to answer. “It’s easier to be
magnanimous to the underdog when it doesn’t risk your own neck. This rescue
cost us. I don’t think we have any idea yet how much. More, the kin
are…different. I haven’t talked much with them yet, but already I can see
it.”

“You fear they may represent a danger to Voyager.”

“No–not in the way you mean, not directly. But yeah, I guess you could say
they might represent a danger to Voyager in the sense that they’re a root
waiting for us to trip over. I’d like to avoid tripping. This is one case
where ship’s security and crew morale overlap, I think.”

“Your metaphor is colorful, as always, commander, nevertheless our
observations would seem to be in agreement on this matter. I, also, would
prefer to avoid ‘tripping’ and will take your warning under advisement.
Tuvok out.”

Janeway finally arrived at my door a little over half an hour after we’d
spoken. Her hair had fallen out of its bun and she’d braided it down her
back. She looked as beat as I felt. I’d have offered her coffee had the
replicators been working. I’d have offered her a backrub but didn’t want to
send the wrong message. This conversation topic was touchy enough.

“Well?” she said. It wasn’t quite a snap, but she was too tired –and I was
too familiar–for her to pretend to politeness. I took that as a
compliment.

“I’ve been rearranging cabin assignments, to accommodate the additional
people.”

“And?” She just blinked at me.

“And… we need to double-up. I know we haven’t talked about it, and I
don’t want you to think I’m trying to pressure–”

She didn’t give me a chance to finish. “Do whatever’s necessary, Pesh. As
Tuvok would say, it’s only logical… and it’s not as if the crew hasn’t
already figured out that we share a bed. Now, I have to get back to
engineering; they need the extra pair of hands.”

Her easy acceptance of our cabin assignment made me bold. “You should get
some sleep first.”

“So should you, but I don’t see you giving in to it!”

I held up hands in surrender. “Whoa! It’s not ‘giving in’ to get a bit of
shut-eye if the alternative is falling over in your tracks. It’s one thing
to sit up here and shuffle names on a cabin-chart; it’s another to fool
around with dangerous equipment when you’re too tired to see straight.” I
met her eyes, gave a lopsided grin. “Look what happened to me on
Abbyzh-dira–and I wasn’t even tired, just distracted.”

She dropped her gaze, glanced away. “All right. I’ll sleep soon. But they
really do need me.”

“So does this ship,” I said softly. “You’re too valuable to get yourself
hurt doing engineer’s work; I’m your XO–it’s my *job* to say that.”

She frowned and wandered along my office wall, stopped at Riaka’s crib and
lifted her up. “I know,” she said finally, ran a finger over the baby’s
forehead, stroked the line of freckles along one temple. “I know.” She put
Riaka back down, turned to face me. “Give me another hour, then I’ll rest.
Chakotay–*nothing works.* We took major damage; you know that. If the
Hakaalt come back before we can get these people to their safe-haven
station, we haven’t got an ice-cube’s chance in hell and whether or not I
get sleep won’t matter. So give me another hour.”

I nodded once, shortly. “Safe haven?”

“There’s a station about five days out from here, at warp five–which is
the best we can manage at present. They were headed for it. We can drop
them off there, where they can join the rest of their people.” She headed
for the door, paused as it slid open, one hand on the jamb. “Oh–you can
move your things in whenever you find a spare minute. I assume it’s my
cabin we’re keeping?”

“Yours is bigger.”

“Captain’s privilege.” She smiled once, wearily, and left.

I returned Riaka to her father, then stopped by sickbay on my way back to
my own cabin to pack my things. I wanted to check on the med staff. A
holographic doctor might not get tired, but it was important for our
biological one not to wear himself out entirely.

I admit, I wasn’t prepared for the sight which met me. I’d heard about it
from Cherel, but I wasn’t prepared. Injured people were lodged everywhere.
The worst lay on diagnostic beds for which only half the scanners appeared
to function. Others lay across waiting room chairs, on camp beds placed
along the walls, even on blankets on the floor itself. Many were
unconscious; a few who were still awake watched me from incurious eyes,
eyes that had seen too much. I was momentarily launched back to the CDMZ
and the aftermath of battles there. But in the CDMZ, we’d had medical
supplies, functioning medical equipment. This…. This was horrible.
Something wrenched, down low in my gut. Half of me wanted to run. The other
half propelled my feet forward. Numb, I moved among them, spoke a little to
the ones still awake. I don’t know what I said. What I said probably wasn’t
very important anyway. The EMH had seen me, but he was busy with a patient.
Vulcanoid-green blood was pooling on the floor under the bed. From the
expression on the doctor’s face, he was losing whatever fight he was
waging.

I found Kes and Anyas curled up together in a corner, asleep, her head on
his shoulder. I wondered what Neelix would say to that but they looked more
like siblings than lovers; it was more than shared features. Something
indefinable in their posture marked it. Dark circles shadowed both their
eyes, and their medical scrubs were stained with splashes of blood. A pair
of delicate-eared angels, fair and dusky, caught in a war zone.

I heard steps behind me, turned. It was Magda. She looked at the sleeping
pair, smiled slightly and motioned me away. I followed, noticed the doctor
was no where to be seen and the patient had a white sheet pulled up over
the face. I wondered how many had been lost who might have been saved had
our equipment been working properly. With a last glance around the macabre
room, I escaped behind her into the hall. Silently, she set a hand on my
arm and led me away; I was content to let her decide where.

Aeroroponics–just down the hall from sickbay. It was empty of people. A
number of the non-aeroponic, soil-based planters had been damaged; some
were fixed already, probably by Magda. Returning to the long box on a
table, she picked up where she must have left off, righting stems and
adding soil where it had spilled, tapping it down gently. I came over to
watch, found myself just staring at the side of the silver planter.

“I know,” she said softly after a few minutes. “Accabler. Overwhelming.”
She glanced up at me, brown eyes soft. “Hurts to the soul–those you were
born to heal, Minou. Hurts to the body, and on such a scale…. Some feel
it too much. Stay out of there, cheri. For now. There will be souls enough
for salving.”

She lifted the planter, prepared to carry it back. “Let me.” I took it from
her and returned it to its spot. She let me; she knew I needed to *do*
something. I brought her the next tray. She went to work. “I was hoping to
run into you,” I said after a minute.

Her eyes flashed up, back down. “And so you have found me. Que me veux-tu?”

“Cherel–”

“Ah–comprends. Chaim brought her, earlier. We have talked. She is
frightened. But she is no longer thinking to do violence to herself, or to
the child–grace a Dieu.”

Relieved, I sighed and propped myself on the edge of the table, folded
hands in my lap. “That’s good to hear. I didn’t know what to say to her.”

She nodded, tapped soil, did not look up. “And children are not a topic of
ease for you, grace a cette espece de vache, Seska?”

I snorted softly. We were silent a while then.

“You are making new cabin assignments–non?”

I nodded.

“I have a request to make. Assign me to Anyas.”

It took a moment, for me to understand that. At first, I was just confused.
Then it hit me– like the proverbial ton of bricks. “*Anyas*?” I said–or
squeaked, really.

She looked up. “Etre etonne, Minou? Surprised that such a young man might
fall in love with this plain old woman?”

I opened my mouth, then shut it, opened it and shut it. I must have looked
like a beached fish. Her smile was slightly bitter.

I admit it: I was astonished. I loved Magda. I had almost from the
beginning. But I loved her like a mother–or maybe an aunt; she wasn’t
quite old enough to be my mother. By contrast, Anyas was at least a decade
my junior. I pushed myself off the table. “Magda, he must be thirty years
younger than you –!”

“Twenty-two.”

“– and a *flirt*! He’s a pretty boy flirt who’ll chase anything on two
legs! Love you? I can’t– Magda, I can’t *countenance* this! He doesn’t
love anyone but himself! He’s going to break your heart!”

She had put down her spade to glare. “Chakotay–I did not ask for your
approval. I am too old to be needing such. And if you think he loves none
but himself, then jealousy has blinded you. When did you cease to see
behind a man’s appearance? Or do you only do so when the face is not a
beauty’s? He no more asked for his looks than I did for mine. Oui–he
enjoys them and is not ashamed. But he is not so foolish that he counts his
worth by them. There is a man beneath the flesh–a man who spent the past
fifteen hours on his feet, fighting to save total strangers. Why do you
think I came to the sickbay? I was worried. I could not convince him to
stop even long enough to eat, earlier. He is an *empath*, Chakotay. He
could not stop while he felt their pain. He was weeping with it. If that is
a man who loves none but himself, we should all be so selfish!”

Her words knocked the wind out of my sails. It was true that Anyas made me
uncomfortable–and jealous. *Had* I let that blind me? Or had she let his
glib tongue blind her?

Seeing me speechless, she went on, almost conversationally. “Do you not
think I have asked myself why he should choose me? Entendu! He, so
beautiful and I, this old mare.” But she grinned. “He is but one year older
than my eldest son would have been, had he lived. Yet he has never….”
Face thoughtful, she trailed off. “There are dynamics, to all
relationships. With him, there was never a sense of age between us. I
cannot explain it but he does not and never has felt as a son, to me.”

Her smile turned wry. “But this which has happened between us–ca, c’etait
imprevu! It was most unexpected.” She laughed. “He is not, he says, one for
steady relationships. The Kithtri do not see sexuality as we do:
heterosexual or homosexual or in-between. They divide themselves into those
given to steadiness and those given to the gamble. Anyas calls himself one
given to gamble. And yet –” She shrugged and indicated herself with a
little smile. It was almost shy, like a schoolgirl with her first
boyfriend. “And I–Mon Dieu! That I should feel as this again, after Andre
died. And over a boy!” She laughed. “But such a boy! Now truly, I am
Madeleine d’Esperance!” Then she eyed me, as if she could *feel* my
hesitance. “J’ai l’impression que tu nesites encore.”

“I just…. Magda, I don’t want you to get hurt. And I’m nervous that he’ll
hurt you.”

She nodded, a bit sagely. “So, too, have I wondered.” Then she smiled that
brilliant, Magda-smile. “And so I have become the one who is gambling! But
I have never been one to gamble on a hand with only a pair, Minou. Et tu!”
She laughed. “You sound, of Anyas and me, as does Tom Paris when he speaks
of ma capitaine and you! He does not quite trust you not to hurt *her*.”

She was comparing me to *Paris*? And yet–and as much as I didn’t like the
idea–maybe she had a point. It made me grumpy. I crossed my arms and
sulked. I knew I was sulking, but I couldn’t help it. Still grinning, she
set down her spade and came around the table to pat one cheek fondly, kiss
the other. “Mon fils coquin. A friend of the devil is a friend of yours?
Then you and mon Anyas should do well for one another: un coquin et un
coquet font une paire poliment!”

A groan was the only possible response. ‘A rogue and a flirt make a
polished pair.’ She did that sort of thing on purpose to torture me, I was
sure.

“Maintenant! Go on and let me do for these plants what mon Anyas does for
his patients.” She made shooing motions. “Skedaddle, you would say.”

So I left her there, wondering what I was going to say to Kathryn about
*this*, and how she’d take it. Magda and Anyas. The more I thought back,
remembered, the more I realized that I should have seen it coming. They’d
been all but inseparable for the eight or nine weeks since Anyas had
undergone his Starfleet training by Tuvok. I’d assumed it was just Magda’s
tendency to mother hen the underdog. Maybe, at first, it had been. But the
idea of Magda and the Prince of Lilies sharing a bed…. That was like
imagining Kes and Neelix: the princess and her loyal frog, except that in
this case, it was Magda who had the ball–or heart–of gold. Her prince was
just a strutting, gilded flower.

And it was my ill luck to run into him, too, on the way to the lift. He
must have woken finally and decided to find a bed to sleep in. He’d taken
off his scrubs and balled them up in one hand, but there was still blood on
his uniform, and a streak of it on one olive cheek. His typically curled
and oiled hair was simply flat and he smelled rank from his own sweat.
There was nothing gilded about him now. He nodded to me as we passed, then
paused.

I don’t know how he knew–empaths weren’t telepaths, but there were times
they came damn close. He looked sideways at me. We stood side-by-side,
facing opposite directions in the hallway. Crewmembers passed us, coming
and going. “She told you,” he said.

“Yes.”

He nodded, looked me up and down, glance shrewd. “You don’t care much for
me, do you, commander?”

I really didn’t want to have this conversation in the hallway; I rubbed the
bridge of my nose. “That’s not it, Anyas. I think you’re growing on us–on
me. I’m just…. Magda is…very special to me. I don’t want her hurt.”

I’d seen Anyas play the trickster, I’d seen him yank chains, I’d even seen
him irritated with people–but I don’t think until that moment I’d ever
seen him truly *angry*. His brown face flushed, his lion-gold eyes
narrowed. For just a moment, I thought he might hit me. Then he hissed. “If
you think that *I* want Magda hurt, then you are a greater fool than ever I
took you for!” He breasted up to me. He’s not small. He’s not as big as I
am, but he’s not small. “I know what you think of me, commander. You see
only the shell. Do you think I have no heart inside? Do you think I cannot
*feel* like any man? Or love? Well, I do!” He thumped his chest, stepped
back then, his expression one of perfect disgust. “Look to your own house
before you condemn mine. There are those who wonder if *you* can love the
one you have chosen!”

He blinked abruptly, seemed a little startled, as if anger had led him to
say more than he had meant to. I must have looked just as startled. His
eyes dropped, his lips thinned. For a moment, he appeared ready to
speak–perhaps to apologize–then he shook his head and walked on. I
followed him with my gaze. He disappeared into the aeroponics bay. The hiss
of the doors snapped me out of my shock; I shook my head. An ensign hurried
past, nodded absently to me. At least no one had been around to hear Anyas’
accusations.

Disquieted, I made my way back to my cabin and packed. It did not take
long; even after almost two and a half years on Voyager, I had not acquired
much. “Avoid attachment to *things*, Chakotay.” So my father had always
taught me. Seven trips to Kathryn’s quarters and I was done, then I called
Qiral to tell him the room was free; he could move someone into it.
Finally, finished for the moment, I collapsed on Kathryn’s couch, listened
to her sleeping in the other room. She snores; it’s charming. But the fact
that all my knocking about had not woken her betrayed how truly exhausted
she had been.

I touched the rough fabric of her couch, smiled as I remembered our first
evening on it.

Did some of the crew doubt my intentions, or my perseverance? Did Kathryn?
I might have just chalked up Anyas’ outburst to pure resentment, except for
the look on his face. He hadn’t been lying. “Look to your own house….”
Anyas had said. Maybe I needed to look at it harder than I had been.

Rising I walked into the bedroom, stared down at the woman who was my
captain, my friend, and now, my lover. But did I *love* her? On the face of
it, that seemed a strange thing to ask. I’d proposed marriage to her. And
yet….

I shook my head, sat down on the bed edge. She made a little snorting noise
in her sleep, shifted position, turning unconsciously towards me. I touched
her hair, the bared skin of one shoulder. She was so fair. So beautiful and
fair. She made my heart ache.

But would I love her if she looked like Magda? God knows, if anyone
deserved to be loved by Adonis incarnate, it was Magda. The thought made me
snort. Adonis and Aphrodite were just one face of an older pair: Atthis and
Cybele, Osiris and Isis. The son-lover and the great mother. And yet Magda
had said she didn’t think of Anyas as her son. Maybe it took an empath to
be able to see past appearance and age. I couldn’t think of any other
reason for him to attach himself to her; there was no obvious gain in it
for him. But was it the *right* kind of love? Or was Anyas just homesick,
and grateful for her kindnesses?

Who made you his judge?, I asked myself. How could I know what Anyas felt
when he looked at Magda as she slept? Perhaps she was beautiful to him.
Perhaps she made his heart ache, too. Only time would tell. It was the same
criteria Paris and Tuvok were applying to me. I unzipped my uniform top,
pulled off the turtleneck, then stepped out of my pants and boots and
slipped into bed beside the woman I loved.

End Part II

—————————————-

—————————————-

Section III: Janeway

…….Now the hedgerow

Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

Of snow, a bloom more sudden

Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,

Not in the scheme of generation.

Where is summer, the unimaginable

Zero summer?

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.”

Since I accepted my first captaincy, there have been a lot of times I’ve
wondered what particular form of dementia possessed me. The day after the
fight with the Hakaalt was one of those times. Voyager was a crippled
wreck, we were already feeling the added burden of our refugees. About the
only good news I’d had was that the ‘dud’ missile the Hakaalt had fielded
against us at the last appeared to actually have been a dud–at least so
near as we could tell, with the sensors toast and no manpower to spare for
an inch-by inch examination of the hull.

No manpower to spare. That was… that was an understatement.

The crew–God. Six dead, and the injured list seemed longer than could be
possible. Of those of us who were well, none had gotten enough sleep to
count as “rest”–there was too much to do just to bring basic systems back
on line. Voyager was ready to move again, thanks to B’Elanna, and Carey,
and all of the Engineering crew, and Harry, and me. We’d jury-rigged,
patched, cobbled, kludged, prayed over, and down-right lied to the entire
propulsion system, and were now able to crawl along at warp five–if we
were careful. Warp six if we didn’t mind risking a very abrupt end to our
journey. Our sensor systems were still barely operational. As for the ship
as a whole, we had basic life support functions and not much more. Even
those were being pushed to the limit; too much was damaged for us to have
full function, and we were having to carry the additional burden of the
refugees.

I didn’t even want to think about sickbay. I’d tried to give what comfort I
could to the wounded, after I’d been treated the night before. I hadn’t
managed to do more than hold a hand or two, and murmur a few words to one
of the few conscious victims, before I’d been chased out by an irate
Med-tech Kou. Tired beyond caring about protocols, she told me just what
she thought of captains who insisted on traipsing around playing “Lady
Bountiful gracing the sickroom.” It was an impressive tirade, precise and
effective, complete with annotations, examples, gestures, and graphic
summaries. I hadn’t known the quiet young woman had it in her. Unsure what
my role was, if it wasn’t to try to reassure my people when they were in
need, I’d beaten a hasty and not very dignified retreat.

Even so, I’d managed to see the extent of the problem. Between our injured
and Star March’s the place looked like a cross between a morgue, a plague
ward, and an abattoir. The most severe problems had finally been treated,
and the flood slowed. But things were not good. Not just in
sickbay–anywhere you looked on Voyager there was something gone wrong.

First thing that day was a small confab in my readyroom; just me, Chakotay,
Tuvok, B’Elanna, and the Holodoctor.

I sat at my desk, and looked at the weary faces. Even Tuvok and the
holodoctor seemed tired. As for B’Elanna and Chakotay–my two Maquis
officers looked too limp to have ever been hot-blooded rebels.

I sighed. I couldn’t even offer them coffee. Down in the mess hall Neelix
was doing what he could, serving the last ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’ from the
storage holds in a disgustingly dilute form, trying to eke out the limited
supplies. But the replicators had given up the ghost. No coffee for Mama
Janeway and her little brood. It made me wish I could bite someone. Coffee
is second only to air as a fundamental necessity of life, so far as I’m
concerned. I crossed my arms on my desk, to keep my hands from wandering in
search of a non-existent mug, and started things rolling. “All right,
everyone. Let’s have the worst.”

B’Elanna frowned. “Unless we get help, Engineering and Maintenance are
going to have all they can do to keep Voyager functioning at current
levels. With the replicators down we’re having to manufacture all the
replacement parts old-style. Even if we could figure a way to bring the
replicators back up, we don’t have some of the elements we’d need for some
of the work.”

Chakotay leaned his elbows on his knees. “C’mon, wonder-techie. I’ve seen
you pull miracles out of ether.”

She glared sourly at her friend and mentor. “Forget it, Ch’kotay. Voyager’s
tits-up and floating on the top of the goldfish bowl. If you don’t believe
me, ask her.” She twisted her head to indicate me. “If the kin didn’t have
that station for us to aim for, we’d be in real trouble. I may be able to
keep things running long enough to get us to a repair dock, if we can get
there in under a week or so. Longer than that, and it’s anyone’s guess.”

Chakotay and Tuvok both looked at me, and I nodded. “She’s right. We do
have an option we haven’t looked into, yet. If Qiral agrees, we could take
the Star March in tow, cannibalize it for whatever parts and materials we
could put to use, and leave them the wreckage to salvage once we got to the
station. We get the use of the hulk now, they have something to sell for
scrap metal once they’re back with their own people. As close to ‘win-win’
as we’re likely to get.”

B’Elanna leaned back, and sighed. “Better than nothing. If the kin allow
it, it gives me *something* to work with.”

Tuvok stirred, restlessly. “Will the kin allow it? If my own observations
and those of my officers are correct, there is a certain–lack of
goodwill–on the part of the refugees.”

Chakotay shot Tuvok a worried sidewise look. When he spoke, he seemed to be
trying to pass on a low-key message, as much to my Security Chief as the
rest of us gathered there. “Gratitude comes hard, and most of them are in
shock. And we don’t know anything about their culture, or how they got in
that mess.” He looked over at me.

“I’m going to be talking to Qiral after this meeting is over. We’ll see
what we find out then.” I rubbed the back of my neck. The muscles were
tight, and had the achy feel of long-term fatigue. “Meanwhile, what do you
and Tuvok have to say about the general situation?”

Tuvok gave Chakotay a small nod, ceding the lead to my XO. He shot Tuvok a
crooked grimace, and drew a breath. “Nothing good. Morale just took a
header. I’m afraid none of us are used to real emergency-disaster
conditions. Even after everything we’ve faced out here, this one is… it’s
bad. No quick fixes. Once folks begin to feel the pinch we may have real
trouble.” He gave me an apologetic look. “I’ll do what I can to try to keep
a lid on things, but even Starfleet training and Maquis experience with
tough times is going to be stretched thin, once the pressure begins to
build up. In a couple of days we’re going to be down to doling out
emergency rations, the crowding is going to start mattering, and we’re
going to have to deal with the kin. Trying to blend two cultures isn’t
easy.”

If he could have waved a wand and made everything better, I knew he would
have. He couldn’t. I’d gotten to know him and his sense of personal
responsibility well enough to suspect he felt guilty for not having a
five-second answer to a set of problems that could have kept an experienced
disaster relief team scrambling for five months–or even five years. I made
a private note to myself to see if I couldn’t bully him out of that. I need
his commitment, but the self-blame is not so valuable, and it’s been known
to provoke him to stupid choices. Like that idiotic thing with Seska and
the replicator tech. Better to head off any melodramatic acts of heroism
and self-sacrifice before they could get out of hand. “Very good,
commander. Do what you can, and I’ll see what I can do to help you once
I’ve had a chance to talk to Qiral. He may have a few suggestions we
wouldn’t think of. Tuvok?”

My Security Chief looked grim as only a Vulcan can. “I can give you no
reassurance, captain. Our weaponry systems are reduced to less that forty
percent of optimal capacity. We have limited shield functions.” His eyes
flickered over to B’Elanna. “At this point Lieutenant Torres has failed to
present me with a functional analysis of the Hakaalt weapon, and I am
unable to recommend an appropriate defense strategy to deal with it. Are
you making any progress in that area, lieutenant?”

She beetled her brow in a fierce frown. “Don’t count on it. If I’d had a
week to set up and calibrate a special sensor rig, and then been able to
take readings a couple times over, I might have a chance of telling you how
that thing worked. As it is…” She turned to me. “Captain, you’ve seen the
readings we did get– There’s *nothing* in the data to tell me what’s going
on. I’m not sure I’d know what to look for in any case: that’s one strange
phenomenon. For all I can tell, that spider web is black magic.”

I nodded, reluctantly. “She’s right, Tuvok. She can’t theorize in a vacuum.
Even if we had more information, I have a bad feeling that thing functions
on the kind of odd principal that good scientists spend their entire lives
trying to figure out. The odds are you’re going to have to come up with
defenses based on what it does, not on how it does it.”

He nodded, reluctantly. “Very well. If it is unavoidable there is no point
in dwelling on it. As for the rest of the security situation: as the
commander has indicated, morale levels are low, and likely to sink
further–and there is already some indication that the less stable of the
crew are inclined to place the blame for our current situation on either
you, or on the kin. There is no indication of open rebellion, but if
current conditions continue or if the situation worsens the sociological
conditions for mutiny will approach optimal. My security forces are too
limited to successfully cover all bases. My recommendation is that we
attain the neutral space station with all alacrity, return the kin refugees
to the care of their own people, and proceed with the repair of Voyager as
promptly as possible.”

“That is the plan, Tuvok.” It was hard to keep the sting out of my voice.
“Very well. Do what you can, and keep Chakotay and me informed.” I turned
to the sofa, where the holodoctor’s image sat primly, “drinking” a cup of
coffee generated, as he was, by one of the little hologenerators we’d
salted around the ship. I suppose the “coffee” was just part of his social
programming–a little detail to make people comfortable around him. If so,
it was a failure. It only made me wish that either he and his cup were
‘real,’ so I could hold him up for his caffeine, or that I was a
holocaptain and could drink holocoffee along with him. “Doctor, your
assessment of the medical situation?”

“Utterly impossible.”

I’d love to get my hands on his programmers. I really would. He delivered
that line with a tart conciseness more fitting to a punch line than a
death-knell. “Define ‘impossible.'”

He arched his eyebrows. “The major facilities of my sickbay are off-line,
the majority of them damaged both in their computer functions and in the
physical hardware that supports them. The pharmaceutical and organo-medical
replicators have ceased functioning, as have all the replicators on ship.
We’ve been reduced to using hand-held equipment designed for emergency
medical treatment, and specialized treatments, and those are showing signs
of over-use. My staff is limited, and currently so exhausted that I
wouldn’t trust them to remove a hangnail, much less attempt any difficult
medical procedures. We have been able to address the worst physical damages
to both Voyager’s crew and the kin refugees, but are having to trust the
natural healing functions of the victims to deal with all but immediately
life-threatening conditions–which means that over sixty percent of the
individuals aboard Voyager are now ambulatory, but uncomfortable, hampered
by injuries, and at risk of further damage if their own bodies are unable
to heal themselves promptly. Furthermore, what analysis I have been able to
do, given the condition of my equipment, would indicate that the kin carry
numerous pathogenic illnesses to which Voyager’s crewmembers are
susceptible. Likewise we are exposing the kin to disease. With sickbay in
the condition it’s in, there is nothing I can do to prevent, cure, or
contain the epidemics that we are about to experience. Is that a sufficient
definition of ‘impossible,’ or shall I continue?”

“No. I believe that will serve. Thank you, doctor.”

He nodded, and took another sip of his coffee. “I believe that there is a
term for the current situation, captain. We are ‘up shit creek.'”

“I’d say that that’s probably a fair enough description.” I stood. “Well,
then, we break out the paddles, aim for the kin’s station, and pray for the
best. Thank you all.” I touched a button on my desk console. “Paris, has
Master Qiral arrived yet?”

“Been waiting for the last fifteen minutes.”

“Good enough, lieutenant. We’re done now. If you’d send him in.” I looked
at my officers. “I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I know you have
other things you need to be doing.” Chakotay and B’Elanna grinned wryly.
Tuvok and the holodoctor simply nodded. “Be sure you make a point of
keeping each other updated. Even little details can make a big difference.
Dismissed.”

The holodoctor snapped out of existence, and Tuvok and B’Elanna moved
towards the door, stepping aside as Master Qiral entered. Chakotay lagged
back a moment, trying to offer what support he could. But I wanted to deal
with the kin leader one-one-one, captain to captain. Even Chakotay would
have been one person too many. I smiled, as comfortably as I could manage,
and stepped forward to meet our dark bull of a ‘guest.’ “Welcome, Master
Qiral. I’m sorry we kept you waiting. Things are a bit less–orderly–than
usual aboard Voyager. Thank you for your patience. Commander, I’ll see you
later on. Lunch at Neelix’s? Such as it is?” Chakotay nodded, taking the
cue, and slipped out the door along with the rest, leaving me alone with
Qiral.

It was hard to know how to respond to him. Nothing about him seemed to
match my own expectations of a competent professional commander. It wasn’t
just the minotaur look of him, though that was tough. There was no more
connection between him and a stud bull than there was between me and a
Delamide sea monkey: it was just a coincidental resemblance. But it still
took discipline to see past it. By my standards he was untidy. Rather like
Chakotay and his Maquis when we first encountered them–down at the heels,
rag-tag, dressed in civilian clothes, all scruffy and worn. Qiral’s showy,
damaged outfit was the diametric opposite of Starfleet’s trim, clean-cut
uniforms. It had been ‘loud’ to begin with, and now it was burned, and torn
as well. The result was hardly reassuring, or professional.

He smelled, too: smelled of scorch, and chemical contaminants, and under
that was the determined odor of whatever species he was. A sort of
sweetish, funky smell that caught in my throat.

I waved him towards the sofa, not entirely sure he’d fit into the chairs my
staff normally occupied. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you any refreshments,
Master Qiral.”

He dropped wearily into the cushions. “That isn’t a problem, captain. You
and your people are already too generous. We live by your grace, and
breathe your air. You’ve shared what room you have, and treated our ill and
injured. I can hardly complain that you aren’t in a position to offer me
cold chami and a plate of gam pastries.”

“Thank you for understanding.” I sat in one of the armchairs. It was a
small thing, but somehow I was glad to be forgiven the current mayhem. I
try to run a tight ship, and even knowing there was no way around it,
Voyager’s disarray was unsettling to me. Frustrating in more than a purely
practical sense. It was nice he understood. “How are your people settling
in? Any problems?”

He sighed, and rubbed his eyes. “Nothing beyond a few confusions about room
assignments. Nothing that can be helped, anyway. We’ve lost most of the
kin-calling, and the shock is just beginning to settle in. And… I’m
sorry, but your ship, and your people are strange to us. Threatening, in
some ways. My people…,” he looked wearily at the floor, “My people aren’t
in very good condition to deal with ‘threatening’ right now.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

“Not if I can help it.” He looked me in the eye, then, calm, and patient.
“You saved us, captain. No matter what, that will count for something.” He
stopped then, his attention seeming to lapse.

“How much rest have you gotten since the attack?”

He snorted. “Rest?” He shook his head. “After this talk–then maybe I’ll
get some rest.”

Hours. He’d been up for hours longer than Chakotay or me, or any of our
crew, except perhaps for Tuvok and the other Vulcans. “Master Qiral, even
captains need sleep.”

He heaved himself up from the sofa, moved restlessly. “The children need to
be placed with new fosters. Most of them lost their own raisers. And so
many of the calling lost their mated-ones. There are the sick, and the
injured down in your medicine rooms. Rodria still isn’t up. My
heart-soothers are dead. The animals need care, and your people don’t know
the keeping of them.” He groaned. “That second voice of yours meant well,
but he tied the aralim–what your people are calling the Oliphaunts–all
apart, and out of their correct order, and before I knew about it they’d
wrecked the holding pen for the slime serpent, trying to reassemble the
herd structure.” His hands flexed, and he crossed his arms over his chest.
I suddenly realized that, however alien and bestial he looked, he shared
one thing in common with my own species: the tight black fur that covered
his face was made even darker with tears. “‘Reassemble the herd structure.’
That’s what we’re all trying to do, with less chance than the poor old
aralim. At least their herd all lived. Star March is dead. Tava comfort me,
my kin-calling is dead.”

I didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know what the rules or the taboos were
for his people, didn’t know if an attempt to comfort him would be welcome,
or an insult. The readyroom seemed tight, and small, filled with Qiral and
his mourning.

When I was sure he was in control again, I asked what I’d wanted to know
since the whole thing began. “Master, why were the Hakaalt trying to kill
you? Had your people committed a crime in their space?”

He shook his horns, angry. “No crime but being kin.” He sighed. “Master
Janeway, the kin are–we are a people born from the Hakaalt conquests. The
descendants of the few handfuls to escape from all the worlds the Hakaalt
have invaded. We’ve lived by whatever method came to hand. Patched our
communities and families together by the laws of necessity. We’ve put up
with whatever the Hakaalt and the universe threw us, and we’ve survived.
For centuries the Hakaalt have hated us. But now–they’ve caught flame with
a new interpretation of an old philosophy. The last few years they’ve been
getting more aggressive, more willing to hunt us down, where before they
endured our existence, no matter how much they despised us. Now –in the
last weeks things have become impossible. The ‘cleansing’ has started, and
they’re committed to one goal: purging all eftri from ‘Hakaalt space,’ and
consigning the ‘corrupt’ to the Waren-Pyre.” He turned, and came to stand
in front of me. “If it’s any comfort to you, captain, they’d have hunted
you down, too, once they finished with us–I’m not even sure they’d have
given up if you’d left what they call ‘their’ space. To them, there is
Hakaalt, and there is eftri–corruption. And right now the law of the
Hakaalt-tche is that all eftri must go to feed the Pyre.”

“I see. Not the friendliest people I’ve ever run across.” I stood, and
walked over to stand at the viewscreen. “What are the odds they’ll be
back?”

“Certain. Right now they’ll be reporting back to the fleet, and working up
a sense of righteous wrath that eftri had the nerve to destroy a Purge
Ship. The only thing that saved you before was that the Alte-commander
Vegeis claimed you, and you defeated him: that bought you time. He ordered
them to treat it as a private duel, and they did. It’s a compliment of a
sort–the Hakaalt have their own strange codes of honor. But they’ll be
back. In the long run they’ll be unable to see you as anything but eftri,
and eftri can’t be allowed the pride of having destroyed a Hakaalt
Purge-master.”

“Mmmm. In that case we’d better push for that station of yours as fast as
we can. My chief engineer wants to use the Star March for parts–do you
have any objection to us towing her along, and getting what we can from
her? We’ll have a better chance of making the station that way, and you’ll
be able to salvage whatever is left of her once you’re there.”

He shrugged. “No. No objections. She’s dead, and we mourn her, but better
she gives what she can so that we live. My people will rest easier if they
have the chance to dispose of the dead anyway. Is that all?”

I nodded. “For now. Where can I reach you, if I need you?”

“Sickbay? I think that’s what you call it. Or down in the holds with the
animals. I don’t know. I’ll be where I’m needed.”

I crossed to him, and gingerly touched the dirty, torn sleeve of his shirt.
It had a greasy, stiff feel. “My first officer told me yesterday that as
captain I owed it to my people to rest. I didn’t want to accept it, but he
was right. Your people need you the same way. Give yourself some sleep.
You’ll be more good to them that way.”

He lowered his head, and closed tired eyes. “I’ll… I’ll think about it.”

“Do.” I walked him to the door.

“Very well.” He turned and gave that formal nod that seemed to be his
version of a courtly bow. “My thanks again, captain. I’ll tell my people to
count yours kin. You deserve it, and–and it may help.”

Once he left, I went on to the thousand and one other things that needed
doing. It didn’t occur to me until much later to wonder why it was so
important that my people and I be considered ‘kin.’ Even with Chakotay’s
warnings, it was hard for me to see how we could be threatening, other than
because of the obvious craziness and confusion we had going on aboard. All
in all we looked rather sensible, orderly, and reassuring–just the sort of
folks I’d want to rescue me, if I were in their position. It didn’t seem
that big a problem. For that matter, it didn’t occur to me to wonder if my
own people would grant the kin, for whom they had lost so much, the same
compliment. After all–we’re Starfleet. Weird is what we do… and the kin
were very weird. It ought to be right up our alley.

So I shoved the topic to one side, and got on with more pressing problems.

First down to engineering again. B’Elanna was having kittens–or would have
been if she’d had a moment to spare. As it was she was trying to see if she
could intimidate the warp drives into obeying her without any control
system to stabilize the reactions, or relay commands. I told her, as
quietly as possible, that I didn’t think she could. Then I went up to Life
Support.

Siva Rajputra was sitting on the open edge of a filtration unit, the wall
panel pulled back to allow access to the oxygen transfer sheets beyond. He
was swearing in fluent Hindi–which is a bit of a joke. He was brought up
in London, and only knows enough Hindi to give him a vivid cursing
vocabulary.

Siv was one of the fringe benefits of coming out of isolation and
seclusion. I’d technically been aware of him all along, but it wasn’t until
Magda had dragged him along to a meeting of the circle a month or two back
that I’d realized that the reserved professional facade I’d seen previously
was a careful construct, as much so as my own professional image. The
person who hid behind it was, like my ‘hidden Kathryn,’ a crook-humored
romp. The two of us had become friends, or were beginning to–ignoring the
knowing grins and good natured eye rolling on the part of Magda and Pesh.
The two were indulging themselves in a round of “we knew all along.” Siv
and I didn’t care… it was too pleasant to be finding each other to be
‘kindred souls.”

Not that sociality was high on our list right then. Still I felt for him. I
put a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me about it, Siv.”

He jumped back a foot, and grinned at me. Then frowned. Then sighed and
pointed into the gaping hole in the wall. “Real bit of aggro, ma’am. That
bolt, or whatever it was hit us, killed off all the pseudo-algae in the
transfer sheets. We have more growing in the vats, but not enough, and we
don’t have the spare power to spend on fabricating a new set of
nutrient-support sheets, and implanting the pseudo-algae colonies. It’s as
bad in the water filtration units. The heat exchangers are working, but
well under their proper levels.”

I sat in the other side of the hole, facing him. “Are we going to be able
to keep breathing? Will we have water to drink?”

He shrugged, unhappily, rubbing the side of his nose. “That’s a poser. We
have the old mechanical filtration systems to fall back on. But they’ve
never been as effective as the bio-synthetic units. And they took their own
damage from the blast.” He slid out of the hole, and offered me a hand back
up. “I can give you an estimate, but you won’t like it.”

“I haven’t liked anything any of my officers have been telling me today.
Might as well follow the trend. What’s the ugly worst?”

He reached up and grabbed the handle of the bay door, and pulled the heavy
panel back in place. “The ugly worst is we’re down to 50% of optimal
efficiency. We can bring it up to 75% over the next few days. Then we’ll
hover there, with the heat going up, the humidity going up, water getting
more and more scarce. I can’t promise the sterilization units are going to
be much good… pretty soon, with the air, water, and waste filtration
units filling up with microbial life forms, and plenty of heat and damp to
keep them going… well, it’s going to make that embarrassing little
incident with Neelix and his cheese look like a biological picnic.”

We both looked at each other, gloomily. I heard someone singing in the next
room, with a lot of enthusiasm, but not much accuracy. I didn’t really
focus on it. “Is there *anything* that will improve that picture?”

He shrugged. “Bio-tech is the best technology we’ve come up with in life
support… but it shares a lot of the attributes of real ‘life’, just like
the computer bio-packs. You can ‘kill’ it, you can make it sick… and when
you need new, you have to grow it.” He turned his head towards the door,
where the voice still massacred its melody. “Well, at least *Magda* is
happy.”

I stared at him. “That’s *Magda*? Pesh… Commander Chakotay said she
couldn’t sing, but I’d never really noticed before.”

He laughed. “Make a crow think about a career in opera, wouldn’t it? Ah,
that’s all right. She’s a fine old lady. Bit of a misfit, but gives it her
best. Livens the place up.” He shot me a sidewise glance. “Heard about her
and the Abbyzh-diran peacock?”

I nodded… and laughed. “Commander Chakotay told me.”

Siv grinned like Chessie. “From your voice I’d say he’s not pleased.”

We started for his office. “More like ‘protective.’ He takes care of his
own, Magda is one of his own, and anyone who hurts her better look to his
health.”

Siv settled behind his desk and started shuffling through a pile of PADDs.
He looked amusedly up at me, from under long, dark lashes. “That’s all
right then. Nice to know he’s that type. So long as he knows to keep it to
what’s needed, and no further.” There was knowing laughter in his eyes.

I raised my brows. “So you’ve heard about our rooming assignment.”

He nodded, and passed me a PADD. “On the nose. Happy?”

I sighed. “Yes, if you must know. That’s not what matters. Do you think
it’s going to be a problem with the rest of the crew?”

“Not if he knows the difference between being your… whatever… and being
first officer. If he does, and he makes you take better care of
yourself–well, some of us will be as happy to know the two of you have
finally found a good answer to the private side of this whole Delta
Quadrant thing.” He ducked his head, and flushed. “If nothing else it makes
it easier for the rest of us to… George Soames and I were thinking of
asking you to perform our wedding ceremony, and it’s going to feel a lot
less strange coming to you knowing you understand about falling… about
falling in love.”

He was bashful. I suddenly wondered if Chakotay was ever bashful when he
talked about me. I rather hoped he was. It was charming. I smiled. “Soames?
The piano-man?” Siv laughed, and nodded. “That’s wonderful, Siv. I’ll be
delighted to perform the ceremony. But–can it wait until after we reach
the station and get our repairs done? I think we’re all going to be a bit
too busy for you to have a decent honeymoon until then.”

He got up, grinning, and laughing. “Oh–I think we can, er, wait that
long.” He winked. “The commander put us in separate quarters… but he
cleared a swap when we asked.”

He saw me to the door. As I left I patted him on the arm. “Really, I’m
happy for you. Lord knows, you need a bit of cheer–and your filtration
systems aren’t going to give it to you.”

He shook his head. “Not bloody likely.” He stood at the door of life
support, looking in at the burbling, busy, pipe-filled mess. “I’ll do what
I can with this, captain. But count on short rations for a while. And get
out your hot weather kit– you may need it.”

I nodded and left; on my way to my last stop before lunch, assuming there
was lunch to be had. Stellar Cartography. A final check to see if they had
any worthwhile information about the route to the space station.

They didn’t. What they had was a whirl of Delaneys. Jenny and Megan where
in hog-heaven, as Akuna, Stellar’s precise and passionate department chief,
was out with a severed leg. The holodoctor had managed to re-attach the
limb, but with the equipment in such bad shape he hadn’t been able to
return nerve function. So Jen and Meg were wallowing in their sudden
freedom, blissfully ignoring the repressive attitude of Susan Kilpatrick,
who was temporarily in command.

“Do you have any idea of what’s ahead?”

“Not a clue. Not a hint. Not a whisper. Nothin’.” Jenny seemed almost
ecstatic about it.

“Not so much as a rumor, captain. For all we know there *isn’t* any space
station. We can tell you a lot about planets, though. The files are *full*
of planets, and suns. I even have a hot new anomaly for you: weird energy
fluxes out towards what Anyas thinks is a place called the Bandei Empire.
Looks like interstellar sheet lightning. We got that from the stuff Tom…
er, Lieutenant Paris picked up in transwarp, months ago, though. So it may
be week-old greens by now–not worth the fuss of spoonin’ out to you.”
Megan looked Jenny, who was pointedly not-laughing. “Oh, give it a rest,
girl. I may not be tops at protocol, but I know my stuff.”

Jenny laughed. “‘Give it a rest’–right. You’re just tryin’ to cheer the
captain up, ’cause we haven’t pulled jack-shit out of the files.” She
rolled her eyes at me. “Don’t worry, captain, if it’s there, we’ll find it.
Meg’s right, for all she’s a fribble. We do know our stuff. Know it cold.”

Susan Kilpatrick frowned. “Ms. Delaney, I think the captain can do without
the personal chatter.” She ducked her smooth, dark head, glaring at the two
with electric blue eyes. “I’m sorry, captain. We’re used to having Mr.
Akuna running things.”

I studied Kilpatrick. I’d been wanting to see more of her ever since the
“Strike,” but you don’t just cozy up to a former conspirator and say, “So,
how’s tricks? Been feeling particularly mutinous lately?” I really wanted
to know what motivated her, and whether I had anything to worry about from
her anymore… but didn’t know how to find out without setting her off if
she was still of a mind to rebel. “It’s all right, Lieutenant Kilpatrick. I
enjoy it, actually. That makes three cheerful people I’ve met this
morning–and I overheard a fourth. Given that my senior command staff is
working overtime on the somber, serious side of professional demeanor, I’m
just as glad to know the entire ship hasn’t descended into gloom. I was
beginning to think Eeyore had taken possession of all my officers.” I
smiled at the Delaneys, and was rewarded with vivid smiles in return, from
shining, green-eyed, mocha ice cream with cinnamon-freckle faces. Centuries
ago the two would have been called octaroons… At least, I think that’s
the right fractional term. What they really were was beautiful–a radiant
blend of southern Appalachian Irish and Scots, West African black, and a
lot of whatever else got picked up along the way. There may even have been
some Asian, or Indian–there was a slip to the set of their eyes, and a
slide to their epicanthic folds that suggested yet another “racial” blend.
In any case, they were a matched set of visual perfections, with voices
like North Carolina rhododendron hells–dark, vivid, colorful, and complex.
They had senses of humor to match, and a boundless enthusiasm for fun,
gossip, and court and spark. Jenny was right, too–they knew their stuff
cold. In my dreams I saw a day I could gently shift Akuna to another
department, promote ‘the girls’ a rank or two, and put Stellar into their
competent hands. Unfortunately I’d have to find a way to get them past
Kilpatrick, who had seniority and rank.

If the twins were “pure American,” Kilpatrick was pure colonial. Irish,
from a Celtic revivalist colony not that different in intentions from
Chakotay’s Dorvan–and nearly as doomed. I remembered looking her up at the
time of the Strike, and tracking down the information on Sigma Draconis
III–other wise known as Roisin Dubh. They’d had every bit of bad luck a
colony could have. Failed crops, poor biological adaptation, settlers
turning up allergic to the planet itself. In-fighting from internal
factions. Civic dissent when the planet turned out to be home to previously
undetected sentient life forms, when all the original contracts,
constitutional legislations, and land deeds were declared void. A freak
weather pattern that cycled loosely between hellish draughts and equally
hellish monsoon rains… never one year following another in a predictable
pattern, and no chance of stabilizing it once the native population proved
to be dependent on all that change. The human residents of Roisin Dubh were
poor, angry, and trapped. Kilpatrick was one of the few to break free, and
she was blessed with a tenacious ambition that had broken the chains of her
home world, and taken her to Starfleet. She wouldn’t step aside for the
ebullient, free-wheeling Delaneys if she could help it.

She picked up the PADDs on the desk in front of us. Shot an annoyed look at
the girls, and gave me a gracious smile–the kind that’s an invitation to
share in the patronizing tolerance of the hard-working ant for the
fiddling, improvident grasshopper. The girls barely suppressed giggles at
her prim superiority. She looked sharply at them. “Yes. Well. I’m sure it’s
always nicer to have cheerful faces around. And at least Mr. Akuna is going
to be all right. In the meantime I have everything under control here. I’ve
relayed your orders to the rest of the staff, and we should have an update
on the space we’re entering fairly soon. ” She rose, elegantly, her dark
hair sweeping back over her ears, falling in a heavy, wavy tumble to her
shoulders. She was the picture of a proper, orderly command officer–even
though her ‘command’ was only temporary. “Thank you for coming down,
captain. We appreciate the interest.” She held out a hand, and smiled
again. This time she was being the Lady of the Manor, bidding farewell to
visiting royalty.

I shook her hand, and wondered how I’d missed the ‘performance’ quality of
her behavior before. But I knew the answer: back in the days of my
“isolation” I’d never seen anyone much who wasn’t on best behavior, and
putting on a show for me. Good little Starfleet officers, one and all.
Maybe Kilpatrick wasn’t really that different from Harry, or B’Elanna, when
it came down to it. Just slower to adjust to change. More like me.

As I left, I couldn’t help worrying over that. “More like me.” I’d changed.
‘Me’ wasn’t the same person she’d been.

Looking at the ‘me’ I’d been mere months before, I found myself wondering
what that woman would have thought about the spot we were in now.

I knew what she’d have thought: that there should have been another way. A
way that didn’t leave me with a damaged ship, and a heavy burden of
refugees dependent on me and my crew to get them to their own people alive.
A way that didn’t leave me with a military culture with a grudge against
Voyager. A way that didn’t involve taking the ‘liberal’ path in
interpreting the Prime Directive. A way that would have gotten me out of
the obligation that challenged the limits of the PD: the obligation of
responding to a distress signal. A way that lived up to the speech I’d
given my senior officers after the disaster of the alliance between the
Kazon and the Trabe, in which I’d flown in the face of Federation policy
and forsworn alliances forever, in the Dangerous Territory of the Delta
Quadrant.

That woman would have been dismayed by the choices I’d made. *All* the
choices I’d made. The choice to aid the kin not the least among them. By
that lost Kathryn’s standards, the last few months would have indicted me
in her eyes. And now Voyager was paying the price for yet another ‘liberal’
interpretation of the obligations placed on us. That old, phantom Kathryn
would *not* approve.

I wondered how many of my crew would agree with her. Not Chakotay. Not
Tuvok. Not Paris. Not the Delaneys, or Siva. But maybe Kilpatrick, who’d
fought hard for a future I’d lost her. Maybe Wildman, with a husband
seventy years away, and a baby who’d never seen her father. Maybe Harry,
who for all his ideals is young, and lost, and clinging to what he was
trained to in Starfleet. Who is still learning that “wierd is what we do.”
And maybe more, too. Starfleet is diverse, and the ideals that it promotes
are often complex, and difficult to agree on.

I had the uneasy feeling that we were in a perfect situation to test the
limits and the tolerance of my crew. I closed my eyes, rubbed the bridge of
my nose. I really, really didn’t have time for that worry. The technical
side of our situation was already taking all my time. I just hoped…

It’s good to have a partner. I just hoped Chakotay could *deal* with it.

End Section III

—————————————————

—————————————————

Section IV: Chakotay

Two days later we had our first kin-crew clash. It started out as a minor
misunderstanding and turned into an all-out war– though not as a result of
the two whose ostensible honor was being defended. In fact, they were the
ones responsible for calling in the cavalry.

“Kim to Chakotay.”

I hit my badge. “Chakotay here.”

“Commander, could you, uh, come to the cafeteria for a minute? There’s a
little problem.” His voice told me that his ‘little problem’ wasn’t so
little. I could hear shouting in the background.

“I’ll be right there.” I headed down at a trot, entered on a brawl: food,
fists, and insults flying in about equal measure.

“You self-righteous clutch of ass-kissing Grounders! Tava rot your hairy
balls!”

“Damn perverts! Somebody oughta make steers of the lot of you!”

“They’d have to bathe ‘em before they cut ‘em or they’d die of infection!”

“At least *we* don’t stink of perfumed soap and planet dirt!”

“You’re just plain dirty, that’s all.”

The door had barely shut behind me before Qiral came barreling through it.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had been summoned. We glanced at each
other before turning to call down our respective miscreants. Or rather, I
called, and hauled a few by whatever limbs I could grab. Qiral just waded
in and started banging heads together; he didn’t have to bang many before
they retreated into a glowering huddle by the bank of windows. I herded my
own toward the kitchen: all Federation, I noticed. The only Maquis was
Soames, who had twisted Bintar’s arm behind his back to keep him still.
Paris was there, too, looking furious but contained for the moment, a big
shiner starting to darken his left eye. Neelix cowered behind the counter
along with several of his breakable bowls. Remnants of supper rations were
scattered yellow on floor and chairs and tables.

I had to find it funny or I’d howl. If it wasn’t bad enough trying to
repair a ship with nothing working to repair it with…now we had a minor
war to resolve. At least Harry had shown sense enough to call me, not
Tuvok.

“I’m ashamed of you,” I told them. “Were you trained at the Academy or in a
barn? Now– somebody want to tell me what the hell this was about?”

Nearly every eye flicked to Kim and a member of the kin– an attractive
brown man– who stood off to one side as if to dissociate themselves from
either group. I turned, too. “Mr. Kim?”

He opened his mouth, shut it, then frowned, looking embarrassed and
befuddled both.

Qiral stepped forward. “Ata?”

The brown-skinned man shrugged. “I asked him if he wanted to spend a night
with me.” He glanced sideways at Kim; the look was appraising. “He’s
pretty.”

My first thought was, Oh Lord. Of all the people on the ship to
proposition, it had to be Mr. Pure-as-Driven-Snow. Then I remembered who
his best friend was; ‘innocent Harry’ wasn’t. In fact, Paris looked the
more upset; Harry just said, “He didn’t mean any insult by it. I didn’t
mind.”

The brown-skinned man– Ata– shrugged a second time as if to say: See?
What’s the fuss about? Arms crossed, Qiral stepped up behind him, a posture
meant to intimidate. “What have I said about casual propositions?”

“That was to *grounders*,” Ata snapped back.

“*They’re* grounders!” one of the other kin shouted, putting enough sneer
into ‘grounder’ to make it clear it wasn’t a compliment.

Qiral just turned his head and *looked* at the offending speaker. It was
the kind of authority old grandfathers had. I shot a glance at my own; a
few were muttering under their breath but none spoke louder. I decided to
overlook it, more interested in getting to the bottom of the disturbance.

Qiral spoke to the kin; there were half again as many of them as my own
dozen or so. “These folk don’t belong to this place,” he said. “They’re not
quite kin, but not grounders, either. Our categories don’t apply. They came
to our aid at great cost to themselves– ”

“Ain’t that the truth!” snapped Bintar. “Six of ours *dead* and for what? A
bunch of perverted, arrogant assholes!”

“Bintar!” I snapped. I found his reaction particularly annoying, knowing
what I did about his plots with Jorland and Kilpatrick.

Qiral continued speaking as if there had been no interruption. “‘We must
honor the customs of strangers when their air is in our lungs and their
hull holds the vacuum from us.’ That is the old law. That is the way of
kin.” He glanced back at Kim and Ata, beckoned them over to him. “Now,” he
said to Kim, “you said that Ata’s invitation did not offend you. So
why…?” His gesture encompassed the mess left by the brawl.

“It was a misunderstanding.” Embarrassed yet again, Kim was emphatically
*not* looking at the crowd of people behind me– which told me quite a lot.
Kim might not have started it, but I had a good idea who had.

Qiral seemed to recognize an evasion as much as I did. He lowered his
bull’s head to study Kim carefully. “If there are to be no more such
misunderstandings, it is important that you explain to me what happened.”

Kim stood up straight and stared off at a point over Qiral’s shoulder,
making up in military bearing what he lacked in certainty. “Tom and I
thought it’d be polite to try to, y’know, visit with your people a little.
So we asked Ata Ring Forger and Delwien Trader if we could join them for
dinner. They said yes. We talked a little–mostly about engineering– then
Ata asked if I’d like to come back to his room with him. I said, no, but
thanks. He asked me why and I explained that I, uh, have a girlfriend.”

Qiral tilted his head. “Girlfriend?” Apparently the word didn’t translate.

“He means a partnered-one,” Ata explained, “but not so strong as a
mated-one. I had to ask, too.”

“Ah.” Qiral nodded. “Go on.”

But Kim just glanced at Ata, who took up the story instead. “I asked him
why that mattered. He said he only wanted to fuck with his partnered-one,
at least right now.” The locker-room term took me by surprise but none of
the kin reacted at all. Apparently they didn’t beat around the bush any and
the translator had adjusted accordingly. “He said it’s a Terran thing,” Ata
added.

“Once we settle on someone,” Kim explained, “we like to stay faithful to
them. Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. At least for some Terrans.”

“See?” said one of the kin, the same who had spoken before. “Grounders!”

Qiral only half turned his head. “Delwien– enough.” Then to Ata, “And
after he explained himself? Did you press?”

“No,” Harry said before Ata could. “He was very nice about it.”

Ata shrugged yet again. It seemed to be his favorite gesture, as if he
feared showing too much interest in anything. “His choice.” Then abruptly,
he grinned. “His loss, but his choice.” Arms still folded, Qiral glanced
from Ata to Kim, then to me, as if belatedly realizing that he had taken
over the situation. I just nodded to tell him to continue. “So,” he said,
“how did words turn to fists?”

Neither Ata nor Kim seemed in a hurry to explain that part. Both were
studiously not looking at their respective sides. Qiral put two and two
together at about the same time I did, turned to his own, said only,
“Delwien?” then gestured for one of the black-skinned, silver-haired
androgynous beings to join him in the center of the room. It was the same
person who had kept interrupting.

“Paris,” I said without even bothering to look. I heard Paris step out from
among our own. The vinegar glare this Delwien gave the approaching Paris
confirmed my hunch.

“Well?” Qiral asked Delwien, who continued to glare at Paris a moment more
before dropping eyes to the floor.

Behind me, Paris cleared his throat. “Uh– I guess I started it. If you
mean the part with fists.”

Qiral’s eyebrow lifted: it was an odd expression on a minotaur’s face. “And
what part *preceded* the fists?”

Apparently tired of twenty questions, and as Paris had admitted to his
guilt himself, Kim spoke up. “It started with insults. After I mentioned my
girlfriend, Ata asked about her, and about our mating customs, so I told
him. Well, I told him about the Terran customs, anyway. Then, uh, some of
the kin started making cracks about our ‘childish grounder morals’–”

“Delwien, he means,” Ata said, twining fingers in his friend’s silver hair
and pulling– not entirely gently. “No need to be polite friend-Harry.
Delwien’s a hothead. Even he’ll admit to that.”

So this Delwien was a male. It wasn’t entirely clear.

Quick as a mongoose, Delwien had twisted to sink sharp teeth into Ata’s
arm. Ata and Qiral both boxed his fluted ears and he let go but grinned at
me, Ata’s chartreuse blood on his lips and teeth. Kim, Paris and I gaped.
Behind me, I heard muttering again. It was one of the more bizarre
exchanges I’d seen yet– bizarre as much because Qiral and Ata took it for
granted as for the casual violence. In fact, I got the feeling Delwien’s
bite had been meant affectionately rather than in anger: as bad as
B’Elanna. Or maybe he was just putting on a show intended to unsettle the
‘rubes.’

Rubbing his arm, Ata continued, “Delwien insulted the Voyagers, called them
no better than Hakaalt. Tom Paris said to him, ‘Shut your trap or I’ll shut
it for you.’ Delwien told him to try, so Tom hit him in the mouth.” Ata
shrugged for the fourth time. “It degenerated from there.”

Qiral didn’t seem surprised by the revelation that Delwien had provoked
Paris. He glanced at me. “I still think we’re getting a prudently tailored
version, don’t you?” But before I could answer, he added, “I don’t suppose
the details matter.” Then he stood, nodded to a corner of the room,
indicating that he wanted to speak to me alone. I followed. When we were
out of earshot, he turned, said softly, “I believe it time for us to
discuss customs, and boundaries between your people and mine. However an
audience isn’t conducive to such.” He paused, as if awaiting some response
from me. He wore his authority with an easily familiarity– not flamboyant,
just certain– an older captain than either Kathryn or me. I suspected he
kept having to remind himself not to just assume complete command of the
situation.

“Agreed,” I said now. “Shall we dismiss the others and deal with them
individually after we’ve had a chance to talk?”

“Yes– but let’s keep the four where the trouble began. They started out
trying to toss tunnels between ships; perhaps they can do so again. Delwien
is not so unreasonable, simply quick-tempered and inclined to judge too
quickly…especially if he thinks his mate has been insulted.”

I shot a glance back at the four standing tense around a table in the
middle of the room, like men met to parley before a battle. “Paris has his
moments, but he can be reasonable too, most of the time,” I admitted. “He’s
just protective of Harry.”

Qiral grinned, showing blunt, square cow-teeth. It struck me then that of
course he was a herbivore. Why I’d thought otherwise, I couldn’t say. My
own prejudices. Qiral was a man, not a beast. I hadn’t paid enough
attention to old European fairy tales, and wondered if Rodria was his
Beauty. They shared my old cabin and Kathryn and I had gathered they were a
couple. But I wasn’t going to speculate on the sexual logistics of *that*,
or whether Qiral was endowed like his Terran bovine counterpart.

“So,” he said now, “shall we slap their wrists and send them away, then
have good master Neelix fetch us something to ease the throat? We have much
talking to do, I think.”

By the time Qiral and I had dismissed our respective people and sat down at
a long table with weak tea delivered by a much-relieved Neelix, Ata and
Harry had already extracted mutual apologies from Delwien and Paris.
Neither of them looked happy about it, but I figured that for the moment,
Paris– and the rest of us– were safe from Delwien’s teeth. He had claws,
too, I noticed, and gold cat-eyes. Combined with the long-long hair and
ethereal bird-boned slenderness, he looked like some black vampiric angel,
beautiful and terrible at once. Ata was more normal-looking– normal to my
eyes, anyway. He had six fingers, a crenelated Romulan-type forehead and an
elongated jaw which gave his profile an odd cast, but otherwise, he
appeared human. Or vulcanoid. His blood seemed to be copper-based, even if
his ears weren’t pointed. Orion ears weren’t pointed, either.

“Before we begin,” I said, “I ask forgiveness in advance if any of our
questions trespass kin taboos. Assume it’s ignorance on our parts; we have
no wish to insult or offend, simply to understand. We’ll assume the same
for you.”

First Contact rules applied here, despite the fact first contact had
actually happened a little over two days ago.

Leaning back lazy in his chair, Qiral smiled. “There is little that’s taboo
between kin.”

“They’re not kin,” Delwien muttered.

Ata grabbed him by the hair again and for a moment I thought we might be
treated to a repeat of the bite-and-box session we’d seen before. But this
time, Delwien just subsided.

I decided to start there; it was probably innocuous enough to break the
ice. Pointing to Ata’s hand in Delwien’s hair, I said, “Tell me– is that a
personal gesture or a cultural gesture?”

Clearly confused, Ata and Delwien both blinked.

I tried again. “I mean is grabbing hair something that’s done among
Delwien’s people, or is it just something Ata does?”

All three of the kin laughed. “Both,” Delwien replied. “We– the aka’Chee–
normally use claws, lightly, at the back of the neck.” He demonstrated on
Ata’s nape. I could see how carefully he moved so as not to scratch– just
as I could see now, too, that the earlier bite had barely cut Ata’s skin.
“But Ata has no claws–”

“So I pull his hair, instead.”

Qiral spoke up then. “The kin have learned to adjust individual cultural
expressions at need.”

“I’d imagine so,” Paris said. “How many different races are represented
among you?”

“‘Races’ is Hakaalt-speak!” Delwien snapped, hissing.

I saw Ata tighten his hold in Delwien’s hair.

Paris held up both hands. “My apologies. It’s a neutral term in the
Federation for the different kinds of beings. Maybe I should have said how
many various peoples are there among the kin?”

Placated, Delwien quit hissing to say, “I never counted,” then glanced at
Qiral, who just shrugged. “How many in your– what is it called?–
Federation?”

“We have over a hundred and seventy member worlds–or did when we left. Of
those, some are very similar, physiologically; some are very different. One
of the main Federation philosophies is IDIC– it’s from the Vulcans.
‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.’ We believe the strength of
the Federation lies in its diversity.”

Delwien leaned over the table, smiled to show sharp teeth. “Then where *is*
this ‘diversity’?”

Paris sat up. “Huh?”

Gesturing at the three of us, he said, “All human! Barring a few, so far
all we see on your ship are human! You speak of diversity but look as much
alike as Hakaalt!”

Paris, Kim and I exchanged a glance. I thought again of the clean white
Hakaalt ships, the pin-neatness, the almost incestuously- pure phenotype
like a litter of in-bred puppies, and it struck me how our uniformed
homogeneity must appear to the kin. No wonder they doubted IDIC.

“There are actually ten different alpha quadrant species on Voyager,” I
broke in. “Terran human, Vulcan, Troyan human, Bolian, Bajoran, Betazoid,
Cetian human, Argelian, one Andorian, one Sivaoan and one half-Klingon–
that’s not counting Talaxian, Ocampan and Kithtri from the delta quadrant.”

“But most of you are human,” Delwien pressed.

“It’s not uncommon for the majority compliment of a Starfleet vessel to be
made up of two or three similar physiological types. And not all Federation
member-worlds are represented in Starfleet, either. The Risans are
pacifists by conviction. The Vulcans nearly are, and make up only about
four percent of Starfleet personnel– yet Vulcan is probably one of the
most influential planets on the Council and among the founding members of
the Federation. So what you’re likely to encounter on any given Starfleet
vessel isn’t what you’d find at a meeting of the Federation Senate.”

The kin exchanged glances. “Segregation,” Delwien said, as if he’d scored a
point.

“Voluntary, it sounds like,” Ata replied. Then, to me, “Why do you do this?
Do you dislike shipping together?”

I took a breath. This wasn’t the time to get into the tensions between some
Federation races. “One reason’s medical. The more races on a ship, the more
medical specialists required to treat everybody. Also, there’re
environmental reasons. Ask Mr. Tuvok what he thinks of Voyager’s normal
temperature. And White Paw– our Sivaoan– can’t sit easily in our
solid-back chairs due to his tail. So simple logistics make segregating
ships sensible. Even so, every Starfleet junior officer is expected to
serve at least a one turn of duty on a vessel where he or she is a minority
species. It’s usually only a couple months, but some– like Tuvok– choose
to stay on longer.”

“My very first tour out of the academy was on a Denebian ship,” Paris put
in.

Startled, Kim glanced over. “You never told me that! How’d you reach the
controls?”

“Denebians are rather large,” I explained to the kin.

“I flew standing up,” Paris said. “It was that or get lost in one of their
bowl chairs! But I enjoyed it; Denebians are easy to work with. If there
wasn’t such a size problem, I wouldn’t mind serving on a Denebian
dreadnought for longer, some time.”

Our guests were starting to relax, I noticed. I had to hand it to Paris:
the admiral’s son knew how to soothe ruffled feathers. I wished he’d used
that knowledge a little earlier instead of socking one of them square in
his dracula teeth.

Deciding that we’d discussed enough Federation politics for the moment, I
leaned over the table. “So, tell us a little now about customs among the
kin….”

We talked another five hours. Halfway through, Delwien seemed to decide
that– semi-grounders or not– ‘Les Voyageurs’ could be considered honorary
kin. Qiral was right; when he wasn’t on the defense, he was reasonable
enough, even charming in an odd, feral way. But I got the feeling he
enjoyed trying to shock us, to see how we’d respond. It was a good thing
Qiral was present or no telling what strange notions about the kin we’d
have walked out of there with.

Nevertheless, and despite Qiral’s corrections, I didn’t leave reassured.
kin might not drink blood for breakfast– one of Delwien’s more obvious
attempts to obfuscate– but they differed on some very fundamental matters.
Even Paris, playboy of Voyager, had been a bit set back on his heels by
their cavalier attitude towards sexuality. In fact, that was what had
caused the brawl in the first place.

kin had no institution of marriage. They didn’t even appear to have a word
which corresponded to *romantic* love at all. There was sex, and there was
love, and never the twain shall meet– or at least, not often. They did
have a concept of long-term partnerships like Ata and Delwien shared, and
Qiral and Rodria. (Kathryn and I had been right about those two.) But such
didn’t include any expectation of sexual fidelity, or even sexual
*interest*. Delwien frankly admitted as much for he and Ata; the aka’Chee
weren’t sexually receptive most of the year. When he was, if he were to try
to mate with Ata, he’d rip him to shreds with teeth and claws. So in some
cases, sexual compatibility was also impossible. In fact, near as I could
tell, the kin regarded the whole notion of fidelity to be immature, even
mildly perverse. Open-minded Qiral had given me a smile usually reserved
for children and quaint Provence cafes where nothing came from a replicator
and the umbrellas outside looked to have been there since the twenty-first
century.

kin measured loyalty differently; primary ties were emotional. In fact, kin
notions of partnered-ones and mated-ones sounded more like extremely
intense friendships than marriages. None were legally binding, and children
might or might not be involved. Parents didn’t necessarily raise their
biological offspring. kin couldn’t afford the elaborate genetic engineering
which had produced Wildman’s daughter Puff, or Riaka. They had children
with whomever was genetically compatible; and they had sex with whomever
they wished– sometimes even made arrangements for their mates. Bit-by-bit,
it came out in the course of the conversation that *Delwien* had prompted
Ata to ask Harry– and that, after the two had already made it clear that
they were partners. It was Delwien’s “pimping” which had offended Paris,
though to kin sensibilities, it was evidence of his love. He had no
interest in sex, so he made it his business to see that his partner’s needs
were met on that score. Yet, even had he and Ata been sexually involved,
they still might have solicited other lovers. kin honestly didn’t seem to
understand the point behind sexual fidelity, or why any civilized people
would practice it. Qiral found it quaint but Delwien found it absurd and
said so. Paris might still have gotten over his surprise earlier; Starfleet
personnel were schooled in tolerance– but they expected that to run both
ways and grew resentful if it didn’t. By contrast, the kin had developed
their own prejudices as a defense against Hakaalt bigotry. When Delwien had
expressed his opinion of “grounder morals” in candidly scathing terms,
Paris had hauled off and socked him. Later, I mentioned to Paris that kin
morals were so different because they’d adapted to survive an oppressive
situation. “They’re a fragmented people trying to live with the fragments.”

I understood that. Indian history had once been much the same.

Nevertheless, I left the cafeteria worried, though Qiral had promised to
spread warnings among the kin. I’d be glad when they could be transferred
to their space station. The sooner, the better, before someone less
phlegmatic than Ata propositioned someone less easy-going than Harry.

As matters turned out, it took four days to reach the station. We had to
stop once to put band-aids on the systems which our escaped Ztothan slime
serpent had managed to knock out before curling up in a corner and kindly
expiring. It had left an awful stink, but a bigger mechanical mess.
B’Elanna took to muttering under her breath and viewing the time in-dock,
even if not a dry-dock, as the proverbial fountain of youth for Voyager.

But like Ponce de Leon, she found no fountain. All that greeted us when we
dropped out of warp was a black-scored, blasted-out hull where a station
had once been. Qiral, who had joined us on the bridge, blew softly through
his muzzle, eyes widening until all the whites showed. “Two thousand
people,” he whispered. “There were two thousand people on that station!
Some of them not even kin, just visiting sympathizers.”

I turned to look at Janeway. Her face had gone stark; I saw the expression
reflected by the rest of the bridge crew. There would be no haven, no place
to put in and repair damage, and no place to leave our guests. We were in
this up to our necks.

At that moment, the comm console crackled with static, then with a message.
“This is the Metal March Shipholding. Unidentified ship–are you kin? Have
you come to join the exodus to escape the Waren-Pyre?”

End Part IV

————————————————

————————————————

Section V: Janeway

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

T. S. Eliot, from “Journey of the Magi”

The weeks after we reached the station were a ‘learning experience.’ Even
Chakotay was hard pressed to find anything to smile at, and as for the rest
of us…

Within hours of receiving the call from the Exodus, it became clear that we
had no choice but to join the straggle of ships. We had no other source of
aid as we struggled to repair Voyager–and, massing behind us all, like a
swarm of raging Boari hunting wasps, were the ships of the Purge. Hundreds
of them.

No. Thousands of them.

It came hard for me and my crew: harder than for the kin, I think. The kin
were *used* to being on the losing side. The revelation of our helplessness
was bitter. We’d had a foretaste of that when Seska and Kullah had stranded
us. But the rescue had come so soon, and the obvious repercussions had been
so few, that we’d been able to ignore it away. Nothing could keep us down
long–that was our myth, anyway. What we liked to believe.

The plan of the Exodus, such as it was, was to seek sanctuary in the
adjoining Bandei Star Empire. No one knew if we’d make it. Bandei space was
a long way off, and the Hakaalt were very, very near. Even if we found a
way to escape to that far territory, no one was sure if they would allow us
in. But it was better than being herded meekly to the Waren-Pyre.

We watched nervously as the Hakaalt fleet grew more massive, swelling
behind us like a flood, lapping at our heels. Never confronting us
directly, but forming a wall we couldn’t go through, or skirt around. We
ran before them.

As the main fleet herded us, other ships left, venturing into space beyond.
Most appeared to be workhorse ships. They slipped from the fleet quietly,
towing freight carriers, tagged by solid little tugs and construction
ships, on headings for distant suns. They dropped behind. Or plotted
courses wide of the Exodus, racing ahead into the territory that lay
between us and our destination. They’d be gone without any word we could
trace with our comm systems, only to return days later. Tuvok, B’Elanna,
Chakotay and I spent hours trying to determine what they were up to, with
no success.

The epidemics the holodoctor had predicted took Voyager. My crew faced the
terrifying realization that it wasn’t going to go away with the squirt of a
hypospray, or the wave of a med-wand. And so *many* were sick. Carey, down
in Engineering was one of the first to go down. Dalby followed. Soon
everyone was either sick–or had a best friend, or a lover, or a co-worker
sick. Even Wildman’s little Puff was sick. We’d hoped she would do well,
thinking her mixed ancestry would give her some added protection. It didn’t
work that way. Wildman pressed on with her work, trying to ignore her
terror that she’d lose the little one struggling just to breath down in
sickbay. She didn’t fool anyone.

Seeing the kin falling to our diseases didn’t help any. It only reminded my
people of their own illnesses, and made them all the more aware that the
diseases we suffered from were the “fault” of our guests.

Even as my understanding of the magnitude of our situation grew, there were
moments of light. Cherel may have sat, tight lipped, her dark face drawn
and frightened, but Chaim was radiant, and tender. Magda and Anyas faced
down Chakotay’s reserved caution, and clung together like the ivy and the
oak. And Paris, never able to pass up an opportunity, tweaked Chakotay
remorselessly about his new place in my life–making Pesh glower, and me
smile. Small crumbs of joy, but I wasn’t in any mood to grumble over what
pleasure I did have.

Through it all, I had Chakotay.

“Pesh, stop that. It tickles.”

“Ah. You’re awake.”

Trying to sound angrier than I was, I grumbled, “What did you expect?
You’ve been playing with my hair for the last half hour.”

“Sorry.” He didn’t sound very sorry, though.

I kept my eyes shut, but the smile wouldn’t be resisted any longer. I
reached up, and took his hand from where it lay in the turn of my neck,
fingers still stroking my braid. I slipped my own fingers through his.
“Mmmm. It’s all right. I had to wake up soon, anyway.” As if to testify to
my honesty, the computer alarm went off. We both commanded it to “shut up,”
and chuckled at the timing. I sighed, opened my eyes, and sat up.

As I slid from the bed, Chakotay leaned back into the pillows. He’d worked
a late shift the night before and had a few more hours before he had to
join me in attending a planning meeting on the lead-ship of the exodus, a
manufacturing ship called the Metal March. If I hadn’t known how hard he’d
worked to earn it, I would have envied him the extra time.

When I returned from a bathroom that, to my disgruntlement, had been
reduced to a toilet and a sonic shower as part of the water rationing
efforts, I found that Chessie had joined Pesh in bed. I had to laugh: the
two were playing a wrestling game. Chakotay was shaking and tumbling the
cat; Chessie was wrapping himself around Pesh’s arm and rabbit kicking,
biting his fist with computer-gauged ferocity, never breaking skin. They
put on a good show. Since neither of them would or could hurt the other, I
was free to chuckle and watch them play “kid macho” together. I was
grateful that so much of Chessie’s programming was based on the
holodoctor’s paradigms–the “emergency” functions that had kept the
doctor’s programs safe were keeping our tom-fool cat up and active too, a
bright spot in our days.

I gathered up a uniform and pulled it on, trying to ignore the slight sour
odor. We were having to re-use things more than ever before. The sonic
shower didn’t get the results a good laundry would have–and certainly
couldn’t give me a uniform that smelled replicator fresh. I began to brush
out my hair, watching “my two men” in the mirror.

The battle continued until Chessie “cheated,” dissolving out of Chakotay’s
hold and reappearing on the dresser in front of me, his plumy tail
obscuring my view. I pushed it aside, only to have it swish back into
place. “Cut it out, cat, or I’ll re-program you into a cairn terrier.”

He glared at me, quivered the offending tail like a conductor’s baton, then
snapped it so that it lay curled over his paws. “No fair. You cheat. You
couldn’t do that to a *real* cat.”

I grinned, and rubbed just behind his whiskers. “If you were a real cat,
you couldn’t get away from ‘Daddy-O’ so easily, either.”

Chessie sent a lowering look towards Chakotay, whose image in the mirror
grinned mischievously back at the two of us. “If I were a *real* cat his
arm would be cat-food.”

Chakotay lay back in the bed, arms crossed behind his head. “If you were a
real cat no one would want you. Who needs a green and orange cat with an
attitude?”

I put the last pin in my bun. “If he were a real cat he wouldn’t be green
and orange. Not without some serious genetic engineering. Pesh, remember to
bring along the general status reports. I want to be sure we’re prepared
before the meeting.” He gave me ‘the look,’ and I laughed. “I know, I know.
‘I’d micro-manage God.’ Just don’t forget.”

He pulled the sheet up over his shoulders, leaving the blankets at the foot
of the bed. As Siv had predicted, the heat on Voyager had slowly been
rising, along with the humidity, as life support was put under more and
more strain. “I won’t. Have a good breakfast.”

I sighed. “Tell me another story, storyteller. See you later. See if you
can’t get some sleep.” I crossed over, kissed him. I lingered a moment,
wishing I could stay where everything felt safe, and ‘right.’

Down in the mess hall, things were bleak. We were down to rock bottom on
our supplies, and Neelix was fighting a desperate battle to produce
anything to fill the stomachs of Voyager’s residents.

“I asked for *breakfast,* Neelix.”

I could hear the anger in the young officer’s voice from across the room as
I came in, over the chatter of the crew, the unfamiliar crash and bang of
dishwashing in the back of the kitchen, and the slap-pat of the acrobats
practicing their routine in a bare space they’d created by pulling aside
several of the tables.

“I’m sorry, but that *is* breakfast, Ensign D’Amato.” Neelix’s voice
carried as clearly. “At least, it’s the best I can do. It’s calories.
*Pretend* it’s breakfast.”

“I used to pretend it was breakfast. Now I have to pretend it’s food. I
nearly have to pretend it’s there at all.” I heard the tray smack against
the counter, and hurried up behind him, looking around to see if any of
Tuvok’s security team was handy. There weren’t any. “Hell–keep it. Maybe
you can find a starving midget with no sense of taste to eat it. That
should be easy enou–”

“Mr. D’Amato.”

He spun, ready to blast me–until he realized who was behind him. He had a
bad rash, a characteristic symptom of one of our many plagues. As he paled
the red, patchy skin stood out in bold relief. It made me itch to look at
him. “Captain…”

“Is there a problem, ensign?”

His jaw bunched, and he looked at the polished toes of his boots. “No,
captain.”

“Good. Given our current difficulties I wouldn’t want to think my crew was
making things worse with unwarranted displays of anger. Mr. Neelix is doing
the best he can.” I gave Neelix my most official “captain reassuring the
troops” smile and nod.

Normally that kind of compliment would have had him bouncing like a puppy,
and wriggling with pleasure. This time he just ducked his head and looked
at the counter, face set. D’Amato licked his lips, and nodded. “Yes,
captain.”

“Then maybe you could offer him an apology? After all, this isn’t his
fault.”

D’Amato’s head came up, and he met my eyes for the first time, frustration
boiling behind control. “No, it’s not–is it?” For half a second I thought
he was going to go further, but Starfleet training is stronger than that.
He drooped, and turned to Neelix. “I’m sorry Mr. Neelix. I’m just tense.”

“I understand. We all are.” Neelix looked at the tray still on the counter,
the yellowish dab of emergency ration making a small dot on the surrounding
plate, like jaundiced punctuation. “Do you still want breakfast?”

D’Amato sighed. “No. I guess I’m not hungry after all. I’ll just have a cup
of…coffee?”

“No coffee. I can offer you some reconstituted leeuvis tisane….”

D’Amato made the ultimate sacrifice. “That’ll be fine, Neelix. Thanks.” He
took the offered cup, sniffed it warily–and plastered a smile on his face.
The results were as brutally unconvincing as a chipper Klingon. “Great!
Thanks. Captain, Mr. Neelix, if I can…”

“Dismissed, ensign.”

Neelix and I watched him leave. He shook his head. “You have a brave crew,
captain. Even *I* think leeuvis tisane is horrible–and B’Elanna tells me
it tastes just like cat …errr… well.” He evaded the forthright phrasing
of my Engineering Chief. “In any case, it isn’t very good.”

Over the last week I’d gotten a chance to try all of Neelix’s attempts to
provide a drinkable coffee substitute. “No. It’s not. But you’re doing the
best you can.”

He was, too. It’s just that the best he could put together was awful.

It only took a few minutes to eat my own breakfast. I might have saved
myself the time.

Once I’d handed my dishes back in to the clean-up squad in the back of the
kitchens, I went up to my readyroom. Tuvok and I spent a depressing hour or
two reviewing the general situation, prior to the meeting.

Tuvok would be staying behind. If he’d had his way, most of the team I was
taking along would have stayed also, replaced by a full guard of security
officers. I understood, but I couldn’t allow him the point.

We were lucky that we were invited to the meeting at all. I suspected that,
without Qiral’s support, we wouldn’t have been. Under the circumstances I
intended to ensure that the officers most able to contribute were
present–and that those most likely to offend, like Tuvok’s guards, were
not.

He frowned over the list I’d assembled the night before. “Commander
Chakotay is next in line for command. Are you sure you wish to take him?”

“He was Maquis. A Maquis captain. Of all the people on this ship, he’s the
most likely to understand the tactical situation. If I had to choose
between him and me, I’d choose him. He goes.”

“And Lieutenant Torres? You seem determined to place all of our highest
ranking officers at risk.”

