No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Set during the fifth season, Voyager answers a distress call and finds itself knee deep in kids.  A novella that includes the entire crew, with special emphasis on Paris/Torres.  Could probably be a PG-13, since there’s nothing worse on it than you’ll see on the evening news, but I rated it R due to adult situations and language.

The characters, settings and everything Trek is the property of Paramount, Viacom, and all those other Fortune 500 types.  I just borrowed them to play a little, and have put them back nicely now that I’m done.

The story, on the other hand, is mine.  If you have any comments (be kind!), e-mail me at Wolfe1952@msn.com.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Chapter One

The shower door opened  and B’Elanna turned.  “Tom,” she sighed, a slight degree of exasperation showing in her voice, “There is barely enough room for one in this stall, let alone two.”

“I thought maybe you’d want me to scrub your back.”

“Hmph!” was her only reply.

After a moment, she sighed again, but this time there was no hint of exasperation.  “Tom, that is not my back!”

“No?” he laughed softly in her ear.

Before she could say anything, the captain’s voice interrupted her.

“Janeway to Lieutenant Torres.”

“Torres here, Captain,” B’Elanna tried hard to sound as if she didn’t have company in the shower.

“B’Elanna, I know you’re not scheduled for duty for another two hours, but I need the senior officers in the conference room in thirty minutes.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“And, Tom?”

Startled, Tom promptly responded, “Yes, Captain?”

“I do mean thirty minutes.”  There was just a hint of laughter in their captain’s voice.

“Yes, Ma’am,”  he answered saucily.

The lieutenants looked at each other and grinned.  Then, as B’Elanna saw the changing look in Tom’s eye, she scrambled to exit the shower.

“Hey, the captain said thirty minutes.  Five to dress, five to get there, we got twenty whole minutes,” Tom said, unsuccessfully trying to block her exit.

“Which I intend to use eating some breakfast.”

“Breakfast!”

“Yeah, you know, food?  I have to eat, Tom, to keep my strength up.  You’ve been depleting my energy reserves lately.  You do not want to find out what happens to a hungry Klingon.”

************************************************************************

Already in the conference room, Janeway smiled.  There were times when  her helmsman bordered on the insubordinate with that wicked little ‘Yes, Ma’am’ response of his.  Affectionate insubordination, but insubordination nonetheless.  Still, he had pulled their cookies out of the fire often enough to earn the right to a little affectionate insubordination from time to time.  A very little.

Her gaze returned to the window where the stars streaked by at the nearly inconceivable rate of  billions of kilometers per hour.  And still it would take them so long to get home.  She sighed softly.  How to maintain Starfleet level discipline on a ship tens of thousands of light years from Starfleet?  And should she even try?

In a few minutes, her senior staff would start coming through that door.  Not for the first time she thought about how headquarters would regard her selection of officers.  After all, of the eight people on her staff, only three were regulation Starfleet personnel, and one of those was an almost  wet-behind-the-ears ensign.

As for the others…she dropped her gaze to her hands where they lay curled around her coffee cup.  She could guess what headquarters would say about them.  A convicted felon who had been cashiered from Starfleet; two Maquis fugitives who would be indicted for treason if and when they got home;  an alien whose planet had never even been heard of by anyone in the Alpha Quadrant, let alone recognized as a member of the Federation; and a hologram.

Her gaze lifted once again to the window, and a small smile played about her mouth.  There was no doubt that Starfleet would look askance on her choices.  But she could not imagine having come this far without a single one of them by her side.  In his or her own way, each of them was an inextricable link in a chain, and together they forged a formidable front.  This was no longer just a ship filled with Federation and Maquis, officers and crewmen.  Somewhere on this crazy ride they had become a family.  A noisy, squabbling, loving family which drew its collective strength from all the members.

And that was why she was calling this meeting.  A distress call had been intercepted  in the wee hours of the morning.  In the Alpha Quadrant, once she had learned the nature of the situation, she would not have stopped to consult her officers.  With regret, but without hesitation, she would have issued the order to deny assistance. The Prime Directive was unrelenting.

However, maybe because they were so far away and alone out here, after she had learned the full nature of the rescue request, she knew that this was one time she was willing to ignore Starfleet regulations.  And with that, ignore years of  following the rules because that was what a Starfleet officer did.  It was not a decision she had made lightly.

Nor was it a decision she could make unilaterally.  She owed it to her “family” to get their input on this issue.  Though she was certain she knew what they would say.  In fact, now that she had thought about it, she wondered why she had even decided to seek their opinions.

Her reverie was interrupted by the arrival of Tuvok, early as usual.  He nodded in her direction.  “Good morning, Captain.”

She gave him a bright smile.  “Tuvok.” she answered.  Her oldest  friend, his was the voice of reason in the cold, dark night.  Of all the officers present, he would be the one to point out the error of her ways. He was the non-emotional counterpoint to her sometimes emotional desires.  She could not count the times that heated fury or icy fear had gripped her heart, wanting her to strike out at something, anything.   It was at those times she focused on Tuvok.  She thought about what he would say, how he would look at the situation.  And the calm of relentless logic would allow her to make her decision based on reason, not rage.

The door slid open again to admit Chakotay.  His eyes immediately sought  hers, as they always did, and she quelled the spark that always shot through her to touch her soul.  He smiled sleepily at her and headed for the replicator to order a cup of coffee.  She hastily took a sip out of her own cup.

Chakotay was her strength.  Calm and assured to the point where she occasionally and shamefully found herself wanting to do something to make him lose his temper, she relied on him to keep her going when everything else had crumbled around her.  She found herself leaning on him more and more, a thought which had frightened her at first.  But he never pushed.  Never took advantage.  And slowly, so slowly, she found herself letting him in.

Again, perhaps fortunately this time, she was pulled from her reverie by the swish of the conference room door opening to admit  Harry and the doctor.  Harry, as always, was pure Starfleet.  Every hair was in place, his uniform neat, his boots shined.  He smiled a pleasant good morning to her and the other officers present, then resumed  his conversation with the doctor.  They seemed to be discussing some sort of improvement in the ship’s life support system, though she had come too late into the conversation to understand what Harry was talking about.  The doctor nodded in her direction as he took his seat.

“Good morning, Captain, Commanders, Ensign, Doctor!”  The eternally cheerful Neelix blustered into the room like a minor hurricane.  He was carrying a tray of  some sort of breakfast role, and Janeway heard her own tummy growl as he set it down in front of her and a tempting aroma wafted to her nose.

“Ensign Gallagher gave me the recipe for these.  I believe she called them ‘sticky buns’.  I made them for the gamma shift last night, and they seemed to enjoy them.”

After only a moment’s  hesitation, everyone but the Doctor took one.  When Tom and B’Elanna came into the room and saw their fellow officers licking brown sugar and cinnamon off their fingers, Tom gave B’Elanna a look that caused her to laugh out loud.

“Something funny, Lieutenants?”  Chakotay looked at the engineer and helmsman .

“No, Commander,”  B’Elanna answered before Tom could open his mouth.  “We grabbed breakfast before we came.  If we’d have known you were serving breakfast here, it would have given us more time to… get ready.”  She took her seat, refusing to look at Tom.

Voyager’s conn officer  took his seat next to her, trying to appear as though nothing was wrong.  Instead, he looked like a little boy who had just had his favorite toy taken from him.  Janeway stifled a laugh, while Chakotay hid his grin behind his coffee mug.  None of the others at the table seemed to notice.

Then Janeway remembered why she had called her officers together at the ungodly hour of 06:30 and her demeanor grew serious.

“About two hours ago Crewman Hamilton intercepted a distress call from a ship.  Of course, he immediately  informed me.  I followed through on the call, and spoke to a woman who comes from a planet called Doscene.  Their ship has been heavily damaged, apparently beyond any hope of repair.  She said they have been adrift for weeks.  Their life support systems are starting to fail, and rations are growing short.”

Janeway paused to look around.  She had the undivided attention of everyone at the table.    “The Dosceni are refugees.  According to Ar Ziel, the woman with whom I spoke, they have forty-seven people aboard.  Seven women, four men, and thirty-six children.”    That brought a small ripple among her staff.

“Captain, I don’t understand,”  Harry spoke up.  “Are we en route to provide assistance?”    His wasn’t the only puzzled look at the table.

“Not yet.”  Janeway answered.  She took a deep breath.  “These people are refugees from a civil war.  It was their own people who attacked them.”

Now understanding dawned on the faces of nearly everyone present, followed quickly by looks of dismay.  Only Neelix and the Doctor still looked puzzled.

“Captain?”  Neelix leaned forward.  “Why is that a problem?”

He had been with these people for over five years now.  It was so unlike them not to offer immediate assistance to anyone in trouble that he was as baffled by their behavior now as he had been the first time he saw them put themselves in danger to help total strangers.

Chakotay had explained to him then that offering aid to those in distress was a maritime tradition that went back millennia on their home world.  Chakotay had said that on the sea, there were no borders or countries to divide people.  There was only man against the elements.  So a sailor in distress was offered aid, no matter what his nationality.  The same held true in space.  So he would have expected them to jump at giving help.  Especially when children were involved.

Tuvok answered him.  “In Starfleet, we are guided by many rules and regulations, Mr. Neelix.  The most stringent of all the rules is the Prime Directive.  And one of the tenants of that rule is that we may not interfere in the political development of non-Federation planets.  Offering aid, even under such extreme circumstances,  can be considered a form of interference.”

“And there’s more”,  Janeway spoke again.  “Ar Ziel told me they were trying to get to a system  where she hoped her people could seek sanctuary.  To get to that world and return would take us nearly six weeks out of our way.  Plus, there is no guarantee that they could gain the sanctuary they seek.  In that case….”  She didn’t need to finish her sentence.

“So, you see why I called you together.  If we do this, we not only will be violating Starfleet code, we will be adding nearly two months to our journey home, and we may end up with permanent guests.   Ultimately, the final decision will be mine and mine alone.  But I want to know how you feel about this.  Whatever decision is made, it will need to be made quickly. We’re now only about an hour away from the Dosceni position.”

There was a silence so intense you could hear the measured breathing of several of the officers.  Finally, after a long moment, Tom leaned forward and spoke softly.

“Captain, why would you even need to ask us?”

A tiny smile flitted across her face.  “Funny you should ask, Mr. Paris.  I was wondering the same thing myself moments before you all started to arrive.”  She looked around the table at each person in turn.  What she saw there seemed to satisfy her.  Finally, she turned to look at Harry, who was watching her intently.

“Mr. Kim, contact Ar Ziel.  Inform her,”  she took a small breath and the tiny smile was back, “that help is on the way.”

Harry nodded acknowledgement of her order, but before he could make a move, everyone started talking.

“We’ll need to set up triage.  I’m sure that under the circumstances, there will be sick or injured,” the Doctor spoke up, almost cheerful at the thought of having to put his considerable skills to work.

“Right,” Tom nodded.  “If you and Ensign Powell set up sickbay, I’ll get Ensign Wildman to work with me at the transporter room.  We’ll triage from there and send them to you as needed,”  He was rising as he spoke and without a backward glance walked out of the room by the doctor’s side.

“That many people without food for so long will be very hungry,”  Neelix said as he followed behind them.  “Let me see, chicken soup with noodles, yes and Aktarian greel, and maybe a little…”  He continued to work out his menu as the doors closed behind him only to spring open quickly for B’Elanna.

“Thirty-six kids,  that’s going to mean a lot of cots and blankets and pillows.  We’ll have to clear one of the cargo bays…”  She slapped her comm badge and began giving orders to Lieutenant Nicoletti to roust Engineering even as she went out the door.

“Captain, I will need to study the Dosceni ship to make certain that all is as it should be.  Further, I will organize a Security team to beam over to the Dosceni ship to assist in the evacuation.”  Tuvok at least looked at her for her nod of agreement before leaving.

Chakotay rose also.   “I’ll co-ordinate the rest of the crew, putting them where they’re needed most.”   He offered her a quick smile before he left.

Janeway glanced over to Harry where he still sat.  He suddenly realized that he was the only one to whom she had actually given an order, and he was the only one still there.  Standing so abruptly he almost knocked over his chair, he quickly followed his senior officers out the door.

Captain Kathryn Janeway looked around at the empty seats.  Grinning broadly, she held up her coffee cup and said, “Dismissed.”  Then she reached for a second sticky bun.

Chapter Two

An hour later Captain Janeway strode through the halls of her ship with a look of pride on her face.  They may be a patched together crew, decades away from a starbase, but by God she would match her people up against the best that Starfleet had to offer.

They had found the crippled Dosceni ship just a few minutes earlier, and Tuvok’s team had already beamed over to help set up the evacuation.  Harry had gone with him to try and extract some medical information from the Dosceni’s data banks.  His efforts to download the information directly from Ops had been hampered by the extensive damage to the Dosceni ship.

On her way to the Transporter Room to meet the refugees, she had decided to stop by the strategic stations to determine that all was in order.  Of course, she had nothing to worry about.

In the mess hall, Neelix had several pots going, and many of her crew were hard at work, making tea, peeling vegetables, stacking trays and preparing plates, cups and bowls.  To her surprise, Seven was there, listening intently as Neelix explained to her the exacting requirements needed to produce a good quality greel.

In sickbay, the doctor had  trays of instruments lined up.  Since they weren’t sure of the extent of the injuries or illness they would encounter, the doctor and Tom had agreed that those in need of immediate medical attention would be sent directly to sickbay, while the others could go to the mess hall to eat and wait their turn for the mandatory physical exam.  For that reason, they were limiting the number of people transported at one time.

Someone had even thought to set up some chairs in the hallway outside sickbay in case there was an overflow.    And, everyone with any sort of background in the physical sciences had been recruited to serve as aides so that there was an attendant assigned to each biobed.

B’Elanna’s engineers had pulled off a minor miracle.  In the course of an hour, with the help of crewmen from astrophysics, security and stellar cartography, they had cleared a cargo bay  and set up a combination dormitory and nursery.

One section held two rows of cots, neatly made up with sheets, blankets and pillows.    There were even some with side rails and a few cribs arranged near the front.  Nicoletti explained that Lieutenant Carey had asked Harry to find out how many babies and toddlers there were, and set up the sleeping arrangements accordingly.

Another part of the room had several  tables and chairs.  And one big section was covered with a large, soft rug.  “Play area,”  B’Elanna answered Janeway’s unspoken question as she walked up to her.  “Joe said kids need a place like that for playing.”

Janeway started to comment on how good it was that they had the benefit of  Joe Carey’s  experience as a father when her attention was drawn to a commotion in the doorway.  Joe Carey himself was standing there, with Ensign Vorik right behind him.  Both men were overloaded with  teddy bears.

It was Ensign Vorik’s face that had caused the commotion.  Vulcan he may be, but there was no mistaking that pained look, as he frantically tried to prevent the bears he was carrying from sliding out of his arms.  B’Elanna choked down a laugh and Janeway found herself  hard pressed to keep her own lips confined to a pleasant smile.