I glared at him. “All my highest ranking officers are also my most
experienced experts. I’d take you, too, if I could. But with things the way
they are I’d as soon you were watching the store.”

He glared back. “Given our current morale problems, I do not find that
reassuring. If you expect me to deal single-handedly with a potential
mutiny, or overcome a coup on the part of the kin refugees, you have vastly
overestimated my capacities.”

“If you think me staying on board would make any difference if it did come
to that, then you’ve vastly overrated *mine.*” I stood, and paced across
the room. “Tuvok, I don’t think it’s going to come to that. Yes, morale is
low–but they’ll stick with us. Right now, the most important thing I can
do is try to make sure we’re part of any planning that takes place, and
that we’re counted as allies by the kin. The best chance I have of ending
Voyager’s problems lies with getting help from the kin. God knows, the
Hakaalt show no signs of being willing to pitch in and lend a hand. Unless
we want some demolition done.”

He looked down at the PADD in his hand. “At least reconsider taking
Kilpatrick.”

I ran a hand over my hair. “Tuvok, she’s the highest ranking officer still
well over in Stellar. The Delaneys are barely managing to make their duty
shifts at all, Winston can’t make it to the head without someone to hold
his hand, and Ferra is only an ensign. The rest are *clerks.* What do you
want me to do? She’s in the same spot we’re in, and she hasn’t given us any
trouble since Jorland died. And–she’s not… I don’t think she’s
fundamentally evil. Just lost, and frustrated, and looking for some kind of
hope. Not so different from any of us.” I shifted, restless. Admitted the
uncomfortable truth. “She reminds me of me, in some ways. I don’t accept
change all that easily myself. If I’d had to serve under Chakotay, on Crazy
Horse, I’m not sure *I* wouldn’t have been willing to mutiny. It’s not easy
to accept changing standards. Not when you’ve worked long and hard to
achieve those standards. Kilpatrick paid a high price to get to Starfleet.”
I wanted to believe it. I never liked seeing Fleet officers as ‘bent.’
Tuvok wasn’t convinced. I closed my eyes, rubbed between them, feeling the
strain already starting. “I’ll make a point of having Chakotay keep an eye
on her. Will that satisfy you?”

He didn’t like it. I found myself wondering if I’d have to add a
recalcitrant Security Chief to all the other problems I had to deal with.
He finally nodded. “Very well. But remind the commander that we would like
to see more–caution–from him than he displayed as the captain of Crazy
Horse. He record for detecting subterfuge is hardly outstanding.”

I grinned, sourly. “No. I suppose it isn’t. Too honorable by half, and
inclined to take people on faith. But… Tuvok, she’s more of a threat
right here on the ship. The way the crew is feeling right now, I’d as soon
she was under my eye. At least that way I can try to determine if she
really is dangerous. I know Paris said she’d had plans all along–but we
have no proof of that. It may have been chance, and her involvement with
Jorland, more than anything.”

“As you say. Very well, I have no further objections.” He rose from his
chair, and stood by the desk, tactfully ending the session. “If I am not
mistaken, it is time for you to rendezvous with the rest of your team. Do
you have any final orders, before you leave?”

I gave him a lemonade grin–the best I could manage with the ‘sour’ life
was handing us. “Don’t let the kin practice their juggling on the bridge?
Make sure the Hakaalt know that my appointment book is full up, and they’ll
have to arrange to attack us some other day?” I sighed. “Just do the best
you can, Tuvok. It’s only a couple of hours.” I picked up a PADD from the
edge of my desk, and we both went on bridge, where I officially transferred
the con.

Chakotay and I met in the corridor outside my… ‘our’ quarters. I’d been
afraid I’d have to wake him up. When he sleeps, he sleeps deep. But he was
ready, report in hand, spruce and trim. I briefed him on the way to the
transporter room. I’d half expected him to laugh, or grouse about Tuvok’s
warnings to look out for Kilpatrick. Instead he frowned, and nodded, not
saying anything. He really was tired. The day-to-day onboard Voyager had
become an endless round of minor disasters, all needing his attention. He
didn’t have much energy to spare on laughter, or even pique.

Our team, and Qiral and Rodria, were waiting for us. I looked at the former
Master of the Star March. “Anything I should know before we beam over?
Particular points of diplomacy, taboos to watch out for?”

He shrugged as he stepped onto the pad. “So long as you don’t push, you
should be fine. Just remember, to most of the kin, you’re *grounders.*
And–you look too much like the Hakaalt for comfort. They’ll tolerate you,
because you bothered to help Star March. But…”

“But you’re not kin, and no-one names you in their kin-calling.” Rodria’s
voice was acid.

Qiral looked over at her as the rest of my team found pads. “Except Star
March kin-calling. *We* name them kin.”

The transporter hummed, and we were on Metal March before she said,
grudgingly, “They saved us. I suppose we can say they’re kin.” The way she
said it reminded me that most violent crimes are committed within families,
or by friends.

Chakotay and I exchanged glances, and shrugged. Gratitude comes hard to
some people.

I had a hard time understanding how Qiral, so relaxed and confident
himself, and so adaptable, could be involved in a kin-style “mated-pair”
with the sting-sharp Rodria. But there was no doubt that the tiny woman
with the wings of a falcon and the temper of a yellow-jacket adored her
massive partner, or that he loved her as dearly. I could only fall back on
my grandmother’s wisdom, and mutter “It’s a funny old world, and thank God
for it.”

Two guards approached from one side of the room. We all waited patiently as
they scanned us with tricorder-like devices, and performed a rough and
ready examination of the little equipment we’d brought with us, checking
for weapons and spy devices. No one was taking anything for granted, not
even among the ships of the Exodus. When they were finished, they nodded to
Qiral, ignoring my own people as best they could. “We’re done. You can go
now. Just remember the grounders are here on your calling. If they ring
sour, it’s your name that’ll be struck from the roll.” They gave us
suspicious glances, and retreated.

I stepped forward. My team fell in behind me; Chakotay at my shoulder,
flanked by B’Elanna. Vinton, who was Tuvok’s representative from Weaponry,
was next to Kilpatrick. I looked at Qiral. “Where now?”

He stepped towards a small door, Rodria close behind him. “Metal March has
a meeting hall at the center of the ship.” He pushed the heavy,
manual-style sliding door aside, and passed into a corridor beyond. “Follow
me, and stay close. You don’t want to get lost here… not until you’re
known better. Too many who’d…” he left the sentence hanging. It was
tactful, but unnecessary. Our ambiguous status among the kin was already
too clear to miss.

My team and I followed, tagging close behind. We had to, or we’d have been
lost in the crush.

Like most of the kin ships, Metal March was small. Smaller than Voyager.
About the size of the old Constitution class vessels that were the darlings
of Starfleet a hundred years or so back , and that look so miserably
cramped and inadequate these days. The place was dirty by the standards of
Starfleet, and pervaded with a… well, if I had to choose a word, I’d have
to say “stink.” There was an odor like a well-kept room of lab animals–a
dank, organic smell masked by antiseptics and cleaning solutions. Machine
smells, food smells. Just breathing made me aware that I was on an alien
ship, about to deal with an alien culture that didn’t like “grounders” very
much.

The corridors were narrow, and crowded with people. Children ran up and
down them, staring at my team with a combination of wonder and fear. They
gaped, and goggled, and ducked behind the nearest adult legs. Juvenile
pride made some stand their ground, glaring fiercely at us and trying not
to bolt. Not all of them could manage it. One little boy took one look, and
promptly fell into hysterics, eyes huge and blank, body wrapped tight, arms
clutching shoulders, squatting on the floor, rocking back and forth. A hot,
damp smell and a wet stain on coarse trousers were clear evidence that he’d
lost control completely. He kept making a high-pitched, whining cry that
raised the hair on the nape of my neck, and made me automatically step
forward to try to give some comfort. Rodria stopped me, reaching high to
clamp hard fingers into the flesh above my elbow. “Do you *want* to send
him catatonic? Leave him alone. His people will take care of him. All you
can do is remind him of things he’s better off forgetting.” She didn’t add
the insult “grounder,” but I could see it in her eyes.

We looked too much like the Hakaalt, even to those who had reason to be
grateful to us. To the child we were something that should have been only a
nightmare. Killers in his own home.

I nodded, and followed Qiral’s retreating back, trying to fight down anger
at the kin for failing to see that my people and I were nothing like their
enemies. That the resemblances were superficial.

The trip led us through the ship, past manufacturing bays, aeroponics
holds, through the residential areas on the inner ring of the deck, and
finally to the assembly hall.

The first thing that hit me was the size of the room. There was nothing
quite like it on Voyager. It was bigger than a shuttle hangar, bigger than
a cargo hold. In spite of the small size of the ship, the designers had
apparently felt it worth the sacrifice of space to create a hall big enough
to hold the entire population of Metal March. As for the mood of the crowd
that had gathered under the high ceiling:

Rage. There was rage everywhere–in the jut of a jaw; in the rigid set of
shoulders, bunched and angry; in the prowl and pad of the hyena-kin, the
ones called Eenair, descended from the first world the Hakaalt had taken.
It was there in the restless flick of eyes, scanning the room over and
over. Fists were clenched, arms were crossed defensively across chests.
I’ve never been in a room so full of fury. Along with it was fear, and
grief. The place was super-charged, ready to explode.

As we entered heads turned towards us, and passion burned. For a second I
thought we’d be mobbed, but Qiral stepped forward, and raised that pipe
organ voice. “They are the Voyagers. They saved us. We claim them kin.”

The tension dropped. Many looked fixedly away from us, unable to see past
our resemblance to the enemy, but not ready to challenge Qiral. A few
looked on us more kindly. One or two nodded, and sent us tentative, tight
smiles of welcome.

Qiral led us around the edge of the room, and found us a large table at the
back that appeared to have been jury-rigged for the meeting from metal
panels and packing containers. We sat on benches and boxes that were as
improvised as the table, and tried to get comfortable, as we waited for the
meeting to start.

As my team settled down, I looked around me.

The wall panel behind us, like all the walls of the room, was covered with
a vivid mural. This one showed the repeating images of a Hakaalt invasion.
In every scene they were there, their ships behind them, driving people to
pens, killing. In the background were the battered handfuls of survivors
who succeeded in escaping to ships and joining the impoverished bands of
wanders who in time became the kin. In the foreground of the painting their
world lay in ruins, their people lay bleeding, and dying. Bound. Tortured.
Raped, enslaved, used as toys, buried alive in mass graves.

Rodria caught me looking in distaste at the gory images. “Don’t like it?”

“Not much, no. It seems awfully dark to use as decoration in a general
assembly area.” I shrugged apologetically. “I’m sure it’s important to you,
and your people. Just–very different from anything I’d choose.”

She grinned, bitterly. “Let me guess: you and your people run to glorious
victories, and great achievements–when you don’t leave your walls dead and
empty.”

I tried a placatory smile. “Actually, I prefer Chinese landscape paintings
and Vulcan brush-abstracts, but close enough. My own paintings and
sculptures are usually portraiture. Occasionally still-lifes and abstracts.
But, yes, our public art does run to idealized historic figures, and
special moments of importance. The first meeting of the Federation Senate,
the statue of Zephram Cochrane. Pretty standard fare. There are a few
exceptions. An artist named Picasso did a piece called ‘Guernica’ that
might suit you. I’m afraid I always found it ugly, and depressing, even if
it is great art.”

She turned away from me, and stared fiercely to the front of the room.
“Your Federation sounds like the Hakaalt: all the pretty,
self-congratulatory stuff, and none of the blood.” Her head turned a
fraction of a degree, and she sliced me with a dagger smile. “This is what
we are, ‘kinswoman.'” Her voice made a cynical lie of the word. “Hakaalt
vanity paints pictures of the Ordained wafting their way through clean
landscapes, and standing victorious on a hundred worlds. They don’t show
any blood, or pain, because the only blood that was shed didn’t count. It
was eftri blood, and the eftri lost. They hate us as much because we
remember as for all their rotting philosophy, or their economic excuses.
But we do remember. We’re still paying the price for their glory. We were
born from the blood of worlds, and we don’t forget.”

I wanted to slap her for her malicious baiting. I clenched my teeth, and
turned away to Chakotay, only to catch him soberly nodding. I must have
looked like I’d been pole-axed, because his face went still. “Kath–it’s
same kind of need that sent so many following after Misquonaqueb’s vision
to Dorvan. ‘Far from the bones of our ancestors.’ Leaving earth, and the
people who chose to stay behind, nearly destroyed us. *We chose to remember
and survive*–no matter what the cost, or how painful the memories. There’s
the same kind of dynamic with the kin. These people know what it is to
lose, and still try to hold on to identity and self-respect. Like my
people. Like Chaim’s. Like Cherel’s. You have to understand them on those
terms.”

Qiral had been listening intently. Now he leaned forward. “I had thought
you were all one unified people, for all the kinds of you that you say are
part of your culture.”

Chakotay met his eyes. “We are one people. But we’re *people.* Our history
is as complicated as anyone’s, and has as many tragedies. As for how many
cultures within the whole –” He shrugged. “What Delwien said the other
day: I haven’t bothered to count. What’s important is we’re working to make
it together, we’re all better than we used to be, and we’re trying to get
better still.”

Rodria was quick on the mark. “But *that one* doesn’t understand?” She
glared at me.

Chakotay leaned forward, looking suddenly a bit too much like a certain
Wild Maquis Captain I’d taken aboard years back. He may know not to
interfere with my job, but the instinct to defend his own is strong in him.
I’d become ‘his own’ in too many ways for him not to want to be my “Gallant
Knight” once in a while.

I put a hand on his, before he could leap to my defense. “My ‘parent’
culture has been one of the dominant cultures on our world, and in the
Federation, for many centuries. Some of that dominance came fairly enough,
but some of it… my ancestors weren’t always wise, or kind. We’ve had to
work hard to learn to see through other eyes than our own, and to come to
terms with some of the mistakes our ancestors made. But, yes, it is hard
for me to fully understand what it is to live with a history and a culture
born in defeat, and atrocity, and helplessness in the face of oppression.
That doesn’t mean that I think it’s right, though.”

Chakotay nodded, quietly. “We don’t come from a perfect place, Rodria. I
don’t know anyone who does. But she’s not the same as the Hakaalt. If she
were she wouldn’t have me as her XO–and I wouldn’t serve in that
position.”

Qiral nodded. “None of the kin were Tava’s blessed mirrors before the
Hakaalt came, either, Rodria-true-heart. Don’t lie about that, even to
yourself. We’re not her living image even now. If you’re not careful, no
matter how much you look kin on the outside, you’ll be a grounder bigot on
the inside.”

Rodria set her jaw, and fisted her hands on the table. The wings at her
shoulders had risen, quivering with tension. She was mantled like a hunting
hawk. “They’re too *Hakaalt.*” Her high voice creeled with her stress and
anger, with the cost of days of pressure. “Same damned arrogance, same
damned uniforms, same smells. Same hard edges on everything. Same
vacuum-sucking order, like a chair out of place will kill ‘em. Like a bare
table and a clean floor and polished boots are the only way they can tell
who’s worth their time, and who’s eftri. It’s driving me crazy. Like
sharing a bed with poison-claws. Every time one of them swishes past me and
gives that ‘poor little savage’ smile, or makes damned sure I know that
people ‘don’t do this or that or the other where *they* come from,’ like
being different makes us less, I have to haul in my wings. No matter what
you say, they’re as conceited and self-satisfied as the Hakaalt–and I keep
waiting for them to kill like them, too. ” She looked at Qiral with
desperation, her eyes begging him to understand, to reassure, to agree.

“They aren’t Hakaalt.” His voice was sympathetic–but firm and steady as
stone foundations.

She drooped. “No. They’re not Hakaalt.” For a minute I was afraid that we’d
all pushed her too hard, and that she’d leave. But after a moment she
straightened, and grinned, looking over at us, trying to mend the gap she’d
made in our company with humor. “Still, they’d look a lot better out of
those prissy-butt clone-suits most of ‘em wear. Tava alone knows why a
people who follow that ‘IDIC’ thing you told me about want to go
eliminating diversity like that. You’d think they all hatched out of one
egg.”

As we’d been talking the room had slowly been filling up; more and more
representatives of the ships of the exodus drifting in and finding seats at
the tables set up around the room. Now the place was buzzing and humming,
and I kept wondering when the real meeting would start. So far no one had
made a move to take charge. At the front of the room was a dais, with the
only really fine table to be seen. There were chairs arranged behind it,
and at the center was a peculiar seat, as much a hassock as anything. When
we arrived it was empty, and it had remained so all the time we’d been
here.

Finally, just as I was getting ready to ask Qiral if the show was ever
going on the road, nine new individuals came in through the main doorway.
It was the usual mix of kin races. At the head of the group was one of the
Eenair.

I never knew if it was male, or female, old or young. It was large, and
rangy, with a toothy, gaping hyena grin that set some primate instinct in
me screaming up into the primordial branches of a jungle tree, screeching
‘predator!!’ But I couldn’t tell much more about it. Not that it mattered.
It had–power.

It was the Master of Metal March. The leader of the exiled. I’ve seen
Presidents of the Federation Council who had less presence.

It paced to the front of the hall, gave a bound that took it over the table
in one smooth move, and somehow came to rest on the hassock facing
forwards, hand-paws resting on the polished surface in front of it. It
waited patiently as the rest of its people found their places in the chairs
alongside.

Then it swept the room with angry eyes, and its voice sparked and cut like
metal against metal.

“I am Teefei the Designer, Master of the Metal March, child of the kin,
whom the Hakaalt call ‘eftri.’ I host this gathering, and welcome you.
Now–what shall we do to live?”

There was more rage in the question than had been in all the room before.
If rage alone could restructure reality, the Q would have had to give way
to a greater power.

A roar came up from the rest, and for a moment I thought that all hope of
discussion was gone. Instead Teefei sat back, and gave a snarling shout
that shook the place. “Silence. We will have order.”

And there was order.

It turned its head, and found a table of representatives. “Blood March. You
are the oldest of the surviving kin-callings; what say you?”

From that point on the meeting moved along with control, even if it wasn’t
exactly calm. There was bitterness, and fury. There were plenty of heated
speeches, a few that would have put Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty,” or
Shakespeare’s “Once more good friends, unto the breach” to shame. There
were tantrums, and tears, calls for doomed charges into the mass of the
Hakaalt fleet. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Chakotay and B’Elanna,
my two revolutionary Maquis. B’Elanna’s eyes were hot, and hooded. If she
hadn’t come down with the coughing sickness I think she’d have been
standing on the table, shouting approval of attack, even in the face of
common sense.

Chakotay’s face was tight. His jaw was set, his hands clutched the PADD on
the table in front of him.

I leaned close. “I’d as soon you didn’t decide to join them for good,
commander. Voyager needs you.”

He looked over out of the corner of his eyes, face still forward. “Not
planning on it. It’s… I’ve heard these speeches too many times. As a kid,
from old tribal history tapes. On Bajor. In the Maquis. Even versions from
the Academy, recordings from the Eugenics wars, from the first war with the
Romulans. Over and over, and always the same.” He looked down at his
clenched fists flexing the plastic case of the PADD out of true. “I must be
getting old. This shouldn’t keep happening.”

“No.” I looked out over the room. Another factional argument over
distribution of goods had started. The high ceiling echoed with shouts,
snarls, and roars.

I got up. Drifted over to a table with cups, and carafes of beverages.
Poured myself a cup, and tried to lay my own sense of being in a room of
raving savages to rest. For all my sympathy, I’d grown up in a more orderly
culture. A more secure culture. It *was* hard for me to feel a sense of
shared empathy with the kin. The same thing had happened to me with the
Trabe. I’d known the Trabe had, less than a generation before, enslaved,
imprisoned, and brutalized the Kazon. I’d known the Kazon had reasons for
their aggression, and their conditioned desire to rule, own. To control, or
destroy what they couldn’t control. To take what they could, as they’d been
taken from. It was “wrong,” but it was a predictable response to their
enslavement, and their battle for freedom. I’d known that less than a
generation is seldom long enough to end the hostilities brought about by
the kind of brutality that had happened between those two cultures. Yet my
sympathy and my trust had been more for the Trabe than for the Kazon. For
the deposed slave masters, rather than for the victorious ex-slaves. Part
of it was that the Kazon had deviled Voyager for months on end. Part of it
was pique that Chakotay had suggested that we ally with one of the Kazon
septs–a suggestion I hadn’t been in any way ready to consider. Part of it
was that we found the Trabe in the “victim” position when we encountered
them.

But part of it was that they were… civilized. Clean. Neat. Courtly
conversationalists. Governor Mabus would have graced the table of the most
discriminating Boston Back Bay traditionalist. He talked “reason” and
“shared goals” like a philosopher. I wouldn’t put it past a Kazon to use
the table cloth as a tissue. To use the forks as decorative combs in those
rat-nest hairdos of theirs. Mabus had elegant hands that used cutlery like
surgical instruments, and he raised his wine glass to toast us with a grace
and composure I’d envied. I’d trusted him, because he was “civilized.” Not
like those angry, aggressive, sexist, brutal, dirty Kazon.

Chakotay has said that “civilized” doesn’t mean the same thing as “having
high ethical standards.” The alliance between us and the Trabe may have
been my most vivid lesson in that fact. Sometimes “civilized” means nothing
more than that the knife you’re stabbed in the back with is likely to be
clean, and of excellent manufacture.

It had been a bitter lesson. One I was still learning. One I suspected I’d
never stop learning. Cultural biases run deep, and strike in devious ways.

Kilpatrick slid up beside me. “Not exactly the most tolerant individuals,
are they? For all their pride in their diversity, they don’t leave a lot of
room for divergence from *their* norms.” She was a comforting sight, for
all the ambivalence I felt about her. Professional. Her hair swept back
gracefully. Her uniform immaculate. She reminded me of home. Unfortunately,
her words, and the prim disgust on her face ruined it–even though I’d been
battling the same feelings. Maybe *because* I’d been battling the same
feelings.

I murmured quietly back, “Are we any better, lieutenant? Really? When push
comes to shove, the test of tolerance is accepting the alien… and it
isn’t an easy test.”

Her voice was strained. “Tolerance is all well and good. But how far can
you take it before you’re abandoning your standards? These people….
They’re *dirty.* They’re rude. They’re disorganized, and sloppy. Their
morals…. Well, I suppose that’s their business. But I’ve been asking
around, and they appear to have been surviving on make-work, odd trades,
foraging–even theft, and con games. Parasites. Bums. A tramp culture. And
they’re walking germ factories. Maybe the Hakaalt had cause to want them
out of their space.” She was easy enough for me to understand. A self-made
woman, with the kind of drive I’d always recognized in myself. I wondered
how many nights on Roisin Dubh she’d lain in bed dreaming of the Federation
beyond. It suddenly occurred to me that, if she was like me, she was like
Chakotay, too. The boy who’d run from Dorvan, to a bigger world. “They’re
not much better than the Kazon, when you come down to it. Just less well
armed.”

I lifted my head slightly, wondering how sharp the hearing of some of the
kin was. Kilpatrick wasn’t being precisely diplomatic. “Lieutenant, this
isn’t the time. It may never be. I understand your concerns, but right now
we don’t have a lot of choice. And I don’t think I’d back you even if we
did. They didn’t have a lot of choice in the lives they lead.”

She bent her head down low over her cup, and muttered, “Who does?” I barely
heard her. By the time I’d worked it out, it was too late to comment. I
heard Chakotay’s voice raised over the roar of debate.

“We can help. Our shuttles are armed, and have a fair storage capacity. And
we may be able to add some information to yours about potential sources of
supplies.”

I grabbed Kilpatrick’s arm, and hurried us both to our table. Leaned over
B’Elanna’s shoulder as we sat, and asked “What did we miss?”

She turned feverish eyes to me. “They’re planning supply runs. They need
more ships, and more ideas of where to go, and what to look for. They’re
out at the edge of their territory, and even when they’ve been here, it’s
only a few of them, and not often. Like bombing around in the Neutral Zone
–more unknown variables than givens.” She looked over at Kilpatrick.
“Now’s the time for that stuff you compiled.”

Kilpatrick made a face, but nodded. Raised her voice over the bellowing.
“We’ve made a survey of the planetary systems on the way. And… are there
any better choices than the Bandei Empire to head for? If the reports we’ve
gotten from our local crewmembers are correct, there may be.”

One of the Cardassian-type kin, at a table on the other side of the room,
shouted back, “The Bandei are the strongest power around, besides the
Hakaalt. Who else would we go running to?”

Kilpatrick picked up her PADD from the table where she’d left it. “I’ve
been researching the material we’ve gathered from various sources. There’s
a political block called the Roucham Sodality, that we could reach with
only a minor course alteration. If they couldn’t take us in we’d have lost
some time, but if information we’ve gotten from the Kithtri serving on our
ship is correct they may be rich enough, and strong enough, to protect
us–or at least allow us to repair our ships, restock our supplies, get
medical help.” Her voice was calm, persuasive. Whatever her personal
feelings about the kin she was determined to hold to her own standards of
professionalism. I felt hope for her, and some small measure of pride. I
still wasn’t sure I could trust her, but for better or worse she believed
in the standards of a Starfleet officer.

One of the aka’Chee sitting at a table near ours spoke up, its voice
curdled with sarcasm. “If we wanted to be in debt to the mud-footing
Rouchamsta grounders, we’d have pointed our noses at ‘em already.” It
raised a satin smooth, jet-black hand, and slowly, delicately extended
sharp claws. “They’re like aka’Chee malice–soft handed to look at, but
watch out for the hidden daggers.” There was a coarse bellow of laughter
from the back of the room, that spread to the rest of the company, and the
aka’Chee smiled wickedly at Kilpatrick. “Don’t try to propound wisdom to
the sages, little grounder. We knew the ways of the stars when you were
slobbering at your dam’s fat dugs.”

Kilpatrick sat rigid, her face burning red, her fingers like metal clamps
over her PADD. Before she could speak, Qiral rose. “Let our kinswoman be,
Zellery Engine Tender. The idea isn’t so bad. The Chammies are good people.
They may be small by local standards, and they’ve never really been
fighters. But they aren’t Hakaalt, for all they’re grounders. They have
some standards, and they take some pride in what they’ve built. They’re not
so different from kin, either.” Voices rose at that. The aka’Chee snarled,
and showed its eye teeth. Qiral faced it down. “No. Listen when I speak. I
have walked the ground there–more than most of you can say. They may only
be three peoples, but they’ve lived together, worked together. They believe
in that Sodality of theirs. You ask them about it, and they’ll tell you
quick and hard what those Binding Laws of theirs are worth to them all.
Like kin. I grant you, they’re none so fond of *real* kin, but…” He
trailed off, pondering his next words.

Before he could continue Rodria cut in, her voice tart. “They’re a bunch of
high principled lay-abouts. Easy marks, and always a great audience. They
pride themselves on their tolerance, good will, and sophistication–but
I’ve never believed it had much muscle behind it.” Qiral looked at her, and
she shrugged eloquently, both shoulders and wings rising and falling.
“Don’t give *me* that look–I’m the one who had to bail you out of a
reeking Sodality grag-o tank when that one-planet hick tried to take us for
our ticket sales. They’re grounders, and if they’re better than the
Hakaalt, that’s not saying much.” Qiral kept looking, and she finally
sighed. “All right. They’re a possibility. But I don’t have to like it.
They talk sweets ‘n semmle-spice, but if it comes down to choosing between
us and the Hakaalt–well, we’ll see what their high moral standards are
worth, won’t we? Not all rubes are like these ‘Voyagers’ you’ve talked me
into kin-claiming. Most are just… just *grounders.*”

Teefei leapt over its table, and padded to the back of the room to stand in
front of us. The hair on its spine bristled high, and it met Rodria’s eyes
with a hard, challenging glare. “I don’t like it either, kinswoman Bright
March. But… we need the help. We can’t afford to forget that kin were
grounders, once, before the Hakaalt drove us to the ships. There are good
grounders, or there wouldn’t be good kin.”

One of the kin at the next table snarled, “Once. ‘Once’ changes everything.
It takes knowing need to know justice. Damned grounders don’t know
need–and don’t care about justice.”

Teefei glowered across the room. “So–you’d rather die than risk asking a
grounder for help?”

The other seemed to waver.

Teefei growled, then turned away from its opponent. With a muscular bounce
it heaved up on its hindquarters, and leaned on the table, paw-hands
splayed flat in front of us. Braced like that its head was so close to me I
could have ruffled the soft fur behind its big bat-ears–if I’d wanted to
run the risk of losing my arm up to the elbow. Teefei was no Molly. It
spoke, making sure its voice carried over the entire hall. “The kin are in
need. The Bandei are stronger, but the Sodality is closer, and the time
we’d lose trying them would make no difference if we fail. Few of us are
fit to make the trip even without the detour. Voyager Shipholding speaks
well. I approve their speaking. Who joins me?” There was a moment as
everyone thought, then the agreements came in like surf on granite rocks,
crashing and rushing in that huge cavern of a room. Teefei flashed
orangy-white teeth, and slapped the table. “The kin have chosen. Now,
Voyager-kin: what else have you to offer?”

Kilpatrick was staring fixedly at her PADD, avoiding the hot yellow gaze of
the Master of the Metal March. She was tense, her mouth white, two red
patches flaming high on her cheekbones. As the silence stretched, she
looked up, and seemed to pull away from the heavy, hulking form. I couldn’t
blame her. Teefei was like a gargoyle, a lowering presence, as intimidating
as anything. Before her silence could become an embarrassment, I slid in
smoothly. “We’ve done a survey of all the planets along the routes to both
the Sodality and the Bandei Empire that might offer us supplies, goods, or
any kind of support. There aren’t many, but there are a few. Most are
empty. A few have resident populations, and can offer us more than just raw
material. Those that can’t can still provide ores, and some can be
scavenged for food, and water. Between the little cargo ships and life-pods
your people have, and our shuttles and our Talaxian trade ship, we could
manage to send teams ahead, to bring back whatever resources we could find.
The ores alone would be a help–if I understand what I’ve heard here, Metal
March and the other fabricating Shipholdings could be turning out repair
parts, and helping bring the exodus back up to speed, if they only had the
resources to do it with.”

Teefei grunted in agreement. “We’d already planned to do that, but a decent
survey would be a help. This end of the sector we’ve always gone more on
word of mouth than anything, and stuck close to known systems. We’re at the
edge of our range now, and your information and your shuttles will help.”

B’Elanna leaned forward, her eyes as hot as Teefei’s, her voice husky with
the beginnings of the coughing plague. “If we get you the supplies, can you
make parts to order? If you can help us bring our replicators back on line
we can solve half the problems all of us have–food, repairs, medicines,
you name it.”

Teefei dropped down, and shook itself vigorously, loose hide shivering and
hair flying everywhere. “I would have to see the plans of the parts you
need. We would try. Is that all? We have been speaking long.”

She grinned. “Tell me about it. Meetings are a pain. We had one more idea
to offer. One of our junior officers, Ensign Kim, pointed out that the Star
March might not be good for much but parts, but that its communication
system is still more or less intact. He thought maybe we could retro-fit,
use its warp-core as a power source, adapt the broadcasters and the
receivers, and come up with a really *loud* subspace radio beacon. That way
if there are any folks out there willing to help, or take us in, they’d
hear us, and we wouldn’t have to just take our chances stumbling from one
place to the next. Normal subspace radio has a limited range, but with an
entire warp core dedicated to just one beacon–we could really blast the
message out.”

Teefei nodded. “Good. If Master Qiral has no objections, you shall do it.”
It turned, and began to pace back down through the tables to its dais. Then
it stopped, and looked back over those high-humped shoulders. “Don’t hope
too hard, Voyager-sister. We are kin. There are few who would do more than
sigh, and say ‘how sad, that they must die for progress.’ Tell your kinsman
it was well thought of, though.”

The meeting went on for hours after that. For most of that time those of us
from Voyager had little to add, but we stayed anyway. Couldn’t afford not
to: we needed to be accepted, needed the kin to see us as allies. And we
needed to know what we were dealing with too. Couldn’t afford to have
anything happen that we weren’t aware of. We were already too far off
familiar ground as it was. By the time it all wound up everyone was
exhausted. Chakotay, Qiral, and I gathered up the rest of the team, made
our way back through the packed, stuffy little ship, and called over to the
transport officer, relieved to be going home.

When we got there we almost wanted to return.

I’d decided to review the events on Metal March–so we’d all headed up to
the bridge, to go to my readyroom. It didn’t occur to me to call ahead:
it’s *my* readyroom, after all.

So when the door slid open I wasn’t ready for what I found.

“Greedy, double-dealing, glue-fingered grounder *bitch*!” The kinswoman
shouting was nearly in tears. She was one of the less unusual races of the
kin. One of the ones who looked like metallic-hued Cardassians.

“Bitch? Bitch?! You steal my baby’s toys, and you call *me* a bitch? She’s
half-dead with some horrible disease *you* people gave her, and you have to
take her toys, too?”

I had never, ever seen Wildman lose her composure like that. She was
clutching a grubby, battered stuffed bear, along with an assortment of
other toys, holding them to her breast like they were little Puff herself.
No–she’d never have held Puff like that. She’s more careful with the baby.
She held the toys like you hang on to a weapon, to keep it out of the hands
of an enemy.

The kinswoman was near tears–Wildman was in tears and beyond.

Tuvok? He was at a complete loss. That’s the nearest I can describe it.
Sitting behind my desk, gripping the edge, eyes white-rimmed in his dark
face. When we thundered into the room, he sent me a look of blended shame,
panic, and relief.

I sliced my voice across the scene. “What the devil is going on here?”

The two combatants rounded on me, prepared to out-shout each other. Tuvok,
Chakotay, and Qiral all cut them off: the bellow from all three, all in
their own ways projecting at maximum volume, all determined to stem the
flood of hysteria that threatened, was–impressive?

“You will control yourselves in the presence of the ….” That was Tuvok.
Dry, and precise–but also, for once, loud.

“Kinswoman, BE SILENT!” Qiral’s pipe organ voice, shaking the dust from the
ceiling.

And over it all, the unexpected. My soft-voiced XO. “Shut up, stand down,
and stiffle it. NOW!!!!”

Yes. Impressive is the right word. It was all very impressive.

The two women fell back, wide-eyed, suddenly registering the mass of “high
rankers” who’d come in with me, all of us staring back at them.

I stepped forward, to stand in front of Tuvok. As quietly as I could
manage, I asked “Now, if you could tell me what’s going on?”

Tuvok stood, his look an apology. “There appears to be some
misunderstanding as to which things left in Ms Wildman’s quarters were
‘loaned’–and which were not.”

“I see.” I turned to the gathered members of the away team. “I’m afraid
this *isn’t* the best time for a review of the situation, after all. I’ll
let you know when I need you. Meanwhile,” I addressed Tuvok, Chakotay, and
Qiral, “I’d say this is a matter for the three of *you* to work out. Your
areas of authority.” Looking darkly at the two women, I frowned, then
turned back to the three men. “Deal with it.”

Tuvok didn’t even look at me, sliding from my desk as inconspicuously as
possible, to stand by Chakotay. Qiral seemed to wait, too. Chakotay…

Well, he’d wanted to be fully integrated with the command team. To be
allowed to do his job. If he didn’t entirely like it–well, watch what you
ask for. You may get it.

He sighed, and looked at the other two ‘command officers.’ “My office?”
Tuvok and Qiral both nodded. Chakotay looked at Wildman and the kinswoman.
He did a fair impression of a drill sergeant planning a particularly
unpleasant punishment detail. “Out of the captain’s readyroom–we’ll work
this out where we won’t distract anyone sane…”

They all filed out–the women, far from passive, but silent for the time
being. Tuvok, Qiral, and Chakotay, all doing classic
offended-authority-figure prowls. The rest of the away team trying very
hard to pretend they knew *nothing*, saw *nothing.* Perfect pictures of
diplomatic ignorance. Even Rodria was playing it mild, for a change.

And Kilpatrick. Looking like she’d seen a Denebian slime devil–or
something even less savory. Not that she really registered with me at the
time. I had other things on my mind.

When they were all gone, I called down to Neelix, and told him if he didn’t
find me some acceptable substitute for coffee, I was going to have him put
out the nearest airlock. And then I sat at my desk, and had a very long,
very bitter conversation with Murphy, the ‘angel’ of chaos, perversity, and
dysfunction. He’d been patronizing me a bit more than I thought I deserved,
and I commended the Hakaalt to his tender ministrations.

Like most powers I’ve ever heard of, he listened quietly–and continued on
as he’d intended all along.

Meanwhile, of course, Chakotay was “dealing with it.” I wonder if he has
the same sorts of conversations with Nanaboozhoo that I have with Murphy?

End Section V

——————————————–

——————————————–

Section VI: Chakotay

By a combination of posture and silence, Qiral and Tuvok made it clear that
I was the one in charge. For once, I’d have been happy to let the buck stop
on someone else’s desk.

I waited while the rest of the away team passed us by, headed for the
turbolift, then I turned to the two subdued women. “Ladies, shall we take
this to my office?” It wasn’t a request and they knew it. They followed,
then Tuvok, then Qiral bringing up the rear.

Once there, I didn’t offer the women a seat. Let them squirm a bit in front
of the desk. Tuvok joined me behind it, handed over his PADD containing
Wildman’s original complaint. I read it, handed it to Qiral where he stood
by the door.

Wildman still clutched Puff’s toys. I caught her eyes, then jerked a chin
at the toys and tapped the tabletop. She was reluctant to part with them
and, for just a moment, I thought our mild-mannered Wildman was going to
succumb to insubordination. Then she shuffled forward to put them down, one
at a time: the battered bear, a dreidel that must have come from Chaim, a
teething ring, something odd that consisted of only hair, teeth and black
shoes–and chattered when she set it on the desk–and a plastic mat filled
with water and floating sparkly geometric objects. My desk looked like
Toddler’s Wonderland. Reaching out, Tuvok silenced the wind-up hairy-teeth.

I let the ensuing silence stretch, then asked Wildman, “Why were toys left
in quarters which were supposed to have been cleared for kin usage?”

She wiped at her noise, surreptitiously. “I just– I couldn’t– They
reminded me too much of the baby so I left them there to pick up later. I
didn’t think anyone would just *take* them!”

“Did you leave instructions that the toys were not to be used?”

“I didn’t think I needed to! You don’t take what isn’t yours!”

“Grounder morals,” the kinswoman muttered.

I held up a hand and she spoke no further. “So,” I said then, “the toys
were left with no explanation as to why, in a room which the kin had been
told to make their own.”

“She could’ve at least *asked* first!” Wildman shouted, temper fraying at
last. “Those are my baby’s toys! She’s sick because of them but they can’t
even wait for her to die before they start stealing her toys!”

“That will be enough, ensign!”

When Wildman had hold of herself again, I turned to the kinswoman who had
crossed her arms and was looking away from us, studying nothing on my wall.
In truth, I’d heretofore avoided looking her; the resemblance to
Cardassians was too strong. Now, I forced myself to say, “I’d like to hear
your side of things.”

“What’s to tell? Grounders have their minds made up about kin before we
ever open our mouths.”

I suffered a moment of profound disorientation: Cardassian lips speaking
Indian complaints. I’d heard those words before in our histories. The white
man always knew what he thought about Indians. Noble savages or drunken
lazy bums, founts of esoteric spiritual wisdom or dirty good-for-nothing
thieves. None of those pictures had much to do with real Indians. “Try me,”
I said now to the kinswoman. “And tell me your name.”

She turned, narrowed her eyes. They were yellow like Neelix’s. Yellow
lizard-eyes and bronze dragon-skin. “I’m called Ina Builds-a- fire.”

God, even the name sounded Indian. I propped myself on the edge of my desk,
folded my hands between my knees and nodded for her to go on. She glanced
at Qiral once before she did. He raised a single finger.

“I found the toys in a drawer of the dresser,” she said, turning back to
me. “I have a foster: Jeinai Singer’s daughter. But there were so many toys
there, I shared them out. It was like Candle’s Day come early. I nearly
cried.” Anger slipped into her voice then. “All those toys for *one* child!
All of them! She can’t even use them but her mother refuses to
share–grounder morals for a grounder bitch!” She shuddered and brought
herself back under control before Qiral could rebuke her. “Forgive me. You
said you would hear? Then hear our anger, too.”

Builds-a-fire turned her face up to me; she was a small woman. Her next
words were earnest, and her whole body seemed to be energized by her need
to convince me. “To be selfish is a great sin among us, Federation man.
Grounders–they think possessions are all, and that happiness lies in
possessions: the more, the better. They even speak of owning space itself!
They say we’re in *their* space, as if they created it and it belongs to
them. Dida–” She raised her hands and clenched them into fists. “She has
nothing now, not even her mother. To have something new to play with for a
while…it distracted her.”

Reaching out, she picked up the dreidel, spun it on the tabletop. We all
watched it twist until it wobbled to a halt. “This child with all these
toys– It makes me ill, physically ill, to think of one child so rich and
others so poor. And it makes me angry to know that same child cannot even
*use* these things, but her mother will not permit other children to use
them, either. How does that honor her? The grounder woman speaks of her
child dying–but so many have died. Children and parents. Lovers and
friends. I lost my mate, my sister, my father. Too many have died. I do not
wish the child to die, but it still angers me to see these toys made into a
shrine like the Hakaalt worship. If her mother would make them sacred, let
them be *used*.”

Was the woman a poet? I sighed, glanced at Wildman, who looked like she’d
eaten something rancid and could barely keep it down. Her heart is soft,
but Puff’s illness has put a great strain on her; it would on any parent.
Now, hearing the kinswoman’s side, her natural sympathy was warring with
her indignation–and a certain wounded pride.

“I’m not selfish,” she said softly, then began to cry. “My baby’s dying,
but she’s not dead. You don’t pass out a person’s things until they’re
dead!”

And that was as much as she could bear. Her knees buckled and she sank down
to the deck. I moved; Tuvok moved–but it was Qiral who reached her first.
He wrapped her up in his huge arms and rocked her, petted her hair. She
looked like a little girl beside him. “That’s right–let it out.” His voice
was a low rumble. “To cry both blesses the dead and honors the living. No
one wishes to *take* your child’s toys. They wish only to use them.” He
glanced up at Ina Builds-a- fire. “But, if you say they may not, they will
not. We live by your grace and suffer your hospitality; we will honor your
customs.” Builds-a-fire looked away from him.

Wildman sat up a little, wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. I came
around the desk to kneel in front of her and Qiral. “I’m not selfish,” she
said again, to us both and to Ina Builds-a-fire standing beside us. “I’d
be…glad…to let the other children share Puff’s toys.”

‘Glad’ was putting a brave face on it, but she tried on a smile anyway.
Qiral and I helped her up; she was, literally, shaking like a leaf.
Approaching my desk, she began to pick up the toys, one-by-one as she had
sat them down. Turning, she handed them to Builds-a-fire– all but the
bear. That, she held a moment more, then handed it over, too. “I have some
more,” she said. “They’re in my cabin. I’ll bring them to you later.”

For the first time, Builds-a-fire smiled. “We will take good care of them,
kin-sister.”

Wildman nodded, swallowed. “Maybe–when we get the replicators back up–we
can make some toys for your children, too. They should have something of
their own.”

The kinswoman’s smile turned to dark amusement. “Toys would be welcomed,
but they need none of their own. We are kin. We share. It is our way.”

“And that was the end of it?” Janeway asked later in our cabin.

“That was the end of it, more or less.” That I and Tuvok had had words
after I decided to keep to myself. He hadn’t disagreed with the way I’d
handled things, but he’d wanted to put out bulletins for kin regarding
Federation policies. I’d convinced him to let Qiral handle it. When he’d
protested, I’d had only to say, Do you want to look like Grounders? Even
Tuvok isn’t above sensitivity to name-calling.

“Well,” she said. “Something ended on a positive note today.” She was
brushing out her hair; I took the brush from her hands to do it myself. We
were silent a while. Her mind was off, chasing God knows what. I brushed.
The hair tumbled down her back like an explosion of horses. She looked
tireder than usual even these days. The lines beside her mouth were more
pronounced, the shadows under her eyes more noticeable, and the heavy hair
in my hands was a little damp from the constant light sweat the rising
ship’s temperature subjected us all to. She looked her age, but in a good
way. I’ve never liked a woman who tried to pretend she was ten years
younger than she is. There’s a beauty women attain only past the age of
thirty-five, if they let themselves–a beauty no young girl can touch
because she hasn’t lived long enough. Not model beauty. Life beauty. A
fullness in the body and the heart, like the earth itself. Some men never
learn to see it; they race across her, chasing butterflies, and never see
what holds them up. I’d like to think I’m not that kind of fool.

“What are you thinking?” I asked her reflection in her mirror.

“I’m thinking about what we saw on Metal March. It was so… dirty. I know
I should be more gracious than that, but I can’t help it.”

I understood what she was saying, but it irritated me. “It’s a
reservation.”

“A what?”

“It’s a reservation, like those from before the last war on Earth: all
poverty and HUD houses and commodity food. They’re a fragmented people
trying to learn to live with the fragments. I can understand that.” I put
the brush down on the bathroom counter, didn’t meet her eyes in the mirror.
“We were prisoners of war, Kathryn–long after the wars were over. They
crowded us onto land nobody else wanted, and sometimes tried to take that
back if they found something there that was valuable after all. They put us
in box-houses and gave us powdered milk. We learned to make fry bread out
of it. Indians are born soldiers, y’know. We had to be, to survive. We
fought. We fought your ancestors, or we fought each other…didn’t matter.
We fought to stay alive. But we died anyway: died of a knife in the chest
in a brawl with a brother after the gates closed on a pow-wow and the
whites went home, died in prison, died in a back alley of some white man’s
city, or–if we didn’t fight, if we ran–into liquor, into beer, into
drugs–then we died of cirrhosis of the liver, or ODed, or just plain
drowned in our own whiskey vomit.

“That’s Indian history, too, Kath. It’s not all Crazy Horse and Tecumseh.
It’s not even bingo halls. It’s making fry bread out of powdered milk.”

I looked at her then. Her face was stark. “That was over two hundred years
ago, Chakotay. The reservations don’t exist any more, haven’t since my
great-great-grandparent’s day.”

“Oh, they still exist. They’re not green squares on a map anymore, but they
exist. I grew up on one. The Rez. They exist because they exist *here*.” I
tapped my temple. “We tell the stories and don’t forget. Stories remind us
of who we are, of where we came from. They help us figure ourselves out.
And so we still tell the stories of the old days, and we still live on
reservations. It’s a reservation I saw on Metal March, a rez like it used
to be. It’s not pretty. Prisoners of war. You learn to survive however you
can–live in the now. Indian time is the now. Skeletons before and behind
you, so you live in the now.”

She was silent, watching me, waiting perhaps for me to go on. I ran a hand
over my hair, back and forth, compulsively. “It’s funny. This afternoon,
when I took Wildman and Builds-a-fire in to my office, I couldn’t look at
Builds-a-fire, at first. It was like having a Cardassian standing across
from me. But then she opened her mouth and spoke Indian words. It
was…disconcerting.” I waved the hand, then turned and walked into our
bedroom, pulled my sweaty shirt off and threw it on a chair to be washed
later. We were back to the days of doing laundry; we’d suffered it on
Voyager before when the replicator rations were running low.

“It’s easier to hate in the abstract, isn’t it?”

I turned; she’d followed me. “No,” I said. “It’s easier to hate what
doesn’t seem human–in the broader sense of the word. I hated the
Cardassians because their cruelty made them inhuman, and I hated them for
making me just as inhuman. There were times I felt like a wild beast, not a
man. But you get an image in your head. It’s gut reaction. Instinct. The
Cardies. The Lizard Men. You *make* them inhuman so you can kill them. It’s
no different than what humans did to each other. Niggers. Wops. Japs.
Gooks. Even wasichu. White man. It wasn’t a compliment, y’know, when we
called you that.” I looked down at my hands. I didn’t want to remember.
“The Hakaalt call kin eftri. Vermin. The kin call them Grounders, but they
don’t know what to call us. They’re still trying to decide if we’re human.
I guess we’re still trying to decide the same thing about them.”

“It scares me, Chakotay. It scares me a lot. We can’t be fighting each
other. We have to work together.”

It was a familiar refrain. It was the same refrain she’d sung me when we
first got out to the Delta Quadrant. “I know,” I said now. “Whether we want
to be or not, we’re in this together.” I sank down on the bed, snorted.

“What’s so funny.”

“I was thinking…I really am starting to feel like Chief Joseph. I want to
send a message to the Hakaalt: It is cold, and we have no blankets. The
little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run
away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. I want to have time to
look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. I am tired. My
heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more
forever.” I sighed. “But I can’t say that, can I? They wouldn’t listen.
They’re not just going to ship us to Oklahoma. They want us dead. The only
good Indian is a dead Indian. The only good kin is a dead kin. Wounded
Knee. Auschwitz. Gallitep. Waren-Pyre. What the hell’s the difference?”

She came over and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. The silk of her
nightgown felt slick and cool on my skin and her head fell heavy on my
shoulder. “The difference,” she said, “is that I don’t intend to let there
be a Wounded Knee.” She paused then, as if aware her words were just words.
“Do you remember your vision?”

“Yeah? What about it?”

“What did your otter tell you?”

I turned my head to meet her eyes, amazed to hear my scientific captain
resort to images in visions. “To mend the circle.”

“So. We can’t exist as fragmented people, can we? Not as Federation and
Maquis, not as Starfleet and kin. We have to work together.”

I just grinned at her. Leave it to Kathryn to take even the warnings of the
manitto and make them echo her own convictions.

End Section VI

—————————————-

—————————————-

Section VII: Janeway

…..And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi.

“Hey, Starfleet, you can pass up the power cable now–I’ve got the new
coupling in place.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Give me a minute, Maquis. I’m up to my elbows pulling
that resonator crystal. Don’t rush me, unless you *want* me to crack it.”

I slid out from under the control panel I’d been working on, my protective
suit rustling and crunching under my hips. Star March was a health disaster
gone nova, and no one went aboard without suiting up first–and then
praying to the gods of their choice. “I’ll do it, Torres. I’ve finished
examining the frequency modulator.” I picked up the spool of cable, and
began to shimmy carefully up the makeshift ladder to the gaping hole we’d
ripped in the ceiling of the Star March’s bridge. I handed the spool into
the crawl space beyond. B’Elanna’s gloved hand was briefly visible as she
snagged it and pulled it in.

“Thanks, captain. What’s your take on the modulator?”

“No go. We’re going to have to design a new one.”

She grunted, and I heard the clatter of tools on insulating ceramic
fittings. “Uhhh. Yeah. That’s what I thought. ” She started to cough. The
fit lasted several minutes. “Damn. Damn.” She gasped, and her breath
rattled in her chest, wet and phlegmy. “Hey, Starfleet–I’ve finished
making the connection on this end. If captain here drags the spool down,
are you ready to tie in your end?”

“Fifteen minutes ago, Be. Not what it could be, but good enough to test
with. I’ve been using the time to come up with a new joke: How do you get
five Oliphaunts into a shuttle craft?”

She rolled her eyes, and shared a pained look with me. “I dunno, Harry. How
*do* you fit five Oliphaunts in a shuttle craft?”

“Two in the front, two in the back, and one in the med cabinet.” As I began
to back down the ladder, B’Elanna broke into a fresh round of choking
coughs. Harry pulled out from under the console he’d been working on,
twisting his head to look worriedly at her through the limiting frame of
his faceplate. “No good? OK, OK, no need to rub it in. I’ll think of
another punch line.” He took the spool from me, and slithered back under
the console, still muttering.

I perched on the edge of another control panel and picked up the crystal
that was the heart of the resonation unit. “Torres,” I called up, “I think
the best answer may be to salvage all the crystals we can, dissolve them in
tetracid solution, and recrystalize them as one big stone. We can improve
the purity that way, and up the range and capacity at the same time.”

A voice from the doorway answered me before B’Elanna could. “In that case,
it would be a good idea to cut our way to the lower cargo decks, captain.
We were carrying several cases of resonator crystals. If we can reach them
you’ll have more choice in your raw materials, and be able to grow a larger
matrix.”

It was Qiral. Dressed in his own muffling protective gear he looked twice
as large as usual. The little bridge scarcely seemed large enough to hold
him.

B’Elanna stuck her head back out the jury-rigged hatch. “Great. We need all
the material we can get. Trying to force crystal growth always wastes some
of the starter solution.”

“Not if you do it under sufficient pressure, Be.” That was Harry, shouting
out from his nest in the middle of the primary system. “Hey, captain, did
you hook up the backup modulator when you were in there?”

“Yes, ensign.”

“Then we can run a test to see if we have this back in rough working
condition, anyway. I’ve finished re-wiring the main controls.”

I looked at Qiral. “It’s your ship, Master Qiral. Why don’t you do the
honors?”

He looked bleakly around his destroyed bridge, then nodded with a grim
ferocity. “Thank you, captain. Any suggestions?”

B’Elanna had come to sit on the top rungs of the ladder. “Try the Hakaalt
channels. The way they’re blasting out feed, it’s a sure bet that if we
can’t pick ‘em up, we haven’t gotten the system up to speed yet.”

Qiral placed his broad hands on the console, then leaned down, craning his
thick neck to try to see Harry. “Are you clear of the lines, Ensign Kim?”

“Clear and safe, Master Qiral.”

The Master of the Star March grunted, and straightened. His hands played
over the clumsy, archaic looking buttons, looking too large on a panel that
had been adjusted to suit Rodria. A second later there was sound from the
remaining speakers–the shrill, chipper piping of the piece we’d all taken
to calling the “damned Hakaalt jig.”

Harry pulled out from under the console and frowned. “I hate that music.”

Qiral nodded. “We all do. They use it like a knife–you can’t try to tune
in a subspace radio frequency without having to filter ‘Dreams of Fire’ out
first. It slices into your brain after a while. And they keep shifting the
frequency just enough that you have to recalibrate the filter. No getting
away from it. It gets into your dreams, you find yourself chewing your food
to it.”

B’Elanna twisted around, and began to climb down. “Old trick. Drums, music.
As I recall, captain, the Celts and the British weren’t slouches when it
came to war music.”

“No.” I stood, and reached out a hand to help her from the ladder. Her
balance looked off. She shot me a reproachful look–but she took my hand
anyway. Apparently she wasn’t any more confident that she’d stay upright
than I was. I covered for her by continuing the previous thought. “No. If
it wasn’t fife and drum it was bagpipes.”

Harry made a sour face. “Bagpipes–yeesh. That’s not just war music, that’s
torture. Isn’t that against the Suldonis IV Conventions?”

B’Elanna snorted, “That’s only for the treatment of POW’s, Starfleet.”

Harry staggered, as if hit with a phaser and about to go down. Then
laughed. “I heard the Ferengi ordered five thousand for the use of the
Cardassian Obsidian Order… Advanced Federation Torture Techniques. Better
than a mind-bender, and less bloody than bamboo under your nails.”

“What are ‘bagpipes?'” Qiral was shutting down the comm link, and the music
died away abruptly. He sounded puzzled–and a little worried.

Harry said “Five sick cats being beaten in a bag,” at the same time
B’Elanna said “An advanced form of audio-vivisection.” They grinned at each
other.

I tried to frown at the two as they clowned around, and only succeeded in
smiling. “Don’t listen to them,” I reassured Qiral, “Bagpipes are an
ancient form of musical instrument. They have a rather piercing tone, and
are really best heard out of doors –but,” and I glared at Harry and
B’Elanna, “*but* they have a particularly haunting and rich melodic
effect.”

“‘Haunting’ I can believe,” Harry said. “Melodic effect–Captain, I *did*
attend Julliard. You’re pushing your definition.”

“I’ll say. They sound like this: *&%@#**@, ” and B’Elanna attempted the
characteristic whine and hum of a set of pipes–only to double over in a
new round of coughing.

This time was really bad. She hurriedly slid her arm up her sleeve, and
into the loose fabric of the body of her suit, finding a tissue somewhere,
then slipping her hand into the helmet to wipe her mouth. She was too late,
though. I could see the bright clots and flecks of blood in the sputum on
the faceplate of her helmet.

I put a hand on her shoulder, and met guilty eyes. “Lieutenant, how long
have you been this badly off?” She looked away, her face set and cold.
“Well?”

“About a day.”

“I see.” I sat wearily on the nearest seat. “Just what did you think you
were doing trying to function in this condition? You should be in sickbay.”

“What’s the point? They can’t cure it, and you need me here.”

“No. I need you *alive.* At least in sickbay there’s a chance they can slow
it down, and buy time until we have things back in shape.” I put some edge
in my voice. “Report to sickbay–and stay where they put you until one of
the doctors clears you for duty. Understood?”

“Aye, captain.” There was a lot of reproach, but I thought she moved a bit
more lightly as she raised one hand to her comm badge. “One to beam up.”

When she’d dissolved in the shimmer of the transporter, and the shimmer had
disappeared after her, I turned back to Harry. He was too young. Much too
young. Too inexperienced. But he was good enough that, in another life, and
another reality, he’d become an award winning ship designer. With B’Elanna
and Carey in sick bay he was the closest we had to a chief engineer. It’s
not like a ship the size of Voyager has that many specialists.

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Well, ensign. Looks like you’ve just
received a temporary promotion. Think you can handle it?”

He licked his lips. “There are folks in Engineering with more seniority.”

“Most of the rest don’t have as much training as you do. B’Elanna trusts
your skills, and so do I. I’d do it myself, but I have other things to keep
me busy.”

“I suppose you do.” He shuffled his feet, then nodded, and looked me
straight in the eye. “I can do it, captain.” Apparently he decided right
then that if he was going to be acting head of Engineering he was going to
do it right. “With B’Elanna gone I’m going to need more help. I’d like to
ask for three of Master Qiral’s people. They don’t have much experience
with Federation tech, but they know the kin ships backwards and forwards,
and they know as much as anyone does about the Hakaalt tech.”

I looked over at Master Qiral. He studied Harry. “Which ones?”

“Delwien Trader, Fieria Wire Song, and Ata Ring Forger.”

Qiral snorted. “Still throwing tunnels between ships, friend-Harry?”

Harry grinned back. “Well–yes. But I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think they
could do it… sir.”

The Master nodded. “As you say.” He turned to me. “He knows talent. They’ll
serve him well.”

“Very well, Harry. You have to clear it through Chakotay, but I’ll be sure
to let him know that Qiral and I have approved your choices. Anything
else?”

He raised his head. “One thing. I… ”

The strain in his eyes was terrible. I could see him hesitate. “What is it,
ensign?”

“Are you interested in any ‘kamikaze solutions?’ If nothing else works
out?”

I hadn’t expected that question. Had been trying to believe it wouldn’t
come to that, to tell the truth. But the boy had to know where we stood.
“If you have one, I’m interested. We may not need it, but if we do, we’ll
need it badly.”

Harry nodded. “The Hakaalt web–none of us know how it works, right?” His
glance moved back and forth between me and Qiral, like he half expected us
to mark him “incorrect,” as though he were taking an oral exam at the
Academy. When we didn’t, he continued. “We do know one thing, though: when
you mix the web, the tractor beams, and the phasers, everything goes
*bang*. Right?”

I leaned one hand against a console, frowning. “That’s putting it mildly,
ensign.”

“I *did* say it was a ‘kamikaze solution.’ It looks like we may be facing a
lot of webs, soon. And tractor beams and phasers are pretty basic. If all
the ships rig at least primitive versions–well, if the next encounter is
anything like the last we might not survive–but we could take a lot of
Hakaalt with us.” He waited, obviously unsure what our reaction would be.

Qiral liked it. I could see it in his stance: a lowering of his horns, a
restless anticipation, the flare of nostrils that I’d come to recognize as
emotional excitement. He swung his head to look at me, and I could see his
eyes were bright, and hot. “You have a sharp boy, here, captain. Under
other circumstances I’d be ready to offer you a high exchange rate if he
wanted to March with our kin-calling. We could have used him, this last
five years.”

I straightened. “I’d as soon not lose him, thank you.” I faced Harry. “I’m
not fond of sudden death answers, but if I’m going to die in any case I’d
as soon take some of the bastards with me. If we’re lucky it might even
leave some of the other ships with a line of escape. Ensign, I want you to
start training your three new recruits to rig tractors and phasers. Qiral,
let the rest of the exodus know what we have in mind, and get them set up
to learn the basics from Harry’s people as soon as possible.” I collected
up my own tool kit, and prepared to leave. “Harry, don’t leave the ‘shout’
project to gather dust while this is happening–we need this beacon. Qiral,
if your people could get those crystals so we can start growing the
‘monster’ from them, it would be a help.” He nodded and I reached for my
comm badge. “Are either of you coming with me, now?”

Qiral lifted a hand in thanks and refusal. “No. We still have to put the
last of the bodies in the warp core. I don’t want to risk the Hakaalt
getting their hands on Star March while any of our dead are still here.”

When I asked why, I didn’t like the answer.

“If they’re able to collect any of the dead, they string them like dried
veth pods on a line, and drag them behind their ships. They say they intend
all the dead for the Waren-Pyre. I think they just like knowing that we can
see our own tumbling behind them. Sometimes, if they get them fresh, or old
enough to be limp, they glue them in… poses… and let them freeze that
way, out in the vacuum. The sight is more than anyone should have to live
with. One of my best people committed suicide over it. His mother had been
on Red March–one of the first ships hit, before we knew that it was more
than just their normal harrying. We’re used to occasional massacres. But
the patrol ship that broke the Red March was docked alongside the last
neutral station we pulled into, at Feldwere, and the boy saw what they’d
done with her.” He looked away from me. “It was obscene. The word from the
other ships is that it’s also become common. I won’t have them doing that
to any of mine, if I can help it.”

I blinked. “That’s barbaric.”

He shrugged. “That’s war. People stop thinking of their enemies as anything
but objects to torment and kill, in war. Or isn’t it like that, for you?”

The words formed a dirge-like harmony with Chakotay’s comments about his
feelings towards the Cardassians. At least he’d hated the mind-set. Hated
what it did to him. I’d heard more than I liked of people who didn’t; and
not only among the Maquis. The blood lovers, the hate lovers showed up in
the Fleet sometimes, too. I looked down. “It’s more like that than I like
to admit. We’re better than we used to be, but… I understand, Master
Qiral. Harry?”

He was pale, his dark cream skin suddenly a bluish white. He’s seen a lot
since we came out here, but he’s still young. He nodded, silently, and came
to stand at my shoulder. I tabbed my comm badge, requested transport, and
waited as the hum swallowed us up.

We were beamed to a “clean-up” room near one of the shuttle-bays–part of
an emergency quarantine system we seldom had to use. I was grateful to the
unknown engineer who had conservatively insisted on incorporating the
feature into Voyager’s design. We were silent as we stood under a chemical
shower, then a sonic, and a UV bath. When the emergency scan system cleared
us, we passed into the “half-way” room, and stripped off our suits, then
put up with another round of cleansing rituals. Finally we were as clean as
we were getting and we passed out into the ship’s corridors. Harry paced
along beside me as I headed for the nearest turbolift, working a bit to
keep up with my stride.

I realized that he was reflexively heading for the bridge with me. “You’d
better report to Engineering, ensign. You are department chief, for the
time being.”

He started, and stared. “Oh. Yeah. I’m sorry, captain. Just habit.” He
turned, and prepared to take the next turn-off, then stopped dead in the
middle of the hall. “Captain, what Qiral said: do you think it’s true? The
Hakaalt really do that?” His voice said he was old enough to know it
happened… and still just young enough to hope it was something that
couldn’t touch him. Maybe, if we’re honest, we’re all that young.

I faced him. Sometimes being the captain is a bitch. “Ensign, you had
military history. You tell me: do you think it’s true?”

“It’s disgusting.”

“Yes.”

He looked away, to the blank walls of the corridor. “We don’t do that.”

“You know the history. Sometimes it still happens, even now. Even with us.”
He didn’t answer. “Very well, ensign. Report to your station. I have to go
report to mine. Even rank doesn’t get us out of that, as you’re about to
find out.” It wasn’t much of a joke.

He didn’t laugh. Didn’t even look at me. Just nodded, slightly, his mouth
set. “It’s not supposed to be like that. Not by us. Not to us. Not anyone,
but not *us.*”

“No.”

When he didn’t say more, I moved away down the hall. As I reached the
corner, his voice stopped me. “Captain, what B’Elanna has?”

I didn’t turn. “Yes?”

“Tom has it, too. Not so bad as she does, yet. He’s hoping that he can hold
out longer–hoping it isn’t the same thing. But it is. I thought you should
know.”

I stayed as I was, let my voice alone tell him what he needed to know.
“Thank you, Harry. I appreciate it.” I stepped forward again, and was soon
caught up in the press of duty, and was able to tuck the memory of my most
junior officer, my “Good Son,” in a silent corner, where it only hurt at
odd moments.

It’s impossible to keep them safe. It would destroy them if you managed it.
But it’s just as impossible not to want to find some way to hide them away,
and keep them from all the darkness the universe has stored up.

I told Chakotay about the conversation with Qiral that night. It wasn’t
ideal dinner conversation, but then, it wasn’t much of a dinner. We’d
finished the tubes of rations, and drunk the stale, slightly brackish water
before I even got close to the heart of the matter. I had to steel myself
for it. I wasn’t sure what he’d tell me. Judging by his conversation after
the incident with Wildman, I was pretty sure he didn’t want to me to ask,
either. Didn’t want to remember. Still, I had to see more of what we were
facing than could be found in the cold recitals of an Academy lesson, or in
the pages of a sociological text.

I finished filling him in and reached automatically for my glass,
forgetting it wasn’t full. Thanks to rationing it wouldn’t be until the
next morning.

I put the glass back down, and looked across the table.

His face was closed. Not hostile. Just empty, as though whatever he was
thinking was something he was so reluctant to remember that he had to push
it away, the way Tuvok pushes things away. ‘Don’t let it in, and it won’t
have power.’ A common answer. I was as reluctant to take that safety away
from him as I was to strip away the comfort of my own relative ignorance.
My knowledge was ‘book learning,’ and the truth was I wanted to keep it
that way. Even hearing was too close to reality.

I reached out a finger; pushed the glass idly along the table top. “Not
much like our first big dinner, is it? I keep thinking about fetuccini. And
zinfandel. Not to mention coffee.”

He snorted, staring fixedly across the room. “Don’t torture me.” His eyes
flickered, as the word registered with him.

A patient silence lapped us. Silence was–safe. I got up, threw the empty
tubes into the recycler, and wiped the glasses with a barely dampened
cloth. Put them aside on the end of the table. “Waste nothing” was a
watchword that rubbed against my norms.

Chessie padded past us. Didn’t say anything. Just jumped up in Pesh’s lap.

He reached down absently and rubbed behind the cat’s ears. I could hear the
low rumble from where I stood at the foot of the table. Chessie mashed his
face into Pesh’s hand.

“Chakotay, what was it like? When you were in the Maquis? Was there a lot
of–”

He looked down at the cat, fingers ruffling psychotic-orange fur. “Let me
guess: you’ve heard a lot of fleet rumors?” His voice was quiet. Tight.

“Some. I never knew how much of that to give credence to. How much
Intelligence was holding back. How much the PR people were dreaming up, and
spreading around on purpose.”

He shrugged. “Some was true, if our own rumors were to be believed. Not on
Crazy Horse. Not on my watch. But….” He sighed. “The hardest to deal with
were the Bajorans. Worse than the mercenaries–even worse than Suder. The
ones from the camps were bad. A lot of them didn’t have any standards of
normality besides the ones the Cardassians had imposed, and they were ready
to get payback. But the ones who’d managed to keep out of the camps were
the worst. They’d survived for years playing along, collaborating publicly,
secretly doing what they could to help the resistance. They’d seen first
hand what the Cardassians had done to their people, and they’d had time to
imagine worse things still, hidden in the camps and the torture chambers.
When those ones came aboard you knew you were looking at anger like –” His
voice cut off hard. The silence was jagged, bloody, filled with knowledge
he had no way to express.

Chessie licked his hand.

Pesh smiled. Not a big smile: more like a the echo of sensor reading you
can sometimes pick up from a cloaked ship–hardly there. His hands were
gentle as he caressed the cat. When he spoke again his voice was like
bitter smoke. “I had to turn a few of them away. I didn’t think I could
control them. One went to another captain I knew. He took her. In a raid
for medical supplies she got loose in a Cardassian maternity ward.” His met
my eyes. “Her captain had to kill her. There was no other way to stop
what…” He swallowed, hard. “What she was doing.”

“I see.”

He nodded, and returned to petting Chessie. “It wasn’t the norm. The
Cardassians were worse. Not so many times when they went crazy, but there
were other times… There’s a commitment to go for the most efficient
solution that’s harder to forgive than the crazies who run wild and take
out thirty years rage. *Civilized* atrocities. That’s… that’s hard to
forgive, or forget.” His voice was brittle as he continued. “I told you: I
hated them for their lack of humanity. That wasn’t–it wasn’t just Maquis
propaganda.”

“No. No, I suppose not.” I thought about all I knew of Cardassian torture
practices. Remembered the dead, from Wolf 359. Then I thought about bodies
tumbling behind Hakaalt ships, bent and glued in obscene postures. Like
Harry, I wanted to insist “Not us. Not by us, not to us.” I reached for my
napkin, still out on the table, and dabbed at the corners of my mouth,
suddenly aware of dampness and wondering when I’d licked my lips.

Nerves. I could feel them coil and twist in my stomach, like that damned
slime serpent we’d had to clean out of the relays.

“It wasn’t the norm.” His voice was low, and a little defensive.

“No.” I crossed to the sofa, dropped wearily into it. “For the Hakaalt it
is. If the kin are to be believed.”

He gathered Chessie up in his arms, and came over, settling beside me. He
slipped an arm around my shoulders, drew me close. Chessie wriggled until
he lay between us, forefeet barbed lightly into my thigh, tail and hind
feet draped across Chakotay’s.

Chakotay leaned over, dropped a kiss against my temple.

I reached out, slid my hand over the curve of his thigh. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. Same.”

We let the silence fall again.

I could feel steel inside me. Metallic determination. No Wounded Knee. No
Wolf 359, no Final Solutions. No Waren-Pyre. I needed that certainty for
me, for my crew. For Chakotay, who still bled from psychic wounds. Who
carried scars on his spirit. Who had felt like a wild beast as he fought
for people being treated like beasts, by a culture that was itself trapped
in civilized bestiality. I had to save us all. Save our lives. Maybe even
spare our souls, if souls were real. I just didn’t know how to ensure that.

My mind went round, and round, and round on it, and kept coming to the same
terminal point.

I didn’t know how to stop a war. Didn’t know how to protect my people.
Chakotay was right. Like him, to spare my crew, I wanted to set aside
pride, and anger, and say, “The little children are freezing. From this day
forward, I will fight no more.” The Hakaalt wouldn’t listen. Me, and
Voyager, and all the kin combined weren’t big enough to make them listen.

I’d been listening to the propaganda going out from the Hakaalt fleet, and
the news reports from their equivalent of the fourth estate. There was a
hysterical rapture to the reports. “Our Noble Fleet drives the eftri,
whimpering, before them, to the cleansing miracle of the Waren-Pyre. The
vision of the Hamanshai-Prophet Averash will come to pass, and the Hakaalt
will rise up, heirs to the Gods, having destroyed the testing demons who
defile us. We will be free. Our children will be safe. The Ordained will
finally know peace, and the purity of unblemished, uncorrupted Hakaalt
culture in our territories. The savages, the space tramps, the hobo
thieves, the disease spreaders, the corrupters, the perverts, the vermin,
the *eftri* will be gone, and we shall all rise up from dreams of fire to
an estate new-cleansed.” Chief Joseph’s speech wasn’t going to make a dent
in that.

My hand hurt. I realized Pesh and I were gripping hands, each to each, so
hard the pressure was bruising. Not just him, seeking comfort. Not just me.
Both of us, being torn to pieces by our own fear.

Chessie stretched, and rolled on his back, feet flopped like the paws of a
stuffed animal. “So: why did the Oliphaunt sit on the marshmallow?”

I could feel Pesh stiffen, then begin to chuckle, silently. “I don’t know.
Why *did* the Oliphaunt sit on the marshmallow?”

“So he wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate. How does an Oliphaunt hide in a
grape arbor?”

Pesh and I exchanged glances. This time I bit. I knew what that damned cat
was doing, but all in all I was willing to play along. At the rate things
were going we were going to die of depression before the Hakaalt got us. “I
don’t know, cat. How *does* an Oliphaunt hide in a grape arbor?” Chessie
wriggled, bounced off our laps, and sat on the coffee table, smirking. “He
paints his balls green. Ever see an Oliphaunt in a grape arbor?”

With perfect timing Pesh and I both groaned, and muttered “See how well it
works?”

Chessie fluffed his whiskers, and his blue eyes glowed with deviltry.
“Uh-huh. Not bad. So: how did Adam die?”

“He was out picking grapes,” said Chakotay, and lunged, laughing.

Chessie dodged away, chuckling and lashing his tail. “How about the
Oliphaunt in green running shoes?”

After that it was mostly a matter of thrown pillows, and then a tickle
fight almost as good as the one Chakotay and I had that first night, with
the added bonus of Chessie darting in and out like green and orange
lightening to playfully bat us, and ruffle our hair. Then a slow, happy
slide into languid spooning. Very slow. Very languid.

Very nice. At least that wasn’t rationed. Lord knows, it seemed like
everything else was. If I had to go without coffee, I was glad I didn’t
have to do without this.

It was later when the door chimed. I don’t know how much later. A lot.

I jumped, and Chessie went skittering and bouncing away off our laps and
across the room, before making his characteristic phantom exit. I went
looking for my voice. Found it.

“Who’s there?”

“C’est moi. Magda.”

I was about to call her in when Chakotay smacked my thigh lightly, cocking
his head towards my work bag lying open at the end of the sofa, with the
nearly assembled quilt cover folded on top. I swore under my breath, and
Pesh and I proceeded to get all tangled trying to get me out of the
cushions and on my feet. “Hang on.” I was up, and shoving the bag into his
hands, and he was crossing the room at high warp. As soon as he made it to
the door of the bedroom, I cued the main door open. “In.”

I suspect I looked flustered. I must have. She gave me a cheerful, cocky
grin. “Je regrette. I did not mean…” I waved the apology down, and she
grinned again. “Eh, bien. My apologies in any case, Minette. We all need
all the joy that comes our way, maintenent. I have come to ask Chakotay a
favor. Non, two favors.”

I glanced towards the bedroom door. “He should be out in a minute. Pesh,
it’s for you.”

“On my way.” He came out smoothing his hair, utterly innocent, and
completely disingenuous. I like a man who can play dumb when it’s politic.
“Heya, Magda.” He tried to stress the phrase so it scanned, but the cadence
was forced. He has a way with words, but never has had Magda’s knack for
instantaneous doggerel.

She grinned, but I could see the reserve in her eyes. “Et tu, Minou.”

Chakotay groaned cooperatively. “Damn it, woman, do you *have* to one-up me
every last time?”

She shrugged. “D’accord. C’est normal. Someone must keep you humble. If not
me, who?”

“Chessie. He beats me into submission daily. And when he doesn’t this one
does.” He cocked a thumb my way, and grinned to soften the tease.

She chuckled, warming slightly. “Ah, c’est bon. It is good to have allies.
Someday I must meet cette grande chat magnifique. Eh, Minou, I have to ask:
the uniform I gave into your keeping–you still have it?”

“Yeah.” He looked at her speculatively. “Are you just looking for a spare
change of clothes, or is there more to this?”

She looked down, her face worried. “Minou, you become too quick. Soon I
will not be able to lead you so well.” She crossed to the sofa, and sat,
her expression turned in, her eyes sad. “When I gave up the uniform it was
a time for saying ‘nous sommes plus different.’ We are very different.
Maintenant, c’est l’huere pour le concorde. Now it is time to say ‘we are
the same.’ There is too much change, too much here that is alien. The kin,
the Hakaalt. The sense that this is not the game where we have the winning
hand. It is good to hold together. So, I will be ‘of Voyager.’ ‘Body of
Voyager’ as mon jeune would say.”

Chakotay nodded, and looked over to me. “It’s in the bottom of the drawer
you loaned me.” He looked a bit uncertain. “Gave me? Whatever.” Normally
he’d be the last to expect me to “fetch” for him, but I could see the plea
in his expression. I stepped quietly into the bedroom, and left them there,
taking my time.

When I came back in with the carefully folded uniform, he’d joined Magda on
the sofa. They weren’t saying anything. Not much, anyway. Mainly they were
talking between the words they actually said. A universe of meaning lay in
a casual “So–how *are* you doing?” followed by a gentle “Tres bien, mon
p’tit. Je suis–content.” I am content.

I approached, and for some reason placed the uniform in Chakotay’s hands,
rather than Magda’s.

He looked down at it, running a thumb across the smooth, flexible weave.
Smiled, ruefully. “I thought I might kill you, that day.”

“Oui. It is not so easy, to have a coquine pour une amie?” Not so easy to
have a rogue as a friend. When he grinned, and shook his head, she reached
out tentatively, and cupped the curve of his jaw in one gentle,
knob-knuckled hand. “Then remember that day, Minou. Remember that, if you
are to be un coquin, a friend of the devil, you must keep in mind that you
may make some other pay the price.”

Their eyes met, and held. Transitions are hard. Finally Chakotay nodded,
and suddenly turned his head and dropped a kiss into her palm, before
leaning away and offering her the uniform. “Well, here you are. What else?”

Her face went still, and she looked down at the uniform now in her hands.
She lay it on her lap with controlled precision. She smoothed her hands
over it as tenderly as Chakotay had caressed Chessie earlier in the
evening, cosseting out non-existent wrinkles. Then she reached into a shirt
pocket, and took out a memory chip. “C’est ici-la. You will not like it,
cheri.”

He took it, and juggled it lightly in the palm of his hand, his face wary.
“What is it?”

“A list. Those of us from the Maquis, and the kin, who know ourselves to be
less than–less than well trained for the needs of a starship. The
expendable ones.” She looked away and then back, eyes challenging, and
pleading, and pitying. “It is all volunteers, Minou. We wish to be used as
we might best be used. Those on the list are no good for fixing what is
broken, or doing the many things that must be done to live. But we can haul
a rope, or carry a stretcher, or lift a box, or…” She trailed off, then
continued with remorseless finality. “Or fight. I was not so bad as Tuvok’s
backup on Crazy Horse, non?” She offered up a smile to soften the blow.
When he didn’t give it back she held her head high, and soldiered on,
refusing to retreat. “The Hakaalt, they are not so close, now. They choose
to hang back, and leave us to run ahead of them. They do not fight us. If
it is God’s mercy, they may not get the chance. But if they do, we must
fight also, as best we can. There are the life boats from the Star March,
and the shuttle craft. Neelix’s little trade ship. It is even possible we
could repair the weapons systems on the Star March, and use it as a
fortress. If we are to haul it behind us, we might wish to get more use out
of it than just parts, and a very loud broadcaster. But we must look to the
future: it is likely we must fight. Best if those lost first are those
least needed. So we have volunteered.”

“You’re not expendable.” His voice allowed no contradiction.

“Ce n’est pas vrai, Minou.”

They held like that, neither giving way. I suppose I could have “solved” it
by stepping in, and making a command ruling. But Magda was right–this had
to be between them. I waited, my breath held, no happier with this than
either of them.

“You’re not expendable to *me.*” His voice was like crushed velvet; heavy
and soft, and beautifully scarred.

“Non. Not to you. Not to ma jeune Anyas. But it is no less true, cheri.
Would you choose that it be Cherel, avec le p’tit? Chaim, who waits for his
bebe? Tom Paris? Harry, who does as he can with a job that is too big?
Tuvok?” She ducked her head towards me. “La capitain?” He looked away, and
she smiled, softly, reaching out a hand to cover one of his, where it lay
fisted on the back of the sofa. “It is my choice, Minou. My right. I am
grown these many years, and I choose my gambles.”

He turned his hand and held hers tight. Didn’t say anything for a moment.
Looked down at the chip in his palm. “OK. OK. I’ll put together a roster,
make sure that you’re all on rotation.” He looked up at her. “If you screw
up I’m going to kick your ass. You understand that?” She grinned.
“Absolument! C’est normale.” She leaned over, and wrapped her arms around
his shoulders. “Je comprends, mon ami. I love you, too.” She kissed his
cheek, and leaned back, looking unsure and a bit lost, now that she’d
accomplished her goals. “Eh, I have to return to my quarters. Anyas, he has
little time these days. Little chance to rest. I would be there for what
time I have, even if all I may do is lie beside him. There is some comfort,
even in so little.”

We didn’t say much, after she left. Cleaned up for bed. I got into a
nightgown. Chakotay just crawled in bare. I called off the lights, and we
lay together in the dark. After a few minutes he rolled away, restlessly.