“Lieutenant Carey, Ensign,” she acknowledged both men as they dropped their loads on one of the tables near her and turned.

“I hope you don’t mind, Captain,”  Lieutenant Carey said nodding toward the teddy bears.  “We used a few more replicator rations than we should have.  But, well, see, my grandfather was a cop, as were most of my family for generations back.  And cops carry a teddy bear in the trunk of their vehicles, you know, to give to kids when they’re injured, or in some sort of traumatic situation.  And I know my own two boys have bears they love, so….” he shrugged.

“An excellent idea, Lieutenant.  An excellent idea.  You did good work here,” her sweeping hand indicated the cribs and guard rails and the carpeted play area.

Carey blushed, “Thanks, Captain.”  He looked around, his eyes taking on a distant look.  “It’ll be nice to have kids around again, even if only for a little while.”  With a start, he came back to the present, gave her a nod and turned to direct the long suffering Vorik to place one of the bears on each bed.

“Chakotay to Janeway,”

“Janeway here,” she answered her commander’s disembodied voice.

“Captain, Tuvok reports that they are ready to begin the initial transfer.  There are five people in critical condition who should be beamed directly to sickbay.”

“Go ahead, Commander.  B’Elanna and I are on the way to the Transporter Room now. ”

Although their sensors had indicated that Ar Ziel’s description of their ship’s condition was, if anything, understated, B’Elanna had requested permission to take an Engineering team over to see if they could somehow get the Dosceni ship functional.  Janeway had readily agreed.  Maybe with some spare parts from Voyager and B’Elanna’s wizardry, the Dosceni could make it on their own.

When she and B’Elanna got to the transporter room, they found several gurneys lining the hallway, with crewmen waiting patiently to serve as transport.  While Janeway stopped just inside the doorway to speak to Ensign Wildman, B’Elanna sought and instantly found Tom, who was standing across the room with his back to the door, talking to Ensign Molina.

She continued silently across the room to stand just behind him.  He had his hands clasped lightly behind him and with a teasing smile, she reached out to trace a feather light pattern on his palm with her long fingernail.

Tom reacted with the same lightening speed that made him so good at the helm.  He reached back to capture her hand before she could move away.  Without even pausing in his conversation with the ensign, he pulled it around to hold it tightly pressed against his chest.  She had no choice but to follow her hand, since it was firmly attached to her arm.

“Tom!” she hissed, indicating that the captain was standing nearby.  Ever since she chewed them out for their all-too-public displays of affection, they had stayed a very discreet distance from each other, at least in public.

Tom finally glanced down at her and smiled wickedly.  But he allowed her to remove her hand.   In front of him, Ensign Molina grinned.  Behind, Captain Janeway pretended not to notice.  In truth, she still felt bad about the way she had spoken to them that day.  Yes, they had needed to temper their behavior, but she realized now that at least some of the cause for their hyperactive hormones was probably the lunatic scientists who were using them for guinea pigs.

And even though she had been suffering horribly from the experiments being run on herself,  she should never have told them that she felt she had misplaced her trust in them.  For one thing, she knew how much it had hurt them to hear that from her.  And for another, it was absolutely untrue.  There were times when, like all children, they annoyed the hell out of her.  But she always believed in them and their abilities.  She would have to find a way to tell them that, and soon.

The rest of the Engineering  team had arrived, and B’Elanna stepped up onto the transport pad.

“Be careful,” Tom said softly, and she nodded at him, her eyes making a promise.

He watched until she vanished.  Behind him, Molina said, “You’re a lucky man, Lieutenant.”  as he began  resetting the coordinates of the transporter.

“I know,” Tom answered, almost to himself.  Then snapping out of his abstraction, he turned back to the ensign with a broad grin on his face.  “I know, ” he said again.

Chapter Three

The next several hours on Voyager were organized chaos.  Sickbay reported that the first of the casualties had arrived and at least two were critical enough to require surgery.

“Do your best to treat as many as you can where you are, Mr. Paris,” the doctor admonished.  “We’ll be very busy here for awhile.”

Tom had grimaced at that.  A transporter room was not the best place in the galaxy to use as a sickbay.  It was going to be tight enough doing triage here.  Then Ensign Molina had announced that Ensign Kim was returning with the medical data and several of the refugees and there was no more time to think.

If there had been any doubts about the rightness of Voyager aiding the Dosceni, those doubts were dispelled with the arrival of the first refugees.  As the transporter beam completed its task, there was a moment of frozen silence as both parties assessed one another.

The Dosceni were  humanoid in appearance.  Two narrow ridges rose from the center of their forehead just above their noses to curve up over their eyes, then angled around into their hairline.  A single ridge followed the path from under their eyes to join the other two.  The effect was to elongate their eyes, giving them an elfin appearance.   Their faces were long and slender, which added to their fairylike look.

Closer examination of those eyes revealed that their pupils were feathered around the edges, causing them to look almost like the eyes in a peacock’s tail.  They were taller and slimmer than the average human also, to judge by the children and the young woman  who stood on the platform, a baby in her arms.  Their skin color was  varied,  ranging from a pale cream to a dark brown.

Among them on the platform was Harry, who was holding a toddler of about two.  The child was clutching the front of Harry’s uniform tightly, in obvious terror.  Harry immediately began speaking softly to the child in an effort to calm him.

Two slightly older girls of about six or seven clung to each other, their eyes the size of saucers.  Beside them stood a boy of about eight, and a girl of  ten or eleven.  They all glanced at once toward the final member of their party, a boy who was no more than  twelve.  He was doing his best to appear unafraid, which had the affect of calming the other children.

All of them looked worse for the wear.  Their clothes were ragged, and they had the look of a people who had gone far too long without nutritious food and restful sleep.  A small bag of possessions lay at their feet.  The Voyager crew couldn’t help but notice just how little each bag contained.

After a  moment, the Dosceni made the first moves.  The woman curtsied, and the girls immediately followed her lead,  while the boys bowed from the waist.  Captain Janeway acknowledged their greetings with a nod of her head.

“Welcome aboard Voyager.  I am Captain Kathryn Janeway.  This is Lieutenant Tom Paris and Ensign Samantha Wildman.  They are here to assess your conditions and determine if you need immediate aid.  Please step down and join us.”

Harry stepped down first, handing off his charge to a cooing Ensign Wildman.  The child twisted his head around, ready to let out a wail as Harry left to get his information to sickbay.  But Sam’s motherly instincts left her in good stead, and in a few moments she had  the child calmed.  Meanwhile, Tom began using the Paris charm to sweet talk the two little girls into stepping down and allowing  him to run a tri-corder over them.

“I am Ar Crotol, Captain, Chief Engineer of the Sky Rider.  Or at least what’s left of her.  We are so grateful to you.  And this transporter device of yours, I am in awe.”  The young woman moved forward from the platform, holding the baby against her.  Exhaustion showed in every line of her face and Janeway reacted instinctively, reaching out to take the child.

“No need for thanks, Ar Crotol.  We are pleased to be able to offer you assistance,”  the captain said as she cradled the child in her arms.  She looked up to smile at the woman just in time to see her slump down.

Ensign Molina moved quickly, catching her just before she hit the ground. Instantly Tom was there, kneeling beside her.

“Malnutrition and exhaustion as best as I can tell, Captain.  She’s our first candidate for a direct trip to sickbay.  The children can go to the mess hall and wait,”  Tom pronounced as they lifted the unconscious woman onto a gurney and rolled her out of the room.

As they realized that they were being separated from the only adult present from their own world, the younger children began to cry.   But the older boy stepped forward and cut them short.

“They are sending Ar Crotol to a room to make her feel better,” the young man admonished his young charges.  “And they are sending us to the room where they serve food.  Now behave as your fathers and mothers would want of you, and you shall eat this day.”

Whether it was the mention of food or a reminder of who they were, the boy’s words had their effect.  The crying  almost instantly dried up.  He turned to the captain.

“If someone will show us the way, Captain, we will leave to make room for the next arrivals.”

Impressed by such adult behavior in one so young, Janeway signaled Ensign Swinn to take the children away.  She turned to look at Tom, who grimly shook his head.  She knew what he was thinking.  Who or what would attack a ship full of defenseless children?

They had cause to wonder that many times over the next several hours as the refugees arrived in varying states of health.  A few, including  a couple of the older women and one elderly man, had been exposed to radiation when their engine room virtually exploded on them.  Others sported broken bones, cuts, bruises and a few burns.  Tom treated what he could  in the transporter room.

Still, sickbay was overflowing and the doctor was calling frequently to find out when Tom would be joining him,  The mess hall was also rapidly filling up, and Neelix was in his glory, feeding people who were so hungry that they ate anything he put in front of them.

B’Elanna had contacted the ship to advise that it was useless attempting any repairs.  “There’s not much left to repair, Captain.  The impulse engines are basically gone.  The warp core is beyond hope.  In fact, I’m not sure how they’ve managed to keep the ship stable and generate a gravity field and life support, let alone hold the damn thing together.”

Janeway accepted B’Elanna’s announcement with resignation. She had known what they were getting into when they had agreed to this.  B’Elanna requested permission to stay and maintain the systems the best they could until all personnel were off the dying ship.  Something in her voice told Janeway that the situation over there was not a pleasant one.

She glanced at  Chakotay, who had come to the transporter room to offer whatever assistance he could.  His presence was more than welcome.  Something about him calmed the children.  He had an almost mystical way of making even the most frightened among them feel at ease.  Sensing her eyes on him, he looked up at her with sad eyes, then turned to continue teasing a smile out of a tiny little girl  whose broken arm had been roughly splinted and bound.

Finally Tuvok contacted the ship to announce that the Engineering team would be beaming back with the remaining Dosceni children, all babies well under a year old.  The Security team  and Ar Ziel would also be coming as soon as one minor problem was resolved.

“Anything we need to worry about, Mr. Tuvok?” Chakotay asked.  If he didn’t know better, he could swear that there was a hint of aggravation in the Vulcan’s voice.

“No, Commander.  One of the Dosceni children is refusing to leave.  We will soon have the matter under control.”

“Understood, Commander.  Notify us when you’re ready,” the captain told him.  She and Chakotay shared another look. It must have been some problem to ruffle Tuvok’s feathers.  Janeway’s omnipresent curiosity  went into overdrive.

Tom stood waiting, the tension of the past few hours evident in the set of his shoulders.  Then the transporter activated and the platform was filled with engineers and eerily quiet babies.  His eyes lit up when he saw B’Elanna standing there holding a wee bundle in her arms.  As the engineers moved forward to hand off the babies to the crewmen who had been assigned the task of caring for the youngest of their guests, B’Elanna looked up to see Tom watching her, a twinkle in his eye.

“Don’t get any bright ideas, Paris,” she muttered as she stepped down from the pad.  Tom’s grin broadened, but he knew well enough not to say a word.  He watched as she almost reluctantly turned her charge over to Ensign Lang.  When she turned back to him, he was all business, using the tri-corder with practiced skill.

But Chakotay had seen the  by-play between the two, and some mischievous imp inside him made him move closer  to where Tom was standing. In a stage whisper he said, “Who’d have thought she would look so natural with a baby in her arms?”

Startled, Tom turned to him.  B’Elanna, who had stepped over to speak to the captain, froze in her tracks.

Chakotay acted like he had no idea she could hear him.  “You do like kids, don’t you, Tom?”

Tom’s eyes were huge as he frantically sought a way out of the hole the commander was digging for both of them.  B’Elanna remained unmoving, as if she had turned to rock.  He knew that no matter what he said, it would be the wrong thing.

“You know, she just looked so….maternal, standing there with that baby.  Didn’t you think so?”

Tom gave him a look that let Chakotay know that he was going to pay for what he was doing.  Somehow, someway, someday Tom Paris would get his revenge.  Just as soon as Chakotay recovered from whatever it was B’Elanna was going to do to him because of this.

“Um.” was all he managed to squeak when the doctor interrupted him once again, demanding to know when he was coming to sickbay.

Grateful for the doctor’s acerbic ways for once, he croaked out that he was on his way and flew out of the transporter room, not even glancing toward a fuming B’Elanna.  She turned to glare at Chakotay, who in turn gave her a look of wide eyed innocence.  As B’Elanna also stormed out of the room, Janeway looked at him.

“You are a wicked, wicked man, Chakotay.”

His only response was a broad, bright grin.

Ensign Molina, trying to keep a straight face, announced that Commander Tuvok was on his way.  Both Janeway and Chakotay turned expectantly, preparing to meet the woman who was Janeway’s counterpart.

Chapter Four

The whine of the transport had barely finished when Tuvok stepped forward.  The annoyance which had sounded clearly in his voice earlier was either gone, or well hidden.  Based on the smirks on the faces of his Security team as they exited the platform and hastily left the Transporter Room, Janeway suspected the latter.

“Captain, may I present to you Ar Ziel, Captain of the Dosceni ship, Sky Rider?”

To the credit of Voyager’s crew, not one of them flinched or looked away as Sky Rider’s captain limped forward to greet her benefactors.

Up to that point, all of the Dosceni had shared an almost angelic beauty which was evident even in the presence of their injuries and illnesses.  Not so Ar Ziel.

Her face was hideously flawed and distorted by poorly healed wounds.  Although she wore her hair long like most of the Dosceni females, it did not disguise the bald patches caused by heavy scar tissue.  Her left arm dangled uselessly at her side. And she seemed to lean a little, as if one leg were longer than the other.

What made the disfigurement even sadder was the subtle evidence seen in the structure of her face that she had once been beautiful.  Yet, in spite of this marring, or perhaps because of  it, she held her head high.  As Ar Ziel moved awkwardly forward,  Janeway offered her hand in greeting.

“Captain, I cannot tell you how grateful we are…”

Janeway shook her head.  “No need, Captain.  We are pleased to offer our assistance.  It is one of the fundamentals upon which our Federation is based.”

Ar Ziel smiled, the gesture pulling at her scarred face.  “Commander Tuvok has told me this.  Doscene was once invited to join a similar organization many years ago, though from his description, I doubt that they are on the scale of your Federation.”  She did not elaborate on whether Doscene had accepted the invitation.

Chakotay cleared his throat a little, which caused Janeway to turn around.  “Forgive me, Commander.  Ar Ziel, may I present Commander  Chakotay, Voyager’s First Officer?  And this is Ensign Molina and Ensign Wildman.”

Ar Ziel sketched a small curtsy at the other crew members who nodded in acknowledgement, while Chakotay offered his hand.  “And who is this?” Chakotay asked as he looked over Ar Ziel’s shoulder.

A small, dark haired boy with large gray eyes stood on the platform, his hand firmly tangled in the furry coat of the creature which sat beside him.  Except for the emerald green feathered eyes and two tufted horns which rose from just in front of its floppy ears, it looked like a  golden retriever.  A large golden retriever.  Even sitting, its head was higher than that of the boy’s.

Moving slowly, so as not to startle the animal, Janeway knelt in front of the pair.

“What’s her name?” the captain asked, for it was quite obvious that the animal was a very pregnant she.