“If Anyas isn’t good to her, I’m going to shove him out an airlock.” It was
a displacement of his real anger. He was adjusting, slowly but surely, to
the idea of his beloved Magda and her wild autumn romance. I had to laugh,
a little, even knowing what he was really worried about.

“I swear: you, Tuvok. Paris. You’re all alike. No matter how capable a
woman is of taking care of herself, you have to bristle up, and warn off
the wicked suitors.”

“Not you, too.” His voice was halfway between amused, and sulky. “I am not
like Paris.”

I rolled over on my side, ran my fingers through the short-cropped little
hairs at the base of his neck. “No, of course not.” I had to fight not to
laugh aloud.

“I’m *not.*” This time it was a definite sulk. I could almost imagine a
lower lip shoved out in a pout. I let my hand lie on his shoulders, and
waited. He sighed. “All right. First Magda. Now you. Maybe we are alike.
But I don’t have to like it.”

I smiled. “No. But he’d give his hands to be just like you.”

He rolled over, and I could see the whites of his eyes, and the glitter of
starlight as he stared at me in the dark. “Huh?”

“Dark, romantic hero, tragic past, noble cause? Dashing Maquis captain?
Come on, Chakotay. You’re even a great pilot.”

He slid an arm around me. “And I’m even sleeping with his beloved captain.”

I smacked him lightly. “Rogue. Terrible man. I think he’ll be happy to
settle for B’Elanna. I won’t even howl too loudly if you put him through a
bit of what he’s putting you through over me. He could use a taste of
‘stern paternal warnings.’ Just… just remember that bright young men
don’t run away to the Maquis because they want to make some beer money. The
Federation doesn’t offer many equivalents to the Foreign Legion. Tom took
the only route to tragic heroism he could see: a cause worth fighting for,
and a death worth dying. He found you there, everything he really wanted to
be. And you thought he was as useless as his father ever did.”

“He was a pain in the ass. Having him aboard was like having Bajoran
itching burrs down my shorts.” I didn’t say anything, and he sighed. “All
right. But… he still ticks me off.”

“That’s all right. You still tick him off, too. Just remember he really
does… love you?” I lay there beside him on the warm, damp sheets, and
decided to risk the real issue. “Pesh, is having Magda fight now so
different from her fighting on Crazy Horse?”

The answer was a long time coming. Finally:

“Yes.” He held me close, and I could feel the tension in every muscle. “On
Crazy Horse I had the luxury of believing we’d all die, in the end. I
didn’t have to *hope.* Hope hurts more than just accepting.”

There wasn’t anything to say to that. I couldn’t tell him to stop hoping. I
slid down further, tucking an hand under his arm, close against his ribs,
and felt his heart beating, his breath rising and falling, the damp of his
skin in the heat of the room. I fell asleep that way.

In the middle of the night I woke from dreams of ships–Federation ships,
bright and whole, a splendor of war birds, come to take us home. Starlight
shone on polished durillium, glittered from every port and fitting, and in
my dream I heard the cry of free, wild geese in familiar, friendly skies.
Then the dream turned, twisted, and I dreamed them all as they’d been at
Wolf 359: broken and gutted, the corpses of old comrades tied and tumbling,
tagged and tallied. The frozen legacy of the Borg invasion, somehow merged
with the desecrated victims of the Hakaalt, blurring and blending, and
leaving me tense with the contrast between hope and despair.

When I snapped awake, sweating, with my heart racing, the bed beside me was
empty.

I rolled over. Chakotay was squatting, staring out the viewscreen. He
balanced on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees. His face
was lit in bleached starlight, every wrinkle and crease picked out by white
light and obsidian shadow. I could see shine of shoulder and thigh, pale as
a frog’s belly, and the patch of dark rash on his side that we’d noticed
just the day before–the first sign that one of us had picked up one of the
infections. We were both not-mentioning it. Too much else to worry about,
too little we could do to change it.

Bunched up the way he was the faint traces of love handles showed,
reminders of luxuries now beyond us. His face was expressionless, empty of
anything but tension. Watching the faint nebula of moving lights that was
the Hakaalt fleet, far behind. Waiting.

I loved him. God, I loved him. The curve of him, the grace. The weathered
strength. The honor. The uncertainties, and angers. The oak-tough
determination to do right, to live right. The capacity to feel, and still
function. It made my throat close up–it hurt so much to look on all that
beauty, alone and fighting the darkness of his own pain, and fear.

When I could breath again, when I’d pushed back the sudden pressure of
tears, I spoke, softly. “Are you coming to bed again?”

“Soon.” He hadn’t turned. His head ducked down, and I could see his fingers
tighten. They fisted themselves between his knees.

“Soon, then. It’s lonely without you.”

I settled back, let my breathing slow.

When he slipped in beside me we lay holding each other, listening to the
ship sounds. As I was slipping back into uneasy dream, he murmured “Damn
it, why *did* the Oliphaunt wear green running shoes?”

I turned my head, kissed his jaw, and whispered “So he could tip-toe across
pool tables without being seen.”

The last thing I remember of that night is the shiver of his laughter.

It was another three days before we approached the borders of the Roucham
Sodality. They were long, hard days.

Our food supplies were so low that we were down to rationing it only to the
sick and injured. The rest of us made do with water, and hope. Another day
or so, and we’d be butchering the Oliphaunts. Qiral had OK’d it… but had
begged that we hold off until there was no other choice. The beasts were
the kin-calling’s prime stock, their star performers, and the last real
hope they had of re-establishing themselves as a performance clan, if we
got out of this alive. And they had an abiding love for the animals.

We held off. But not without me wondering wistfully what Oliphaunt steak
would taste like. Or Oliphaunt stew. I’d have settled for thin Broth of
Oliphaunt, with a cup of water on the side as a chaser. I didn’t even dare
allow myself to think about the days when Pesh spoiled me rotten with
curries, and pan breads, and couscous, and….

God. I’d never been a “foody” sort of person. Loved it when I had it, and
when I wasn’t busy. Forgot it when it wasn’t there, or when I had a project
under way. Resented it when it was raw, wriggling grubs. But now I *missed*
food. And coffee. And being cool enough, and clean enough. Having a fresh
uniform to put on in the morning. A bath at night. But that was just the
small stuff.

Otheris died. Died stupidly. He’d never finish his probationary period as
commander of the evening shift bridge-crew. The nosebleed he’d gotten
during the first Hakaalt encounter had become infected. Normally we could
have cured it in minutes. This time we couldn’t. The infection passed from
his nose to his sinuses, and from there directly to his brain. He died in
convulsions.

I recorded something appropriate for his files. I couldn’t stand the
thought of leaving his final record as “died for no good reason, crapping
his pants and screaming for his mother–when he could manage words at all.”
It would have been true. But if I couldn’t give him a dignified death, at
least I could give him a dignified final report. The entry was as proud and
respectful as I could make it.

Chakotay’s rash got worse, spreading up his side and onto his neck. I was
waiting for the next phase, when the rash would open, and suppurate. I
didn’t know what I’d do then: we had no cure, and yet the thought of that
creeping rot eating away at him cut into me as much as Otheris’ death.

Sam Wildman’s daughter, Puff, had gone from bad to worse. After weeks of
treatment she was placed in stasis, dropped down to near-death the way Kes
had been before Abbyzh-dira. As soon as Kes, Anyas, and the holodoctor had
realized that there was no way to help her, they decided unanimously to
place her in the field.

When I challenged them on it, pointing out that Wildman wasn’t going to be
helped much by having her daughter in stasis, the holodoctor turned on me,
in as close to absolute rage as I think I’ve ever seen him. He often
whines, and usually carps, but this time he was practically radiating fury.

“She may not be helped, but she’ll be better off *thinking* there’s some
hope than knowing the child is dead. She’s already lost that baby once. I
will *not* allow her to lose it again. Not until there is no other choice.
Given the way things are going, Lieutenant Wildman may die before the
question of whether we can revive her child and cure her ever arises.”

I didn’t challenge him. The holodoctor wouldn’t succumb to disease, but the
strain of *helplessness* was beginning to show. He knew in detail
everything he should be doing to save the patients who passed into sickbay,
and was unable to perform those actions because of failed equipment, lack
of man-power, and problems too large to be dealt with a patient at a time.
The conflict was coming as close to driving him mad as I ever want to see.
His programming didn’t permit madness. I was grateful, but I’m not sure he
was. I think he would have found madness a relief.

It was hard to fight down the hope we all felt as we passed the first of
the Sodality marking buoys. I turned to Wildman, who was covering for Harry
on ops. “Any response to our distress call from the Sodality, yet?”

She shook her head. “No. I’ll keep you informed. We should be hearing
something soon. We’ve been sending a request for sanctuary for the last two
days, and someone has to have picked up the signal.”

“Very good, Lieutenant.” I paced back to my seat. The bridge felt empty.
Chakotay was off dealing with more of the eternal complications in keeping
Voyager running, and her people sane, if not happy. Harry was on the Star
March, B’Elanna was in sickbay. Tom was there, serving a short shift, but
the illness had him, and he was fighting off a fever that kept him quiet
and listless. Not yet sick enough to quite justify removing him from duty
altogether… not with so few other pilots available to fill his spot. But
far from well, either. Tuvok alone was still his old self, steady and
reliable at his post.

I paced some more. Tried to ignore a tickle in my throat, and a thickness
in my chest that I was afraid were the first signs that *I* was getting
ill.

“Captain, it is improbable that continued movement on your part will
achieve anything but physical exhaustion. Unless you are attempting to
perform your fitness exercises, in which case I would consider there to be
better locations than the bridge. Perhaps your quarters?”

I looked at Tuvok, surprised to hear a tight edge to his voice that usually
isn’t there. “Lieutenant?”

He kept his eyes to his console. “My apologies, captain.”

“Forget the apologies. What’s eating you?” When he looked up, I put my hand
beside his on the console–as close as I dared, without crossing over his
telepathic “comfort” levels.

He ducked his head again. One hand moved out, and silently opened a link to
the limited sensor readings we could pick up. On the small screen of his
console a view of the Hakaalt fleet appeared. Not a very good view. We were
still short several primary sensor pickups. But it was a view.

To my eyes there was no change. Hundreds of ships, with slender purple web
lines connecting them, and several massive purple energy lines running back
behind them like thick umbilicals.

Tuvok reached out one dark finger, tracing the placement of the ships.
“They have shifted their primary fighters, so that the most powerful ships
are in proximity to the boundaries of the Sodality. There has been no other
move made, but that move alone could be construed as a threat.” His voice
was low–almost too low to hear; pitched for Vulcan hearing.

I tried to match his low murmur. “That’s not unexpected. They want us for
their damned pyre. The wonder is that they haven’t done more to cut us
off.”

“The Hakaalt may feel they need not do any more than remind the Rouchamstra
of the potential threat.” He looked up. “It is also possible that they have
already negotiated an agreement with the Sodality, and need only ensure
that the agreement is kept.”

Without turning, I raised my voice. “Wildman, check and see if any of the
other ships have picked up transmissions from the Hakaalt fleet to the
Sodality.”

“Aye, captain.” I could hear her as she contacted the other ships,
presenting the question and compiling the return responses. “No, captain.
Nothing. Unless they’re using a secured frequency, there’s been no direct
contact.”

It was almost half an hour later, as the first of the ships of the exodus
crossed the invisible line into Sodality space, that Wildman called out
“Captain: a call is coming in to the Exodus fleet from the Sodality, on one
of the kin frequencies.”

“Put it on.”

She pushed a button, and the bridge was filled with the roar of several
hundred ships all attempting to reply to the hail simultaneously. I waved
Wildman down. “Cut it, damn it. How the hell are we supposed to get
anything done if we all talk at once? Lieutenant, put me through to Harry,
on the Star March.”

A second later I heard my new “Chief Engineer’s” voice. “Yes, captain? What
is it?”

“Don’t know if you’ve been listening, ensign, but we’re in touch with the
Sodality–and everyone’s shouting their lungs off. Is the Star March ready
to broadcast?” I crossed over to Sam at ops, and smiled as she gave way to
me.

“Depends on what you want from us, Captain. There’s still a lot of work to
be done.”

“Can you pick up and receive on this frequency?” I hit a button, and
relayed the closed link to him.

“Can do.”

“Then I want you to act as a relay link: pick up their signal, filter out
all the other gabble, and pass it to us–and then pass ours to them.
*Loud.* Someone has to bring a little order to this mess.”

“Aye, captain.”

A few seconds later an image filled the fore-screen, and a frenzied voice
carried over the bridge speakers. “Quiet, quiet, quiet, for the sake of the
Sendi, would you all please *be quiet!*” The speaker was middle-aged, or
appeared to be, with soft, feathery hair, and a forlorn look on his thin
face. His eyes were as sad as any beagle’s.

“I can’t promise you ‘quiet.’ But if you reduce your reception until this
signal is all you pick up, we may be able to get by.”

He flinched as my voice came pounding across the link, overpowering all the
other broadcasts. He waved and gestured frantically to someone off screen,
and in a second his face relaxed a little. “Praise songs to Petala. That’s
better. My name is Hega Libard, of the Roucham Sodality. May I ask who I’m
addressing?”

“Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the starship Voyager, of the United Federation
of Planets, and currently one of the ships of the Exodus. We’ve come to
request the sanctuary of the Sodality from the persecution of the Hakaalt.”

The man met my eyes, and I knew before he spoke that we weren’t going to
get it. “I’m sorry, captain. We can’t. We would like to, but…”

“But what?” My voice was harder than I intended. “I was told that your
people took pride in your ethics, and your moral strength. On what grounds
are you turning us away?”

Libard wiped his mouth. His face was tormented. “We would. Really, we
would. You don’t understand, we can’t…”

“Captain…” It was Tuvok. “The Hakaalt have shifted position, and have put
a wing of their fleet in motion towards the Sodality. I doubt they are
aware of this transmission, but they are definitely attempting to present a
threat to the Sodality.”

On screen Libard was panicking. “Please, please, you have to go: we can’t
take them on. Not the whole fleet. All you’ll do is get us all killed.” His
voice was raw, and frantic. “Go away! Now, or I can’t answer for what will
happen.”

“And if we don’t? If we just keep coming?”

He blazed up. “Then you’ll have to fight more than just the Hakaalt,
captain. We have our own people to consider.”

I paced across the deck, to Tuvok’s station. “Any signs that they’ll back
it up?”

He frowned, and played his fingers across the terminal. I had the feeling
that if he’d been human he’d have been cursing the lost sensor pick-ups and
the fragmented processing systems. “Uncertain, captain. It is too far to be
certain–no. There is a mass of warp wakes showing. If we continue our
present course we will have to cross through a Sodality fleet.”

“So they mean it.”

He didn’t answer. I turned back to the screen. “My sincerest thanks, Mr.
Libard. It’s a pleasure to see the standards and beliefs of a culture
upheld with such rigorous conviction. You are an example to us all.”
Sarcasm wasn’t a good answer, but I couldn’t reach through the screen and
wring his neck.

He bowed his head, and sighed. “I’m *sorry.* Really, really, I’m sorry. We
can’t… You don’t understand.”

“I understand. Some stand by their convictions. Some give in to arguments
of ‘expedience.’ My regrets that you and your people may be classified
among the second, sir.”

I raised a hand, about to cut off the connection to the Sodality, when he
raised his head. “Wait. We can’t help you–we can’t. But the Order of
Compassion is a neutral body, and they wish to do what they can. They have
ships ready to render what aid *is* possible, if your people can see them
past the Hakaalt defenses. I know it’s not much, but…”

I was still furious, but not stupid enough to turn away what little was
being offered. “I know. You ‘can’t.’ I’ll take what I can get.” I turned
away, and tabbed my comm badge. “Chakotay, we need the fighters. The
Sodality won’t have us, but there are ships offering aide, and they need
escort past the Hakaalt. Voyager and the fighters are the best shot they
have. Call up your people. ” Without pausing, I moved on. “Computer,
ship-wide broadcast. Red-alert, repeat, red-alert. Battle stations. Prepare
for combat. Wildman, put a call through to the rest of the exodus, and ask
the least damaged to give us all the backup they can, but otherwise retreat
from the Sodality borders. Don’t give ‘em time to argue it, either. This
isn’t the time for debate.”

Paris leaned over his station, already doing preliminary course
computations. Even from where I sat I could hear the wet drag of his
breath, and the husky catch in his voice. “We’re not at optimal, captain.
Venturii approach? It gives us the most latitude for error.”

“Fine. Tuvok, what do we have to bring against them?”

“We have succeeded in returning functions to the fore phaser banks. The
three shuttles have full capacity, and two of the kin lifeboats have been
refitted to allow for limited phaser attack, though they are as yet
unshielded. We have a full complement of photon missiles, and the stock of
mines.”

“Leave the mines out of it–too much chance of blowing up our own ships, or
the ones we’re trying to bring through.”

We were already approaching the zone where Tuvok had first located the
energy wake from the Sodality fleet. The wing of Hakaalt fighters was doing
the same. It appeared to be a small squadron–seven of the little assault
fighters that usually flew in association with the larger warships.
Apparently that was all the force the Hakaalt had felt was necessary to
discourage the Sodality from taking action. They were making lazy progress
towards the point where the ships were gathered, not putting on much speed,
but instead indulging in the kinds of fancy, hot-shot flying maneuvers
Starfleet usually reserves for graduation shows, and public image
enhancement. The sort of thing that’s better as a training drill than for
any real fighting value it actually has.

“Goddamn little show-offs.” Tom was fuming.

I pushed a damp strand of hair away from my forehead. The heat and humidity
on Voyager was becoming more and more unpleasant, and harder to ignore.
“Now, now. You could match ‘em. You just know better, lieutenant.” I wasn’t
really paying attention, just marking time as I watched the rough, blurry
images on screen. The Hakaalt were still well back, playing hot-shot. The
three shuttles had been launched, and they, along with the two kin
lifeboats, clung close to Voyager’s belly, doing the best they could to
hide within her wake signature, and inside her less than perfect shield
line until the last possible minute. Ahead the Sodality forces were coming
into focus: rank after shining rank of ships. Beautiful, graceful, powerful
ships dedicated to the goal of blasting us out of existence if we tried to
claim a share of the safety they represented. I wanted to hate them.

There was a slight shift in their ranks, and from behind the wall of
fighters slid a small flock of fifteen ships. They weren’t much to look at:
clumsy, dumpy freighters, massive in comparison with the fighters they
passed, but graceless, and powerless.

“Tuvok, the advancing ships: do they have any defense capacity?”

“Affirmative, captain. They are unarmed, but well shielded.” There was a
note of admiration in Tuvok’s voice. For better or worse, the approaching
convoy had something going for it. “Captain, the Flame Dancer and the Metal
March are moving to provide support.”

“Captain, Ensign Kim is calling from the Star March.” Wildman was calm, and
crisp.

“Put him on.”

The comm system spat, and Harry’s voice came through. “Captain, we haven’t
finished the refit on Star March’s weapons, but we still have some firing
capacity. Primitive, but Ata Ring Forger says he has some experience. Want
us in this?”

“Not unless you see a good shot. If you do… If you do blast ‘em to hell
and back, ensign. Thanks.”

“Not a problem.” My Good Son. My Paladin. It’s too easy to see him as a
child, and forget what he’s seen since we came out here, or the passion for
righteousness he’s always had. “Kim, out.”

As the last of the convoy cleared the ranks of the Sodality fleet, the
Hakaalt gave up their fancy flying, and darted forwards. At the same
moment, Voyager, Metal March, Flame Dancer, and our five “assault fighters”
moved to intercept.

The battle was short, and victorious. For what it was worth. It was hard to
take much pleasure in it. The Hakaalt hadn’t been expecting the convoy, and
had sent out too small a force to do any real good, counting on the implied
threat, rather than bothering to back it up with their serious guns. An
insult, and very much in keeping with the arrogance they’d displayed to
date. Voyager took out three of the little ships in fast succession. The
remaining four pulled back and regrouped into a tight pyramid formation: a
triangle of three in the back, with a single fighter to the fore. The
cluster moved forward again, their shields glowing where the close
formation brought them in contact. They made a drive straight for Voyager.

One of the shuttles, the Hudson, shot out from under our belly, and swept
past the point ship, all phasers blasting. As the lead ship exploded,
spraying nearby space with fragments and energy traces the rear triangle
scattered, desperate to avoid the debris. One failed, taking a spear of
torn metal in her belly. Another was brought down by Metal March.

The third, alone and without backup, retreated, but not without a final
shot fired. He managed to take out one of the kin lifeships as he passed.

Then it was over. It seemed too quick. Too simple. Only the arrogance of
the Hakaalt in sending too few ships had saved us.

“Captain, broadcasts from the other ships of the exodus. Shall I put it
on?” There was a grin in Wildman’s voice. I nodded, and the bridge was
filled with a roar of cheering and laughter. Over it all, from one of the
shuttles, came Magda’s more or less alto bellow, singing a barely
recognizable version of “Oh, Canada.”

Tom was giggling, and trying to whoop too. Instead he was coughing, and
sagging against his nav console. I looked at him worriedly, before
returning to business. “Well, that’s nice. Glad to know they’re all
pleased. But we have to get those ships all the way into the exodus before
we can just lean back. Wildman, can you hail the ships of the convoy?”

Back to work. Still, I was grinning as hard as Chessie when the call came
through.

The caller was a little wizened man, in what could have been a medical robe
of some sort, or a habit, or just everyday wear wherever he came from. It
isn’t easy to be sure sometimes. “Brother Gadna of the Order of Compassion.
Our thanks for the protection, captain. We beg permission to join the
convoy. We bring food, medicines, and doctors.”

Well, weapons weren’t on the list–but then, it was hard to complain. Food,
medicines, and doctors. Not unexpected, in a humanitarian mission. My
stomach tightened at the thought that those fat, lumbering freighters might
hold the cure for Tom and B’Elanna’s illness, for the disease that had Puff
stuck in a stasis tank, and for the damp, itching rash on Chakotay’s side.

“You’re more than welcome, Brother Gadna. You’re aware that we may not be
able to give you the same protections when you’re ready to return?”

His orange eyes were gentle, and his smile sad. “That’s all right, captain.
We didn’t expect you could. We have come to live with you, or die with you.
We are the Order, and do what we can.”

I felt my head come up. I knew that kind of honor, and that sort of
disciplined, dedicated graciousness. Respected it. “Thank you, Brother. As
soon as we make the mass of the Exodus, I’ll have you and some of the
representatives of the other ships brought aboard, so we can make plans.
And… my thanks.”

Two days later, as the Order of Compassion slaved in the ships of the
exodus, the Star March finally began to sing out, seeking aid.

End Section VII

———————————————–

———————————————–

Section VIII: Chakotay

“Commander.”

I turned in the hallway. A hot and very harried-looking Harry Kim stood
there, Ata Ring Forger behind him– either to lend support or to cut off
escape. “Yes, ensign?”

“Um, ah–”

“Spit it out, Harry.” I grinned to take any edge out of it.

“It’s B’Elanna. I was wondering if you could, um, talk to her.”

“About…?”

“Well, I don’t want to sound ungrateful–”

“She calls us constantly,” Ata broke in. “We can’t get anything done, and
she is sending him mad.” Ata jerked his chin at Harry.

“Ah, I see.” I did see. Torres was well enough now to take an interest in
the ship but not well enough to be in engineering herself. I smiled at
Harry. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Relief flooded the young face. “Thank you, sir!” They left together. I went
on my way. In fact, I’d been headed for the Queen Be’s quarters all along.

Medicine and food brought by the Order of Compassion had worked wonders on
low morale, the body and soul being more closely connected than most liked
to admit. But those of mixed ancestry didn’t respond as completely to the
Order’s medicines as the rest of us: that meant Wildman’s baby and
B’Elanna. At least the baby was out of both stasis and immediate danger,
and B’Elanna looked less corpse-like if still confined to her quarters.
Nevertheless, having her awake and aware made me feel better. Kim was good,
a competent young man who had done his share of engine design at the
academy. B’Elanna was simply brilliant. More, she was used to
catch-as-catch-can.

But this was not the first I’d heard of her incessant calls to engineering.
Paris had said something to me night-before-last, and I had decided it
might be time to visit and see if I could limit those calls to one an hour
instead of one every fifteen minutes. Otherwise, poor Harry might take a
swan dive into the warp core. Luckily, B’Elanna herself had commed me
earlier to say that she wanted to talk to me as soon as I could find a free
minute. It provided me with an excuse.

She was propped up in bed against a mountain of pillows and attended by
Paris. I suppose that shouldn’t have surprised me. The only thing which had
kept him out of her quarters previously was the fact he had been as sick as
she was. Now, he was trying to get her to eat, and get her *off* the comm
with Harry. When I entered, she hurried her conversation to an end with a
warning about triple checking condensers in the aft cooling units– those
which were working– then put the comm back on her bedside with a decisive
click. For all her swollen red nose and sweat-flat hair, she struck me as
rather regal: a busy monarch granting a few moments of her time to one of
her courtiers. Queen Be indeed. When she graciously offered me a chair at
her bedside, it only heightened the effect.

“Well?” I prompted. “You said you wanted to see me. Here I am.”

She tossed hair off her forehead. “I think we may have another Seska.” I
sat up straighter, didn’t say anything. After a moment, she continued, “I’m
worried about Susan Kilpatrick.”

I glanced at Paris, hovering in the background out of B’Elanna’s field of
vision. He shook his head, apparently to indicate he hadn’t said anything
to her about his own knowledge of Kilpatrick. I knew that Kathryn had told
B’Elanna about Jorland, but she specifically hadn’t mentioned Kilpatrick or
Bintar. “Go on,” I told her.

She glanced down at hands knotted in the sheets. Now that she had my
attention, she seemed uncertain of just how to proceed. “It started a
couple weeks ago, apparently. You know I’ve been doubled up with the
Delaneys.” Of course I did; I’m the one who had made the assignment. “They
all work in stellar cartography together. For a while now, Megan says,
Kilpatrick has been muttering that she’s less than happy with the captain’s
way of handling things. But she also said that Kilpatrick had cooled off
about it for a while– until the business with the kin started. Apparently,
she got even worse after that meeting on the Metal March she went to. She
hasn’t said anything yet about mutiny, or even about the captain directly.
Instead, she talks against the kin.”

“Unfortunately, she’s not the only one,” Paris put in. Despite Paris’
initial run-in with Delwian Trader, he’d turned into one of the more vocal
supporters of Kathryn’s decisions about the kin, but I was well aware that
a disturbingly large percentage of the crew resented the kin presence.

B’Elanna had glanced back at him; now she returned her attention to me.
“The problem with Kilpatrick– or so Jenny and Megan both say– is that
she’s not just bitching about the general situation, and the differences
between them and us…like everyone else. She’s been suggesting that the
captain picked the wrong side and should contact the Hakaalt, try to make
peace with *them*, and that she should give up the kin as a show of good
faith. ‘Extradite’ them, Kilpatrick calls it, saying they’re criminals, not
refugees.”

“I bet that went over well with the Maquis.” I smiled tightly. Some Maquis
still feared what Kathryn would do with us when we finally returned to the
alpha quadrant.

“That’s just it,” B’Elanna replied, “she hasn’t been talking much to
Maquis. She’s been talking mostly to Federation.”

It made sense; I knew that most of the grumbling had been coming from
Federation. Maquis knew what it was to be persecuted and down on one’s
luck. When I didn’t answer immediately, Paris added, “The little incident
with Wildman over the baby toys didn’t help things any. Some of the crew
have quit calling them kin and started calling them Gypsies.”

B’Elanna shifted on her pillows, pulled up her hair and waved a hand in a
vain attempt to cool the back of her neck. “Like I said, she hasn’t been
talking mutiny, but her complaining has been getting bad enough lately that
Jenny and Megan both talked to us”– she indicated herself and Paris–
“about what they should do: whether they should tell her themselves to shut
up, or take it to the captain.”

“I suggested they not do either, yet,” Paris put in. “If they put her off,
she’ll stop talking to them.” His voice went up at the end, as if asking a
question, not making a statement.

“I think that’s the right approach,” I assured him.

“We decided to tell you,” B’Elanna said, “because we figured the captain
has enough to worry about without hearing crew complaints, too. That’s your
department.”

I smiled without humor. “Lucky me. In any case, the captain already knows
about the discontent, but if this should start sounding less like
complaining and more like plans, I want to know immediately if not sooner.”
I pinned them both with a look; they nodded. “And B’Elanna, I don’t know if
you and Harry can arrange it”– I hated to give her one more excuse to
bother Harry; I’d come here hoping to curb that little problem– “but I
want you to keep a careful eye out for any unauthorized transmissions
off-ship. I know with both the internal and external sensors as bad as they
are, that’ll be problematic, but do the best you can.” She nodded. I rose,
added, “But don’t call Harry more than necessary.” Winking, I left.

Later, while I was working in my office, Paris came by. “Commander?” He
made sure the door had shut behind him before taking the seat I offered. I
had a fairly good idea what he wanted. “You think Kilpatrick and Bintar are
up to their old tricks?”

“I don’t know what to think just yet, lieutenant. I don’t want to jump to
conclusions.”

He leaned forward a little. “You want me to find out?”

I considered. He was the obvious choice, but something made me hesitate.
Not fear that he might actually go over to Kilpatrick’s side. I might not
always like his company, but I had to admit he’d shown himself consistently
loyal to the captain. It was something else. Instinct told me this was
going to get ugly if it ever came to a head. This time, Kilpatrick was
attracting disgruntled Federation, not Maquis. I’d always felt able to
handle the Maquis, exceptions like Jorland aside. The Federation were a
different story. I wasn’t sure they were loyal to the captain in the same
way the Maquis had been loyal to me. They’d made an oath, sure, but it was
to an ideal, not a person. Most of my old crew had attached themselves to
*me* in particular; even Seska had shown a perverted kind of obsession. I
suppose I had some notion– probably misplaced– that I could control my
people. But if Federation discipline frayed, I wasn’t at all sure Kathryn
could control her old crew. I hoped I was wrong. So perhaps I felt a duty
now to protect Paris from the monsters under the bed. Ironic, considering
he was the one who’d been to prison.

He sat and watched me think. I have to hand it to him that he didn’t beg
and he didn’t rush me. Finally, I said, “All right, Paris. See what you can
find out. I know you had their confidence before, at least partly, but…be
careful.”

He cocked his head sideways, bird-like. “Worried for me, commander?”

And *that* was what made it so hard for me to like Paris. He had to push
everything. Like Anyas. “Is it so difficult to believe I might worry for
the crew, lieutenant?” I snapped it.

He just smiled, rose. “I won’t let you down, commander.” And he headed for
the door. Before leaving, though, he turned back. “Are you going to tell
the captain?”

I’d already turned back to my terminal. Now, I paused. “Not just yet. Not
till I have something more definite. As you and B’Elanna said earlier,
she’s got enough to worry about.”

Thoughtfully, he nodded. “She does.” And he left. I sat staring at the
screen. I’d lied to Paris. I wasn’t telling Kathryn, true. But it wasn’t
entirely because she had too much on her plate already. I wasn’t telling
Tuvok, either. Something small and petty in me wanted to keep them both in
the dark on this matter of Kilpatrick in the same way they had once kept me
in the dark about Paris working under cover. I’d tell them soon enough; in
fact, I’d tell them sooner than they’d told me. But I wasn’t above a desire
to prove to them both that I could catch a rat without having my hand held,
or being played for the dupe.

Another part of me also wanted the chance to beat Kilpatrick as I’d never
quite been able to beat Seska. As my father used to say, Fool me once,
shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Maybe I was looking for a little
redemption from being the fool once too often.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking any of these things consciously at the time. I
realized them only later.

Paris and the Delaneys weren’t the only ones I wanted keeping an eye on
Kilpatrick. I wanted someone a bit older, a bit wiser, someone who had been
around the block a time or two and might catch things the younger ones
would miss.

Magda.

There wasn’t much question that Kilpatrick would take her for a discontent
and confide in her. Besides being Maquis, her friendship with the captain
was a little too well-known. But one direct contact in Paris was enough. I
just wanted Magda to watch things, talk to others, see if she could get
some sense of what Kilpatrick was up to and how much support she might get
among the crew. Morale had gone up since the medicines and food supplies
had come, but I didn’t have any illusions that people were happy. They were
just less depressed.

I found Magda in the quarters she shared with Anyas. To my relief, he was
gone. She was preparing for her new part-time duty: a school for kin
children. The attack on Bright March had killed eighteen of the twenty kin
involved in child care, including all the teachers. But the children
couldn’t be allowed to run wild. Magda and– of all people– Rodria had
worked out this stop-gap. With the threat of the Pyre constantly before us,
some of the Federation crew had been shocked by the idea of “wasting time”
on school. The kin, however, and the Maquis too, understood the importance
of maintaining some kind of routine when normalcy went out the window.
School was Magda’s answer and Rodria agreed with her, so Kathryn had
re-assigned some of Magda’s duties to willing kin in order for Magda to
assume her old role as a teacher. I thought it would be as much a healing
for her as for the children she’d be teaching.

She looked up when I entered, smiled at me and waved me over to where she
stood before a table full of organized chaos: PADDs and lesson plans,
projects she had been grading, artwork that looked more like Picasso than
whatever it was supposed to represent. Leaning across, I took the apple
from behind my back, set it atop the pile in front of her. Of course it
wasn’t a real apple; it was something I’d found among the foodstuffs from
the Order of Compassion. But it looked enough like an apple to serve my
purposes. She blinked at the red fruit, then laughed and picked it up,
shook it at me. “Le coquin!”

I just grinned, pushed aside a small pile to perch on the edge of the
table, clasp hands between my knees. “How’s it going?”

“Bon, bon,” she said. The apple disappeared into one of the pockets in her
voluminous pants. They looked like teachers’ trousers, full of pockets for
styli, datachips, clips, crayons, and tissues. For the purposes of
teaching, she’d chosen to wear civvies. ‘I shall look less Hakaalt-like to
les enfants,’ she had explained.

Now, she said, “Did you come here just to give me the apple and ask how I
am, or do you have something on your mind?” She glanced up. “If so, make it
quick, Minou. I have an hour before the bell rings.”

“The *bell*?”

“But of course!” She smiled at my expression. “What is a school without a
bell? Even Rodria agrees. They had bells, too, it seems.”

I rolled my eyes. “Actually, I do have something.” And I told her what
B’Elanna had told me about Kilpatrick, as well as about my conversation
with Paris.

She listened with eyes half-hooded. “I think it is a mistake not to tell La
Minette, but”– she added, raising a hand before I could protest– “that is
your mistake to make. What I want to know is why you’ve come here to me?
You do not trust Tom Paris?”

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. I do trust him, at least where
Voyager’s safety is concerned. And if anyone did anything to hurt the
captain, I think he’d cheerfully gut them.”

“And you would help him, no? It seems to me that you two have something in
common.”

I ignored that. “Paris will deal with her on one level. But I’d like
someone else who knows the whole story to watch her, too. The Delaneys
don’t know anything, and Kathryn says she only told B’Elanna about Jorland,
not Bintar and Kilpatrick.”

“Mon Dieu! You want me to *spy* for you?” She grinned wide. “Madeleine
d’Esperance, Espionne! Delicieuse! I shall have to make myself a trench
coat and nice hat, no?”

I laughed at her, as she had known I would. “I don’t want you to spy, just
keep an ear to the ground, see how many Federation– or Maquis for that
matter– are starting to spout Kilpatrick’s lines. People talk to you. Let
them talk.”

She nodded. “Yes, I think I can do this thing for you, Minou. But”– she
looked up– “if you will not tell La Minette, then please at least tell
Cher Tuvok.”

“I don’t know–”

She had stepped around the table to lay one large, competent hand on my
arm. “Consider it, mon cher.”

“All right. Fine. I’ll consider it.”

She kissed my cheek before I left.

End Section VIII

———————————————-

———————————————-

Section IX: Janeway

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.”

“Captain, the flight is veering off. They’re…”

I cut Wildman off. “I see it. Paris, close up the distance. We can’t –”

“Got it.” He was shifting our course before I could finish.

We were in the middle of a fire fight. Phasers, Hakaalt assault fighters.
kin ship-holdings trying to make the transition to being battle ships.
Casualties.

Grim. Very, very grim.

But what I remember most clearly was the music.

“Dreams of Fire.”

The Hakaalt had come up with a new tech-trick recently. We still didn’t
know how they were doing it, but transmissions of propaganda, and the
constant brag of “Dreams,” were now leaking into all our communications
links, not just a few. Those from outside the ship. Those from inside. Even
a minor com-call-call had its musical accompaniment, or a background of
Hakaalt news-mongers boasting of the glorious victories of the Noble
Hakaalt Warriors. The music, somehow, was the worst. It was inescapable. In
battle, with the comm lines open nearly all the time, the song became a
hair-raising, temper-fraying irritation that was almost unendurable.

It had to be endured, though. No time for anything but the fight.

“Tuvok, raise shields.”

“Raised, captain.”

“Mr. Paris, we’re making a run. Offensive pattern Griffon One.”

“Aye.”

“Proceed.”

It had started as another harrying run: over the past weeks the Hakaalt
seemed to have singled out Voyager for minor assaults, as though they were
using us to keep their fighter pilots warmed up and alert. Nothing we
couldn’t deal with, even in the shape we were in. The little assault ships
didn’t seem to support the incomprehensible purple web technology. We could
deal with the phaser analogs and odd purple shield variants they did carry.
It was a maddening nuisance, nonetheless, and potentially deadly. So we
dealt with it: dealt with it so often we were becoming indifferent. After
five, six, seven runs a day, it was hard to feel more than a hard, dry
anger at the persistence of it.

That day, though, was different.

The first of the supply flights we’d put together was due to return from
the territory that lay ahead.

We were trying to keep knowledge of the mission from the Hakaalt, or as
“secret” as possible in the goldfish-bowl of the Exodus. We hadn’t even
risked encrypted, closed-link messages; relying on the schedule to let us
know when they were due back. But something must have leaked.

The five supply ships were barely in range on the far side of the Exodus
fleet–but the squadron that was worrying us had turned aside in an
instant. Somehow, during the attack on Voyager, they’d managed to achieve
the perfect placement to avoid most of the kin ships’ fire. They zeroed in
on the little shuttles and freight dories as though they’d had the supply
ships in mind as their target all along.

We needed those ships: we’d located a star system with an ore-rich asteroid
belt, and we’d been waiting a week, hoping the kin miners and Voyager’s
away-team could bring us the materials we needed.

So we were about to fight.

Hard.

Harry’s voice came in over the comm link, half drowned in “Dreams of Fire”.
“Captain, I have a lock on the lead ship, over here on Star March. Want me
to –”

“Do it, Mr. Kim.”

The jury-rigged phasers of the Star March flared.

The purple shields of the Hakaalt assault ship held.

“Tuvok.”

“Aye, captain.” He joined his fire to Harry’s.

A moment later we got a chance to see what our work on the other ships of
the Exodus had been worth. Metal March used its upgraded phaser power for
the first time.

The lead Hakaalt ship exploded in a bright cloud of shrapnel and condensing
gases.

“One down–five to go.” Paris sounded hungry for blood. Angry.

He pulled Voyager into a slow roll, that took us along the outer edge of
the remaining fighters. “Tuvok?” He’d created a clear shot. Didn’t want to
see it wasted.

Tuvok didn’t reply. Just locked his weapons on the nearest ship, and fired.
It was a good hit–he’d located a weak point in their shielding. Another
confetti burst joined the first. But we’d come too close, and we rocked
with return fire from another of the squadron.

“Captain, the kin are scattering. One of the squadron is making a harrying
run, and they aren’t holding the line.” Wildman sounded as frustrated as I
was. The kin had anger, and determination on their side–but they simply
weren’t a trained military unit. And they’d never had the strength to fight
back before, even against minor ships like the little assault fighters.
Their instinct, when attacked, was to retreat.

I wished we had the little squadron of shuttles and odd-lot whatevers we’d
been putting together. But the best equipped ships were all part of the
incoming supply run–and the rest were either being repaired after previous
attacks, or weren’t ready to use in the first place. It was us, the kin,
and Star March.

“Tuvok, what’s our condition?”

“Recovered. Port shields weakened, but I’ve realigned them, and we should
be safe from all but a concentrated attack.”

“Captain, they’ve gotten through the kin line.” Wildman, again, this time
ready to spit. “If they’d just hold their positions.”

“Paris, plot an intercept course.”

Voyager leapt under Tom’s hands, arcing up and over, tumbling through space
like a dolphin in a sailboat’s prow-wake. In seconds we were past the kin
lines, leaving the Star March and Harry’s defensive fire far behind.

There were only five ships left in the Hakaalt squadron. But even with
shuttles and re-fits, the supply ships were barely armed in comparison with
those lethal little fighters. The strongest of the convoy was one of
Voyager’s shuttles, the Klamath, with Dalby, Vorek, and Whidby aboard.

“Dreams of Fire” kept pounding in over our speakers.

“We’re coming up on the Hakaalt, captain.”

“Tuvok, target the lead ship.”

“Aye.”

Too late. The three in the lead combined their fire, taking out the first
of the supply ships. More confetti, but this time it was one of ours going
up like death’s fireworks.

A wail from one of the kin ships blended in with the lilt of “Dreams,” as
someone mourned a friend, a child, a lover, who would never come home.

The Klamath had opened fire on the lead Hakaalt fighter. The little shuttle
wasn’t strong enough to take the assault ship on her own, but Tuvok had
completed his targeting, too. Between them a third Hakaalt fighter added
its atoms to the litter that was forming a cloud in the previously empty
and pristine space.

Three left.

The kin forces had regrouped, and were coming up behind us. That was
something, anyway. Too little, and too late, but at least we had backup.

Two of the Hakaalt ships veered, and came up on us, phasers firing almost
before they’d completed their maneuver.

Voyager shuddered.

“Fore-shielding is failing…”

“Evasive maneuvers, Paris.”

We shot up, and away, the fire from the two Hakaalt following behind us.
Even as we moved —

“Captain, the third ship is trying to take the Klamath.” Wildman had no
time to waste on anger now.

“Tuvok?”

Before he could answer, the kin forces finally came in range, and we saw
what they could do, once they set their minds to it. Twenty armed ships–as
many as we’d been able to re-fit so far–opened fire at once.

The Hakaalt didn’t have a chance.

But, before they died, they had their revenge. The two tailing us got in
one last shot. A good one. I could hear the thunder of it, passed through
the metal of the ship like sound through stone. We rocked, faltered,
tumbling out of control, Paris trying to navigate with controls that no
longer answered to his demands. Then we steadied, as the kin’s new tractor
beams locked on to us, and drew us to a stop.

“Captain–they caught the primary drive conduits. Nicked the main computer
lines, too. Power’s down, until further notice. We’re down to impulse,
again.” That was Carey, down in Engineering. Like B’Elanna he still wasn’t
well enough for full duties–but at least we had him back, at least in a
part time support role. He didn’t sound all that happy, though. “We’re
switching to back-ups, but don’t count on full capacity for a while.”

“Understood, lieutenant. The fire-fight is over, for now. Prepare your
crews to start repairs.” I ran a hand through my hair. I was thinking of
cutting it. The heat was killing, at this point, and nothing could reduce
the hot, clammy, damp cling of it. Not up, not down. Nothing I did helped.
“Wildman, what’s the general situation?”

She leaned over her console, fielding the calls coming in. “Not as bad as
it might be, captain. No deaths, five injuries–most from falls. Shields
need work, and you know about the conduit and the comp-lines. But we took
no other major damages.”

I nodded, and rose. Looked at my bridge crew.

It was hard not to feel we’d fallen a long way. With the heat we’d all been
forced to drop layers of uniform–all of us but Tuvok. We were down to the
little, sleeveless uniform undershirts. Paris, still weak from his illness,
had gone even further, and found a pair of tropical issue shorts somewhere
in his closet. Even with the reduced clothing, we looked sweaty,
disheveled, tired. Those of us with hair longer than an inch or so had
tendrils glued to our faces, to the backs of our necks. Dark streaks
stained the sides and backs of grey shirts. Sweat pooled in the hollows
above our collar bones.

Worst were the expressions on the faces around me.

I’d read about battle fatigue, before. Seen scientific reports, walked
though holodeck simulations. Studied all the approved texts in command
school.

But I’d never had to watch people I knew and loved fight on, and on, and
on, with no end in sight; burned, weary, worn to a thread by weeks of
harassment, and fear, and deprivation, and exhaustion, and illness, and
anger.

The anger was what frightened me the most. It was like a sullen ember
smoldering in tinder, threatening to blaze up and take the last of our
control with it.

And me?

I was as angry, as helpless to change anything, as any of my crew. As much
a smoldering ember as any of them.

I needed rest. Some rest. Even for a few minutes.

I looked at Tuvok, immaculate in his crisp uniform, unstained with sweat,
his Vulcan metabolism keeping him cool and comfortable in the sweat-house
conditions, his Vulcan conditioning keeping him from the rage that ate at
the rest of us, his Vulcan endurance keeping him from the raw edge of
exhaustion. I tried not to resent it–tried to see it as a tactical
advantage. “Tuvok, would you take the con?”

He nodded. “Aye, captain.”

I managed not to stumble into the turbo lift. Gave the command to go to my
“home” deck. Leaned back against the metal wall. It wasn’t precisely cool,
but it was cooler than I was.

The com-link blipped, and opened to “Dreams of Fire.” Then Wildman’s voice
came through, choked with worry, and anger. “Captain. We just got a report
from sickbay. One of the fall victims was Jinn Cherel. They think she may
lose the baby. Commander Chakotay’s already down there… but he says.. he
says he can only deal with Anielewicz.”

‘Deal with Anielewicz.’ I suppose he was. I got to sickbay to find the two
out in the corridor, wrapped in an embrace so fierce it almost looked like
battle. Chaim’s hands were knobbed, knuckled fists, braced hard against
Chakotay’s shoulders. His face was buried against Chakotay’s chest.
Chakotay held him tight. Tight as a restraining field. His face was turned
down, close to Chaim’s dark hair, brushing against the yarmulke pinned
among the lightly frosted curls. I couldn’t make out what either of them
were saying–it was a heavy, rage-filled, anguished mutter, both voices
layered over each other. They rocked, and pushed against each other,
fighters battling something bigger, and more deadly than either of them
knew how to face.

I didn’t want to interrupt, but Chakotay needed to know that I was there,
ready to take up part of the burden. I stepped close, and brushed the back
of his hand, where it rested hard and firm around Chaim’s shoulder.

He looked up. Didn’t say anything. His face was wet.

I cocked my head towards the door to sickbay.

He nodded. Nothing more. I suppose right then all that mattered, besides
the immediate pain and grief, was that *someone* was filling in where he
couldn’t.

Sickbay was, if anything worse.

I passed the diagnostic beds with the other victims. Noted almost
indifferently that two were kin. None of them seemed in immediate danger.

At the back of the room, though…

The huddle around the bed was in motion. Kes, the Holodoctor. Several of
the Order of Compassion.

And, writhing in the middle, Cherel, doubled over herself, arms wrapped
around her abdomen. Her sweet soprano voice was converted to a grating,
slicing wail of fear, and grief, and anger.

“Hush-hush-Cherel-hush;
you-have-to-calm-down-we-can’t-help-you-if-you-don’t-calm-down…” Kes’
voice ran frantically under Cherel’s hysteria.

Anyas seemed to materialize at my shoulder. “Captain, we can’t sedate
her–we don’t know yet what the Order’s medications will do to the baby.
And she’s–she’s out of control. Can you…?”

I was damned if I knew if I could do a thing.

I could try.

Without even looking over at Anyas, I snapped it out, like a verbal slap.
“Jinn Cherel, *STAND DOWN*”

Command voice. Absolute, unwavering demand.

Cherel gasped like a swimmer who’d been under almost too long, looked me in
the eye, and slumped back down on the bed. Crying, still frantic, but in
control, again. Sort of.

I stepped up to the med bed, took her hand, and looked up at the harried
flock of attendants. “She’ll be good, now. Do what you have to.”

Someone pulled a chair up, and I sat, still holding Cherel’s hand. She
turned her dark face, resting it against my fingers, trying to ignore the
hum of the little diagnostic wands, and the chatter of the doctors as they
debated this treatment and that. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I
didn’t want it, I was going to kill it–and now see? Oh, Prophets, it’s all
my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.” My voice surprised me, coming out a hot, husky,
growl.

“I wasn’t ready to accept my destiny. I tried–I fought it. I was too
scared. Too selfish. I didn’t…”

“Stop it.” Command voice, again. “Cherel, you had cause. Anyone would be
scared. I’d be scared. This is no time to be having a baby. If you’d chosen
to abort, I’d have backed you–and I’ll back you in keeping it, too. But
I’m damned if I’ll back you in blaming yourself because life sideswiped
you. You’re no use to yourself, or the baby, or Chaim this way.”

“Oh, Prophets, Chaim. He’ll never forgive me for this….”

Kes cut in, her voice as angry as my own. “Cherel, stop it! He loves you.
You know he loves you. He’s out in the corridor, scared to death he’s going
to lose you as well as the baby. He’ll love you no matter what.” Her fair,
delicate face blazed with her own anger, and her own fey intensity.

“You have to relax, until they can come up with the right treatment. You’re
making it worse.” Which may have been sloppy diagnosis, or prognosis, or
whatever–I’m no doctor. But it was close enough.

Cherel locked her teeth together, body shaking. She was trying. Her face
folded, as a bolt of pain took her. “It hurts… oh, it hurts….”

“Relax. Don’t fight it. Please, the less you fight it, the less your body
will react…” Anyas. He talks ‘med talk’ less than my own people. Possibly
a cultural difference. Just as possibly his own empathic bedside manner.

Cherel drew a breath, and tried to let her muscles loosen.

“We think we’ll start with the Garlin formula… that seems the least
likely to have a negative effect on the fetus.” The holodoctor’s voice,
crisp and precise.

The Garlin formula worked. Not well, and not fast, but it gave them a
start. It was still nearly an hour before Cherel’s hand slid out of mine.
She was still conscious, but her panic was pushed far back, her body limp,
and no longer actively trying to reject the child she carried.

I looked up at Kes. “Can Chaim see her, now?”

“If he can be calm.”

“I’ll go, then. If he’s ready, I’ll send him in.” Kes and I moved away from
the med bed. When we were out of hearing, I asked “Will she be able to keep
it?”

Kes shrugged, wearily. “I don’t know, captain. Too soon to tell.”

Which was as good an answer as I ever seemed to get those days.

Out in the hall, Chakotay had managed to calm Chaim. The two waited
together. Silent. They reminded me of dogs I’d known, who waited, and
waited, and waited, in times of pain, or fear… and never let out more
than a heavy sigh, or said more than could be said with anguished eyes.
Then Chaim spoke.

“Is… is Cherel….” He choked on her name. “Is she all right?”

“They have her medicated. One way or another she should be fine. They still
don’t know–they don’t know if the baby will make it. Not yet. I’m sorry.”
He nodded, eyes locked on the door of sickbay. “If you can be calm, you can
see her now. Just don’t get her upset, if you can help it. They’ve been
doing everything they can, but if she goes off again… ”

“I understand, captain.” He didn’t say any more.

After he was gone, Chakotay turned away. “It’s not fair. Cherel’s been
through so much. Chaim too. It’s *wrong.* They don’t deserve this.”
Frustration and pain colored every word.

“I know.”

His back was to me. I could see the tension in his shoulders. After a
moment his head dropped. “I know. I know. ‘Life’s not fair.’ But…”

“But you feel responsible for them, and you want to help them. And you love
them.” He didn’t answer. “Loving people is–expensive, isn’t it?”

We walked to Neelix’ together. For the first time, so near as I could
remember, we walked ‘couple style’, his arm around my shoulders, mine
around his waist, not caring what the crew thought. We both needed the
comfort.

Over the next two days, Cherel stabilized. The fetus wasn’t aborted… not
then, anyway. But we still waited, unsure. Mixed-race births are hard, and
miscarriages more common than you’d believe. After nearly losing it once,
the chance was high her body would try to reject it again. So we lived with
the uncertainty, and tried to hope for the best. Meanwhile, life went on.

My ship wasn’t my ship anymore: not the ship I’d come to know, and
understand. I hadn’t felt this disoriented since the first months here in
the Delta Quadrant, when it felt like all bets were off, and all
assumptions invalid. It wasn’t just the jury-rigged repairs, which failed
as often as not for all Harry’s efforts to hold things together. It wasn’t
the small horde of children who ran the halls, supervised as well as might
be by the few kin and Fleet officers free to keep track of them, or ruled
over by Magda, who had blossomed with the return of her old calling. It
wasn’t the crazy mix of kin and Federation, or even the eternal dinning of
“Dreams of Fire.” It wasn’t the more rebellious members of the
superficially secular and non-denominational Order of Compassion, many of
whom came from proselytizing religions and who used every opportunity
available to try to “convert” the “infidels” of the Exodus to a bewildering
array of theologies and philosophies, in spite of direct orders from their
leader, and polite protests from me and the other kin Masters.

It was all of it, combined with the fact that there just wasn’t time for me
to adapt to each change. I was too busy: always too busy. If I wasn’t
backing up Harry by filling in as an engineer in areas no one else could
manage, I was over on the Metal March with the other Masters, trying to
work out exchanges of materiel, make plans for adapting Harry’s “bang” idea
so that we could use it defensively without blowing ourselves to
kingdom-come, or I was helping coordinate the supply runs that were being
sent out ahead of us, in hopes of bringing in much needed supplies–more
food, more raw goods to aid in repairing the ships. Then there were the
normal demands of the ship. Chakotay and Tuvok were holding down the fort
as well as they could, but even they had to refer some things to me.
Disputes between department heads, kin-Federation clashes.

Even the moments I found to relax and try to catch up were somehow loaded
with edgy ambivalences.

It was running as a crawl-banner under the primary listing of duty posts on
the main screen in Neelix’ dining area. I was sitting, elbows on the table,
a hot cup of I-had-no-idea-what wrapped in my hands, feeling the heat in my
fingers, and resting my eyes–trying not to go to sleep where I sat. And I
heard the giggling behind me. Children giggling–a multitude of races, but
still, that erratic, hicuppy, happily demented “child laughter” sound. I
looked back, to find them all excercising their newly acquired reading
skills on the screen. Magda had them clustered around her, and was nodding,
as a little one who looked like a hyena pup slowly sounded out the words:
“What is the difference between an Oliphaunt and a Hakaalt?”

Another continued the reading with a punch-line: “You can turn your back on
an Oliphaunt.”

Another: “What do you get when you cross an Oliphaunt and a Leola Root?”

Another: “An Oliphaunt no predator will eat.”

“A leola root that can run away when you try to dig it up.”

Another: “How do you know there’s an Oliphaunt in your stasis cupboard?”

“Footprints in the crah-mash and the peanut butter jar is empty.”

The hyena-pup sat up, and scratched behind an ear. “What’s ‘peanut
butter?'”

Magda grinned, and gently reached over to get the itchy spot for him. “An
abomination passing as food, cheri. More seriously, a nutritious paste made
from a leguminous seed that forms underground. Terran elephants like
peanuts, and someone is taking poetic license, here. We do not know if your
aralim like peanuts, but, for the sake of the joke, some one is assuming
that they do.”

A truly tiny little girl, of Rodria’s race, with wings that had fledged but
not lost their freckled brown-on-dun juvenile markings, piped up “Aralim
eat anything that grows in the earth, and doesn’t poison them. That’s why
we can afford to keep them. So the joke is probably still funny.” She was a
sweet little thing, unexpectedly somber, rather precise and academic. She
reminded me of Tuvok’s second boy, with a “Vulcan” sobriety.

Magda nodded. “Bon. So, we have practiced our reading, and you have all
done very well. We have learned about arilim, and elephants, and peanut
butter. I think that we have learned much, this afternoon. And now, you are
to go to the lower cargo bay, and play.” She looked at the oldest child
there. “Wena, can you take the others down? Cher Ronis will be there to
meet you, and take you to your fosters, after.”

The boy nodded, and led the little bevy away.

Magda stood, and stretched. “You look tres fatigue, cherie.” She grinned
her infectious grin. “So, ma Minette–what do you think of my ‘school’?”

I stood, and picked up my cup. “Very good, Magda–and it’s keeping them out
from underfoot, which is a godsend. Tuvok spent too much time last week
chasing them out of spots they shouldn’t be in.” I crossed the room, and
passed the cup to Gerron to be washed. “I have something for you, by the
way. Do you have time to walk to my quarters with me?”

She looked worried for a second, then shrugged, smiled, and nodded. “A tos
service, p’tite. In truth, I have no free time–therefore no time is as
good as now.” She fell in beside me, and we headed for the turbolift. “I am
proud, Minette. When they came to me two weeks ago I was the enemy, and
they were like little soldiers, waiting to die. They are not well, yet, and
may never be, but they begin to trust me; to laugh.”

“You missed teaching, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “Cherie, it was my life. Andre, he had the farm, and I had the
children. We used to laugh and tease each other about who grew the finest
crops. But I always knew–his crops were only fine so long as they served
my ‘crops’–what good are wheat, and corn, and cabbages, if there are no
children to eat them and grow strong?”

As the turbolift opened, I broached a topic that worried me. “Magda, the
joke about the Oliphaunts and the Hakaalt–are there many jokes like that
around?”

She gave me a sharp, sidewise glance. “Not enough ‘tolerance’, cherie? Such
jokes would not please those who hold to the IDIC?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not used to ‘race’ jokes. But I also don’t
know any other way for my crew to deal with being angry at a mob of people
who want to kill them. Want to kill anything that isn’t Hakaalt. I just
want to know how common it is.”

Magda looked worried and, worse, as though she wanted to say something and
didn’t know if she should. After a moment she commanded the turbo lift to
stop, and turned to me. “Kathryn, I cannot say how many jokes about the
Hakaalt there are. If there are many–I say allow them. You are right. We
cannot fight our fear and anger any other way, right now, and people must
deal with that somehow. Best in foolish jokes. But… you should know,
there are less constructive uses being made of laughter.” She cocked me a
sharp eye. “What is the difference between an Oliphaunt and a kinsman?”
Before I could answer, she cut in. “The Oliphaunt smells better. You can
trust an Oliphaunt with the silverware. Oliphaunts only screw other
Oliphaunts. An Oliphaunt is smart. If you help an Oliphaunt, he’s grateful.
There are more, but you can see the problem, non?”

I looked at her, appalled. “You don’t mean to tell me my people are passing
things like this around? About a bunch of victims who are doing everything
they can to help us survive?” Magda shrugged, and nodded. “That’s sick.” I
thought of the little children in her class. Of Qiral, and Ata Ring Forger,
and even sour, abrasive Rodria. They didn’t deserve that. “How common is
it?”

“Not so very common. But… There are those who are angry. Resentful that
the kin have cost us so much. Perhaps even more angry that they do not
conform to a pleasant, humble, meek image of submissive gratitude.” She
looked even more unsure of what to say than she had before. “Eh, you should
talk to Chakotay, and cher Tuvok. It is they who are dealing with the
integration, and they who worry that it is not so simple as just ‘we say we
will get along, and so we will.’ And–cherie, *talk* to Chakotay. He is not
so secure in your love, or in his own confidence, that he isn’t above
wanting you to think him perfect; and he wishes to spare you what he can.
Between pride, and wanting to please and be seen as perfect, and wanting to
take what burdens he can from your shoulders, he is perhaps too reluctant
to admit that all is not under control–particularly when there is so
little proof. A few nasty jokes, a rumor here, a quarrel there…. But he
is fighting for Voyager no less than you. Talk to him.” She turned back to
face the doors, and started the lift again.

We didn’t say much more until we got to my quarters. Chakotay wasn’t there.
Probably off dealing with yet another internal disaster. But the quilt was.
I’d finally broken down, and used a powered needle stylus to finish the
quilting. I didn’t want to admit that the situation was bad enough that I
was beginning to be afraid that we’d all be dead before I finished the work
by hand. In any case, I’d spent a late night I couldn’t afford running the
stylus along the lines of the quilting patterns, and finished in hours what
would have taken me days if I’d stuck to hand work.

I had even wrapped it.

Magda opened it, and I was glad I’d bothered, even with the time it had
taken from sleep.

The geese flew in a broad wedge across the blue field, punctuated by swirls
of maple leaves. She stroked the wide expanse. “Ah, cherie….” She
gathered the blanket to her chest, and buried her face in it.

I realized she was crying.

I’m really not good with people. I try. But it’s not my strong suit. So I
waited. Vaguely wondered if I should consider tear-stains on the work a
good kind of omen to christen the gift.

She pulled herself together soon enough. It was Magda after all. Our old
war horse. Our laughing, braying, foot-stamping grey mare. The “Teach.”

When she came out of the folds of cloth, she was smiling. Blearily, with
her eyes damp, and her grin on crooked, but still, smiling. “Ah, cherie. Le
bon dieu, le grand signeur, he is good to me. My Andre is gone, but I have
been given le coquette Anyas, to give me love when I thought I would be
alone. My children, my classes–God willing they are no longer with the
Cardassians, but still, they are lost to me. But these kinlings are
welcome, and I can dream of years to come, when other children will sit and
learn for ‘La Professeure.’ My colony, gone, but I have Voyager. And…”
She reached out, ran a gentle hand across my hairline. “It is strange. I
lost my own Minette, years back. I do not wish to think what the
Cardassians did to her. But…” She looked down, and began gently folding
the quilt back into a neat, crisp square. “Thank you, Minette.”

“What was she like?” I hadn’t ever asked before.

Magda kept her head down. “Comme une papillon. Comme une minette. A
butterfly, a kitten. A little tiger. I do not know: she was my daughter,
and I loved her. She would run across the pasture, even when she was grown,
and her skirts would fly around her. Even when she was a woman grown, her
own bebe in her arms, and she would run, and run, and laugh, and raise the
baby high, to show P’tite-Madeleine the sky, and all the stars of heaven.”

All I could think was that I must be a terrible disappointment. A prim,
reserved woman. A poor replacement for that running splendor of a lost
child. Slow to trust, slow to open up, almost as slow to remember to laugh.
Protocol, and regulations, and a human heart that hid too well, too often.
I couldn’t imagine myself running pell-mell across a field, laughing and
showing a baby the stars. I’d be afraid I’d trip, and kill the baby–or
just make a damned fool of myself.

A terrible disappointment.

And then she hugged me, and I thought maybe not.

I was spending more and more time over on the Metal March. With the ores
in, I was trying to coordinate the manufacture of all the parts we needed.
That’s where I was when the Wild March came plummeting into the Exodus,
followed by a ravening hound of a Purge ship.

It was the first of the “Great Ships” I’d seen up close… larger and more
deadly than even the “Splendid Pyre” we had destroyed during our first
encounter.

When the call came to Teefei, down in his manufacturing bays, he dropped
his heavy head down. “Put it on screen, Tocka.”

The ships had only just come in range.

Wild March was a burned-out hulk. It was a miracle it was still moving,
that its crew continued to navigate. The great ship behind it was the usual
trim, deadly Hakaalt vision of neatness.

Except, for the first time, I had a chance to look at a ‘trophy fringe.’

I nearly humiliated myself by losing my breakfast.

There were hundreds of corpses, streaming in long chains behind the Purge
Ship. Qiral had understated the crude, sadistic malice of the display.

“Obscene.” We use that word too easily. Most things we call obscene are
merely passively offensive–different from the ‘norm’, rather than
logically and demonstrably wrong, or damaging, or aggressive. This….

The corpses were bent, combined, rammed together in grotesque groupings,
faces frozen in leering ecstasies of pseudo-pleasure. Body parts were
painted, or mutilated; internal organs wreathed through brutal couplings,
graffiti painted on open expanses of skin. Hair had been shaved into ugly,
spiny crops, or glued into fright wig-porcupine quills with blood and
ordure. Bodies had been butchered, and recombined in nightmare chimeral
forms. Necklaces of genitalia were hung around the necks of
children–children posed as perversely as adults. None of which would have
mattered if it weren’t so obviously intended to hurt. To hurt the dead, if
the dead can be hurt. But more, to hurt the living. To cut at the hearts of
those who loved the dead. To leave them ill, and grieving, and frightened
to the core knowing they would be treated as obscenely if the Hakaalt got
their hands on them.

I wondered if there were special departments among the Hakaalt, dedicated
to composing and executing new and improved forms of death-art. If so the
Hakaalt had entirely too much time on their hands.

As the Wild March tumbled into the main fleet to the Exodus, the Hakaalt
ship veered away–but not without making sure that it passed the majority
of the kin ships, flaunting its power, and its necrophiliac display.

I stared into the screen, swallowing hard. “My people consider it a
failing, to hate an enemy. Human, understandable. But still, a failing.
We’re supposed to remember that our opponents are no better or worse than
we are–just different. But… ”

“But some things demand hatred.” Teefei’s voice allowed no argument. “Will
you come with us, aboard the Wild March? It will never survive the Exodus,
and whoever has lived must be brought aboard the ships we have.”

I closed my eyes, wanting to refuse. Then opened them again. “Yes–I
honestly can’t stay long. But yes. I’ll beam back to Voyager, suit up, and
meet you there. Have your people give me the coordinates.”

Half an hour later I was there. I knew I wasn’t going to be much use–I
knew Teefei had understood that. What he wanted? What he wanted was someone
else to *witness*. Eyes that had seen. A mind that wouldn’t forget. A
promise that the dead, and the damaged would live in memory, so long as I
lived to tell what I had seen.

A voice, like the voices of those who had helped evacuate the Nazi
death-camps, the breeding pens of the Genetics Wars, who had reported the
brutality of the Trail of Tears, the blood of Mai Lai, the atrocities of
Kodos the Executioner, who had stood and told what was found in the
Cardassian containment camps on Bajor.

A witness to truth.

The Wild March was a charnel house. I was grateful for the independent air
supply of my suit. The first sight I saw was the rotting corpse of a
pregnant woman–painted and posed with a weapon inserted crudely into her
body. I looked at Teefei.

“They’ve been boarded. Many times. The Hakaalt didn’t have the time to take
everyone they killed with them–but they *took* the time to leave little
gifts like this. The survivors haven’t had any time, or strength to clear
them away.”

As we walked the ruined halls of the ship, we saw the work of the Hakaalt
everywhere. Rotting bodies of emaciated victims. Raped, mutilated, thrown
aside. The corpse of an infant, head smashed to pulp, an adult lying just
out of reach, dead fingers frozen in streaks of blood that gave mute
witness to the dying struggle to reach the child–a struggle that was
doomed from the start. The adult had been skewered to the floor of the
corridor, body and decking pierced with a blast of energy, and a length of
piping run through the resulting hole, to pin the victim like a butterfly
on a mounting board. On the wall above was the dull brown streak of blood,
and brains, were the child had been dashed against the metal.

We came to the living heart of the ship–the bridge. We had to burn the
doors open, cutting through welding–welding that had been put in place not
by the survivors inside, but by the Hakaalt forces. A bitter act of
cruelty, forcing those who lived to huddle together, starving, dying, in
one room, trying to save their ship, running before the enemy who had
already defeated them–but who would not let them rest, and die.

The worst devastation of the Borg encounters had been nothing to this.

Now I knew why Picasso had painted “Guernica.” What I didn’t know was why
he had been so gentle.

The survivors stumbled from the room. Skeletally thin. Injured, weak. Eyes
like the question “why?” iterated into infinity.

They walked out with palsied, heartbreaking dignity, leaning one on
another, moving like poorly animated scarecrows. When they reached us, they
kissed our hands, leaned precariously over to kiss Teefei’s heavy head.

Before I beamed back, Teefei looked at me. “Some things demand hatred.”

My grandmother would have said “Hate the sin, but not the sinner.” It was a
good rule. But I didn’t know how to follow it. I had witnessed–and I felt
hate, and rage, and murder to the center of my being. I wanted to tear the
Hakaalt from reality, reach out and rip their ships from the black night,
crush them into dust. Then resurrect them, so I could do it again. And
again.

That night I fought with Chakotay. Not over anything big. Or real. No
matter what we said, it was really over the sonic shower that cleaned
without washing, leaving me feeling as hot and clammy as I’d started. Over
food in tubes, over cups that never held coffee, over a crew that was
struggling to live up to the best of all our standards–and failing as
often as they succeeded. Over squabbles that had to be settled, repairs
made over and over, only to have to be made again the next time the Hakaalt
tormented us. Over too much to do to leave us time for laughter, or love,
or lazy leisure. Over madmen who spread death like grime over the clean
vacuum of space–and had the nerve to call it “cleansing.”

Over being tired.

Over being helpless.

Over finding in myself a madness as black as the madness in the Hakaalt.

Over finding I could take pleasure in the thought of the death of millions.
Not just justify it–enjoy it.

It started over a tee-shirt left hanging over the back of the sofa and
raged on; quiet, bitter, and deadly; hashing over every injury and error
we’d either of us ever felt we’d suffered from the other. The sins of
commission. The sins of omission. The infringements on privacy, on pride,
on dignity, on patience, on loving-kindness, on trust.

We aren’t shouters. Never have been. It may have been the quietest nuclear
war ever fought.

It ended when I surprised us both by hurling a mug filled with nothing more
than luke warm water across the room. It rebounded from the viewscreen, and
the water skipped and beaded down the energy-pane like blood, and sweat ,
and tears, warping the stars beyond, and trapping tiny reddish rainbows at
the edges of the moisture.

I stared at it, shocked out of anger. “God.” Found myself clutching my
upper arms with hard fingers, bruising myself, fighting with myself. “God.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” My voice was flat–not the apology I’d intended,
just a cold mantra. “I didn’t mean it.”

He crossed to the viewscreen. Held a hand flat, near it, spatters of water
repelled from the field spraying his palm. “Yes. You did. We both did. Just
not –” His head ducked down. “Some things you mean entirely and forever.
The rest are…” He snorted. “The rest are small truths.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“I mean it.”

“Me, too. But do we mean it forever?” There was an insecurity there, and a
hesitance.

“I don’t know. Forever is too big.”

“I know.” He turned and faced me. I’d always thought being in love, and
being loved, would fill up the empty places, and take away all the shivery,
lonely, stark places inside. Looking at his face, across a room that felt
larger than light-years, I realized that sometimes loving made you feel
lonelier than all the solitude in the universe. Just looking at him made me
hurt, and ache, and long for him–and his familiar features seemed as
strange, and alien as anything I’d ever encountered. “Kathryn…”

As confused as I was. As lost, as lonely. Why, in the end, was that always
the thing that allowed me to cross the barriers between us?

We hung on to each other for a long, long time.

That night I slid from our bed, and went to sit, huddled, on the sofa.
Nothing had chased away the demons, in the end. Not his arms, not our love
making, not the soft words, or the gentle kisses. Not his heavy snores as
he held on to me in his sleep.

They were my own demons, and they didn’t leave.

Chessie materialized at the foot of the sofa. Padded down the cushions, and
settled into my lap. His claws pricked, not enough to break skin, but
enough to let me know he was real. He buried his face in my arm pit, and
kneaded my shoulder with paws like tennis balls. I wrapped my arms tight
around him, and buried my own face in his gaudy fur.

And then he broke the unspeaking quiet of purr and ship’s noises.
“Mama–are we going to die?”

I held him tighter. “No. I won’t let them kill us. I won’t let them.” As
though rage, and determination could send the ships away.

Chessie waited a long time. Then, in that rumble-purr-yowl of a voice,
said, “Mama, you shouldn’t lie. Not about that.”

“I’m not.”

He didn’t say anything.

I’d never wondered why Cherel was reluctant to be pregnant. But, if I had,
the answer lay in my arms that night. To create a life is to create a
death. As a parent you find yourself responsible for both. The living. The
dying. You can’t control it all, and yet… and yet, somehow, you’re still
responsible for it. Can’t ever quite free yourself from the obligation, or
the guilt.

A captain is a kind of formalized parent. “Mama Janeway.” The Old Woman of
Voyager.

My mind reached out, and held the hundreds of lives on Voyager in an
embrace as tight as the one I wrapped around Chessie.

The next day, things seemed to take a turn for the better. Crazy, from a
protocol stand-point. But better.

I can’t blame Harry. I think I’d have done the same. Even if it wasn’t
exactly protocol. I’d have done it, too, if I were him.

The mess hall was crammed. The food? What we had was a crazy mix of
rations, and odd ball stuff from the Order of Compassion supplies. Not much
of any of it–even the Order of Compassion’s supplies were beginning to run
out. Still, it was food. Chakotay and I were listening to the hum, and
worrying, and just being together. Reaffirming the “us” of us after the
night before.

There must have been a beep from a comm badge, but I don’t remember hearing
it, or noticing the conversation that must have followed. What I
remember…

“YES!!!!!!!” Quiet, low-key Harry. His voice filled the room, and as I
turned my head he rocketed out of his seat, arms up, face lit up like
Christmas. “Yes, dammit! Yes!!!” He turned around, scanning the room,
ignoring the startled looks of the rest of the crew, ignoring Tom beaming
and laughing.

He found me.

And ran across the mess hall, swept me up out of my seat, gave me a
bear-hug that made my ribs creak, and spun me in circles. “Yes, yes, yes.
They’ve said yes! Ata just called. We got a transmission on the Star March.
Faint, but the Bandei say ‘yes.’ If we can make it to the Empire, they’ll
grant us asylum.”

At that, the whole room broke into tumult. And Harry, suddenly realizing
what he’d done, blushed bright fuschia, and put me gingerly back on my
feet.

I suppose I should have been stricter–but there’s no pay-back to that. No
more payback than asking a winning Paresi Squares team not to dance, and
hug, and carry the coach around on their shoulders after they win a big
game. A bit of celebratory lunacy is good for morale. And poor Harry had
been carrying too heavy a load, for too long. He needed his joy.

So, we had good news.

Unfortunately, as Tuvok and Chakotay both pointed out to me later, it
wasn’t going to make our jobs any easier. Harder, if anything.

The meeting in my readyroom the next morning was a dose of cold water. I’d
been trying to accentuate the positive. Chakotay and Tuvok had been trying
to moderate my reaction. To tell you the truth, I resented it. I wanted to
take my joy, and revel in it as much as Harry. Wanted to believe that maybe
I could decree a happy ending.

“Captain, I understand your satisfaction with this development. But we
still have to reach the Empire. That is no easier now than it was before we
knew they’d take us in.” Tuvok was dour.

Chakotay frowned, rubbed his chin. He was pensive. A little distracted. As
though he was chewing something tough, and unpleasant. “He’s right. And
once the crew gets over the high it’s going to hit hard. We’re really no
better off than we were before. Worse, if anything. The Hakaalt may have
been able to pick up the transmission, too. They’d have to start pushing us
harder. If they do, there’s no telling how long well be able to hold up. Or
how long…” His brow furrowed. “Damn. I wish…”

He got up, and paced restlessly. Like the rest of the human crew these days
he was in the coolest gear he could find. He’d cannibalized the desert
issue he’d worn on Egypt. Loose, light trousers of synthacotton, and a
long, nearly gauze-weight white under-tunic with the sleeves ripped out.
He’d left it open at the neck. Even that didn’t seem to be keeping him
cool. Sweat glossed his arms, and throat, and face.

I admired the feral stalk of him, struggling to hold on to my own good
mood. Trying not to let the pessimism he and Tuvok seemed to feel take away
from the pleasure of knowing something had gone right.

He looked a lot better than I suspect he felt. But then, that wasn’t hard.
He didn’t look like he felt very good.

After a turn or two around the center of the room, he turned back to us,
worrying the issue. “Some of them will just sit back, and keep soldiering
on, knowing there’s something to aim for. Some of them are going to start
thinking more than ever about how impossible this whole damned thing is.
And the ones who don’t think we should be here in the first place? Damn.
Damn. I wish I knew…” He paced away from us again, tight, erect, moving
from his center, like a dancer. Like a fighter stalking an enemy. “OK. So
we just have to guess, and play it by ear, and on hunches.” He turned to
Tuvok and me, about to say something, face set in determination.

He never got to say it.

Somewhere in the ship there was a dull hammer-slam of an explosion. I could
feel it. Feel structural members strain, joints creak. The red alert sirens
went off, wheeping and yiping.

The three of us were out the door, and on the bridge snapping orders before
we’d fully thought things out.

“Wildman, what’s…”

“Explosion in holodeck 2.”

“Casualties?”

“No evaluation so far.”

Tuvok was already on the job, pulling his weaponry divisions together to
scan the space around us, seeing if the internal threat was only the
prelude to an external one. I turned to Chakotay. “Get down there. Tuvok
and I may have to fight up here. I want one of us…”

He was already moving, snapping orders into his comm badge.

“Captain, there is no sign of outside attack.” Tuvok’s hands were blurring
over his station, as he pulled in information.

“Wildman, put us in touch with the kin fleet. Not all of them are operating
on half a sensor system. Have them relay information to Tuvok.”

Blodd was at navigation. Not Tom. Suddenly my stomach tightened.

Not Tom. Where was Tom?

“Damn it, Wildman, are there any casualties?”

“I don’t *know.*” She was doing the best she could. Too busy. Too much to
handle.

I linked my computer to hers, and started scanning the on-ship feeds,
trying to free her to make the off-ship link up.

Where was Tom, damn it?

I remembered. Tom was still on part-time shifts recovering from the
coughing sickness. This was one of his off-hours.

Couldn’t ask the computer. Too much going on. Too many other things that
took priority over the whereabouts of a single member of the crew.

“Captain, analysis of the kin sensor readings confirms our own. There is no
sign of a Hakaalt attack.”

“Continue scans, Tuvok. This is too convenient for them.”

“Aye.”

“Captain, casualty lists coming in.”

“I’ll take it on my terminal. Keep working on the links with the kin
ships.”

The names began to light up the screen, one at a time.

Names I didn’t recognize. Not just because they were new. Because I hadn’t
ever really met them, dealt with them.

Then the biographical information cut in.

Children. They were all children.

Gindar Greth’s-foster. Wounded.

Mika Seeks-foster. Wounded.

Yu Ata’s-foster. Wounded.

Wena Seeks-foster. Dead.

Tom’s name came up on the screen. I felt the adrenaline rush.

Wounded. Thank God.

More kin children.

Hammaril Qiral’s-heir. Wounded.

Redria Seeks-foster. Wounded.

Domnat Belitar’s-foster. Dead.

Then…

D’Esperance, Madeleine:

Ensign. Maquis. Permanent assignment, Life Support. Temporarily assigned to
Provisional duties.

Dead.

It was over an hour before Tuvok and I had established that the Hakaalt
weren’t going to mount an attack. Over an hour before I could look for
Chakotay.

I found him in sickbay.

I wasn’t even in the door before Kou started briefing me. Most of the
children who had been wounded were going to recover. Those who were dead
had died quickly, in the blast. Magda… there had never been any hope for
her.

Tom had already been released. Contusions, sprained ankle, bruises. Alive.
Whole. Going to be fine.

Kes slid forward, and tactfully took over for Kou. I appreciated it. She’s
soothing. Tactful, too. Seeing my eyes wander towards the chaos in the
treatment area, she cut me off from the rooms beyond.

I could hear the sounds of mourning. See kin moving around the med beds,
tending the living, preparing the dead. Hear Anyas’ voice, raised in the
ululation of Abbyzh-dira. A sound I hadn’t heard since I’d “accepted” him
as First Offered.

Even then I’d known it was a cry of grief. Here, and now… I felt a shiver
run down my spine. I turned my face away from the back of the room.
“Chakotay?”

Kes put a hand on my arm, and gestured me towards the door of the doctor’s
office. “He’s in there. He didn’t come in till a few minutes ago. Before
then he had too much to do. I… I don’t think he knew about Magda until he
came down here.” She turned and looked behind her. I could see from her
face how bad it was. How bad all of it was. “I’m sorry, captain. There
wasn’t anything we could do. At least Tom, and some of the children made
it.” She didn’t try to soften it. Even a few weeks before she would have.
The last weeks had changed a lot.

She walked with me to the office.

Chakotay was sitting in the patient’s chair, in front of the desk. He
turned, when we came in. The thin white fabric of his tunic was smeared
with blood. Several colors of blood.

He didn’t say anything: just looked at me with black, black eyes.

What do you say to your lover, when a parent-not-parent dies?

I put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. Oh, Pesh, I *am* sorry…”

Maybe it was the right thing. I don’t know.

Before I could say more his arms were around my waist, his face buried in
my belly, head pushed so hard up against me I could feel his skull bruising
the bottom edges of my ribs, bowing my sternum. His hands fisted in the
thin fabric of my tee-shirt, knotting hard into the small of my back. They
ground against my spine, like lying on granite cobbles on a New England
beach.

He never made a sound.

I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, and felt him wracked by silence.

It felt as though I’d stepped out of myself. Out of any feeling beyond
concern that, whatever came next, I do it all right. Perform the rituals,
say the right things, keep moving, do my duty, help where I could, and
beyond that feel nothing but a cool, glassy awe at the sharp detail of
every minute that went by.