The boy, who until that time had maintained an expression of unrepentant defiance, softened a bit.  “Fayren.  Her name is Fayren.”

“Fayren,”  Janeway said the word as if tasting the flavor of the alien name.  “A good name.  I see she’s going to have puppies.”

He nodded affirmation.

Janeway reached out to stroke the soft fur, but before her hand made contact the youngster stepped defensively in front of the animal.  His lower lip trembled.

“You cannot kill her.  I won’t let you.”

“Petrek!”  Ar Ziel limped toward him.  “Captain, I apologize.”

Janeway held up her hand.  “No, it’s all right,” she said softly as she looked deeply into the little boy’s eyes.  The haunted, shuttered  look on his face was  one no child should have.  Whatever nightmare event had caused it, it was evident that this defiance was his way of covering his vulnerability.  She bit her lip and blinked back unexpected tears.

She reached up to lightly stroke the child’s face.  Her voice was a caress.  “We don’t kill little boy’s pets where we come from.  And we don’t attack children.  You and Fayren are safe here, Petrek.   I promise.”

Petrek studied  her for a full minute until, satisfied with what he saw, he nodded and allowed Ensign Wildman to lead him and Fayren to the mess hall.

“I take it that was the small problem you had encountered, Mr. Tuvok,” Janeway said as he helped her rise from her knees.

“Yes, Captain.  The child had apparently smuggled the animal on board and managed to keep her hidden from all the adults, though it would seem the children knew of her existence, since they were all sharing their rations with her.   Petrek did not wish to reveal her presence to his elders, but at the same time he did not wish to abandon her.  Hence the delay while we attempted to discover the reason for his recalcitrance, then had to convince Petrek to bring the animal from hiding so we could transport her.  He was not cooperative.”

This statement, or rather the tone with which Tuvok delivered it, caused both Janeway and Chakotay to twist their mouths in an effort to hide their grins.  Vulcans are among the most logical creatures in the universe. On the other hand, there is no creature in the universe less logical than a six year old boy with a mission.  Add in an equally strong  stubbornness factor on both sides and they could imagine the conversation that  had ensued.

Ar Ziel, seeing their amusement, allowed herself to smile.  She had been witness to that conversation.  It gave her much insight into the manner of people she was entrusting with her precious cargo.  As did the senior officers’ reaction just now.  She felt herself relax for the first time in many weeks.  Perhaps for once the Gods had smiled on her weary band, and they had fallen into truly benevolent hands.  She prayed that it was so.

“Captain, Ar Ziel has requested that we destroy the Sky Rider before departing. With your permission, I would like to make the arrangements.”  Tuvok acted as if he hadn’t noticed the smiles at his expense.

Janeway nodded acceptance as she turned toward Ar Ziel.  “You fear your attackers will return and attempt to trace you?”

“Yes, Captain.  We barely escaped them before.  The Sky Rider has no weapons.  We were accompanied by a small group of fighter ships.  They sacrificed their lives to keep us safe, though as you can see, we did not come through the attack unscathed.

“If we had not been so very desperate, I wouldn’t have even sent out the distress call.  It was a gamble.  One that I was probably foolish to take.  These children cannot fall into Arb Swortaq’s hands.”

“Arb Swortaq?”

Ar Ziel studied the Captain’s and Commander’s faces for a moment.  This was another gamble.  Should she risk that these people wouldn’t turn them over to their sworn enemy?  Or should she make  up an appeasing but non-threatening lie?  Trust and remain true to who she was?  Or lie, and become that which she despised?  She sighed heavily.  There was only one decision she could make.  And she was prepared for the consequences.

“Arb Swortaq is the leader of the military on Doscene.  It was he who overthrew our elected government and seized power for himself.  He maintains his power through torture and assassination.  His methods are most effective.  After several weeks in his jails, even the strongest among us would break.”  Her eyes had become distant and she spoke so softly toward the end of her statement Janeway and Chakotay had to strain to hear her.

Then Janeway winced as she realized what Ar Ziel was saying.  “Your scars…,” she began.

Ar Ziel lowered her head for a moment.  When she raised it, there was an expressionless mask over her face.  “Yes, Captain.  I was a guest of Arb Swortaq.  I was rescued after two months of his interrogation.  I hadn’t broken yet, though another day, or even an hour…”  She bit her lip.

Then she continued with a sweep of her hand, indicating the door through which Petrek had just disappeared.  “These are some of the children of those on Doscene who are fighting to regain the freedom we once knew.  A decision was made to evacuate those that we could after Arb Swortaq hit upon the demonic idea of using the children of known or suspected rebels as bait  to lure their parents.

“To prove to the freedom fighters that he was prepared to follow through on his threats,  he publicly tortured and killed seven children.  Some of those children didn’t even belong to members of the rebellion.  They were just handy.”  She spat out the last word with bitter hatred.

“When some of the rebels did surrender in an effort to save their babies, he…”  She lowered her face again, unable to continue.

Janeway and Chakotay looked at each other in horror.  Throwing decorum to the winds, Janeway reached out to pull Ar Ziel into her embrace, her hand patting gently on the taller woman’s back

After a moment, Ar Ziel pulled back and awkwardly wiped at her face.  “Forgive me Captain.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Normally I’m not so emotional.  Perhaps I need to take a lesson from your Mr. Tuvok.”

Janeway smiled at her.  “I would say you need food, and sleep and someone else to worry for you for a little while at least.  Come on, you can take a tour of Voyager at a later time.  But for now, I assume you would like to see how your people are doing and where we have you housed.”

Ar Ziel nodded, “Yes, thank you, Captain.  I am most concerned about those who were critically ill.  As for the housing, I am certain that anything you have arranged will be satisfactory.”

Janeway grinned as they headed out the door accompanied by Chakotay.  “Well, let’s just say we managed to come up with something, though I will confess that making up sleeping arrangements for thirty-six children was a bit daunting.  We’ll take you to sickbay first.”

As they progressed through Voyager’s halls, Ar Ziel  noted the efficiency and precision with which the crew went about its business.  Yet there was no feeling of oppression or unhappiness here.  Even more astonishing to her was the reaction, or rather the lack of it, to her appearance.  Eyes which met hers did not turn away in disgust.  There was curiosity there, yes, but not the morbid, demeaning kind.  Instead, there was a warm acceptance, a welcome she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

Sickbay  was a whirl of activity.  The hallway outside was filled with people, both Dosceni and Federation.  The former were seated on chairs while the later tended their injuries and offered them glasses of juice and water.  Ar Ziel greeted her people cheerfully, giving a word of encouragement here and there , soothing a worried sibling, and in general acting like a captain.  There was no evidence of her earlier display of emotion.  Janeway watched her in silent approval.

Inside sickbay was nearly as crowded.  There was a person on every bed, and a couple sitting on chairs like those in the hall.  Though there were many of the Voyager crew present, Ar Ziel immediately noticed a tall, light haired man who was running a piece of equipment up and down Elder Arb Frezter’s leg.

The Elder was actually smiling at the young man, who was grinning back at him as though they had just shared a joke.  As if he could sense her looking at him, he raised his eyes to glance toward them and nodded an acknowledgement, then returned to what he was doing.

She glanced around and smiled a greeting to those of her people who were sitting up and could see her.  When she turned back, she saw that the tall man had finished with Arb Fretzer and was walking toward them.

“Captain,” he nodded, “Commander.”  The latter name was spoken in a very cold voice.  The Commander grinned, but only said. “Lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant Tom Paris. This is Ar Ziel, captain of the Dosceni ship.  She would like an update on the status of her people.”  Janeway said by way of introduction.

Tom’s lips tightened a little.  “Well, Doc’s back in surgery.  One of the people who came over first.”  He looked at Ar Ziel.  “It’s the second trip.  I’m afraid it doesn’t look good.”

If it was possible, Ar Ziel paled even more.  “Which one?” was all she managed to croak.

“An older man.  I don’t know his name.”

She closed her eyes.  “Arb Forsta.  Chief of our Elders.  It was his leadership which guided the earliest days of the rebellion.  He is much loved and an inspiration to  our people.  He would never have left Doscene had he not been so weakened by injuries sustained in the war.   It was his decision to go which gave the others the courage to give up their children.”

She sighed, then looked at Tom.  “There was another who was critical.  A small girl….”

Tom glanced at the captain, then back to the Dosceni.  “She was the other one Doc had to take  into surgery earlier.  There was a lot of internal damage.  Right now her vitals are stable and she’s sleeping.   For the moment, all we can do is wait.”

“Seely is a strong child.  She is Arb Forsta’s grandchild and as beloved as he.   She is… she will be, the rallying point for the people of Doscene.  She holds our future.  Please do everything you can for her, Lieutenant.”  Without thinking she reached out and took his hand.

Tom looked at her, thinking that they were putting an awful lot on the head of one tiny little girl.  But he didn’t say anything.  Instead, he patted her hand gently.  “We will, Ma’am.  We will.  As for the others, we can treat them all, though some will require a couple of days in sickbay followed by several days of rest.  Mostly everyone just needs food and a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll relieve you of bridge duty until this is over, Tom”  the captain said.

Tom winced.  “If you don’t mind, Captain, I’d prefer to work my shift on the bridge.  I’ll spend all the rest of my time in sickbay, I promise.”

Janeway gave him a speculative look.  Then she nodded her agreement.  “Fine, but if I see you beginning to wear out from double duty, I’ll pull you from the bridge, understood?”  Without waiting for his response, she turned to lead Ar Ziel and Chakotay out of sickbay.

Chapter Five

To say that things settled  back to normal on Voyager over the next few days would have been an untruth.  But things did settle into a routine of sorts.  Crew members got used to looking down to avoid tripping over little ones playing in the middle of the corridors.  They also grew accustomed to locking doors and putting things in secure cupboards, out of reach of ever curious little hands.

As for Carey’s teddy bears, his father instincts had been right on target.  Though there was no creature on their home world which resembled them, the stuffed animals were greeted by the Dosceni children with happy little cries and instant cuddling. The bears also were the source of much amusement among the crew, since word of Vorik’s participation in their production and distribution had spread, and just the sight of the children clutching them in their arms caused him to pale slightly.

Most of the crew took turns assisting in the mess hall, learning the fine art of coaxing a five year old to concentrate on his food and eat when  there were a hundred things more interesting than food to warrant his attention.  They also learned just how messy thirty-six kids and one large canine could be.  Still, for many of them, the kids, the noise and the mess were welcomed as reminders of those they had left behind.

Of all the members of Voyager, none was so happy as its youngest.  Naomi Wildman’s entire repertoire of friends to this point had been holographic characters.  These kids were living, breathing, go-anywhere-on-the-ship, get-into-trouble and-share-the-blame friends.  And into trouble they all got, on a regular basis.

As residing guru of the seemingly magical starship, Naomi shared tidbits of her wisdom among her new found colleagues with an insouciance that left  her mother stunned.  From her comments, Sam realized that Naomi knew more about the crew and the ship than anyone thought possible.  More, perhaps, than her Uncle Neelix.  And that was saying a lot.

No crew member escaped her commentary.  She was overheard telling her adoring followers that Captain Janeway was a really nice lady, “but stay away from her until she had a cup or two of the brown stuff in the morning”.  Harry, she explained, “was usually fun and in a good mood, except lately he’d been spending his play time with Seven, who was a Borg once, but she got  better”.

B’Elanna was “not nearly as scary as you think,  She yells a lot, but that’s just her way.  Ask her a question about how something works and she’ll spend an hour explaining it to you.  Unless Lieutenant Tom is around.  Then they pretend they don’t see anyone else and  make goo eyes at each other,”  she giggled, waggling her eyebrows in such a way that the other kids howled with laughter.

When she wasn’t spreading inflammatory gossip, she was leading her troops in excursions to forbidden places.  By the end of the third day, after a particularly messy episode with a replicator and chocolate sauce, she was on the verge of being permanently banished to her quarters for the duration when she redeemed herself in a way only a precocious three year old could.

Knowing that she had gone ‘just a little too far’ this time, she dutifully presented herself to her mother in sickbay as ordered by Commander Chakotay.  She stood quietly off to the side, willing to delay the inevitable as long as she could.  She watched her mother trying to sooth a sobbing Seely, who had just learned that her grandfather had succumbed to his injuries a few minutes before.

As her mother held the weeping child, Naomi felt very bad, and tried to think of some way she could help.  Sudden inspiration caused her to fly out the door.   Sam, looking up just in time to see Naomi’s abrupt exit, called out to her errant daughter to no avail.

A few moments later, Harry was coming out of his quarters when he saw one frustrated little girl attempting to drag a rocking chair out of her quarters.

“Whoa, Bit, where are you going with that?”  Harry asked as he stepped forward and held the chair in place.

“Sickbay.”

“Sickbay?  Why?”

“Seely feels bad.”

Harry sighed.  He had learned long ago that the only way to get a straight answer out of a kid was to pull it out, one question at a time, and hope that you remembered what you were trying to find out by the time that you got there.

“And the rocking chair will make her feel better?”

Naomi, hands on hips,  looked at him like he was the biggest idiot in the universe.  And as it dawned on him what she was doing, he realized that maybe he was.  He picked up the chair and headed in the direction of sickbay.

Naomi’s chair, or more accurately, her mother’s chair, had been given to Sam as a shower gift by the Engineering department.  They had all given up many replicator rations and spent hours pouring over the replicator menu and arguing about which was  the perfect chair.  They  finally settled on an old fashioned wooden rocker with a wide soft seat and gently padded back.  Sam had been thrilled with the gift.  She’d sat in it during her off duty hours, rocking back and forth and caressing her swollen belly, wishing desperately that her husband was there to share the rocker with her.

When Naomi was born, Sam  rocked her to sleep in it every night.  Every night, that is, except for when Seska had control of Voyager.  When they had been able to return to the ship, the rocker was missing from Sam’s quarters, and her heart sank.  Then  Janeway found it in her quarters.  Apparently Seska had commandeered it for rocking her own baby to sleep.   Although grateful to have the chair back, Sam  refused to use it until she had thoroughly sterilized every square centimeter of it.

As Naomi grew older, the chair became her favorite place.  A refuge and sanctuary, it was where she sat curled up on her mother’s or Uncle Neelix’s lap as they read to her or told her stories or just sat and rocked while they held her close.  For her to be willing to sacrifice her beloved chair, even though it was only for a little while, was as pure an act of unselfishness as Harry, or most of the rest of the crew for that matter, had been privileged to  witness.

Not even the meanest among them thought to suggest that Naomi was trying to get out of being punished for the chocolate incident.  Especially since her mother had hugged her and told her how proud she was of her, then promptly grounded her  for the rest of the day.

Chapter Six

Tom sat watching the tableau taking place before him with an amused gleam in his weary eyes.  Moments earlier, Tuvok had entered the mess hall, trailed by a solemn Petrek and a panting Fayren.  Tuvok was doing his best to pretend that the youngster did not exist.  Petrek was doing his best to make certain the Vulcan knew he did.