I remember noticing the texture of his hair, crisp and wiry.

I remember looking wonderingly at the salt-and-pepper brindle of it, below
my breasts.

I remember raising my hand to stroke his head, only to have him turn his
face into the curve of my palm, hide his eyes in my hand.

I remember feeling his tears, pooling in the cradle of my palm.

“I’m sorry. Pesh, I’m sorry. She…” I didn’t know what to say. Couldn’t
find any words that didn’t wrap her life up small, and tag it with an
epitaph that was less than she was.

He kept his face hidden in my hand, but his voice crow-croaked up to me.
“She was a terrible woman. But oh, god, Kath, I loved her….” He held me
so hard the bones of his forearms bit against my pelvis. “Oh, damn. Stupid,
stupid woman. Crazy, damned bitch.” He rocked against me. “I loved her.” He
managed to keep track of the past tense, but I could feel him holding to
her in the now, loving her, wanting her back.

“I know. She loved you, too.”

I couldn’t say “I loved her, too.” Next to his pain the transparent
brittleness of my own grief seemed like an insult.

It seemed like forever he held me like that, face in my hand, arms crushing
me tight. I suppose it wasn’t, really. In real terms it was probably only a
few minutes.

He pulled back, face turned away; wet, smudged with tears, and dust from
the explosion site. He was trying to pull back in, become a professional
officer again. Step back into duty. “I should get back out there. We’re
still searching the wreckage. Most of the victims we pulled out with the
transporter. But some of the children may not have had comm badges, or may
not have worn them.”

His voice was steady enough. But you could hear what it cost him. Hear the
loss, the anger. Embarrassment that he’d given way at all.

I’d discovered in the time we’d been together that Indian cultures were
often even more demanding that men keep control over fear and grief than
Anglo cultures. Almost as bad as Klingons. Being in the Fleet probably only
made that worse. Same for the Maquis. He’s good at finding the good in
things. Less good at knowing how to deal with the bad. Like Seska. Like
Tuvok and me pulling the wool over his eyes. Like being told he’s been
raped into fatherhood. Like losing his father. He tries to look at the
bright side. But sometimes there’s no bright side. He preaches acceptance,
and adaptation, and adjustment. But when he’s broadside by life, he’s like
a Vulcan faced with a logical paradox–trapped by his own need to fix it,
or ignore it into non-existence. He fights if he can. Freezes up, and goes
silent if he can’t fight.

Which was a revelation. A recognition of the source of the erratic,
unpredictable side of him. The cold, calm, analytical part of my brain that
seemed to have taken over made a tidy, red-flagged note of the hypothesis,
even as I stepped in and took over for him, giving him the order he
wouldn’t give himself.

“No, Pesh. You’ve seen to the worst of it. Let the rest of the team finish
the clean up. You’re off-duty as of now. Go to our quarters, clean up, get
some rest. Do what you have to. But don’t…

“I can handle it.” His voice. Hard, now. Face showing the humiliation of
feeling too much, and being caught with no cover for it.

“If it were another member of the crew, would you insist that they go right
back to duty? If it were Chaim, or Cherel?”

“What about you?” Challenging. Fierce.

“I didn’t know her as long as you did.” My own voice was as hard. “And I
wasn’t there, trying to sort the tricorder readings into some kind of
transporter fix. Watching the corpses go by.” I stepped away from him,
straightening my tee-shirt, feeling oddly naked without the jacket. Feeling
naked as his eyes tried to see my own sorrow. He had enough pain of his
own. He didn’t need the added burden of mine. “I have to get back, take
over the bridge. Tuvok’s holding it now. I have to free him up to start the
investigation. His turf. He’ll want to interview Tom, and any of the
children who are in any shape to tell him what happened.”

“What does Paris have to do with it?”

I had my back to him, so I didn’t see his reaction. I heard it, though, and
when I looked back, I could see…

His eyes were hot, angry, and under it was a kind of sick terror.

“I thought you knew. Paris was at the explosion.”

He shook his head. “They must have beamed him out before I even got down
there. I didn’t….” His jaw bunched. “Tuvok. You’ve got to tell Tuvok…
It’s got to be Kilpatrick, and Bintar.” As I reached for my comm badge, he
grabbed my wrist. “No. No knowing if they’ve tapped the comm lines. Tell
him face to face. No. I’ll tell him.” He was up, and moving, like a
leopard, like a bull dancer, like an angry bear.

And as I followed behind him, I heard myself say “Yes, perhaps you should,”
with the cold, precise, off-with-his head edge that I had hoped I’d sent
into permanent exile.

By the time we reached the bridge, I’d managed to control that initial
impulse to rage. Whatever Chakotay had to tell my Security Chief, I knew
was something he thought he’d had a reason to hold back. So I was keeping a
strangle-hold on my own temper. It was just as well.

It took Chakotay about five minutes to “reveal all.” By the time he had,
complete with Paris back in his role as spy and Magda slinking around
thinking she was Mata Hari, Tuvok looked like a sandstorm coming up on the
Plains of Gol. Dark and deadly.

“And you chose to keep this information to yourself?” I hadn’t heard that
concise venom in his voice in a long time.

Chakotay had paced himself to a standstill on the lounge side of the room.
As Tuvok’s voice sliced, sharp as le-matya claws, and just as poisonous, he
rounded back. “*I DIDN’T KNOW!* I was going to tell you once I knew more
than just guesses and rumors–hell, I was *trying* to tell you when…” His
face closed down hard for a moment, the memory of the blast and its
aftermath tearing at him. When he continued his voice was as deadly as
Tuvok’s, as he tried to present the logic behind his choices. I wasn’t sure
he wasn’t rationalizing some, but I suspected he was coming as close to the
truth of his motives as most of us ever do–3/4ths cold precision, 1/4
soothing gloss. That was all right, so long as the honesty was there. We
all need some ego salve, and a little absolution. “I can’t cry wolf over
every suspicion I ever have. Nine out of ten don’t mean anything, and even
the ones that do–I can’t do my job if the crew doesn’t trust me not to
pour my guts out to security every time I have a hunch. If they can’t trust
me not to go running to you with every secret, or turn them over to your
‘tender mercies’ they won’t trust me to help them. They won’t let me lead
them. Your job is to police them. Mine is to help them police themselves,
when I can. I can’t do that if they think of me as a traitor.” The
bitterness in his voice made it more than clear how hard it often was for
the “Maquis XO” to ensure the trust of both Starfleet and Maquis
crewmembers. How hard it had often been to feel sure that even Tuvok and I
trusted him.

My Security Chief wasn’t letting it go. “So you withhold vital information?
Commander, I might have thought you would have learned your lesson with
Suder, and Jonas, and Seska. The security issues on this ship are not a
matter for off-handed negligence.” Tuvok was as sour, and hostile as the
holodoctor on a bad day.

“You’re a fine one to talk. I’m not the one who played ‘need to know’ just
to ‘get a good performance’. Or did you just feel safer leaving me out of
the loop?”

“*Stop it!* Both of you.”

They turned to me. Both too far gone. Both needing to be reined in.

“Tuvok, get on the case of Kilpatrick and Bintar. Chakotay, I took you
off-duty down in sick bay, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re *still*
off-duty. You need to get some rest. We’ll work –”

“No.” Chakotay was set in his tracks.

Tuvok raised a surprised eyebrow. I wasn’t so surprised. I’ve begun to
understand that odd, ‘contrary,’ personal sense of duty and obligation. The
element that makes him lower his head and stand up for what he sees as
right, and the devil take the hindermost. Begun to understand Chakotay.
“Commander, this isn’t a subject –”

“– For debate. Yes, it is. If this is my fault, I don’t intend to be
sitting in my quarters while you and Tuvok mop up after it. I *can’t.* Not
and keep my place as first officer. Even if I could hold the spot, I
couldn’t…” He closed his eyes. “I clean up my *own* messes.” There was
personal need there, too.

Not the time to pursue it. Not that I needed to. A beloved corpse lay in
sick bay. Looked at through Chakotay’s eyes, her death was on his head.
Even as more and more little understandings fell into place, though, the
‘war’ raged on

“I do not believe that you are capable of ‘cleaning up’ an event of this
magnitude, commander.” Tuvok wouldn’t admit it, but he was furious. As
angry as he’d been after the “Great Strike,” and for the same reasons.
Chakotay, with the best of intentions, had left Tuvok feeling out of
control, and as though he’d let down his ship. Been tricked into failing
his own obligations. Not logical. Tuvok tries, but he isn’t always logical.

Both of them were angry as a hive of hornets; and me in the middle, needing
to choose. To determine a path.

“Tuvok, you move in on Kilpatrick and Bintar. In the meantime set your team
loose on the physical investigation. Chakotay, I want you to start out
interviewing Paris, and anyone who might be able to tell us why Magda and
the children were there. And get some of the kin involved: they’re going to
want to know why their children are dead, and they’ll feel better if they
know their own people are being allowed to take part in the investigation.
Oh–call Qiral and send him up to me as soon as he can come. We’ll need to
plan how to deal with this.”

The comm beeped. Wildman. “Captain, Carey needs you and Tuvok, stat.”

I closed my eyes. “Put him on.”

With B’Elanna sick, and Harry over on the Star March, Carey was the
all-purpose whipping boy in engineering. He didn’t sound like he enjoyed it
much. “Captain, we’ve had a saboteur. Down in the shuttle bays. One of the
shuttles is gone, and the rest have been knocked out.”

“Sonofabitch.” Chakotay was livid. “Computer, locate Lieutenant Kilpatrick
and Ensign Bintar.”

There was no answer.

Tuvok sat heavily. “It would appear that our difficulties with the internal
sensor web are still a problem.”

I tried to ignore them both. “Carey, what kind of shape are the remaining
shuttles in?”

He paused. I could almost hear his mental warp drives cut in. “Not so bad.
Whoever it was didn’t take a lot of time, or wasn’t brave enough to risk a
big blow up. Minor explosions in the control panels.”

“How long until you can get even one flight-ready?”

“Um….”

“I see. Please do what you can. We’ll need some form of transport as soon
as possible. If the shuttles can’t be put to use, check the kin life-pods,
and call over to the Metal March and see if Teefei can arrange for us to
borrow some of their ships.”

Carey isn’t stupid. Not the innovator B’Elanna is, but not stupid, either.
“Captain, if you need a ship in a hurry–Neelix’s ship is still whole.
Whoever it was forgot it.”

I looked at Tuvok and Chakotay. Both were dismayed. Tuvok made a sour face.
Chakotay shook his head, frustrated. “Hot pursuit, with *Neelix* in the
pilot’s seat?”

I couldn’t imagine it. Didn’t want to. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Tuvok
frowned. “I believe Mr. Paris has taken the time to familiarize himself
with that vessel.”

I paced from behind my desk. “Paris was hit in the explosion.”

“Is he fit for duty?”

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, tired. “I don’t know, Tuvok.” Thought back
to sickbay. “Nothing major. He was ordered to his quarters, but expected to
return to duty by tomorrow morning.”

“Under the circumstances, it would appear logical to assign the lieutenant
to this away-mission. He is in less than ideal condition to serve on the
bridge, but is the best able and most motivated of our ‘regular’ pilots to
serve on a security mission.” Tuvok was recovering his control. Beginning
to see options.

Chakotay didn’t look thrilled at the mention of Paris, but nodded. “He’ll
do. Twice the pilot I am, particularly in that souped up mess of a junk
scow. It’ll leave the rest of us free to make plans.”

Tuvok’s lips tighted, at Chakotay’s ‘us.’ “Commander, I believe that this
is a matter for security, now. The retrieval of suspected criminals…”

I cut Tuvok off. “No. You’ll take the security aspects. Chakotay will be in
command of the overall mission, though. Chakotay, I want you to get down
Paris’ quarters, and set things up with him. Get a rundown on why he was at
the holodeck, too, while you’re there, and send it up to Tuvok’s staff for
analysis. Carey, are you still there?”

“Aye, ma’am?” Apparently he’d decided that this one was crunch-time.

“Start prepping Neelix’ ship. Send someone up to get permission, but don’t
wait till you have it to get going on the flight check.”

“Aye, ma’am. I’ll get on it soonest. Carey, out.”

“Good. Chakotay, stop standing there. This is *it.* If you don’t want me to
put you back on the off-duty roster, *move.*”

He looked at me–and moved.

Tuvok remained where he was, seated in the depths of my sofa.

The door closed behind my XO.

Tuvok looked at me.

“This is properly a security issue.” The reproach was unmistakable.

I dropped wearily into the chair behind my desk. Leaned my elbows on the
top of the desk, my head on the heels of my hands, fingers laced through my
hair as I tried to massage the headache from the depths of my skull. “No.
No. It’s a *command* issue. If I don’t give him this mission, I lose my
first officer.”

Tuvok rose, restlessness in rigid control. “I fail to see the reasoning
behind that statement. Nor do I understand your concern regarding the
commander, nor your sense that his participation is in any way desirable.
It was his lapse that created this situation. It seems counter-productive
to allow the crew to see him go unpunished for his impetuosity. The order
of the ship depends on discipline, and firm standards.”

“It depends as much on trust, and camaraderie. On a belief that we will be
firm–but also *just*. It would be worse for them to think I was going to
destroy him for an honest mistake. Worse for them, because they have to
trust me not to break them for their mistakes. They know they’ll make them.
They have to know when they do that they’ll be judged fairly. And… This
could destroy him. Tuvok, I need him as first officer. There is no one else
who can perform the functions he performs.” He was about to interrupt. I
didn’t’ let him. “No. He’s the only rational person to serve as liaison to
the Maquis, he has the best training available to serve in the XO spot,
he’s more than exceeded my highest hopes when I assigned him, he’s made his
own power base, he has the experience. He performs as a leader is ways you
and I can’t, either for reasons of position, or of personality. I don’t
have the entire Starfleet personnel roster to pick and choose replacements
from. *I need him in that spot.* And he’s right: if he isn’t allowed to
help settle this out, he’ll never be able to hold the second chair again.
The crew needs to know that I still trust him. They need to see that
mistakes don’t break him. For professional reasons alone he has to be
allowed to prove he’s solid. And he needs this. If I don’t let him have it,
let him prove to himself that he can make some recompense, ‘clean up his
own messes’ so far as it’s possible, it’s going to cut his legs out from
under him. He’s strong, but he’s had enough serious knocks out here. Too
many. Too many demands to meet, too many obligations to try to fulfill. Too
many failures he couldn’t avoid, or control. This one could be the last
one. He’s strong–he isn’t impervious, or indestructible. I have to let him
climb back on the horse that threw him.”

“The commander has always seemed quite resilient, to me. You are sure you
aren’t exaggerating the situation?”

“No. I’m not sure. But he’s lost his command, he’s allowed himself to set
aside, he’s been duped by you, and me, and Paris, he’s been taken over the
rapids over the baby, he’s found out that you were a spy, he’s found out
that Jonas was a traitor, he’s found out Suder was a serial killer, his
lover turned out to be a spy, and a…” ‘bitch’ was the word I wanted to
use, but with Tuvok it seemed over-the-top. “It’s not like he even came
into this at his best. He wasn’t in the Maquis because he needed an amusing
leave-of-absence from Starfleet. He was in a state of emotional shock, and
betrayal. The Federation had ‘failed’ him and his people. The Cardassians
had killed his father. Maquis style combat conditions can’t have helped
much, either. So far he’s held his own–but there’s only so much humans can
take, before they break. Without a counselor aboard to give me a
professional evaluation… Tuvok, he loved Magda. Now she’s dead because of
a choice he made. I have to take a conservative view of this, and assume
that this could matter. He’s a professional. He may even be a ‘holy man.’
He isn’t a little plaster saint, with no feelings, no failings, and no
personal needs of his own.”

“He is a–passionate–man. You risk the possibility that he will exceed
civilized limits. By the standards of many cultures he has just grounds to
seek vengeance.”

“Yes.” I was glad that Chakotay wasn’t there to hear Tuvok’s icy
‘civilized’–but the point he was making was valid enough. “I trust him not
to. He didn’t kill Seska. He could have.”

He nodded. But he wasn’t done. “We would not be facing this difficulty if
it were not for his error of judgement.”

“We’ve all made ‘errors of judgement.’ Me. You. All of us. He made a
judgement call. It wasn’t even an unreasonable one. He’s right–he can’t go
crying wolf every time he gets a hunch, and we all have enough to deal with
already, without jumping at shadows. And if his ego was involved,
too–well, we set him up to be sensitive about this issue, when we duped
him over Jonas. It’s our mistake, too. He’s a good officer, Tuvok. Too good
to destroy for a decision that could as easily have worked out well.”

“Still, the repercussions are severe.”

I looked at him. “So were the repercussions at Sikarius. The ship was
nearly destroyed. Can you say we survived because you chose correctly–or
because we got lucky? You told me, before: you make a choice, even when you
know all the facts aren’t in, because you have to choose. Chakotay chose.”

He looked guiltily away… but kept on. “Are you sure your decision isn’t
being colored by… personal considerations?” The phrasing and the
inflection were exquisitely flat and noncommittal.

“Yes.” This I was sure of. “I want him as a person. I need him as a first
officer. If it was just a matter of personal concern, I’d keep him here,
and hope that Kes, or Anyas, or the holodoctor, or even I could help him
work through the aftermath.” I leaned back in my chair. Crossed my arms
over my chest. “If nothing else, then I’d know he’d be here, safe… if
‘safe’ means anything nowadays.” It came out so bitter.

“I see.” His eyes were hooded, but I could hear that he did understand.
“Very well, captain. I withdraw my objections. You are correct: it is a
command issue–as well as a security issue. I will cede command of this
away team.”

I looked up at him. He’d come to stand before my desk. Dark. Still. As
reassuring as I’d always found him as a girl. Steady as a rock. Dependable.

I reached out a hand, not sure he’d accept the contact, but needing to
offer it anyhow.

His coffee-brown fingers took mine, gently. “I will do what I can to make
the mission a success–Kathryn.”

I nodded. “Thank you.” There was nothing more to say.

Two hours later Neelix’ ship left our shuttle bay. The away-team consisted
of Chakotay, Tuvok, Tom Paris, Delwien Trader representing the kin… and,
to my surprise, Anyas, as medical officer.

Looking over the roster, I found myself grateful that I wasn’t Kilpatrick
and Bintar. Not with those five after them, and hungry for blood.

End Section IX

———————————————

———————————————

Section X: Chakotay

“Passing beyond sensor and communications range of the exodus fleet,
commander.”. Paris’ voice drifted back to where I sat in the cramped
passenger section of Neelix’s junkscow. “All we’re getting now is the Star
March’s distress call.”

“You still have a line on Kilpatrick and Bintar’s ship?”

“Yes, sir; warp signature reading clearly.”

“Keep on it.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

It was a dull conversation. Formalities on autopilot. I sat back in my seat
and stared at nothing, feeling as if I’d been wrapped in a cocoon: numb,
the first f lash flood of grief past. Even that initial burst of emotion
had not been quite real, more denial than sorrow. The situation was too
extreme; I couldn’t take it in. Magda was dead and I– I was at fault. I
should have said something to Kathryn, to Tuvok. I’d made gaffes before,
but never quite this big, never gaffes that had gotten people killed.

Some logic hibernating in my brain woke abruptly and stopped that line of
thought. I had certainly made bad decisions before, but they’d been the
best decision I could have made at the time. I’d come to accept that I
wasn’t perfect; I wasn’t a prophet and couldn’t see into the future. This
time was no different. I’d had nothing of which to suspect Kilpatrick
besides dissatisfied mutterings–and I’d only paid attention to those
because of her previous record. If I’d taken to Kathryn every complaint and
sour remark I’d heard about the kin, I’d have implicated half the crew. And
I’m sure the other half had at least thought something unkind now and then.
Kilpatrick had not, according to B’Elanna, even hinted at mutiny, nor done
anything beyond imply that the captain’s decision to help the kin had been
wrong. Even Kathryn wondered sometimes if it hadn’t been.

There simply hadn’t been *enough* to make me suspect Kilpatrick of anything
more than we already suspected her. I’d sicced Paris and Magda on her
because of her previous plots and plans with Jorland. I’d wanted her
watched. But that was all we could have done anyway.

Wasn’t it?

The argument went round and round in my head. I couldn’t escape the feeling
that I should have *known* somehow.

“Warp trail is heading negative oh-point-seven-six,” Paris said from the
pilot seat. That’ll bring them to a small planet about two light-years off
the projected path of the exodus, sir.”

I roused myself and came forward to lean between Paris’ chair and the
co-pilot seat, occupied by Delwien Trader. Like most kin, Delwien was a bit
of a jack-o f-all-trades: engineer and pilot and God alone knew what else.
Now he was learning how to fly this hunk of junk, in case Paris needed
backup. “Any sign of Hakaalt?” I asked Par is.

“Not in terms of pursuit, but there’s some kind of installation on the
planet, or at least, we’re getting large energy readings. May be Hakaalt,
may not.” H e touched a burn on the side of his face.

“Hakaalt,” Delwien said, pointing with one long claw to the patter n of
energy wave. “Only Hakaalt readings look like this.”

Tuvok had come forward, stood at my shoulder. “Life signs?”

“Too far out still to tell, sir.”

“Are we gaining on the shuttle?” I asked.

“No, sir. Not appreciably.”

“Let us know if there’s a change, lieutenant.” I went back to sit down,
Tuvok following. Anyas had not moved, hadn’t moved since we’d boarded in
fact. He sat by a port window and looked out: a clear message to leave him
alone. One would hardly have recognized him as the Prince of Lilies. He
looked like something the cat had dragged in, but that might’ve been
insulting Chessie’s taste. I sat down by him, said no thing, just sat. He
didn’t even turn his head. I wondered if he blamed me as much as I blame d
myself. I wondered if they all blamed me. Tuvok did; he’d made that much
obvious. What of Paris, who’d almost gotten killed? Or Delwien, who’d
nearly lost the child he w as helping Ata to raise? And I was supposed to
be in command of this mission? Maybe I should have let Tuvok take it.

Enough. Kathryn faced this every day: a crew who could blame her for
tangling with the Hakaalt, for passing up a chance at the space folder way
back when, o r even for getting them stranded in the Delta Quadrant in the
first place. She just got on with it. So could I.

I listened to the hum of Neelix’s little engines, interrupted by a n
occasional murmur as Paris said something to Delwien and the aka’Chee
answered in that feminine treble. Delwien had braided his hair to keep it
out of his way. From the back, h e did look female. But then, he wasn’t
really male any more than he was female. Except for the few days of the
year when they mated, aka’Chee were neuter, the male pronoun convenience
only–and I wasn’t entirely sure that when they mated, they could be
classified as “m ale” and “female.” The Federation had no true humanoid
androgynes. There were some oddities , but humanoids tended to divide down
into male and female. Of course, calling the aka’Chee “humanoid” might be
stretching the definition anyway.

Thus I let my mind drift. I suppose I should have been planning w hat to do
when we caught up with Kilpatrick and Bintar, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want
to think about anything which made me remember that Magda was dead.

A little over four hours later, Paris said, “I’m getting some readings,
commander.”

I dragged myself up and forward, Tuvok once again a silent presence behind
me. Paris just pointed to a screen. The Hakaalt installation was extensive
but, apparently, entirely robotic. There were only two life signs: human,
and the signature of our shuttle. It had set down right near the structure.

“Take us down, lieutenant, but far enough away that they won’t see us. I
don’t want to announce our presence until I’m good and ready. Continue to
monitor f or Hakaalt ships.”

“Yes, sir.”

I turned then to Tuvok. “This is too damn easy.”

“Perhaps.” Tuvok frowned slightly. “But I am not convinced that either
Kilpatrick or Bintar have a distinct plan themselves.”

“Why not?”

“They were after us,” Paris said, from his seat. “They weren’t sabotaging
Voyager.”

I nodded, remembering what he’d told me earlier when I’d questioned him
about the explosion. He and Magda had been responding to a call. Not
knowing any better, she had brought her entire class. The bomb had started
it’s countdown only after Paris had entered the holodeck. Magda’s quick
thinking had saved many of the children, but it was clear Kilpatrick had
been after people, not equipment. It would have been a simple matter to
choose an area with more critical functions and kill two birds with one
stone, so to speak. “They were scared,” I said now to Tuvok.

“Yes. I calculate a high probability that they have no clear plans but hope
only to escape.”

“I think they’re up to something with the Hakaalt.”

“Likely, but unproved as yet. We have detected no transmissions from their
shuttle. Perhaps they are simply seeking to get away from us and had hoped
that by depriving us of immediate means to follow, by the time we could do
so, we would have lost interest in their arrest, or be unable to track
them.” He tilted his head. “As with the explosion, they were over-hasty.”

“This doesn’t feel like Kilpatrick.” Paris spoke without looking at us.
“She may be a bitch, but she’s a thorough bitch.”

Tuvok’s lips thinned at Paris’ choice of descriptor but, surprisingly,
didn’t object. “If it was not the work of Lieutenant Kilpatrick, then why
did she flee Voyager?”

“I dunno,” Paris said. “But Susan’s style would’ve been a knife in the
dark–probably a kin knife so she could’ve blamed it on them–not a big,
messy explosion.” A pause. “I *was* talking to Bintar last night.”

I turned, my brain making sudden leaps. “You think it was him?”

“Maybe. He’s panicky. Kilpatrick and Jorland only asked him to be part of
their inner group because he was in weapons. They sure didn’t pick him for
his brains.”

“Speculation,” Tuvok said.

“It’s all we’ve got to go on,” I snapped. “And you were ‘speculating’
yourself a minute ago.”

“Based on logical deduction.”

“Tuvok–enough.” He was just looking for something to censure: Vu lcan
irritation. Or frustration.

“Strap in,” Paris said before Tuvok could reply. “We’re beginning our
descent.”

We were halfway through the landing procedures when Delwien sudden ly
hissed and turned his head. “Hakaalt,” he snarled. “A small ship on
long-distance scanners, but *Hakaalt*, and headed this way.”

“Can you pick up any transmissions?”

He lifted the Talaxian earphones and listened a moment. “I hear n othing
but the shout of Star March.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad one,” I muttered. “Maybe
they’re not coming here.”

“They’re headed right for us,” Paris said, “and on the same trail we were
taking. And faster.” He turned in his seat. “They’ll be here in four hours,
fifty-seven minutes.”

Clenching my jaw, I said, “Stay on your descent, lieutenant, and to hell
with Bintar and Kilpatrick spotting us. Get us as close as you can to their
shuttle. We’ll just have to be prepared for a fight.”

There were some tense moments as we came down; I’d expected the grounded
shuttle to fire on us as we landed in the same clearing, thirty feet away
but there was no fire. “No life signs in the shuttle,” Paris explained, “or
in the vicinity, either. They’re already gone.”

I glared out the window at the hulking installation. They were somewhere in
there; I’d bet money on it.

Tuvok was already up and at the weapons station, checking phaser r ifles.
We each already had standard-issue phasers and tricorders–even Delwien.
Now, Tuvok passed me a rifle and kept another for himself. To Paris, Anyas
and Delwien, he gave a set of grenades and an extra phaser.

Anyas refused to take them, speaking for the first time since he’d asked
me–begged me, practically–to take him with us. “I don’t want these. A
phaser is enough.”

Tuvok looked at him. “May I ask why?”

Anyas looked up at him. “I might use them.”

Dead silence for four heartbeats. Then, interestingly, it was Delwien who
spoke. “There are Hakaalt out there, too. Or will be, soon.”

Anyas’ expression was brittle. “I am a doctor, not a butcher. I don’t want
to forget that.”

“Well, I’m an engineer!” Delwien snapped. “But I’m not about to let them
lead me meekly to their Pyre!”

Anyas shuddered and turned away. “Nevertheless. I will not take the
weapons.” He walked away to collect ration packs, not giving anyone a
chance to object further.

Tuvok’s lips had gone thin again: his expression of annoyance. He handed
Anyas’ grenades to me. “Commander, go and secure the other shuttle. I do
not wish our quarry to escape behind our backs, nor do I wish the Hakaalt
to make use of either vessel. Lieutenant Paris, do the same for Mr.
Neelix’s ship.”

I started to bristle at being ordered around, but then reconsidered, nodded
and went. I was in charge of the overall mission, but Tuvok was the
security officer.

Opening the back hatch of Neelix’s ship, I waited a moment. Despite what
Paris had said about no life signs nearby, I wasn’t about to just waltz out
into the open. When there was no response, I dropped straight to the ground
rather than come down the ramp, rolled under it. No fire from the thickets
around the clearing. I waited again . It was *cool* out here; not quite
winter weather, but late fall. For the first time in days, I wasn’t
sweating. After a count of thirty, I made a dash for the other shuttle, hit
the hatch-release. The door woshed open. Fools. They hadn’t even bothered
to secure it. I slammed myself back against the shuttle side. No fire came
from the shuttle. After another brief wait, I dove in low, rolled and came
up against a back wall, rifle at ready. Deserted–as the readings had said.
Relaxing, I stood and walked up to the piloting area, pulled out a pair of
small chip-boards from the main computer; this shuttle wasn’t going
anywhere now. Then I went to check the storage hatches. Kilpatrick and
Bintar had taken the rations, tricorders and the first aid kit. They also
probably had phasers–Bintar was in weapons, after all. I just hoped they
weren’t as well stocked as we were.

I left the shuttle and made my way back to Neelix’s ship. The other four
were gathered outside, Tuvok bent over some contraption that looked like an
old-style police nightstick. “What is that?”

“A dampener. If we can detect their life-signs, no doubt they can also
detect ours. This may give us the benefit of surprise, since we do not have
the luxury of time.” He stood up, handed me one and slung the other over
his shoulder. “Mr. Paris has determined that lieutenants Kilpatrick and
Bintar are well inside the installation. I suggest we split up, half in
direct pursuit while the other half circles about to come in on the
installation’s other side.”

“Pincher them between,” I said.

“Exactly.”

“Don’t you think it would be a good idea to find if there *is* an entrance
on the other side?” Delwien asked.

Tuvok barely spared him a glance. “The two sides of the building appear to
be constructed as mirror images of one another. Since there are multiple
entrances on this side, one can safely presume there would be multiple
entrances on the other.”

I glanced back at the Hakaalt structure. It was clean and white and
well-designed, like everything Hakaalt we’d so far seen. It also appeared
to run at least partly on water-generated electrical power as it straddled
a river, making a dam across so that a lake pooled behind it. “They would
appear to have come to a stop somewhere in the building on the far side,”
Tuvok said. “I and the doctor shall approach through the building, while
you and Paris will cross the river and approach from that side. An
emergency life raft can be found in the shuttle.” I gave him a wry look,
remembering a story he’d told almost a year ago now about a six-year-old
boy on a boat on a Vulcan sea. It shouldn’t surprise that he’d opted for a
dry route. “Delwien will remain on guard by the shuttlecraft .”

Delwien’s reaction was instantaneous. Hissing, fangs bared, he grabbed
Tuvok by the arm. “You will *not* leave me out of this, grounder!”

Before Tuvok could reply, Delwien’s head snapped back and his face
registered shock. Paris had yanked his braid. “Calm down. Tuvok’s right. We
need somebody to stay on guard. You’re not being left out of anything. What
if the Hakaalt show up before we’re out of there?”

Delwien had released Tuvok and now rubbed the back of his head. ” That was
too hard,” he muttered. “You’re not supposed to pull that hard.”

“Sorry,” Paris said. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Delwien had turned back to glare at Tuvok, who met the glare levelly enough
and said, “It is a critical assignment.” Though I suspected he’d been
looking for a chance to get rid of Delwien as an unpredictable element:
someone not trained in Starfleet policy or ethics. It made me think of
Anyas’ refusal to accept more weapons than his phaser and I wondered
briefly if any of us but Tuvok could really be trusted not to find some
excuse to blow Bintar and Kilpatrick to hell.

“And if the Hakaalt do show up before you get out of there?” Delwien was
asking.

“Notify us at once and lift off in one of the vessels. It is critical that
the Hakaalt do not capture both.”

Reaching in my pocket, I handed over the two chip-boards to Delwie n.
“You’ll need these, and if you have to choose, take the shuttle. Neelix
might never forgive me for leaving his ship, but the shuttle’s got a
transporter, better sensors and better shields.”

We made a few more contingency plans, then split up–Tuvok and Anyas to
enter the building on this side of the river and Paris and I to haul out
the emergency raft from the shuttle. I wasn’t thrilled about being stuck
with Paris, but at the moment, I wouldn’t have been thrilled about being
stuck with any of them.

He was silent as we hiked east to find a crossable area. I glanced back at
him where he carried the other half of the raft. “How you doing?”

“I’m fine.” It wasn’t sharp but it was a dismissal. Paris had his pride. I
let it go.

We finally found a likely place about a kilometer and a half up from the
installation. The river ran swift here, broken by rocks, but it was the
narrowest place we’d seen. “You want to row the front or the back?” I asked
him as we waited for the raft to inflate.

He flexed his shoulder. “I’d better row the front if we have to f ight the
current. The explosion slammed me into a corridor wall–messed up my arm a
little.”

I paused to study him. “Messed it up a little?” It suddenly occurred to me
that I’d asked him several times how he was, but never had inquired exactly
how he was wounded.

“I’m fine, commander. Fine enough, anyway.” His voice sounded stubborn and
his chin lifted. I remembered Delwien’s reaction to being left to guard the
shuttles.

“All right, lieutenant. You get the front; I’ll steer.”

By the time we reached the other side we were both wet from spray, panting
and chilled to the bone. “Tuvok and Anyas missed their bath,” Paris
muttered, shivering and trying to wring out his uniform jacket.

I ignored the quip, hit the deflate on the raft and hid it under a bush
along with the paddles. Shouldering the rifle and the damper, I said,
“Let’s get going. It can’t take Tuvok and Anyas that long to cross to the
other side.”

When we reached one of the installation doors, I opened my tricorder and
scanned for life signs. Kilpatrick and Bintar appeared not to have moved.
Slapping my communicator, I said, “Chakotay to Tuvok.”

“Tuvok here, commander. Are you in position?”

“I am. But they’ve had plenty of time to set up traps, so be careful.”

“If they are even aware that we are here,” Tuvok corrected.

“Don’t assume they aren’t.” It was for that reason, in fact, that I had
insisted on using a non-standard frequency for comm calls, just in case
anyone was listening.

“I have not, commander, I assure you. Tuvok out.”

We opened the doors and went in.

It was a long stalk in the dark to where Kilpatrick and Bintar had holed
up. Paris and I didn’t speak much, as if afraid our voices would carry
through the hallways even if our footfalls didn’t. The place smelled of
clean, well-oiled machinery, none of that sour body odor and mildewy
undercurrent which had come to pervade Voyager in the past few weeks. When
I pointed a handlight at the walls, it showed back that innocuous
institutional grey so characteristic of a certain bureaucratic mentality.
No hangings, no decor, no bright primary-color paints that vibrated with
life. Every hall looked pretty much the same–pretty much like Voyager,
when I stopped to think about it–and I wouldn’t have known we hadn’t come
this way before if not for the tricorder in my hand. Then again, maybe the
Hakaalt spent no effort decorating a place run by robots.

We finally entered a central computer core of some kind. Machines beeped
and whirled all around us. I was still trying to figure out how we’d gotten
this far without running into some kind of security system and I couldn’t
shake the feelin g that we were walking into a trap. “Wow,” Paris muttered
under his breath and paused at one of the machines, brought the screen to
life with a touch of his finger. He studied it a minute while I circled the
circumference and put in a call to Tuvok. “Tuvok, we’ve found something
worth investigating.”

A pause. “How long will it take?”

“I don’t know. Fifteen minutes? Twenty? It’s their main computer core. But
we need to see if it’s worth coming back to take a longer look at later.”

“Agreed. We shall wait. Tuvok out.”

“Chakotay–come here a minute,” Paris called.

I crossed to join him. “What is it?”

“I think….” He trailed off, then moved to another machine, touc hed that
screen and studied it, moved on to another, and another. Finally he turned
to face me. “You know what this whole place is? It’s a generator: just one
big generator powering a field-manipulation device. If I understand these
right–and after working on the Star March and talking a lot with Ata and
Delwien, I think I do–this is one in a relay system which puts out a *big*
motherfucker of a Hakaalt net.”

I blinked at him, too surprised at his news to chastise him for language
unbecoming an officer. “Where are the other instalations, then? We saw only
one on the planet.”

“That’s just it,” he said. “It’s so big, it has to be generated not just
from several different installations on this particular planet, but from
several different *star systems*. That little purple forcefield from the
Splendid Pyre is nothing compared to this thing.” He looked back at the
computer and muttered, “Jesus H. Christ.”

I moved up to a terminal and sat down, wished I had spent more time looking
at kin computers. The Hakaalt were better organized and more advanced in
some respects, but they shared the same basic technology with the kin and
while I might be a net-monkey on Federation-made equipment, I was a babe in
the woods here. Computer systems aren’t interchangeable and Paris knew more
about this one than I did. After a frustrating few minutes, I said, “Come
help me with this,” humiliated by the need to ask. For once, he saved his
wise-cracks and just instructed me in deciphering the system. Even so, I
knew we were barely scratching the surface.

“Wish Delwien had come with us,” Paris muttered. I just nodded.

We worked for what turned out to be half an hour, Tuvok calling every five
minutes to remind us of the approaching Hakaalt ship. We had already spent
over two hours on the surface, which left the Hakaalt less than two hours
behind us. I kept pu tting him off, sensing that this was important–more
important than finding Kilpatrick a nd Bintar. If we could figure out how
the Hakaalt net worked, we had a chance. If not…. Well, I didn’t even
want to contemplate how we’d beat a net this size.

Working with Paris here made a surprisingly easy comraderie, devoid of the
usual edge of competition. After a while, Paris said–almost offhand–“You
know computers.”

“Computers got me into the academy.”

“Really?”

“I didn’t start out command track,” I replied.

“Why not?”

I looked up at him. The question seemed innocent enough. “When I first went
to the academy, I just wanted to get away from my father, from the tribe,
from what seemed to me to be a dying culture that just didn’t have the good
grace to give up the ghost.”

He turned the chair to face me. “So you didn’t get along with your old man,
either?”

“No, I didn’t.”

He said nothing else for a while, then asked, “If you didn’t like Indian
culture, what made you adopt it later?”

“I came to see I was wrong. People don’t come from nowhere; we ha ve
ancestors. Trying to live without them is like a tree with no root
system–the first wind blows it over.”

“Yeah, but sometimes the root system is rotten.”

I nodded. “Sometimes it is. But there’s a point in remembering, in
acknowledging, the bad. It formed us. We may not be proud of it, we may not
want to repeat it, but it’s part of us and if we just pretend it isn’t
there, then we’re lying to ourselves.” I paused a moment before going on,
“You asked me once, a long time ago, why Indians insist on remembering
Wounded Knee.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, you did.”

He shrugged, having either honestly forgotten or not wanting to recall
baiting me.

“Whites often think we should only want to remember the Little Big Horn,
not Wounded Knee. But it’s important to remember *both*: the victory and
the defeat. Both are part of who we are now. A people who ignore their
wounds never permit them to heal. That’s why Indians go visit that
graveyard by Wounded Knee creek, why Jews visit Auschwitz, why Vulcans have
their blood stone outside T’lingShar– I could go on, but you get the
idea.”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t. I don’t see how remembering the bad stuff
helps you heal. I don’t know what point there is in remembering prison, or
my court martial.”

I kept my smile to myself. It was the first time Paris had ever mentioned
either event to me. “But both of those events made you the man you are
now–which is a different man than the one who entered Starfleet Academy.
If you just bury those things, they continue to have power over you–power
through shame. Shame thrives on silence, and secrets. If you bury them,
then you never *can* get past them because you’ve never faced them, said,
Yes, that was me but it’s not me now. Knowing your past, acknowledging it,
frees you from being dominated by it.” I twisted back around to the
computer, gave the screen a few taps with my finger and said, “I think
we’ve learned all from this we’re going to without a lot more time. We
should move on, find Kilpatrick and Bintar, then come back here.”

Rising, Paris gave a curt nod. Neither of us spoke further about fathers or
past defeats. Paris needed time to think, and so did I. I understood a
little better now why he’d had such a strong reaction to the Indian
tendency to remember even the unpleasant parts of our history. A man trying
to hide from his own failures wouldn’t be able to understand a people who
built monuments to theirs. It would feel threatening.

I let Tuvok know we were back on the move. Timing was critical now. We had
to arrive at Kilpatrick and Bintar’s hiding place at the same time. I becam
e even more alert to potential traps but the way continued to be
clear–which increased my ner ves rather than settle them. At one point, I
muttered to Paris, “Either they know we’re coming and don’t give a damn or
they haven’t got a clue.”

“I’m hoping it’s the latter.”

“You and me both.”

It took us twenty minutes to travel from the computer core to their hiding
place. They had holed up in a small storage room with multiple exits. I
could see in through the door window. Even with Tuvok and Anyas coming in
from one side and Paris and I from the other, there was still a chance one
of them might escape. I tapped my badge. “Tuvok?”

“Here.”

“You ready?”

“Indeed.”

“They don’t seem to have any weapons. They’re just sitting there. ”

“I do not believe they realize we have followed them. They would appear to
be waiting for someone–perhaps the Hakaalt.”

“Probably. You noticed the other two exists?”

“Yes. Have Lieutenant Paris cover the one on your right and I shall have
Anyas cover the one on our right.”

I looked at Paris; he nodded. “Agreed,” I said. “On the count of three
then. One–”

Paris put his hand on the door handle, fingers closing around it u ntil the
knuckles were white.

“Two–”

I cocked my rifle.

“Three–”

Paris yanked the door open and dove in, rolled right towards the other exit
and came up with phaser pointed. I followed him, saw Tuvok and Anyas burst
through the opposite door. Tuvok and I aimed our rifles at the two sitting
calmly on the floo r.

Neither said anything. They barely blinked. Then Kilpatrick smiled. “Glad
you could join us, gentlemen.”

With that, the other two doors slammed open, one nearly catching Paris with
its force. Red-haired Hakaalt flowed in, four…six…eight. I was,
somehow, not surprised.

One man stepped forward from the back. He wore a neat grey uniform and a
cap. A cape flowed from his shoulders. “Put down your weapons, eftri. You
are prisoners of the Hakaalt Empire.”

The Hakaalt had tied us up in a room and left us with Kilpatrick and Bintar
to guard– which only added insult to injury.

“How come our tricorders didn’t pick up Hakaalt lifesigns?” I asked
Kilpatrick, gambling that success would make her cocky. If we were going to
get out of here, I needed information about what the Hakaalt could and
couldn’t do.

She glanced at me from where she had been watching Anyas, then kicked one
of the discarded dampeners on the floor by the door. Her voice was
matter-of-fact. “They have these, too, can detect distortion from one if
they know to look for it, just like we can with a cloaking device.”

Coming over, she knelt down in front of where I had been shoved on the
floor–but outside the reach of a kick from my hobbled legs. “Don’t you
want to know why?”

Just to annoy her, I played dumb. “Why they have dampeners?”

She snorted angrily; from what I’ve seen of her, she’s never been a woman
who can take a joke. “Why we joined the Hakaalt!”

“Your rationale is self-evident,” Tuvok spoke from beside me. One of his
eyes was swelling shut from a little Hakaalt love tap. “You do not believe
the captain can extricate us from the current situation and have decided
therefore to bargain with the Hakaalt directly. I would also estimate a
high likelihood that you had some larger plan than the destruction of
holodeck two, but that something caused you to act prematurely.”

She rounded on him. I don’t think it had been his intention to bait
her–Tuvok’s not that subtle–but it had the same result. “That wasn’t my
choice!” She threw a look over her shoulder at Bintar and I knew then that
Paris had been right. Bintar must be responsible for the blast.

“Can’t control your underlings, Kilpatrick?” Paris asked now.

Her palm snapped out to connect with his face. It left a red mark on fair
skin. Paris shook his head, blinked. “Well,” he said. “Usually I take that
as a sign of interest.”

“You strutting peacock, you think you’re God’s gift to women but you’re
really just a stupid little shit who’ll go bald before he’s thirty-five.”

He laughed at her. “You know what they say about baldness and testosterone.
And you’re jealous because it was the Delaneys I always came to see in
stellar.”

“I wouldn’t have *wanted* you to visit me!” Her vehemence gave lie to her
words, though I seriously doubted jealousy over Paris had been the primary
motivation behind her actions. “I never wanted you included in our plans
the first time around. I never trusted you.”

“Oh? Jorland said inviting me was your idea.”

She struck him again. And while it might be mildly entertaining to watch
Paris get her goat and tie it up too, we needed other information at the
moment. Her jealousies could wait for a formal inquiry. If we ever got
back. “What is this place?” I asked her now.

She turned from Paris back to me, narrowed her eyes. “Why do you care,
chief?”

“Curiosity. Indulge me. Say I’d like to know where I’ll be buried.”

“It’s a forcefield generator.” Bintar spoke from his position by the door.
Kilpatrick turned to glare but he just shrugged. “Why not tell him? Then
he’ll see it’s hopeless, and why we did what we did.” To me, he went on,
“It puts out a big forcefield like the one we encountered with that first
Hakaalt ship, the one the captain blew up.” So Paris’ speculations earlier
in the computer core had been correct. “She really shouldn’t have done
that,” Bintar added. “If she hadn’t, if she’d just handed over
those…*eftri*…like a sensible person, the Hakaalt-tche might’ve dealt
with us instead of shooting at us.” So–he’d already picked up Hakaalt
terms along with the Hakaalt hate, or maybe the hate had been there all
along, just looking for a target. Now, he shrugged. “They’re going to use
it to funnel the eftri ships to the Warren Pyre, including Voyager if we
don’t do something about it.”

“I have no intention of letting them destroy our only way home,” Kilpatrick
said. “They’ve promised to give me Voyager and let me take anyone who’ll
side with me, if I give them the kin and Janeway. They really hate her, you
know. When she destroyed Splendid Pyre, they marked her. If she cared about
her people, she’d surrender herself and let the rest of us go, instead of
putting us all in danger in order to save those…disgusting…vermin.”

“They aren’t even *grateful*,” Bintar added.

I didn’t have time to question them further about the forcefield, as the
door opened to admit three Hakaalt, one the caped officer who was clearly
their commander. They didn’t have Delwien Trader, which came as a relief.
I’d been afraid they’d left us in order to go pick him up. The knowledge
that he was probably still free gave me reason for hope. They might simply
have shot him, but I didn’t think so. They were too cocky. They’d want us
to *know* he’d been found. I wondered if the other soldiers were out
searching for him or if that same cockiness would lead them to think they
already had all of us. They must have found the ships by now. The soldiers
came over to us, hauled us roughly to our feet while their commander said
offhand to Kilpatrick, “The others are preparing the web-field.”

“Have you separated out Voyager yet?” she asked.

“Separated out Voyager? What for?” He didn’t look at her. Instead he paced
back and forth in front of us. I recognized the tactic as an old trick used
to increase prisoners’ anxiety–but damn, it worked. I followed him with my
eyes, wondering where he’d stop and what would happen when he did.

“You promised her to me,” Kilpatrick was saying.

“Ah, yes.” He turned away from us and smiled at her. It was the kind of
cold smile they always program into holonovel villains so you knew it was
the villain. Seeing it on a living person made me want to shiver and laugh
simultaneously. “We did say we would provide you with the ship, if you
surrendered the captain to us.” He turned back to the four of us, going
from one to the other, studying our faces with mock seriousness. “And which
of these is the captain? Her disguise is excellent!”

“We can still get you the captain,” Bintar put in quickly, pointed to me.
“Just tell her you have him. He’s the first officer and her *lover*.”

Well, I knew what Bintar thought of that arrangement.

The Hakaalt commander turned to study me, a more genuine interest
registering in his features now. “The first officer *and* her lover?”

“If you think that’ll make her give herself–or the ship–up to you, think
again. We’re Starfleet officers.”

The Hakaalt smiled. “Officers and lovers, eh? At least you’re civilized in
some ways.” It was clear he didn’t find the arrangement shocking at all;
that set back Bintar. “But”–reaching out, he tugged at the half-unzipped
collar of Paris’ uniform–“such discipline, in officers.” Then he glanced
up at my tattoo. “And such strict dress codes. And–my goodness–such
*smell*. Aren’t baths regulation where you come from, eftri?”

“They are. We even get clean clothes when the replicators are working
properly… which–thanks to you–they aren’t at the moment. But if you’d
be so kind as to lend us a hand repairing our ship, I’m sure my crew would
be grateful to avoid offending delicate Hakaalt noses.”

The Hakaalt officer laughed. Something about it reminded me of Cardassian
laughter and I thought of Magda’s lifeless body in the morgue back on
Voyager. My throat closed, my gut dropped and I felt such a flood of cold
in my chest, I shuddered. This was hate. Maybe it was Bintar who had set
the bomb which had killed Magda, but it was Hakaalt who had inspired it. It
was Hakaalt who had trapped us in this desperate situation. It was Hakaalt
who had butchered millions for no more reason than that they lived
differently, thought differently, believed differently. Unclean, savage,
primitive–all the old excuses trotted out in order to justify genocide.

The Hakaalt had turned away, unaware of my seething–or uncaring. He spoke
casually. “No need for a bath. The Warren Pyre will cleanse your like quite
thoroughly, eftri.”

“Custer was cocky before the Little Big Horn, too, wasichu.”

Both Tuvok and Paris glanced my way, though I doubted either knew what
‘wasichu’ meant. White man. The one who came and destroyed: our land, our
water, our ancestors’ way of life. We might have been only savages to
them–eftri–but they were wasichu to us, and despised. When a people
raises hate against another people, that hate inevitably flows both ways.
Black slaves had hated their white masters, Jews had hated their Nazi
butchers, and Indians had hated the white man with his lying treaties, his
ugly cities and his arrogance.

Ignoring my remark, the officer had turned his attention from me to Tuvok.
He ran a careful finger down Tuvok’s unbruised cheek and Tuvok managed to
avoid flinching. After examining it, the Hakaalt rubbed it fastidiously on
his pant leg.

“Afraid the color might rub off?” I snarled. “Heaven forbid that you should
be *black*.”

“I am not black,” Tuvok said with typical annoying Vulcan precision. “I am
brown.”

The Hakaalt officer turned back to me. “You don’t like me much, do you,
eftri? But I don’t suppose it matters if the dogs bark a little when the
master disciplines them.”

It takes a special kind of hubris for a people to be so secure in their
delusions that they don’t care if they’re hated.

“Well?” Kilpatrick said into the pause.

“Well what?” the Hakaalt replied without looking at her.

“I’ve delivered the first officer *and* the second officer”–she pointed to
Tuvok–“if you separate out Voyager, I’m sure the captain will give herself
up for them. Then we’ll hand over the kin to you. A lot of the crew would
be glad to be rid of them. You’ll have what you want then and can let us
go.”

I saw it in his eyes before he spoke. Kilpatrick was a fool.

“I don’t think so.”

“What?” she said, as if not trusting her ears.

He turned finally. “I said I don’t think so. It’s obvious your usefulness
is over. Yes, we’d have been happy to have the eftri-lover captain in our
hands but you failed to deliver her, and the Warren Pyre can purify her
just as thoroughly.”

“You made a promise!”

“A promise? A promise to a stupid eftri bitch who can’t even manage to
complete her assignment correctly!”

“It wasn’t an assignment, it was an offer! You don’t command me!”

The Hakaalt officer moved before anyone else could react, first grabbing
her by her perfectly-pinned dark hair, then backhanding her so hard she
dropped her phaser and would have fallen had he not been holding on to her.
“Hey!” Bintar said, but more from surprise than objection. One of the other
Hakaalt picked up Kilpatrick’s phaser and managed to aim it at her without
quite looking like he was doing so. Touching her jaw, she glanced from the
phaser to the one holding her by the hair. “What is this?”

“Anyone who keeps faith with a traitor deserves to be labeled a traitor
himself. I think better of my honor, eftri bitch.” He spit in her face, let
her hair go and backhanded her again, almost casually.

Bintar finally seemed to realize they’d been double-crossed. “You lying
bastard!” he shouted and fired his weapon at the Hakaalt commander. The
blast knocked the officer over backwards, into Tuvok and me. We all went
down while more blasts ricocheted around the room. By the time I shoved off
the body, the other two soldiers and Bintar all lay dead and Paris was on
his backside, moaning from a shot in the leg. Kilpatrick had her phaser
back. She turned it on us and for a second, I thought she’d shoot us too,
then she went down flat on her ass.

Anyas, quiet and forgotten by everyone, had tripped her. Trained to react
on the instant to any opportunity, Tuvok rolled sideways onto her phaser
arm, pinning it useless. She fired anyway; the beam hit the wall. He raised
himself a little, then slammed down with all his weight, hard, and I heard
bone snap. She cried out and her fingers went slack. The phaser rolled
free; I kicked it away, towards Anyas. He managed to get it in his tied
hands and point it at her from behind his back. I wondered if he could hit
the broad side of a barn like that, but Kilpatrick was too cautious, and in
too much pain, to take a chance. She shoved Tuvok away and scuttled
backwards until she was backed up against a wall, her broken arm cradled in
her left hand.

Cautiously, I stood up. But my attention was on Anyas, not on Kilpatrick.
His face was screwed up in a terrible picture of rage and hate. No dusky
angel now, but a demon straight from Dante’s Hell. He was going to shoot
her in cold blood–or try. Part of me wanted to see him do it, another part
knew better. “Don’t.”

“Shut up, Chakotay. She *killed* her.”

“Anyas–don’t. Magda wouldn’t want it.”

“I don’t care!”

“Yes, you do. Remember what you said, back in the shuttle? You were a
doctor, not a butcher. Give the phaser to Tuvok, Anyas.”

Tuvok had managed to free his legs and crossed to the Kithtri, who shook
violently from conflicting desires. “You’re scared of me,” Anyas said to
Kilpatrick, triumph edging his voice. From an empath, it wasn’t a question.
She said nothing, just looked at him. “It wasn’t just Magda you killed,”
Anyas went on. “There were children with her on the Holodeck. Nine of them
are dead because of you.”

I willed Kilpatrick to continue to keep her mouth shut. Anything she said
might set off Anyas. “Give Tuvok the phaser, doctor ke’Fveshdan. That’s an
order. You’ve got a patient who needs you.” I nodded to Tom, who had bitten
him lower lip in an effort to keep quiet. Blood ran down his chin.

For a moment more, Anyas resisted, then his body relaxed, almost slumped,
and Tuvok–hands still tied behind his back–took the phaser from him.
Kilpatrick could have made a dash for the door and would probably have
gotten free, but all the fight seemed to have leaked out of her. She stayed
by the wall. Anyas shook himself, like a man coming awake from a dream,
then began twisting his hands. In a moment, he had them free. Was the kid
an escape artist, too, or just flexible as hell? Quickly, he freed Tuvok,
then the rest of us and bent to look at the mess left of Paris’ leg.
Hakaalt weaponry did damage more like Klingon disruptors than Federation
phasers; the leg had a large chunk of thigh blasted away, then cauterized.
A little higher and he’d have been singing soprano. Without a medkit, Anyas
couldn’t do much for Paris but he began binding the wound with his uniform
undershirt. Meanwhile I covered Tuvok as he tied up Kilpatrick and recited
her rights under Starfleet regulation. In the Delta Quadrant, it seemed a
little silly but I said nothing. Since none of the other Hakaalt had burst
in on us, I assumed our little firefest had gone unnoticed, but that
wouldn’t last long. When Tuvok was done, I handed him back the phaser and
knelt by Paris. “Can you hop, lieutenant?”

“I guess I’ll have to,” he said through clenched teeth.

“I need my medkit,” Anyas said without looking up.

“I’m not sure we have time to go back for it. There’s another on the ship.
You can use that one when we get back.”

Anyas spun on me. “I need my medkit *now*, commander.” Something in his
eyes warned me. Paris didn’t need the medkit; Anyas did. He needed it to
remind himself who he was.

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll get it.”

“We should not separate,” Tuvok said from the other side of the little
room.

He was right, but I knew I could do this faster and better alone. “No,” I
said.

He turned on me. “More heroics, commander?”

“Logic, Tuvok. Do you want to haul a prisoner and wounded man through the
halls with Hakaalt all around us? It’s a wonder none heard the fight and
came to check on us, or that none were outside on guard. Sloppy, but our
luck. We need to make this fast, so I’m going alone. If I’m not back in
twenty minutes, you go on without me.”

“Commander, I cannot say that I trust your judgement–”

“I’m in command here, lieutenant!”

For the span of seven breaths, we stood nose to nose, each trying to glare
down the other.

“Let him go, Tuvok,” Paris rasped. “It’ll be…faster. And
I…*really*…want that… pain medication…fast as possible.”

His words broke the tension. Tuvok turned back to Kilpatrick passive in a
corner; she was smiling to see us fight among ourselves. So much for
command unity.

Snatching up Bintar’s phaser, I shoved it in my belt, then grabbed one of
the Hakaalt blasters and eased the door open. Outside, no one. Carefully, I
made my way back down the path the Hakaalt had marched us an hour before.
Luckily, it wasn’t far. The halls were so much alike, my sense of direction
was easy to lose. At least I’d been paying attention when they’d moved us.
I ran into only one dead-end before locating the room where they’d first
removed our weapons. They were still there, stacked carelessly in an
unlocked storage bin, each tagged–no doubt for later study. Just like the
Cardassians: bureaucracy incarnate, organized right down to schedules for
taking a crap.

Collecting phasers, phaser rifles, grenades, and the medkit, I headed back
to the room, met no one along the way. This installation couldn’t be very
well crewed, which was convenient for us.

And seeing the grenades again had given me an idea.

End Section X

———————————————

———————————————

Section XI: Janeway

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

*For Thine is the Kingdom*

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow

*Life is very long*

Between the desire

And the spasm

Between the potency

And the existence

Between the essence

And the descent

Falls the Shadow

*For Thine is the Kingdom*

For Thine is

Life is

For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

There was blood everywhere. On the kinsman, on the knife. On the floor. On
the body of the priest. And blood in my mind; a red, rabid rage.

It was three days since Magda had died. Three days since Chakotay, and
Tuvok, and Tom had taken Neelix’s ship, along with Delwien and Anyas, and
gone hunting. Three days, in which I’d gotten more intimate with death than
I had ever been before. Almost on a first-name basis. If the Reaper had
come in, propped his scythe against the rail of the upper deck of the
bridge, settled beside me in Chakotay’s seat, and said “How goes the family
business, Kathryn?” I wouldn’t have been entirely shocked. Surprised.
Visions are more along Chakotay’s line. But not shocked.

And that was what shocked me. The sense that, somehow, I had become Death’s
kin. kin in the same sense the kin used it. We had a commonality, now. We
were family

I’d never really thought about the family of the dead–the multitude who
died before me. The multitude who would die after me. The family we’d all
join, in time. What Chakotay had called the skeletons behind, and the
skeletons ahead, forcing us to live in the ‘now.’

We are outnumbered by the dead. It seemed as though I could feel their
hands at my back, pushing me forward. Making me witness another of their
number. Refusing to spare me the knowledge. Immaterial hands on my shoulder
blades.

It was an eerie thought. Maybe Chakotay’s mysticism was rubbing off on me.
Manitto, spirits, and ghosts.

I prefer science. I longed for the silence of a quiet lab, somewhere. The
fascinating, intricate order of a spectral analysis. The orderly recording
of ghostly photons marching in their quixotic particle-wave paradox;
without anger, or passion, or love, or hate. Or blood.

The body of the Fesis priest I’d met the night before, a member of the
Order of Compassion, lay in front of me, draped over the table in Neelix’
mess hall. His throat cut. His mask torn away. His habit all askew. His
mandala string still twined between his fingers.

The dark dapples of his race now faded stigmata on his cheekbones.

The first dead Hakaalt I’d seen close enough to count for anything. The
first who wasn’t evaporated dust, or a shadow in space, a speck tumbling
away from the ruins of a Hakaalt ship. Of all the people in this madness,
of all the atrocities, of all the losses, he seemed the most ‘wrong’.
Surreal. Out of place. Somehow more wrong than even the corpses of the Wild
March or the children who danced on vacuum in the trophy fringes of the
Great Ships. He didn’t even qualify as an innocent bystander. Just a humble
man of faith. What my grandmother would have called a vehicle of grace.

I’d run down from my quarters when the call came in. Captain’s obligation:
when they call, you answer. Particularly with Tuvok and Chakotay gone.

I wished I hadn’t had to. I’d liked the man when we spoke the night before.
Should have protected him, somehow. Should have seen this coming. My mind
had been otherwise occupied, and there were too many things happening to
control them all. And I still couldn’t encompass the extent of the madness
that had swallowed everything I knew, and expected.

I’d never even learned his name.

The priest’s murderer stood, unrepentant, held by the hard hands of Qiral,
and one of Tuvok’s security staff. Verrier, who’d transferred over to
Tuvok’s staff after Klaus’ death. Our first Maquis security officer.

I looked at the kinsman, blood covering his hands, his face, his clothes.
He’d made no effort to avoid the geyser of blood from the priest’s carotid
artery. The bloody knife lay on the floor in front of us all.

I was still a little short of wind from the rush down from my quarters. I
could almost taste the blood everywhere, with each deep breath.

This was my ship. My home. My turf. The bastard had killed an innocent man
on Voyager. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the kind of rage I did then. Like
a black tunnel, and at the end of it, darkly burning, the killer, and the
corpse of his victim. I wanted them gone. I wanted to rip them from my
reality. Blood-scent in my nostrils, gagging in my throat, but, dammit, if
I’d had a phaser then I think I’d have killed him.

I walked up, ignoring the tacky cling and the *ttchick* sound of the soles
of my boots, as I crossed the red-splashed floor. Grabbed the ragged edge
of his tunic neck, leaning forward. Nearly hissed it: “Why? He was just
trying to *help.* Why?” Lord, I was angry. This wasn’t supposed to happen
on my ship. Not on Voyager. Not anywhere, but not on Voyager.

The kinsman looked at me as though I was the one who’d lost my mind. “He
was Hakaalt.”

It hit me like a slap. Shattered the comforting seclusion of my rage.

Thinking of the pleasure I’d taken just the day before in the glorious
destruction of several thousand Hakaalt, I felt the shame of seeing my
blood hunger given a face.

The memory, the knowledge, of the last days fragmented down, tumbled
through my mind.

Hands on my shoulders, making me look–at myself. At what I’d done. At what
I was becoming.

Blood-scent in my nostrils, gagging my throat —

I’d been happy to kill Hakaalt. I’d had cause. So many dead.

Magda dead.

The away team I’d sent out after Kilpatrick? I didn’t want to admit it to
myself, but the odds were that soon they’d be dead, too. I closed the
probability out of my mind–the way I had always tried to ignore the
statistical odds of our returning home any time soon. I’d rather keep
fighting. Statistics are just statistics.

But the Hakaalt had statistics as their allies. With all the power and
technology they had backing them, well…

What happened after the hunters left was no real surprise.

Chakotay had been right. The Hakaalt had picked up the transmission from
the Bandei.

The afternoon Neelix’ ship had left, we’d heard the first of the Hakaalt
news broadcasts about it.

We were on the bridge. Me. Harry at B’Elanna’s engineering station. Wildman
at Harry’s ops station. Blodd Jones, bleary-eyed and weary, filling in for
Tom. Qiral was trying to familiarize himself with Tuvok’s Weaponry station,
determined to do what he could to ensure the kin were pulling their weight.

‘Dreams of Fire’ played, pirouetting through a run-of-the-mill exchange
between us and the Metal March.

As I finished with Teefei, it quit. I looked over at Wildman.

She shrugged. “News broadcast.”

Harry moaned, under his breath. “And I thought ‘Dreams’ was bad. Those
bast… er… ” He cut himself off, ducked his head over the console.

“You might as well say it, Harry. ‘Bastards.’ Those bastards have a lot to
learn about accuracy in reporting.” I paced across the upper deck. I didn’t
want to sit in the captain’s chair. The upholstery got soaked, steamy
against my back. It clung to my bare arms where they lay against the arm
rests. And I kept feeling the emptiness of Chakotay’s seat, right next to
me. It was a bit better, up there on the upper deck. Better to keep moving.

I pulled the hem of my tee-shirt out, and flapped it lightly, creating air
currents under the fabric. I’d almost given up on command decorum. The
heat, the anger, the fatigue were too much to keep it going. And I was… I
didn’t know what I was. Some dark, dangerous thing, from the moment I’d
stepped away from Chakotay down in the holodoctor’s office after Magda had
died. Something angry, and out of control.

The air moving on my damp skin felt good. I looked at Sam, there at ops.
“Visual, or just the audio?” I asked, as the sprightly sound of the theme
music came through.

“Visual.”

“Might as well put it on. I could use a laugh.”

She grinned. I’d never thought of her as feral. Usually reserved that image
for Chakotay on the prowl. But somehow her teeth seemed sharp, her eyes
wild as her name. “Anything’s better than ‘Dreams.'” She put the subspace
broadcast up.

It was ironic. Our own sensors were still a mess. Every time we got them
up, the Hakaalt hit again, and it seemed like another set of pick-ups or
relays fried. We were usually half-blind, relying on guess-work and
information transmitted to us from the other kin ships, as much as our own
sensor feed. But the Hakaalt transmissions depended only on our subspace
radio receiver, and were usually crystal clear.

The viewscreen filled with the image of a cool-looking room. Pale, frosty
blue-white; shining metal trim with a huge, circular logo in a dark, dark
green filling half the wall. An announcer sat primly behind a wide desk
that looked like real wood. Broad, dark, satiny. He was wearing a clean,
vanilla-ice-cream colored outfit that reminded me of Vulcan city-wear.
Comfortable, but with a tailored look to it. Clean. So clean. The smooth
jacket looked like wool. I couldn’t imagine wool against my skin. The idea
made me feel hot, and prickly all over. But I would have liked to feel that
clean. That cool. That safe. As he smiled into the sensor pick-up, I found
myself snarling “That’s right. Let’s hear the Word for the Day.”

Harry’s eyes flickered. Then he smiled. It was an old, old smile. Too old
for little Harry Kim.

As though he’d heard my comment, the announcer began his routine, pouring
sober intensity into every word. “Greetings to all the folks back home, in
this joyous, historical holiday season. This is Borit Foldarn, bringing you
the latest news from the front. I’m broadcasting to you from a fragile
little ship called the Hearthstone, the center of operations for webwork
Hakaalt-tche Mirova, your official source of information on this momentous
drive to achieve total security in the Heavenly Garden, for the first time
in the history of the Appointed.”

Blodd blew a soft raspberry. “Appointed by who? The Q? You’re about their
speed.”

I snorted. Harry patted the top of his console in quiet applause for her
quip, as the announcer continued.

“Just now, a flash announcement: Our reporting staff has just been informed
by a high-ranking member of the Command Quintad Offices that the Purgefleet
Intellegence Services have intercepted covert communiques from the decadent
Bandei Empire to the fleeing eftri.” His next comments were lost, as Qiral
swore, quietly. He turned his head, the low lights shining on polished
golden horns. We both knew what that information meant. One more advantage
shot to hell.

We turned back to the screen. The announcer was predictably affronted over
the news he was reporting. “This is the first confirmation we have received
of a fact we have long suspected: the Bandei conspire against us. Our own
expert on interstellar affairs, Lomaran Rostil, theorizes that this is part
of a more complex action on the part of the Bandei: an attempt to establish
an alliance with our enemies, and initiate a long-range plan of invasion
and conquest. Lomaran?”

The subspace radio feed switched to a shot of a middle-aged woman, her face
prim and passionate as she spoke–presumably to the announcer off-screen.
“Thank you, Borit.” She focused on a hypothetical audience beyond the
pickups. “It is no secret that the Bandei have long perceived the
Hakaalt-Meiz, the Heavenly Garden, as an ideal target for Imperialist
expansion, and have been deterred only by the fortitude of our armed
forces, the vigilance of our Intellegence Services, and our culture’s own
rigorous rejection of all foreign perversions. It would appear that, denied
simpler methods of conquest, the Bandei are now planning on disrupting an
internal action on the part of our military arm, an action carefully
considered and approved by our own civilian government. Where will this
interference stop? When will we, the Appointed, stand up and say ‘it ends
here’?”

Harry growled. “Great, lady. *Let’s* end it here. Happy to oblige. Just
call off the ships, and we’ll be glad to quit this little ‘internal
action’.”

“Fat chance.” Wildman leaned on her console, elbows on the edges, one hand
cupping the opposing fist. “They’re having too much fun. Wouldn’t want to
call off the party, now would we?”

The ‘expert’ eerily mimicked Wildman’s stance, leaning her own elbows on
the desk, hands clasped in front of her. Her voice was ripe with concerned
solemnity. “We are a humble people, uncomfortable with the honors the Gods
Before have burdened us with. A gentle people, content in our domestic
pleasures, warlike only when forced to defend our communities, when driven
to ensure the care, and safety of our families, our children. A tolerant
people: willing to allow history itself to establish the manifest destiny
we have been promised by Gods and Prophets. We have long suffered the
presence of the eftri among us, looking away when they shamed us with their
primitive cultures, their low behavior. We’ve forgiven their thefts,
ignored their increasing attempts to monopolize our trade economy, their
near total control of small metal manufacture.”

“‘Near total control’?” Qiral was outraged. “*Control*? We were lucky to
pick up the work your factories didn’t *want.* What control? What did we
take from yours?”

She couldn’t hear a word. But we could hear her. “We’ve forgiven them their
pestilent infections, and tried to have mercy on them, even when they lured
away our children, tempted away the blossom of Hakaalt youth, to untold
degradation on the ships of the eftri clans. We’ve allowed them to live
when they robbed from us, when they threw our own monetary systems into
disorder, when they attempted to take control of our dilithium reserves.
Only when their invasive presence threatened the very heart of our pure
culture did we finally accept the obligation to act. In spite of this, the
forces of evil, the children of Waren, conspire against us, ally with each
other, band together to keep us from our legitimate Ascent, interfere with
our internal governance.”

“‘Legitimate Ascent’ my bleeding–you can put your ‘legitimate ascent’
right up your…” Blodd’s comment disappeared in a whoop of laughter from
Sam Wildman.

Harry and Qiral howled, Harry raising his fists in the air. “That’s it,
Blodd! *You* tell ‘er. Shove it up your torpedo tubes you old…”

I was laughing too. I didn’t know why. Didn’t care. It felt good.

“We need not fear the Bandei, now. They cannot stop the cleansing we have
set in motion. Their ‘allies’, the eftri, will not escape the Pyre. But we
must take heed of this warning. We must remember this sign of danger. The
Bandei wait, just beyond the sheltering walls of the Garden, lurking,
prepared, malign. Waiting for that one sign of weakness, for that one
moment of arrogant relaxation. Waiting to rape our fair Garden of its
sweetest flowers, its finest…”

“Why, Lomaran-fach, if the Bandei *want* you, you should be flattered. *I*
wouldn’t have you on a bet.” Blodd fluttered her lashes at the screen, her
face a mocking leer. She turned up the level on her dancing Welsh accent,
turning the tones into pure satire. “This may be your last chance,
carriad–if the Bandei knock, why don’t you just bend over and spread?
It’ll improve the gene pool.”

We all howled then. Like wolves. Like Coyote, in Chakotay’s stories. Cawed
and croaked with laughter, like Raven, and Jay. The bad-times tricksters.

It wasn’t funny. It was funny. It was sick, and angry, and wonderful. I
laughed till I wept, and tears ran down my face, mixing with the sweat.
Tears I couldn’t cry down in sickbay, with Magda lying dead in the other
room and Chakotay watching, his own tears still fresh. They tickled under
my jaw line, soaked the neck of my shirt. “The whole damned culture is
crazy! They’re all crazy!” Right then it felt like a revelation. Truth
given to me in the jungle-damp, equatorially hot funk of my once pristine
bridge. They were all crazy. Of course! It seemed like sense, at the time.

There was more. A solemn editorial from a man with a face like a Hakaalt
archangel, with a voice to match. There were diagrams, indicating the
proximity of the Bandei Empire–slightly doctored, making it appear the
Bandei were closer than they were. The announcers even admitted it,
smiling, indicating that there wasn’t room on the screen for the entire
star chart–and grimly assuring their listeners that, to a well-prepared
Bandei fleet, the distances would be as negligible as they appeared in the
abridged maps. There were more pontificating ‘experts.’ There were
discussions of the potential dangers of Bandei interference, and interviews
with Hakaalt crewmembers, all of whom were sincere, worried, and dedicated
to getting the job done–whatever the risks.

They sounded a lot like Federation troops. I could almost feel for them: so
young, so dedicated to their nation. Open-faced, valiant, brave,
disciplined, loyal, in love with their people, their culture, their
service. So trusting of the righteousness of their cause, the wisdom of
their leaders. So sincere. So very, very sincere. So disciplined, and
obedient. So scared, and confident, all at once.

So lethal.

We’d been snarling, and cracking jokes, and hooting, through most of the
broadcast. But when those bright, sweet young faces came on…

I looked over at Harry. His face was drawn. Eyes like a hungry man looking
at food. Mouth tight.

He clenched his fists on his console. Turned his face away. “What a load of
shit.” There was no compromise in his voice.

On the screen a young Hakaalt soldier, who could have been me at eighteen,
looked bashfully at the interviewer. “Can I tell my Amali and Popi ‘Happy
Star-Fire?’ And I got the package they sent, and the Starcake held up fine,
and my battle-mates loved it too? And tell my kid sister Rillia I love her
and she’s not gonna have to get nightmares about eftri any more?”

I looked away from the screen. “Take it down, Wildman. Take it down. I
don’t want to hear any more.” I put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “It’s not a
load of shit, Harry. Not to her. It’s not her fault her people are crazy.”

He nodded.

Qiral cleared his throat. “They aren’t all crazy, friend-Harry. Not all
mad. No people are.”

Harry nodded again. “I know. It’s just…”

I squeezed his shoulder, again. “I know, Harry. But we *were* better than
that. Are better.”

Sam, from ops, spoke quietly, a sad smile tucked into her contralto. “Yeah,
sharp-stuff. Our government was only half-crazy, and only when the
Federation Senate was in session. And the Senate’s only nutty about Ferengi
import tariffs, and new membership applications. And the latest ‘good will
tour’ to Risa–particularly if they don’t get to go. Being left out of a
good will junket really does drive ‘em crazy.”

“I’ve heard even *Admiral Necheyev’s* gotten her shots, if it makes you
feel any better.” I grinned at Harry, inviting him into the in-joke.
Necheyev is popularly seen in the fleet as, well … as a bit of a prick,
in spite of her gender. Someone once said I was determined to redress the
traditional gender imbalances in the fields of science because Necheyev was
already more than making up for the gender-gap in terms of paranoid
aggression. I wasn’t flattered. “Of course, the med-tech who gave her the
shots had to go into quarantine for a few weeks, after she bit him.”

Harry snorted.

He looked done-in. The weeks of trying to fill in for B’Elanna and Carey,
under situations that would have stretched them to their limits, while
facing a brutal reality bigger than anyone should have to face–it had made
a mark on him. His face was thinner than it should be, the cheekbones
standing out stark, shadows under his eyes, the first traces of lines
showing at the corners of his mouth. His thick hair, normally springy and
lustrous, hung heavy and limp over his brow, begging for washing and
trimming. I resisted the impulse to reach out, motherly, and brush it away
from where it tangled in his lashes.

Blodd chimed in, “Ah, Harry, Harry, carriad, don’t let it fadge you. It’s
always the same, in the long run. If the leaders go mad, the young ones
follow. But they follow from good hearts. That one, up there, she’s our
sister, and mercy on her that she’s been cursed with such a sad lot to lead
her. We were luckier. If I could I’d take her in, and make her one of
ours.”

Harry smiled a watery smile. “Thanks, guys. But… Look, you don’t have
to… ” He let his breath out in an exasperated, frustrated huff. “Look, I
know. I know that it’s not her that’s the problem. That it’s the whole
culture gone paranoid, and kill-crazy, and her just trying to be a good
soldier. But she sounds so much like us… and she’ll kill us if she can.”
He shrugged, and turned back to his console, and his last comments were
made to the screen in front of him. “I guess we’re lucky. But it makes you
think doesn’t it, how easy it would be to be them? It scares me. Makes me
remember why you have to ask questions. Not because the people who choose
*are* liars, or fools, or paranoid fanatics–but because they can be. And
the only way to stop it is to ask–and refuse to play along just because
it’s ‘loyal.’ Because it makes you feel good. Because it seems so–nice–to
think you’ve got it all solved, and all the trouble must be someone else’s
fault. You have to ask, and keep working, or you can end up like them. Just
because we’re better now, and were better yesterday, doesn’t mean we’ll be
better tomorrow.”

And, from ops, Sam Wildman murmured “Amen.”

I patted Harry on the back. Turned to Sam. “The con is yours. I’ll be in my
readyroom.”

“Aye, captain.” Her smile was faint, but somehow we shared something. A
sense of accomplishment. We hadn’t saved the universe… but maybe, just
maybe, all of us had saved Harry’s idealism for another day.

I wasn’t as lucky as Harry. I felt like my idealism had died in the
explosion with Magda. Had been buried in the whooping laughter on the
bridge.

I couldn’t escape it, after that.

No matter what I’d said to Harry, no matter how much my intellect knew that
the young woman who’d wanted to send a hello to her mother and father was
no different from us, I hated them. Hated them bone-deep. Blood hot. The
thought of them turned my stomach. The existence of them offended me. The
fact that they were in any way similar to us was a deadly insult–a capital
crime. They were evil. True, absolute evil. I could show the corpses to
prove it, drag out the crippled children, the raped victims, male and
female, the mutilated bodies to confirm what my heart told me. They were
animals. All the years of conditioning, conviction, belief in the righteous
premise that all beings were equal, and equally deserving in the eyes of
eternity, the founding premise of the IDIC, the core philosophy behind the
Prime Directive, were being swept away in the flood of brutality that
seemed to wash over us all. They deserved anything that came to them. They
deserved death.

They had killed the innocent, murdered children, tormented the survivors.
Deviled my people. Driven us helpless before them. They would kill us all,
if they could. Had already killed too many. Somehow, I didn’t know quite
how, they had killed Magda. Taken Chakotay and Tuvok and Paris from me, my
own dearest ones, to risk death far from Voyager.

Whatever grief I should have felt was festering into rejecting rage.

I hated the Hakaalt.

Feared them.

Knew them for monsters.

It wasn’t a matter of reason, anymore. For a time I was beyond reason,
where the Hakaalt were concerned. I couldn’t afford to grieve. Hate was
another matter.

That night they began a new round of harrying, and my hatred blazed hotter
than ever.

It was a brutal thrust. Dozens of ships, forcing us before them. The little
assault fighters we could deal with, but the Great Ships… We still had no
means to defend ourselves but Harry’s “kamikaze” plan. Too terminal a
defense to use for anything but a last stand. We ran before them, dodging
fire, holding off the smaller ships, and scattering before the larger ones.

And then, for some reason, they fell back.

When they pulled out, there were five more ships of the Exodus no longer
functional, their surviving populations needing to be transferred to the
already overcrowded ships still left. Three had been boarded, and the crews
massacred. Voyager had ten more dead–mostly kin crewmembers, serving in
weaponry, dead when a brush against a violet strand of Hakaalt web-work
somehow triggered an explosion in a photon torpedo.

We’d ‘lived.’ But we were down to impulse power again. The primary computer
system was down again. Life support in worse shape than ever, with Siv
swearing and frantic. Voyager was alive. But dying.

Still, the Hakaalt had retreated. For a time.

I didn’t trust it. An hour after the attack slacked off, the shout we were
sending out from the Star March changed. We’d been keeping up the cry for
sanctuary, hoping someone closer, or stronger than the Bandei, would
answer. Now we changed the plea.

We asked for military aid. Allies. Anything to help us keep the Hakaalt
from our throats. Weapons, ships, warriors to fight beside us.

Anything.

I yearned for the death of the Hakaalt.

That was how it was, then. If ever I have to witness, that was how it
seemed. Then.

In the ‘now’ I couldn’t stop the cascade of memories. But the world wasn’t
stopping to let me process them. Wasn’t about to let me out of the ‘now,’
or allow me the luxury of filtering it all, tidying it all up.

The dead still pressed into the present. Past, present… even future, all
congregating at this one point in time. The dead priest, the shock-furious
kinsman. My crew, more and more gathering, peering, murmuring…

It was the circle. Chakotay’s circle. My circle. My people, pressing around
me, my command, encircling me, my life like a spinning hoop a juggler could
throw, my death, Magda’s death, Chakotay’s death, the priest’s death, all
our deaths past, present, future, known and unknow, like a noose on the
horizon, choking me.