Harry, also trailed by his own particular but much shapelier shadow, placed his tray on the table, making room for Seven to place hers beside it.

“What’s so funny?”  Harry asked looking around the room.

Never taking his eyes off the stoic Vulcan sitting at a table with the equally stoic Petrek sitting across from him and Fayren sprawled on the floor at their feet Tom asked, “Harry, have you ever been around many cats?”

“Cats?”  Harry asked, confused.

“Yeah, you know, felines.  The domestic kind.  Kitties.  Cats!”

Harry studied his friend closely for a moment.  Tom had been working double duty shifts for five days now.  Perhaps it was beginning to affect him.  “Uh, yeah, I know what cats are.  My mom used to have at least a couple around all the time.  Why?”

“Did you ever notice that cats have this uncanny ability to know when you don’t want them around?  Like maybe you’re allergic to them, or you just don’t like them.  And when they sense that, they make sure you are the one person in the entire room who receives their undivided attention.  If there are fifty  people all cooing over them and wanting to pet them, they will unfailingly go to the one person who doesn’t want them within ten feet.”

Harry’s gaze followed Tom’s to where the Vulcan and Dosceni child sat in glaring silence and a broad grin spread across his face.  “Good analogy,” he laughed as he picked up his fork.  Beside him, Seven gave both men a puzzled look, but didn’t say anything.

“So, what’s this I hear about you and B’Elanna having a baby?” Harry asked, laughing again as Tom let out a groan and covered his eyes with his hands.

“Jeez, Harry, don’t you start.  B’Elanna and I have been through enough the past few days thanks to Chakotay’s sick idea of humor.”

“B’Elanna doesn’t blame you, does she?”  Harry asked, surprised.  B’Elanna had a quick temper, but she was usually careful to make sure only the deserving were on the receiving end of her acid tongue.

“Nah.  She was there, she knows I didn’t do anything.  But man have we both gone through some teasing.  I’ve been waiting to hear that she’s on report for popping some nitwit who’s taken it too far.  Or even worse, for shoving Chakotay out an airlock.”

“She’s done better than that,” Harry’s grin was back.  “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Yesterday at lunch.  We’ve both been on duty since.  Why?”

“Well…it seems the commander’s replicator mysteriously started flavoring every single item which came out of it with a very intense Tabasco sauce.  Including the toothpaste…..that he used…..to brush his teeth.”

Tom laughed out loud.  “Oh yeah?  When?”

“This morning.  He came tearing out of his quarters, foaming at the mouth,  and started pounding on the captain’s door, begging her for a drink of water.  Then he made her taste it before he took it from her.”

“Oh,” Tom gasped as he wiped at his eyes, “What I wouldn’t give to have seen that.”

“I am sure the Security sensors caught it,” Seven said serenely looking up from her plate.

A glow sparked in both Tom and Harry’s eyes, and in the kind of unspoken communication which develops between two friends who’ve been together for years,  they both knew they would live on the replicator credits from this one for a month.  That is, if someone else didn’t beat them to it.

After a moment, Tom noticed Harry giving him a quizzical look.  Tom knew that look.  Harry had a question but was too polite to ask.

“Spit it out, Harry.  What’s on your mind?”

Harry blushed,  then looked into his friend’s eyes.  “Have you and B’Elanna given any thought to having kids?  Or getting married?  Or to what your future holds?”

Tom ran his finger up and down the handle of his cup for a minute.  “Some.”  He looked up and twisted his mouth in a rueful smile.  “Aw, Harry, neither one of us is ready to talk  about  things like futures and commitments right now.  Think about it.  Until the past few years, neither one of us thought we had much of a future anywhere.  And as for commitments,” he shrugged and looked down at his empty tray.  “We have. At least, I think we have. But not in so many words.  That is, what I mean… ”  Tom’s voice trailed off.  He gave Harry one of those looks that he hid behind when things were getting too close.

“But you guys love each other.”

Tom smiled at the ensign’s naivete.  “Maybe so, but love isn’t everything.”
When he saw Harry’s startled look, he knew that he wasn’t getting across what he was trying to explain.  He exhaled sharply and took his upper lip between his teeth, a sure sign of his frustration.  Rubbing his hand across his chin he tried a different tact.

“OK, I’ll admit that at first I was ready to get on the comm and announce it to the universe when she told me she loved me.  Then reality set in and we realized just what we were opening ourselves up to, and that scared the hell out of both of us.  Especially B’Elanna.  She’s  really shy  about showing her feelings like that.”  At Harry’s look of disbelief, Tom grinned.

“OK, she’s shy about showing her gentler feelings.   Harry, she went through a pretty tough childhood, and an even tougher adolescence.  It took me a long time to win her trust.  And even longer to win her heart.  We’ll get there, eventually.  But right now…….

“It’s kind of like when Q threw the Enterprise in front of a Borg cube.  The confrontation was inevitable, but Q made it happen a lot sooner than it should have.  That’s why I could have slugged Chakotay.  He’s usually much more sensitive to the feelings of those around him. So I don’t understand why he said what he did.”

Harry nodded, but in his usual effort to try to see the best in every situation he offered some defense in his commander’s actions.  “Maybe he thought he was doing you guys a favor by getting you to talk about it.”

Tom gave him a sardonic look.  “Right, Harry.  It was pure altruism on his part.”  Then seeing the look on his friend’s face, he backed down a bit.  “Even if that was it, like I said, it was the wrong time.  Hell,  Harry, I don’t even know if B’Elanna and I can make a baby.”

Those who study chaos theory and group dynamics will tell you that at some point in any large gathering of people, the usual ebb and flow of  noise  will come to a sudden halt.  The mathematical formulas which can predict when and how often this will happen in a given circumstance are part of most beginning theoretical math courses at the academy. These eddies of silence usually last only a matter of seconds.  Later Tom would wonder what twist of fate caused one to occur in the mess hall at the exact moment that Seven voiced a question.

“Do you mean that you and Lieutenant Torres have not yet engaged in sexual intercourse?”

It was also most unfortunate that Harry had chosen that time to lean back in his chair and take a big gulp of his tea.  His body jerked forward as he slammed the mug on the table.  The tea sprayed from his mouth like a fountain, covering the face and uniform of the man sitting across from him.

While the mess hall resounded with loud guffaws and choked laughter, Seven pounded a gasping Harry solidly on his back.  Tom calmly pulled his napkin off his lap and wiped at the mess on his face.

“Thanks, Harry.”  Tom muttered.  Rising from the chair with as much dignity as his beet red face and soggy uniform would allow, he walked from the mess hall, wondering just how long it would be until B’Elanna caught wind of this incident.  He had a feeling  Tabasco sauce might be a pleasant experience by comparison.

Chapter Seven

Five days after their arrival, Ar Ziel was the only Dosceni who hadn’t been to sickbay for an examination.  This was not due to some artifice on her part.  The fact was, like her counterpart Janeway, she had just been too busy tending to the needs of her young charges to take the time out for her own welfare.  Which is why the doctor called the captain that afternoon and reminded her that Starfleet regs specified that all guests aboard a Federation star ship were asked to submit to a physical exam.

So Janeway tracked down the busy woman and offered to go with her to sickbay.  As the women walked down the halls, Ar Ziel noted the respectful nods issued not just to Janeway, but also to her.

“I marvel at the openness and acceptance of your crew, Captain,” Ar Ziel said.  “My people and I have felt quite welcomed by them, in spite of the stress we are putting on your systems and supplies, and the disruptions to their lives.  And I am amazed at how easily so many different species live and work together.”

Janeway smiled at the other woman’s words.  “Oh, we have our bad moments, both on board Voyager as individuals and with the various species as a whole.  We’re not saints by any means.  It took a lot of diplomatic effort to bring us to this point.  And still there are some species among us for whom conflict is a cherished way of life.”

“Like your brilliant young chief engineer?” Ar Ziel asked.  Though B’Elanna had been nothing but polite to any of them, she had heard some of the comments from the Voyager crew about the legendary fiery temper of the woman who had boarded the Sky Rider in an effort to save the dying ship.

Janeway laughed.  “Yes, like B’Elanna.  She’s half Klingon, you know.  They’re a warrior species.  The Federation was actually at war with them until a few decades ago.  But we have forged a peace which has held.”

She looked introspective for a moment before she continued.  “The place where I come from on Earth is part of the United States.  It was once called ‘the melting pot’ of the world because people from  nations all over the planet came there, living side by side, intermarrying, working together.  It was that very cultural diversity which made that country grow into one of the great powers, made it a leader in the world.

“That’s a lot like the Federation.  We celebrate our diversity, because we know that together we are stronger than what we are apart.”

Ar Ziel nodded her understanding.  “On Doscene, we learned that the strength of two metals combined in an alloy is often much greater than the strength of the metals alone.  It would seem you have applied that principle to your lives.”

By that time they had reached sickbay.  As the door swished open, they were greeted by a scene of domestic tranquility.

Tom sat in the rocker, holding a sleepy Seely in his arms.  He was softly singing an old Celtic lullaby to the child.  Not wanting to interrupt, both women stopped just inside the doorway and listened to the words as the pilot completed that song and went on to another.  This one Janeway knew.  It was called the Skye Boat Song, an ancient piece that told of the downfall of some of Scotland’s clans at the battle of Culloden, and their flight into exile with their fallen prince.

At first she wondered at his choice of song.  It was slow and gentle enough to qualify as a lullaby in tone, but not in content.  But as she really listened to Tom’s smooth  tenor voice, she understood.  The song described the trip to the Isle of Skye   In spite of their grief over homes destroyed and loved ones lost, the Scots had placed all their dreams and fierce loyalties onto the head of one weary young man who lay on board, being  rocked to sleep by the rolling sea.  It was a song of hope arising from death.  It was Seely’s song.

Tom rose and gently placed the sleeping child back onto the biobed.  Then, gesturing for the two women to come in, he led them across the room to the doctor’s office.

“That song was deeply moving,” Ar Ziel told him.  “And you have a wonderful voice.”

Tom blushed a little at the compliment, and offered his thanks,  “My ancestors were supposedly involved in that little incident, though there has always been a great deal of debate as to which side they were on.”

“I didn’t know that,” Janeway said, slightly amused at Tom’s blush.  “We should do a genealogical comparison someday.  Maybe we’re related.”

“If we are, can I start calling you Cuz?”

“Not if you wish to retain your rank,” she smiled sweetly at him.  Taking the hint, Tom looked at Ar Ziel.

“I take it you’re here for your exam.,” he said.

She nodded, “That and to see how Seely is doing.”

Tom glanced over at the sleeping child.  “Better, much better.  In fact, Doc says she can be released in a few days.  And that some of her friends can start to visit her tomorrow.”

Ar Ziel’s smile pulled at the scarred tissue of her face.  “Now that is good news.”

Her smile dropped to open mouthed surprise when Tom activated the doctor.  She had heard from her people about the hologram, but she had never witnessed it with her own eyes.  For some reason, the doctor had either been deactivated or otherwise occupied during her many trips to sickbay.

“I gather you don’t have holo-technology,” Janeway said as she noted the look on the woman’s face.

“No, Captain.  This is not an area where we’ve developed any expertise.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The doctor seemed pleased with Ar Ziel’s astonishment.  “Nor shall you any time soon, I assure you,” he said rather smugly.  Then he took in the scar tissue on her face and scalp and saw the dangling arm.  He became the ultimate physician, his entire awareness focused on his patient.

He grabbed a tri-corder from a nearby table and began to run it over her.  “Hmm,” he muttered as he walked around her.  He looked at the readings, then said abruptly,  “Take off your clothes.”

Ar Ziel blinked, and blinked again.  Tom and Janeway both stepped forward.

“I think the doctor means he wants to do a complete exam.  We have a privacy screen and a medical gown for you,” Tom glared in the general direction of the doctor.  He led her to a biobed across the room and set up the screen for her to change while Janeway and the doctor exchanged looks.

With a sigh, the doctor headed across the room to join Tom.  He had made a  faux pas.  Again.  Though why it was considered such, he did not understand, in spite of how far his social skills had developed.  He was a doctor.  He needed his patient to undress.  He told her so.  What was the problem?

After a moment Ar Ziel shyly stepped out from behind the screen.  Tom offered her a boost onto the biobed where the doctor had laid out several instruments.  He continued to run scans on her, accompanied by intermittent mutterings and exclamations.  Finally, the doctor raised his head to look at her.

“When would you like to start the repair work?”

Ar Ziel looked blankly at him.  “The repair work?”

“Yes.  Removal of this scar tissue is going to take quite a bit of time, and there is extensive damage to several of the bones and ligaments on your left side.  I know you will be with us for several weeks, but the sooner we begin, the sooner you can eliminate this constant pain you must be feeling.”

Janeway was watching Ar Ziel closely.  After a moment, she moved forward.  “Doctor, permit me,” she said as she stepped in front of the Dosceni captain and gently took her hand.

“What the doctor is trying to tell you in his own obscure way, is that he can undo most, if not all, of the damage Arb Swortaq had done to you.  You can be made whole again.”

Ar Ziel looked at Janeway in disbelief.  She turned to look at  Tom, who was smiling slightly and nodding his head.  Then she looked at the doctor, whose expression of total self-assurance more than anything convinced her that she had truly understood what they meant.  Her lower lip trembled a little and she drew in a shaky breath.  Finally, she had enough control to say, “We can begin when it is convenient for you, Doctor.”

Chapter Eight

Joe Carey looked up as the doors to Engineering opened and his face blanched.  “Lordy, lordy, Sue, time to head for the hills,” he said softly to Sue Nicoletti.  Sue looked up to see what he was talking about and did some blanching herself.

Everyone in Engineering knew what had happened in the mess hall at lunch time.  And everyone had offered a prayer to whatever deities they happened to believe in that their boss wouldn’t hear about it until later, like when their shifts were over.  But there was no such luck for the hapless engineers.

Lieutenant Torres had gone for a late lunch in a fairly good mood.  Tom was finally off duty that night.  Earlier that morning when he called to confirm their date for dinner in his quarters at 1900 hours,  she offered to make dinner at her place.  But Tom told her that he was one pooped puppy and that he would be more comfortable in his own bed.  Blushing, she smiled at his words and  responded by asking him if he really  thought he was going to get any sleep.  Her comment had drawn a snort of laughter over the comm link, and he signed off.   That was  before she went to lunch..

When she returned to Engineering an hour after leaving for lunch, there was steam coming from her ears.  She had gone straight to her work station and begun punching the screen with a ferocity that left no one in doubt that she was imagining it held the face of a certain conn officer.   After a few minutes she calmed down.  She was too good an engineer to risk ruining the equipment like that.  But she still snapped at anyone who had the misfortune to have to approach her.  So her crew became very good at solving their own problems for the rest of the afternoon.

However, as the day progressed, Torres seemed to relax and everyone thought that the worst of it was over.  The lieutenant hadn’t actually yelled at anyone for at least an hour.  In fact, she seemed to have begun to see some of the  humor in the whole thing, because a  smile would play about her lips from time to time.  Either that, or she was plotting some really nasty revenge.

What they didn’t know was that she was waging her usual internal battle between the yin and yang which controlled her soul.  Part of her was ready to go slug Tom for putting her in such an embarrassing situation.  Until another part of her  remembered how it felt when he  slipped behind her and wrapped her in his arms.

Then she would catch one of her engineers glancing at her with a  knowing look, and she would feel her temper flare again so that she was ready to go make pilot stew.  Except that thought reminded her of  the iron hot taste of Tom’s blood, and remembering that taste also caused her to remember other things.

Her nostrils flared as if even now she could smell  the clean, masculine scent of him, a scent she would recognize in a pitch dark room filled with men.  Her fingers tingled as if she were running them across the firm muscle and soft reddish hair of his chest.  She could hear his husky voice whispering in her ear, telling her wonderful things, making her feel soft and feminine.

B’Elanna sighed.  Even as provoked as she was, she couldn’t stay angry with that audacious, funny, arrogant, independent, loving, compassionate, pig-headed pilot.  She loved him too damn much.

Then the door opened and Seven walked in.  All Carey could think of was that old adage about  fossil fuel and flames.  Or, as his great-grandmother would say, “Like pouring gasoline on a raging fire!”

Seven went straight to B’Elanna.  “Lieutenant, may I have a word with you?”

Joe glanced around.  It was amazing how many people had suddenly found tasks which took them to the other side of Engineering.  Far enough away  to avoid injury, close enough to hear and see the explosion.

So everyone was taken by surprise when B’Elanna said calmly, “Of course, Seven, what can I do for you?”

Seven looked around at the crowded department and said in a low voice, “Perhaps we should speak elsewhere.”

B’Elanna  simply shook her head no.  “It’s all right.  We can talk here.  In case you haven’t noticed, there is no privacy on a star ship.”  As  she spoke, she raised her voice so that it carried all the way to the back of Engineering.  She was, after all, a thoughtful chief.  She wouldn’t want any of her staff to have to strain their ears.

“In fact, Seven, I’m sure if you try hard enough, you can find someone who can tell you how many times a day each of us goes to the head, and how many cc’s of urine we output each time we go.”

Suddenly every engineer found something utterly fascinating to study on their consoles.

Seven chose to ignore the lieutenant’s last statement.  She found it was best to do that when she didn’t understand what  the Chief Engineer was talking about.

“I want to speak to you about the incident in the mess hall at lunch today.”

When all B’Elanna did was nod, Seven continued, “I realize that you may misinterpret the situation, and I wish to assure you that Lieutenant Paris was not discussing the intimate details of your relationship with Ensign Kim or myself.”

B’Elanna’s eyebrows shot up.  She crossed her arms and leaned back against the console.  “Oh?  Then why did I spend most of my lunch hour dodging some very crude comments from some suicidal crew members?”

Seven’s own eyebrow levered a bit.  “I cannot speak for the behavior of others.  I can only tell you what I know of the conversation at lunch.”

B’Elanna didn’t say anything, and Seven accepted that as permission to continue.

“Ensign Kim asked Lieutenant Paris about a rumor he had heard concerning the two of you.    Lieutenant Paris asked Ensign Kim…”

“Tom and Harry.”  At Seven’s questioning look, B’Elanna explained, “Their names are Tom and Harry.  You’re giving me a headache with all this Lieutenant Paris, Ensign Kim stuff.”

“Very well.  Tom told Harry he did not wish to discuss the matter, having already endured many  comments from the crew.  But Ens… Harry continued to pry.    Tom was reluctant to say anything, but he finally told Ens…er  Harry  that the  two of you would need more time together before making  decisions about your future.

“Then the lieutenant said that he wasn’t even certain the two of you could conceive a child.  I misinterpreted his comment to mean that you had not yet engaged in…”

B’Elanna held up her hand and abruptly interrupted Seven.  “Yes, I know what you thought.  Go on.”

Seven raised her Borg eyebrow.  “Ens… Harry explained to me after Tom left that the lieutenant had meant that Klingon and Human DNA are not compatible and it requires biogenetic Engineering to merge the two.  Since you are one-half Klingon, it is possible you will also need that type of assistance in producing offspring with a Human male.”

B’Elanna glanced down at the floor and let out a little sigh.  So that was it.  She knew that Tom wasn’t the kind to go around bragging about what took place between the two of them, in spite of what people used to say about him.  She caught her lower lip between her teeth and chewed on it a bit.  Then she looked at Seven.

“Thank you for letting me know what happened.”

Seven studied the engineer for a moment before she nodded her head and started to turn away.  She was stopped at mid stride by B’Elanna’s question, “Why did you feel the need to come tell me this?”

Seven turned those solemn eyes on B’Elanna, and for a moment B’Elanna thought she saw just a hint of vulnerability and extreme loneliness.  Then Seven raised her eyebrow  and the look changed to her usual enigmatic expression.

“I am not yet adept at following the subtle undercurrents and tides of emotions which frequently run through  human communications.  The hidden meanings and innuendoes are usually a puzzle to me.

“I have learned, however,  that the unspoken words in a conversation often say more than the spoken ones.  Even someone as obtuse in these matters as I could see that Lieutenant Paris has great feelings for you.  Just as your parents must have had great feelings for each other.  I felt it was….  important that you know that.”

Seven started to walk away once again when B’Elanna grabbed her arm.  “What do you mean?  What do you mean that my parents must have had great feelings for each other?”

Seven turned her head, seemingly surprised that the lieutenant hadn’t figured it out herself.

“It is my understanding that couples choose to reproduce  because it is one of the strongest ways of showing their affection for one another.  If the DNA of Humans and Klingons is so incompatible that a biogenetic engineer must be called upon to blend the two to form a viable zygote, then your parents must have loved each other a great deal and wanted you  very much to have gone through all of that to have you.”  With that she pulled her arm free of B’Elanna’s light grasp and left.

Seven’s words left B’Elanna stunned.    She had never considered that aspect of it.  She hadn’t thought about what they had to go through.  Which made her father’s abandonment of them all the more strange.  Unless it truly was her fault.  Had the end result of that biogenetic engineering been so hideous that her father couldn’t stand to be around her?  NO!  She was not going to allow herself to slip back into that mind set.

She chose instead to concentrate on Tom.  Tom thought she was beautiful.  He said it so often and in such a way that she knew he truly meant it.  And he was a connoisseur.  If he believed it, then maybe everyone else would, too.  Including her.

She was glad that Seven had explained so publicly what had happened.  Maybe now everyone would find something more interesting than her sex life to talk about.  As she glanced in the general direction of her seemingly busy staff, she allowed herself a sardonic smile.  Yeah, right.  When pigs flew!

Chapter Nine

Tom glanced around his quarters one last time as he ran a nervous hand through his hair.  B’Elanna hadn’t called to cancel on him, which meant either she hadn’t heard about his gaff in the mess hall, or she was waiting until she got to his quarters to kill him in private.  Whichever, he wanted everything to be as perfect on the surface as he could make it.

He had cleaned his quarters, set the table,  and replicated Coq Au Vin, which was one of B’Elanna’s favorite dishes.  After much debate, he had settled on a selection of twentieth century blues and jazz music.  The lights were dimmed, he was showered and dressed.  Now all he needed was B’Elanna.

Right on time, his door bell rang.  He plastered a smile on his face and keyed the door open, only to find no one there.  Surprised, he glanced up to see her leaning against the bulkhead across the corridor. Her arms were folded across  her chest, and she had a look on her face which Tom, for all his expertise, couldn’t interpret.  She was also wearing a dress that would raise the blood pressure of a dead man.  Amused, he crossed his arms on his own chest and leaned against the door frame.

“Good evening?”  He made that a question.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Paris.  I do not appreciate having my sex life discussed in public.  Never again.  Understood?”

He nodded.  “Understood.”

“Good.”

So  that’s it, Tom thought.  Is it really going to be this simple?  But as she continued to stand there, unmoving, he began to wonder.

“Would the lady like to come in?” he asked, gesturing into his quarters with his arm.

“The lady’s thinking about it,” B’Elanna answered, her mouth twisting into a smile in spite of herself.

“Ah!  She wants to be coaxed.”  Tom said, pushing himself away from the door frame and sauntering toward her.  As he reached her, she looked up at him with mischief sparkling in her eyes.  He leaned forward, stretching his arms out to either side of her and supporting himself against the bulkhead.

B’Elanna unfolded her arms and ran her hands up his arms to his shoulders.  “So, coax me,” she whispered seductively.  Glancing up and down the corridor to make sure they were alone, he bent down to give her a quick kiss.  But before he could pull away her arms tightened around him, and she deepened the kiss.

He hesitated only a couple of seconds before he started giving back as good as he was getting.  He moved his hands down to her waist and pressed her against the wall in a move slightly reminiscent of their first official kiss.  A tiny whimper escaped her throat, driving him to pull her tighter against him.

Somewhere in the distance, Tom heard the sound of a door opening, followed by a soft whistle and a chuckle.  He lifted his head  just as two crewmen walked past them, though he didn’t bother  to note who they were.  He looked down at B’Elanna and grinned. “Um…wouldn’t you consider this  discussing our sex life in public, Ms. Torres?” he teased.

“Well, we weren’t exactly discussing it,” she demurred as she pushed past him to enter his quarters.

“Ah, semantics,” he said as he followed her.  “I love semantics.”

She didn’t answer, just let out a happy cooing sound when she saw what he had prepared for dinner.  She allowed him to seat her, and the next hour passed in relative calm as they told each other what had been happening in their lives.  The presence of the Dosceni aboard gave them a new topic, and they speculated about the refugees’ chances for gaining asylum once Voyager got the children safely to their to their destination.

As B’Elanna talked about the ship she had boarded and described the systems she had seen there, Tom watched her with growing amusement and more than a little desire.  Watching her quick mind at work was to him an extremely erotic experience.

Like the time they had worked together to try to find the mysterious author of the holodeck program ‘Insurrection Alpha.’  As she stood beside him, the tip of her tongue thrust between her lips, her brow furrowed in concentration while she manipulated Voyager’s computer system, it had taken everything he had to keep from scooping her into his arms and kissing her long and hard.

“Their technology is nowhere close to ours,” B’Elanna said as she scraped the bottom of her desert cup, then licked the last of the Creme Brulee off her spoon.

“Yeah,” Tom said as he put his own spoon down, “But all we’ve seen is some beat up old ship that Ar Ziel practically swiped in order to get those kids off that planet.  As it is, I overheard her telling the doctor that they had left several  behind, because they were unable to get them to the ship.  What’s worse, they lost  10 kids when they were attacked.”

“Too bad we can’t go and teach this Arb Swortaq a lesson, “B’Elanna growled.

“Agreed,” Tom said as he tried to stifle a yawn.  B’Elanna rose and started to clear the table.  As Tom rose to help, she pushed him back into the chair.

“I’ll do this.  I haven’t been working double duty for nearly a week.”  She hummed as she cleaned, making short work of the dishes and wiping the table with an efficient few swipes of the cloth.  When she was finished, she walked up behind Tom’s chair and began to massage the back of his neck and his shoulders.

“You got about six hours to stop that,” he mumbled as he bent his head down to give her better access.

She laughed softly, then continued humming along with the music.  “Janeway wouldn’t take the conn away from you, you know,” she told him a few minutes later as she realized how stiff his muscles were beneath her hands.

“You never know.”  He didn’t insult her by pretending he didn’t understand what she meant.  “As great as the doctor is, the captain knows she needs a full time human medic trained as back up just in case.  If  I’m away from the bridge too long, maybe she’ll figure I don’t need to be there at all, and assign me to sickbay permanently.”

B’Elanna snorted at his reasoning.  “Tom, you’re the best damn pilot on Voyager.  You’re probably the best damn pilot in the Delta Quadrant.  And I might even concede that you rank among the top five in the galaxy.  Do you really think Janeway would take you away from the helm?”

Tom just shrugged, and B’Elanna knew not to push it.  Tom needed to fly like every one else needed to breath.  He even had nightmares about being permanently grounded that woke them both from time to time.  Since she had one or two fears which ran almost that deep, B’Elanna truly understood where he was coming from.

After a few minutes, she noticed Tom’s head drooping even further onto his chest.  “OK, Paris, ” she patted him on the shoulder.  “I think it’s time you went  to bed.”  She bent to kiss the top of his head, then moved from behind him preparatory to leaving.  But she was stopped abruptly as Tom reached up and grabbed her hand, pulling her onto his lap.

“My thoughts, exactly,” he said as he started to nuzzle her ear.

“I meant to sleep,” she murmured as she turned her head to give him room to maneuver.

“That too,”  he concurred, moving down to her neck.

B’Elanna just heaved a sigh of contentment and wiggled into a more comfortable position on his lap.  As she moved, she realized that at least part of him was wide awake.

“Hmm.  I see this unit comes fully equipped,” she laughed as she wiggled on his lap again.

She felt him smile against her neck.  “Multi-functional, too.  Allow me to demonstrate.”  He moved to capture her lips with his while his hands were busy elsewhere.  After a moment she pulled away with a gasp.

“I see what you mean,” she said appreciatively.

He looked down at her, his eyes sparkling.  “So, you interested in this particular unit?”

She ran her finger along the edge of his jaw while she pretended to think about it.  “Mmmmaybe.  But it seems to be awfully high maintenance.  What kind of warranty does it come with?”

He suddenly grew still, and she looked up to see that his face had become serious.  He studied her for a minute, then raised his hand to smooth back her hair, cupping the side of her face with his palm, and running the pad of his thumb gently across her cheek bone.

“How about a lifetime guarantee?” he asked.

Her eyes widened as the implication of his words sank in.  It was her turn to study his face.  The cocky pilot was gone.  A serious, and uncharacteristically tense man was in his place.  Tom had just added another step to the intricately patterned dance which had caught them in its spell.

A slow smile spread across her face.  Tom’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as he watched her.  He knew that look.

“B’Elanna, what are you thinking?” he asked uneasily.

The smile spread into a grin as she moved her hand up to the back of his head and tangled her fingers in his soft hair.  “I was wondering if the original equipment on this unit will last a lifetime,” she said,  “or will it wear out and we’ll have to get replacement parts.”

“Oh, believe me, lady, this equipment is up to anything you can dish out.”  he laughed as he ran a hand up her thigh.

“Oh yeah?”  She moved so that she now straddled him.  “We’ll see about that.”

Many hours later an exhausted Tom Paris had reason to recall that part of their conversation.  As he snuggled further into his pillow, pulling a sleeping B’Elanna tighter against him, he made a mental note.  Never, ever challenge a Klingon-Human woman.  He grinned into the darkness.  At least, not until he’d had time to recover.

Chapter Ten

Neelix was clearing away the last of the mess from the noon meal, though with everyone’s crazy schedule, the mess hall was seldom totally empty during what constituted day on Voyager.  So he was not surprised to hear someone coming in behind him as he studied the evening menu and made sure he had replicated enough eggplant.  He was going to try something called ratatouille and he wanted it to be perfect.