Neelix, wringing his hands, little Riaka on his back in a sack–her so new,
like a reproach…

All the faces. Kin. Fleet. Deltan. Maquis. Their death as much in their
eyes as their lives.

Yes. I was a little mad.

It was all like some great, striding Baroque fugue, all the themes and
motifs burning across each other, and across me. Fugue. Fusion. Implosion.

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper…. or maybe
a scream of rage.

Kes stepped away from the corpse of the Hakaalt priest. Looked at me.
“There’s nothing more to do. No need for a full autopsy, unless you want us
to do one for military reasons. It is our first chance to examine a Hakaalt
corpse.”

Yes. Kes was much tougher than she had been. A woman, now. A different kind
of warrior.

Tuvok would never forgive me if I passed up the chance to find out all I
could about our enemies. But..

Still standing in front of the murderer, I scanned the room for members of
the Order of Compassion.

There were three, huddled at the edge of the room, near the door. Two
without masks. One with one. The same religion that the Hakaalt priest had
been a member of. “Do you know if he had any objection to the practice of
autopsy? I don’t want to approve this, if he would have found it a
desecration.”

From another part of the room, a voice snarled, “Why not? They desecrate
ours.”

Qiral, still holding the kinsman who had wielded the knife, snapped his
head back. “Be silent. He was here to help us. Or are you so lost to
decency you can’t tell the difference any more?” He looked back at the
captive. “Is that what it is, Doram Jewel Eye? Have we really come to that?
As gut-griping sour as a grounder mud-foot? Can’t tell a friend from an
enemy? Have to look at a label, count face spots, instead of judging a man
by his actions?”

Doram looked bitterly at his leader, and spat on the floor, his saliva
mixing with the blood there. “He was Hakaalt. I killed him. Why not? They
killed my Weri, killed my little Conam and Tivaska. Kill, and kill, and
kill. Drove us from our worlds, drove us into poverty. Spat on us, passed
laws so we couldn’t own land, run businesses. We didn’t even own our
ships–not if you asked them. Why *not* kill them? Why not make one of them
pay?”

The masked priest came forward. Removed his mask. Turned out to be a “her”,
not a “him.” Turned out to be Hakaalt also. “He only wanted to help.”

I could feel the entire room tense at the sight of her face.

She wasn’t young. Wasn’t beautiful. Wasn’t much of anything. Painfully
ordinary, at least by human standards. She could have been a hundred women:
a mother with children. A computer clerk. A sanitation worker. Anything.

Just for her face she was the single most hated person on Voyager at that
moment. “He just wanted to help. Like me. Like the rest of the Order. None
of the other Hakaalt could come–we knew you’d kill us. But Fesis-sworn go
masked. We thought we might be able to help. So we came. We thought some
from the Hakaalt should be here, do what we could. There were six in the
order from the Hakaalt. We *all* came.” She turned to me. “Cut him if you
want to. He won’t care, anymore. I don’t care, anymore. We shouldn’t have
come. Our people were right. They *are* animals.”

“Sister Immanence!” One of the other members of the Order of Compassion.
His voice was startled, pained, as though he’d never expected such
bitterness from this particular woman. As though her rage was the betrayal
of something he’d believed in. Something precious.

She shook her head. “I don’t care. I don’t *care*. They’re killers, and
beasts, and we should have left them here to die alone. Space will be a
cleaner place when they’re gone.” She walked over to the body of her
brother in religion. Untangled the mandala string. Turned to me, grabbed my
hand, and forced the bloody bit of twine into my palm. “Keep it. Remember
what your people have done.” She stalked away.

The remaining members of the order moved aside to let her pass. I turned to
Verrier. “Qiral has Doram. He’s not getting away. Not in a room this full
of people. You stay with the sister, and see that she’s transported to an
Order ship. She’s not safe here.”

He nodded, sourly, and let go Doram’s arm. “Gladly.”

I heard a voice behind me. “Lucky bitch. Can I go, too?”

A year before I’d have known it had to be one of the Maquis. Jonas. Dalby.
Suder. Seska.

This time I turned, and looked into the face of a Starfleet officer.

Ensign D’Amato. The scars from his recent brush with illness stood out
stark on his face, leaving a dark mask over his nose and cheeks, across his
forehead. The disease had made his eyelashes fall out, and the whites of
his eyes seemed stark without that accenting fringe. The result made him
look a little mad.

He wasn’t even trying to maintain a polite Starfleet facade this time. This
wasn’t just a matter of ‘breakfast.’

Fugue. All of it tumbling, too much to deal with, too much to try to
understand. Memories. Trying to make something, anything, make sense.

The next morning after the Hakaalt drive, less than eighteen hours after
the away team left, my first morning without Chakotay, they’d struck again.

It was like living in a perpetual flashback, a never-ending circle of
violence that I couldn’t break out of. As though the world was dying in
pieces, my life being ripped away, a bloody shred at a time. Battle, and
battle, and battle, and all the myths and stories said “You are the hero,
*VANQUISH THEM,*” but I couldn’t vanquish them, I couldn’t even shut their
damned music and newsfeeds off, couldn’t save the kin, couldn’t save
Voyager…

I was sundered, rent. Raging.

I’d been in my readyroom. I hadn’t slept the night before, trying to puzzle
out the latest readings we’d gotten from our brush with the Hakaalt webs. I
wasn’t getting far. More and more I found myself agreeing with my own
initial suspicion that this was a life-time project for some poor
theoretical physicist. Less than a lifetime would require one burst of
divine inspiration–and the only power who seemed to be fulfilling the
‘muse’ role in my life was Murphy… not the sort I wanted to petition for
aid, thank you.

I was just in the middle of another round of differential equations, trying
to find a way to describe the shifting energy patterns we’d been able to
detect, when the red-alert siren went off, and Wildman announced the
approach of Hakaalt Great Ships, and ordered people to their battle posts.

I shot out of my office, onto the deck. Blodd Jones slid quietly out of my
chair to the second nav station.

The were no less than eight Great Ships on screen, pulling away from the
main Hakaalt fleet. The picture we had was as good as it ever got,
augmented with sensor feed from the kin ships.

I could see them, surrounded by a filigree of violet iridescence. Knit
together by strands of glowing purple. The web was like a setting for
silver jewels, the power linking ship to ship.

They moved closer. Their pace was slow and deliberate.

Wildman shifted at her post. “A message from the Metal March, captain.
Master Teefei.”

“Put it on.”

Teefei’s voice growled over the link. For a second I couldn’t follow what
it was saying, then Wildman managed to filter out “Dreams.” “Captain, we
still have no way to engage the Great Ships. I recommend retreat.”

I would have loved to argue. To have a way to destroy those striding giants
of ships. I couldn’t. “Agreed.” I gave the word to the officer in Tom’s
spot, then returned to my conversation with Teefei. “Are you making any
progress setting up the unmanned phaser-tractor platforms?”

It grunted. “Working on it, Voyager-master. Not enough copper. Common
enough, wouldn’t you think? Eh-ah–look out! They’re pursuing you.”

It was right. The Great Ships altered course, matching the course of
Voyager’s retreat. I turned to Wildman. “Run an analysis on their course. I
think…”

She nodded, and replied, “Already doing it. It’s right — they’re
following us.”

I raised my head. “Teefei – order the Exodus to pull away from us. If the
Hakaalt have targeted us, it may leave you alone.”

I could hear it hesitate. Then it grunted again. “I’ll do it. If you need
help…”

“We’ll let you know.”

As the rest of the Exodus slowly drew away it became clear our guess was
right. The ships continued their approach, aiming straight for us. I turned
to Wildman. “Get Teefei back on the line.” She did. “Teefei–can you use
your tractors to take Star March in tow? If’ I’m going to fight these
bastards, I want to be free to maneuver.”

“Done.”

A second later, rid of the drag of the gutted kin ship, we shot forward,
soaring over the approaching battalion. I could feel my crew prepare for
combat. Prepare for death. We had no way to fight that didn’t run the high
risk of killing us. Then —

“Captain — the Hakaalt aren’t trailing us anymore. They’re after the Star
March.”

“Son of a…. Teefei, they’re –”

“I see it, Voyager-sister.”

“Wildman, who’s on the Star March?”

“Harry. Ata. Dalby. Fieria Wind Song. Gerron. Vorek.”

“Teefei, we have people over there. People we can’t spare. We have to pull
them out. Try to maneuver closer, and we’ll meet you half way.”

“Done.”

I called down to Carey, in Engineering. “We need an emergency transport
from the Star March. Wildman, get Harry on the line.”

He was ready for us. “Captain, you’ve got to talk to Ata–he wants to stay
over here and fight them. He won’t listen to me.” I could hear the frenzy
in Harry’s voice. But the idea Ata had…

We could kill the ships. Even if we couldn’t save Star March, we could
still kill them.

I got a grip on my hunger. Try other things, first. Hold back, don’t give
anything away before you have to.

I shook my head, not caring Harry couldn’t see it. “No. Tell Ata I’m not
letting you risk it. We’re pulling you out.”

Ata’s voice came to me, over the link. “Tell your captain I’m not coming. I
won’t let them…”

Qiral cut him off, from over at the Weapons station. “Ring-forger, don’t
waste the captain’s –”

“No! Tava teach you, this is my one chance!” I could hear a berserker
hunger in Ata’s voice to match my own. “Master Qiral, it’s going down
anyway. Star March died a long time ago. But we can use friend-Harry’s
idea, about the phasers and the tractors. See if it works. It’s worth it.”

“What about Delwien, Ata? He’s shouldn’t have to raise your fosterling
alone. He needs you. Yu needs you, she needs more than just Delwien–he’s
not up to it. Do you want him to come back and –”

“He’s not coming back.” Ata’s voice was despairing. “And even if he were,
we’re all going to die here. Yu’s going to die here, unless we find a way
to *fight* them. Captain Janeway, you have to see if this will work. Star
March can –”

“Captain,” Sam cut in, “They’re bringing up the web. More energy than–Oh,
lord…”

I looked at the ships in the screen. Close, close, too close, too little
time to think, and I hated them so. Feared them so. They were huge, their
accompanying corpses jigging behind them. Looming in the screen. “God.
Carey, are we in range yet?” The webs were oozing slowly out, fluid, with a
gelatinous sheen that seemed to thin into a film between strands.

“Not yet. Soon.”

We could kill them. Ata could kill them. I looked at Qiral. “He’s right–we
need a test. We can’t save the Star March. This is our chance.” Qiral
nodded, reluctant. But still, he nodded, and when his eyes returned to the
screen it was with a hungry fascination. I returned to the comm
conversation. “Harry, can you rig it to go on auto? I want to beam you all
out of there.”

The tendrils of the webs began to writhe out towards the Star March.

Harry’s voice was tight. “The ship’s systems are too damaged for that,
captain. We’ve been trying to get it back, but the radiation levels are too
high. Keeps degrading the memory. No time to rig a dead-man’s switch. We
can’t –”

Teefei cut in over Harry’s comm signal. “Voyager, we can’t hold them much
longer, please… Get –”

“Captain, we’ve got a lock on all but one of them. We can’t find –” That
was Carey, dealing with the transport problem.

“Ata, put the comm badge back on, for God’s sake, put the– We’ll find a
way to do it somehow. Put the badge back –” Harry’s voice rose frantically
over all the din.

I could hear Ata in the background. “Beam over, friend-Harry. Tell Delwien
that I…. just tell Delwien. He’ll understand.”

I pushed my hair back, absently noting it was already drenched with sweat.
The Great Ships were thundering down on us, webs spread out, extending for
miles around them. We couldn’t take them. But we could kill them. Maybe. I
wanted to kill them. “Harry, we’re beaming you out. Carey, do it. Don’t
worry about the one you can’t pick up. Teefei, drop the tractors and
retreat.”

A second later I knew it was done. Star March spun free, soaring out along
its own trajectory, cut loose from Metal March’s tractor beams. I licked
the salt sweat from my upper lip. It was surely the bait the Hakaalt had
come for. Now we could only wait and see if it was the ‘hook’ that would
end them, too.

Without looking back, I addressed Wildman. “I want a closed link to Ata,
over on the Star March. Closed. Security coded, to the extent Harry set
them up to be able to unscramble.”

“Aye. Captain, Carey says that Harry’s on the way up. Didn’t even run a
full decontam. He’s not very happy.”

“Later, Sam. That link. Now.”

“Aye, captain.” A second later, “Done, captain.”

“Ata Ring Forger? Are you receiving?”

There was a moment’s silence–and all the while the Great Ships came
closer, and closer. The webs would be in range of Star March’s tractor
beams and phasers soon.

Then, “Yes, Master Janeway.”

“You know we probably can’t beam you out in time?”

“Yes.” I heard the same obsession in his voice as in my own blood.

Ata and I were going to kill some Hakaalt.

I could feel a smile tugging at my mouth. “OK. You’re going to have to hold
back until the last minute–we don’t know what the range of the effect is.
Can you do that?”

“Yes.” His voice was tight, and husky. “Captain, is Master Qiral still
there?”

“Yes.”

“Can I …?”

I looked over at Qiral, wedged tight into Tuvok’s seat. He nodded. I
nodded. He spoke. “I’m here, Ata. What do you want?”

“Take care of Del, will you? He’s not a bad sort, for all he’s aka’Chee
mischief.”

“We will, Ata.”

“They’re pretty close, Master Janeway. Now?” Scared. Nervous. Hungry.
Hungry to kill.

I studied the readouts coming in on my screen. Wildman was doing a superb
job integrating all the sensor information coming to her from all through
the Exodus. “Not yet, Ata. Soon. Just hold on.” I looked over at Sam. “Call
up Carey.” When she nodded, I asked, “Mr. Carey, is there any chance you
can get a lock on Ata Ring Forger’s life-readings and beam him back here in
time?”

“I’ll try, captain. The radiation’s gotten so bad over there it’s hard to
pick anything up, without the amplification of the comm badge beacons.”

“Understood.” I knew Ata had chosen to take the risk. Was ready for the
chance we couldn’t save him. It was worth it to him.

It was worth it to me.

One death for thousands. A good trade. A very good trade.

The doors of the bridge slid open, and Harry tumbled through. His eyes went
straight to the viewscreen. “Not yet. Thank God. Captain you’ve got to…”

“Ensign Kim.”

He turned and stared at me, his eyes huge.

I just looked at him. He tumbled into a seat at one of the auxiliary
stations, swallowing hard.

The Great Ships were on us, now. Streaming over us like a cresting wave,
then past us, over us, beyond us, pouring on towards the little Star March.

“Carey, prepare. Ata–tractors, now.”

The tractors locked on even as Carey said “Aye, Captain.”

I licked my lips. “Ata, phasers–NOW!”

The light flared, as it had when we’d taken on the Splendid Pyre, months
before. I could see it through the grainy image on the screen, starting
with a point of light where the phaser-shot crossed the web, passing up the
tendrils fast. In a breath all the web-work was afire, each interconnected
strand that tied the eight Great Ships together lit up and blazing.

We were spared the concussive shock that followed. Star March and the Great
Ships weren’t. It was as though they dissolved, transformed from solid
metal to debris and space dust in a single instant.

Good. So good. We’d done it. Eight Great Ships gone. The trophy fringes
gone. No more webs, no more silver ghoul-ships.

Oh, so good.

Star March was gone, too. Ata? Had Carey managed it, in spite of the
difficulties?

On Voyager’s bridge we all waited. After several moments of silence, I
asked. “Carey, are you there?”

I knew before he answered. We all did.

“I’m sorry, captain. I tried. I couldn’t get a lock on him.”

Qiral closed his eyes. Harry, sitting in the chair he’d usurped, lay his
head down on the auxiliary controls. I thought he was crying. Wasn’t sure.
Sam Wildman was silent, but she stood at attention, her face set and weary.
My nav officer ducked down his own head.

I sat like a cast statue. Looked out into the suddenly empty black. No more
Great Ships, there in the screen.

Oh, so good. So very, very good.

It had been sweet, then. Like honey on my tongue.

Then. It had been very good, then.

Now I looked at the mess room, through the memory of my blood lust. Tried
to keep my focus. Tried to find my way to sense. I’m the captain. I’m
supposed to keep control. Of myself, of my command, of my universe.

Of my crew.

D’Amato looked me in the eyes. “So, captain–how do I get out of this
chicken-shit outfit, anyway? Get a counselor to declare me crazy? Oops, no:
I forgot. No counselors. Not that it would matter. We’re *all* mad here.
Just like in Wonderland. I hear you like Wonderland.” He grinned, and his
teeth showed. “I never did.”

I tried to stare him down. “D’Amato, you’re out of line.”

“So what the fuck else is new?” He shouldered his way out of the pack that
had been gathering for the last half-hour. The rubber-neckers, come to see
what the disaster of the day was. Neelix’ menu no longer being an issue,
folks were looking at other venues for their daily dose of surreality. He
shot a look around, gathered the pack in. “Shit. Why have we been putting
up with this?” He raised his voice, projecting it to the edges of the room.
“Can anybody tell me? Why the *hell* have we been putting up with this?
Kilpatrick was right. Hell, Seska was right. We’re on the wrong side! Have
been since we got out here. Screwing around with the Prime Directive.
Switching policies like they were a little girl’s dress up clothes. A
little girl with a big ego. And now this. We’re going to die, and for what?
A bunch of stinking, disease-ridden, ungrateful, thieving poor-alien-trash.
The only damned civilized culture in the area finally decides to clean out
the bums, and the screw-ups, and we’re on the wrong side.”

“D’Amato, stow it.” My voice was flat. As I looked around the room, I saw
faces close. Tired faces. Angry, sad faces. Uncertain.

It was strange. The most obviously furious people there were the Maquis.
The kin were tight faced. Angry, but unsure what to do… it wasn’t their
ship, wasn’t their culture. They weren’t sure what place they had in this
fight.

The Fleet members I could see looked torn. Some wavered. Some just looked
disgusted. None knew themselves where they belonged in this… even if they
knew where they stood, they didn’t know what to do. I was the captain. They
were trained to respect the captain–but they were also trained not to
interfere. Not to do me the disservice of “defending” me. I was supposed to
have the power, and the status to defend myself. But there was D’Amato, one
of their own, practically strutting in front of them all, snarling at me,
voicing angers and doubts they all had to have had, at least once or twice
since we’d gotten out here.

The Maquis, however, were enraged. Not kin enough to feel out of place. Not
Fleet enough to feel that maybe, just maybe, they ought to wait and figure
out what was going on first: where the power lines were being drawn. Not
understanding the service dynamic deeply enough to know they could ruin
this beyond the disaster it was already turning in to.

“Fuckin’ Fleet bigot.” I heard the mutter to my left. “Same old same-old.
If it doesn’t shit Federation red, and bend over for the PD, then it’s
trash, and who gives a shit whether it’s right or wrong?” It was Dalby,
face red, angry. “It’s all regulations for you bastards, isn’t it?
Regulations, nice little uniforms, and who has the biggest ships. Bunch of
military ass-holes, aren’t you?”

I caught Chaim’s eye, buried in the throng. Must have looked desperate,
because he nodded, and began a slow drift, leaning towards one person and
another as he moved. Some Maquis. Some Fleet. When he had passed, the
people he’d spoken to started their own slow drifts, their own whispered
conversations.

I hoped Chaim knew enough to know what he was doing. I rounded on D’Amato.
“So. This is the ‘wrong side.’ How do you intend to explain that, ensign?
You think we should be backing the killers?”

His head jutted forward. “Why not? Why the hell not? The Federation backed
the Klingons, when it was good policy. Backed the Andorians, when it was
useful. Backed the Cardassians. *Expedience.* That’s what it’s about,
captain. Expedience. Play Peter against Paul. Play Romulan against Klingon,
play Vulcan against the Tellarites, push here, shove there–and if you do
it right, we win. That’s the point, isn’t it? The idea behind all the
games? We have the biggest ships, the most powerful weapons, the strongest
allies. That’s the real excuse for the Prime Directive. It gives us an
out–keeps us out of the dirty little border wars, keeps our eye on the
main target, on the prime chance. None of that damned humanitarian
business, getting us all tied up in a bunch of races that can’t keep up
with the big guns.”

“Save it for the Senate, D’Amato.” I tried to put a lazy scorn into it. It
had to sound like I was too disgusted to suffer his line–not too scared,
which had a touch of truth to it. “Save it for the Council. There’s room
for that, there. Here it’s what it’s always been–we try to get it *right.*
We deal with it as it comes, and do the best we can. Let the politicians
argue about expedience, or regulations, or interstellar policy–we’re the
ones who have to hold the line, when it counts.” I’d gotten my rhythm, now.
Was as cocky as he was, and a lot more pulled in. It was possibly the only
thing I’d ever learned from my mother’s theater–command is as much poise
in the crunch as anything.

I prowled down the floor, boots still tchicking on congealed blood.
Shouldered up to him, like I’d shouldered up to Chakotay the first time he
beamed aboard. Faced him down. “Well, mister? How’s it better to back the
Hakaalt than the kin? Besides being a chance to sneak behind their skirts
and pretend genocide doesn’t matter?”

His jaw was working… but he wasn’t experienced at facing down brass. Four
pips still ranks one pip, and he knew it in his gut. He was taller than me,
heavier than me, he was mad as a hornet–and the pips, and the years behind
them, and the knowledge of the role still weighed more than all his own
advantages. Unless the rest of my crew joined him. “We wouldn’t be screwing
around with an official action outside our own province. That’s better.
We’d live. That’s better. Someday we might even get home. And that’s sure
as hell better.” His voice wavered, and I saw sudden pain in his eyes.

“No. No, dammit. It’s *not* better.”

I nearly panicked. It was Harry. My Good Son. My Paladin.

And, damn it, for the best of reasons I was afraid he was about to put us
all in the drink.

He pushed his way through the crowd of crew and kin. Faced D’Amato across
the open space in the center of the room, looking across the table where
Kes still stood next to the corpse of the priest. “It’s not better.” He
looked around the circle, catching eyes, trying to find support. “Come on,
everyone–tell him! I know I didn’t join Starfleet for expedience, or just
to be the most successful bully in the Alpha Quadrant–or the Delta
Quadrant, either. I did it because it meant something.”

“Right, Harry. Heard it in Military Ethics 101. Gut course, wasn’t it?” I
wasn’t sure who that was, but her voice was poison in the back of the
crowd. “Gimme a break, *ensign.* Some of us have the fuzz worn off by now.
The dewy look of wonder out of our eyes. We’re not all tanked on stardust
and higher philosophy.”

“Oh, stuff it, Atchison.” Meg Delaney stalked out into the open space. Put
her hands on her hips. “What-all did *you* join the Fleet for? You started
out non-com, like me and Jen. Maybe you figured it was a quick way off your
one-shuttle planet? Fast route to the big time? Easy money, and a good way
to get some training? Meet men, experience the sights of exotic Risa? Or
were you like us–figured it was your one chance at doing something worth
doing?” She turned to Harry, and strode over to stand square beside him.
Crossed her arms. Then looked over at me. “Y’all can keep me out here till
we run outta anti-matter, or the Hakaalt kill us, whichever comes first.”

Jen Delaney slid up on Harry’s other side, and smiled at me. “Goes for me
too, Cap’n K.J. Hell, there’s nothin’ better to do this week anyway,
besides wash my hair an’ file my nails. Might as well use a few minutes to
stand for something.”

I cocked them an arch eyebrow. “Sure you can fit it in between dates,
girls?”

They both laughed, and I could feel the tension dissolving in the face of
their chuckles. I thought I was off the hook.

Then D’Amato spoke again, and this time there wasn’t just anger in his
voice, but a killing grief. “Sure. Laugh. You don’t have family to worry
about. It doesn’t matter if you’re killed, if you never get home. I had a
two-week old son, when I left. I only got to hold him once. For all I know
Lainie’s already married again, and Robbie’s calling some other man Daddy.
And for what? So you can stock up on warm fuzzies? Feel good because you
were so nice to the scrag-end dregs of the universe? Well sorry, but I’ll
take expedience any day. I want to go home. And thanks to Queen Janeway and
her high moral standards it isn’t going to happen. Is it? I’m going to get
my ass shot off in a stupid war over a few dirty-faced primitives who don’t
even say ‘thank you’. Just call us ‘grounder’, and bitch when we stand back
to get away from the stink of them. So you can take your goddamn Pollyanna
warm-fuzzy feel-good and shove it, because I don’t give a damn.” And he
turned his back on us, and began to cry.

And the room waited, breath held to see what I’d find to say to that.

I didn’t know.

What I wanted to say was that I wanted to go home too. But that wasn’t the
sort of thing Kathryn Janeway would say. No more than I’d ever said that I
suspected it would never happen.

Kathryn Janeway didn’t let homesickness, and fear, and despair, and
uncertainty get to her. Didn’t even admit she felt them. Didn’t admit she
was lonely and scared, and none too sure of herself. That she didn’t want
to die. Not in front of the crew. She kept a stiff upper lip, and her
private fears to herself. Kathryn Janeway was tougher than that. Wasn’t
she?

There had to be an answer. I was the captain: where was my certainty? Lost,
somewhere in the rage, in the memories, in the kinship with death. I
struggled through the fugue, the hands of the dead at my shoulders, making
me look to the one still, sweet, silent rose among all the dark, cemetery
yew trees. I’d met a priest…

The memory swayed and fluttered there, as though it lived, fresh on the
bough, soft pink and tender green in the heart of madness —

I’d been jumpy as a cat after the Star March died, and Ata with it. Late
morning and early afternoon I’d paced the deck. Prowled my readyroom when I
finally realized I was making the bridge crew nervous. I’d restlessly gone
over the reports on the explosion. Watched as the Hakaalt fleet moved in
its mysterious patterns. They were busy over there. Very busy. But there
was no indication what they were busy *at.* I’d made almost as much of a
pest of myself calling in information from the bridge as B’Elanna had
calling engineering. I’d finally been forced to the realization that even
when I was hidden in my readyroom the bridge crew were vibrating to my
frequency, too aware of the adrenelin rush that kept me moving from one
spot to another, jumping from task to task, and finishing none. It was time
to get out of their way, and let them relax as much as possible.

I didn’t want to go down to my quarters. Chakotay’s things were there; the
scraps of fabric left from Magda’s quilt were there. Too many bits of
memorabilia that set off uncomfortable, sharp-edged lines of thought were
tucked into every corner. Less than thirty-two hours since the away team
had left… but it was still longer than I had hoped. Longer than it should
be if things had worked out according to a best case scenario. I didn’t
want to be in my rooms with memories, and worries about worst case
scenarios running through my head. But at least there I was out of the way
of the crew. So I went down, dragging my feet all the way, and set up the
project B’Elanna and Harry and Carey and I were all working on in every
free minute we could find. The web technology. It had defeated us all, so
far. But with new information from the last encounters we’d had, I was
hoping for better.

I’d forgotten that Chessie was also there.

“Getting anywhere?”

Chessie knew I wasn’t.

He sauntered across my desk, and sat in front of the screen of my terminal.

“Out of the way, cat.”

“Why? I’m prettier than those equations.”

“‘Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.’ I’m trying to do work.”

“If what you mean by the quote is that math is prettier than reality–well,
when it comes down to it, I’m nothing but math. Binary, to be precise. And
fractal geometry. Statistically-based algorithms. Patterns of behavior
reduced to numeric probabilities. I should be at least as gorgeous as those
crippled bits of hypothetical formulas. As for working–”

I reached up, and firmly pushed him. He hunkered down, grumbling, rear
claws scraping across the desktop. At the edge he scrambled wildly,
attempting to keep a grip on the edge… then plummeted.

He disappeared in mid-fall. And reappeared, right back where he’d been,
blocking my view of the screen. “Did you know Chaim is sitting shivah for
Magda, and Ata, and the kin children?”

I leaned back in my seat. Crossed my arms. “Yes.”

“Have you been down?”

“No.”

“Are you going to?”

“No.” I pushed out of the chair, and paced over to the table on the other
side of the room. “You’re a pushy animal.”

“It’s what you designed me for.”

“I designed you to look after Chakotay. Not me.”

I could almost hear a shrug. “I have to keep my paw in somehow.
And–shucks, Mama, can I help it if I’m irrationally fond of you? You are
my mother, after all.”

“And Frankenstien was father to a monster.”

“Frankenstien didn’t invent a cat. Poor taste, but there it is… ” I heard
a heavy thud, and a second later a massive body half knocked me over,
rubbing against the back of my knees. “You’re avoiding going.”

“I’m busy. I’m not Jewish. I’m not…” I stalked away. Back to the desk.
Sat down stiffly, and returned to the formulas on the screen. I didn’t want
to tell the beast I wasn’t ready to deal with Magda’s death. “Until
Chakotay and Anyas are back, and figure out what they want to put together
for a funeral, there’s not much any of us can do anyway.”

“Except mourn.” Chessie was back on the desk, again.

“Leave it. Chakotay’s the one you’re supposed to counsel.”

“You put a gag order on me. It’s not easy or ethical to provide
psychotherapy to a patient who can’t consent. At best it’s benign
manipulation. So–have you made any progress on those formulas? You’ve been
working on them for weeks. Not to mention all last night when you weren’t
fighting Hakaalt. I’d think with no sleep the numbers would all be running
together. Anyway, Daddy-O’s not here to psychoanalyze. Or is that what’s
really bothering you: he’s off trying to get his ass shot off?”

“Computer, override Chessie program.”

The computer didn’t respond. Chessie grinned, smugly. “Daddy-O tried to
turn me off, too. Didn’t get far.”

“You’ve been changing your program?” The thought scared me.

“I’m a person. I deserve better than to be switched on and off at your
whim. Ask me to leave nicely, and I will. Maybe.”

“Leave.”

“Or maybe not… I watched the fight on bridge this morning, through the
video-recording program. You enjoyed it, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean you enjoyed seeing the Hakaalt fighters explode. Enjoyed it beyond
just the need for defense.”

“Please. Leave.”

He veered from his topic again, back to another. “You have to decide how
you’re going to deal with Magda’s death, you know. Waiting for Chakotay and
Anyas to get back–that’s an evasion. Anything they choose will satisfy
their own mourning. Not yours. And they may not return.”

I picked up my PADD, and stood again. “If you won’t leave, I will. And if I
get the time, I’m going into your program and figuring out how to turn you
off, even if you have fudged the programs. And if I can’t I’m going to shut
down the hologenerators. You can’t bother me, then.”

“If you say so. Mama… ”

“Don’t ‘Mama’ me. I’m not anyone’s mother. Thank God.”

As I left the room, I tried to ignore his murmured “That’s what you think.”

I was tired. He was right–I was exhausted from too much stress, and worry,
and grief, and anger. But the web-tech problem was a soothing, familiar
sort of activity. Science as a private ritual. Almost comforting in its
numeric dispassion. It was as good a thing to do as anything. I couldn’t
sleep. The bed felt empty. The ship–the ship felt too full. Full of grief
and mourning. Full of troubles. Full of people I was increasingly feeling
like I’d personally condemned to death. Full of ambiguities.

So much going wrong, and I had the psychotic-orange, psychotropic pussy-cat
psychiatrist trying to convince me I needed to deal with my grief for
Magda.

Mourning could wait.

I cut down to Neelix’s. As the Order’s supplies had started to run out, the
herd of people who had occupied the room had fallen off again. Too vivid a
reminder to most of days when they could have gotten fed there. As a result
it was a good place to work in peace.

I scanned the room: not many there. A couple of folks working on PADDs.
With everyone doubled up, space was at a premium, and you found a lot of
people in ‘public’ space who would normally have chosen to work in private
space. Avoiding roommates most didn’t choose, or choose to have.

There were a few of the kin. The looks they shot me–things hadn’t been
good since the explosion. Qiral had done what he could, but the truth was
their children had died on my watch, killed by two of my officers.
‘Federation’ wasn’t a popular term among them, right now. So they flicked
fast, cold glances over me, and continued the juggling practice they had
going. Their props–a set of batons–slapped into their hands, and seemed
to fly out again as though they were programmed, and propelled with
anti-grav. They weren’t. It was skill alone that kept the bright wooden
cylinders in the air.

Lieutenant Baytart, Voyager’s resident juggler, sat on a table nearby,
watching them. They ignored him. Pointedly.

Slap-fwwt.

Slap-fwwt.

Glare.

Rodria was in the center of the practice ring, adding a series of balls
into the pattern, receiving them back out again. As I crossed the room,
heading for a table near the viewports, she looked me over. Then looked
away, her face so still I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Probably not
anything pleasant.

I settled at the table. Pulled out my PADD, and tried to focus on the
formulas there. Didn’t get far.

The Hakaalt fleet sat poised in the screen beyond.

I forced my eyes back to the little screen on the PADD.

If I assumed that the energy fluctuation was a non-linear function, then
the amplification of energy might be explained by…

No. I’d already eliminated that possibility.

I started going over the information, plotting it onto graphs, hoping the
model might jog my thoughts in ways that the numbers alone weren’t.
Sometimes a visual clue can get you past the hump.

“May I join you?”

One of the Order of Compassion. One of the religious ones. I nearly asked
him to go to another table. There were plenty open. Still, I didn’t want to
appear ungracious. I had enough popularity problems as it was. “If you
don’t mind if I ignore you for a while. I’m working on something…”

He was one of the ones who went hooded and masked. I couldn’t imagine how
he stood it… the fabric of his face-guard and hood were heavy, and
coarse. I was down to a colorful exercise bra that I was just barely able
to imagine “passed” as a halter top. He had to be sweltering. Or else he
had to be from a race that, like Vulcans and Klingons, was adapted to
hotter climes than I was used to. One thing that could be said for the
outfit–he’d have an easy time complying with the injunction “never let
them see you sweat.”

He sat at the end of the table, looking out over the view of the fleet. I
returned to my equations.

If it was a chaotic system, then it wasn’t going to give up its secrets
easily. If it was a complex chaotic system, it might be a matter of luck to
break down at all.

Damn it, superficially it didn’t look all that different from a phaser
signature. But it surely acted differently.

I pushed more figures into the visual model.

“They’re really rather beautiful.” The Order of Compassion person. Monk.
Priest. Volunteer. I wasn’t sure yet what to call most of them. Whatever
his title, he sounded wistful.

I looked out at the mob of carrion crows beyond. Tried to disassociate from
my own instant revulsion. I could almost make them resolve into a light
display. Twinkling flashes reflecting off of polished metal. Pulses from
running lights. The ever present purple haze of shields, and great
umbilical cords of energy stretching back behind them. All of it arrayed in
a kind of orderly disorder. An order based on the needs of a fleet, not of
a human art critic. Still…

“I suppose they are. It’s hard for me to see it.”

He nodded. “I understand.” He slid a cup up to his mouth, where it showed
under the edge of the mask. Sipped something. Lowered the cup back to the
table. As near as I could tell it held nothing but water. “Are… are the
men you sent out to hunt the child-killers back?”

“No.” He was almost as bad as Chessie, hitting on topics I was trying to
avoid. But then, there were a lot of those. Hard to hold a conversation
without touching on some subject I’d rather not address.

“Any word of them?”

“No.”

He sighed. Took a colored string out of somewhere in his habit, and began
twisting it between his fingers. Cat’s cradle patterns. “I have a hard time
understanding the killers. Willingly turning on their own people. My people
would consider that subhuman. The act of an animal.”

I looked back out the viewport. “There’s a lot of that going around.”

He looked back out himself. “You mean the Hakaalt?”

I nodded.

He sighed. “They don’t think of their actions that way. They are an…
orderly people. Sane, in most ways. Orderly. Very orderly. What they do,
they do as an act of affirmation of order. As an attempt to fulfill the
expectations and demands of the Gods themselves. As an act of defense,
protecting what they are from that which threatens it.”

I put the PADD down with a click. “What they’re doing is genocide.”

He nodded. “Yes.” Again, his voice twisted on the words.

I looked at him. “You appear to know a lot about them. As a people, I mean.
Not just as…”

“Not just as murderous grounders?” His voice was the only personal element
I could sense about him. I found myself focusing on its nuances. On its
sadness.

“Yes.”

“Well. One knows things. The kin see the Hakaalt from one perspective. It
is a limited one.”

“By the Hakaalt’s own choice.”

“Yes.”

He ran another pattern. Another. Another. I tried to return to my numbers.

Found myself looking out the viewscreen, instead. Wondered if Chakotay…

Refused to wonder.

As though he could read my mind, he asked, “The man in charge of the
hunt… the commander. He’s your mate?” His voice swept up, obviously
uncertain what terminology to use, wanting to be polite, not sure he was.

I wasn’t really sure what to call Chakotay in my mind, myself. Lover?
Partner? Not yet spouse. More than just boyfriend, or significant other.
Mate seemed a bit clinical. A bit bestial. But still, as close as any other
term. “Yes.”

He twisted the string between his fingers, and his voice frowned. “Among
the Hakaalt your relationship would be rather shocking.”

“Why? Because we serve together?” I hoped not. I didn’t want to discover
any more accidental resemblances between the prejudices and assumptions of
my people, and the Hakaalt.

He shook his head, the fabric of the hood making a gritting noise as the
burlap-like folds shifted against each other. “No. Not that. That would be
entirely ordinary, among the Hakaalt. It is believed that the closer the
bonds between warriors, the stronger the unity of the whole. It’s common
for the officers of the Purge Fleet to be lovers, or spouses.” He sighed.
“The Alte-commander Vegeis and Purge Captain Desart, the woman who
commanded the lead ship of the survivors, were wed. You widowed her, when
you destroyed the Splendid Pyre.”

It suddenly occurred to me I didn’t want to know how he knew so much of the
Hakaalt. Maybe I should have wanted to know very much. Enough to call
security. But I didn’t. The man was too mild. Too gentle. Too sad. And–if
I ignored what I suspected, I could like him. Wouldn’t have to hate him for
what I thought he was. Wouldn’t want to kill him, for what he hadn’t done.
I could have ‘unmasked’ him. Instead, I asked another question. “Then why
would Commander Chakotay’s and my relationship be shocking?”

“Because it isn’t acknowledged. We… They would see that as a sign of
shame. They claim their bonds with pride.”

“So do we. Just not always immediately. Some things take time.” My own
voice took a turn into the range of pain. Accused him of the lack of time
Chakotay and I had been given.

He didn’t respond.

I wished he hadn’t brought it up.

I missed Chakotay.

I knew I shouldn’t have let myself get involved. I *missed* Chakotay.
Missed him as I’d never missed Mark. I’d never lived with Mark. Never
worked beside him, day in and day out. Never had to bend my life to mesh
with his. Never had to learn how to sleep two in a bed, and forgive the
lost blankets and the pillow thudding into my face in the middle of the
night. Never had to learn to fight with him, and still love him. Never had
to fear for his life…

Turn away, Kathryn. Don’t think of it.

Never had to hold Mark as he wept.

I turned from that one, too.

Never had to trust Mark to choose for me, when I wasn’t there.

That one bit deep, just like the others. “He’s… he’s a good man. I
wish…” The monk kept on with his string games, the circle of twine
metamorphosing from one shape to another, never still.

His eyes were fixed on the moving lines of the figures he created. “On my
home world, this is the first night of the Celebration of Celestial Fire.
The children run through the streets with lanterns, and wear costumes like
little stars. All glitter, and tinsel. They run from house to house, and
give the word ‘The light is around us, and in us, and over us, and we shall
rise to join it someday.’ Then they’re given little cookies with sugar
sprinkles, and sent on to give the good news to the next household.”

“He drives me crazy, sometimes. I never know what he’s going to do. Going
to decide. Never know if I can trust him to do what I’d do, or not. I–I
still feel like he should have told me. About Kilpatrick. I know that’s not
realistic. He’s supposed to make choices. He’s supposed to make decisions.
And he’s not supposed to come weaseling around, telling tales and crying
‘wolf.’ He didn’t have anything new to tell me, and he was trying to get
the facts. But I still feel angry.” I didn’t know why I was running on, my
mouth as fluid as the string between his hands. By then I was sure he was
Hakaalt. But he seemed more the sincere, honest monk. I don’t know. I still
don’t know. It wasn’t a logical choice.

He was as loquacious. “It’s such an innocent ceremony. For, what, something
like two of your weeks, the children go out. Their parents go with them,
the second week. Everyone goes out and watches the stars. In the southern
hemisphere, where I grew up, it’s winter, and you can see your breath,
clouding over the star-light. Then, when you think your nose is going to
freeze, and your hands have gone stiff in your mittens, you go back, and
there’s hot roalami cider, and vintage abri for the adults, and people
sing. We light the star candles. Say prayers to the Gods Before. It’s
considered good luck to have a child born during the weeks of Celestial
Fire. Parents wrap their babies in all the blankets they can, and lift them
up, and show them the stars of heaven.”

My breath caught in my throat. Minnette. Running through the fields,
showing her baby Madeleine the stars of heaven.

“Oh, God. He loved her, so much.”

He looked up from the string, with a start. “What? I’m sorry, I don’t…”

“The woman who died in the explosion. My… Chakotay… they’d served
together. Were friends. She told me about something once. About babies, and
the stars of heaven. He loved her.”

He looked at me, eyes concerned. Questioning. “You didn’t?”

I realized I was destroying the equations on the PADD, hands clenched so
hard around it I was pushing the touch sites all in a heap–the erase
function fluttering in, superseded by random figures, random operations.
The screen fragmented into chaos. “I…” I veered away from the topic. “I’m
worried about him, you know. He’s been through a lot out here. This, on top
of everything else. This war is too much like things he grew up hearing.
Things he saw as a warrior in our own space. And–I’m afraid he’ll lose his
nerve.”

“He’s a weak person? Not likely to find his own way? His own balance?”

“No!” I surprised myself with the sharpness. The absoluteness of the
denial.

I looked around the room to see if anyone was listening.

No heads had turned. The other Voyager officers still worked away at their
own PADDs. The kinsfolk continued their practice.

Slap-fwwt.

Slap-fwwt.

Little, sour Rodria, tossing the round balls into the ring of tumbling
batons, receiving them back when they’d finished the circle.

My allies, who hated me.

And across the table from me, a man of my enemies, who appeared to care.
Gentle eyed, gentle voiced.

A paradox. Like Chakotay.

“No. He isn’t weak. He’ll find a way to heal. If anyone can, he will.
Sometimes I think he’s stronger than me. Better able to deal with things.”

He shrugged. “Ah.” He returned to the string, looping the twine between his
fingers again. Ran another figure. Complexity followed complexity. Then he
made a move, and the string formed a web. “On my home planet we call this
one ‘Waren Ascending.’ Waren was supposed to be the last of the Gods Before
to leave… the one the Gods had to force away from his play, into the
Heaven of Past Gods. The one who created all the testing races.”

I looked at it. “On my world, it’s called ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’ After a vision
a prophet had of angels going up and down from heaven.” I put out a finger,
and touched it. “Waren Ascending? Like Waren-Pyre?”

“The myth goes that the Gods opened the Portal into the Heaven of Past
Gods–and below, the people lit a fire so Waren couldn’t go back down. He
loved all the testing races, and didn’t want them to die away, and end
their torments and tests of the Appointed ones. The Waren-Pyre ended the
reign of the Old Gods. In the vision of the Hakaalt, the new Waren-Pyre
will also begin the First Ascent of the New Gods… the ascent of the
Hakaalt into the Heaven of Gods of the Now.” He studied the pattern in
front of him. “Each place the strings cross, is supposed to be a star. The
power of the Gods, drawing Waren up, lies between.”

“I don’t have a religion of my own. I’m afraid that it doesn’t mean much to
me. And here, and now–it just sounds like a way of justifying an atrocity.
I’m sorry, I know it’s your religion. But…”

He shook his head. “Not mine. Not any more. I’ve been with the Order of
Compassion for over thirty five years. I was accepted into the religious
order of Blessed Fesis twenty years ago. I was ordained a Fesis priest
eight years back. The religion of the Gods Before, the Gods Now, and the
Gods to Come, is no longer mine. I just grew up with it. ” He smiled sourly
at the string, the edge of his mask just revealing the twist of his lips.
“As a Fesisate, the string is a focus of contemplation. An endless ring,
expressing infinite possibility without ever changing, or betraying its own
nature. When I was with my own people, it was just a child’s toy. At best,
a teaching aid. Nothing more.”

I looked back down at my PADD. The equations were gone. At least I had the
same information stored in the main computer. “That web–the power weapon
the fleet uses. Do you understand it? Can you tell me how it works?”

He snorted. “I was a merchant. A dealer in stock, and grain futures. Do you
know what makes your computer work?”

“Yes. Actually, I do.”

He laughed. “Ah. Yes. I’m sorry. I had heard you were a scientist. I’m
afraid I know nothing about the web. It’s a secret. And even if it wasn’t,
and if I’d been a scientist, I’m afraid the application they’re using these
days–when I left the Heavenly Garden the only similar technology was the
shield application. I’m afraid I can’t help you, captain.”

I nodded. “I suppose it was too much to hope for.”

“Nothing is too much to hope for. The Blessed Fesis said that hope is as
eternal as the mandala string.”

“Hadn’t you heard? Hope is dead.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry. I–my… Chakotay’s friend. Her name. Her chosen name was
‘hope.’ Madeleine of Hope.” I rose. “It’s late, and I haven’t been sleeping
well. Stress. I’m afraid it’s beginning to show. I’m getting… bitter. I
should go now. Maybe I’ll fall asleep.”

He nodded. “Understood. I should leave soon also, but I’d like to enjoy the
stars a while longer.” He began to loop the string again. “Captain, why do
you resist admitting your own friendship with the woman? As though you
could push all feeling and concern onto your beloved? It is obvious she was
your friend, too. Is it a cultural taboo I should know of?”

“No.” I looked away. “No. It’s fear. If I let myself think, I’ll cry. And
if I start, I’m afraid I’ll never stop.”

When I left he was running the string, pattern after pattern, and gazing
out at the fleet, and the clean, white stars beyond.

The ghostly hands fell away. The memory passed.

Not so complicated. He had been Hakaalt. What difference? I had been
Janeway, captain of Voyager. What of it?

We had been ‘us.’ Merely, only, finally, us.

More truth hidden in that truth. The Hakaalt were just people. They were as
much the young soldier, the children running through the streets calling to
the stars, the priest exiled from his people, the parents holding their
babies up to the sky, as they were killers, tormentors, or demons.

All of us, Federation, kin, Hakaalt, Maquis. All of us just us, and it
wouldn’t do to lose that fact.

In the end, that was all there was. No captain, no command, no crew in
service. ‘Kathryn Janeway’ was ‘the captain of the Voyager’, her crew
served her, and she served them. And in the end, no difference–the roles
only mattered when they made it easier for us to be what we most dreamed of
being. When the roles helped us find what we most needed, helped us hold to
what we most believed. Beyond that, they were only roles, no more or less
important than a child’s games of ‘let’s pretend.’ Under the costumes, and
the make-up, and the roles, the actors were still themselves. Under the
uniforms, the ranks, the different cultures, the political barriers, all of
us just people. My mother’s kind of truth–a story to tell to make the
world make sense. But never, never forget that Hamlet is still a man named
George, or Amelio; Lady Macbeth a woman with a baby and a mortgage, all of
them willingly setting that aside in the name of truth; playing the role to
say things that couldn’t be said any other way. But never forget the limit
of the role. Never forget the little child who can let go of a
make-believe, no matter how powerful, and say “now let’s play another
game.”

A role is just a role–the truth it stands for is greater than any role,
and is given life and reason by the person behind it. In the end the role
is greatest when it is lived in spirit; not by a rigid, unchanging
conformity to pre-planned blocking, set words on a page, directions from
above. My mother’s kind of truth: whatever a captain is, is greater than
the rules, the power, the obligation, the isolation. She is a human who
commands–and the key word in that is ‘human.’ Take that out, pretend it
isn’t there, insist that the humanity is the least, worst, most dispensable
part of the role, the rot in an otherwise pristine pattern-card perfection,
and you risked the role itself. Destroyed the one variable that breathed
life and soul into something otherwise dead, and meaningless. The armor was
no good, when it trapped you, when it held you pinned, and kept you from
the real needs of your command.

I let it fall away. Being ‘the captain’ was too limiting, too limited, to
fill the need of the moment. The need of the person who stood there,
crying. To fill the need of all my poor, lost, lonely crew, struggling to
meet my demands, and the needs of the situation. Too limited to fill the
function it was meant to fill. To be the captain, I had to be Kathryn
Janeway, or I betrayed everything the captaincy existed to fulfill.

I let it go.

“I want to go home, too.”

I could hear the mob around me draw in their collective breath. I’d broken
the taboo, as surely as D’Amato. I didn’t have time to worry about that. I
walked over to him, put my hand in the middle of his back, felt the tension
in the muscles, and the shiver as he tried to hold in tears. “I want to go
home, too. So much I can’t even begin to tell you. Want to stop worrying
about each day, where the food is coming from, who’s loyal, who’s going to
mutiny, what to do to keep the crew happy, and busy, and hopeful. I want to
see my mother again. My sister. My dog. My house. Explain things to Mark.
Lie in my own bed. See my friends. Go on shore leave without worrying about
what’s lurking behind the bushes, or contaminating the soil, and the air.
Worrying about what little power block of a government I’ve never heard of
is going to see us as their road to power, or a threat to the power they
already have. I want to stop worrying that every trade we make, every first
contact, is going to turn into a disaster that will take centuries to
pass–if it ever does. I want to *go home.*”

He didn’t turn. “Yeah. Right. You and ‘Chief Joseph.’ You know, they’ll
probably shove both of you in prison if you get back. No nice nooky then,
eh? They used to say an officer was ‘going native,’ back in the old days.
When they were more at home with the wilds than they would be back home.
When they let it all go, and settled for the good life in the colonies.
Guess I know what they meant, don’t I?”

I didn’t move. Left my hand on his back. “You can’t hurt me with that.
Chakotay, maybe–he’s got the fixation on the past. Dorvan wasn’t a place
that let him forget history. None of the revival colonies are. But to me
it’s just an old phrase from a different time. As for me–I’ve made the
best choices I could. I won’t say I haven’t ever regretted them. But–I
made the choices. I had to. It’s my job. And I chose…” I trailed off,
trying to find words.

D’Amato found his own words, turning back to me. “You chose to get us stuck
out here. And you chose to get us killed, fighting for the kin.”

“I chose to save the Ocampans. And I chose to save the Star March. The rest
was the price I paid.”

“We paid. Not just you. *WE.*”

“It was a fair deal.” Harry was still at the edge of the circle, flanked by
Meg and Jen.

Siva Rajputra spoke from the back of the circle. “Aye-aye. That’s it,
Harry-boy. Been a weird ride… but I’m buggered if I’d want Kes and her
people dead ’cause Captain K.J. picked the Array over flesh and blood.
Stand by the kin, too, come to that.”

I could hear the murmur start. Mostly agreement.

D’Amato turned his eyes over the people gathered around, searching for a
particular face. He found it. “Sam? Wildman? You know what it’s like.
Puff… she still may die. And her father hasn’t seen her even now. She’s
already walking–or she was before this happened. They stole her toys.
Didn’t even care that she was sick. Just stole them. You understand–don’t
you?”

Her eyes were tender, teary, and she walked out to him. Stepped past me,
and put her arms around him like he was Puff. “It’s OK, Sandy. Yes. I
understand. But it’s still not right. It’s not what it’s about. They’re
people. That’s all. People.”

He pulled back. “Oh, God. You’re all crazy.” He looked at me. “I’m sorry.
I’m sorry, I really am. But you’re crazy. Maybe, if we live, I’ll change my
mind someday. But right now…” He shook his head. Straightened his back.
Looked one more time for supporters, and found none. None who would confess
to it, anyway. His jaw bunched. “I’ll report to the brig, captain.”

I touched his elbow. He endured it. “No need, D’Amato. There was… cause.
Go to your quarters and get some sleep.”

The look he shot me was apology and poison, all at once. He wrapped his
dignity around him, and marched towards the circle that surrounded us.

People pulled back, letting him through.

I found I was actually relieved to see a few hands reach out and gently
touch his arm. He needed to know he wasn’t alone, right then.

I looked at the faces around me. They were still waiting for something.
Closure, of some kind.

“I’m sorry, you know.” I felt like I was in a spotlight –as though I was
naked, there, stripped of all the last safe vestiges of my role. All armor
gone. All the props that held me up stripped away. I wished that, at the
least, I were in the kind of condition to make a good showing; but I
wasn’t. When the call had come, the call you always have to answer, I’d
just thrown on my tee shirt, and a pair of shorts I’d made by cutting off
my uniform trousers. My hair was lashed tight in two pigtails, in a
desperate effort to keep it off my face and off my neck. I was
sweaty–these days I was always sweaty. I was tired. I was hungry. I was
feeling old, and empty. I knew I looked a sight. But still, I went on. “I
really am sorry. I didn’t want to do this to you all. Didn’t want to stick
you out here. Didn’t want it to go on so long. Didn’t mean us to end up
here, facing the Hakaalt. Facing the Pyre. I’d have chosen differently if I
could have. But I did the best I could. Maybe I could have done better.
Could have found a way to save the Ocampans without stranding us all. Found
a way to get us back. Found us allies. Found a way to save the kin that
didn’t get us… get us here. But I don’t know how, even now. And it seemed
important to be something… to be the things that mattered. To be the best
of what we were. It still does. I’m not sorry we did the right thing. I’m
sorry it worked out this way.”

Jen Delaney smiled. “‘Sokay, Captain K.J. Like I said. Only other thing
I’ve got to do is wash my hair.”

Without thinking, my hand went up to my own hair, and I grimaced. And
suddenly everyone was laughing, and it was all right.

So. In the end, we were all just ‘us.’ Kathryn Janeway: captain because
they so chose, as much as by any decree or document hidden somewhere in
Starfleet Headquarters. ‘My crew:’ because they made it so. Not because I
could see them home, or make them serve, or because I was some kind of
command Messiah. Not because I’d succeeded in keeping their mind off of the
realities of our situation. We were all bound by our own wills, and nothing
more. Because we all chose to do something that meant something.

‘Les Voyageurs.’ Not Starfleet, not Maquis, not Deltan, not Kin. Not
captain, not crew. Not in the final reckoning. Just ‘Les Voyageurs,’ and
all the roles no more than a way to make sure the story held together and
the truth was served. There in the heart of hell, we christened a new
dispensation in laughter.

Qiral whuffed, in part in relief, in part to get my attention. He still
held Doram. “What do you want me to do with him?”

I stood, with my hand still on my head. “I don’t know. What would your
people do with him?”

From behind me I heard Rodria. “Shun him or space him. Normally a trial,
but in this case, with witnesses, no need.”

I looked at Qiral. He shrugged. “She was Star March’s legata. Like Tuvok.
Police.”

I turned to her. “We don’t do it that way, here. Even with witnesses. Will
your people mind if we put him in the brig for now? If we live, and get out
of here, we can turn him over to you to do with what you think right. But
we don’t space people.”

She made a face. “That means the child-killers go in the brig, too? I’m
glad I’m not Federation. But it’s no loss to me if you put him in your
grag-o tank for now.”

I nodded to Qiral, and he moved out, hand still hard at his kinsman’s
elbow.

The crowd was clearing from the room. Kes and one of the med-techs gathered
up the body of the priest. Put it on an anti-grav gurney, and left the
room.

Neelix started cleaning up the floor, and the table, with help from Harry
and the Delaneys.

Chaim and Cherel slid quietly over to a clean table. Chaim helped Cherel
sit. She was beginning to show, and moved slowly and carefully, afraid as
she had been for weeks that anything could make her lose the baby. When she
was settled he slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out his
harmonica.

I sat down on the other side of the table. “I’m not sure this is the time
for that.”

He didn’t look at me. Let the harp drop from his mouth an inch or so, his
eyes closed. “No other time. There’s then, and soon, and now. Only time you
can make music is now. And now is the only time you need it.”

Echoes of Chakotay. ‘Now is Indian Time. Skeletons in front of you,
skeletons behind. You live in the now.’ I shivered. “Chaim. Chakotay said
that he hated the Cardassians. Couldn’t let himself feel they were human. I
feel that way about the Hakaalt. How do you get over it?”

He shrugged.

Cherel sighed. “You don’t. Not really. Not ever. All you can do is remember
you’re wrong–and make yourself look to remember it. To remember that it’s
in your head, not in the world. But I still hate Cardassians. I just know
I’m wrong. There are good Cardassians, and bad Cardassians. Prophets help
me, I try to remember.”

Chaim put the harp back to his lips. Blew a few random riffs. Then broke
into something with a cheerful, bouncy rhythm that reminded me of the music
of the steel band Tom had programmed into Neelix’ holodeck resort. A few
moments later Cherel laughed, and joined him, her voice dancing and flying
merrily. When they were done, I asked, “Is it Calypso?”

Chaim chuckled. “More or less. ‘Less’ more than ‘more.’ ‘My beloved Rock.’
Mid-Twentieth Century. A classic.”

I smiled, feeling relaxed, and not quite knowing what to do with that.
“I’ve always wanted to ask: why rock?”

Chaim glared at Cherel as she giggled. “Woman, spare me the indignity!” She
giggled harder, and stuck out her tongue. Chaim gave a patently false sigh
of exasperation, and turned back to me. Shrugged. “I wanted to be in a
Toola band. My parents said if I wanted to learn to play music, they’d pay
for lessons. The choice was violin, so I could play in a string quartet,
piano so I could be a concert pianist, or they’d let me join a Madrigal
group if I wanted to sing–or there was a dusty old music history teacher,
teaching Early Modern Music.” He laughed. “He cheated. Tricked me. Like a
kid tricked into reading Shakespeare for the dirty words. He told me it was
all about sex and drugs and rebellion–and I fell for it. Wasn’t until I
was in too deep that I found out that it’s as hard to play rock really well
as anything else. Like haiku and sonnets: the form may be simple. Mastery
isn’t. And then I found out I’d really been taken to the cleaners, and
there was a lot there that wasn’t sex, and drugs, and rebellion. But by
then I was in love, and it didn’t matter.”

“Why in love?”

He looked embarrassed, and Cherel giggled again. “Because…” He tapped out
his harmonica to have an excuse to dither. Then sighed. “Those ‘important
things.’ The choices you had to make because they were right. What the
Federation is based on. The idea that it’s not being from one country, or
one religion, or one race–that we’re united in our fundamental humanity,
and that’s all that really matters. The idea wasn’t really formed until the
twentieth century. And it’s all there in the music. The hopes, the fears,
the angers, the dreams. The affirmations. Who they were. And when you hear
it you know that who they were made us who we are.”

He cradled the harp in his hands. Looked at it tenderly. “Here’s another,
by one of the same group that did the first.”

Cherel joined him. The words were something about “Imagine.” The music made
me want to cry.

I still wasn’t ready to cry.

So when he was done I got up, touched both their hands, and left. In a few
minutes I’d managed to pull back the first song out of my memory, and rode
up the turbo lift happily singing a simple, sweet song with a chorus that
went “Oh-bla-di, oh-bla-da, life goes on.” With the Hakaalt at our heels,
and the Waren-Pyre somewhere ahead, I wasn’t sure it did. But I liked the
song anyway. It was something to hope for.

Mere hours later, with the away team still missing, and a supply run also
unaccounted for, the Hakaalt entered into the final stages of their plan to
eliminate the “eftri” from the universe. And we got the answer to our
questions regarding the many ships leaving the fleet for days and weeks at
a time, returning with no signs of carrying supplies or having encountered
combat situations.

The black sky was filled with a net of light. Coruscating, iridescent,
purple light, covering the parsecs and parsecs of space around us. A
funnel, terminating in one blazing, white giant of a star.

Welcome to the Waren-Pyre.

No sign of Chakotay. Of any of the away team. All I had for hope was a
gaping hole around the star my people had been headed towards, too far away
for the Exodus to flee towards.

When I got to my room I put the mandala string in the top drawer of my
desk. Chakotay has a medicine bundle. I have a kultch drawer. It has
treasures in it. Mementos that don’t quite suit the decor of my room, but
do fit the decor of my soul. An acorn from the cottage. Molly’s puppy
collar. The necklace from Caylem, that poor man who thought I was his
daughter, and who died because of it — my very first teacher in the heart
of being “Maquis”, before Magda even. It was charged with the memory of his
death, and questions about the need for resistance. I added the string to
the other treasures. It held things I wanted to remember in its stained
loops.

But that bright song stayed with me, a comfort.

Oh-bla-di.

Oh-bla-da.

Life goes on.

It may go on without us. We may join the family of the dead. But life goes
on, and so long as it does, we live it, all of us people together. And that
makes all the difference.

End Section XI

——————————————–

——————————————–

Section XII: Chakotay

I got back to the room in just under ten minutes. Paris had sunk into a
pain-suffused delirium and I quickly handed over Anyas’ medkit. He set to
work, then I came over to where Tuvok was attempting to question
Kilpatrick. She had turned to the wall and refused to answer his questions
about either the bomb blast on Voyager or what her real plans had been.
Handing one of the rifles and a tricorder to Tuvok, I couldn’t resist and
interrupted Tuvok to speak to her, “Things didn’t turn out the way you
expected, did they?” She didn’t reply to that, either. Tuvok glared at me.
Ignoring him, I went on, “You can’t Uncle Tom people like the Hakaalt,
Kilpatrick. To them, you’re just as much eftri as we are.”

“I am not *eftri*!” she snapped, losing her cool.

“Doesn’t matter what you think–how much you look Hakaalt or act Hakaalt or
even *smell* Hakaalt. To them, you’re eftri and that’ll never change in a
hundred years of wishing. Welcome to being a minority race. They hate you.
In fact, to their minds, the only thing worse than being eftri is being a
traitor eftri who tries to ‘pass.'” I paused to let that sink in, added,
“So see? Your ‘friends’ will shoot you just as quickly as they’ll shoot
us–maybe quicker–so I suggest you stay quiet and give us no trouble
getting out of here.” I nodded to Tuvok and turned away, back to see how
Anyas was doing with Paris.

The kid was awake again, though with only the little medkit, Anyas had not
been able to do much more for Paris’ leg than had already been done. Paris
wasn’t walking anywhere any time soon. I knelt down by him. “How do you
feel now, lieutenant?”

“I ain’t feeling no pain–” he sang, and laughed.

I couldn’t help grinning. “So I see.” And I glanced at Anyas. “Can we carry
him between us, doctor?”

“The wound has been fairly well cauterized. I don’t believe it would do him
any damage to move him.”

“Good, because we have no choice.” I handed Anyas back his phaser. He took
it, but hesitantly, shoved it in the back of his belt instead of on the
side hook: out of his sight and more difficult to reach. Then he rose to go
tend Tuvok’s black eye. I gave Paris a phaser, too, although with some
trepidation.

“Don’t worry,” Paris said, “I’ll put the safety on it.” And he laughed.

I got him up then, his arm over my shoulders. Anyas came back to help.
Tuvok– swelling reduced so he could see again out of his bad eye–waited
by the door. He opened it and slipped through while I kept a phaser trained
on Kilpatrick; she made no move to escape. After a moment, Tuvok
reappeared, tricorder in hand. “There would seem to be no Hakaalt in the
immediate vicinity. I suggest we distance ourselves from this area
immediately. It is impossible to tell how long our escape will go
undetected. We may return the same way Anyas and I came.”

“No, we can’t,” I said.

“Explain!”

“We need to go back to the computer core.”

For a moment, he looked simply dumbfounded, then snapped, “You do realize
that is the most likely location for the Hakaalt to have congregated?”

“Doesn’t matter. We have to get to those computers.” Fumbling at my belt, I
hefted a grenade. “We’re going to leave some presents, and the timers on
these don’t run near long enough to try to make it back across the river
through the building. No telling how things are rigged here and if we blow
the computer core, the whole place could go up.”

Lips prim, Tuvok reminded me, “And just how quickly do you think you can
make an escape with a prisoner and a wounded man?”

“Take me to the entrance first and leave me there,” Paris said. “I can
guard Kilpatrick.” The gaze he turned on her was cold, no hint of his usual
jesting. “I might not be able to chase her, but if she tries to escape,
I’ll just shoot her.” None of us, including Kilpatrick, doubted for a
minute that he would. Still, Tuvok wavered. “You’ve got to do this,” Paris
added. “Chakotay’s right. We can’t leave this installation intact.”

“The commander’s judgement in the recent…debacle…on Voyager, which
allowed Kilpatrick and Bintar to escape in the first place, left much to be
desired. I am not inclined to trust his judgement over my own in this
matter.”

Paris sighed, leaned into the wall. “Look, Tuvok, blowing up this place is
more important than getting Kilpatrick back to a trial, it’s more important
than *any* of us getting back, if it comes to that. It could mean the
difference between Voyager’s survival and her destruction. And Chakotay’s
judgement was fine; he couldn’t know what Bintar would do.”

Eyes narrow, Kilpatrick listened to the entire exchange with no little
interest, but she said nothing. After a moment, Tuvok gave a short nod.
“Very well. We shall do as the commander says.”

“I’ll stay with Tom,” Anyas said with a flick of gold eyes to Kilpatrick.
“I will be certain she does not escape.”

We had a few harrowing moments getting back to the exit, but for the most
part, the Hakaalt were stretched too thin to police the place adequately,
and no alarm had gone off so they still didn’t realize we were free. They
must assume their commander was “having fun” with his prisoners.

When we reached the exit, Tuvok held up a hand. “I read one lifesign
outside.”

“Hakaalt?”

Tuvok did not answer, just hefted his rifle while I kept Kilpatrick
covered. With one shoulder, he shoved the door open and, rifle leveled,
dropped down low, covering the clearing. I couldn’t see much through the
open door–it was already night out–but after a moment, Tuvok stood,
apparently reassured, spoke, “I thought you were instructed to stay with
the ships?”

Delwien’s dark figure slipped past Tuvok through the doorway. Coming face
to face with Kilpatrick, he hissed and bared his fangs but kept his head
for once. “Where is the other one?” he asked without bothering to reply to
Tuvok’s question.

“He’s dead,” I said.

Delwien just nodded. He wore the third phaser rifle on his back and his
waist was strung with grenades like silver Christmas tree lights. He was a
walking armory. “What happened?” I demanded.

“They came to search the ships. I was watching for a Hakaalt arrival from
space, but instead, they came from the *building*.” His expression was
sour. “So much for grounder sensors.” Then to me, “I decided to take the
remaining weapons and leave. If I had taken the shuttle, they would have
pursued, would have notified the ship in orbit. I might have escaped, but
you would not have.” He said this matter-of-factly. “I decided it would be
easier for us to retake the shuttles than for one alone to fight and fly at
once.” He shrugged. “They searched the shuttles but did not search the
trees around. I knew then that you had been captured. I decided I would
come to find out what I could.”

“How did you get over the river?”

His expression was wry. “There was another life-raft. The Hakaalt did not
bother to guard what they assumed to have been abandoned.”

I nearly laughed with relief. If we could catch all the Hakaalt in the
building, we might just have a chance to get out of here.

Delwien insisted on going in to set grenades with Tuvok and I. Leaving
Paris and Anyas to guard Kilpatrick in a small clearing not too far from
where the boats had been beached, the three of us headed back. By the time
we arrived, it was evident our escape had been discovered. Yellow lights
flashed and a deep, low alarm intermittently blared from hidden speakers. A
pair of Hakaalt had been placed on guard outside the exit. Good. Only two
set to guard the escape meant their forces were spread thin. They were also
watching the building, not he underbrush, which made taking them almost too
easy. Tuvok pinched one into unconsciousness and I slugged another. It felt
obscenely good.

There were no guards immediately inside. They must think us still in the
building– which made getting in simple enough but would make getting out
more difficult. Inside, Tuvok with his better hearing took the lead, I took
the middle and Delwien brought up the rear. We kept ten paces apart.
Federation issue footware, I decided, had not been made for stealth and I
wished for my old moccasin boots. It seemed to me that we were as noisy as
Qiral’s elephants, although that was just my nerves talking.

Tuvok had just turned a corner up ahead when Hakaalt blaster fire nearly
parted my hair from behind. Spinning and dropping low, I aimed and fired by
instinct, hoping to hell that Delwien had thought to duck. My shot dropped
one Hakaalt, but the other slipped back around the corner. We couldn’t let
him get away to warn the rest. Delwien and Tuvok must have had the same
thought at the same time because all three of us turned back and fanned out
almost as if reading one another’s minds. When Tuvok dove past the corridor
opening, fire followed his progress. The Hakaalt was holed up back there;
it must be a cul-de-sac. What followed then was a simple shootout with
Delwien covering our backs in case more Hakaalt came up from behind.

In vids and holonovels, the bad guys always have bad aim. It’s not like
that in real life. Our opponent was a marksman. Luckily, so was Tuvok even
with a black eye. He did finally hit the Hakaalt–but not before the man
had hit me. It wasn’t bad, just a scraping burn on the shoulder, but it
hurt like hell. I didn’t have time to worry much about it though; the
firefight was sure to have alerted someone and we beat a hasty retreat. “At
least they think we’re trying to get out, not trying to get back in,” I
whispered to Tuvok as we paused at a fork in the corridor.

“I would not continue to count on Hakaalt gullibility, commander. To this
point, they have been overly confident, but I do not expect it to continue.
They can locate us easily through sensor readings.”

Nevertheless, we only met up with one more group of them before we reached
the computer core. Tuvok heard them before they heard us and it was easy
enough to hide. “We should have killed them!” Delwien hissed when they were
past.

“No,” Tuvok said. “Do you wish to alert others to our location? Fire only
as a last resort.”

“Grounder,” Delwien snarled, but subsided. Tuvok ignored him.

Outside the computer core, we ducked into a little alcove and paused to
take stock. My shoulder was burning so badly, I could barely hold the rifle
and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. “I assume there is more than one
entry?” Tuvok asked me.

“Yes.” I leaned my head back against the wall, trying to bring up a memory
of the room. “I believe there were five: this one here, two on the south,
and two to the west. None east.”

Tuvok gave a satisfied nod and consulted his tricorder. “Then we fan out
and come in each by a different door. Tune your communicators to band 22:
it’s a low frequency less likely to be monitored.” He glanced down at the
grenades on Delwien’s belt. “We need to divide these up in case we do not
all make it. And do not begin shooting as soon as you enter”–he eyed
Delwien–“we may hit one another in our crossfire.”

The aka’Chee didn’t comment, but gave eight grenades to Tuvok and three to
me. I still had the three Anyas had initially refused plus two more that
Tom had given me before we’d gone back in, saying I’d need them more than
he would. All together, we had enough firepower to blow this entire half of
the installation straight up into the stratosphere. We’d better be as far
away as we could get before it went.

While they made their way to the other entrances, I stayed behind to rest a
little. My shoulder was almost numb now. It took Tuvok and Delwien three
minutes to reach position. “On my mark,” I whispered into my communicator.
“Three, two, one–mark!”

Flattened against a wall, I hit the door release, then dove in under the
blaster fire which followed just seconds after, accidentally struck my
wounded right shoulder on the floor. I nearly screamed in pain, could
barely aim the phaser rifle to begin shooting myself. I counted five
Hakaalt by the blue-white discharge of their blasters. We had the advantage
of surprise, and also of not caring whether we hit equipment. Nearly
everything they could use for cover was vulnerable computer hardware, and
at least one of our shots knocked out something central to the
environmental controls because I heard the air recyclers cough and the
lights sputtered, dimmed, relit, then went out. Shooting in the yellow glow
of Hakaalt emergency lights was eerie.

I heard boots back in the corridor behind me and turned to meet the arrival
of reinforcements. Three of them. They came trotting around a far corner,
unheedful of danger; I took all three in short order. They didn’t even have
time to unholster their weapons. The Hakaalt needed to train their soldiers
to be more careful.

By the time I turned back to the room, the shooting had stopped. Tuvok was
gingerly making his way across the floor from cover to cover, just in case
there was someone else hiding. He had his tricorder out. After a moment, he
stood up and raised his hand in a gesture of all-clear. Delwien and I
joined him. He pointed to a Hakaalt woman lying on the floor, moaning
softly, only half conscious. My reaction was…confused. Part of me wanted
to level my rifle and just blast her to atoms where she lay. The other part
was annoyed by the complication she presented: we couldn’t leave her in the
building to be blown up helplessly along with the installation. Glancing at
the others, I saw my annoyance echoed in Tuvok and my bloodlust in Delwien.
He aimed his phaser. Grabbing his wrist, I twisted the arm sideways, away
from its target. “No,” I said.

He glared at me and hissed. “She is *Hakaalt*.”

“She’s wounded, and we don’t kill the wounded in cold blood. Do you want to
lower yourself to their level? We’re more civilized than that.” I didn’t
have to look at Tuvok to know I had his support. Tuvok would kill if
necessary, coolly and without sentiment. He was a security officer. But he
was also a Vulcan, with a Vulcan’s respect for life. He would not kill for
hate, or for expedience. We shared that much. Now, he had moved in behind
Delwien, prepared to restrain the aka’Chee if necessary. But Delwien
frowned at my hand on his wrist, at the Hakaalt soldier–and reholstered
his phaser. He spit on her before turning away to unhook grenades from his
belt, check their setting controls.

Tuvok tied her up and secured the room while I surveyed the equipment. “We
don’t want to blow this quite yet,” I said.

“What do you plan to do with it, then?” Delwien snapped. “Leave it pristine
for the grounders because we don’t blow up buildings, either?”

I walked over to set a hand on his shoulder. “Listen to me–we can fight
back without acting like them. If you start acting like them, you become
what they are. Is that what you want–to become Hakaalt?”

He jerked off his now-empty grenade belt and threw it on the floor. “What I
want is their blood! I want to *bathe* in it.”

Angry, I shoved him. “Then start collecting Hakaalt bodies to mutilate and
freeze- dry in space in obscene positions. Kill everything that isn’t kin,
and teach that hate to your children and your children’s children so they
do the same as you. Justify it all in the name of revenge! Go ahead, start
with her”–I pointed to the wounded Hakaalt–“tear her to pieces with your
bare hands. Send her back in parts to her mother, or her husband and
children. Drain her blood and paint your face in it, bathe in it like your
said. Then come tell me how clean you feel in the morning.” Turning away in
disgust, I stalked over to one of the main computers to see how to take off
the casing.

After a long moment, I heard steps behind me, then Delwien reached past to
flip two levers, lift off the cover. I’d been so angry, I’d overlooked
them. “What do you want inside the computer?” he asked.

I pulled out a series of tiny chips from the main board. “These. Maybe we
can learn how that damn web works.” I pocketed them and went on to the
next, and the next and the next until my uniform pockets bulged.

Tuvok came over to hand Hakaalt food to Delwien. “It is safe for our
consumption; we should conserve our rations.” He gave me some as well and I
only then realized I was starving. It had been hours since our last meal on
the shuttle. I shoved the Hakaalt version of a sandwich into my mouth with
my bad arm as I continued to pull chips with the other. Delwien had found a
canister somewhere and I dumped them in it as the installation died around
us: generators, lights, air recyclers, the alarm system…. I was taking
everything in a gamble to get what I wanted–and alerting all the remaining
Hakaalt where we were, I knew.

“You’re wasting time,” Tuvok said. “I thought you intended to simply
destroy this place?”

“And destroy all this information in the process? You should’ve learned
better than that in the maquis: waste not, want not.” I shot him a grin to
show I was kidding.

I’m not sure he got it; he turned to watch the doors, rifle at ready. “And
what makes you assume Voyager’s computers in their present condition could
make any use of it?”

Delwien answered for me. “Voyager’s might not, but the Star March’s can.
Where do you think the Hakaalt *got* their technology? My people have been
in space far longer than they!”

I finished swiping the last set of chips even as shouts drew near outside
the room. Tuvok had knelt by the stunned Hakaalt soldier; how could we move
her, set the grenades, elude the remaining guards and get out of the
building in one piece before the blast? He looked up at me in question. “I
can’t carry her,” I replied. “Not with my shoulder like this; I’ll carry
the canister of chips.”

Tuvok turned to Delwien.

“I won’t touch her! You want to save her–you carry her. I’ll cover for
you.”

Tuvok just tilted his head. “Can you hit a ten centimeter circle at
twenty-five meters?” Delwien bared his fangs, but didn’t otherwise reply.
Tuvok nodded to the wounded woman. “You will carry her.”

The soldiers outside had begun banging on both south and west doors.

“Give me your grenades and get to an exit,” I said, nodding to the one
through which I’d come, the only one that didn’t seem to have soldiers
waiting on the other side. “We’ll have twenty minutes once the grenades are
set–that’s the maximum limit available.”

The banging had stopped; now the Hakaalt were trying to cut their way
through with blasters.

Tuvok shouldered his rifle and kept one grenade, picked his way over
Hakaalt bodies to the north door…leaving Delwien to collect the
unconscious woman. I’d never forget the look on his face as he picked her
up: like a man asked to handle wormy meat. Hyperaware of every second,
counting under my breath, I concealed grenades around the room and set
them. I got to 57 before, canister of computer chips in hand, I joined
Tuvok and Delwien. “Clock’s running. Let’s get out of here!” I half-shouted
it even as a burned section of one west door fell in.

We were out before the Hakaalt could see well enough through the smoke to
shoot– but it wouldn’t take them long to follow. I wished I knew a shorter
route back; I kept glancing at the timer in my hands, watching the red
numbers decrease.

Even burdened as he was, Delwien could jog a bit; apparently the aka’Chee
shared something of Vulcan strength. The corridors were deserted in this
direction. There couldn’t be many Hakaalt left and I suspected all of them
had converged on the computer core so they were behind us. But I could hear
them: the boom of booted feet on metal. They knew we were headed out and
weren’t bothering to split up. How many followed, I didn’t know, hadn’t had
time to count. I led, canister under my left arm and phaser held by the
wounded right. Tuvok brought up our rear, turning every few seconds to
glance back.

“This is mad,” Delwien puffed. “Why are we carrying this sack of vomit? She
drags at me. Let me drop her. They’ll find her; it might even slow them
down.”

“It is logical,” Tuvok agreed.

“No,” I said. “They don’t know this building is going to go up. They’ll
leave her to collect later, or leave someone to stay with her.”

“So in order to save her, you’ll risk letting them catch us?” Delwien
hissed.

The sound of Hakaalt boots was much closer, just around a bend behind.

“It was in order to save you that we went up against the Hakaalt in the
first place,” I reminded him. “We do the right thing, not the easy thing.”

At that moment, one of the pursuers drew close enough to get off a shot,
not well- aimed but it made my heart thud all the same. Tuvok shot back and
I glanced at the timer: four minutes had passed since the first grenade had
been set. At this pace, I guessed us to be less than ten minutes from the
exit. I hoped Delwien could keep the pace or we would have to leave the
woman. I knew we should have; it was the sensible thing to do–the logical
thing, as Tuvok had said–and I wasn’t sure why it was so important not to.
I didn’t love the Hakaalt any more than Delwien, had killed my share
already today and the woman hanging limp over Delwien’s shoulder had shot
at us right along with the rest. It was foolish to carry her to safety when
it slowed us down so much. But I couldn’t tell Delwien to leave her.

The pursuing Hakaalt got off more shots; Tuvok and I fired back and they
dropped behind again. “They must have guards at the exit,” Tuvok said as we
jogged. “No doubt they plan to pincher us between or they would not
continue to stay beyond our range. They could easily have overtaken us by
now.”

“Maybe those guards they’re counting on are the ones we already
neutralized.”

“I would not count on it, commander.”

“Agreed. Let’s find cover to clear the ones off our tail before we get to
the exit.”

“You are in the lead,” he replied.

Cover wasn’t easy to find in a maze of corridors. We finally burst into a
two-story bay with a number of heavy metal barrels and cases. I pointed.
“There!” We dove behind them as Hakaalt entered on our heels. Tuvok was
already up and firing, picking off two of seven; I took another before the
remaining four ducked for cover themselves. At least the odds were more
even now. Delwien had dropped the woman to join us. She was awake, if
groggy. “What do you want with me?” she yelled, kicking out with bound
feet.

“Shut up!” I yelled back. “We’re saving your damn hide!”

“Right!” She pushed herself up on her knees and began shouting to her
fellows across the room. Quick as a mongoose, Tuvok turned, pinched her
into unconsciousness, but her shouts had raised the other Hakaalt to a
fury. Not only were we escaping eftri, but we’d kidnapped one of theirs in
the bargain. I could just imagine what they thought we might do to her.
Their rage made them careless, however, and we picked off two more easily.
“What is the time, commander?” Tuvok shouted.

I glanced at the clock. “We’ve got twelve minutes.”

Tuvok took down another Hakaalt and the last decided retreat was the better
part of valor, fled. But he probably knew a shorter way to the exit and
we’d have to watch for him. “Let’s go,” I said, grabbing the canister.

“Without her!” Delwien jerked his chin at the unconscious woman.

“No.”

“Damn you, grounder-lover! She doesn’t want our help any more than we want
to give it!”

“Pick her up,” I snarled.

We faced off for a precious few seconds then, breathing out, he did as
ordered. We started off. The exit was no more than a hundred meters and we
slowed before we reached it, Tuvok in front this time and I behind,
covering Delwien. But there was no sign of guards or the missing Hakaalt. I
just hoped the kid hadn’t gone back to see what damage we’d done to the
computer room. Another glance at the chronometer said we had six minutes.

When we reached the door, Tuvok keyed it open and ducked out, rifle at
ready. No fire. Delwien followed, and I after. Still no fire. Then I
noticed. “The Hakaalt we stunned are gone.” I barely had time to complete
the sentence before a blast came out of the bushes, catching me in the
shoulder–my good shoulder. I dropped like a felled buffalo, saw Delwien
dump the Hakaalt and dive for cover, firing, even as I lost consciousness.

I don’t know how much later I woke, but the sky was on fire. Too groggy to
register pain quite yet, I turned my head, saw Tuvok’s boot not far away.
“I guess I missed the Big Bang, eh?”

The boot moved. He bent over me. “Commander?”

“What happened after I…after things went black?”

Now I could feel my blaster-burned shoulders–both of them. I wanted to
scream. I wanted some of Paris’ painkiller, and shifted to distract myself.
It didn’t help, just made things worse.

Face troubled, Tuvok had turned away. “Delwien Trader will be dead soon
unless I can locate the doctor, though even that may be futile.” He nodded
to another figure across the clearing. From what I could see, Delwien had a
hole in his side the size of my hand. He wasn’t bleeding, but I wouldn’t
give him long with an abdominal wound that bad. “How long have I been out?”

“One hour, fourteen minutes. The explosion destroyed this half of the
installation and also collapsed the dam. We cannot begin to cross the river
in the dark, and may be unable to cross it by daylight.”

He said it so matter-of-factly. Didn’t Vulcans ever have a moment of
despair or panic? Irritated, I turned my head back to the fire in the sky.
“Will it burn the forest around, do you think?”

“Unknown. But the temperatures are cool and the forest rather too wet for a
fire to spread easily.”

“Well something’s gone right.” I closed my eyes. “What about the woman?”

He nodded to her, still unconscious, next to Delwien. She appeared to be
unhurt.

“I must locate the doctor and Lieutenants Paris and Kilpatrick,” he said.
“I did not dare depart before you woke.”

“Fine. Give me a phaser. I’ll keep an eye on her.”

He studied me. “Can you hold it?”

“I’ll manage.”

A little doubtful yet, he handed one over, then helped me prop myself
against a tree, set a water canister near me. Rising, he disappeared into
the foliage.

Time slid by. I didn’t lose consciousness again but I can’t say I was
entirely all there. I did manage to get a look at what remained of my
shoulder. It was better than Paris’ wound, and much better than Delwien’s.
I was just glad Delwien was unconscious– hoped he stayed that way. I
doubted he’d live even if Tuvok did locate Anyas and I’d just as soon he
died without pain. I wondered what I’d tell Ata. “I made your partner carry
an ungrateful Hakaalt woman all the way to the exit and it got him killed”?
But in the end, carrying her hadn’t killed him. He’d dropped her before
being shot; I’d seen him. Still, if he hadn’t been carrying her, we
would’ve made the exit sooner. He might not have been shot at all.

Might, might, might. I’d made a choice. I couldn’t undo it any more than I
could’ve left that wounded girl–however ungrateful–to go up in flames
along with the computer core …or any more than Janeway could’ve left the
Star March to be cut apart by the Splendid Pyre in the first place.

I drank half the canister; my throat was parched.

I had nothing to mark time but the wheel of stars overhead. As above, so
below: thus my ancestors had taught that the heavens mirrored things of the
middle world. My ancestors had known the stars well, had made calendars to
count the years as elaborate as anything the Babylonians knew. And I’d seen
the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. I’d set that against what the Romans
built any day of the week. We did good work, my people, and I recalled
Delwien’s pride when he’d reminded Tuvok the kin had been in space longer
than the Hakaalt. I understood that kind of pride. I thought of the Picts
and Celts–the proto-British–painting themselves blue and spiking their
hair with lime while my people had built elaborate mounds along the
Mississippi and raised complex cities in Mexico. Seven hundred years later,
they’d called us primitive.

“What are you grinning at, eftri?”

I dropped my gaze. The Hakaalt was awake. “I was just thinking about
absurdities.”

She snorted, propped herself on an elbow to see the dying fire on the
horizon. Its reflection turned her red hair even redder and illumined the
shock on her freckled face. “What’d you do!”

“Blew it up.”

Furious, she rolled all the way up to her knees. I raised the phaser a
little to aim its nose at her chest. She glared at it, at me. “Am I your
hostage?”

“No. We’ll leave you here with some rations when we go.”

Shaking her head, she dropped back onto her ass. “I don’t understand you,
but then I don’t guess eftri ever make sense.” She kicked at Delwien’s
prone form.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I told her. “He’s the one who carried you out.
Otherwise, you’d be crisped Hakaalt bacon about now.”

She stared at me. I couldn’t tell the color of her eyes in the dark, but
the freckled spots stood out across her nose. It made her look young. Not
that she was old. I’d have guessed her no more than twenty-five if she were
human. “*Why*?” she asked finally. “If you didn’t want a hostage, why save
me?”

“You were stunned. I won’t leave a wounded person to certain death. It’s
not… civilized.” I smiled slightly.

“What would eftri know about being civilized?”

“You’re alive, aren’t you?”

“I’m alive and all my fellows are dead! Your choices make no sense, eftri!”

“Your fellows were shooting at us. But I don’t kill people in cold blood.”

“And you’re implying we do?”

“What would you call the Warren Pyre? I’d call it systematic genocide, and
pretty cold-blooded, if you asked me.”

“We have to protect ourselves!”

“Against what?”

She opened her mouth but stopped short, as if overwhelmed by the effrontery
of my question. “Why–against everything! Your people stand against
everything we hold dear!”

“How do you know? Have you ever met another Terran?”

“Another…what?”

“I’m Terran, from a planet called Earth in what we name the Alpha Quadrant
of this galaxy. We were thrown out here into your quadrant, the Delta
Quadrant, by accident. We’re just trying to get back home.”

Despite herself, she looked curious. “You’re not from here? Then what are
you doing helping the *kin*?”

“They needed our help. We don’t believe in leaving the helpless to
die–which is why you’re alive, too. When we first ran across the kin, one
of your battleships was cutting their ship to pieces. We intervened.”

“They’re criminals! They must be cleansed!”

“One of those ‘criminals’ saved your life, and he’s lying there beside you
now–dying or dead already because he carried you to safety. He didn’t want
to do it. He hates your people, and with good reason, I’d say. But it was
the *decent* thing to do, so he did it. As for Hakaalt notions of
‘cleansing,’ do you call ‘cleansing’ toying with a severely crippled ship,
cutting into them again and again without delivering a killing blow–making
them suffer thoroughly first? That’s not cleansing, it’s torture. No living
thing deserves that, no matter what they’ve done. Certainly the children
who were on that ship didn’t.”

She was momentarily dismayed, a bit perplexed, then retorted, “You
should’ve stayed out of what wasn’t your business.”

“And as long as good people keep silent, savagery can continue unchecked.”

“We’re not savage!”

“What your people were doing looked pretty savage to us, lady.”

“We’re not like that.” She sounded sulky. “The kin ship must have been
fighting back.”

I nearly laughed out loud. “In the shape they were in? They couldn’t have
hurt one of your battlecruisers any more than a bug could swat me! Quit
mouthing justifications and take a good look at what’s going on around you
for a change.”

“The eftri are evil!”

“Have you ever met one?”

“I’ve seen them! I know what they’re like!”

“Have you ever *met* one, talked to one, got to know one?” She didn’t
reply. I nodded again to Delwien beside her. “Now you have. Take a good
look. He’s really dangerous, isn’t he?”

Almost against her will, she did as I said, then reached over to put a hand
on his chest. “He’s still breathing. Maybe he’ll live.”

“I doubt it.”

I watched the expressions play across her face, unable to guess what she
was thinking. After a while, she laid back down and turned on her side away
from me and Delwien both. I doubted she slept. I didn’t.

A couple hours later–well into the night–Tuvok returned with Anyas and
Kilpatrick, Paris limping along, leaning on the Vulcan. The Hakaalt started
up and scooted back against a tree, said nothing to the newcomers. Paris
looked her up and down while Anyas went immediately to me, ran a scanner
over my wound then administered a painkiller. I sighed in relief. He moved
on to Delwien’s body.

“Where’d you get her?” Paris asked of the Hakaalt.

“She was unconscious. We carried her out,” I said. “Or rather, Delwien
did.”

Paris snorted and let Tuvok lower him to the ground. I motioned with the
phaser for Kilpatrick to join our Hakaalt guest by the tree. Reluctantly,
she went. The Hakaalt stared at her. “Why is she bound?”

“She betrayed us,” I said. “Blew up a room full of children, all to prove
herself to your superiors.”

“*I* didn’t do it!” Kilpatrick snapped. “And Bintar wasn’t trying to hurt
any kids.”

“No, he was just trying to kill two people and didn’t give a damn who got
in the way. You’re his accomplice. Don’t weasel out of it. You’d both have
been happy to hand us over to her people to save yourselves.”

The Hakaalt woman had narrowed her eyes. “The traitor,” she said, then spit
in Kilpatrick’s face.

“Bitch,” Kilpatrick replied, trying to wipe spittle off her cheek with her
arms tied. No one moved to help her. Since one arm was broken, Tuvok had
bound only the good one behind her back, secured the other across her
front. It looked awkward.

“What will you do with her?” the Hakaalt asked.

“She’ll stand trial when we get back.”

The woman turned to me, cocked her head. “Even facing the Pyre you would
have a trial for one whose guilt is obvious?”

“When we lose sight of justice, we lose sight of our humanity.”

The Hakaalt didn’t reply, instead she stood up. “I have to go…relieve
myself.”

And Kilpatrick was the only woman present. I glanced at Tuvok; he just
nodded imperceptibly. “I shall accompany you.” She stared at him. “I shall
not violate you.”

“You could just untie me.”

“I am afraid I cannot do that.”

“I give my word I won’t run. I swear by all the gods and on my honor as a
soldier of the Appointed.” Then, with bitter humor, “I don’t have a weapon
and where would I go? You blew up my base. He”–she nodded to me–“said you
were going to leave me behind anyway.”

I thought back to our first encounter with the Hakaalt: after the Splendid
Pyre had been destroyed, Voyager dead in space, the other ships had backed
off instead of finishing the job. A matter of honor. Every culture has its
own code. “Let her go,” I said to Tuvok.

He seemed to have reached the same conclusions I had because he untied her.
She rubbed her wrists, then disappeared into the bushes. I turned my
attention to Anyas still working over Delwien. “How is he?” I asked.

The Kithtri sat back and rubbed his forehead, desperation clear to read on
his dusky face and in his voice. “There’s nothing I can do. He’ll be dead
before the sun rises.”

None of us said anything; death had become too familiar. It had lulled us
into a kind of numb acceptance. I knew the feeling–it was the same
fatalism that had gripped so many in the maquis: we would all be dead soon
so why grieve for one who had gone there a little ahead of us?

But I hadn’t felt that way about Magda. Her death still gutted me. It was
something I could only think about around the edges, like a man who
carefully tongues a sore tooth.

The Hakaalt woman came back, sat down again–but not next to Kilpatrick.
None of us told her to move. She’d sat beside Delwien.

“What’s your name?” I asked her. Surprised, she glanced up. “What’s your
name?” I asked again.

“Elis,” she replied. Nothing more.

“Is that a surname or a given name?” Paris asked.

She shrugged. “It is what you may call me.”

We left it at that.

For the rest of that night, we slept fitfully and in rotation. It was cold,
and someone had to stay awake to guard Kilpatrick. No one seemed to worry
about guarding the Hakaalt. I understand she stayed awake the whole time,
watching as Delwien slipped further away from us. I tried but couldn’t stay
conscious for a vigil. I wasn’t a Vulcan and I’d already been up
forty-eight hours. As Anyas had predicted, he died somewhere towards
morning. Paris–whose watch it had been–told me later that Elis had even
held his clawed hand toward the end. I wondered what he’d have thought of
that: to be shown into the spirit world by a woman of his enemies. And I
wondered what I’d tell Ata.

We built a cairn for him there in that place, thick enough that no wild
animals could get at him. None of us knew the burial customs of the
aka’Chee, but we knew we couldn’t take the body with us–not over the
torrent the river had become since the dam had fallen. We’d be lucky to
cross that ourselves. I took the two shuttle-drive panels that I’d given
him to keep, but left his communicator pin attached in case we got a chance
to beam the body up later. Then we went on to the river. It had been only
thirty-two hours since we’d left Voyager but that seemed like days. Paris
had to be dragged in our wake on an improvised gurney. It made slow going
but we saw no other Hakaalt besides Elis, who chose to go with us. “My only
means off this rock is on the other side,” she said simply. “That’s where
our ship hangers are.”

None of us entirely trusted her, but we didn’t distrust her, either. And in
any case, she had no weapon. If she was going to do us some final mischief,
it would probably come later. So we let her accompany us. We’d need her as
much as she needed us. Neither Paris nor I would be up to the backbreaking
effort of paddling a raft across that raging river, which left Anyas and
Elis–and Tuvok. No one even considered Kilpatrick. Tuvok had said nothing
about the prospect of paddling a raft, but he’d been even more silent and
forbidding than usual that morning. I knew how he felt about boats,
remembered the story he had told about his brother’s death and his own
reaction: “I have not set foot on a boat since that day, and have no wish
ever to do so. This is not logical, but it is true, nonetheless.”

It took us a while to find the copse of trees where Paris and I had hidden
our raft. It was a good thing we’d decided to hide it, and tie it up well,
too, as the breaking of the dam had let loose a flood which had swept down
both sides of the river, obliterating trees and anything else less than
twenty meters from the banks. Above the flood-line, one could see ravages
but rooted objects still remained, including the tree with our raft tied to
it. There was no sign of Delwien’s. Even the tricorder could not pick up
any readings of the rubber from its composition. It must have been swept
away. Born and raised in space, I doubted he’d thought to tie it, much less
drag it inland before doing so.

That left six people and one raft designed to carry no more than four
adults.

“Tuvok,” I said, “you and Elis, Anyas and Kilpatrick will go across in the
first load. Leave Anyas to guard Kilpatrick, then come back for Paris and
I.”

The Vulcan stared at the swollen river through a much-thinned treeline.
“Perhaps I should remain behind to guard Kilpatrick. Anyas is lighter than
I.”

“And you’re a good deal stronger.” I stepped around to face him. “You can
do this. You’re not six years old any more.”

I’d seen plenty of looks that could kill in my day, but never one from a
Vulcan. “Is that an order, commander?”

“Do I need to make it one?”

There was a long silence. Paris watched knowing, but without a word. Elis
clearly had no idea what was going on; neither did Kilpatrick. She’d never
been a regular at my storytelling circle. I couldn’t guess what Anyas knew.
His expression was hooded. Since Magda’s death, he’d become all inscrutable
Kithtri, mostly silent, concealing his thoughts and feelings as if he’d
donned invisible veils.

Finally Tuvok turned away. “Very well. I see the logic in your suggestion.”

Good–he hadn’t made me make it an order. Now he worked at rope knots which
had been pulled tight, soaked, then dried. After five minutes, he gave up
and phasered through the nylon. “Cutting the Gordion Knot?” I asked him.

He just snorted and, with Elis’ help, dragged the boat through the trees
down to the river’s new-flooded edge. I followed, covering Kilpatrick with
a phaser in my better hand; Anyas dragged Paris on his gurney. Paris had
the canister of computer chips.

We decided the canister should go across in the first pass. It was a gamble
either way. Elis squatted down to open its lid, put her hand inside and
sift fingers through the tiny chips. I don’t think she’d realized until
just that moment what it was we had in the canister. Her expression was wry
but she said nothing. Funny. None of us had asked her yet about the web
itself. I doubted most of the Hakaalt understood the way the web worked any
more than most Starfleet understood a tractor beam. But as one of the
specialists charged with activating it, she must know something of it. I
should ask how it worked–demand she tell us even–but found my mouth
sealed as if the topic were taboo and speaking of it would break the
fragile peace which survival had thrust on us. There were a lot of things
we weren’t discussing. I wondered how many of the Hakaalt dead in the
blasted building above us had been her friends. But she was a soldier. She
understood that when people were shooting at you, you shot back and hoped
your aim was better.

Tuvok used what was left of the rope to secure the canister as best he
could in case the boat capsized, then he held the craft still while Elis,
Anyas and Kilpatrick climbed in, Kilpatrick under Anyas’ phaser. Paris and
I watched from the bank, Paris with his useless leg and I with my useless
left shoulder. Finally they set off, Tuvok in the middle guarding
Kilpatrick for the first trip. Both Anyas and Elis knew more about boats
than he, knew how to paddle straight, at least.

“Maybe you should’ve let Tuvok stay to guard Kilpatrick,” Paris said.

“He’s stronger.”

“And you didn’t trust Elis to guard Kilpatrick.”

“Actually, I do–but I’d rather not tempt fate, all the same. My judgement
of enemies and friends hasn’t always been stellar.” The words came out
bitter.

Paris glanced over at me. “It’s because you want to trust people, see the
good in them. I wouldn’t knock that, commander.”

The irony of such words coming from Paris–the one man on Voyager I hadn’t
wanted to trust but who had proved far more trustworthy than some I
had–wasn’t lost on me. “Thanks,” I muttered.

Paris had turned away, his eyes following the slow, laborious progress of
the little craft amid the swift swirl of current. After a moment, he added,
“It’s one of the things that makes the captain trust you. Indian honor, I
guess.”

“Indians can lie as easily as white men, Paris. Sitting Bull was betrayed
by Indians. We never had pieces of paper with signatures to make us hold to
our word, but that doesn’t mean Indians never broke theirs. We’re human,
just like anyone else.”

He didn’t reply to that. We sat in silence and waited as the raft grew
smaller with distance, anxious but neither wanting to admit it. The others
had drifted far downriver but still floated upright, making steady headway
towards the opposite bank. When they made landfall, I let out the breath
I’d been holding. Grinning, Paris glanced over but kept any smartass
comments to himself.

It took a while for them to drag the boat back upriver–further upriver
than we were. No doubt, they were counting on drifting down again while
crossing. Finally Elis and Tuvok climbed back in, Tuvok sitting aft. They
made faster progress, perhaps because the boat was less weighed down, or
perhaps because Tuvok was a stronger paddler. He seemed to have caught on
how to do it and was able to steer with little problem. Still, all told,
the first crossing and their return had taken a couple hours. It was
mid-afternoon already and at this rate, we’d be lucky to reach the shuttles
by evening. The delay made it just that much more likely the Hakaalt would
come to see what had happened to their installation. We weren’t home free
yet. We’d likely have to shoot our way out of here.

When they struck land on this side, I tried to help them pull the boat up
but my wounded shoulders prevented it. I could hold a phaser and that was
about it, apparently. Elis and Tuvok lifted Paris into the raft, then
pushed it out a little and held it still while I waded to join him. Dirty
brown river water closed over my leg and poured inside my boot, making me
gasp. “That’s colder than Necheyev’s tit!” It was said under my breath but
Tuvok’s Vulcan hearing still caught the words and he gave me one of those
*looks*: a combination of “How could you possibly know?” and “I would have
thought better of you” with just a hint of “I couldn’t agree more.” It made
me laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Paris asked as I settled down in the raft.

“Nevermind.”

We were almost to the other side before we ran into problems. The crossing
had been hard–Elis and Tuvok panting against the current and me unable to
do a damn thing to help–but mostly smooth. When we had passed beyond the
normal river bottom, however, floated over what had been bank,
something–rock or log–scraped the bottom of the raft. It was probably a
small miracle nothing had done so before. I could hear the reinforced
rubber tear. Air began to bubble out beneath us. “How deep is it here?” I
called to Tuvok over the roar of the water.

“Unknown,” he called back. “But it is the current which poses a danger, not
the depth.”

The tear may not have been large but the boat was sinking. There was no way
we could reach the shore. Autumn-cold water poured over the rim as the raft
lost buoyancy. “We’ve got to abandon!” Elis shouted.

“I can’t swim right now!” I shouted back.

“I’ll help you!”

It was rapidly becoming a moot point, anyway–the boat sinking whether or
not we were ready. Elis chucked her paddle and rolled out behind the craft
so it didn’t go over her. The shore was perhaps fifteen meters away but the
current was so strong, it may as well have been a hundred. Paris rolled out
after her, then pulled me in. The motion tore the raft out of Elis’
fingers. Only Paris was holding it now while she held on to him and me
both.

Tuvok was still sitting in it–frozen.

“Get the hell out!” I shouted, spitting water as my head went under for a
moment. When I came back up, he was still there. Elis and Paris were
shouting at him but, paddle caught in hand, he ignored them, stared at
memories. The water was up to his waist.

The boat struck something else and rolled, dumping him out and tearing away
from Paris’ grasp. I couldn’t see anything but churning brown water. Elis
lost her hold on me and wild current twirled me over and away. I kicked
against it with my legs and dragged with my better arm, but futilely. It
was a losing battle. The bank was right there under my feet but I couldn’t
get a purchase. I couldn’t breathe either; panic gripped me. I kicked
harder, but to less effect.

Then someone had me, arm wrapping over my chest, bearing me up. I couldn’t
see who it was and grabbed back reflexively. The other twisted deftly free,
hauled me towards shore until we could get our feet under us and stand
upright. The current still dragged at me but the water was only up to my
waist; I found myself facing Tuvok. He was panting, but all panic had left
his face. “Are you well?” he asked.

“I will be,” I replied. “And thanks. I would have drowned.”

Lips twisted, he replied, “Not on my watch,” in a surprisingly colloquial
turn of phrase. Then he waded out of the river. I followed, grinning.

Elis had pulled Paris up onto the grass and they were stretched out like a
pair of drowned cats in red and blond. Upriver, I could see Anyas
approaching at a fast clip, marching Kilpatrick before him.

It took an hour to recover breath and build a new gurney for Paris. Then we
debated whether to head back for the ships tonight under cover of darkness,
or get some sleep and risk that they might be more heavily guarded by dawn.
We decided to head back tonight. Our rations were gone and the need for
food–and to elude Hakaalt–overweighed exhaustion. We caught a few more
hours of rest, then stood to prepare for the last leg of the journey. By
that point, evening had fallen.

Elis ran a hand through her mussed hair; she looked as bedraggled as the
rest of us. “This is where we part,” she said. “If you really meant what
you said about letting me go.”

“We meant it,” I told her.

She nodded, glanced down then back up. “They’ll be coming to see what
happened to this part of the net. They’re probably here already.”

“Yes,” I said. “We’ll deal with it.”

“Tell them–if you make it past lift-off, send a message on frequency 42.
That’s our standard frequency. Tell them you’ve captured the ships and are
taking them back to the fleet for study. Don’t use visual. Say it was
blasted out in the fight. Or say the little ships don’t have it. The pass
for the day–” She hesitated. “The pass for the day was to have been
‘Warren’s gift.'” She turned away then, started to move off through the
trees.

“Elis!”

She turned back.

“Thank you.”

She just nodded.

“Can you tell us about your net? What powers it, how counteract it…?”

“I could, but”–she tilted her head towards Kilpatrick–“then I would be
like that one. To help you get off this planet alive…that’s a matter of
honor. But to give you more, I’d break my oath. You understand?”

She really seemed to need to hear that I did. “I understand,” I said. “Go.
But remember what happened here. Remember what ‘eftri’ are really like.”

“I will.” And she was gone.

Night was falling before we’d made it back to the ships. As I suspected,
they were under guard now even if they hadn’t been when Delwien had left
them–quite a guard, too: twelve heavily armed Hakaalt and we had only a
few half-charged phasers left. My rifle had been lost when the boat
capsized, and Paris’ phaser with it. We had four weapons left. But Lady
Luck, who had been so much against us in past months, decided to grant us
one small favor. Even as we watched, a caped Hakaalt commander approached
the squad guarding the ships and called away half the unit.

That left six.

We waited until commander and soldiers had disappeared into the distant
building before making our move. Then while Anyas held Kilpatrick, Tuvok
and I fanned out and, with Paris, phasered the six remaining guards into
unconsciousness. Hauling Paris aboard Neelix’s ship, we strapped him into
the pilot seat. Even on pain-killers, he could fly. He was just very
*happy* about it. I remained with him while Tuvok took Kilpatrick and Anyas
on board the shuttle. We replaced the drive boards I’d snitched from each
ship, then prepped for lift-off. By the time the Hakaalt realized we’d
boarded, we’d completed primary launch sequences and had shields up. Their
blasters couldn’t do much against ship shields. Within ten minutes of
boarding, we were blasting off into the night of this nameless world.

“Hakaalt fighters coming in at four o’clock, commander. Can you shoot while
I pilot? I could do it, but I’d rather concentrate on flying. At least
Neelix set up this tincan to be flown by one person.”

“I’ll manage,” I said from the co-pilot’s seat. I had the use of only one
hand but the computer was designed to do targeting; it was more accurate
than a human being in any case.

As Neelix’s ship had far less firepower than the shuttle, it was fortunate
Paris flew it. He executed complex evasive maneuvers while Tuvok in the
shuttle did most of the firing. I wondered what they’d done with
Kilpatrick. Probably tied her up in the back. There were five Hakaalt
fighters after us and no chance to try the ploy Elis had suggested. I
wondered what had become of her, what story she’d told her superiors.

As we cleared the planet’s rim, enemy ships hot on our tail, we saw it.
“Shit,” Paris muttered.

A Hakaalt net stretched over lightyears, purple against black in a
funnel-grid corridor down which I knew the fleet would drive the ships of
the exodus. The whole of it filled this sector, more daunting than any
Tholian web, and far more deadly.

But it had one gaping hole. A hole we’d made. That cheered me unreasonably.
“Take us through, Mr. Paris.”

“Aye, sir.”

We aimed right for it, Tuvok flying tight wing on our left. The Hakaalt
must have thought us mad, flying back *in* to the devil’s mouth, as it
were. But they didn’t follow us past the funnel perimeter. They chased us
to the edge of the hole, then sat hovering like a mobile plug. We were home
free…if one ignored the purple webbing around us. I glanced back at the
canister of computer chips which sat strapped in a spare chair. We’d see
what secrets we could learn from those, and even if we learned nothing,
this hole in their precious net wasn’t going to be fixed any time soon.

Getting up, I made my way to a storage bin, got rations for Paris and I.
“Can you pick up Voyager on you long-range?”

“Not yet, but I’d estimate only about eight hours from here at warp three.
This bucket won’t go any faster than that.” He took his share of rations
from me.

I leaned back in the second seat and bit into a bar that was supposed to
taste like chocolate but didn’t. Eight hours till I saw Kathryn again.
Eight hours till I had to tell Ata about Delwien. Eight hours till I could
deliver Kilpatrick to the justice of her peers. “Have Tuvok send a message
to Voyager as soon as we’re in range. I want the captain to know we’ve got
our culprit.”

End Section XII

————————————————-

————————————————-

Section XIII: Janeway

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree

Are of equal duration. A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails

On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel

History is now and England.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”

Waiting was hell. Worrying about Chakotay and the rest was hell. So hard,
to accept the cost of loving.

The net was up. Our spirits fell. It didn’t take genius to see the Pyre in
the terminal star at the throat of the vast web.

We didn’t know whether to hope that our people out chasing Kilpatrick and
Bintar, and the others out gleaning supplies among the nearby asteroids and
star systems, were trapped in the funnel with us–or stuck out there,
isolated, alone, weak and helpless and exiled from all they new, in a
universe of Hakaalt.

The only thing that gave me any sense of optimism was that one gaping hole.
It could mean good news.

It could as easily mean bad news.

I’m the captain. I was very controlled.

For this I want a medal, someday. Heroism in the face of outrageous
fortune, or something like that.

The supply run staggered in.

Chakotay’s posse was still missing.

Two hours.

Still missing.

We all pretended it wasn’t a concern. Went about our business.

Just over ten hours later, we got a call. They were on their way home.
Delwien was dead. Bintar was dead. Tom and Chakotay were wounded. They had
a long, long trip home, and there was always the possibility the Hakaalt
would intercept them.

But they were coming home.

Nineteen hours and forty-eight minutes after the web went
up–precisely–Wildman whooped. “They’re here!”

The bridge was filled with cheering.

I assigned Wildman the con. Raced down to the shuttle bay.

Oh, it hurt to see them. Wonderful to see them; but they limped off the
ships like–well, like what they were. War victims. Walking wounded…. and
not walking all that well. Dirty. Bloody. Shaken and battered. Delwien was
missing. Qiral would have to reassign Del and Ata’s foster after all.
Bintar was missing. Tom Paris hobbled out leaning heavily on Chakotay, both
grimacing and grinning at the same time. Judging by the look in their eyes,
they were both tanked on a combination of endomorphins, painkillers, pain,
and pride in their victory… Very tanked. Chakotay had a great hole burned
in the shoulder fabric of his uniform–and judging by how he moved, that
was only the most obvious of several injuries. Anyas was wobbling along on
a game leg. Tuvok looked like he’d been through a flash flood. So did Tom
and Chakotay. Kilpatrick alone looked utterly fit and able. And she was
drawn into herself, hands shackled. She looked blankly around, and
commented listlessly, “It stinks, here. The Hakaalt were right: we stink.”

They stood at the foot of the ramps. Looked for all the world like a sappy
reenactment of the Spirit of ’76, complete with bandages. No fife, though.
I wondered if Chaim would come fill in with his harmonica. Harry, with his
clarinet. I stood on the deck of the shuttle bay.

Chakotay stood at attention, as best he could with Paris draped over him,
face filled with mischief and pride and weariness mixed. “Commander
Chakotay, reporting. We’ve … we’ve completed our assignment.”

Bloody, but unbowed. Offering the traditional language, and the
formalities, partly in seriousness, and partly as a joke. I nodded. “So I
see, commander. Welcome home.” I gestured for the med-techs to get Paris on
an anti-grav gurney. When he grumbled, I sighed. “What is it about you,
Tom? Do you have to do everything bass-ackwards and rammed through a nettle
patch?”

He laughed, and huffed… and let himself be settled.

Tuvok took Kilpatrick’s elbow. “If I may escort the prisoner to the brig?”

“Dismissed.” I didn’t meet her eyes.

The med techs and the rest of the away team began the slow procession.
Chakotay held back.

I smiled at him. Held out a hand.

He stepped across the space. His arm was too stiff to wrap around my
shoulder. We faked it, his hand brushing my thigh, my arm around his waist.
“You had better go to sickbay along with Paris. They won’t be able to fix
it all, but it will be better than nothing.” He snorted. “Hard trip?” Not
that I needed to ask.

“Hard trip.”

We walked along, following Paris and Tuvok. Anyas moved wearily.

We parted company in the turbo lift; Anyas, and Paris with his med-techs,
and Chakotay; all going to sickbay. Tuvok, and Kilpatrick and me continuing
on. To the brig.

It didn’t take long to check her into a cell.

After, Tuvok and I sat in his office. I looked at him. “You should probably
go change.”

He raised a brow. “That is not necessary, captain.”

“Uh-huh. Suit yourself. How did it go?”

The run down was fast. Painful. Tuvok handed me the chips Chakotay and
Paris had confiscated from the Hakaalt computer. I hefted the canister in
my palm. “I see. I’ll have the kin ships start translations, and then send
the material to everyone who might know something”

“It may prove of some help in our current circumstances.”

I raised a brow, as “Vulcan” as he for the moment. “It may. I wouldn’t want
to get anyone’s hopes up. But it may. I’ll take these down to B’Elanna when
I go. Let her handle it. She may be in bed, but she can certainly still
read, and do some math.” I put the chip back on the desk. “What next?”

Tuvok sat. Heavily. Wearily. “I believe the next action must be the
court-martial of Lieutenant Kilpatrick.”

“We’re pretty busy.”

“It would be in order.”

I thought of the disruptions that had occurred while the team had been
gone. Yes… it was in order. We couldn’t leave it hanging, even with the
Hakaalt so near, and the ship in such bad shape. Some things have to be
done promptly. “You’re right. A drum-head court-martial is better than no
trial at all. You’ll represent her?”

He nodded. “I believe Commander Chakotay can prosecute. You wish the
proceedings to be closed?”

“No. Physical access limited. But put in an open comm link. Full access.
The crew deserves to know what we decide, and why, and how it’s done.”

“It may lead to problems of morale.”

“Tell me about it. It may also help. At least they’ll know we’re not…” I
pinched the bridge of my nose, fighting a battle between my old style of
command, and the new one I was learning. “Voyager isn’t a democracy. She’s
a military ship, when the chips are down, and her crew is under martial law
in the final reckoning. But they’re still people, and they need to know
that the idea is to be as fair as possible, and still hold the line. Open
access.”

“You are sure?”

“Open access.”

The trial happened that night, in the briefing room. We’d drawn all the
people we could reasonably bring in. Testimony from D’Amato. The Delaneys.
Tom. More. More people who’d dealt with Kilpatrick and Bintar.

Kilpatrick spoke. Eloquently. Passionately. Poisonously.

The decision was quick and unsurprising. Sentencing was put off till the
next day. I wanted time to think, and, to tell the truth, I needed to get
some sense of what the crew wanted, and needed done. A sentence is partly
punishment: but more, it’s for the good of the wronged community. I needed
to know what would be for the good of “Les Voyageurs.” They’d given their
all. Kept their faith, in the face of hell. I owed them.

That night Chakotay and I talked.

“I could have killed her, when she trapped us. For that. For Magda.” He
sighed. “She may not have intended Bintar to set the bomb–but she
definitely wanted to do something similar… just more effective and well
thought out. But no less deadly. I could have killed her. I thought I
remembered what it was like to hate. To get caught up in that. Caught me
off guard. The Hakaalt officer. Kilpatrick. All the old angers.”

I lay on the floor, arms wide, legs wide, trying to keep cool. He was
sprawled uncomfortably on the desk chair, injured arm propped on the desk.
Thanks to the last, least resources of the sickbay he had fair mobility in
the arm he called his “better” arm, and could at least get by with the bad
arm. Limited motion, and a lot of sudden gasps when he forgot. But, like
Tom and Anyas, who were also “walking wounded,” he could get by. But
between the heat and the injury, the bed was beyond bearing for either of
us. It was too warm to suffer the steamy swamp of heavily upholstered
furniture.

Even with the heat, I knew he held a bundle at his side. The quilt I’d made
for Magda. Some of her things. We hadn’t had a funeral yet. Might never get
the chance. But Anyas had released some of her possessions, so Chakotay
could mourn her in his own way, according to his own traditions. He slept
with the bundle, and was loving her home to the land of spirits. I sighed.
Drew a breath of dank air. “I… I believe you. Found out a bit about hate
myself.”

He grunted. I’d told him about the death of Star March. The death of the
priest. My own festering fury. I heard him stir restlessly, trying to get
comfortable. “Old, old story. Wish I knew how to get away from it.”

“Don’t know how. I still hate the Hakaalt. What they do: Teefei got it
right. Some things demand hatred. And, no matter what my grandmother would
say, the people who choose to murder: they deserve hate. But they don’t,
too.” I sighed, in the dark. The viewscreen was a field of violet light,
the web filling all there was to see. “I wish… I liked it back home. We
never seemed to get into things like this at home.”

“*You* never got into it. You were on the right side. Orthodox generic
‘Terran’–mainstream culture, home planet of humanity, all the economic
perks, all lined up with the cultural and political assumptions.
Conservative fleet ethic. You were on the ‘right’ side. The winning side.
It’s different when you’re minority, expected to step aside for the good of
the powerful many. A colonist. Colonies aren’t all so wonderful. Different
when you’re part of a people trying to find their way between yesterday,
today, and tomorrow. Trying to keep the memories, and remember all of the
things that happened…and still keep some hope, and forgiveness, and
pride. It looks different when you’re Maquis, and your people are dying for
a treaty they didn’t choose, and a peace that doesn’t include them.”

“Nng.” I rolled over on my stomach. Sourly bunched my hair high on my skull
and re-pinned it. “Thought all that was in the past, somehow. Study
Federation history books, and it looks that way.”

“History–”

“–Is written by the victors. I know. What was Dorvan like?”

“The Rez. The old Rez. The Rez before the last world war, when it was a
rural slum, and a prison, and a cherished home all at once. Only this time
we picked it for ourselves. I don’t know. Been to the Old Jewish Quarter,
in New York City?”

“Been through.”

“Like that. Our own ghetto. Our *chosen* ghetto. For some it was hope, and
home, and a chance to play out what we were supposed to be. A holy
sanctuary. Prophecy fulfilled. The sky opened, and we climbed up through it
in starships, and passed from the middle world to a new world. A new-found
world. Got to start over, make our lives what they should have been before
the white man ever came. Heaven on earth–or Dorvan V, to be exact. For
others it was hell. Poor, restrictive, dirty, cold. Tricked out in our
little costumes, pretending the last eight hundred years had and hadn’t
happened, keeping the hate, and the mourning, forgetting the holes in our
history and the gaps in our cultures. Pretending we could somehow turn back
time. Sectarian feuds, self-imposed poverty, self-imposed ignorance.
Playing Indians as much as being Indians. So much was lost, we had to fill
in the blanks with dreams and stories… and some of the stories were based
on what *your* people made up about us. I’m not the first jackass to play
the mystic, proselytizing fool with the manitto because I fell for the
white man’s idea that it was all tinsel and woo-woo. AmerInd guru stuff,
and lots of rainbows and fluff. Should have known better, with my father a
meda. But kids are jerks, and my father….”

He stopped. In the dark, I could hear him stir. In my mind I saw that blue
tattoo. The one I seldom think about. The memorial to his father, the
allegiance to his people. When he spoke again his voice was thick with
regrets. ” My father was a good man. But he thought he was doing me a huge
favor *allowing* me to see books. Letting me know the universe was out
there. Like I didn’t already know. Like I could forget. It was like he
forgot I was *older* than Dorvan V. Dorvan was only twenty years old when
he died. I was half grown when we left Earth! Most the time I was there it
was temp-shacks and dreams and fights over cultural identity. My father
wanted to forget I’d walked Earth. He wanted me to see it as though I’d
never lived there, had always lived on Dorvan, had always walked the old
ways. Approach Earth as though all our connections with it were centuries
in the past. As though it was a fascinating, intriguing archeological
puzzle. So he dragged me around playing sightseer, and worried because I
rejected it as make-believe. He acted like it was right to keep truth from
me, and only his generosity that made him let me look beyond Dorvan. That’s
what Dorvan was like. A paradox.”

“Ah.”

“You see?”

“Not really. Maybe more than I would have before this. Like the kin, yes?
Some of the time the memories are good, and keep you strong. And sometimes
they poison everything, and turn you inside out and make you bitter. Hold
you down.”

“Well, you’re in the ballpark. More complex than that. Too many different
notions of who we were, who we should be, too many… I don’t know.”

“No easy answers?”

“Uhh. No. No easy answers.”

We were still for awhile.

Just before I fell asleep, I managed to say something that had been nipping
at my heels for weeks. “I think… Sometimes I wonder. If we’d… if we
hadn’t… if we get out of this alive, we’re still likely to be out here
for a long time. All we have is our memories. What we once were. If we lose
them, we lose it all. If we keep them… I don’t want to be like the kin.
Like Dorvan. I want to go home.”

And, in the dark, his voice. A wry smile in it. “Living as a minority
culture, under siege, is an art. But… sometimes it’s worth it. A lot of
the time it’s worth it. What you lose in power you make up for in
community. Better than not surviving at all.”

The next afternoon, after a morning spent trying to make sense of the
Hakaalt web-information, when I wasn’t talking to various members of the
crew who all wanted a word with me about the trial the day before, I went
to talk to Kilpatrick. To ask her a question.

“What difference does it make?” Kilpatrick turned her face to the wall of
the brig cell. “I’m going to be dead in a few days anyway. What difference
does it make if you kill me now, or let the Hakaalt do the job?” She paced
the cell, restless. Her face was sour and disillusioned, her voice sharp,
like the hard bite of bitter melon in some Asian dishes Chakotay had once
made for me, or like Vulcan dath. “The whole universe is crazy. Might as
well die now as any time. At least if you execute me, I’m space dust, not
kindling for the Pyre. Or a decoration for a Great Ship.”

I watched. Felt a sisterhood with this woman, who in her own way had fought
for “the *right* ending.” To return to what she knew and believed in.
Fought like a tiger to go “home”–even if the best home she could find was
the clean, orderly Empire of the Hakaalt’s Heavenly Garden. To save herself
and the crew of Voyager from what she believed was the decay, and
destruction, and pointless death I had imposed on them.

I felt an awed amazement, a grateful sense of release. Two different women.
Two different ideas of how the world was supposed to work. Two completely
separate philosophies. The same, though: both too stubborn to know when to
quit. Too certain of our own vision of the ‘happy ending’ to let go, and
allow for the grace of some other ending. Too sure that there was no ‘hope’
but the hope we ourselves dreamed of to imagine that any other hope might
be as good, or as useful, or as desired by anyone else, unless the someone
else was a madman, or a villain, or somehow a little substandard.
Kilpatrick and Janeway: fanatics.

I’d tried to express that to Chessie and Chakotay that morning. The sense
of kinship I felt for Kilpatrick. Chakotay had sat, naked for the sake of
coolness, arguing loyally that, for all my pigheadedness, there was no
comparison.

Chessie had perched on a bookshelf. Listened to Chakotay and me brangle.
Then said, with careful obliqueness as he tried to find a loop-hole in his
psych-function gag-order, “I suspect that, if one compared psych profiles,
one might see certain similarities. But, Mama, I dunno if it matters to
you–but it sounds like the only scale Kilpatrick has for ‘the good of the
many’ is what she sees as being ‘the good of Kilpatrick.’ You have a fair
dose of that. Most people do. But you have other measurements of goodness,
too. Gotta be worth something.”

It was worth something. But still, I watched Kilpatrick pace, and felt
sisterhood. A sense of “there, but for the grace of God, am I.”

She turned, arms crossed over her chest, and glared at me. Even in the
loose shirt and shorts she was wearing as a “prison uniform” in the heat,
she was a beautiful woman. Such lovely black hair, such blue Celtic eyes.
But the beauty was marred by the curdled anger, and loathing she felt–for
us, for the kin. The fury not that she’d been wrong about the Hakaalt, but
that they had been wrong about her. Unwilling to take her in as one of
their own. She tipped her head, reminding me of Tom Paris’ cocky aggression
when he’d first come aboard. “What are you here for, anyway? It’s not a
zoo. I’m not a Vulcan le-matya to peer at in a cage. Looking for a little
absolution? Is that why you’re giving me the choice?” She was moving again.
The comparison with a le-matya in a cage was more disturbingly right than I
could express. Same angry, deadly grace. Same rage at confinement. Same
inability to believe there wasn’t still a way out. “Well, bugger it. I
don’t absolve you. If it weren’t for you, I’d be back where I belong. Not
stuck in this crazy place. I’d have a home of my own, on the Mediterranean
coast. This mission would have given me the last bit I needed to apply for
a little bungalow. And I was due a promotion. No more ‘Lieutenant
Kilpatrick.’ No more months down in Stellar. I had plans. Admiral Gilroy,
in diplomatic, needed an aide. I’d already spoken with him. Guess the
position is filled, isn’t it?”

She was pacing as hard as I ever have, eating up miles in a room the size
of a cubbyhole. It was a wonder she hadn’t worn a circle in the flooring.
As she got more and more wound up her pan-Gaelic accent was getting thicker
and thicker. “So here I am, stuck with a crazy captain, playing lost Roman
Legion, dragging around the eagle standard and wondering how to get the
hell back home from the barbarian lands. Only now the eagle is a fuckin’
goose. Not that it makes much difference–going to suffer the same fate.
Cooked geese, and have been since you blew the Array. Best we could have
hoped for is find a place, and make it home on our terms. Stay with the
37s. Or take over some backwater planet with some filthy primitive natives,
and bring them a little culture. A bit of the old Federation magic. Romans
among the British tribes. Good king Arthur, and Merlin. We could have lived
like kings. Little Roman villa in the wilderness, nice sleek native screw
between the sheets. Lot of little half-human babies to stir up the native
cultures. Then nothing. But at least we’d have had the good life. And the
other option was *this*: dead because we made the wrong move, at last.
Fought the wrong damned enemy.”

“We might have gotten home. Or ended up like the kin: changed. But alive. A
community.”

She jumped. I think she’d almost forgotten me in her angry monologue. Or
expected I’d have nothing to say. Her eyes focused on mine, and I saw a
look of uncomprehending amazement blossom on that fair, fair face. “You’re
barmy. You really, really are barmy.”

I shrugged. Approached the forcefield that closed off the cell.

The last time I’d spent time here, it had been with Magda. I’d learned
something then. This time I was learning a different lesson. “I heard it
all at the court-martial.”

“Ach.” She cut me off with a mock-gracious wave of her hand, an airy-fairy
throw-away gesture. “Court-martial–nice and neat. Tuvok was a splendid
defender. Everything in order. Make you feel better?” The false curiosity
was pure sarcasm.

“No.”

“Good.” She arched a brow. “I suppose it doesn’t matter much what you all
think. You’re all going to die anyway.” She paced to the back of the cell.
Didn’t look back. “So. What’s the verdict? I mean, with the crew. I know
what your verdict is: guilty as charged. Conspiracy to mutiny. Consorting
with the enemy. Espionage. Reckless endangerment. Abetting murder. Damn
Bintar, he should have asked me, I’d have fixed it all and Paris and that
old biddy would have been… never mind. Over. It’s over. What else? Oh,
*ye-e-e-e-sssss.* Treason against the state, as represented by the duly
appointed command of Voyager. All the bilge. I know what you think. But
what do *they* think?” She looked so vulnerable, in there. All anger, and
grief. Fighting to keep her dignity. Her pride. Scared. “Well? I’ll bet
there’s a lot of them wondering why it’s me in here, not you.”

I sighed. “Not many, I’m afraid.” I couldn’t tell her the truth: that,
after the crew had watched her trial, reviewed the taped logs, skimmed
through the rants, and rages… so near as I could tell there were none who
sided with her. Not one. Plenty, I suspected, who felt a compassionate
understanding of her resentment of my choices. Plenty who could, given the
chance, have argued well into the next century about the decisions I’d
made. But not one who, seeing Kilpatrick rave, and puzzling out the complex
chains of idealism, arrogance, and self-centered righteousness that brought
her to her actions, would have chosen her over me. Not one. Not even
D’Amato.

I knew about D’Amato. He’d come to me in my readyroom, as I struggled with
the information Chakotay and the away team had brought back from the
installation. Made a completely unnecessary formal apology for his earlier
outbreak. Made a completely unnecessary declaration of loyalty. Made a
politely bloody comment about Kilpatrick, with an exquisitely indirect
insult to her parentage. Stated that, all in all, it was a bigger honor to
die for a cause than to live for nothing whatsoever. Then marched out
again.

He’d meant every word. Kilpatrick had done for me what I couldn’t do for
myself. At least for now, there was not one person on board who wanted to
be remotely like her. There was a lot of soul searching going on. A lot of
sudden conversions to idealism. I doubted that, were we to live, it would
last indefinitely. The tidal wave of people denying the possibility of
personal need, and the sudden alliance with all the most humanitarian
interpretations of every aspect of life in the Alpha Quadrant, was a bit
much to maintain for long. But the odds were we wouldn’t have long. And
even if we did–the name “Kilpatrick” had just entered into the language of
Voyager… to rank with Benedict Arnold, Hitler, Kodos. If we lived I knew
that, for years to come, my crew would be united in their disgust for Susan
Kilpatrick, and would build her actions, and her beliefs, and her life into
a symbol of the demon that lurked, waiting for all of us, tempting us to
evil. I’d already heard the murmurs as crew members talked together, in the
halls. “Better to die, than be Susan Kilpatrick.”

The biggest command issue I had coming from the crew was not a matter of
angry support for her–but real resentment that I hadn’t executed her
outright, the instant we found her guilty. I think a few of them would have
been quite happy if I’d read the verdict, stood, drawn my phaser, and
blasted her into atoms.

There aren’t many ‘death penalty’ crimes left in the human territories of
the Federation. Some within local world governments–but not in the
Federation proper. But Kilpatrick had managed to commit most of the few
that still rated death.

Which was why I was here, in the brig. “Kilpatrick, I’m sorry. I wish I had
time. But I don’t. Things are moving too fast. I just came to ask…”

“If I wanted to live my life like Suder, in a room by myself… or make you
kill me.” She turned. Paced back. There was a furious, contained rage in
her eyes. She stopped just short of the forcefield. “Too cowardly to make
the choice yourself? Too friggin’ limp? Can’t do a thing, and do it right,
and have done with? Like every damned other thing you’ve done out here?
Have to make a declaration, and then wait for all the rest of us to fall in
line, and nod like good little officers, and say, ‘Yes, ma’am, of course,
ma’am. As you say, ma’am. Don’t mind being out here, don’t mind crewing
with a bunch of Maquis traitors, don’t mind pretending that it’s just fine
to spend my life out here, don’t mind bending the Prime Directive this way
and that, don’t mind paying the price for your delusions, and your little
pet prejudices for this, and against that, don’t mind the bad food, and the
bull that we’ll be home any day, and the loneliness, and the dead end jobs,
and the eternal fuckin’ anomalies, and the never-ending hopelessness of it
all.’ After all, we’re a Starfleet crew. A Federation crew. All one big
happy family, and Mum Janeway sits at the head of the table and serves up
the Christmas goose, and smiles at us all, and God Bless Tiny Tim. Make you
feel good, captain, thinking what a fine, benign little dictator you are?
How nice to all the little people who make it possible? We all make nice,
and spew the party line: ‘She’s the captain.’ Then you sulk when you find
out that we’re not all lined up, like little baby geese in a queue. That
man of yours–he gives you his all, but let him say maybe you’re wrong, and
the eyes mist up, and the lower lip comes out. Face a choice and you waver,
and balk, and hide behind regulations, or freeze up, or storm, or go
charging in without thinking, and all because you have to be the one who
gets to be right. Every time. All the time. ‘She’s the captain.’ ” She
leaned close to the field–so close a stray hair brushed the border, and
made sparks. “Fine. You’re the captain. You choose: do I spend the next few
days in the brig, or do we end it now? *YOU* choose. After all this time
and all this trouble I’m not about to make it easy on you, or settle things
for your conscience. Either way, you choose, and you live with it.”

“It was intended as a favor. There’s not much I can offer.”

“Bugger your favors, *captain.* You wanted to do me a favor, you should
have taken us home, and screw the freaking Ocampa. We had no place in that,
no obligations. We would have been home, and the fuckin’ Maquis in jail
where they belong, and I’d be working as an aide to Admiral Gilroy. And I’d
be where I belong–out of the mud, out of the dirt. On the winning side. I
didn’t fight to get off Roisin Dubh to be a loser all over again, for a
bunch of dead ideals and endless stories about our glorious past. I heard
enough of those back on the colony. Hell, they’re still bragging about the
Cattle Raid of Cooley, a thousand years gone and more. Still chanting the
never-ending Battle of the Trees, and smiling over the fuckin’ Celtic
Twilight. The Cymry, the “People”, the fuckin’ Taffy-daffy Welshies run
Eisteddfodau, and we elect ourselves a bleeding bard,and wear silly ass
costumes, and march around, and then we all sing, and congratulate
ourselves on the survival of our shaggin’ damned culture, and talk
endlessly about which grammatical forms will survive in pan-Gaelic–the
Welsh, Scots, Irish, Manx, or Breton. Wonderful damned place. Wonderful
damned culture–built on a dream and a story and a song, which is about
right for a dead-end bunch of cloud-headed Celts. Been living with our
sheep too damned long, and swilling poteen. Bugger all that for a lark. I
wanted to be part of something *real.* Something that didn’t involve
consoling myself for my dirt and my scabs and the chilblains on my hands by
telling some old story about what wonderful people we all were. Screw
history, captain. Screw ideals. What matters is who wins. And thanks to
you, it isn’t me.” Her voice suddenly broke, and she slapped the forcefield
with her palm. The power arced and flared, and her arm tore back. Alarms
were going off.

Tuvok stepped in, his phaser drawn. “Trouble, captain?”

“No. It was… an accident. You can go.”

He studied us both. Nodded, and left, silent.

Kilpatrick was cradling her hand, swearing. Her face was red. Her eyes wet,
spangled with the first traces of tears. Her nose was running, very
unappealingly.

“The Federation wasn’t about winning, Susan. It was… it was about
stories, and songs, and dreams. The rest was just what we did to make sure
the stories and songs and dreams would all be safe.”

“Right. Tell it to the circle, captain. The cloud-headed dreamers. It was
about kicking the arses of whoever got in our bloody way… and enjoying a
clean home, and a tidy room, and a good meal after you’d kicked the
Klingons, and the Cardies, and whoever else raised their heads and said
‘our way, not yours’. And they felt the same. We were safe, and happy, and
warm, and well fed because we were the toughest bastards around, and the
richest, and the best compromisers. The best damned players out there. And
*that’s* what it was about. The dreamers ended up on Roisin Dubh, eating
weeds and rancid mutton, and singing songs of the old days. The rest of you
had more sense.”

What is true? The dream–or the cold practicalities? Expedience or ideals?
Then, now, or soon? How do you navigate, when the directions are unclear,
and visibility is zero?

Life is real. Food, and shelter, and health, are real. Choosing is real.
Love is real. Good will is real. Freedom may be real… I like to think so.
The rest–the rest seems to shift around, and change shape depending on who
you are, and where you stand.

I always, always preferred science. Its mysteries are far less confusing.
Until I got out to the Delta Quadrant I’d preferred command for the same
reason–the questions seemed simpler, the challenges the sort that can be
pretty well sorted out by a mission statement, existing precedents,
regulations, and service traditions. Simpler by far. Cleaner. Set a goal,
lay in your course, commit to a single outcome, never say die–and the rest
all fell into place.

“Kilpatrick, do you have a preference? Confinement, or death?”

“Not bloody likely. And if I did, damn-all if you wouldn’t be the last I’d
tell. You can go to the Pyre with it on your conscience, captain. I’m not
letting you off the hook.”

I sighed. “Very well.”

I turned, and left the main aisle of the brig. Went out to Tuvok’s office.

“Prepare to escort Lieutenant Kilpatrick to the transporter room in one
hour.”

Tuvok’s face didn’t give away a thing. “She stated a preference?”

“No.” When he didn’t comment, I turned away. “You said it, Tuvok. The night
all this started. ‘You choose, and then life goes on, and much of it will
be beyond your control. But you choose, and then you live within the
choice.’ I chose to fight for the kin. Kilpatrick chose to betray us. Now
it’s my turn to choose again. And I choose not to leave her, like a
festering infection, in a room. Choose not to make the rest of the crew die
beside someone they hate as a traitor. Choose to set us all free of her,
and see if we can’t start again–or at least end as a fellowship.”

“You have never believed in capital punishment. Even when… even when you
killed Tuvix, you believed that, in some way, he would also be saved in
saving Neelix and myself. But you chose to spare Suder. I had believed you
would hold that position in all instances.”

“Incredible self-indulgence on my part, wasn’t it: to think the answer was
absolute? That the benefits were beyond question? Sometimes they are. But
it’s never simple. This time–this time I choose to set us free. I choose.
And, if I’m lucky, I live within the choice. But I’m not counting on being
lucky. And if we are lucky–I don’t expect to sleep easy.”

An hour later, she died. It should be said–no, it must be said–that she
died bravely. I watched her from the transporter station, as she came in,
escorted by Tuvok and Verrier.

As they crossed the threshhold, she stopped. Looked at the room. Tuvok
moved to force her gently forward.

“Tuvok…” He turned, and looked at me. I shook my head.

Kilpatrick noticed. Smiled like a ferret, sharp toothed and fierce. “Why,
thank you, captain. Do I get a last request?”

My stomach tightened. Still… “It depends. What do you want?”

“Take me out of these fuckin’ shackles. I lived a free woman. I chose as a
free woman. Damned if I don’t think I should die as one.” She pushed her
hands forward, eyes mocking me, daring me to go along with her.

I could see Tuvok in my peripheral vision, restless. Security is trained to
keep control. Tuvok is inclined to do so anyway. He didn’t like it.

I licked my lips. Then nodded. “Let her go, Tuvok.”

He was silent. But he complied.

She stroked the skin on her wrists. Straightened. Then, head up, back
straight, she ascended the transporter pad. Queenly. She’d have made a good
queen. With a little Roman villa, and a sleek native screw. She’d have
carried it off with class. The good life.

She turned, and faced me. Locked her eyes to mine. “The Klingons have it
all wrong. There’s no such thing as a good day to die. But there are better
ways, and worse ways. I suppose this is as good as any. With a little luck,
yours won’t be so clean.” For the first time, I saw fear flash. She
swallowed, hard. Then, “At least it won’t stink. Lord, but I’m tired of the
stink. Do it, captain.” It was an order.

I reached out, and let her go.

It’s a clean death. Very clean. No more painful than beaming down. You just
never get put back together again.

Sometimes I think the transporter was the final reason we decided to limit
capital punishment. Not because we were so righteous, but because we never
will be. It is much too easy. And much too clean. It makes it easy to
forget the necessary questions, until after it’s too late. I still wonder,
sometimes, about Tuvix. Whether I should have done what I did, and killed
him, and won Neelix and Tuvok back. With Kilpatrick it was an easier
decision. Much more clear cut. Much cleaner. I hated doing it, but it
seemed to be the right thing to do.

It seemed so, then. I have that, anyway. It seemed so, then.

The morning after Kilpatrick’s execution the leaders of the Exodus met to
determine our course of action.

“Wildman says that the team from Metal March is prepared to beam over. The
rest are coming over in shuttles. We should be ready to start the meeting,
soon.” Tom gave a moan as he eased himself into his seat at the table. More
of my officers were filing, in, slowly, but the room was still nearly empty
except for me, and Chakotay, and Tuvok. “Oh… that hurts. I wish… the
holodoctor was able to give me a bit of help, but I miss the days of ‘wh

z’ and it’s all gone.” Tom stuck his leg out to one side, thick with
clumsy, primitive dressings. The Hakaalt weapon had done a number on him.
The holodoctor and the Order of Compassion had done the best they could for
the away team. Done more than could have been done a few centuries before.
Not enough. But he was, technically, walking, even if he was ‘walking
wounded.’ He looked over at me. “I like the hair. Setting a new fashion?”
He grinned at me from where he sat. We were preparing for what we all
thought would be the last major strategic planning session of the Exodus.

Chakotay and I exchanged glances. I ran my fingers over the short crop that
had replaced my usual roll and pony-tail, or the braid I’d been wearing
more often since the heat began to rise. Pesh smiled at me, and, for a
second, I felt my throat close up. Swallowed, hard. “I hear the ‘utility’
look is going to be all the rage on Risa this fall. Wanted to get a jump on
the other women.”

“Told her she’d look pretty slick with a crop. This way we match.”
Chakotay’s voice was a bit husky, too. Bad as mine. He grinned. It came out
crooked.

Tom’s gaze flickered between the two of us. Apparently the current between
us was more obvious than I’d have liked. He looked abruptly away. “Pretty
nifty. ‘Course, she’s prettier than you. And I’m glad she didn’t decide to
get a tattoo, to go with it. But you make a pair. Looks good. Bet the
Delaneys get a bob by the end of the day.”

“Fair enough. But they’ll have to find another barber. Mine’s taken.”

Chakotay smiled. Laughed. I joined him. Better to laugh.

He’d cut it for me the night before.

It had been driving me crazy for so long. I was trying to brush it. Even
fresh from the sonic shower it felt lank, and damp, and sticky. The brush
pulled and snarled, and I swore. I was about to give up, and lash it back
in a braid, and call it quits, when I heard Pesh in the door of the
bathroom, behind me. He moved slowly, still stiff and sore, his arm bruised
and burned and aching from the Hakaalt shot he’d taken. Moved like an old
man. Still moved, though. I watched him. Shibui. Very beautiful. At least,
to me he was.

He met my eyes in the mirror. “Cut it.”

I froze for a moment, then shrugged. Put the brush down on the counter, and
picked up a tie-band, slipping it up over my wrist. “No need. Either we…
well. One way or another I might as well put up with it a while longer. No
need to cut it.” What I didn’t say was I couldn’t. He loved it too much. It
was worth the misery to know that he didn’t have to look at cropped hair,
and grieve for one more thing taken from us. It seemed such a little thing.
A choice. A gift I could give him. One he might never know enough to
understand; but that didn’t matter. It was my hair–but it was his joy. His
memories. In my mind I could see him smile, and hold a strand to his lips,
grinning like a goofy cat on catnip. Feel firm hands on my head as we made
love. Remember the slow, steady stroke of the brush, gentle, firm, and
careful, as he brushed it out in the evening.

I couldn’t take that from him.

I was about to reach back, gather it, and start sorting it into sections to
braid, when he came up behind me. He gathered it in, pulled it away from my
face, moving carefully so as not to jar his arm. “In the Maquis, we didn’t
usually get to a barber very often. And Dorvan–those who wanted a haircut
usually had to take home-grown. Dorvan was poor, and couldn’t afford a lot
in the way of hairdressers. I’ve cut hair before.” He was keeping his voice
steady, conversational. It didn’t fool either of us. He smoothed the hair
back. “You’d look good with it short, and it wouldn’t be so hot.”

“Pesh…”

“Brushed back like this, and cropped close at the neck. You have nice
bones. A nice neck. You’d look good.”

I looked in the mirror. Looked at the drawn lines of my face, the bones
standing out more than they ever had before. The worry lines, the sour
creases at the corners of my mouth. “I’d look like Death’s mother-in-law,
and you know it.” I met his eyes in the mirror.

He gazed back, steady, his hands resting on my shoulders. “You’d look
beautiful. You always look beautiful.” He stroked the hair back again.
“Please? Let me?”

A gift. Like that silly story I’d read, along with a lot of other stupid,
sweet, romantic stuff I loved. ‘The Gift of the Magi.’ He sells his watch
to buy her ornamental combs for her hair, for Christmas. And at the same
time she sells her hair, to buy him a watch chain. I wanted to keep the
damp, clinging, sweltering mess for him. Because I loved him. He wanted to
cut it, for me, so I could feel air on my neck, on my scalp. Because he
loved me.

It occurred to me that, in spite of every trashy, campy, breast-beating,
bodice-ripping holonovel ever written, love wasn’t really very big, or
dramatic. It was small gestures. Shibui. Understated beauty. Small
sacrifices, made willingly, with grace. If you didn’t watch closely, you
might miss it, and never know it had rested lightly on your hand, like a
moth at midnight.

Our eyes still meeting, I nodded.

He nodded. “I’ll go get some scissors.” He gingerly raised his arm, and
stroked his hand down the clammy mass of it. “Uh–will you braid it,
anyway?”

“Why?”

He didn’t look at me, that time. In the mirror I could see him turn his
face away a little, looking at the floor. “First cut. If it’s braided, I
can tie it off. You can save it.”

“Why not you? Maybe for your medicine bag? Or just in your top drawer, in a
sock.”

“I could do that.” His voice said he *would* do that. Would wrap the length
of it in a coil, tie it so it wouldn’t flop free, tuck it somewhere safe,
to keep near.

He went out. I could hear him rummaging around in my drawers, while I wove
the braid tight. “Kath, I can’t find…”

“Look in my sewing bag.”

“Got ‘em. Comb?”

“In here.”

“Ah-huh. Hang on.” He came in a second later, with the scissors, and a
handful of ribbons. Bright blue. Scarlet. Deep emerald green. Wide ones
with brocade patterns woven into them. A bouquet of ribbons. He put them
down on the counter, air sucking in through his teeth as the burn on his
shoulder pulled.

“You all right?”

He growled. “I’ll do. Hurts.”

“If you don’t…”

“Doesn’t take that much to use a pair of scissors.”

“Does to use them well.”

“‘Fraid I’ll snatch you bald?”

I reached back and touched his thigh. “No.”

His reflection smiled at me.

My reflection smiled back… then looked quickly away. Suddenly a bit
bashful, even now.

I reached out a finger, and stirred the pile of ribbons gently. “I haven’t
seen these before. They’re beautiful.” Flicked a glance into the mirror,
and saw his face, bent down over my head. “Where did they come from?” I
tried to keep it light, uninflected. Undramatic.

“Abbyzh-dira. The market.” He was trying to keep it casual, too. “Picked
‘em up on the run Tuvok and B’Elanna and I made to rescue the clone. There
was a stall. Woman running it was…. She teased me that I needed to take a
‘fairing’ home to my sweetheart. Seemed like a good cover.”

I remembered, then. A little, woven reed packet, resting on my desk.
Forgotten, in the sadness and anger of thinking the doctor’s clone was
dead. Not a time to give a present.

I remembered him picking it up, after we talked. Remembered a sorry,
self-mocking look on his face. I wondered if he’d bought them hoping to
give them to me as a victory prize, pass them off with a joke. Tell a story
on himself, entertain me with the tale of being teased in the market as we
both celebrated getting the clone back. We hadn’t gone far in our love,
then. Even if it had worked the way he’d wanted, he would almost certainly
have passed it off as a joke, and a story. ‘A fairing for a sweetheart.’

I picked one up. Sky-blue, with stars running in a stream down the center.
Silky-soft. “They’re gorgeous. I…” I couldn’t say I didn’t have a clue
when I would have worn them. Maybe on the holodeck. I could see wearing
them in the day-light program I had of the cottage. Wind pulling a few
strands free, summer dress on. Or, maybe, in one of the night programs,
over a lobster dinner with sliced tomatoes, and sweetcorn, candles lighting
the room. But most of my real life had no place for ribbons. Beautiful,
beautiful non-regulation ribbons. “They’re wonderful, Pesh.”

“Good.” He reached down, and picked up the scissors. Grunted as the
movement of his “better” arm shifted his balance, and jarred his “bad” arm.
“Ready?”

No. I wasn’t ready. He wasn’t either. But…

“Yes.”

I could see him in the mirror, looking down at the braid he held in his
hand. Lips tightening, for a second. Then a series of crunching snips, as
he cut through the thick base of the braid. My head instantly felt pounds
lighter.

He reached out, and fumbled for a ribbon. “Should have tied it off before I
cut. Hang on.” After a moment, “There. Can I have the rest of them?”

I gathered the soft, slippery pile in one hand, handed him one. And
another, and another. Heard the rustle of the fabric behind me, as he
wrapped the braid.

After a while all the ribbons were gone. He handed the result to me.

Tight. A tight wreath, spiraled with ribbons, the chestnut brown strands
showing through. Not as sleek and glossy as I’d have liked… but he’d made
the hair beautiful with his ribbons.

I held the heavy circle on my palm. “Weighs more than I’d have thought. No
wonder I was getting headaches.”

“No. That’s just the job.” He was trying to laugh.

“I suppose. Where should I…?”

He reached forward, sucking breath. “Damned Hakaalt. Wish they didn’t aim
so well. I’ll take it. Wait a moment.” He disappeared into the bedroom. I
heard him take out the medicine bundle. Waited. Waited long enough to know
there was, somehow, more involved than just shoving the wreath into the
folds, and having done with.

He came back. Picked up the scissors again. “Trust me?”

“Always.”

“More fool you. For all you know I’ll cut hearts and flowers all over your
scalp.”

” With that arm you’ll be lucky to cut a straight line, Wildcat. Don’t get
cocky. Anyway, you’ve already cut my hair once, when Seska dumped us. I
think I can trust you again.”

His hands were gentle. Very gentle.

The occasional grumble as he turned his arm the wrong way, and the snip of
the scissors, were the only sounds, for a while. Like Tuvok pruning
orchids. Like the sounds as I sewed Magda’s quilt. It’s amazing, when you
look at your life, all the things that are music that you never recognized
as being music.

Snip.

“Ouch. Damn, blast, *ouch!*”

Click.

“Um, do you think you could turn your head…?”

Shhhhhh…..

Snip.

“There. What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful.”

“Well… At least the woman wearing it is.”

“Flatterer. Terrible man. Seriously, it’s great.” It wasn’t great. Not bad.
Not bad at all for a man who’d spent more time with computers, and phasers,
and nav consoles, and archeological digs than studying haute-couture. Not
bad at all. But not great. Still…. “Fantastic.”

“Let me brush you off. You’re all over clippings.”

“Wish I could take a bath. Even a real shower.”

He stopped, hands in mid-sweep on my shoulders. “Oh. Oh! Hang on…”

Came back in a few minutes, with a pot cradled in the turn of an elbow,
where it wouldn’t strain the injury. I recognized it as one he’d brought in
from his quarters when he moved in. I knew he kept kultch and bric-a-brac
in it. Now it was full of water. In one hand he had a soft towel–part of
his cooking kit. White cotton, stained, but clean enough. “Here, get in the
bath.”

“Pesh…”

“Don’t worry. It’s within rationing budget. I checked Siv’s figures. We’re
safe.”

We washed each other, that night. Too hot to make love. Too tired. Only
about a quart of water, to share between us. The cloth dipping in, dabbing
over.

Like kisses.

Worked my way gingerly around the swollen flesh of his wound.

Leaned my head back as he stroked the cloth over my face, neck. Enjoyed the
feel of the dampness cleaning all the way down to my scalp, cleaner than
I’d been for months.

Washed his back, belly.

Clean. A pot of water, a clean towel: an oasis in a desert. A garden in a
waste. A fountain in a ruin.

The last few drops squeezed out to run, tickling, down our scalps, over our
collar bones, down our spines and around our thighs, pooling on the
cast-rock under our knees.

Too hot to make love.

Too tired to make love. Too hurt. Too shell shocked.

There are a lot of different ways to make love. A lot of different ways to
say “I love you.”

I don’t know how much of that Tom caught. Not the details. But…

Probably the heart of that. He’s a perceptive young man, Tom Paris, behind
all the teasing, and tormenting, and feckless posing. He probably saw the
heart of it.

He looked away.

Swallowed. Smiled, all crooked and quivery. Cleared his throat.

I heard Tuvok, rustling behind us, preparing the memory chips for the
meeting. Tom looked past Chakotay and me. I think he and Tuvok shared their
own little bit of communication, somehow.

Tom shifted, and groaned, again. “This really is a bitch. I could freeze
this way, the way the leg stiffens up. Tuvok, how long do you think till
the kin reps get here?”

Tuvok’s voice was dry as dust, except for something a little extra, tucked
into the arid delivery. “Soon enough, lieutenant. You must learn patience.”

Tuvok was right.

The meeting started soon enough. Thirty people crammed into the briefing
room. All trying to find out if we had to die: and if so, how.

“Is there any progress on the information your people brought back from the
installation?” Teefei’s voice was a restrained growl.

I looked down the table of Voyager’s briefing room, crowded and ringed with
kin and officers, to where Harry, and Carey, and, wonderfully, sadly, even
B’Elanna sat, arrayed like grim judges. I nodded quietly to them.

Harry and Joe Carey both looked over to the Queen Be.

She was still sick. All the medicines we had hadn’t completely cured her.
There was a Camille-like fragility, almost a transparency to her, that was
frighteningly at odds with the vibrant, vigorous woman we’d known. But the
inner strength, and the passionate dedication was still there. She’d risen
up from her sickbed, PADD in hand, to try to unravel the secrets of the net
that surrounded us.

She met my eyes. For years she’d draped a frustrating veil of submission
between us: partly Klingon conditioning, the submission to a senior warrior
that would cover all thoughts and questions, until equality and the bonds
of camaraderie were achieved–or until the killing thrust of a d’ktagh
ended all questions forever. Part of it had been a very human case of
hero-worship, and an equally human case of insecurity. But it had always
been disturbing.

Now she met my eyes. Equal to equal, woman to woman, officer to officer,
scientist to scientist. Still my junior in years. Still my lesser in rank.
But my superior as an engineer, and my equal as a person. I suddenly knew
what it must feel like for a mother to look at a beloved daughter and
discover the woman she’d become.

Never turning her gaze from mine, she made her report.

“I’m sorry, captain. I’ve tried, Harry’s tried, Carey’s tried. The aka’Chee
from all over the exodus, and all the others have done what they could.
We’ve learned a lot. Some of it may help. But it’s… what Chakotay brought
back is–it’s user’s manuals. Tells how to use the net, how to maintain the
equipment. But it doesn’t cover the governing principals at all, beyond a
few references to theories and applications we don’t know about. If we had
more time, we might even be able to work something out from that. But as it
stands, we know how to build and maintain a Bieltar-Class Morianle Web
Device, how to log on to the system, how to log off, how to initiate about
forty different sequences… not how it works. Imagine documentation
provided for new crewmen who need to maintain a warp-drive–compared to
documentation for the engineer who designed it. This is ‘insert part A into
slot B,’ and ‘If it doesn’t work, try plugging it in.’ And, ‘for further
study, we recommend the Fleet courses in advanced physics, otherwise call
someone who knows what he’s doing.’ A lot of those chips are just standard
stuff–keep the computer itself running, route information. Miles and miles
of code that has to do with sequence protocols, tracking systems. Maybe…
If we had more time–I’m sure there’s more information embedded in all the
code, but we don’t have the time, or the manpower to sort it all. I’m
sorry.”

Outside the viewport the net that surrounded us shimmered. All of space
seemed purple. Dark purple where the heavy energy strands ran. Light,
glistening, iridescent purple in the wide spaces between the veins.

Teefei rose from a hassock we’d hauled in. Paced restlessly. “That’s it,
then. No more options.” I didn’t know if the Eenair cried, as such. But
there was something parallel to tears in its voice.

“I didn’t say that.” B’Elanna’s voice was still husky, and it caught on the
words. She turned her head aside, and coughed into a cloth. No tissues
left, and we were back to the primitive, unsanitary practice of using
handkerchiefs. When the coughing passed, she turned back. “We don’t know
how it works, and we don’t know how to bring it down. Not safely. Even if
we could get the whole Exodus to the edge of the net, we’d still be
counting on Harry’s kamikaze technique to try to punch a hole, and with the
kind of energy that’s tied up in that thing–it’s just as well we *can’t*
get the whole Exodus fleet to the edge. I think the net would kill us all.
But… we can neutralize it, to a limited degree, in specific localities.
We found a plan for a sort of phase unit the Hakaalt have to let them work
on the thing. We can fabricate that. We may not understand it, but with the
plans, we can build it.”

Teefei’s head shot up. “Why didn’t you say so, youngling?” Such passion,
and hope, and frustration burning in its eyes.

“Because we can’t use it to save more than a few ships.” B’Elanna’s years
with her mother must have been good training in staring down warriors. She
didn’t even flinch. “It takes a lot of power, it takes some special
installations, it takes elements we only have in limited amounts. We’d have
to fabricate parts, build new systems on the ships that carried the
neutralizers. We…,” she looked at Harry and Carey for the first time
since she’d started speaking. “We think we could build enough for the ships
of the Order of Compassion. Then…. they’re large. And they haven’t seen
much combat, so they’re in good shape. They could be used as lifeboats. At
least the young ones, the children, the families, might have a chance. But
we can’t manage for the whole Exodus. There isn’t enough time, enough
trained engineers, enough materials. You want to save the Exodus. All we
can offer you is some hope of sending out a few life-boats.”

Chakotay spoke, his voice soft, from where he stood at the edge of the
room. “We put the question to the crew last night, Teefei. We had to ask
them. We owed them that. It’s possible we could have simply done the work
for Voyager, and gotten away in the confusion of the final destruction. You
should know: all but three of the crew voted to stay, and fight, and try to
save the children and the families. Even… Sam Wildman, and Kes and
Neelix, voted to stay behind. You don’t know them, but they’re the only
people we have of our own crew with children, so far. Wildman’s child will
stay with us: she’s too sick to bring out of stasis. She wouldn’t live,
even if she was on one of the lifeboats. But Riaka is old enough to send
away, now. If any of your people would take her…”

Teefei stood beside the table. Its fur bristled, and a high-pitched whine
cut the air. A doleful sound. The sound grew, and grew, setting my teeth on
edge, and the hair on the nape of my neck pricking and crawling. Soon the
mournful baying was all there was in the room… no room for anything else.

My fists clenched. It was wolf-sound, coyote-sound, hyena-on-the-veldt
sound. Jackals yipping and wailing.

We forget that the sound of jackals means fear to us, but companionship to
jackals. Emotion, yes. Even grief. But it’s the cry of the pack being a
pack. The cry of a jackal to another jackal–“I am here. Come be with me.
We aren’t alone. Good things are here, and no lion had better take them.”

The cry eroded into a few final, eerie yips and whines.

We were all staring at the big creature. Being. Person. It drew a deep
breath. “We are among kin. We die with kin. Tava be thanked, for letting us
know mercy at the time of our dying. We are blessed with our friends.” It
looked at us all. “I thank you, Voyager-kin. It has been–hard–to have you
among us. You are too like those we fear. Those who hate us, and who we
hate in return. But it is a gift: I look and think ‘Perhaps this is what
the Hakaalt could have been, what Tava intended them to be. kin among us,
as we are all kin, and friends to cry praise of.’ Thank you.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You’re welcome” seemed a bit presumptuous,
actually.

The briefing room was silent.

Then beside me, Tuvok’s dry, desert voice said, simply, “Indeed.”

Chakotay snorted, Tom chuckled, B’Elanna and Harry and Carey all ducked
their heads. And I smiled. “Thank you, Teefei. It hasn’t been much easier
for us. We’ve learned some things about our own failings and
short-sightedness that weren’t all that welcome. But–it’s good to be kin
to the kin. If we die, we’ll die in good company. However –,” I gathered
all the crew and representatives in the room with a glance, “However, I’m
still not resigned to just dying. Let’s see what we can come up with to
save as many as we can. We may not have a lot to work with, but at the
least I’d damned well like to make sure the Hakaalt know they’ve been in a
hell of a fight. And if, as I suspect, they’re aiming to put us all to the
fire on the final day of their holiday, we don’t have much time to be about
it.”

So, for the next hours, we planned. And planned. Optimized our priorities,
in bureaucracy-speak. Worked out which repairs we could make on the ships
would give us the most options. Worked out which ships of the Exodus were
most expendable, and should serve as sacrificial lambs, and which would
best be held back to fight as long as possible. Worked out the plans for
fitting the ships of the Order of Compassion with the neutralizers.
Arranged with Brother Gadna for the evacuation of all the children and
families to the Order’s ships–now nearly emptied of the foods, and
medicines they’d brought along. Worked on plans to fabricate as many little
unmanned tractor/phaser platforms as possible, to take down as many Hakaalt
ships as we could without risking the manned ships. Worked on plans for
food rationing. Children and families got top priority: they might live.
The ill, and injured got only enough to keep them alive. The rest of us got
what scraps were left.

Qiral, sadly, reluctantly, but without flinching, authorized the butchering
of the last of the animals the Star March had carried. The lesser beasts
had been put to the knife long before. Now the Oliphaunts were to go down.
One at a time, to make the food last, to spare the most important of the
herd on the slim chance we’d live. But the killing would start.

Tuvok, Teefei, Chakotay, and I oversaw the attack plans. Set a date, and an
hour. As late as we could, but still before the day the Hakaalt were
cheerfully advertising as the day of their final celebration. We wanted to
strike on our own terms, and gain the advantage of surprise if we could. If
I were a Hakaalt Admiral, I wouldn’t have been very surprised. But the
Hakaalt had a tendency to assume that the world would unroll at their will,
in their way, in accordance with their plans and myths. So far they hadn’t
been too far off, either. They very well might be surprised at a strike
coming before the “natural” dramatic moment of Celestial Fire.

When it was over Chakotay, Tuvok, and I sat together, at the head of the
long table. The chairs were scattered, empty and ill-matched.

The room felt abandoned.

I looked at Tuvok. “Now that the rest are gone–what’s your assessment of
the situation? I know we’re assuming it’s a suicide stand… but do you see
any chance?”

Tuvok contemplated the smooth surface of the table. His face, his voice,
his body were all calm. “Unless we receive aid, or find some novel method
of resistance or escape, it seems probable we will not survive.”

I glanced over at Chakotay. He grimaced. “Same. Our tech is shot, we’re off
our own turf, our allies are in the same boat we’re in.” He ran a hand over
his face, wiped his mouth to hide a frown. “We’re screwed.”

I nodded. Folded my hands on the table in front of me. Felt the seconds
creep over my skin. Felt the failure. Still staring at my hands, I asked
“How did both of you react to the Kobayashi Maru test?” I looked up, sent a
small smile to Chakotay. “Besides having pre-test nightmares.”

Tuvok answered before Pesh could. “My first attempt was… superficially
simple. At the time it seemed illogical to dispute the inherent
impossibility of the situation.”

Chakotay looked over at him. “First attempt? Unless you failed the first
time around, I’d expect one would do you for a lifetime.”