He glanced out into the mess hall, but no one was there.  Puzzled, because he was certain he had heard the doors swish open, he walked around the counter and almost knocked over Petrek, who stood there with Fayren by his side.

“My, my.  I didn’t see you there.  Are you all right?”

The little boy nodded silently.  The child seldom spoke aloud. In the three weeks the children had been on board, no one could recall him laughing or playing with the other children, in spite of their attempts to get him to join them.   He had kept mostly to himself.  When Tuvok was off duty, the child trailed after him almost worshipfully.  But Neelix knew that the commander was on the bridge at the moment.

“Are you hungry?  Would you like some fruit?”  Neelix asked.  When the child neither moved nor spoke, Neelix turned to the counter where he picked up a small blue globe that he knew was particularly sweet.  Just to a little boy’s liking.  Reaching over the counter for a napkin and a knife, he took the child by the hand and escorted him to a nearby table.

“I’m Neelix, you know.”  Neelix sliced into the fruit and offered some to the child and the dog.   Both accepted and bit into the juicy tidbit.  The sweetness of it brought a smile to Petrek’s face.  Neelix finished slicing the globe and laid the pieces out where Petrek could feed them to both himself and Fayren.

“So, what brings you here?  I thought Ensign Hathaway was planning on taking all of you to the Pantherian Woods for a hike on holodeck one this afternoon?”

Petrek dropped his gaze to the table and shrugged.

“You don’t like the woods?” Neelix prodded.

The child’s eyes lifted to him with a yearning that startled Neelix.  “Oh yes,” he whispered, “But I can’t go there.”

“Why ever not?”  Neelix asked.  There was a great mystery here, and his Talaxian nose was  on the scent.

“Skyla and Morel can’t go, so neither can I.”  The words were spoken with resignation and regret.

“Skyla and Morel?”  Neelix thought he knew all of the children, yet he could not recall meeting any with those names.

“My sister and brother,”  Petrek said, emotionless.

Surprised, Neelix spoke cautiously.  “I didn’t realize you had a brother or sister, Petrek.  Why didn’t they come on this trip with you?”

Petrek looked up at Neelix.  The dark gray eyes were filled with tears, and anguish distorted his face.  He turned  from Neelix to stare out  the windows where the stars were streaking by.  His words were spoken so softly that Neelix had to lean forward to hear them.

“They couldn’t.  They’re dead.  Arb Pleckso’s men came to our home and killed them.  I was hiding because I was so afraid.  Except when I saw what the men were doing, I tried to run out to stop them from hurting everyone, but Fayren laid on top of me and wouldn’t let me up.

“Then after the men left, I tried to help my family, but they were all dead.”  The boy spoke in a monotone, as if he were reciting some ancient piece of history rather than the horrific experience he had lived through.

As he began to understand what the child had endured,  Neelix closed his eyes and swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat.   A rage he hadn’t felt in a long time began to fill him.  Fighting hard to maintain control, he took the child’s hand in his own.

“What you went through was terrible, Petrek.  And the men who did it need to be stopped from ever doing that again.  But you can’t stop living your own life because of it.  I know your family wouldn’t want you to. ”

For one brief moment Petrek looked as if he might yield to Neelix’ soothing voice.  Then he violently pulled his hand away and stood up.  “You don’t know,” he shouted, “You don’t know what it’s like to see them all killed.  They’re dead and I’m still here.  I can’t ever forget that.  I can’t play because Skyla and Morel can’t ever play again.  I can’t.  You don’t know.”

He stood there shaking, his breath coming in big gulping sobs.  Neelix reached out and grabbed him, pulling him into a tight embrace while the child cried and cried.  As he rocked and soothed the sobbing boy, his thoughts raced.  ‘So this is why.  Chakotay told me that my job wasn’t done.  He was right.’

Stroking the back of the boy’s head, he spoke softly.  “Oh yes, I do know, Petrek.  Almost the same thing happened to me.  I lost my whole family in a war none of us started.  I lost my mother and father.  I lost my beloved sister Alexi.  I lost everything.”  He pulled the boy away to look him in the face.  “I almost gave up and withdrew from it all, too.  But you know what?  I didn’t.  I didn’t because I realized that if I gave up, if I let them do that to me, then the men who killed my family had won.  They had killed everything.

“But so long as I was alive, and living my life with the kind of joy I know my family would want, then they could never win.  I am the best monument to my family that I could create.”

He wiped at Petrek’s tear soaked face.  “Do you understand?”

Petrek nodded, swiping at his drippy nose with his sleeve in a little boy gesture that was universal.  Neelix chuckled, and reached for the napkin.  He glanced across the room to see B’Elanna and Ar Crotol along with a few of the other engineers standing there silently watching.  He nodded at them, but kept his attention focused on the child before him.

Neelix  knew from personal experience that though the healing could now begin, Petrek would never fully recover.  The raw wound that gaped wide in his young soul would gradually mend enough that his life would go on.  But the scar would become a dead zone.  A dark and awful place inside him that Petrek would touch from time to time and remember.

“I’m so glad Neelix was able to get him to open up,” Ar Crotol said with a sigh as she moved along with the others to a corner table away from the pair.

She had spent a lot of her time in Engineering since arriving on the ship.  Aside from the fact that she was enthralled with Starfleet technology, she and B’Elanna had discovered that they were kindred spirits. Each woman was enamored of machinery, finding in the smooth running parts and systematic programs an elegant beauty.  So Ar Crotol had jumped at the chance earlier that morning to do what engineers do best, solve a problem.

They  had been running a diagnostic on the power relays on decks seven through ten, trying to track down a periodic power surge which was wreaking havoc on the equipment connected throughout those decks.  Since the surge was intermittent, and all the relays read as functioning in normal parameters when scanned, they had resorted to stationing an engineer at each relay and waiting until the surge occurred.  They had been at it for three and a half hours when the faulty connector was finally located.

Problem solved, they had headed for a late lunch, only to enter the mess hall just in time to hear Petrek’s outburst.  As Neelix continued to talk to the boy,  Ar Crotol explained his history.

“It happened about a year and a half ago, when he was five.  A neighbor found him wandering in the pasture of a nearby farm, half frozen and in shock.  When they went to his family’s farm, they found that all of them had been massacred.

“It was set up to look like a robbery, but everyone in the district knew that Arb Pleckso, Swortaq’s district general,  wanted the land that Petrek’s family owned.  There had been a running feud between their families for decades.  Pleckso had actually tried to evict them when he first came to power, but Arb Mickelar, Petrek’s father, defied him.  His family had farmed that land for tens of generations, and he wasn’t about to give it up.  Resistance to Swortaq is strong in that area, so Pleckso has had to walk a fine line.  He couldn’t just take what he wanted, so he resorted to murder.

“Since it appeared that everyone in the family was dead, Arb Pleckso declared the land property of the state and seized it for himself.  When he learned that Petrek still lived, and could claim the farm as legal heir, he set out to find the child and kill him.  It took everything we had to keep the boy safe, and Petrek will never know how many gave up their lives to make that happen.

“So, when we made the decision to remove the children from Doscene who were in the most danger,  Petrek was one of the first to be included.”

The look on the faces of the engineers sitting around the table was grim.  B’Elanna’s eyes glittered and her fist clenched and unclenched.  Even Vorik’s usually placid face was taut, his lips a thin straight line.

Across the room, Petrek had calmed considerably.  Neelix  even managed to elicit a watery giggle from him a couple of times.

“So what do you say,” Neelix patted Petrek’s hand, “shall we go find Ensign Hathaway and finish out the tour of the Pantherian Woods with her?  I hear they’re quite spectacular.”

At Petrek’s nod, they rose to leave.  Neelix called over his shoulder to the group of engineers, telling them that there was some leftover Branthaw soup and some Caesar’s salad in the kitchen.  They nodded their understanding as some of them headed that way to heat up their lunch.

But as Fayren rose to follow Petrek, she let out a yelp and fell back down.  She tried to rise again, only to yelp even louder.  She lay on her side, panting heavily.  Immediately, Neelix slipped to his knees, running his hands over her side while the engineers came to help.  Neelix glanced up at them with a slight smile on his face.

“No need to worry,” he assured them, ” this lady needs to get to sickbay, that’s all.”  Everyone looked at each other in happy anticipation.  Puppies!  It had been a long time since they had been around  squirming, snuggly puppies.  Ar Crotol took Petrek’s hand in a reassuring gesture and smiled down at him.

Neelix attempted to lift the dog, but she weighed a whole lot more than he thought, and with a grunt, he had to let her go.  She whined softly, and licked at his hand.  Both B’Elanna and  Vorik stepped forward to offer their superior strength, when they were moved aside by their commander.  B’Elanna blinked.  She hadn’t even heard him enter.

Tuvok knelt on the floor beside Fayren and gently ran his hand over her swollen belly.  He glanced up at Neelix.  “It is her time, Mr. Neelix?”

“I believe so, Mr. Tuvok.”

“Lieutenant Torres, notify sickbay that we are on the way.” he ordered as he scooped the dog into his arms and easily lifted her.  “Also inform the captain, and explain that I will be delayed in returning to the bridge.”

“Aye, Sir,” B’Elanna acknowledged, while turning to shoo her crew back to the task of getting lunch.  She tapped her comm badge as Tuvok exited the mess hall, Neelix and Petrek following.  “Torres to sickbay,” she called, amazed at how light-hearted she suddenly felt.   “Doc, have we got a patient for you!”

Chapter Eleven

The children sat in a  semi-circle on the softly carpeted area of the cargo bay that had become their home.  Chattering away with an occasional high pitched giggle, they eagerly awaited Voyager’s second in command to make his appearance in what was becoming an afternoon ritual. The story telling hour was about to begin.

The children weren’t the only ones present.  A sizable contingent of adults, both Federation and Dosceni, were also gathered.  Chakotay’s skills as a folklorist were impressive, and all of the crew enjoyed hearing his recounting of the tales and legends handed down by his tribe for generations beyond counting.

Chakotay finally arrived, accompanied by Captain Janeway.  The children, used to this kind of entertainment at their own hearths on long winter evenings at home, settled to a respectful if somewhat fidgety silence.   Chakotay greeted them cheerfully and worked his way to the seat of honor, a chair placed at the front of the semi-circle.

“Today we will learn more about Brother Wolf and the Father of the Forest,” he began, only to be interrupted by a commotion near the door.

“Seely!” a general cry went out as everyone looked and saw the doctor standing there with the little girl in his arms.  He set her down and watched her carefully as she quickly became the center of an adoring crowd of kids, all of whom wanted to welcome her back among them, and all of whom were talking at the same time.

“Take it easy with her,” the doctor said, stepping into the fray and taking her hand.  “She’s still a little shaky, so she’ll have to go slow for a little while.”  He smiled down at her.  “We’ve already talked about this, haven’t we.”

The little girl nodded her head, her eyes wide to show the doctor how sincerely she intended to follow his instructions.  The doctor, wise to the ways of five year olds, rolled his eyes and twisted his mouth sardonically.

Seely turned back to the crowd of children, greeting each as if she hadn’t seen any of them for a year, when in fact every one of them had been to sickbay several times in the past few days.  Though he wasn’t sure if most of the recent visitors had come to see Seely or Fayren and her seven puppies.

Seely was laughingly being pulled forward when one of Voyager’s crew caught her eye.  With a delighted grin, she made a beeline for Tom Paris, who was sitting on the floor between B’Elanna and the captain.  She landed in his lap and gave him a big hug.  “See,” she told him proudly, “I told you I’d be out soon.”

Tom grinned back at her, returning her hug.  “Yep, you sure did.” he said softly.  She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and  conspiratorial wink before she turned to find a seat next to Petrek, who smiled shyly at her. B’Elanna and Janeway both looked quizzically at Tom, who blushed slightly.

“What can I say?”  he shrugged.  “I seem to attract ladies with beautiful big brown eyes and ridges.”  This brought a bark of laughter from the captain and a punch on the arm from B’Elanna.

“Ahem,” Chakotay loudly cleared his throat, and the room dutifully settled down to hear the tale of Brother Wolf and the Father of the Forest.  But he was interrupted once again, this time by the claxon sounding red alert.  Tuvok’s call over the general comm announcing it was redundant.  Everyone was already in motion.  Janeway slapped at her comm badge demanding to know what the hell was going on, even as she and the rest of the crew moved with lightening speed toward their respective duty stations.

“Scanners show five Dosceni ships on an intercept course, Captain.  They refuse to answer our hails and they’re coming in armed and shielded.”

“Acknowledged.   Summon Ar Ziel to the bridge,” she ordered as she, Tom and Chakotay hit the turbolift running..

“You think they know we’re transporting the children?”  Chakotay asked her as they waited impatiently for the lift to reach the bridge.

“Probably.  We destroyed the Sky Rider before we left, but they are capable of following a warp trail, and I’m sure they’ve put two and two together…”

“And come up with us.”  Tom finished for her.  She nodded a grim acknowledgement as the doors of the lift opened and literally spilled them out.  Voyager had been hit by a volley of fire from all five ships at the same time, which shook the ship fiercely and sent everyone tumbling.

“Report,”  Janeway ordered, as both Tom and Chakotay reached out hands to pull her up.  She nodded her thanks and headed for her seat.

“They are still refusing to answer our hails, ”  Harry answered.

The lift doors opened again and Ar Ziel came onto the bridge.  Harry, who hadn’t seen much of her since the doctor had begun to perform his magic, did a double take.  She was walking without a limp, and she used both her right and left hand to grab the railing and hang on as Voyager took another hit.  But her face was the most astonishing.  Though a few of the scars remained, her face was nearly restored, and she was absolutely beautiful.

That face paled as she looked at the screen and saw the five ships attacking Voyager.  “They’re Swortaq’s men, ” she whispered.

“Shields are at 83% and holding,”  Tuvok clung to his console as another volley hit the ship, “or were holding.  Shields down to 74%.  Captain, their weaponry is not as advanced as our own.  If there were only two, or even three ships, we could outgun them.  As it is…”  He left the rest unsaid.

Janeway turned to look at Ar Ziel.  “Your people don’t seem too happy to see us.  They also aren’t much interested in talking.”

Ar Ziel shook her head.  “They won’t stop until we’re dead or captured.  Our escape was a slap in the face to Swortaq.   He has to make an example of us.  I’m sorry Captain.  I never should have gotten you into this.”

Janeway ignored her last remark and turned back to the helm.  “Tom, can we outfly them?”

For once, Tom didn’t  take advantage of the straight line she had handed him.  “Yes, Ma’am.  They ‘re only capable of warp seven.  We can leave them in our dust.”

“Then do it,” she ordered.  She hated to tuck her tail between her legs and run, but she had a bunch of kids to think about.

But before Tom could act, Harry  announced that two other ships had come into scanner range, and they were being hailed.  “They’re not Dosceni, Captain.”

“Open a channel.”