“I had to re-take the test when I was requalifying for Starfleet,
commander.” Tuvok was cool, and there was something about his reaction…
Even knowing him as well as I did, I couldn’t identify the variable in his
response. It wasn’t wistfulness. Something ambiguous, and bittersweet.

Chakotay’s eyes narrowed, apparently sensitive as I was to whatever strange
savor hid in Tuvok’s manner. “So. The second time? What then?”

Tuvok lowered his eyes. “The second time, commander, I failed. It took me
three attempts to pass the Kobayashi, when I attempted to return.”

My first officer whistled softly between his teeth. Three times failed, and
Tuvok wouldn’t have been allowed back in. Chakotay pulled up one of the
chairs and sat a-straddle, lifted his game arm to lie supported on the
backrest. “Worse than me. I thought I’d blown it. Made it through the first
time–then ended up in the counselor’s office.” He shot me an embarrassed
glance. “Usual thing. Kept having dreams that, just as the ship blew, I
worked out the one thing that would have saved everyone–and woke up in a
sweat, sure that it was all my fault.” He snorted. “The counselor said it
was pretty standard: people who have the talent for command tend to take
their responsibilities too seriously–and end up feeling guilty even when
there’s no way out.”

Tuvok nodded. “Understood. In my case, the problem was a conflict between
logic, and…” He closed his eyes. “You see, I had had children, by then. A
wife. The idea of the loss of life had a concrete referent for me that had
not existed before. That was what allowed me to return to Starfleet as a
security and weaponry officer: I had come to believe that even within the
limits of Surakian philosophy, there was need for those who would set aside
their commitment to non-violence, for the protection of others. But it made
it difficult for me to take the Kobayashi. I kept arriving at the logical
solution, and rejecting it, even knowing as I did that the end was
unavoidable.” He looked deeply embarrassed. “It kept occurring to me that,
if T’Pel and the children were similarly endangered, I would wish to know
that the officer responsible for their protection would find a way to save
them–or defeat their killers. Then the final action of the test would
occur, and I would… I would freeze. I was unable to imagine…” He looked
at Chakotay. “It seemed possible, for a time, that I would no more be able
to serve on a Starfleet vessel than I was able to sail in boats.”

Something passed between Chakotay and Tuvok that escaped me. A shared
understanding. Chakotay nodded, his black eyes meeting Tuvok’s. “Mmmm. How
did you pass?”

Tuvok found a way to shrug with only his eyebrows. “On the final attempt it
occurred to me that, if I were to fail in any case, I would prefer to fail
while doing what I knew best how to do. That determined, the conflict
seemed irrelevant. I did as logic dictated, and passed.” The implication of
a smile hid in his eyes. “And you, commander? How did you resolve your
trial of conscience?”

“Same as most of us.” Chakotay propped his chin on his wrist, where it lay
on the chair’s back. He grinned. “Woke up one day wondering what the point
was. You do the best you can. Sometimes your best isn’t good enough. If you
can’t come to terms with being fallible, or with the existence of death,
you need more than just a few hours with a counselor to straighten you
out.” He grimaced. “I don’t think I ever got very good at it, though. That
counselor was right: The sense of obligation that made me a good command
officer was what got me in trouble–and into the Maquis. That and my
weakness for gambling on Kirk-style luck. The ‘lucky hero’ myth isn’t
unique to European culture. I can’t seem to shake that one.” He sighed,
then looked over at me. “What about you? How did *you* deal with your
Kobayashi?”

I looked back down at my hands. They were folded firmly in front of me. I
wondered when I’d started using that gesture. It was so obvious, now that I
thought about it. No nervous gestures would escape that knot of fingers. No
one would learn anything more than that I liked things neat, and
controlled. Maybe it was something I’d picked up from Tuvok, with his still
face and steepled hands. Maybe it was just natural to me. “I don’t know if
I did deal with it. I’m not even sure I really took it.”

Chakotay sat bolt upright, then grunted as his shoulder told him he’d been
a fool to move so fast. He recovered, and looked at me in mock-censure.
“Oh, no. No you don’t. You are *not* telling me you pulled a Kirk. One
damned jackass with the delusion he’s Jimmy-T is enough for any command
team–and I have first dibs. You are not going to tell me you weaseled out
on your Kobayashi.” Somehow, knowing ourselves committed, laughter had come
back to us, and Chakotay’s face held as much mischief and curiosity as
concern. Tuvok said nothing, but there was no question he was as alert, and
as fascinated as my first officer.

I shrugged, unlacing my fingers. Grinned a little weakly at them both. “No.
No, I didn’t weasel out. I was too much the ‘good girl’ to do anything as
dashing, and disreputable as the great Admiral Kirk. We all know that, no
matter how much a hero he was, there are people who will never forgive him
for his–peculiarities. I’m afraid that I was the sort of priss who gives
herself great credit for never breaking the rules. Back then I thought that
compliance with regulation was one of the great military virtues.”

Tuvok nodded. “Very perceptive of you. If it were not for the discipline of
the individuals, the whole could not function.”

Chakotay blew a soft raspberry. “In a pig’s eye. Rules are for when they
work. The rest of the time what’s needed is responsible initiative.” The
two glared at each other in good natured opposition, then Chakotay turned
back to me. “So, if you took it, how come you’re saying you didn’t?”

I stood, and walked over to the replicator, wishing badly that I could
coerce a cup of hot coffee from the thing. Something to occupy me. I
turned, crossing my arms over my ribs. “The problem is that I could have
done what Kirk did–and I knew it when I took the test.”

Tuvok frowned. “That does not alter the fact that you did, in fact, take
the test.”

Chakotay shook his head. “No, wait a minute. I think I see where this is
going. You mean it, don’t you? You’d figured out a way to get around the
programming when you took the test.” I nodded, and Chakotay stood,
wandering over to the viewscreen. After a moment he turned back to Tuvok.
He addressed my security officer with a quiet intensity. “Do you see the
difference between taking a no-win test because you have to, and taking a
test you could get out of? ” Tuvok frowned, obviously struggling with the
notion, and Chakotay plunged on. “It’s not just the scenario on the
holodeck that makes it no-win–we all know that what happens on a holodeck
isn’t for keeps. What makes it no-win is that we can’t get out of the test
surrounding the holodeck. Everything we’ve worked for rides on the
Kobayashi Maru, and we can’t escape that any more than the captain we’re
pretending to be can escape the no-win combat situation. It’s the perfect
symbol for itself. When that pretend captain dies, we die a little, too.
But she took it knowing that she could have altered the parameters, and
that if she had she’d probably have gotten away with it, just like Kirk. It
wasn’t no-win. She *permitted* them to make her lose. But she was the one
in control. It was her choice. That changes the meaning of it.”

Tuvok steepled his fingers, and looked over at me, a little guiltily. But
still, he nodded. “I do indeed perceive the difference, commander. In her
own way, Captain Janeway did ‘pull a Kirk.’ By the definition you have
presented, she did not actually take the Kobayashi Maru.”

The two looked at me in mingled reproach and admiration.

I met those two pairs of dark eyes with certainty. “Don’t confuse me with
Kirk. Kirk would have just done it. He *did* do it. He changed the program,
and had the balls to refuse to lose–even at the risk of taking the
ultimate loss. He had no way of knowing they wouldn’t throw him out. He was
willing to gamble everything that mattered to him, to defeat a scenario he
found unfair. I’m not a Kirk now, and I wasn’t then. I knew I could beat
the system, and thought I was being some kind of Starfleet saint passing up
the opportunity and playing by the rules. ‘St. Kathryn of the Stars: Patron
Saint of Command Conformists.'” I was annoyed to hear the bitterness boil
up in my voice.

Chakotay wasn’t letting me get away with it. “You’ve seen enough since to
qualify for a few Kobayashis. In all the ones I’ve seen, you passed, and
did what had to be done.” He gave a crooked grin. “As I recall, one version
of you blew herself up–after both of you got into a wrestling match with
each other over which version would get the honor.”

I snorted. “Mmm. Still not the same thing.” He didn’t answer. That
situation hadn’t been classically no-win. One of me had lived. I smiled at
him, trying to lighten the mood I’d created. “I can tell you one thing: I
didn’t enjoy the experience. I’m a pain in the ass to argue with.”

Chakotay looked over at Tuvok. The two–well, they didn’t exactly roll
their eyes. Tuvok is too dignified, and Chakotay wasn’t going to ruin a
good twins act by failing to match his cohort in crime. But the gesture was
there, implied if not acted on. He looked back at me, with a face straight
enough to satisfy the most exacting of Tuvok’s Vulcan standards. “Really,
captain? I hadn’t noticed.”

Which left me snorting, Chakotay grinning, and Tuvok enjoying himself
immensely as he feigned complete disgust with human frivolity. Which is
what we had all intended.

I was proud of us. So proud. Now I knew something I hadn’t known, all those
years before: that you could face your Kobayashi with laughter, and valor,
not just agonized defeat.

The end came before we’d expected. Days before. Everyone had been working
round the clock. Metal March slaved away non-stop, fabricating neutralizing
shields for the Order’s ships, and unmanned weapons platforms. We’d been
fixing what we could fix; and slowly and subtly moving ships from one spot
to another in the Exodus, trying to make the shifts look random as we
optimized our formation.

There were no children on Voyager any longer, besides little Puff in her
stasis pod. The rest, including Riaka, were all in the ships of the Order.
It was haunting. I’d gotten used to them being there: me, who’d always felt
a ship was no place for a child. I commented on it to Chakotay, as we
worked in my readyroom.

He nodded. “I never thought… After Seska I never thought I’d want kids. I
like ‘em well enough. But… well, you know.”

I plugged a new set of figures into the weapons projections. “Mmm. I always
thought I might want them. Someday. Always ‘someday’, though. And I knew I
didn’t want them enough to change my life for them. I’m afraid it was more
a sentimental daydream than a real desire.”

He lifted his head. “Would you… if we’d been given time, do you think
you’d have…?”

I shrugged. Met his eyes. “I don’t know, Pesh. I really don’t.” Felt myself
flush. “I would have liked to hold a baby we’d made together. But….”

He nodded. “I know. We’re already parents.” He looked blankly across the
room. “I–I’d have hated for us to have one, and then face it dying. Faced
knowing we couldn’t save it.”

He hated knowing we couldn’t save the nearly two hundred “children” we did
have.

I returned to my work. But about ten minutes later, I found myself looking
up. “I don’t know what we’d have chosen. But–if we live through this–it’s
a long life, and we need to build more than just careers. I might want…”

He kept his eyes on the PADD. “Me too. Maybe.”

“Maybe. If we could work out the details. It would be something to think
about. Children are hope.”

“Is this Kathryn Janeway, or a doppelganger?”

I arched an eyebrow, amused. “Why? Not in character?”

“Well…. let’s just say ‘not exactly standard.’ You sound more like
Chaim.”

“Chaim should know, if anyone does. How’s Cherel?”

“Bitching up a blue streak. Wants back from the Order ship. Chaim won’t let
her.”

“Let her?”

He laughed. “She’d win if she really wanted. But she knows what it means to
him to think she and the baby might make it. He wins because she lets him.”

“Lets?”

He smiled. “I’ve figured it out, you know. With good couples, the whole
thing is a happy trade. Power passes back and forth.”

“Sounds like what we’ve made.”

“Yeah. It does, doesn’t it?”

We went back to work, then.

The comm link beeped. It was Harry, down in engineering. “Captain? B’Elanna
says we can try mounting the phaser rifles on the unmanned platforms, and
she can re-rig some anti-grav units to function as tractors… same
principal involved. Carey and I have been over the figures, and it’s
probably too small a unit to have much affect. But we still don’t really
know how any of this works. Want us to give it a shot, or spend the time on
other things?”

I frowned, and rubbed my forehead. “Save it. I know it’s offensive, but I’m
afraid offensive isn’t where our best chance lies, anymore. Go with Carey
over to the Order ships, and see if you can implement those plans to
supplement their shields. If there’s any time after that, *then* work on
mounting the rifles.”

“Aye, captain. Kim, out.”

Chakotay looked at me. “‘Best chance isn’t offensive.’ Never thought I’d
hear that, either.”

I leaned back in the seat. “Neither did I. Never been a war hawk, but never
wanted to back away from a fight, either. But….”

He stood, and stretched. “I know. Tell me: any regrets?”

“Damn straight–I should have jumped your bones months before I did.”

That got him. Slow dissolve. I hadn’t seen him laugh quite that hard since
I’d sprung the “Trill” joke on him back at Abbyzh-dira, that night we’d
almost kissed, and hadn’t, and he’d fallen down the Jeffries Tube instead.
Howls. Tears running down his face. “Oh, God, Kath… *Terrible* woman.”

“Yup.” I stood, and crossed to him. Put a hand on his chest, then leaned in
and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. “What about you? Regrets, I mean.”

“Same as yours.” Then he went–peculiar. “One. Stupid one. I… Anyas and I
have been trying to put together a funeral service for Magda. Last thing
before doomsday. See her off before we join her, I guess. Got into a
muddle. She was Catholic, and she’d have preferred to be buried facing
east, towards the resurrection. My own tradition, she’d be buried west; and
the Kithtri would line her up along the polar axis, head to the north, feet
at the south, and so on. We were going to try to figure out how to orient
her on the transporter platform, before beaming her out, but neither of us
could figure out what direction was what in the first place. And I… It’s
been bugging me for years, now. But more since I got out here. Back home I
could save ceremonies until I was on a planetary surface, and orient the
ritual according to the local cardinal points. But how do you tell the
cardinal points in space?” He looked at me, and laughed at himself. “I
know. Dumb. But I regret not knowing what the directions are.”

I shook my head. “Oh. You should have said something. I could have told
you…”

The red alert klaxon sounded, and we were on our way out to the bridge, all
hope of finishing the sentence gone. Broke out of the door of the readyroom
like horses out of the starting gate. Parted our path around the rail, me
past Tuvok’s station, him past ops. Wildman was calling people to their
stations. I looked over to Tuvok. “What?”

“An unidentified energy trace in the space before the fleet.”

My breath caught. “Waren-Pyre? We thought it was the star! And we
thought…”

“Doesn’t’ matter what we thought.” Chakotay had made it to his seat, and
had taken over part of Wildman’s routines. “Here it comes on screen.” The
picture was *still* blurry. We’d never had time in all the months to do a
complete overhaul, and bring the entire sensor system back to optimal. I
looked at what appeared to be dead space, backed by the narrowing terminus
of the funnel, with its terminal star at the center. I joined Chakotay,
sitting in my own seat. “No good. Hang on.” I pulled up the raw figures,
circumventing the entire problem of visuals. “That’s…”

“It’s not… it acts like an anomaly.” Wildman was back with us, no longer
tied up with alerting the crew. “Could be…”

“Could be damned near anything. That’s what ‘anomaly’ means –means it
doesn’t look like anything normal.” I slammed my fist on the arm of my
seat; frustrated, angry, frightened. It wasn’t fair. We’d had it planned.
“Damn. Contact Teefei. Tuvok, what are the Hakaalt doing?”

“No signs of action, as yet.”

The klaxons still sounded; hair raising, demanding.

In all the yammer and wail, I suddenly realized something was missing.
‘Dreams of Fire.’ It should have been there. I didn’t know what it wasn’t.
It was as frightening to have it gone as it had been to have it… at
least, not knowing why it wasn’t there was as frightening. Maybe it was
gone because the fire was no longer a dream.

I was trying to figure out the numbers flashing across the screen. Wildman
interrupted. “Metal March on line.”

“Put ‘em on.”

Teefei’s voice. “Voyager-sister, what is happening? The readings…”

“I know, Teefei, I know. Trying to work it out. Can you send me more…”

“Done. What action should we take?”

“Assume the worst. Waren-Pyre. Start moving the Order ships to as protected
a part of the Exodus as possible. Bring…. bring half the fighters to the
fore. Keep the rest near the anomaly. Chakotay, you and Wildman coordinate
that–maintain contact. Teefei, I’ll be trying to unravel these readings,
but it may break before –”

“Captain.” Tuvok, suddenly sharp. “The Hakaalt fleet is moving. No
discernible pattern.”

“Tava, help us in the time of our dying.” Teefei was frantic. “We aren’t
ready, we’re nowhere near ready, the platforms aren’t in place, the repairs
and refitting…”

Chakotay cut through its words. “No time, Master. We go with what we have.”
He looked down at his terminal. “We’re missing people over on the Order
ships. People we need. Kath, Engineering indicates we’re out of range to
beam them, and there are too many ships in the way anyway. I’m sending one
of the shuttles to beam them up and bring them over.”

“Lord–Carey and Harry. I don’t… they could… no. Do it. They’d never
forgive us if we left them. And if we make it…” The anomaly gave out a
massive burst of energy. “What the hell *is* that?”

The doors of the bridge swept open, and Tom and B’Elanna hurried in. They
were leaning on each other, holding hands, both too ill or wounded to be
entirely at their best. They took in the frenzied rush of activities. Slid
to their posts, Tom taking second nav and leaving Blodd to hold the prime
position. I heard him murmur, “‘Sokay, I’m not hogging the glory. I’ll play
backup. But I want to be *here* when it comes.” I knew what he meant.

I saw the silver dart of a shuttle move across the grainy screen towards
the Order ships. Gone to fetch my people home.

Tuvok spoke like doom. “The Hakaalt fleet is organizing into a staggered
attack formation. All fighting ships armed, and shielded. They are
preparing to advance.”

“Our own forces? The Exodus?”

“Following your suggestions to Teefei. The Order ships have moved to the
center of the mass, and the sacrificial ships are moving into position.”

“Good.”

The purple webs of the Hakaalt fleet blossomed out, one meshing to another,
forming a solid wall of power. They moved out in stately formation.

Behind us the anomaly grew, pouring out more and more energy.

“Damn it, it looks familiar. I can’t –”

“Voyager-brother, the ships are in place. Advice?”

Chakotay’s voice was steady. “Hold positions. Don’t break formation. Not
until we have to.”

“Done, brother.”

Qiral came on deck, horns heavy. Took the backup weaponry post.

I looked at Chakotay. “This is crazy. The anomaly looks like a worm-hole.
Not a *lot* like a wormhole, but still… ”

“Can’t just be coincidence. Maybe they’re planning to send us to Oklahoma
after all.” Voice dry. He wasn’t counting on it.

“More likely to hell, with no return ticket. Pass the news on to Teefei…
and suggest he pull the ships back to the Hakaalt side of things. Unless
they bring more ships in, we’re likely to see the most fire there.”

“Will do.” I was back to the readings by then. It really did look more like
a wormhole than anything. A little, tiny bit like the notorious generated
one at DS9. Not much, though. The energy readings were more erratic, more
variable.

The Hakaalt had come up with so many things to devil us with that we didn’t
understand. I couldn’t dismiss the notion that they’d come up with one
more. A gate into hell. A door into the heart of a star. Or a back entrance
that would allow them bring in more ships behind us, pin us between two
forces. It wasn’t impossible. Nothing seemed impossible anymore. Unless it
was the idea of surviving this encounter.

“Captain, they’re advancing the first battalion of Great Ships.” Tuvok was
focused. No sentiment. No time for regrets.

Chakotay looked at me. My choice, now.

“Tell Teefei we’re going to have to meet them. Send out the unmanned
platforms we have, first. See what they’re good for.”

He nodded.

“Tuvok, the photon mines: we’re not going to be advancing, so we might as
well risk them after the platforms are under way. Once they’re well along,
let’s make a run through no-man’s land, and salt the space between us. Make
them fight to reach us.”

“Can we count on the ships of the Exodus to hold their ground, and not
charge?”

“Don’t know. They’re not soldiers, and even soldiers will break, in some
instances. But we’ll hope. Chakotay, pass the word to Teefei, and tell him
to keep his people out of there. We don’t want to waste them on our own
mines. Old saying of the wise: ‘Friendly fire isn’t.'”

Qiral, at the backup station, rumbled. “Isn’t *what?*”

Chakotay, Tom, Blodd, Sam, and B’Elanna all answered, in unison. “Friendly
fire isn’t *friendly!*”

I don’t think Qiral got it. You have to have the history and semantics to
get that one. Have to know that ‘friendly fire’ means being taken down by
your own weapons, your own allies, your own battle plans, in the confusion
and chaos of real battle conditions. ‘Friendly fire,’ because it’s from
your own people, trying to win the war, and help your side. But it *isn’t*,
because, no matter who shoots the phaser, or launches the missile, you’re
still dead.

Dead.

The doors of the bridge opened again. Harry, this time. “Carey’s gone down
to engineering. I thought…”

Wildman stepped aside. “Your station, I believe.”

Harry looked at her, gratefully. “Thanks.”

She smiled, and sat down at one of the last auxiliary seats remaining open.

My bridge crew was back. All the old faces. Family.

I knew that, all over the ship, everyone who could had reported to their
duty stations. Taken up their auxiliary posts if the primaries were manned.
Filed down into the mess hall, to sit together, if they thought they’d be
under foot in work areas. Maybe Chaim, down with them all, harp out,
playing “May the Circle,” or “Oh-bla-di,” or “Imagine,” or paying tribute
to another brave ship with “Abide with Me.” Dying is an old, honorable
tradition. Doing it well is an art.

Klingons have it wrong. There is no good day to die. But there are good
ways to die. Good causes to die for, good people to die with.

The lesson of the Kobayashi Maru. Of Rachel Garret and the Enterprise-C.

This was a good way to die.

As the first wave of unmanned platforms came into range of the first
battalion of Great Ships, Voyager spun out through the empty space between,
mines pouring out of the belly of our holds, rocketing and spinning wildly.

The programs of the unmanned platforms went into action, and tractors
locked on. Phasers shot out.

The battalion blossomed into death.

It was satisfying–but no longer the sick satisfaction the death of Star
March had brought me. A thing that had to be done, had been done well.
Deaths that were needed had been accomplished as cleanly as possible. But I
no longer yearned for their deaths. Found that, somehow, I grieved them.
Wondered what children, running from house to house crying “the stars are
over us, and in us, and some day we will be among them,” would come home
that night, or the next, or the night after that to a dignified messenger,
and a parent in tears.

I remembered an old biographical work from the dark ages of the Terran
twentieth century, by a veteran of the Korean war, describing his sense of
grief when, rifling the corpse of a North Korean soldier he’d killed, he
found in his breast pocket a wallet containing pictures of his parents, and
his young wife and child. The sense that he was closer to the man he had
killed, shared more in common with him, than he shared with millions of the
lives back home he was supposed to be defending. At the time I read it, it
had merely made me frown at the barbarity of the ‘old days,’ when humans
had to *discover* their shared humanity. I’d learned a lot since then…
how easy it is to hate an enemy. How hard to forgive them their
trespasses… or understand that we are as vulnerable to the temptation of
trespass ourselves.

The violet blaze was death, from which there is no reliable return.

They were my kin, and I mourned them. Mourned us all.

Teefei had pulled the ships of the Exodus together, and they formed a solid
wall between the Hakaalt fleet and the ships of the Order of Compassion.

Tuvok announced that the Hakaalt were sending out another battalion. They’d
learned their lesson, this time. The shields were high, but the webs
weren’t in evidence. We’d have to fight them one on one.

“Voyager-sister? Do we attack?”

“No, Teefei. Make them pick their way through the mines, first. Don’t risk
our ships.”

“Done.”

I turned to Chakotay. “Tell the ships of the Order to be prepared. They
have to start the flight for the funnel wall as soon as we have maximum
engagement with the Hakaalt. As long as we’re keeping them busy, there’s a
chance–but they’ll have to move fast.”

“Will do.”

It was good to have him there. My partner.

Sad he would die. Sad we’d all die. But good to be together, in this as in
life.

“Captain, the Hakaalt have achieved maximum penetration of the mine field,
and are using their phasers to detonate the mines. Broad sweeps. They will
be through in approximately six point nine minutes.”

“Understood. Chakotay, pass the word to Teefei. The charge starts now.
We’ll stay outside the field and take as many as we can while they’re still
tied up with mines. On my signal.”

A murmur. An agreement.

Three.

Two.

One.

“Mark!”

We bolted forward, the entire rag-tag, motley band of us. What Magda had
once called the ‘peasants with the pitchforks.” What you had left when the
knights rode away with their pennons, and their armor, and their plumed and
polished lances, and their bright, proud shields, and their shining
trumpets, and there was nothing left but battle, and blood, and valiant
last stands, and death. But none of us turned back. The idea was to keep
the Hakaalt too damned busy to cut off the little band of ships from the
Order, as they ran pell-mell-desperate towards the wall of the funnel,
trusting blindly to the neutralizing devices we’d fitted them with, hoping
against hope they could slip silent through the veils, and escape, starting
again on the long, hopeless flight to the Bandei Empire.

At first it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The Great Ships floundered,
unable to raise their webs for fear we’d kamikaze against them, blundering
into mines, exploding under our fire, their shields useless against the
pure volume of phasers and photon torpedoes they were taking. Debris filled
space.

But soon the last of the mines were detonated. And another battalion of
Great Ships was launched, accompanied by the darting, weaving assault
fighters. The first of the ships of the Exodus dissolved in fire and dust.

We began the final retreat.

The ships of the Order had a good lead. A long lead. And the Hakaalt were
busy with us, as planned. I felt a flicker of hope.

Harry, at ops, put it out. “The anomaly: you were right. It’s a worm hole.
It’s opening up. Here.”

Even as he said it the main body of the Hakaalt fleet poured out, wings of
fighters raging across space to cut off the survival fleet, the rest eating
up the empty light seconds between us as though they were nothing.

It was over. Over. We’d failed. The survival fleet was panicking, rushing
back toward the the illusion of safety presented by the huddled ships of
the Exodus. Behind us the wormhole was opening back, and who knew what
awaited us beyond it: more ships to kill us, a pyre to burn our lives to
dust.

Before me a medium sized ship hove into view. Filled the screen. Then, with
no action on Harry’s part, the view of battle was replaced with a view of a
Hakaalt bridge. They were using that damned broadcast tech that had so
successfully flooded us with “Dreams.”

Sitting in the center of the bridge was the woman who had commanded the
survivors of our first encounter. “I have marked you, eftri. The others
will stand aside, as I claim you. The other eftri may escape, but your life
is mine!”

Even as I frowned, trying to make sense of her words, my Academy training
was cutting in, mind calmly taking note of the details.

She was changed. From every thumbprint freckle and dot across her cheeks
ran black tears, tinged with the grey-blue dullness that marked them as
tattoos. Three bars across her forehead in the same fogged black. No more
thick, glossy cap of red hair, but a skull shaved bald, scalp white as
chalk.

Xenological note: signs of widowhood among ranking officers of the Hakaalt
space forces…

There was somehow a space being cleared around us. Ships falling back.

We were ‘marked.’ Damn, I didn’t understand these people. Another round of
bewilderment, and no handy computer entry to tell me what the hell was
going on, or what the rules were.

“Tuvok, prepare to kamikaze…”

Didn’t want to die. Stupid. Stupid…

Harry swore. “Oh, jeez, jeez, they’re coming through, God, it’s more
ships…”

The web of the ship flared out…. “Kill us, eftri bitch. Kill us, with
your Waren-made fires. But we take you with us, and my Vegeis’ honor is
bought back!” She charged.

No more choices.

“Lock tractors…”

Tuvok’s hand reaching out…

Such a waste.

Then Metal March, stealing our thunder. Wolf-cry on the subspace radio.
Hyena howl. The shriek of the widow, “No, no, not your death! Stupid
eftri…” Tractors locked, phasers firing. Then light, and debris. The thud
as blast-wreckage and twisted metal fragments forced past our weakened
shields.

Teefei, gone. Oh, hyena-friend, kin-brother, gone!

The image of the widow gone, gone, gone —

Replaced by Harry’s information feed. The wormhole.

The sky opened from the center. Wider, wider, wider, the whole thing filled
with ships, thousands of ships, every size and shape and category of ship,
and my stomach fell, and my heart broke, and nothing made sense, and I
remember ordering the phasers to lock on —

And Tom, stiff legged, crippled, throwing himself across the deck,
hobbling, shouting, “No, no, no, no, it’s Normandy, Tuvok, don’t fire,
Harry, call the kin, tell them to let them through…”

And Chakotay swearing, eyes huge, as the ships poured through like a
lava-flow of metal, streaming past us, through us, around us, and the
Hakaalt falling back, retreating, and they were beyond us now…

And, in the sudden silence, Tom just said. “My God. Normandy. I always
thought my Dad was full of it, but it’s Normandy. It’s real.” And he sat on
the floor of our bridge, and cried.

Chakotay pulled out of his chair, grabbed Tom’s elbow, and helped him back
to the second nav seat. “Normandy. The Evacuation of the beaches of
Normandy.” He gave a crooked smile. “One time in a million. Chief Joseph
could have used this kind of cavalry.”

I stared up at my screen.

Harry, quiet, said, “They’re communicating with the Hakaalt leaders.”

“Put it on.”

An old man. Stiff, of an unfamiliar race. Tottery. My readings said the
signal was coming from an ancient warship, old enough and battered enough
that it looked like it should have been decommissioned years before. He
stood his deck like Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. “We have come to
receive the kin.”

The screen flicked, and a Hakaalt face raged before us. “Bandei. eftri.
This is none of your business. It’s a Hakaalt action in Hakaalt space.
Leave now.”

“No.”

“We will consider this an act of war. Your people will pay.”

The old man lowered his head. “As you will. But the line is drawn here, and
here we stand. You will not do this thing.”

Chakotay touched my elbow. “I know you want to stay and see the show, but
with Metal March gone, we’d better start the evacuation, or it’s all for
nothing.”

I nodded.

The next few minutes I missed a lot. The battered ships of the Exodus, the
survival fleet of the Order of Compassion, gathered quietly and began to
file silently towards the churning circle in the sky. Drifted into that
brilliant hole.

Voyager trailed behind, a little herd dog nipping at the heels of
stragglers, keeping the movement steady. As we moved I studied the ships
that had come through.

Tom had been right. It was like the evacuation of Normandy. This wasn’t a
military fleet. Not purely. Most of the true warships were old, and
decrepit. The rest?

Shining space yachts.

Merchant ships, defensive systems up, shields high, holds empty.

Little shuttles, too small to do more than take on the Hakaalt in anything
less than a pack.

Pleasure ships.

Cargo vessels.

Garbage scows.

Barges.

Mobile repair platforms, pulled along by tug-lorries.

Passenger liners.

One man racers.

If it flew, it was there. Enough to stand down the Hakaalt. Thousands of
ships, standing between us and death. Bandei civilians, and if the Hakaalt
dared kill them in their hundreds to try to take us anyway, it *would* be
war… and war so fast they’d have no time to pull the survivors of this
Purge together to meet the threat.

It was as though all of space in some small, populated region, had been
swept of every space-worthy vessel to form a massing glory of a fleet. The
knights in their armor, the peasants with their pitchforks, all coming
together to take a stand. Maybe they had nothing better to do that day than
wash their hair, and decided to do one thing worth doing.

As the ships of the Exodus passed, the Bandei flashed their lights.

A silent salute.

Tribute to months of fighting, and struggle, and survival in the face of
hell.

Once in a million times the “human” population of the universe gets it
right. But, by all that any of us find holy, when we get it right, there is
nothing in heaven and hell to match it. Sometimes it makes no difference,
settles no problems, cures no ills, ensures no justice. But the valor, and
beauty, and honor, and grace, and plain, unvarnished generosity of it lifts
the heart.

As Voyager passed into the heart of the wormhole, I reached out and took
Chakotay’s hand.

Some days it doesn’t pay to get up in the morning.

Some days it does.

End Section XIII

——————————————-

——————————————-

Section XIV:Chakotay

In command school, there’s a course on the “Sociological Aspects of
Command” with a two-class-period subsection called “Informing the Family.”
Nothing they can teach in two class periods has much bearing on the
reality. It’s mostly how to write letters. “Each of you will develop his or
her own style,” they tell you.

Bullshit. There’s no “style” to telling people that someone they love is
dead–dead under your care.

Qiral and Rodria had brought Ata’s foster to me in my office, so she could
hear how her other father had died. Now that we were safe from the Hakaalt,
we had luxuries for things like “informing the family.” We wouldn’t all be
joining the dead shortly.

The girl wasn’t crying. She looked shell-shocked–prepped for
post-traumatic stress disorder. She was also older than I’d expected. For
some reason, when someone says a “child,” you think a little kid. But this
girl must have been the Earth equivalent of ten, old enough to understand
more than she was old enough to deal with.

She was also Ata’s blood child, even though she was called his “foster.” I
guess the kin don’t want to single out children by making a distinction
since so many of them are raised by people not their biological parents.
They don’t have access to the elaborate–and expensive–genetic engineering
required to make hybrid children. So they have children how and where they
can, each one precious. The Federation could learn something from the way
they love those kids. Chaim would understand it: children are hope. Now
more than ever. For too many ships, too many kin-callings, the children
were all that was left. Like Metal March. Old Teefei’s kin-calling was no
more.

Rodria stood behind the girl, no taller than she but still protective.
Height had nothing to do with it. “Yu Ring-Forger,” she said. “This is
Chakotay of Voyager kin-calling. He can sing you of your foster-father’s
death.”

So at least the girl already knew Delwien was dead. I was off the hook for
the actual telling. She looked at me with big dark eyes like Ata’s, but
stayed well within the protective embrace–arms and wings–of Rodria.

I glanced at Rodria but spoke to the girl. “I don’t know what your people’s
customs are, Yu. Delwien certainly deserved a death song, but I’m not much
of a singer. We couldn’t bring back his body either, but we did bury it
where nothing can get at it.” After everything the Hakaalt had done to kin
dead, I wanted her to know that much.

She nodded and came a step closer. “Ura Qiral says a Hakaalt woman sat with
him, at the end.”

Surprised, I looked at Qiral. I’d told him, but I hadn’t thought he’d tell
the girl. “We don’t shield our children,” he said. “We couldn’t. She has a
right to know. Tell her all of it.”

So I did. She sat in a chair beside me, her brown hands folded neatly
between knees bared by some Bandei child’s old cast-off dress. There was a
yellow stain near the hem. Charity for refugees. When I was done, she gave
a short, sharp nod. “The Hakaalt was named Elis?”

“Yes, that’s the name she gave us.”

She lifted her head. For a moment, her little pointed chin quivered, then
she mastered it. I hadn’t seen her cry once but her whole body cried, her
whole body drooped with sorrow. Like a willow. Like a yew tree. Yu. Yew.
The plant of mourning. I was filled with a sudden wish to protect this
child from any more sorrow but I didn’t dare touch her, didn’t know how it
would be received. Her posture had drawn the very air itself about her like
a cloak, like an invisible shield. The Yew Child.

“Then I will name this Elis in my kin-calling,” she said finally.

That announcement took us all by surprise, Rodria especially. “She’s
Hakaalt!” Rodria snapped.

Yu turned to look at the little woman. “She held my father’s hand while he
died. She gave him honor. So I will give her honor. I name her in my
kin-calling.”

“I doubt she’d appreciate it,” Rodria muttered.

“Maybe not.” Yu shrugged, eloquently.

Reaching out, I set a hand over hers. “I’m not sure that she wouldn’t,
either, Yu. I hope that, someday, you might get a chance to meet her and
ask her for yourself.”

The girl stood, slipped her hand from mine, shook her head. “I don’t think
I’d want to,” she said. Neither her voice nor expression were those of a
child. “She might not be like I think, and I’d rather not know for sure.
It’s easier to wonder than to know for sure.” She turned then and held out
a hand to Qiral. “I’d like to go back to my room now,” she said.

Nodding to her, Qiral gave me a silent bow and led her away, Rodria
following. At the door, Rodria turned. “The Hakaalt really sat by him till
the end?” she asked. “Without you forcing her?”

“She really did,” I replied.

Tilting her head, wings lifting slightly, Rodria thought about that a
moment but said nothing. Then she left.

I sat a while, mulling over Yu’s words, “It’s easier to wonder than to know
for sure.” That bit of wisdom applied to a lot of things. It was easier to
wonder whether Kathryn would say yes to my proposal than to press her–ask
again–and know for sure. Limbo was comfortable. And maybe I didn’t really
want to know for sure whether she really loved me or just found me
convenient. Being convenient was comfortable, too. But it wasn’t enough to
last seventy years, and I knew it.

Odd–I could think again about the future. I realized that in the past
weeks, I’d gotten out of the habit.

Standing, I stretched, pushed in my office chair. One duty down, but I
still had a duty left to perform. Picking up a bag from beside my desk, I
went out.

It was quiet in Voyager’s halls, but not the quiet of death- expected or of
resigned hopelessness. This was dim numbness. People were shell-shocked,
like Ata’s daughter. Jubilation had gripped us immediately after rescue but
it had passed quickly into stupefaction. Certain death–chosen death–had
been averted by the cavalry coming over the hill. But we hadn’t been the
cavalry and I’m not sure our people knew how to take it. That was the
Federation’s job: USS Cavalry Incorporated. Even if we were unlucky enough
to be the troops on the ground needing rescue, it was our own who did the
rescuing. Usually. In this case, it was the Bandei, and they didn’t know
who the Federation was–or give a rat’s shit, either, from what I could
tell. We were just another charity case.

I entered the morgue, approached the cabinets containing the refrigerated
bodies and touched the combination on Magda’s. It rolled out. Anonymous
silver greeted me. I unzipped the bag and stared down at the face, or what
was left of it. I’d seen it before, just after the explosion. There was
little recognizably human, much less recognizably Magda, left to it.
Crisped flesh would crumble if I touched it, so I forbore the traditional
painting. I hadn’t come here for that. I think I just needed to see her
again. See what was left of her. I was alive, looked likely to live for a
while at least. But here lay part of the price for that life.

Turning away, I bent to open the bag I’d brought with me, began to draw out
the articles which Anyas had helped me gather after our return from hunting
Kilpatrick. I’d made her a spirit bundle not long after we’d gotten back.
Men didn’t usually do such a thing. It was for widows or mothers, but I’d
done it as a son. I carried it with me most of the time, even slept with it
by the bed. I’d meant to prepare Magda’s body, too–should have done it
when I’d made the bundle–but the imminence of all our deaths had stopped
me for some reason. Now, since I couldn’t paint her face, I looked in a
little hand mirror and painted my own. Black around the eyes. Then I layed
out certain small items which had been dear to her in her lifetime: a
silver chain which had belonged to her daughter, a real antique grammar
book from the Nineteenth-Century Canadian frontier, Andre’s pipe, and one
of Anyas’ veils. In her long hands–which had surprisingly escaped much
blast damage, I placed tobacco, closed the dead fingers around it. Above
her head, I laid two things. The first was a piece of wood, carved with her
totem–a Canadian goose, of course–upside-down. The second was a brave
stick. Once, such sticks had been made only for the warrior men of a tribe,
but in these days, we sometimes gave them to women who were warriors.
Certainly Magda had earned hers. There were four red stripes on it. For
each, I should recount some exploit.

Laying my hand on her chest, I spoke to the empty room. “The first is for
her battles against ignorance, of the mind or of the heart. She was a
teacher who never stopped learning because she thought education mattered
and because she loved it. And she taught her students to love it as well.

“The second is for her battles against despair. When the Cardassians took
her family, she changed her name to Hope, and did not give in. She fought
them in the only way she knew how.”

“The third is for her battles in the name of love. She never stopped
believing in the power of love, never ceased to cheer it on wherever she
found it, and as a result, she drew love back to herself.

“The fourth”–I paused, unsure what to say. “The fourth….”

“The fourth is for Voyager, which she died to save. Well, more or less.”

I spun around. I’d thought the room empty. In a corner sat Anyas.
Apparently, keeping vigil over the dead was a Kithtri custom, too. But he
could have said something, given some indication he was present.

He’d shaved his head. It was startling. No more Prince of Lilies, but even
bald he was beautiful; the loss of his hair simply served to highlight a
perfect bone-structure. Even so, the shaved head and the fasting of his own
customs had made him as thin as Pauguk. He looked older, too. Or maybe it
was just the lack of baubles and mischievous smile. Still, he remained our
Nanahboozhoo, bringer of medicine, son of the West Wind–for the West is
the land of death. Even Nanahboozhoo’s medicines sometimes fail. Death is a
greater healer.

He had approached the open body bag, looked down into it. For a moment, I
think he’d forgotten that I was present. Then he started, glanced up.
“Thank you for coming to honor her. Are you finished?”

It was a dismissal, if a polite one. I might be the son, but he was the
husband. As much as I’d doubted that relationship, I couldn’t deny that
he’d grieved since. Sitting alone in the dark was not an act put on for
anyone. If he wanted to be alone with his mourning, I’d take mine
elsewhere.

Just before I reached the door, Anyas’ voice stopped me. “What you said
about Magda and love–that she cheered it on and so drew it to herself. She
did, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, she did.”

“Good night, commander.”

“Good night, doctor.”

I went out. Was it night? I guess it was–or getting on towards it. Evening
on Voyager, evening on the day of our delivery. Before I went any further,
I wiped the black off from around my eyes. I should have left it on, but
had no desire to deal with second looks from the crew. Then I headed for
Kathryn’s cabin.

Rounding a corner, I came on a strange sight: B’Elanna, Paris, Harry Kim,
and D’Amato bent over an open panel in the wall. I could hear Torres
swearing in Klingon, though I suspected the Queen Be was enjoying her
all-male attendance.

Kim saw me first, turned. He had a befuddled look on his face and something
bright orange in his hand. “Ensign?” I asked. They all turned then. Judging
from B’Elanna’s vehemence, I was glad the universal translators were
preprogrammed *not* to translate some words. I don’t think I wanted to know
what she was saying.

Harry held out the orange object to me. I took it. An egg. If Harry was
bemused and B’Elanna furious, Paris was just amused. D’Amato…was
something. He looked slightly manic. I might have worried but it’s not
every day one gets his life handed back to him. Everyone was reacting
differently. I’d keep an eye on him. I’d gone over personnel files usually
reserved for the ship’s counsellor and D’Amato’s showed a tendency which
could be called certainty–or rigidity. Whatever name one hung on it,
recent events with the Hakaalt had taken it to the wash.

I glanced down at the orange egg. It was the same florescent shade as
Chessie’s chest fur. “What,” I asked, holding it up, “is this?”

“Slime serpent egg,” B’Elanna snapped. “The thing was a *she*, and she left
us a whole damn nest!” Stepping aside, she gestured to the open wall panel.
I glanced in. Sure enough, there must have been fifty eggs in there, half
covered over with torn out cables which the serpent had probably chosen as
a substitute for non-existent sand or grass.

I started laughing.

It was the kind of laugh I hadn’t known in weeks, straight up from the gut.
It felt damn *good*.

Paris joined me. Turning, quick as a serpent herself, B’Elanna socked him
in the arm. “Ow!” he mouthed soundlessly but kept laughing. At least she
hadn’t hit me.

“It’s not funny!” she shouted.

I wiped my eyes. “Yes, it is. You’ve found a hidden cache of Easter eggs,
Be. They’re even dyed for you.” Her expression hadn’t softened. “You do
know what Easter eggs are, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course!”

Tossing the egg gently and catching it, I got myself under control, though
I could still feel a grin fit to split my face. “Think of it as your own
private little resurrection. But get some of Qiral’s people down here to
clean ‘em out. I don’t think the captain wants an entire clutch of those
things slinking through her ship.”

“Me, either.” She slapped her communicator. “Torres to Qiral!”

I left them, one of the eggs still in hand, returned to the cabin I still
shared with Kathryn. I wondered for how much longer. Soon, the kin would be
gone. Soon sharing quarters wouldn’t be necessary. Would she ask me to
leave? Did I want her to?

She was on the comm when I entered, talking to someone on the Bandei ships.
We might be out of the woods, but the work didn’t stop. I could tell she
wasn’t in the best of moods before I opened my mouth, so I pocketed the
small orange egg and decided to save my joke about the slime serpent till I
could test the waters.

She slammed off the comm with the heel of one hand, ran fingers through
what was left of her hair. I’d cut it for her, before the Pyre, before the
rescue. It had been so hot and heavy, living with it was a misery for her
and I’d known she’d secretly longed to be rid of it. So I’d offered to cut
it, the same as she’d permitted me to go after Kilpatrick even knowing I
might never come back. A gift. It was very short. When I caught her image
out of the corner of my eye now, it startled. But the face was the same,
and the woman inside it. It was the woman I loved, not the hair. Hair grew
back.

I came over to run the back of my hand down the back of her bared neck.
“What is it?”

“The Bandei!” She actually kicked at her desk in frustration. “That bunch
of money-grubbing, self-congratulating little bourgeois! They want us to
pay for everything. Or nearly. The clothes and the food came free–and some
of the medicines. But that’s it. They have as many replicators as the
Federation, but they *charge* for their use.” She turned to me. “What do we
have to sell or trade for money? Until we fix the replicators, we don’t
have a damn thing! And we can’t fix the replicators without money!” Her
voice was going up, and she slammed both fists on her desk top. I’d seen
her angry plenty of times, but never like this–never on the edge like
this.

She swept out of her seat and stalked around me, didn’t wait for me to
comment before barreling on. “And the food and the medicine– and the
clothes–are free only so long. Pretty soon, they’ll expect payment for
them, too. How are we supposed to get money to pay for these things?, I
asked him. Do you know what he said? Earn it!” She took a breath, raised a
hand. “I know, I know. It’s not unreasonable for them to expect some kind
of trade, but can’t they understand the situation? If they’d just help us
repair our replicators, we could have all kinds of things for trade. But
no! ‘We can’t possibly authorize that kind of expenditure without due
return.’

“All right. I asked about earning it. He gave me figures, estimates. I did
the math. With everyone from Voyager working–and that’s assuming we could
all get jobs–it would take us *seven years three months* to earn enough
just to fix the replicators! Seven years–and that’s penching pennies. We
have to figure in living expenses. Our earnings wouldn’t be free and clear.
Food costs, clothes cost, power, water, incidentals…it all costs! Things
we consider necessities, they pay for here. Then there are the taxes.
Imperial taxes, city taxes, local taxes, taxes for the *right* to
work–even a tax for the land where Voyager will have to sit down! We’ll be
*stuck* here–and by God, I half-think they *want* us stuck here!”

She quit pacing, collapsed on her couch. Chessie was asleep on the pillow
I’d got for him. I saw him crack an eye, twitch an ear, move the eye my
way, then close it. He was staying out of this one apparently.

I wasn’t sure what to say, but this was about more just Bandei capitalism.
The Bandei were just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. No
human being–even a Starfleet captain–can bear up forever.

Sitting down beside her, I picked up a second pillow and offered it to her.
“Shall I hold it while you punch its lights out?”

She looked at me, started laughing, started crying–both at once. That just
made her angrier. “Dammit! I’m not going to throw a tantrum like a
five-year-old!”

“Why not? I think you’ve earned a good cry.”

“Stop it, Peshewa! I don’t…*want*…a good cry.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t!” She got up and stalked away.

“Well, that made a lot of sense. You don’t because you don’t.”

“Why are you pushing this? I haven’t seen *you* bawling your eyes out!
Chakotay–the good, stoical Indian brave!”

I leaned forward a little, let my hands hang loose between my knees. “I’ve
cried, Kath. Several times. You’ve seen me. And it’s not just the Indian
around here who insists on a stiff upper lip.”

“Okay, okay.” She turned half-away, wiped surreptitiously at her eyes with
the back of her hand. “But I don’t *want* to cry. Whatever they say, it
does *not* make me feel better. It makes my nose red and my eyes burn and
turns my skin all blotchy.”

But the tears continued to leak out anyway–angry tears. They were a front
for the much more deeply seated grief behind them.

Finally I got up, went over and just put my arms around her. I doubted
she’d welcome it and she didn’t, pushed at my arms trying to push me away.
But she needed it. “Hey,” I said. “I always did like blotchy skin on a
woman. And if your nose turns red, maybe you’ll set a fashion.”

That was all it took. She broke up laughing and crying again. She cried a
long time while I held her. After, I helped her into our bedroom and laid
her down on the bed, then went to draw her a bath. A real, hot-water bath.
Just that morning, the Bandei had taken care of our water rationing problem
along with the food. With the replicators down, there was no bath oil, but
plain water was a luxury we hadn’t had in too long. And even Starfleet
captains need to be taken care of once in a while.

Later, when she came in to bed, she found the orange egg I’d set on her
pillow. “What’s this?” she asked, picking it up, her voice back to its
brisk normal without the hysterical edge. She was ready to face the Bandei
now, and I had no doubt she’d think of something to sell or trade. It was
her ship at stake and she was, after all, a Starfleet captain.

I scratched my head and tried on my best schoolboy grin. “That is a slime
serpent egg.”

She nearly dropped it, turned grey eyes on me. “It’s a *what*?”

“Slime serpent egg. It seems our escaped slime serpent was a she, not a he.
She left us some presents. Life goes on.”

She laughed at me, and this time, there was no hint of tears underneath.

End Section XIV

————————————————

————————————————

Section XV: Janeway

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

***************

Quick now, here, now, always–

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of things shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.”

“No, I will *not* give you an interview. Can’t you see we have work to do?”

The mob of people involved in staging this shoot tumbled along in my wake
as I crossed the field between the Red March and Voyager; at least twenty
more sets of feet beating down the grass than was strictly necessary.

The star reporter had the nerve to grab my elbow, and pull me to a halt,
eyes flicking to his holo-tech crew. This was his *opportunity.* “Please,
Wina Janeway, I don’t think you understand. This is a breaking story. It’s
of great importance to the Bandei Empire, with serious potential
repercussions regarding foreign policy and our relations with our
neighbors, the Hakaalt. The public has a right to know.”

“To know what? That the survivors of the Exodus are tired, and dirty, and
injured, and sick, and worn out, and in need of help? The public can’t
figure that out for itself? Don’t insult my Intellegence, Winthe….
Winthe…” I paused.

His lips tightened. Apparently he was supposed to be automatically
recognized. “Winthe Arilar *JASIL.* Jasil of the Imperial News Bureau.”

“Yes, well, Winthe Jas-whatsit, if you want news I’m sure your own
government can supply it. Or the central offices of your various charity
organizations. Or you can wait until those of us who lived find ten minutes
worth of spare time to put together a press conference. My own guess is
that you don’t want news, but drama…. and I don’t have time to supply it.
Now, –”

Before I could shame myself and the Federation by telling the man to ‘fuck
off,’ Qiral, the Delaney sisters, one of the Eenair, Tom Paris, and a bevy
of doctors came crashing into the scene, cutting off holo-shots with wide
backs, and wrecking havoc on the ‘orderly’ business of harassing the living
until they wished they were the dead. One of the doctors grabbed Winthe
Jasil by the corded edge of his doublet, and growled, “Do I have to mention
you to my uncle? I’m sure you’ve heard of him: Prince Intril?”

Prince Intril must have had some pretty serious status points, so far as
the news industry was concerned. Jasil grinned weakly, murmured “Just doing
our jobs,” and waved his team away.

Jen Delaney smiled at the doctor. “Thanks.”

He grinned back, apparently stricken by the stunning beauty of the ‘exotic
gypsy woman’ Jen Delaney and her sister passed as here on Takeeta. “No
problem. Little vetcham thinks he’s Heir Apparent to the Cloud Throne of
the Eighth Heaven. Anyway, I’m a doctor–cures are my specialty.” He gave a
low bow, and kissed his fingertips towards her. I took it for the ‘ne plus
ultra’ of gallantry in the Bandei Empire. Jen seemed to agree. She grinned,
and fluttered her lashes, ignoring Paris’ laughter and eye rolling.

I laughed, and complimented the doctor myself. “You did well… got a cure
for a rainy day? Or a downed ship?”

The man shrugged. “Sorry. Will you settle for antibiotics and antivirals?”

“Any time, any day.” I looked the man over. He was a long, lanky Bandei,
with a friendly face, and the cinnamon skin that was standard for the
species, making him look like Chakotay’s people looked before the whole of
Europe started ‘donating’ genes to the stock, and like a very few ‘pure
bloods’ or near pures still look. The illusion was rather ruined by a
brindle fringe of hair ranging in color from pale green to near-black
green, with a set of teal-blue strands as an exotic alternative. And he had
a halo of tough, leathery antennae like lobster feelers fringing his
forehead. And dark red eyes. Somehow I thought he’d have trouble fitting in
on Dorvan. But he was friendly, and he seemed to have his priorities
straight. He wanted to help, and wasn’t going to make us pay in pride or
pennies for the privilege. I held out my hand, and he took it, looking a
little amused. “Thanks, doctor…?”

“Doctor Coola. I’m head of the Emergency Aid branch here.” He met my eyes.
“You’re going to be facing a lot more of that, you know. I wish I could
chase them all off for you: they get in my people’s way as much as yours.
But he’s right: it’s *news.* You’re not going to get free of them. Not
until some other wonder lures them off.”

“I know. We have some of the same thing back where I come from–though
we’re better than we used to be. A bit better at knowing the difference
between news and gossip.” I sighed, and we all began the trek back to poor,
battered Voyager. Not two days away from the Exodus, not yet even over the
shock, and we had *reporters.* Might just as well have been locusts. Or
rains of frogs.

It was hard. When the Bandei had come through, and we’d passed through that
wormhole into safety, I though it would be simple. Wonderful. Help at last.
Food, medicine, time to rest, time to fix Voyager, time to get clean, and
cool. For the first hour or so after we dropped onto the officially
approved field on the colonial world of Takeeta Tertius, it almost seemed
as good as getting home to the Federation.

Then the realities forced themselves on us, the press descended, and the
reaction set in.

The hardest thing to deal with, somehow, was that we weren’t the heroes.
Not to the press, or the Bandei. All they wanted to know, really, was how
hard it had been, how helpless we’d felt, how horrible the conditions, how
great the fear, how humiliating the treatment from the Hakaalt. We were
emotional and physical wrecks, and we had to deal with the mob of
reporters, rubber-neckers, and nosy parkers traipsing through expecting us
to drop everything and fall to our knees in gratitude and “tell the tale of
our rescue.”

Oddly enough, I found myself missing the Hakaalt. There was something
surprisingly clean about their open hatred, their perception of us as
serious threats. We had joined the kin in being hated and despised. We had
all been eftri. But, in the Hakaalt mind-set, eftri had a power, and a
dignity, and a terror all their own. At least to the Hakaalt we’d been
devils.

To the Bandei we were merely refugees. They didn’t want to know how brave
we’d been, unless it had a tragic ending, or showed the rescue fleet from
the Empire in a glowing and heroic light. They didn’t really want to know
how hard we’d fought, how valiant we’d been. From the Bandei point of view
we were cast in the role of the whimpering scullery-maid who gets rescued
by the hero early in the romance, as proof of his nobility and practice for
his eventual rescue of a Real Live Princess. It was our job to look up at
our rescuers, all wide eyed, and breathless, duck a neat curtsy, murmur
“oh, thank you, m’lud!’ and then make fools of ourselves snuffling and
rooting like starving pigs in the fine meal the noble one had brought us.
Sniffle, wipe our noses on our sleeves, and swear undying love and loyalty
to the Hero Prince. Touching stock characters, half pathetic, half comic.

I’m not sure if Voyager had it better, or worse than the rest of the
survivors of the fleet. In a sense, we were a cut above the kin. Perhaps
not, after all, just the poor scullery maid. Maybe the scrawny but feisty
little stable boy who’d futiley tried to save the poor girl, before Prince
Wonderful came striding in, riding crop in hand, and sword at his side. We
were more alien than the other aliens, more dramatically intriguing, a
shadow of what the Bandei saw themselves as being, and we were true
originals. Unique. Half heroes, half fools. Whatever it was, we were the
*exotic* refugees, and we were getting the most attention. Damn it.

Things were crazy.

I didn’t know how I felt about the Bandei. They’d send food, and supplies,
blankets, the most ridiculous and useless sets of hand-me-down clothing,
crate after crate of boring rations mixed with unrecognizable luxury items,
doctors, med-techs, gophers of all ilks, medicines. They’d allowed those of
us who could land to set our ships down on a plateau near the capitol of
the colony, a knocked-together town called Morilis. But they also drowned
us in minor governmental officials, they buried us in paper work just to
get temporary passports, they asked us incredibly stupid questions about
our plans while in the Empire, they mobbed us with reporters, and they
wanted us as living symbols of their own virtuous generosity and heroism.
And the one thing they didn’t offer…

The Bandei were raving capitalists. Less so than the Ferengi or the
Kithtri, who have in their respective ways turned trade into religion and
culture; but more so than the Federation, which, with the invention of
replicators, had settled for a modified capitalism, in which necessities
were usually free, at least on the primary worlds, and luxury items and
elemental raw resources were the most common trade goods left. Of course
that was less so in the colonies, where energy and technology were scarce,
and money still meant a lot. But even on the colonies we wouldn’t have had
to *pay* to get Voyager repaired. At least, not in the same sense.

Even if our own replicators were working we couldn’t have simply forged the
local currency. Not just because it would have been unethical, but because
it was based on coded, security cleared electronic transactions. We’d have
had to hack their computers, and done it damned well, to “create” money for
ourselves.

Looking over Voyager it became clear that, without money, some money, and
soon, our bird would never fly again.

It was something to worry about. But in the meantime we had other problems
to deal with, and sadder labors to perform.

“I miss them already.” Chakotay lowered his head.

Most of the service had been based on the standard Fleet memorial service.
This one bit, a haunting echo of the funeral of Kurt Bendara, was purely
his own.

I’d pretty well busted up that service. Me and Jonas, and our respective
rages. This one went better.

Really, there were two funerals. The first was a mass memorial for all
those who had died in our encounters with the Hakaalt and the disaster of
the Exodus, followed by the beaming of the bodies out into space from where
we sat on the surface of Takeeta Tertius.

I had wanted a service for each of the dead. They had all been individuals,
and deserved to be mourned individually. Chakotay talked me out of it. I
think he’d have preferred an individual mourning for each of them, too, but
he was wise enough to realize we couldn’t maintain the shock and rage and
grief of over twenty individual memorial services. The community needed to
mourn; but stretching it out, holding service after service, several a day,
trying to properly grieve for each one… it wasn’t humanly possible.
Instead we had a memorial to end all memorials.

Chakotay lead it. As captain, the job could as easily have been mine. But
he had become the closest thing we had to a ship’s chaplain, or a rabbi, or
a priest, or anything of the sort. I think as much as the night he first
took the otterskin bag, the memorial service confirmed him in that role.

As I said, it was a beautiful service. He speaks well. Cherel sang “May the
Circle be Unbroken,” standing proud, her belly round and swelling, her face
sweet and amazed as she contemplated the loss of her comrades set against
the wonder of being able to count on the birth of her first child, now that
we were out of the Exodus and had access to advanced medical aid again.
Chaim and Soames backed her, harmonica and keyboard spare and simple under
Cherel’s clear voice. Tom and I both said a few words. Tuvok read a dry
passage from the writings of Surak, having to do with the futility of
denying death, and the danger of self-indulgently giving in to grief and
rage… an appropriate position for the ancient Philosopher of Vulcan to
have taken, given a culture that had been dedicated to blood feuds and
blazing vengeance vendettas. Just as appropriate to Voyager, which had,
somehow, to get beyond the shock and helplessness that lingered with us in
the aftermath of the Exodus and the evacuation. We were in danger of being
paralyzed by our grief, and anger, now that the immediate threat of
destruction wasn’t there to spur us on and hold us together.

When Cherel got to “Shall we gather, shall we gather, safe at last no more
to roam…,” there were a lot of tissues in evidence.

By the end nearly everyone cried. Lots. Well, not Tuvok. Or the holodoctor,
though he looked appropriately dire. But Neelix made up for it by raining
tempests and tropical storms of tears, going through tissues so fast I was
afraid we’d have to hock the ship just to pay for the boxes we’d had sent
up from the nearest town.

It ended with a song that has been traditional in Starfleet for nearly a
century, or thereabouts: Amazing Grace. I’m told it first became
traditional after the death of Captain Spock back in the historic battle
with Khan. After his resurrection on the planet Genesis, it was often
chosen rather for luck, as though in using it the chance of a similar
unlikely return was being wished for the deceased. It didn’t usually work
that way. But still, the superstitious need to call them all back was
there, and it filled a purpose.

As I said: everyone cried. There were so many to cry for.

Even I cried. I hadn’t cried in front of the crew before, besides that one
time when dear, brave, mad Caylem had died, and Tom and his away team saw
me. But never… I’d never indulged in tears in any truly public sense.
Even that one night, when I’d cried in my quarters, gently egged into it by
Chakotay, it had come hard. I mist up easily — but that’s about as far is
it goes. Too much control, and too much resistance.

I’d come a long way. We all had. They were my family, as well as my crew
now, and we shared the grief as well as the joys and victories. I even let
Chakotay hold me afterwards, there in the open space on the plain where we
held the service, and only felt a flicker of concern about what they’d all
think.

We went to our cabin, after. Took a few hours off, before we performed the
final service of beaming the bodies out. We’d reserved that job for
ourselves. The last thing we could do for our people. But first, we needed
just a little time. A chance to breath.

“It was a nice service, Pesh. You did well.”

He nodded. “Thanks.” He was sitting, looking out over the fields, to the
forest beyond. It was a nice site we’d been given. There was even a jewel
of a lake hidden deep in the trees. He sighed, and ran his hands wearily
over his face. “I hope it helps.”

“It does.”

“Ungh.” He pointed out the viewscreen. “See over there? That’s where the
Emergency Aid Division is setting up the temp-huts. Qiral says they’ll be
ready to move in tomorrow. He’s planning on starting to shift the kin off
of Voyager in the morning.”

I was pulling off my tunic. Now that we were able to ventilate Voyager into
the planetary atmosphere, the temperature was down to a reasonable level. I
almost regretted cutting my hair. Not really, though. It had been the right
action for the time. And a sharing I’d never forget. I looked where he was
pointing. “They’ll still be near. I’m glad. I’m not sure… I’ve gotten
used to them. I feel like we’ve already lost so many friends, I don’t think
I’m ready to give these ones up, yet.”

“Mmmmph. The way things are going, we’ll all be together for a while, yet.”

“I managed to make an appointment to see the High-Paltrina. Week after
next.”

He turned away, so all I could see was the back of his head. “Good.” It
wasn’t good. But needs must.

“We need the money.”

He didn’t argue. He wasn’t happy with what I was going to try. Just
resigned. “I hope it works.”

“So do I. I wonder what she’s like?”

“Rich aristocrat. Enough money to play art collector. Do you need to know
more?”

“Yeah. But the way things are going I was lucky to hear about her at all.
Good thing the Emergency Aid folks are so friendly.”

He didn’t comment. It was a sore spot. Not that he was exactly angry with
me. But some things you shouldn’t have to sink to selling.

He stood, and stretched. “With Qiral and Rodria moving out, maybe I should
shift back over to my own cabin.” It wasn’t really a statement. It was a
question, disguised as one.

I didn’t really know the answer. Not the long-term answer. I settled for a
stop-gap. “No need. We’re too busy right now, and we’ve… we’ve been doing
well together. Haven’t we?”

It had been easier to deal with him moving in. It hadn’t even been a
choice, just a necessity. Moving out? I wasn’t sure. Letting him stay meant
too much. But making him move out meant too much, too. And we’d been
through too much in the Exodus for me to trust any decisions we made right
now. Too many ways we could choose for the wrong reasons. If we’d spent the
time in ‘normal’ circumstances, and had worked this well together, I’d
trust it. But we’d been in a disaster, and there was too much chance that
the strength of our match was rooted in that emergency, as the original
aspects of our professional partnership had been rooted in disaster. That’s
not a good basis for a relationship. I’d sen too many couples end up making
disaster a chronic condition, because they didn’t know how to keep the love
going any other way.

But I didn’t want him to move out, yet.

He grunted. “Um. Yeah. OK. I can stay.” He wasn’t at his best. One funeral
down. The second, and most important one to go. And the bodies to beam out.
But it wasn’t the most enthusiastic acceptance he could have made. Left me
unsure how much of it was just inertia, and too much energy invested in
more urgent obligations. Too hard to move out and face the furor that would
follow, right then.

But the way I was feeling, I’m not sure a sonnet and an aria would have
made me feel secure. I was burned out, and beaten, and more unsure in my
returned life than I’d been facing my stolen death.

He was, too. I fought to remember that.

He’s a good man. A caring man. Even a holy man. But the key word is ‘man.’
He’s human, and no matter how much he wants to be loving and supportive, he
has needs, and fears, and griefs of his own. No one is able to be
completely selfless. Its nice to think someone could be… but it’s pretty
selfish, too. Better this: each of us human, and fragile, each of us giving
what we could. If I couldn’t deal with a fallible, limited human lover,
better I realize it now, and return to the convenient, addictive solace of
holonovel heroes. I found I hoped I was up to the challenge of real life.
Chakotay was worth more than a holo-hero. He was the real thing.

But I wasn’t quite sure he wanted to stay.

I put my hand on his shoulder, and was reassured. He took my hand, and
dropped a kiss in the palm, as he had that wild week when we’d first
“courted.” Light and tender as a moth at midnight. I leaned down and kissed
the top of his head.

“Kath — how *do* you tell the direction, in space?”

The question that had gone unanswered. A question that, with the funerals,
had to be nipping at him, for all there *were* directions on Takeeta.

I pulled him up, out of the sofa. Dragged him over the the desk, and pulled
up an image on the computer terminal: the galaxy, spinning in speeded up
animation, still seeming slow and stately. “The direction of the rotation:
that’s east. The future. Where we will be. Then run back, against that
motion, widdershins, into where we have been — the direction of the past,
and death. That’s west. Drop a line through the hub of the whole thing, and
pretend you’re standing facing the disk, with east to your right, and west
to your left… then north is on top, and south on the bottom. Then drop
one more line, from the center point we use for vector-based navigation,
heading straight out into all of the rest of space: that gets you up and
down. Will it do? I can program the computer to tell you the directions any
time, if it’s good enough for what you need.”

He looked at it, frowning in perplexed amusement. “Now, that’s stupid. I
should have seen it. I guess I trained to long as a pilot, with vector
navigation. Got out of worrying about anything but those numbers.” He put
out a finger, and gently traced the image on the screen, following the
direction of the galaxy’s spin. “I don’t know if it will do. I’d want to
think about it. But, yeah, program it into the computer. It’s nice to know
that my people were right: as above, so below, and the whole galaxy it’s
own compass rose.”

Even if we didn’t stick together, even if in the end he didn’t stay, it was
nice to know I’d given him that. It wasn’t much: small return for all the
gifts he’d given me, from his loyalty and his honor to his word when he’d
come aboard, to the nerve-wracking comfort of his arms as I cried. But it
was something.

I looked at the dance of stars on the screen. The galaxy was it’s own
compass rose. I wondered if there was a compass rose for a human heart, to
help it tell the directions of life.

But I said there were two funerals. After the main service, in the
transporter room, Anyas and Chakotay and I held a private service for
Magda. I suppose it was a little self-indulgent. But I’m pretty sure all
the crew had little private services for those they most loved, that day.

We’d already beamed the other bodies out into the clean emptiness of space.
They’d been taken from stasis cupboards, where we’d held them, hoping for
time to dispose of them properly. Twenty-two people from Voyager’s crew had
died, in the final tally. Twenty-two. So many Chakotay and I were having to
seriously consider taking alien crew members aboard to compensate for the
lack of man-power. Close to a fifth of my crew, dead. We hadn’t suffered
that kind of loss of life since the Caretaker had pulled us through.

Chakotay and I chose to run the transporters ourselves. The last, least
service we could do our people.

We’d held back Magda’s body until the end.

It was terrible. I hadn’t seen her body before. The blast… I wouldn’t
have known her. Kes and Chakotay and Anyas, together, had cleaned and
washed the body, laid it out, wrapped it in blankets. They’d done what they
could. There wasn’t much to be done. It really was terrible. But it was…

It was also a relief. Seeing the body is confirmation of something we all
know, but struggle with. A body is just a body. Whatever makes a person who
they are is gone, and the flesh lies empty. You can let it go. No need to
cling to the empty chrysalis when the butterfly has long since flown.

This ceremony was ecumenical, too, though less so than the mass memorial.
But Chakotay and Anyas had decided that, for her memory, they’d follow
Catholic tradition as much as possible. So the words were “ashes to ashes,”
the body was laid out facing east, and–well, there was no such thing as a
consecrated Catholic cemetery on Takeeta Tertius, and even if there had
been, we had enough money problems without trying to buy up a plot. But it
seemed likely that God herself had consecrated space.

Anyas danced. I hadn’t seen him in veils for a long time. But he wore
veils…. the iridescent veils of his Acceptance, dusted with grey soil
from the field Voyager was settled on, for lack of proper mourning robes.
He danced, and did Chakotay the honor of asking him to beat a single drum,
the one Anyas had played on the night Chakotay had accepted the otterskin
bag. The beat lalluped out, rock steady, and I kept flashing back on the
happier, more active beat of Chakotay’s Fancy Dancing. Pesh knew how to
hold the anchor-line for a dancer. He was a dancer himself.

Anyas moved through the open space in the center of the transporter room,
bare feet slapping hard, stamping, voice raised in the mourning ululation,
arms raised so high the draperies fell back and showed the bunched muscles
of his arms, the tendons that made hollows of his armpits. He thrust his
fists high. Just when I thought the agony of the dance would drive him to
collapse, he flashed his hands open, let his arms soften, and reach out in
an embrace, and his feet fell more softly, pattering, weaving around the
still-funereal beat of Chakotay’s drumming. It was as though thunder and
lightening had waged war over a green valley–then moved away into the
distance, leaving only soft rain and low, fading rumbles behind.

Before we finally beamed her up to join the stars of heaven, Chakotay sang.
He doesn’t have much of a voice. Not bad. Carries a tune–but not a lot
more than that. But, for Magda, he sang.

The melody was haunting, and, thanks to the Universal Translator, I
understood the words.

“Ina, hekuye,

Ina, hekuye,

Misunkala ceya-ya omani,

Misunkala ceya-ya omani,

Ina, hekuye,

Ina, hekuye!

Ate heye-lo,

Ate, heye-lo!”

“Mother, oh, come back,

Mother, oh, come back,

Little brother calls as he seeks you, weeping,

Little brother calls as he seeks you, weeping.

Mother, oh, come back,

Mother, oh, come back!

Says the Father,

Says the Father.”

Then he looked across the room, to where I stood at the transporter
console.

I nodded, and looked to Anyas. Above the veils his eyes closed tight, and I
saw the glitter of tears. But he nodded, then opened his eyes, and locked
them to the cold, lumpy bundle on the transporter pad.

I touched the icons and settings, and sent her home.

On the way back up, Anyas turned to Chakotay. “The song? It is of your
people?”

I knew Chakotay didn’t really want to answer; had sat and listened as he
argued himself into doing it, in the nights before. But he nodded, and
answered. “It’s from the Ghost Dance. From a time when my people faced the
passing of our world, and our cultures. Faced what, at the time, seemed our
final destruction. It was the destruction of everything we knew. During
that time, a prophet came. We’re still arguing about the validity of his
vision… or its interpretations. But he promised the return of the old
world, and of the beloved dead. That was a song of one of the ceremonies
that grew up around the vision of Wovoka. A song of the Dakotas. A song of
the Ghost Dance. Wovoka may have been wrong, or not… but the need was
real.” I could see the grief, hard on his face. So still, so bound by the
limits and laws of his own culture. Easier with the good, than with the
dark pain of grieving.

Anyas looked at him, golden eyes wide. One hand rose, and tentatively
touched Chakotay’s throat, dark olive against the cream of untanned olive
skin; tender skin near the curve of shoulder and strong neck. High over the
pulsing carotid artery, near the bunched muscles of Chakotay’s jaw. Those
lion eyes of his flared even wider, brighter, deeper gold.

Anyas is an empath.

He reached up, as he’d reached up at Abbyzh-dira, and released the latch on
his veils, and stood in the slight body suit he’d worn under the draperies.
Unveiled. Among family. The ultimate Abbyzh-diran sign of trust and
acceptance. His bare head shone under the corridor lights, stark. It’s
strange, how common a symbol of mourning that is.

He stepped forward, and wrapped Chakotay in his arms.

For half a second I was afraid Chakotay would pull back. He’s got his
pride, and his privacies, and the extravagances of the ‘peacock’ sit uneasy
with him, for all that seems strange to me, having seen Chakotay decked in
feathers and fur, dancing in the sun of a long-past pow-wow. But it’s true.
Anyas is more loudly, evocatively Mediterranean at its most flamboyant,
than anything Chakotay recognizes as Indian. It’s only as an Anglo that the
similarities seem stronger than the differences. To Pesh, everything about
Anyas was a constant, half-aggressive shout, like going from a wilderness
hermitage to a Risan dance-hell with no preparation. And I still wasn’t
sure he really accepted Anyas’ sincere love of Magda.

But he wrapped the wiry, well-muscled body in his embrace, and they stood
together, as Chakotay had stood with Chaim as Cherel struggled in the
sickbay beyond, months earlier. Michelangelo would have loved the
image–the slender runner resting in the arms of the bear-solid wrestler,
the bodies more expressive than words. Both broad-shouldered forms
describing a tenderness and sorrow that should have been preserved for all
time, as breathtaking a statement of loving mourning as any pieta.

A bridge crossed. A healing started. A tentative friendship born from a
shared love of a lost war horse.

Life goes on.

We were all finding our way home. Finding our way back to life.

Late that night, I held a third funeral. A very private funeral: just me
and a ghost. Chakotay had fallen into a heavy sleep, collapsing into
unconsciousness after the cost of the day. But I’d lain, tossing and
turning, until I had to move.

I’d rummaged through my drawers, out in the dining area, until I found a
candle, and a quick-light. It was ironic… the candle, half-burned down,
was one left from my first ‘official’ dinner with Chakotay. It seemed
fitting, somehow, to light the dead with the candle-end left from the
kindling of a new life. I carried the candle and light down to the one
functioning holodeck. Ordered one of the night-time cottage programs on.

At the edge of the water, where the sand was wet and solid, and the lights
of stars shone on the black-mirror lake, I lit the candle, and called out
to Kilpatrick.

I don’t know why. What good would it do? I didn’t even know for sure if I
regretted choosing her execution. It still seemed as sane a choice as any.
Saner and healthier than most. But I had been right, in what I told Tuvok.
I had been lucky, and lived. And now I lived with my choice. But I didn’t
sleep easy with it.

Some things aren’t easily classified as right, or wrong. Just… the best
you know how to do at the time.

It wasn’t much of a memorial. But it helped. I was quieter of heart when I
left.

The funerals–all the funerals–had gone well. Served the functions they
had to serve. The mourning had properly begun. We’d given those who died
their honor, and started those who lived on a path back through tears. We’d
each found some measure of solace, and granted each other some comfort.

But there was one thing we hadn’t been able to manage. I’d had to deny
Chakotay and Anyas one thing. They’d both asked to use the quilt I’d made,
as Magda’s shroud.

I’d had to order them to hold it aside. Voyager needed it even more than
they did.

“Would you like fei-leaves with your polix?”

“Certainly.” Fei-leaves were fine–they tasted a bit like vinegar, but I
could live with that. It was the polix I wished I could turn down.
Unfortunately polix was the all-purpose ceremonial/hospitable beverage of
choice. You couldn’t go anywhere on Takeeta Tertius without being offered a
cup. Sometimes it was offered casually, served in a huge mug, if you were
in an office or dealing with tradesmen in the business quarter. Sometimes
it was what I’d call ‘semi-formal’, served in genteel bowls with sticky
grain and fruit bars to go with it. Or, sometimes, as in this instance, it
was graciously and stiflingly formal.

My hostess took a wafer-thin glass bowl from the high table in front of
her, and placed it on my own table, in front of me. Picked up the insulated
pot, with fern patterns etched into the glass, and swirled it lightly,
ensuring that all the repulsive sediment I detested would be evenly
distributed for my complete delectation. Raised the pot high above the cup,
and expertly poured a thin, steaming stream of the purple-grey brew into my
bowl. Dropped a fei-leaf on top of the liquid, and waited expectantly.

I fought down a grimace. All in all I found I preferred even Neelix’s
cat-piss leeuvis tisane to polix. The things I do for Voyager….

I picked up the bowl, let the light from the north window shine on the oily
surface, admired the “fragrance,” and took a sip.

Terrible. Simply, utterly, outrageously terrible. Couldn’t be worse if you
let it sit for a month until it grew mold on the top. I wasn’t sure mold
*would* grow on the top–mold usually has better taste than that. I forced
a smile. “Wonderful. Thank you, High-Paltrina Tolopeart.” I wondered if my
mother would have been proud of my performance. I was concentrating on her
favorite acting school, Betazoid Reality Altering. Trying to believe what I
held was a cup of coffee. It wasn’t working, but at least I thought I
sounded sincerely delighted.

Pleasure wreathed the face of the old woman across from me, her cinnamon
wrinkles crinkling, her eyes bright and happy. “There, now, I knew you’d
appreciate it. Palate not destroyed by years of drinking the folgrap and
floor-sweepings they serve as polix down in the colonial shanties. It’s
imported, you know, not replicated or local cropping. Straight from
homeworld itself, traditionally raised and processed, then vacuum sealed
and sent under refrigeration on the same ships as the diplomatic pouches on
the express runs. It makes all the difference. A stoma bar to cleanse your
mouth, or a piece of wora melon to sweeten the aftertaste?”

Hard call. A cleansed mouth merely meant I’d have to face the next sip with
my refreshed and newly sensitive taste buds awake, alive, and writhing in
agony. But sweetening the aftertaste was on a par with sweetening… well,
just think of something revolting you wouldn’t want sweetened. gakh, for
example. Or anchovies. There was actually some similarity between the polix
and the anchovies. Polix was a lot like smoked, liquefied fish in oil. “The
stoma bar, please. And thank you for your hospitality.”

She beamed some more, while delicately serving a doughy-looking bar
sprinkled with elegant traceries of a golden powder. Placed it on a small
plate that matched the polix pot, and handed it to me. “It’s fascinating,
the steps involved in polix processing. An art form.” She served herself,
and I watched carefully to see how she handled the matter of eating it, as
she’d given me no silverware. Good thing I waited… the apparent custom
was to lift the entire plate delicately to the mouth, and use the back of
the thumbnail to ease the cake across the plate to the mouth… then bite
off one tiny morsel, and return the cake to the center of the plate with a
slight thrust of the tongue. Not the sort of thing that would have ever
occurred to me. If I’d followed my own inclinations I’d have appeared as a
barbarian. Not that the locals weren’t already half-convinced of that,
about all the survivors of the Exodus. I mimicked her, and listened as she
rattled politely on.

“The growing season is short, so you have to give the fruit two years to
reach maturity. Then a long winter still on the tree, allowing the mustal
to penetrate the flesh entirely… if you harvest too soon the bacteria die
and the polix berries are useless for anything but filler in the commonest
of brews sold in the quick-shops. Once penetration is complete, and the
berries are completely withered and covered with powder, you harvest them,
and soak them in bitter rogis oil seasoned over a werla fire, so the smoke
scent is incorporated from the very first. Then the drained berries are
dried and smoked over more werla. Then a final aging in a burnt cask
immersed in more bitter rogis. If you don’t follow the steps carefully the
results might as well be pure poison.”

“I’m amazed. I never realized so much went into a cup of polix.” I wondered
silently how much of humanoid survival across the galaxy depended on being
able to develop a taste for foods which had been rotted, preserved, and
then allowed to grow very old in containers. Wished I could retaliate by
offering her a cup of lapsang souchong, and a wedge of limburger. Together.
With a dish of kim chee to cleanse her palate, and a bowl of strawberry ice
cream to sweeten the aftertaste.

The High-Paltrina Tolopeart had been right. The stoma bar *had* refreshed
my taste buds. Pity.

She chattered along, describing the various strains of polix tree, the
different cultivation techniques, the possible future centers of
production, her plans to establish a really *good* polix orchard here on
Takeeta Tertius. All the while she talked the bundle next to me on the sofa
seemed to burn my thigh. As though an inanimate object were capable of
radioactive reproach. I wanted to get this over with. But, here, I was the
visiting barbarian. An exotic alien, feeling my way in a complex culture
that had no interest or respect for my own traditions beyond a certain
fascination with the poor refugees the heroes of the Bandei Empire had
rescued from the evil Hakaalt. I was obliged to play by their rules, and
hope that I could pass well enough to risk attempting a deal.

It wasn’t until the polix bowls were drained that she finally settled down
to business.