The image that appeared on the screen caused everyone to blink.  The  man
who stared back at them looked like someone out of earth’s mythical past.   He had a double set of long narrow ears that pointed toward the back of his head.  His chin was long and rounded.  His startlingly brilliant green eyes slanted  upward as did his eyebrows.  He had two small but sharply pointed horns rising from the thick, almost fur-like sable brown hair which covered his head.  He was a handsome creature, and many of them recognized him as the living incarnation of Shakespeare’s Puck from “A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream”.

They had only a few seconds to study him.  Voyager was rocked by another volley of fire, and the man on  the screen wasted no time.

“Greetings,  I am Captain Ovron of the United Planetary Network star cruiser G’irndal.  Do you require assistance?”

Janeway glanced toward Ar Ziel, who did not need an interpreter to understand her unspoken query.  Friend or foe?  Ar Ziel nodded the all clear.  This was friend.  Janeway turned smoothly back toward the screen.   “Captain Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager.  Thank you .  We could use a hand.”

The man’s face glowed.  “Good.  I was hoping you would say that.  We’ll discuss why you’re in this jam later.  Let me talk to the Dosceni and attempt to use diplomacy.”  Something in the way he said it made them feel that diplomacy was something that left a bad taste in his mouth.

The screen cleared and Janeway and the others turned to  Ar Ziel.  She quickly explained, “The United Planetary Network is an organization similar to your Federation.   They invited Doscene to join them several years ago.  Our legislature was in the process of debating it when Swortaq took power.  He actually used the discussion about joining the Network as a sort of catalyst to help him with the overthrow.  There was a lot of fear on the part of some of the populace that Doscene would become a part of some huge megapower and lose its own identity.  Swortaq played on that fear……”

Harry indicated that Captain Ovron was hailing them again and he opened a channel as the ship was rocked once more.

“Well, Captain, the Dosceni are being their usual charming selves and won’t listen to reason.  I was  more or less told  that this was none of my business, even after I explained to their captain that he was violating United Planetary Network space.  So, if he won’t back off, we have little choice.  Do you have anyone over there who can actually fly that beauty?”

Chakotay chuckled as Tom glared indignantly at the view screen.  Janeway just laid a calming hand on his shoulder and answered simply, “We do.”

“Excellent!  There is a  tactic of which I am quite fond, but it involves some pretty tricky maneuvering.  I will need for you to spin on your axis and dive to come at their ships from below while my wing man and I attack from above on their flanks.  The goal is to meet in the middle without killing each other in the process.  Do you understand?”

Janeway glanced down at Tom, who was laying in the program even as Ovron was speaking.  She didn’t need to ask.  She just looked up at Ovron and nodded,  “Understood.”  She then turned and said the words which brought both dread and exhilaration to the hearts of every crew member.

“Battle stations!”

Ar Ziel watched  in awe as the mild mannered, gentle people who had helped her and her people so much turned into a well oiled war machine.  Young, sweet Harry stood at his station, a model of efficiency as he issued reports and responded to information relayed from systems throughout the ship, passing on what he knew to be important, storing the rest for later review.   Chakotay, the gentle story teller,  monitored every system, including the personnel, as he issued orders, coordinated efforts and maintained an aura of incredible calm.

Her attention was drawn to the lieutenant at the conn.  His long, skilled fingers flew over the console, and a look of intense concentration and pure joy mingled on his face.  She had heard many things about him since she had come on board.    As soon as she learned that he was the ship’s pilot instead if its medical officer as she had at first thought, the things she heard, in fact his whole demeanor made sense.

Pilots tended to be entities apart from all others.  They lived in a place where not even the sky was the limit.  Now, as she watched him,  she was reminded of another pilot she had once known.  He had also loved to fly.  Was it really  five long years now since…  She bit at the inside of her cheek to stifle the rage which grew in her, even after all this time.  By the Gods, how she hated Arb Swortaq.

Then  she had no time to think as Voyager suddenly swooped and dove as if it were trying  to curl in on itself.  The comm link squawked and B’Elanna’s voice rasped out, “Paris!”  Janeway started to chastise her, but Tom beat her to it.

“Not now, B’El, I’m a bit busy.  You can scream at me later.”

Chakotay raised an eyebrow as he glanced over at the captain, who was biting very hard on her bottom lip.  Then Tuvok began firing and they turned their attention back to the view screen.

Janeway always marveled at how well Paris and Tuvok worked together.  At times like these, it was as if they were two bodies with one mind.  If she didn’t know Tuvok so well, she could almost suspect that he was telepathically linked to Tom in some way.  It seemed as if he knew where Tom was going to end up before Tom started heading there, just as Tom seemed to know where Tuvok needed to be without Tuvok ever requesting it.

Tuvok fired ship’s phasers with deadly accuracy, while Tom moved them so fast that the other ships were returning fire to the spot where Voyager had just been.  By then he had lined them up so Tuvok had another perfect shot.   Voyager continued to take hits, but in a matter of minutes the battle was over.  Two Dosceni ships were completely destroyed, one was a dead hulk floating in space, and two others had fled.  Voyager had done more than her share of the damage.

Janeway had just finished ordering the crew  to stand down battle stations when Harry opened a channel and a grinning Captain Ovron filled the screen.  “You weren’t joking when you said you had someone who could fly that beauty.   My pilot really  would like to meet him.”  He nodded toward the woman standing beside him.

She was similar in appearance to him, except her eyes were a deep violet.  Both wore the same gray-blue uniform, though even that staid garment could not conceal the lushly ripe body beneath it.  As she glanced at Tom, her eyes narrowed a bit speculatively and she gave him an almost feral smile.  Tom’s own eyes widened, he swallowed hard,  and lowered his gaze to his console.

“Oh, I can’t wait to introduce her to B’Elanna!”  Chakotay uttered, which earned him a sideways scowl from Tom.

Janeway was becoming a little annoyed with Chakotay’s recent  and inexplicable tormenting of the  lieutenants, so she chose to ignore her first officer as she offered her thanks to Captain Ovron.

“No thanks are necessary, Captain. It is my duty as part of the patrol in this sector of Network space to make sure that passing ships make it through without harassment.  Besides, it was worth it to see that ship of yours in action.

“However, I would like to talk to you about your business here and the reason for the Dosceni to come so far out of their territory to attack you.”

“Fair enough, Captain.  My place or yours?” Janeway asked.  Ovron beamed lustily at her.

“Why, your place Captain.  You don’t expect me to pass up an opportunity to come visit such a lovely lady, do you?” he asked.

Janeway smiled an acknowledgement of his double entendre and ordered Harry to send the coordinates to the G’irndal.  “I’ll meet you in the Transporter Room, Captain,” she told Ovron with a saucy grin.

“Chakotay, you have the bridge,” she tossed over her shoulder at him as she spun on her heel and headed for the lift.  Now it was Tom’s turn to glance at Chakotay with a raised eyebrow.  Chakotay didn’t see him.  He was staring at the closed lift doors, his mouth slightly agape.

Chapter Twelve

Kathryn usually awoke instantly alert, but not so this time.  Awareness seemed to creep up on her in tiny bits, starting with the sensation of being held warm and safe in someone’s arms.  She was stretched against the length of him, her head nestled on his chest. The gentle rise and fall of his steady breathing and the rhythmic beat of his heart beneath her ear added to her feeling of security.

She  inhaled deeply and the familiar masculine scent of him washed over her, affecting her in a way she hadn’t known for a long, long time.  She felt she could lie there forever.  Then a whispered warning flashed across her mind, so quickly she couldn’t quite grasp it.   She wrinkled her  forehead trying to concentrate.  But lethargy took over and she gave up.  Instead, she moved even closer, wriggling against him as she would have snuggled further under the blankets on a cold winter’s morning at home in Indiana.

He sighed softly, turning to her, his mouth seeking hers even though his eyes remained closed.  He moved his hand to cup her rear, pulling her tight against him, while his lips reached their target, and she found herself being thoroughly kissed.  The whispered voice was growing louder, but she continued to ignore it as the kiss deepened and she felt his tongue invade her mouth.  She responded with surprising passion, enjoying the feeling of his hard, lean body pressed against her. Then she felt the hesitation in him.

At the moment that he realized something was wrong, that the taste and texture of her mouth was changed, that the feel of her body against his was not quite what it should be, the voice inside her head became a screaming alarm as full awareness hit.  While  he was pulling away, she placed her hand on his chest and pushed.

“Wrong woman, Lieutenant!” she gasped, tumbling backward as Tom released her.  He stared at her in total bewilderment, then glanced around, not recognizing the room  they were in  nor  understanding  why he was lying on the floor with the captain in his arms.  He turned to look back at her, his eyes wide with alarm and the remnants something else.

“Sorry, Captain,”  he said as he rose quickly to sitting position, pulling his legs up and leaning forward with his arms across his knees.  Janeway didn’t know whether to feel flattered at his obvious problem, or dismayed.  She chose the former, reaching out a hand to touch his arm.

“It’s all right,” she offered as she looked around the small, windowless room.  There was one door, which she was willing to bet was locked.  “How did we get here?”

Tom was also looking around.  “I have no idea,” he said, glancing down to verify that his comm badge was gone.  “The last thing I remember was walking across the hangar with you toward our shuttlecraft after the ambassador’s aide dropped us off.”

Knowing it was futile, Janeway had nonetheless arisen to try the door.  It was locked.  She turned to Tom and nodded her agreement at his last memory.  “I heard someone walking fast behind us and had just turned to see who it was when everything went black.”

By now Tom had also arisen, and was inspecting every square meter of the small room.  He glanced toward a cubicle that held what appeared to be a toilet and a sink, then across the room toward the narrow bed which sat against one wall. A small table sat next to it.   There was an air vent of some kind near the ceiling above it, but since it was only about 8 centimeters wide, it was of no use as an escape route.

“Prison,” he muttered and Janeway flinched at the desolation in his voice.  For being such a charming and capable young man, he certainly seemed to end up incarcerated more often than anyone else she knew.

“Yes, but whose?  Our transactions with the Network have gone well.  Their
methods and philosophies  remind me so much of the Federation it’s almost scary.  There’s no reason for them to have knocked us out and brought us here.”

Tom licked at his lips and she could see that he was making an effort not to panic at the thought of being enclosed once more.  “Not the Network, no, unless their whole set up is some elaborate ruse, and I just didn’t get that feel.  But the Dosceni…”

Janeway nodded.  “It has to be.  Swortaq must be planning on using us as a bargaining chip.”

Tom grunted, “He doesn’t know us very well if he thinks we would turn over a bunch of kids just to save our own skins.”

Janeway looked fondly at him,  then turned serious.   “But remember, we tend to base how we think other people are going to act on how we live our own lives, and that is especially true for  megalomaniacs like him.  From what we’ve learned of him, Swortaq would trade his own mother to save himself in a Vulcan second, and he has no reason to believe we won’t.”

Tom looked at her, unable to mask the worry in his eyes.  “And you can guess what will happen when we don’t.”

Janeway could only nod.  After a moment of reflection she looked up at him and forced a smile on her face.  “It won’t come to that.  I’ll bet that Chakotay and Tuvok are already working on a plan to get us out.  So let’s review what we know and see if there’s a way we can help them.”

Chapter Thirteen

Had Janeway been able at that moment to see the two people in whom she had placed so much faith, she might not have been so optimistic.  Chakotay and Tuvok were sitting  in the conference room on Voyager with the other senior staff members, Ar Ziel, and  several representatives from the Network.  All of them were watching  B’Elanna pace the room like a caged panther.

“They have to be somewhere, damn it!”  she snarled.  “Captains and lieutenants don’t just vanish into thin air.”

Fascinated at the intensity of her emotions, Captain Ovron stared at her with a mixture of lust and  awe.  “What a magnificent creature,” he muttered to himself, earning him a look of censure from Ambassador Dreeeeel and looks of disbelief from many of the other Networkers present.  Not that any of them disputed that B’Elanna was beautiful.  But her fiery temper, even when so obviously held in check, was more than any of them wished to tackle.

Voyagers’ officers were unaffected by her actions, partly because they were accustomed to  B’Elanna’s impassioned outbursts, but mostly because they were in full sympathy with her.  They were feeling just as frustrated and helpless.  Since they had reported Janeway and Paris as missing, they had been permitted almost no involvement in the search for their own people.  The Network had its ways of discovering what was happening, they were assured, and any efforts by Voyager to help would only serve to get in the  way.

To the Network’s credit, they quickly determined what had happened.  Port Authority records showed that a Dosceni shuttle cruiser had been granted permission to land at Corrrder’s capitol bay two days before the disappearance of Voyager’s captain and conn officer.

The Port Commissioner admitted to being surprised at their appearance, since it was a number of years since any Dosceni had made their way into Network space.  But, since  he had no restriction orders against them, he granted them free landing privileges as he would have any travelers.  Nor did he have cause to question their departure, which occurred one hour after Paris and Janeway failed to report to Voyager.

“We understand your frustration, Lieutenant, but beg you to allow us to continue our investigation.  Based on the information we have already obtained, we have sent cruisers  back  to the point where the Dosceni attacked you in order to trace the direction of the ships that escaped.  Also, we have spread the word to all our associates to look  for any suspicious activity in their vicinity.  We do not take this matter lightly, I assure you,” the ambassador spoke in his soft contralto trill.

“There has been some progress,”  Tuvok pointed out.  “We know who has them.  We are working on the where.  We need only determine the why.”

“We know the why,” B’Elanna snapped.  “That p’taQ thinks we will turn over the children in exchange for Tom and the captain.”

“You are most likely correct, Lieutenant, but until we have confirmation of that matter, it is best to proceed with caution.”

Before B’Elanna could give  her blistering opinion of him and his Vulcan caution, a voice interrupted them. “Commander, we have an incoming message.  It’s from the Dosceni.”

“Put it through,”  Chakotay ordered.  Everyone turned to look at the view screen.

The pleasant looking man whose image appeared on the screen didn’t carry the mark of a monster.  In fact, he looked quite ordinary.  For a heartbeat, a small degree of hope surged in a few of those gathered  in the room.  Then Ar Ziel hissed,  “Arb Pleckso!” and everyone who had heard Petrek’s story knew that this was not a man who generated hope.

“Moroiska!  What a surprise.  I had heard that your beautiful face had been, er…rearranged.  I’m pleased to see that the report  was wrong,” he beamed an oily smile her way.

Until that time the Voyager crew had only known her as the woman they had rescued from a dying ship.  They had seen her worn out and beaten, harried and desperate, grateful and complacent.  Now another Ar Ziel stepped forward.  Here was the woman who had managed to stay alive and unbroken after two months of torture; the woman who had bullied, stolen and killed to get a bunch of kids off a planet and into an uncertain future.

Her face a mask of bitter hate, she stepped forward.  “Pleckso, what have you done with the captain and lieutenant?”  She demanded.

Pleckso’s smile  wavered only a little, though his eyes narrowed.  “Same old Moroiska,” he finally chuckled.  “No time for amenities.  Very well, my dear, to answer your question.  We do indeed have your friends, and for the most part they are unharmed.”