“Well, well, dear, you’ll have to forgive me for taking your time like
this. I’m an old woman, and my family has been in polix-trade for
centuries. It’s something of a tradition at this point.” She was almost shy
for a moment. “This brew is from the estate I grew up on, you know. It
brings back such memories. The Tolopearts are *the* oldest of the Polix
Nobility, and we still have a superior product, if I do say so myself.
However, that can’t be of much interest to you, I’m sure. You’d have to be
part of the Eight Hundred to really appreciate all the nuances of the
culture, and the place of polix and polix production in the establishment
of civilization. Maybe your children, or your children’s children, will be
assimilated enough to really *feel* the primacy of polix in our Empire. I
tend to forget that not everyone shares my people’s values.” She waved
gently, and a servant came silently in to collect the remaining food, and
the polix service. When the woman had left, the High-Paltrina allowed her
glance to drift over the package on the cushion beside me. “I believe you
had something you wished to sell me.”

‘Sell.’ The word was like a lump in my gut.

I nodded, keeping my face placid. Reached down, unfastened the tabs on the
bundle, folded aside the wrappings, and revealed the grey, and black, and
white geese; the vivid, flame-bright leaves; and the Indian-summer-blue-sky
background of Magda’s quilt.

The High-Paltrina Tolopeart drew in her breath. “Oh, lovely, my dear.
Stunning! I haven’t seen a primitive work like it. Such expressive use of
primary colors; and the rhythm of the repetitions of the images?
Incredible.” She reached out a delicate, fine-boned hand. “May I?”

I nodded, unable to speak for the clenched jaw. ‘Primitive.’ There were a
lot of life lessons I’d as soon not have had to learn… and hearing my
work, my gift to Magda, described as ‘primitive’ was one of them. I lifted
the quilt gently, and handed it across to the High-Paltrina.

She handled it gently, but it was the gentleness of a connoisseur, not of a
lover. She opened up the folds, then spread the quilt out open across her
own sofa.

Canada geese, flying home, surrounded by the wild leaves of autumn.
Christened with Magda’s tears. I wanted to snatch it back.

The High-Paltrina was practically humming, she was so pleased with it.
“Marvelous, simply marvelous. One of a kind! There’s absolutely nothing
quite like it, in all our textile arts. You know its provenance?”

“Yes. It was made…. it was made as a gift for one of the heroes of the
Exodus. One of my crew. She died saving the life of children caught in an
explosion set by a saboteur.”

“And the artist? You know who designed it and crafted it?”

I had hoped, foolishly, to avoid that question. Stupid of me. I was selling
it as art. There was no chance that the identity of the artist wouldn’t be
of interest. “It’s my own work.”

She lit up. “Oh, my dear, how wonderful. And what a history for the work.
Made by a hero, for a hero. Oh, when I show this piece the entire
collecting community will become envy-hagged. A genuine piece of history,
and to have had it from the hands of the artist herself! A coup! A
veritable coup! I’ll have to arrange a special showing.” She lifted the
fabric up and picked delicately at the sewn patchwork blocks with a
carefully manicured fingernail, testing the strength of the stitching. Then
ran a massively ringed finger over the spiraling patterns of the quilting
on the filler blocks. “You made it using the traditional tools and
techniques of your people?”

I nodded, choosing for the moment to classify the sewing stylus with which
I’d done the final quilting work as a “traditional tool.” It came close
enough, though I’d have preferred at the time to have done it by hand. The
stylus had been in use for a century or two, and that would have to satisfy
the criteria for “traditional.” I wasn’t about to raise any points that
might cause objections to the sale.

She smiled… then her face went sharp. “Your asking price?”

“Eighteen thousand tollers.”

She widened her eyes. “Oh, come now! I grant you, it’s spectacular, and
unique, but still, it’s simply an example of a primitive tribal craft, when
you come down to it. Eighteen thousand? Why not ask for the Imperial
Coronation Regalia, while you’re at it? Five hundred tollers, and no
higher.”

I shrugged. “Eighteen thousand. If you don’t want it, I’ve also received
some signs of interest from the Museum at Wilara, and from the Low-Paltir
Polovarsis, and from a consortium of collectors being represented by an
agent in Quinarry. I’m sure if I took the time to look I’d find other
offers. Higher offers.”

“It’s possible, though I think you’re either bluffing, or unusually
inexperienced. But if you sell it to me, you can rest assured it will be
*appreciated.* Treated respectfully. I’m said to have a feel for the
*meaning* behind primitive works, and I have always felt strongly about the
respect due developing civilizations. I’d be sure to display it carefully,
and keep the pertinent information with it, so no one would simply mistake
it for a decorative rag, or a cheap production item.” She clicked her
tongue. “Now, be reasonable, dear child. I’m sure you’ve got some idea of
making a fortune off of the foolish old Bandei Paltrina, but you must see
reason. I’m generous, but I’m not a fool. Eighteen thousand? Why, you could
buy a new ship for that amount.”

“Or repair an old one. Not that that’s the point. The work is worth that
amount on the open market, and I won’t take less.”

“And they say you refugees have strong spiritual values. How
disappointing–as mercenary as a low-caste polix salesman.” She looked
reprovingly at me. “Please, dear, don’t be stubborn. I’ll tell you what,
for the sake of your people, and because of all you’ve been through, I’ll
offer a full thousand. No higher, though, and it’s space piracy at that
price… you might as well be taking charity, if you accept that offer.”

“These days charity is fine. But my asking price is still eighteen
thousand.” I held out my hands, and the High-Paltrina reluctantly gathered
the quilt and handed it back to me. I folded it carefully. “I’m sure you
feel justified, ma’am, but I can’t give it to you for less. And I’m not a
fool, either. I did my homework before I made the offer. It’s worth
eighteen thousand, and it’s low at that. There isn’t a duplicate in the
universe, and none even like it for nearly seventy light years. And none
with its history, or the connection with the Great Rescue. I suspect if I
offered it in an open auction I’d get more. But eighteen thousand will do
what Voyager needs done, and leave a little over for restocking, and I’m
not taking a toller under that price.”

“Foolish little child. It seems so simple to you. You’re naivete is…
charming. But you’ll find that the collector’s community won’t accept this
kind of pushing pride from a mere refugee. An agent, maybe. Or an
established artist. But a mere captain of a refugee ship? Remember, *we*
rescued *you.* Pulled you out of a disaster, and certain death. Gave you
help and a place to stay. We expect at least some humility and gratitude in
return. Certainly not mercenary extortion. You might better *give* it to
the Empire, and hope we choose to take you under our full care. Better than
attempting to face down the cultural elite. Come now, dear, if you try it,
they’ll eat you alive. You’d do best to accept your limitations, and
understand your place in the hierarchy. The art work if of some interest,
and handled by a Bandei of any distinction it will be very much admired.
But you? You are nothing. A charity case. Please, show a little sense…
For you, out of the kindness of my liver, I’ll offer two thousand. But
don’t ask for more, please. After all, there’s no point in being childish
about this. The world is as it is, and it’s not like you can’t always make
another. Start a business, even. I’m sure that there would be a market for
similar works in the trade stalls down at the port. Spacers are always easy
to deal with, too. Interested in curiosities, looking for novelties to
bring back to their families. Eventually, given time, there might even be
an upscale market for the more… exacting pieces, like this one. The
ethnic treasures, you might say. But with the exception of a few pieces
you’d best start small. As I said, one of the stalls at the spaceport.”

I knew just what she had in mind. A little shack, and all of Voyager’s
people sitting quaintly on the ground, stitching away, wearing our charming
traditional uniforms and cadging coins from strangers. After all, the world
is as it is. The Bandei had been generous, by any fair standard, and there
was no reason for us expect more. Refugees are refugees. Aliens are aliens.
They are outcast. Out-caste. If they’re lucky their children, or their
children’s children, will be assimilated, and will become *real* people.
The Velveteen Rabbits of culture, all the cheap plush of their alienness
worn away, finally fit to become real live ‘humans’ when all the old ways
are forgotten, or graciously given up, or subtly altered for the comfort of
the majority. The world is as it is, after all, and tolerance has its
limits.

Now, finally, my heart as well as my head understood why a people would
create a Dorvan, or a Roisin Dubh. Why that earring meant so much to
Gerron. Why Magda had refused to wear Starfleet’s uniform. Why Chaim wore
his yarmulke, come hell or high water, for all the other ways he was less
than orthodox. Why the kin, owing us their lives, dependent on us for their
very breath, had still balked at giving up their ways and standards of
civilization, or bowing down in meek gratitude. The High-Paltrina truly
meant no insult by what she said. Was simply dickering a deal, and saying
what was, to her, an obvious truth… that I and mine were in no position
to bargain, and had no strength to deal from. But I wouldn’t sell the quilt
for pocket change, or make my people sit in the dust and beg. Even refugees
need pride.

I finished folding the quilt, and wrapped it again. Closed the tabs, and
rose. “I’m sorry, High-Paltrina. No deal. Thank you for your time, though,
and for the polix. It was splendid.” I turned to go.

“You don’t really want to sell it, do you?”

“No. I don’t. But I have to. And, that being the case, I won’t take less
than it’s worth.”

She sighed. “You drive a hard bargain, my dear, and if I weren’t as
sentimental as I am, I’d never allow you to cheat me this way. But very
well. Eighteen thousand.”

I almost refused.

Almost.

Pride was important. So was getting Voyager repaired and back on route.

The transfer was complex. Multiple papers to sign. Blood-samples and
retinal prints to take to ensure no forgery was committed. Servants brought
in to witness. At the end I was handed a thin currency chip, and I
reluctantly gave the wrapped package containing the quilt over to the
High-Paltrina. She cradled the package, face smug, then handed it over to
the last of the servants, who quietly took it away.

When the door closed, she gave me a sharp look. “You don’t like we Bandei
very much, do you?”

I thought about it. Wondered if, indeed, I was becoming like Rodria,
loathing those luckier, and more secure than I. In the end I just shrugged.
“You are as alien to us as we are to you. To you, we’re just ‘refugees.’ To
us, you’re just aliens. Aliens with power over our lives. Sometimes that’s
a good thing. I still can’t quite believe that rescue. Sometimes it’s not
so good.” I shrugged again. “I don’t know. I want my people well, my ship
fit and flying, and no-one I owe any debts to. Beyond that, I want… I
want ‘Les Voyageurs” to remain what it is. For us to keep our own identity
and, well, *soul*, not just dissolve into some other culture and be
forgotten. I want us to go home. When you and your people help us with
that, it’s simple to admire you. When you make it hard, it would be as
simple to hate you. I’ll try not to. For me, rather than for you, though.
I’ve seen what hate can do to a person, and to a people.”

She took my elbow. “Come for a walk in my garden, before you go. It’s a
tradition.” I reluctantly went along. Now, even with the money in my
belt-clip, I didn’t want to risk offending.

It was a beautiful garden. The estate was set high on a mountainside,
looking down at the colonial capitol below. If I squinted, I could just
make out the field filling a quarter of the plateau on the other side of
the valley, where Voyager and the few other landable ships of the Exodus
had been permitted to set down. I could see the sparkling lake that formed
the center of the plateau, ringed with old growth forest and shaggy shrubs.
On our side of the valley everything was wilderness, or a mere step away
from it. Takeeta Tertius was a young colony. But on this side… on this
side it might as well have been centuries old oaks and history. The
architecture was a splendid, artificially aged imitation of some older
style, dating from a time of stone and buttressing, rather than the
plastics and resins, and metal beams that characterized the more practical
buildings down in the valley. The luxuries of a rich colonial
aristocrat-merchant family.

There were stone rimmed pools. Tall trellised gazebos covered in tumbling
vines, all embroidered with coral blossoms. A walkway of river-washed
stones that ran alongside an artistically burbling stream.

Frogs. Or something like. In the shade I heard a croak. Gorollum. Gorunk.
Gorollum-unk. I saw a flash of silver-teal, followed by a blurping splash
at the edge of the stream. I pointed. “What are they?”

She smiled, brightly. “Those? The colonists call them ‘grollies.’ It’s a
silly word. Just a corruption of what they sound like. It’s a young colony,
and I’m afraid that there’s a tendency to fall back on primitive naming
methods. I’m sure in time some scientist will give them a *proper* name.”

“I think you should stick with ‘grollies.’ Onomatopoeia isn’t ‘primitive.’
It’s a sophisticated linguistic technique, and very descriptive.” I didn’t
looked at her. “Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t
proper. If you’d told me it was a ‘Pseudo-rana sylvestris Takeetiensis’,
I’d have known something about it, because I am a scientist, and I know the
language of my people’s science. But when you tell me it’s a grolly, I know
what it sounds like–and what your people notice about it. That’s pretty
good.”

“Yes, dear. I’m sure you’re right.” Her delivery made it clear that she
would expect that sort of romantic muddle from a primitive. She gestured to
a bench beside the stream.

We sat. The sun was high, and I suspected that over on the plateau my
people were sweltering in the glare, working on Voyager. Here in the garden
it was cool, dark with hedges like mourning yews, and the trees towered
above us, letting through dappled shade. Some kind of ground cover hugged
around the legs of the bench. Deep green leaves, thick and succulent, heart
shaped, and flashed with a plummy blaze at the center. Something like a
dragonfly zipped past my ear, and went to hover over the water of the
stream.

So peaceful.

I realized that, sometime during the Exodus, I’d forgotten about
peacefulness. It came as a kind of heart-shock.

“What do you make of us, we Bandei?” She sounded honestly curious.

“I don’t know. You remind me…you remind me very much of my own people, in
some ways. Technologically advanced. Explorative. Curious. Generous, in
your own way. Hospitable, in your own way.” I leaned down, and picked a
flower that waved over the ground cover. It looked a bit like a yellow
dog-toothed violet from back home. A trout-lily. “I think the hardest thing
is seeing so much of ourselves in you, and wondering what the differences
are. The woman I made the quilt for once told me if I didn’t learn to see
the differences, I’d never learn to see the similarities. I think she
really meant if I didn’t learn to look, and ask before judging, I’d never
actually know the truth of anything.”

“And what do you think the differences are?”

I twirled the flower on its stem. “I…. that rescue. That could have been
us. Only it wouldn’t have been. For some complicated reasons my people
believe in a policy of non-interference. So long as the Hakaalt were being
murderous in their own territories, we wouldn’t have interfered. It would
have been a breach of the Prime Directive. All the Exodus could have died,
and all we would have done would have been condemn the Hakaalt for their
actions, impose political penalties and economic restrictions, and possibly
have ended up sending in some spies to keep an eye on them. But… but if
something like the Exodus had made it to the Federation, I think… I don’t
think they’d have had to sell us their treasures to buy repairs for their
ships. We’re not perfect, but we’re better than we once were. Still hard on
the dignity of ‘lesser’ races and cultures. Still rather hide-bound in our
own traditions. But better than we once were.”

“You think the rescue happened just because we are generous? Or righteous?”
There was a strange, wondering bitterness to the old woman’s voice. “Oh, my
dear. You *are* naive.” I tossed the flower into the stream, and watched it
flume away in the swirling currents. She clutched the fabric of her skirts.
“So naive. So hopeful. So optimistic. Oh, I grant you, Taquis was being
altruistic. The man is an idealist, and always has been. He was bellowing
for a rescue from the first moment we got word of your predicament. But
wiser heads prevailed. It seemed enough to offer sanctuary. Then, when the
message changed and you asked for military aid, oh!, the turmoil! You
should have heard. The Parliament preached and pounded, and the House made
such speeches! And all the while Taquis was carrying on like the old fool
he is, making calls to all the old men and women of the militia. Drumming
up a fleet from the dregs of the old ships, from the raff and scaff of the
merchant fleet. Pulling in all the young hot heads among the Eight Hundred.
He had just enough power and the right connections to pull the reserve
units in, without reprimand. Then it turned into a sort of popular cause,
and all the civilians were going crazy.

“But they never would have gotten there, if we in the government hadn’t
allowed it. We were the ones who authorized the use of the experimental
worm-hole technology. It needed testing. And we cleared the rescue fleet.
If they’d died, well, the ships were old, or of no major military
importance. Only a small percentage of the total number in the Empire, and
those on the outer edges of our territories at that. A few hot-headed
heroes, a few stubborn old men with ideals, a few irrelevant militiamen, a
few posturing aristocratic dreamers hoping to equal their ancestors in past
glories.

“If they’d died, it would have given us a good excuse to go up against the
Hakaalt. An act of war on Bandei civilians engaged in a humanitarian
mission. As it is, they lived, but we’ll still be able to take on the
Hakaalt. They’re hot with their own myth, and there’s no chance that this
won’t drive them to some aggressive act. And then we can destroy them, with
all the support of our own citizens behind us. The Hakaalt have grown too
large, and too invasive. This way we can precipitate a war while we still
have the upper hand, and can use our own power to overmaster them. As for
the kin,” she laughed. “They’re nothing. Good enough people, if dirty and
clannish. They’ll get by as they always have, with a trade here, a con
there, a bit of performance. They’ll add a touch of romantic variety to our
culture, fertilize trade somewhat… but ultimately they’ll disappear in
the infinity of the Empire. They didn’t really matter. I’m sorry, but it’s
so. None of you mattered as much as the chance to test the worm-hole
generator, and trap the Hakaalt in a situation in which they will
inevitably guarantee us the chance to topple them without risking civilian
approval. They are a threat to the security of the Empire.”

“I see.” I did, too. “Our Prime Directive. The principal of
non-interference that I told you about. It was established to protect less
technologically advanced races from exploitation, and to leave each of our
member worlds free to maintain their own cultures and traditions without
interference. But I’ve had it rammed down my throat this last few months
that, for at least some of my people, it’s become an excuse to abandon the
weak, manipulate the strong, and wall our own culture up behind apathy, and
self-righteous self interest. It’s a complex universe, isn’t it?” I stood,
and brushed traces of leaf-mould off of my trousers. Checked my belt-clip
for the money chit. “I’m afraid I have to go now. There’s a lot still to
do, and my people are waiting. Thank you for dealing with me. And for the
polix. It was… delicious… and you have every right to be proud of it.”
I offered my hand to help her up, and we wandered back towards the mansion
house. As we reached the stone patio that stretched in front of the doors
of the public receiving room, I turned. “I understand that the motives that
led your people to act were mixed. I understand why. But, if I had the
choice, I’d rather be that old man, Admiral Taquis, than the official who
signed the forms to let him act. You see, I saw him on his own bridge.
Heard him. And, whatever other reasons he or anyone else may have had, he
did it because he believed it was right, and necessary, and because even if
it saved nothing, lost him his life, and precipitated a war, he believed
that it was better to try to do good than do nothing. I’d rather be him.”

The look she gave me was one of reserved amusement, and, somehow, awe.
“Yes. Yes, I believe you would.” She opened the doors, and ushered me in.
We were met by one of the servants, and she instructed him to see me out,
and arrange for an aircar to come take me back to the plateau, and Voyager.
As I left she took my hand. “For what it’s worth, my dear, sometimes I
think it would be better to be Taquis, too. That’s why I married him. But
someone has to make the *other* kinds of choices, or we’d never make it
from one day to the next, now would we?”

“You’re married to Admiral Taquis?”

She raised herself up to her full height. “No, my dear. *He’s* married to
*me.* And a grand old curmudgeon he is, too. But it’s been worth it. Now,
run along to your people, child. I have forms to sign.”

As I stood out on the grand approach to the mansion, waiting for the
aircar, another servant came out. She handed me a fistful of documents–and
the package containing the quilt. Also a small voice-message from the
High-Paltrina.

“After consideration I have decided that this will best be displayed
permanently in its natural environment. I’m sure my Taquis would enjoy it
most knowing it rests in such a setting. Be sure you take care of it, for
him if not for its own sake. And, my dear, if you must have role models, I
can sincerely say you choose them well. Best wishes, Siar Filiama
Tolopeart, High-Paltrina ex-Morilis, Governal Advisor to the Marshal of
Takeeta Tertius, and Signatory Mistress of the War Cabinet of the Bandei
Empire.”

I laughed all the way home, when I wasn’t crying.

The next day was bright and hot. It was late in Takeeta’s summer. Really,
early fall. I spent the day with B’Elanna down in the mercantile section of
Morilis, using the money I’d gotten from the High-Paltrina to purchase all
the metals, and elements, and usable parts we could get to accomplish
Voyager’s repairs. Qiral had come along, too, with a small chit of his own
in hand. The survivors of the Star March had succeeded in contacting
financial trade agents, and coercing them into honoring contractual
holdings from territories near but not officially within the Hakaalt
Empire. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for a down-payment on an old,
hobbledehoy freighter. The Star March touring company would live again…
complete with Oliphaunts. Only four had survived the final days of the
Exodus, but they were the youngest brood-cows of the herd, two pregnant,
and one, according to Kes, was carrying a bull. It wasn’t much, but the
exotic beasts were the beginnings of a new herd. We’d promised Qiral that
as soon as the sickbay was fully repaired we’d use the few remaining scraps
of fresh Oliphaunt meat we had still in Neelix’s stasis cupboards, and
would clone, and gene splice, and do everything we could to make sure there
were new embryos to implant in the cows, giving him the widest possible
gene pool to work with. With luck they wouldn’t have any problems with
in-breeding for several generations to come… and by then they might be
able to afford even more splicing to vary the population.

It went well. It all went well. B’Elanna was doing so much better since
she’d been treated by the Bandei doctors. She had a heavenly time helping
Qiral vet the new ship: kicking fixtures, waving tricorders over this and
that, consulting me regarding plasma coils and retrofitting plans. Then she
had a field day shopping for Voyager. I just barely held her back from
excess. But we were able to acquire what we needed. Soon the replicators
would be back up, the life-support systems fully functional again, the
computer back in full shape, the sensors working. We’d be a bit battered
looking. But even that wasn’t so bad.

Later that day we learned something. We’d been going over Voyager’s
exterior while we were down, and had found hundreds of minor problems we
hadn’t really discovered while we were in space. It’s a lot easier to do an
inch-by-inch inspection of the ship’s hull when you don’t need to wear
magnetic boots and an environmental suit.

In the process we found the remains of the ‘weapon’ that had been launched
at us in our first encounter with the Hakaalt. The one we’d thought was a
dud.

Harry held up the tiny device hidden in the sooty dent of the impact site.
He ran the tricorder over it and whistled. Handed it to me, and watched as
I performed my own examination. When I was done, we looked at each other.
Harry reached out, and took it back. “‘Marked.’ They weren’t kidding. We
were marked.” He was right. It was a tiny little tracer. Even with our
sensor arrays working, we might never have found it. It was well designed,
and non-standard. But we’d been marked, all right.

I sat on the hot skin of Voyager, looking out across the valley below us.
“I wonder. We saw so much action during the Exodus. Took a lot of fire. But
we were never so damaged we couldn’t keep staggering on. Do you think…?
Maybe?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know, captain. But–you asked me back at the
beginning if I knew the Hakaalt were capable of torture. They were. It’s
possible that they never killed us because they wanted us to make it to the
end. Wanted to be sure we knew we were defeated when we went into their
pyre.”

D’Amato, a few feet away examining a loosened weld, spat. “Just like the
bastards. Count on a Hakaalt to drag it out. Sons of bitches.”

I thought of the agonized face of the widow of Alte-commander Vegeis. The
black tears tattooed on her cheeks. The bald skull, and the final blast of
light that had taken her and her crew, and Teefei and the Metal March. “Let
it go, Sandy. Let it go. The kin have it right. We’re none of us Tava’s
blessed mirrors. We were right to fight them. But it’s over now. We can’t
forget it, but we don’t have to tomb it up inside us, either. We have to
live in the now, and aim for the future. The past is just the foundation,
not the whole building.”

D’Amato rolled his eyes. “God. You’ve been hanging around with Chief Joseph
too long, Captain K.J. You’re getting philosophical.” But he didn’t sound
very upset. It’s hard to sound upset when you’re laughing.

It was strange, and ironic. I kept thinking about that little marker. So
much I hadn’t known. Couldn’t have known… and I’d had to choose anyway. I
hadn’t understood the Hakaalt, hadn’t understood their technology, I’d
thought they were crazy or downright dishonest when they’d indicated the
Bandei could come at them across light-years of space. I’d never worked out
half of what was going on…. and I’d still had to choose. I’d have to
again. I supposed that, lacking omniscience, it was a good thing to have
principals. They gave me something to go on, and made it easier to die if
it came to that. Good to die for something. Better by far that to die for
nothing.

It was hot out there in the sun. Maybe that explained the thoughts that
kept creeping in on me. Or D’Amato was right, and I was hanging around with
Chakotay too much.

Late that afternoon we all called it quits for the day. Scrambled down
ladders, slipped through hatches, hurried into Voyager, and were met by
Neelix. Arms crossed. White mane quivering. Spots dark on his odd skull. A
mock ferocious scowl on his face. “Let me guess. First you’re going to
change, and then you’re going to come pounding into my mess hall expecting
dinner, and when it’s all over you’ll all sit down and work some more on
the ship. Well, I won’t have it. *I’m* the morale officer on this ship, and
I’ve consulted with the ship’s medical team, and we all say you need some
down-time. So you’re getting it, or *else.* I’ve sent the commander ahead
with supplies, and we’re eating at the lake. A nice picnic and a swim is
just what you need.”

He looked like a little troll, feet planted, face frowning. I had to laugh.
Oh, it was good to laugh. He meant well. He’d never, ever be anything but
Neelix, with all the quirky twists and turns to his personality. Never
really fit in. But fitting in seemed less important these days than just
being a good, and useful member of ‘Les Voyageurs.’ “You’re absolutely
right, Mr. Neelix. I’ve been remiss. We all need some down-time.”

He nearly fell over on his keester. “I’m *right?* I mean, of *course* I’m
right.” He blinked, and muttered under his breath “I’ll never understand
these Alphans. Never. Never in a million years.” Then he sighed. “Well,
good. That was easy. So, I’ve told Mr. Vulcan what I had planned, and that
the commander had cleared it, but he’s being *stubborn,* and won’t leave
the ship, or let any of his security staff go either. What are you going to
do about *that?*”

I grinned. “Deal with it, of course. You finish the preparations, and chase
the rest of the crew to the lake. I’ll make sure ‘Mr. Vulcan’ and his
security crew are there.” And I left him standing there, with Harry and
D’Amato laughing. His mouth was opening and shutting like a flummoxed frog.

I found Tuvok in his office in security.

He was sitting, frowning over a file.

I leaned against the entryway. “Busy?”

“We are in the midst of an emergency refit, after a disastrous encounter
with a hostile civilization, we are berthed on a potentially dangerous
planet, surrounded by individuals whose intentions we cannot
comprehensively evaluate, and the crew has yet to fully recover from the…
emotional… drain of the past months. While many of the difficulties of
the recent situation have been ameliorated, the loyalty and unity of the
crew of Voyager has received a telling blow, and the potential for mutiny
is still a concern. I have to oversee the repair and restocking of the
weaponry systems, and ensure that the security features of the internal and
external sensor web is restructured in such a way as to prevent tampering
from persons whose ultimate loyalties may be as suspect as those of the
late Kilpatrick and Bintar. There is more, assuming you are interested.” He
glared at me over the top of his desk terminal.

“In other words, you’re busy.”

“I believe I *said* that, captain.”

“What you said is that you’d rather worry and work than go on a picnic.”

He made a face. “I see you have been appraised of Mr. Neelix’s frivolity.”

“Yep.”

“I prefer to abstain, thank you.”

“I prefer to see you go. The work can wait, the immediate security of the
ship can be ensured with shields and a voice-coded lock-out keyed to the
voice prints of the crew, and as for all the rest of it… Tuvok, lighten
up. Even *you* need down-time.”

“I do not choose to *swim,* in spite of the recent events with the away
team.”

“So don’t swim. Lie on the beach, look for terrestrial orchids, hunt for
bugs, eat good food. *Relax.*”

“And if I refuse?”

“I’ll tell them the story of how T’Pel tricked you out of the right to name
the family sel’hat.”

“That is a highly unethical tactic, captain.”

“Kathryn. It was ‘Kathryn’ for years. Somehow there has to be room for it
to be ‘Kathryn’ again. Sometimes.”

“Not while on duty, captain.”

I smiled. I knew when I had him pinned. “Well, maybe not on duty. At least
not while publicly on duty. But as of this instant you are officially *off*
duty. Lieutenant.”

He looked down at the top of the desk. I caught the flicker of amusement,
before he looked back up, face placid. “Is that an order, captain?” I
nodded, primly, and saw the lurking laughter spark silent in his dark eyes.
“Yes. Of course. Shall I meet you at the lake…Kathryn?”

“Damn straight. B’Elanna says she has the primary replicators back on line
… so save me a marshmallow at the fire, all right?”

“All right.”

I cut to my quarters. *Our* quarters. Chakotay still hadn’t moved out. I
still hadn’t asked him to, either.

It was a hard call. I’d been so busy during the Exodus there hadn’t been
time to worry about the question of our relationship. It had simply been
there. Had hurt, sometimes. Been a drain on both of us. We’d worried about
each other, fought with each other, worn on each other’s nerves–and
without each other I wasn’t sure either of us would have gotten through
sane, or whole, or able to keep up our nerve. I wasn’t really sure he
should stay. I really didn’t want him to go. I felt like the proverbial
donkey caught between two ricks of hay, unable to choose. The cost of
loving was awfully high. The cost of losing, higher–maybe. Asking him to
leave, for all it was logically not unreasonable, emotionally seemed like a
statement that the relationship was over. Asking him to stay seemed like a
final decision to marry.

Not deciding at all seemed like the safest bet… unless the stall itself
eroded what we had as time ran on, and nothing was committed to. At some
point you have to take the ‘maybe’ out of “I love you always.”

If it hadn’t been for the Exodus, I thought I’d have been sure. But I had
to face the honest certainty that I hadn’t recovered. Neither had he. Was
that really any state in which to make a choice that affected so much, and
so many?

I didn’t want to think about any of it. So I didn’t. Instead I rumbled
around looking up sun-screen, and sonic bug repellers, and sandals, and
shorts. Picnic gear.

Chessie sat in the middle of the sofa, an outrage of color in my tasteful
decor. “Whatcha up to, Mama?”

“Going on a picnic. Want to come? I can take your hologenerator.”

“You’d have to change the privacy programs, too. I’m still set to appear
only to you and Daddy-O.”

“I could manage to do that.”

He jumped down, and orbited my ankles, purring. “Naaah. Think not. Not
tonight. Wanna think some.” He stretched high, and placed those massive
front paws on my stomach. “U-u-u-u-u-up?”

I reached down, and hoisted him in my arms, migrating towards the bedroom.
“Lord, cat, you weigh a ton.”

“Don’t blame me. You wrote the program.” He wriggled so he lay in my arms
on his back, like a baby. “Mama, if Voyager had been destroyed–what would
have happened to me?”

“I guess you’d have died. We all would.”

“But what would happen to *me?* Would I just stop?”

I shrugged, and dropped down on the edge of the bed. “Don’t know, fur-ball.
If it helps, I don’t know what happens to any of us. Not really. There are
a lot of folks who think they do, but the answers are all different, and
none of them are provable. Ask Chaim, he’ll say one thing. Ask Pesh and
you’ll get a bit different answer. Ask Anyas and you’ll get another. The
honest ones may believe–but they admit that there’s a difference between
faith and knowledge.”

He squiggled out of my arms, and stomped up the mattress. “I see. Well.
Isn’t *that* annoying? It certainly makes it hard to know how to choose,
doesn’t it? I mean, it would be one thing to decide to do something that
could get you killed if you knew what would happen–and another thing to do
it when, for all you know, you could come back as a dog. The universe isn’t
very well run, is it?”

I laughed. “Maybe it’s for the best. This way, you have to choose based on
what the action is worth to you, rather than on what you think the outcome
will be. Gamble on principals, rather than on profits or losses.” I thought
of Admiral Taquis, proud on his bridge, holding the line for his ideals.
Thought of Magda, dead for her own principals, trying to save the only
‘crop’ that mattered. The High-Paltrina signing an order to save the
Exodus–and to knowingly start a preemptive war, while she thought her
people could win, rather than waiting until the Hakaalt were able to choose
the time and the strategies. Thought of Kilpatrick, dead from having too
few principals. And me, still alive, wondering if I’d chosen rightly in
executing her, or if I’d drifted so far from my own principals that I’d
never find my way back to solid ethical ground. I reached out, and ruffled
Chessie’s fur. “Maybe it’s for the best. If you knew for sure, it would be
too easy to run on ethical auto-pilot. It’s already too easy to do that as
it is. This way at least sometimes you have to ask. Examine your own
principals once in a while. Give them a shakedown run.”

He flumped down onto the coverlet. “Well, that’s a bitch… and I use the
term intentionally. A very inferior way to arrange the universe, if you ask
me. Obviously if there is a divinity it isn’t a cat. A cat would manage
things much more efficiently.” He sighed, and stretched. “To me it looks
like you have to spend a lot of time guessing wrong, and regretting it.”

“You choose. That’s all, she wrote. I want to get to the lake before the
sun is down, Chessie. Sure you don’t want to go with me?”

He curled up, tail over his nose, and his voice was muffled–a silly bit of
verisimilitude the computer had added; unnecessary, as his voice wasn’t
actually produced in his head at all. “No, Mama. Time for a cat-nap. Then I
think I want to think about this some more.”

“You don’t sleep, Chessie.”

His voice was drowsy. “Can if I want to. So there. I wouldn’t be a cat if I
didn’t get to take catnaps.”

I laughed, and watched him plummet into an apparent coma. He was actually
snoring as I dug through my drawers and found a swim suit. Chased down a
towel. Grinned as it suddenly occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to worry
about wet hair for long–the crop would dry long before the chill could
bother me.

I was about to go when Chessie stirred. “Mama, it’s hard to grow up. Even
for holocats.”

I reached down and stroked the crazy-quilt fur. “I know, cat. For captains,
too. Sweet dreams.”

The lake was a bright jewel. The picnic area was already arranged, with
blankets on the coarse grass, a fire lit, and huge crates of food and
plates piled nearby. Neelix and Kes and Gerron were rushing around heating
pots of this and pans of that. Cherel sat on the ground, Riaka resting on
her belly over the growing mound of pregnant momma. Chaim was playing the
harp.

Chakotay, and Tom, and B’Elanna, and Harry were having a full-bore,
no-holds-barred, all-or-nothing chicken fight. Chakotay had Tom on his
shoulders. B’Elanna had Harry. The combat was intense. A close match.

Close enough that, in the end, both teams fell over, with a howl and a
whoop and a tsunami splash that sent people yards up the shoreline
screeching and dripping.

I sauntered down to the shore, and watched as my dear ones came up, blowing
like whales and laughing. Splashing each other. Tom and Pesh teasing and
taunting, as close as they were ever likely to come to a placid friendship.
*Men.* Silly, wonderful men. A friendship made of sudden thrusts, and
endless torment–and I was suddenly sure that it would last a lifetime.

Chakotay looked… dear.

Shibui.

Well. Maybe not shibui. I’m honestly not sure that the Japanese intended
the term to cover a great, sopping wet, tattooed lunk with water dripping
off the tip of his nose.

I suddenly realized that Tom was taller than Chakotay. They were both
taller than me. *Everyone* seems to be taller than me. But somehow I’d
always thought Chakotay was the taller.

I realized that, as dear as Tom was, it was simply that Chakotay was taller
*to me.* My Faithful John of a first officer. Damn fool man. He’d done the
impossible, and stood beside me through threatened mutinies, defeats,
through all the months I’d fought for my isolation and tried to ignore his
importance in my command, tried to evade the irritating originality of his
style, and the contrary stubbornness of his own ethic. Tried to avoid my
own recognition of his appeal. He’d fought with me, laughed with me, loved
me. He would always be himself. I suspected he’s always confuse me, a bit.
Leave me wondering what he’d do next. Challenge my assumptions, startle my
certainties. It occurred to me that, for that reason alone, I would always
love him. For that reason alone, I would always need him. What would life
be without a few select surprises, to season the steady joy of all we
shared in common? If you want no surprises you might as well marry
yourself.

No guarantees. In life any more than death. You choose.

It was like the first time I’d spacewalked without an umbilical line,
jetpacks alone to keep me safe and close to the Academy training ship. Like
leaping out into space with nothing more than faith and need to hold back
the panic.

I gathered my courage, and chose. It was scary as all hell. It felt right,
though.

I called across the water. “Hey, commander: remember that question you woke
me up to ask, about six months ago?”

He froze where he was, a goofy grin spreading across his face. Called back,
a bit cautiously. “Yea-a-a-a-a-h? You mean *that* question?”

“Yeah. *That* question, Wildcat. The offer still open?”

I’m sure the entire clearing didn’t go silent right then. Maybe Tom, and
Harry, and B’Elanna fell quiet. But I’m sure not everyone did. It just felt
that way.

Chakotay was standing up to his ribs in water. The injuries he’d received
from the Hakaalt still showed pink on his ship-pale, olive-brown skin. I
could have sworn the light on the lake was wrapped around him like a robe.
He just stood there, for the longest time. It terrified me. Maybe the offer
*wasn’t* still open. It also reassured me: this time he was thinking about
it. Hard. I may have been acting impulsively–I was pretty sure I was. But
at least he was there, anchoring me, as I’d anchored him when he first
asked. He wouldn’t let it go further, if he didn’t believe in it too. The
silence stretched.

Then, “Yeah, Kath. I suppose it is. Got an answer?”

I nodded. “Yeah, Wildcat. ‘Yes.’ The answer is ‘yes.'”

Harry’s voice carried across the water, as stunned as though he’d been
pole-axed. “Um, does that mean what I think it does?”

Chakotay grinned, dimples flashing, dammit, and teeth white. Beautiful.
“Yeah. Yeah–it means what you think it does.”

Tom whooped. Harry whooped. B’Elanna whooped.

Then they charged.

The rats didn’t even let me change into my suit first. I considered putting
them on report.

I decided not to. It wasn’t a bad baptism for an engagement. Even a
rock-bottom fundamentalist would have been satisfied–it was ‘total
immersion.’

Later that night, I heard them. The first of the autumn migration.

I’d been lying against Chakotay; Tuvok nearby, toasting the last of the
marshmallows; Tom and Harry and B’Elanna chivvying each other for elbows in
the ribs and heads conking into each other. But mostly it was quiet. We’d
done the ‘circle thing.’ We’d suffered more congratulations than either of
us knew what to do with. We’d gorged on food made welcome by months
without. Told whole new strings of Oliphaunt jokes, and laughed at them
harder than they deserved. But finally we’d run down, and all that was left
was the crack and pop of wood burning, and the sound of wind in the trees.

Then I heard them. Like foghorns in the night, off the Massachusetts coast.
Faint at first. The cries echoing over the water.

I saw their reflections , dim on the misted surface of the lake, before I
saw them. A V of geese.

Oh, I’m sure they weren’t geese. I saw enough of them the next month or so
to know that for certain. But they were close. Very close. They were at
least as much geese as grollies were frogs.

They dropped to the surface like lead weights, kicking up water and
flapping as they came. But once they were down they graced the lake like
incarnated spirits, and glided, smooth and stately, charcoal on silver.

Chakotay held my hand. “Les Voyageurs.”

“I know. They’re going home.”

We sat there in the night, our hearts full of joy, and sorrow, and hope.
Together.

I told you the real story came later.

Reader, I married him.

I’ve always wanted to use that line, ever since I first read Jane Eyre,
back in my tormented and romantic youth. Aren’t all youths tormented and
romantic? I’d fallen in love with the line. But it had been a long time
since I had thought I’d have a chance to use it. A long time since it had
seemed like more than a holodeck dream, or a possibility for my golden
retirement years.

Life can hand you a lot of surprises. I did it. I married him.

Not right away, though. At first, it was just a matter of too many other
things to do, and we didn’t have time to do it right… and doing it right
seemed as important as getting the funeral services right had. There were
still repairs to make… so many repairs. Supplies, long-range plans. There
was the crew, still healing in body and soul. Too much to do.

Later, though, I decided that might not really have been why we stalled and
dragged our feet. If we’d really been ready, we could have done it that
day. The crew was there, and all it takes is a declaration in front of
witnesses. We could have done it then, and had it over. Married, and no
more to worry about. Done. Fait accomplie.

The truth was, the crew weren’t the only ones who needed to heal. To find a
new stability, and work out a new balance.

When you’re command, there’s a tendency to refuse to take yourself into
account. It’s partly training, partly dire necessity, and partly a matter
of the types of personalities who are attracted to command. We prefer to
look outside, and away from ourselves; we like finding external goals, and
problems, and solving them, rather than wallowing around in ambiguous,
unsolvable internal mazes. But it was true: Chakotay and I needed to heal
as much as any of the crew, and marriage added to all the rest would, at
best, have simply camouflaged the emotional scars and wounds we carried. At
worst–at worst, I’m afraid we would have torn ourselves apart, each
somehow hoping the marriage would “cure” all the hurts, erase all the
fears, ‘kiss and make well’ the doubts and uncertainties; and, when we
found that no marriage can serve as a blanket cure for all ills, turned
away from the bond itself, in bitter resentment that it hadn’t been all
we’d hoped. For once our subconscious minds served us well, making us
linger, and make rational excuses, giving us time to find our own way more
fully back to life, rather than allowing us to try to force life to come
back to us.

So we lived together, engaged but not married, and focused all our
attention on getting through the days intact. Tried to see all the jobs got
done. Tried to help the crew as we could. It was a crazy time.

Pesh took the brunt of it. Dealing with the aftermath of disaster is a job
for a counselor, or a chaplain. We had neither, in any official sense…
but we had Pesh.

As first officer, he was in charge of too much already. And, about the same
I’d said ‘yes’, the lashback started.

The first sign was when D’Amato attempted suicide. The poor man was
trapped–wanting to accept being one of ‘Les Voyageurs’, wanting to stand
for something; but feeling guilty and angry, and as though he was
abandoning his family back home every time he let himself live in the
reality of Voyager’s present. He tried so hard. One night he decided he
couldn’t try any more. Couldn’t possibly, in a million years, meet all the
demands life was placing on him. Couldn’t free us of the obligation of
dealing with him, couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t turn into a Kilpatrick,
couldn’t accept that, to his wife, he was probably dead long since. Decided
that the answer was to *be* dead. Fortunately for us, like many who attempt
suicide, his heart wasn’t as much in it as he thought. Instead of doing the
sensible thing, and beaming himself out without reassembling, as we’d done
with Kilpatrick and the bodies of the dead, he chose to try hanging himself
in a Jeffries tube. The increasingly effective internal sensor web alerted
the holodoctor, D’Amato was beamed to sickbay and patched before he was
anywhere near permanently dead… and Chakotay ended up spending weeks
trying to convince an honest and dedicated man that the world wasn’t
insisting that he be omniscient and omnipotent. That, no, he couldn’t meet
every obligation that he could imagine, or that came along… and that was
no reason to suicide.

In the end, Sandy D’Amato learned for forgive himself his humanity. It was
a lesson we were all learning. It wasn’t easy to find ourselves refugees.
It wasn’t easy to be the rescued, rather than the rescuers. It wasn’t easy
to come to terms with our relative poverty, and lack of importance in the
Bandei scheme of things. It wasn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that
we weren’t young Gods. Chakotay spent his duty hours trying to reorganize
duty rosters, and find replacement crew we could trust, to fill the spaces
left open by the many deaths… and he seemed to spend every other hour he
was awake talking, and talking, and endlessly talking with the depressed,
the angry, the lonely, the lost, the confused.

Meanwhile, things weren’t so good with us. Like I said, we had to heal too,
and didn’t really want to admit it. We were fine. Just fine. Dealing with
it. No problems.

Which, of course, explains why one day we’d be all hearts and roses–and
the next we’d be snarling at each other over the most minor issues. It
explains why there were days on end when I think each of us felt as though
we’d kill the other ‘just because.’ It explains policy wars that had
nothing to do with real differences, and everything to do with being all at
sea, and resentful that love didn’t just make it all better.

But it finally started to come together. I even remember the night that,
for me, was the turning point. The night I realized it was going to work,
after all.

Chakotay had been out late, again. This time it was Gerron, trapped in a
crying jag because he’d gotten in a fight with one of the local port
bullies. He’d been a fool to allow himself to get into a
knock-down-drag-out, even over being called ‘eftri,’ – a term the local
boys had picked up from newscasts dealing with the rescue, and which they
used like a cattle prod to goad the ‘alien scum.’ The trouble is, Gerron
knew he’d been a fool, and couldn’t get past it. It had taken Pesh hours to
talk him around, and he came dragging in looking like death itself.

He dropped into the sofa. “God. Sorry. I know it’s late.” He stared blankly
out the viewport, where a mid-winter snow was blurring the darkness and
turning the entire plateau into a Currier and Ives sledder’s paradise.
Tiny, delicate snow-flake stars falling from the heavens, to disappear when
they hit the forcescreen. That’s one bad thing about modern-style
force-windows: no snow trapped in the corners, no frost on the pane. Some
traditions are worth holding on to.

I was feeling a bit put out. But, for once, not so much so that I couldn’t
see that he’d only been doing what needed to be done. “It’s all right. Is
Gerron doing better?”

“Yeah.” Nothing more than that.

I looked across the room. He was slumped in the cushions. Tired. So tired.
A day before I might have let it go. He’s a grown man, and able to take
care of himself. I was his lover, and his fiancee, and his captain, but I
wasn’t his nursemaid, and I had no particular illusions that I shared his
talent for intuitive counseling. But that night–who knows what allows one
to let go of resistance? I certainly don’t. All I knew was that being the
nurturer for a time didn’t seem so great a risk.

I got up, and went over to the sofa. Pulled him down so he lay, with his
head on my lap, and stroked his hair. “It’s all right. Why don’t you relax,
and get some rest?”

That night he let himself be my dependent, too. No less a risk for him. It
isn’t easy being the lesser in rank. Isn’t easy having to trust, come hell
or high water, that it’s as good to follow well as keep control and lead.
He’d held his independence in the face of that, held his own kind of pride.
But that night he let himself be the one cared for, rather than the one who
cared.

For about an hour we stayed that way, the lights low, Chakotay slowly
relaxing, breathing more and more deeply. The snow kept falling, hypnotic,
outside. My old Grandfather clock ticked. Chessie was curled on the edge of
the bookshelf–most precariously, I might add. He didn’t look comfortable
at all. I will never understand cats. A dog wouldn’t risk a fall like that.

I wished I had a fireplace. Wondered if I shouldn’t rig a hologenerator to
project one, sometime. Fires are nice.

I thought Pesh had fallen asleep, for a while. Then, unexpectedly, he
spoke. “Tell me a story.”

It caught me off guard. “What?”

“Tell me a story. Please?”

“I’m not much of a storyteller, Wildcat. More your line, I’m afraid.”

“I *always* tell the stories.” There was something small, and lonely, and
desperate in the statement. Little boy lost. “I’m tired of telling the
stories. That’s all I seem to do, these days. Tell stories. Make it all
make sense for the rest of them. ‘Stories are who we are,’ so I tell
stories, and tell them who they are, and help them figure things out for
themselves, and I’m *tired.* No one ever tells me stories.”

Even adults have moments of childishness. Of weariness, and helplessness,
and petulant despair.

I remembered something I’d heard, once: that we give the gifts we most wish
to receive. Sometimes it’s simple, and obvious, like a child giving her
mother a model air-car for her birthday, when it’s clear to anyone that the
child wanted the car far more than the mother could have. Sometimes it’s
more complex. But it isn’t so much selfish, or thoughtless, as it is a
boundlessly generous gift: we give the very, very best thing we can
imagine. If we’re adult, and reasonably sensitive, what we imagine is
modified to suit the recipient… but it’s still rooted in our own sense of
what is most enduringly wonderful. Remember, a child who gives you her
teddy bear may have been a fool to think you wanted the bear–but she’s a
true saint to offer it.

Can you think of a finer gift, than to give your dearest treasure? To give
what you long for so much that it makes your heart bunch up and want to
hide, just thinking of getting it yourself? To give what you dream sadly of
receiving, and never seem to get? Chakotay had given me–had given us
all–faith, and trust, and support. Loyalty, and passion, and laughter.
Stability. Nurture. Honesty, and honor, and commitment. Friendship, and
love. And stories. Wonderful, loving, wise, sincere stories, that helped us
know who we were.

I stroked his forehead, smoothing the skin, tracing the tattoo. Found
myself smiling. “Once upon a time…”

He stirred. Grabbed my hand, and planted a kiss in the palm. Kept it, my
fingers locked in his own. A grin tickled the corner of his mouth.
“Traditionalist, aren’t you?”

“Always. Now, hush. Don’t interrupt. Once upon a time there was a contrary
boy. He was a hard working boy, and he tried to understand what was asked
of him, but he seemed to think sidewise, and often confused people. He was
alone in the village, and took all the odd jobs no one else wanted much,
but still, no one knew quite what to make of him. Everyone called him the
‘bad boy,’ because he was stubborn, and strange, and very, very, very
contrary.”

His eyes popped open, laughing up at me. “Sounds oddly familiar. Can’t
imagine why.”

“It’s supposed to. If it’s not subtle enough, well, give me a break. *I’m*
not the story teller in the family. Cut me some slack. And *be quiet.* This
is hard enough as it is.”

“Yes, Mama Janeway.”

“Good boy. Now, one day he was out minding his people’s children as they
played, guarding them from wolves, when a great storm came, and the stream
by the meadow broke its banks, and the whole world became a flood. The boy
tried to save the children, but could only find a few. He tied them
together, and tried to bring them up out of the water, but the current was
too fast, and the water too deep, and they were all swept far, far away,
down the stream, past the little village. They were banged against rocks,
and battered on branches, and the children screamed and the contrary boy
had to bite his tongue to keep from crying out, for fear of the water
choking him. At last, after a long, long time in the water, the currents
slowed, and the boy found himself and his flock washed ashore on a rocky
sandbar, in a canyon. He was cold, and wet, and shaking, the children were
sobbing and staggering around. Before he could lead them up the bank in
search of shelter, an ogre came, and picked them all up, and carried them
away.”

“Big ogre?”

“Very big.”

“Green teeth?”

“Very green. Very pointy.”

He nodded. “That’s right. Good ogre. Wouldn’t want it to be a little, cute
ogre.”

“No. We wouldn’t want that. Do you mind that it’s not a bad ogre, exactly?
Just trying to feed its children?”

“No. I suppose most ogres are just trying to feed something. What happened
next?”

“The ogre carried them far into the mountains, and threw them all into a
deep, dark cave, and tossed in some scraps and bones, and said, ‘eat and
get fat, for my children are starving and can only eat fresh, fat, kicking
humans. So gobble it up, little ones, so my poor, hungry family can eat and
be well.'”

“Urk. Pretty bloodthirsty.”

“No worse than Hansel and Gretel. Or ‘The Red Shoes.'”

“Umm. OK.”

“Good. Now, after a while, in the deep, dark cave, the contrary boy saw a
light, and realized that, at the back of the cave, was a tunnel. He hoped
they could escape… but before he could test the roof, and see if it was
safe, he heard the heavy steps of the ogre again, and a moment later the
ogre threw in another armload of people. ‘More little fishies, pulled from
the stream. Eat, eat, eat, so my children won’t starve.'”

“You’re really getting in to this, aren’t you?”

I realized, to my surprise, I was. I wouldn’t have wanted to be such a goof
in the circle… but it was fun building this thing for him. Trying to keep
the form of a fairy tale, and still fit us, and our story into the basic
assumptions of the style. It was fun to let go, and make it all into a
story, small enough to handle. “Yeah. I *am.* Now, drat it, Wildcat, hush,
or I’ll lose my place! Let me see… Oh. Right. It was a new group of
humans, as wet and soggy as his own, but there were more of them, and they
were people he knew of from a neighboring village. Ones who had thrown
stones at him on market day, and called him ‘bad boy,’ and chased him from
their square. He was frightened, and, for a moment, thought of running down
the tunnel, and taking his own children away. But one of them spoke, and he
saw it was an enchantress.”

“I get to be the bad boy, and you’re the enchantress?”

“Hush. You’ll see why. Now, you know about enchantresses, don’t you? No
matter how much they look like anyone else, they’re different. They never
cry, and never laugh, and, whether they’re good or bad, they hide their
hearts somewhere outside their bodies, so they’ll be safe. Some of them are
wise, and some are foolish, some are good and some are evil, but all of
them love power, and knowledge, and they are very, very proud. Now, this
enchantress saw the boy, and said, ‘Boy, my people are lost, and so are
yours, and the ogre will eat us all if we don’t work together. I want your
people to join my own, and I want the best of your children to follow me.
If you want me to help you, you will serve me loyally for seventy years,
and if you do I’ll see you out of here, and let your children live with
mine. But you must say ‘yes,’ when I ask you, and ‘ma’am’ when I call, and
you must keep your children humble, that they don’t take away from the
pride of mine, and you must serve me in all things. And if you ever, ever,
find my heart, you must tell me, and give it back to me, so that I will be
safe. And if you don’t I’ll put you aside, for I will have no contrary boys
disturbing my peace or threatening the ways of my rule.’

“Now, the boy was a clever boy, for all he was contrary, and he knew the
enchantress was more powerful than he and his children. And he was an
honorable boy, for all he was stubborn. So he swore to all she asked, and
stood beside her, and they gathered the children together, and waited, and
when the ogre came to lead them away they ran ahead of him, and the
enchantress called up lightening, and the cave fell on him, and all the
children were free. But they were far from their homes, and the tunnel was
lost in the rubble of the cave, and they were frightened. But the
enchantress vowed she would see them all home.”

“Pretty cocky enchantress, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t, smart alec. But you’re right. She’s been known to get a bit full
of herself on occasion.”

“Not so bad.”

“Bad enough. But she *was* one of the good kind of enchantress. She meant
well. Now, it was a very hard trip, and it was very difficult for the
contrary boy. The chief of the enchantress’ children didn’t trust the boy,
and pushed him aside, and was jealous that the enchantress trusted him, and
was more jealous that the boy had a heart for a story, and an ear for the
voice of the gods. And the lowest of her people didn’t trust him either.
His own children were angry, for they had to bow to the ways of the
enchantress, and keep to her laws, not their own. One of those dearest to
him betrayed him, and he had to turn her away, and she stole his pride.
Another, as dear, died, fighting off wolves. Others turned against him, and
tried to go their way. He was often sad, and lonely, and the work was hard,
and the rewards were few, besides keeping his word, and seeing his children
safe. He admired the enchantress, and often wondered at her as she worked,
and he knew she meant well for all of them. But she was cold, as
enchantresses are. And proud. She wanted her ‘ma’am’s and her ‘yes, my
lady’s. She didn’t want advice, and frowned when he failed at any task she
set him. Sometimes the whole thing seemed too hard, and too confusing, and
that very contrary boy would rush off and try to solve things his own way,
and the enchantress would punish him with ice, and hold to her own power
and her own ways; for to her way of thinking there was no place for the
strange turnings of a contrary boy. You see, every night, when she hid her
heart so that no one would find it, she’d look at it, and know she was
frightened. She’d think of the tunnel she’d destroyed, and the children she
led. Like the proud enchantress she was, she wanted to see them safe–and
do it herself; for, like many enchantresses, she doubted the wisdom and
power of others. She meant well, though. You have to remember she meant
well. But she held him away, and kept to herself, and never asked if he was
tired, or weary; accepting his service without thanks or praise; and she
never saw that the contrary boy was bearing a load as heavy as her own.”

By now he was listening, completely caught up in it. I was glad. It was
good to turn my own failings into a story, and offer it to him this way. He
still held my hand.

“Now, one evening, as the contrary boy was working in the camp, he found
her heart, in a box under a stone, where she’d hidden it for the night. He
wasn’t sure he wanted to open the box. Wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be harmed,
somehow. But he wanted to look, and see what the cold enchantress’ heart
was like. So he sat, hidden behind a bush, and lifted the lid. The heart
inside was shining glass, and cold, as any glass would be, hidden in a box
under a stone in a forest. He lifted it out, and warmed it in his hands,
and wondered at the colors that moved inside. He breathed on it, and his
breath made dim clouds on the surface. But the enchantress saw him, and
said, ‘Put it back. You promised when you joined me that you would serve
me, and obey me, and if you ever found my heart you’d give it back to me,
so it would be safe.’ And, wonderful though he found it, he set it aside,
and tried to forget the colors turning in the glass.

“But after that night, the enchantress began to change. I don’t know if it
was the heat from his hands, or the fog of his breath, or the wonder in his
eyes as he looked on the heart, but from that time she altered. She learned
first to laugh. And then to cry. She trusted him more, and allowed him to
advise her. She watched more closely, and saw that her closest servant held
him in low esteem, and she held him back. She listened, and learned to
value the contrary boy’s people, and no longer demanded that they keep
their eyes down, and allowed them to speak of old days, and old ways, and
let them hold their heads up among her own people. And she began to see
that she had, not an ill-wrought servant, though the best she had to hand,
but a helper as wise as she, for all he was contrary–and he was always,
always contrary, though he was also gentle, and kind, and true to his oaths
and honor. And, strangely, oddly, the contrary boy knew he loved her. He
had always admired her. Always found her fair, and strong, always known
that she meant well. But as much as he’d admired her, he’d pitied her, and
as much as he’d desired her, he’d feared her, for her cold heart could
leave him lone, and lost, and trapped by his promises. But now her heart
was warm, and her eyes friendly, and she didn’t turn him away when he did
her services, and she smiled when he sat beside her.”

“And one day, long before they ever saw home, he found the box again–and
the heart was no longer there! All that was inside were two roses, fresh,
and sweet as summer. He reached out and touched them, and it was as though
they still lived on the bough of the bush. He heard the enchantress step
near. He looked up at her. ‘Where is your heart?’ ‘I’ve given it away.
That’s the very safest way to store a heart, you know.’ ‘And the roses?’
‘They’re what grew in its place.'”

I stopped then.

Chakotay lay still, holding my hand. Waited. Finally, “Is that the end?”

“I suppose. I–I don’t know what comes next.”

He thought about it. “Well, you’re a traditionalist. What about ‘and they
lived happily ever after’?”

I squeezed his fingers. “But you see, I’m not sure they do. I know they
love each other, and I know they… I know they’re right for each other.
But it’s a long trip, and a dangerous world, and they’re both… well,
they’re both pretty damned stubborn, and opinionated, and they both get all
wound up in other things. I’m pretty sure they fight sometimes. And
sometimes they get sick of each other. They’re both too proud. And they can
both be a bit selfish. They may get tired of each other. Or they may
die–it turned out she wasn’t as hot an enchantress as she’d thought. And
he’s pretty damned good at keeping her on course when she gets too full of
herself, but there’s a lot of ogres out there. And they both get…
confused. Too much to try to understand. They may screw up. Or just–just
get worn out and stop caring. It’s hard to be an enchantress and a contrary
boy. It’s hard to look out for all those children. And the children may get
tired of them, too. Leave them, kill them, run away, forget where home is,
or why they should go back. They may even turn into ogres themselves.
Chakotay, it’s a rotten end to the story, but I’m really, really not a
story teller, and the best I can come up with is “and they lived as well as
they could, and as long as they might, and loved each other with all their
hearts, as long as they knew how.” Not very damned poetic. I’m sorry. I’m
not a *story teller.* I’m a scientist, and a ship’s captain, and a
tight-assed traditionalist, and I’ve just found out what too much optimism
and too little realism can get you, and no matter how much I want to say
“happily ever after,” I can’t. Just “as best they could, with all their
hearts.” The only good part of the story is the roses. But, damn it, I love
the roses.” And then I was crying.

I really hate to cry. When I do, it’s too real. That night was very, very
real.

His head was heavy in my lap, and he held my hand, tighter and tighter, and
said, “The roses will do. Sometimes, the roses will do.”

After that, things turned around. All in all we were six months on Takeeta
Tertius, and if the first three were hard, the last three were like a
rising crescendo in a symphony. We finally had all the replicators up, and
were able to produce trade goods, not only for us, but for all the kin, as
well. B’Elanna and Harry and I wrangled through long nights, trying to
figure out the Hakaalt technology–and finally declared it our “hobby.” It
seemed like a safe category to place it in. I’d been right all along. Even
with the information from the Hakaalt chips, it was a project to keep three
happy scientists busy for a life-time… or the next seventy years or so,
whichever came first.

Tuvok, Chakotay, and I reviewed the details of the whole fiasco, from the
first moment when we’d received the distress call. The final evaluation?
That it was crazy from the moment it started. Too few facts, too little to
go on. The end as lunatic as the beginning, with the Bandei making their
jump without warning, both for secrecy and because they couldn’t contact us
anyway after the Star March was destroyed. The Hakaalt, accurate in their
paranoia and their gleaned information about Bandei technological
superiority, guessing what that energy trace had been and making a frenzied
effort to complete their “cleansing” before they, as they expected, died
under the fire of an assumed mass of Bandei ships. And there *we* were, the
clowns in the carnival, without a clue about either side’s actions, doing
the best we could and floundering to make it all come out anyway. I could
have despaired. Oddly, it was Tuvok who comforted me. His comment? “It
would appear to be well within average parameters for a military encounter
involving three mutually ignorant parties. Surak was right: war is highly
illogical.” It made me feel a little better, anyway. You chose. That’s all,
she wrote.

The Oliphaunts had their calves, and they were too cute for words. The crew
began to recover their spirits, as Voyager became more and more the ship
she was meant to be, not the stinking, battered, feeble hulk she’d dragged
in as. There was a new sense of our identity forming, too. ‘Les Voyageurs’
earrings became very much the norm, where before they’d been an occasional
thing, usually worn as a specific statement on specific occasions. The
uniforms altered, subtly, as Chakotay and I found ourselves passing more
and more minor alterations to allow for comfort, specific job functions, or
just plain taste and cultural preferences.

‘Les Voyageurs.’ Magda had virtually invented us, a hope for the future.
But suddenly that dream lived in the now.

Chakotay had finally found new crew to bring into our ‘home.’ Twelve
survivors of the kin, who were used to life on shipboard, and willing to
‘transfer’ to a new home, and a new ‘kin-calling.’ By their standards we
were kin enough, and home enough. He’d also found another eight crewmen in
the port. They were young, and most were from the lower classes of the
Bandei–youngsters with no hope of advancement, and little hope of getting
much training where they were. To them, even a few years serving with us
meant education, income, food, shelter, clothing, and experience they’d
never get from their own people.

I knew it had all come right when, in the port, I heard that one of our new
crewmembers got into a head-basher of a fight when she reared up in a
tavern and said, “*I’m* one of ‘Les Voyageurs,’ and if you want to crack
filickar-stup comments about those people, you’ll have to go through me.”
Of course, Chakotay and I both had to go up before the port magistrate and
testify to her fine upstanding character, and bail the girl out, and we
both frowned at her and dragged her on the carpet and put her on report
from now till the end of time–but she’d landed some good blows, and the
Bandei spacers were, for some reason, a lot more friendly after that. I
think a lot of them knew what kind of ship we had to be to turn a little
port-pavement orphan into a believer.

There’s not a lot more to tell. We skated on the lake. We had snowball
fights. Cherel had the baby. They named him Nadezhda. He’s generally called
“Nat,” but there’s no-one on Voyager who doesn’t remember the name means
“hope.” Chakotay and I got bold, and as part of the family planning knocked
the inevitable door between our quarters…. and then tried to ignore the
question of what, for us, family would mean. We still haven’t decided that.
But sometimes… A dark eyed, dark haired little baby would be a special
thing. And Chakotay’s awfully sweet with a baby. He’d make a good father.
We’ll see.

Someone painted “Federation or Bust” on the prow of the ship one night.
Soames and Siv got married. Chakotay and I both officiated… and
afterwards realized that, soon, very soon, we should have our own wedding.

No. I’m not going to put you through the entire saga. I don’t even *know*
the entire saga, and I don’t want to, either. You see, about the time we
started thinking about plans, we found out we were too late. Far, far too
late. *We’d* have preferred to keep things a bit quiet, to tell you the
truth. Unfortunately the crew had gotten under way before we had. All the
crew. Tom? Yes, Tom, of *course* Tom. Harry? Ditto. Same for B’Elanna, Kes,
Chaim, Cherel, Gerron, Wildman, Alvarez, Carey, Verrier, Dalby, you name a
crewmember, they were up to their ears in it. Even the holodoctor. Even
*Tuvok.*

Yes. You knew, didn’t you? Even *Neelix.*

As Chaim says, when pushed to the limits and indulging in Yiddish to the
maximum–“Oy vey izh mir!”

As soon as we caught wind of it, it turned into a loving war: us against
them. We fought off a dress for me that would have put the entire fashion
industry of Risa to shame–enough lace to make a million or so butterfly
nets for lepidopterists and pseudo-lepidopterists the galaxy over. And the
tux they had in mind for poor Pesh? If I say cranberry velvet with black
silk flashings, is that enough? We put on our most dour and doomful faces
and held out for the simple sobriety of our dress uniforms, Pesh wearing
the Maquis pips, and “that’s all, we aren’t putting on one more doodah!”
They glowered, but allowed it was acceptable. We resolved the question of
best this and whatever-of-honor, by tagging Tom, Harry, B’Elanna, Kes, and
not one more, and declaring them “the gang.” Told them they could wear
whatever damned get-ups they liked, all come in little lace flimsies if
they wanted, told them they could carry as many flowers as they could
stagger around under, if that was what appealed to them, and that they
could throw any grain they liked so long as it wasn’t poisonous, or heavy
enough to give any of us concussions. We avoided the question of who would
“marry” us. I was the captain, he was as close as we had to a chaplain, the
ship had more religious traditions between us all than anyone could sanely
satisfy, and we didn’t want to play those games anyway. So we settled on
declaration of intent, before witnesses. Tuvok was the official recorder,
the representative of law. We made Chaim “Master of Ceremonies.” We made
Neelix “Master of Reception.” We glared, and told everyone we’d write our
own statement of intent. Then we ducked and ran like hell, figuring we’d
really pushed their tolerance about as far as it would go. The truth is, in
a situation like this, a marriage is as much a contract with the community
as it is a contract between a woman, and man, and any Gods that might
pertain. When it’s a marriage between the two primary leaders? You have to
be kidding: as far as the crew was concerned, this was *their* wedding, and
we were damned well expected to put up with it.

It was a very nice wedding. Tuvok opened the proceedings, and closed them,
and took the final, signed document and witnessed it–and gave testimony
before all present that we were fit, and sane, and that there was no reason
within the intent of regulation and law why we two should not be married.
Then he glowered at the entire crew, as though daring them to deny it.
Chessie took advantage of the fact that it was held on the holodeck, and
declared himself ‘wedding mascot.’ He’d insisted that I finally get around
to fudging his privacy program–and he preceded us up the aisle, and tried
to trip us. He almost succeeded, too. Good thing I wasn’t in that dress
they’d all wanted, or I’d have taken a prat-fall. Chaim was a wonderful MC.
He functioned as host and ringleader, both at once, and a good thing it
was, too. We’d have been swamped without him. The crew was resplendent. I’d
*never* seen them dressed up like that, not even at Abbyzh-dira. ‘The gang’
was tricked out fit to kill. Tom wore a blue brocade doublet over a silver
poet’s shirt, collar agape and sleeves like sails, deep navy leggings
hugging every curve and boots to put Puss in Boots to shame. Harry was a
somber Victorian gentleman, with a sweeping frock coat. Kes a sleek, silver
otter, in a shimmering tunic. B’Elanna a warrior princess, in a sweep of
gleaming, bronze silk skirts that rioted just short of her ankles, topped
with a tailored, body hugging jacket; her hair swept back to show that
proud forehead; and her smile like a sunrise. She’s a closet romantic. I
think they all are.

The holoprogram had given us a vaulting, light-filled, white marble
jubilation of a room, with a rose window at the front. The clear, colorless
leaded glass formed a blazing star-burst circle showing blue sky and cloud,
sun pouring down to blazon the walls, the floor, the faces of the crew;
everything bright, and shining.

It was, as I said, a very nice wedding. Beyond that there are really only
three things that you should know about the service, though, besides that
it was too long, and contained more turns than a small town talent show.

First, Cherel sang. It was absolutely right. I knew the music from
Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” but I don’t think I’d ever heard the words
that go with it.

Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free,

Tis a gift to come ’round, where you want to be;

And when you find yourself in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed;

To turn, turn, will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come ’round
right….

The second thing that matters was our declaration. No, I won’t quote it in
full, though it wouldn’t take much time if I did. We kept it simple. Chaim
read it off, solemn and serious, asking if we would do the best we could,
for as long as we were able, for each other and for Voyager, in the
knowledge that both our marriage and our command were sacred trusts. And we
both answered, together: “As best we can, with all our hearts.” I told you
we kept it simple.

And, last, there was Chaim’s gift. All the crew’s gift. I’m not sure they
saw it as a gift–but it was. I was closer to crying then than at any other
time in the service.

He stepped forward, to the front of the platform that had been programmed
into the holodeck. (There were, by the way, far too many flowers. Between
Kes, and Neelix, and Tuvok, and B’Elanna’s romantic flights of fantasy it
could have been a greenhouse.) He looked out across the crew, all gathered
there, and spoke.

“There’s a passage from the bible that, in my opinion, gets far too much
use, and is always quoted out of context. It’s an oath of voluntary exile,
for love, and loyalty, and kinship, and it’s usually used as a sort of
substitute or reinforcement of the bride’s oath… which never seemed right
to me.” He looked laughingly at Cherel and Nat, where they sat in the front
row. “Brides have enough to put up with, without being obliged to swear
away all other allegiances before they’ve even had time to unpack their
clothes and get comfortable. But, in this instance, and for this community,
it seemed right to offer it up–not from the bride to the groom, or even
the groom to the bride, but from their people to them. At least, that’s
what we all decided. Are you all ready?” There was a murmur of agreement,
and I knew I was in for the real show. The best they had to give.

It had all the monotonous, sober drone of group recitations everywhere…
but it was utterly, passionately sincere. It nearly dropped me in my
tracks. If Chakotay hadn’t been hanging onto my elbow like grim death, I
think I’d have gone down. I think we both would have.

“Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you; for where you
go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my
people, and your God my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be
buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also even if death parts me from
you.”

Everything after that was anticlimax–which, considering the scope of the
reception Neelix had put together, not to mention the wedding cake, was
saying a lot. There were gifts, and dancing, and songs, and drinks, and
food till I thought we’d all explode. The only thing that really stood out
was Tuvok, telling the tale of how T’Pel tricked him out of the right to
name the family sel’hat. It’s a long story. I won’t tell it here. But it
had the crew rolling.

When Tuvok had finished, Chakotay looked at him. “That’s a howler. Wouldn’t
have thought you’d know how to tell one on yourself.”

Tuvok raised an exquisitely prim brow. “I believe it was you who said
‘stories tell us who we are.’ I wish to remember who I am. And…,” he sent
me a fulminating glare, “and it has occured to me that, once a story is
told, it can no longer be used as a weapon of extortion. There is much
truth to be found in stories: but it is truth one has made one’s own by
facing it, accepting it, and sharing it with others.”

Stories are the compass rose of the heart: how we tell direction. Sometimes
they tell us as much about what we don’t want to be, and where we don’t
want to go, as they tell us who we are now, or how we wish to end up. But
it’s in stories, honestly told, and honestly considered, that we find
ourselves and learn our own meanings.

Tuvok’s contribution to wisdom. I think it was his wedding present to the
two of us… a much more precious and meaningful gift than the pot of
pseudo-cymbidiae he also gave us.

It was late that night before we managed to slip away, and collapse in our
quarters. And you know what? We were too tired to even think of making
love. We lay spooned beside each other, and fell asleep with Chessie on our
feet, all three of us snoring to beat the band. That’s all right. We’ve
made up for it since.

From there on in things moved almost too quickly. B’Elanna and Harry and
Carey ran the last of the tests on Voyager and her systems. Tuvok
grudgingly gave the final approval on all our new crew, declaring that the
probation on their probation could be considered over. The survivors of
Star March gave the first and only performance we’d seen–out under the
stars. They kept apologizing for the lack of this, and that… apparently
by their standards it wasn’t all it could have been. But the Oliphaunts
were wonderful, and I certainly couldn’t have kept so many balls in the air
at once, or clowned so foolishly, or lept so high, or pulled so many
scarves out of nowhere. When we said our goodbyes even *Rodria* cried. We
received a visit from the High-Paltrina Tolopeart and Admiral Taquis. I
liked him as much as I thought I would, and both of them treated us like
the heroes we still felt we were. And, then, somehow, it was time to go.

The morning we left, Chakotay and I finished our morning coffee–and, *oh,*
I enjoyed having coffee again. We dumped our cups in the disposal. I gently
straightened the hang of Magda’s quilt, admiring it where it hung behind my
desk. Then we looked at each other. Smiled. “Ready, commander?” I asked.

“Ready, captain,” he answered.

Good. Very good. Kathryn and Chakotay–and captain and commander. Both. No
need to choose one or the other, no reason we shouldn’t be both. We smiled
again, and left to take our places out on the bridge.

It felt right. We came out of the readyroom, sharp and trim, moving
together like a practiced team. Ready for business. I put a bit of extra
snap into my stride. No nonsense, and anyone who wants to keep up with me
better be ready to match my pace. Yes. I do know how I move. It’s not easy
when you’re a short, slight female–you have to work a little harder to
convince people you mean business. It’s been a long time since anyone
doubted I mean business. Chakotay ambled alongside, looser than me but no
less imposing. He can get away with it–he has the height, and the weight,
and the gender. My bear-person. My Wildcat. My luck-brought XO. He means
business, too. And he matches my pace.

Oh, I felt cocky. We’d been through hell, and learned some lessons I’d be
digesting for a long time. I’d lost a little more of my innocence, and
replaced it with a tiny little bit of wisdom. I’d finally accepted that I
and my crew couldn’t live in the past we’d lost. I’d learned that the
future was only something to aim for, and hope for; like those people back
in Chaim’s beloved 20th Century, who’d imagined a shining future, aimed for
it, and done the best they could in the meantime. But we could live in the
‘now’ — and, damn, it was a fine ‘now.’

Voyager was back in shape and in fighting trim. The storage holds were
full, the aeroponics gardens lush and restocked, Kes’ tomatoes looked like
they were going to give us a bumper crop. The crew’s morale–I think it may
have been higher than it ever was before. Even higher than before we fell
through the Caretaker’s rabbit hole. We had an identity now. A life above
and beyond going home; without ever giving home up. We were “Les
Voyageurs,” and damned proud of it. And somehow, some way, Chakotay and I
were married… and the crew didn’t mind, and I didn’t feel a jot of guilt,
and all in all, dammit, life was pretty good. No. Life was *very* good.

My mood must have been blatant. Tuvok raised an amused eyebrow, and stood
to attention. “All security systems show clear. We have received permission
from port authority to launch Voyager in twelve point five minutes… just
under ten local klithar. All ship’s systems are ready, all crew are at
their posts. Your orders, ma’am?”

I grinned, and dropped down into my seat. “Start pre-launch checks.”

“Aye, captain.”

The bridge came alive. The murmur of voices. The flash of hands. Chakotay
beside me, coordinating the information coming in from around the ship,
voice firm as he did his part to keep reality in trim. Tom at the conn,
B’Elanna muttering cheerfully down in Engineering. The Delaneys, down in
Stellar, were cracking lines with Harry on ops, making ridiculous
suggestions for potential course selections, all in their North Carolina
cracker drawls. I knew that all over the ship it was the same. Neelix
bustling around in his kitchen; Riaka, Nadezhda, and Puff wide-eyed in a
kiddie corral we’d set up, watching the pots get stirred and the stews get
sampled, and being offered a lick off a spoon. Kes and Anyas and the
Holodoctor would be making final checks down in sickbay, just on policy.
Verrier would be down in the empty brig, nothing much to do but keep an eye
on the security panels, but probably feeling the happy tension of lift off,
like the rest of us. Siva down in Life Support, humming over the air
filtration sheets and the water reclamation units, his voice filling in for
Magda’s and his heart with Soames. Chaim would be checking the maintenance
schedule, Cherel would be reviewing weapons status. Everyone in place,
everything as it should be. God was in his heaven, and all was right with
Voyager.

I looked out over the field, still spangled with a confetti of kin ships
and temp-huts, though less than when we’d first arrived. The press were
back, to record the historic exit of the famous Alphan ship, valiant leader
of the ‘March to the Pyre.’ I smiled. I had many things to rejoice in, a
few still to mourn, but only one left to regret. “I wish I could have seen
the geese come back.”

Chakotay nodded. “It would have been nice. But we’re ready, if they aren’t.
Will ‘Les Voyageurs’ be goose enough?”

I laughed. “Well, *you* will be, anyway. Goose.”

“Hey, hey, hey! That’s *Wildcat,* thank you ever so much!”

“Bear-person.”

“Wrong.”

“Minou.” The first time I’d used it since Magda died.

He smiled, gently. “Minette.”

Tom cleared his throat. “Flight checks complete. All systems clear to
launch.”

“Take her up, Mr. Paris.”

I could feel the power of the engines. The infinitesimal wobble as the
struts came up off of the ground, as we lifted up, and up. The hum of
atmosphere over Voyager’s skin. The ground fell away, and all of space
opened up ahead of us, the blue spring sky shifting, darkening, decked with
all the stars of heaven.

Tom leaned back, satisfied. “Course settings laid in. Any final suggestions
before we leave the system?”

“Take us home, Mr. Paris. By the scenic route. It’s a long trip–no need to
hurry.”

“Aye, captain.”

Harry leaned forward. “Um, I… ” He stopped.

Chakotay turned his head. “Yes, Mr. Kim?”

Harry was blushing redder than a beet. “Um. You know I didn’t give you a
wedding present?”

I had noticed… but it’s not easy to know what to give your two commanding
officers for their wedding. I hadn’t worried about it. I knew Harry cared,
and that was enough. “It’s all right, ensign.”

“Yeah. But you see–I had one for you. But it had to wait. Can I show it,
now?”

Chakotay and I exchanged glances. Tom was bursting. No question he was in
on it. I nodded. “Proceed, Mr. Kim.”

He pushed a button, and ahead of us, they were there. Nearly transparent,
as though blown from glass. Their cries illusions summoned up by my own
mind. A holoillusion, running before Voyager’s prow.

The geese. Several hundred. I knew, somehow, one for every person ever to
serve on Voyager. Those living shone like silver candles. Those dead were
near-invisible shadows, flying ahead of all the rest. Leading us all.

The wild geese were leading us home.

“Oh, Harry…” Nothing more to say.

“You like it?” He was worried.

Chakotay was the one to speak. “It’s right.”

I nodded, blinking. “It’s perfect. But, Harry, you’ve upstaged me. I had it
all planned. The perfect dramatic touch… but it can’t equal this.”

Tom was still bent over his console, keeping a sharp eye on the readings,
steering clear of other traffic. “Do it anyway, captain. This is a… it’s
special. Give it your best shot.”

I smiled. Cleared my throat. “Chakotay–do you want to join me?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Captain’s privilege. Go for it, Kath.”

I stood. Balanced on the balls of my feet. Admiral Lord Nelson at
Trafalgar, Taquis at the Waren-Pyre, James Bloody-T Kirk at Ghioghe. I let
my voice ring out.

“Captain’s log, stardate 51315.6. Initiate the second volume of the logs of
the return.” The computer complied, with a ping and a smug “Volume
initiated.” I smiled, and gave it all I had. “Space–the birthplace of man
and our first, best home. This is the odyssey of the starship Voyager. Her
continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to reach out to new
life, and new civilization. To boldly go, as others have gone before.”

What the hell. It’s a tradition.

Somewhere, in some distant heaven, I could have sworn I heard a fanfare of
proud trumpets calling us home.

————————————–

Reprise: Chakotay

He-d’ho! I want to call here the spirits. I want to call here the spirits
of my people, those living, and those dead. The Voyageuse. Their hands are
on my back when I talk. They hold me up; they keep me from falling. They
help me to find myself when I’m coming apart. That’s why we tell stories:
to understand who we are when our lives are coming apart. Stories are
sacred. So long as we remember our stories, we will not forget our
ancestors–or the children who will come after us, either. We will not
forget ourselves. He-d’ho!

The End.

i thank you God for

this most amazing day

for the leaping

greenly spirit of

trees and

a blue true dream of

sky, and for

everything

which is natural

which is infinite

which is yes

e.e. cummings. (Thank you, Heidi, for reminding me of this one.)

“Rather than finding the ending too pat, I found the end alarming: God
relents *this time*. If you read closely, you discover that the overall
sense of the Book of Job is that faith may be rewarded but that the good
will not necessarily triumph. Which means that for the religious, faith is
rarely easy, which is what Leora had demonstrated and Sally and Joseph in
their quiet way, had said. And for secular men and women, the equivalent to
Job’s belief without reason is that you live your life fully and boldly
whether it makes sense or not; and then you face the inevitable accidents
and pains of life without surprise or complaint. Even if the students
didn’t understand all this, I was ashamed of my anger at them and my
melodrama about ‘There is no safety.’ Of course there is no safety. That is
exactly the point. Believer or not, you had to be strong enough to live
with that knowledge. In the end the mighty Book of Job is an appeal not to
fear, but to courage.”

GREAT BOOKS, p. 170, by David Denby, c.1996, Simon and Schuster.

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