“And what do you want in order for us to get them back?” Chakotay moved forward.  Pleckso turned his gaze toward the commander.

“Commander Chakotay, isn’t it?” he asked, stumbling over the alien name.  “I see that Moroiska has found a kindred spirit.  You also go straight to the point.  It’s a shame really.  No one has time for the social graces any more.”

Ambassador Dreeeeel moved to stand by Chakotay.  “By kidnapping these people off a Network planet, you have violated Network law.  Do you realize the consequences to you and your  planet if they are not returned at once?”

For the briefest moment a look of dismay crossed Pleckso’s face.   Then the look was replaced by a cunning smile.  “I have every intention of returning your people to you.  Just as soon as you return our Dosceni citizens to me.”

“And if we don’t?” Tuvok asked.

The smile faded and a sneer took its place.  “Well, then, we will have to up the ante a bit.  Since you wish to get straight to it, here it is.  If the children are not delivered to me in twenty six hours, then one of my guests will lose a hand  Then one half hour after that the other will lose an eye.  Next will come a foot.  And so on until…..”  he shrugged, then grinned evilly, “until there isn’t anything left to lose.”

B’Elanna surged forward, but was stopped from pushing her way to the front of the screen by Harry, who caught her around the waist and pulled her back.  She growled furiously at him, but didn’t struggle.

“How do we know that our people are still alive?”  Chakotay demanded. “We want to see them.”

Pleckso nodded.  “A wise precaution, Commander.  I would ask the same.  I will present them to you once you have had time to consider my offer. And Commander, I urge you not to be foolish.  These children are strangers to you.  They mean nothing.  Would you really wish your captain to suffer so much on their behalf?   Would she want this?”  And with that he signed off.

“Well, Tuvok, there’s your confirmation,” B’Elanna glared at the Vulcan as if she were blaming him for Pleckso’s behavior.

Tuvok, long accustomed to the chief engineer’s ways, merely nodded.  “Indeed.”

Chakotay interrupted them.  “Harry, can you get a fix on where that signal came from?”  Harry was already at a station, working.  B’Elanna left off glaring at Tuvok and went to help.  After a few seconds she glanced up at Chakotay.

“They’re bouncing the signal, scrambling it like we used to do.”

Chakotay shook his head grimly.  He explained to the others in the room that it was an old Maquis trick.  You bounced the signal off objects, like an asteroid, or a planet or even a passing ship.  By the time it reached its destination, it was impossible to tell where it originated.

Harry glanced up.  “Impossible this time, Commander,” he was staring at the screen, “but a if we could get them to transmit twice more, the third transmission would allow us to triangulate on their position.”

Chakotay offered him an encouraging smile.  “Then when he lets us talk to the captain and Tom, we’ve got to figure out a way to get him to contact us once more, and quickly.”  Harry nodded.

Ovron stepped forward.  “We could act like we were disputing internally about returning the children.  You agree, the Network people say no, and so on.  You ask him to contact you again in a few minutes while you ‘convince’ us that it’s for the best.”

Tuvok looked at Chakotay.  “That assumes that they will transmit a third time.  If they are alert enough to scramble the signal, it is unlikely they are unaware of our ability to fix a point in space with three transmissions.”

Chakotay’s smile faded as he glanced at the Vulcan.  With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair.  “Leave it to you to throw a bucket of ice cold reality into the picture, Tuvok.  But let’s hope they aren’t that bright.  It’s a good plan, Captain.  We’ll give it a try.”

“Commander,”  Ambassador Dreeeeel stepped forward.  Something in his attitude made Chakotay realize that he wasn’t going to like what he was about to hear.

“Commander, as you know, Network representatives are gathering for a special congress to consider offering asylum to the Dosceni refugees even as we speak.  But the hearing won’t even begin until tomorrow, and due to the nature of this request, and the fact that it will probably plunge the Network into war with Doscene, many hours or even days of debate will ensue before a vote is called.  While I certainly hope that we are successful in tracking them down by any means…”

The ambassador shuffled his feet, uncomfortable with what he was about to say.  “I regret that I have to say this, Commander, but under the circumstances…”

Chakotay crossed his arms on his broad chest and looked at the Corrrder.  “I’ve found that it’s usually best just to say what you have to say and get it over with, Ambassador.”

“Well, I know that these children are in your care, but I hope you understand that we cannot allow you to turn them over to this man.  While they are not at present under our protection, you are still in Network space and….”  His voice trailed off as he took in the expression on Chakotay’s face, as well as most of the Voyager crew.

Chakotay’s nostrils flared and he was obviously working to contain his anger.  Before he could speak, Ar Ziel stepped forward.

“Ambassador Dreeeeel,  you have known these people for only a few days.  We have lived with them for more than three weeks.  I cannot believe they would do anything to endanger the lives of these children.”

Chakotay had managed to pull himself together, but his flat emotionless voice spoke volumes.  “Ar Ziel is correct, Ambassador.  And even more, we will do everything in our power to protect them.  That is our way.”  He stopped for a moment to inhale deeply.  Then to the ambassador’s surprise, a broad grin split his face.

“Besides, I’d sooner face the entire Dosceni army bare handed than the wrath of Kathryn Janeway if I let something happen to these kids.”

That brought a knowing chuckle from the Voyager crew and went a long way toward breaking the tension that filled the room.

The ambassador bowed his head gracefully.  “Forgive me, Commander.  I had to ask.”

Chakotay nodded.  “And you’ve received your answer.  Now let’s see what we can do about getting our officers back.”

Chapter Fourteen

If one were well versed in body language, the postures of the two captives would say a lot about each one’s attitude toward life.  Kathryn Janeway sat on the edge of the bunk, her back straight, her head up, and her hands clasped loosely in her lap.  She gave off an aura of  alert attention and wariness.

Tom Paris, on the other hand, more or less sprawled on the cot.  He leaned against the wall with one leg thrust out before him and the other drawn up so that he could rest  his hand on his knee.  His eyes were  closed and he appeared to be asleep.

That both of them were  equally prepared to take advantage of any opportunity presented to them by their captors was something a casual observer would most likely miss.

They had spent nearly an hour reviewing the past few days, but could come up with nothing they considered significant.  After Ovron had heard their story, he invited them to return to the Corrrder home world, which was the central base for the United Planetary Network.  He was sure that the Network would offer them assistance and supplies in trade for technical knowledge, especially where it concerned the Borg.  He also said that this was where Ar Ziel would have to go to present her case for asylum.

Ovron had been correct in that the Network was most anxious to learn more of the Borg as well as Voyager’s holotechnology.  After they were introduced to Ambassador Dreeeeel, the next seven days had been a whirlwind of activity for everyone as Neelix and the Network bartered and negotiated.

Soon repair crews were working on Voyager both inside and out, with B’Elanna fluctuating between gratitude for the refit and assistance and frustration when Network personnel would do something in a way she considered non-Starfleet.  Even though she was not given much to that sort of introspection, B’Elanna found some irony in  her concern for following Starfleet regs, and Tom teased her without mercy.

All of the crew were granted shore leave, and most had attended at least one of the various dinners, dances or recitals which were a constant part of the diplomatic social whirl of Corrrder.  The captain was at one such luncheon when she learned that Tom had shuttled down to bring back a substance the Network representative called conteric.

In its raw state, it was a lightweight metal similar to talc.  Yet when it was combined with cobalt, silica and water, it could be readily molded into any shape.  Once dry, the alloy was nearly as impervious as tritanium.

The only problem was that in its powdered form before it reacted with the other elements, conteric emitted unusual electromagnetic waves which caused some equipment  to malfunction.  This was especially true for the transporter and communications systems in use on Voyager and other advanced star ships.  It was because of that problem and their inability to find a suitable shielding device that the Network had given up hope of marketing the substance.

In spite of assurances from Ambassador Greeeel that every conceivable containment field had been tried, Seven seemed fascinated with the substance and wished to experiment on her own.  The captain gave her blessing, and a request for a small supply suitable for experimentation was granted.   But getting it to Voyager was a problem.

Which was why Tom was bringing it back via the shuttle.  He was the only one
Chakotay  felt comfortable sending, since he would have to fly back with the shuttle communications systems off line.  When Janeway learned of this, she chose to ride back with the lieutenant rather than beam aboard, “just in case Tom needed a hand.”

That brought them up to the point of awakening earlier on the  floor of this cell, where they had been carelessly thrown together.

“Captain?”

“Hmm?” she answered absently, her active mind working out as many escape scenarios as she could.

“When we woke up, you know, on the floor?  Well, um, we know who I thought I was kissing, but who did you think you were kissing?”

Janeway sat perfectly still for a second or two, then turned to give her impudent lieutenant a death glare.  Instead, when she saw his impish grin and twinkling eyes, she couldn’t keep the corners of her own mouth from curving up.  She turned her back on him again, then said without malice, “None of your damn business.”

“May I say that he’s a lucky guy?”

Janeway’s mouth twitched once more.  “Don’t push it, Lieutenant!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he responded and promptly shut up.

After a moment she sighed and slid back to lean against the wall next to him.  “Now I’ll ask you a question.”  He looked at her expectantly.

“When did you know?  About B’Elanna?  When did you know you loved her?”

Tom’s eyes widened.  It was not what he had expected her to ask.  For  a brief moment he felt resentment.  It seemed that no was interested in just himself anymore.  He was no longer a “one”.  Instead, everyone saw him as part of a “two”.  He finally understood something he overheard his mother say when he was about thirteen years old.  They were at a diplomatic reception when one of the ambassadors accidentally bumped into her.  He offered immediate apologies, then squinted into her face.

“Ah,” he said after an awkward moment.  “I thought I knew you.  You’re Admiral Paris’ wife, aren’t you?”  At his mother’s nod, the man patted her on the hand.  “Please give him my regards, my dear,”  he smiled as he moved away.

Tom’s mother had stared after the man for a moment, muttering under her breath, “Alice, my name is Alice, and I’m fine, thank you.”

As the memory flashed through his brain, he blinked in surprise.  He thought he had suppressed that resentment several months ago after he nearly lost B’Elanna and everything else to an unscrupulous alien with a taste for other people’s lives. Obviously he had more work to do on himself.

Janeway watched the myriad emotions cross his face and wondered what in her question had sent him in to such a tizzy.   She knew that he was having trouble settling down, but she thought that of all the women Tom had ever met, B’Elanna would be the one who could tame his restless spirit.  They seemed happy together.  She sighed inwardly.  Tom was only ten years her junior, but sometimes she felt like Grandma Moses next to him.  But then, sometimes she thought that she had just been born old.

Tom turned his gaze to her, twisting his mouth into a rueful smile.  “Sorry, Captain, you threw me with that one.”

“Tom, I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to pry.  If you’d rather not…”

Tom held up his hand.  “No, it’s all right.  It’s just that…”  He looked down at his hands where they now lay clasped in his lap, uncertain how to explain.

Janeway reached out and covered his hands with her own.  “It’s just that it’s difficult and scary to go from being independent with no one to care for or worry about except yourself to being one half of a whole, and having to trade some of that independence for interdependence. Especially when you’ve put yourself on the outside for a long time, and you’ve gotten used to being alone.”

He looked at her gratefully.  She just summed up in a few sentences what had been troubling him for months.  “Exactly.”  He glanced across the room then looked back at her.  “But to answer your question, I don’t really know.  I mean, it didn’t come in a flash.  No bells or whistles.”  He grinned.  “Unless you count the time that B’Elanna nearly knocked me unconscious while we were practicing a Klingon martial arts program.  Heard lots of bells then.”

Janeway chuckled.  He continued, “When I knew her before, there was something about her that unsettled me.  But we weren’t around each other long enough for either of us to figure out what it was.  Then as we spent more time together on Voyager I began to notice that things were…  better when she was there.  It didn’t matter if it was socializing on the holodeck, or eating in the mess hall or even when we were on the bridge.  It just seemed more right when she was around.    I missed her when she wasn’t.  Then one day I realized that it mattered, a lot,  what she thought about me.

“When we first met again on Voyager, she called me a pig.  It became so very important that I change her opinion of me, that she thought good things about me.  Then, when she finally said she loved me….”

He looked at her and she nearly gasped at the awe that she now saw on his face.  There were many kinds and degrees of love, she knew.  She had been there a few times herself.  What she saw now was what her mother called the “ever after” kind.  Not necessarily happily, but ever after none-the-less.  Fight it all he wanted to, Tom Paris was a caught man, and would be for as long as he lived.

The abrupt opening of the door brought an end to their conversation.  A Dosceni soldier stood there, gun in hand.  He said something, but without the translator they didn’t understand a word.   He seemed to realize that and motioned them forward.  They rose from the bed and walked toward him as he stepped out into the hall.  There were two other soldiers, also armed,  standing there waiting.

They were led down a long corridor to a doorway which opened up onto the outside.  They were on a planet. Glancing around as the guards pushed them forward, they saw that they were in some kind of complex, with a number of single story buildings.  It didn’t look like a prison, since there were no gates or fences.  The complex was in the middle of a clearing in what appeared to be a deep woods.  It was cool, like a day in late autumn, and a mist filled the air.

They were led to a landing pad of sorts, where a squat and ugly little ship waited.  Both hesitated before boarding it, but a shove in the kidneys with the muzzle of the guns the guards held inspired them to move forward.  As they seated themselves on the bench that lined one wall, the guards entered behind them and sat across from them.  A few words were spoken to the man in the pilot seat, and the shuttle began to lift off.

Chapter Fifteen

Chakotay clasped his hands tightly in front of him.  The tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  It had been more than two hours since Pleckso had contacted them, with no progress made toward finding the location of Tom and Kathryn.

Kathryn.  Only in his thoughts was she Kathryn.  Friend, confidante, comrade.  More than that was not possible, at least not right now.  But as she told him once, they had time.  Plenty of time.  Unless they couldn’t find her.  The thought of not finding her, of Pleckso following through with his threat, was more than Chakotay could bear.  He called on his spirit guide and every other method of meditation and control he could think of.

At times like this he almost envied B’Elanna for her ability to release her emotions.  He glanced across the room to where she continued to pace, her agitation growing more evident by the moment.  He was on the verge of ordering her to the mess hall to get something to eat when the comm sounded and McKenzie announced that there was an incoming message.

The speed with which everyone in the room turned to the screen was testimony to the fact that he and B’Elanna weren’t the only ones feeling the stress.  Even the placid Corrrder ambassador rose quickly and Tuvok snapped his head around so fast Chakotay thought he might have hurt himself.

Pleckso’s oily smile lit the screen.  “Greetings, Commander, Ambassador.  I do hope you have given my exchange proposal some consideration.”

Chakotay stepped forward.  “We’ve given it all the consideration it was due, Pleckso.  You promised to let us see our people.”

Pleckso frowned slightly at Chakotay’s implied dismissal of him and his threat.  He was unaccustomed to people reacting the way these people were.  They didn’t seem to fear him.  On the contrary, they almost seemed to sneer at him.  Perhaps a demonstration of his intent would help move things along.

“They’re here, Commander.” He gestured with his hand and the captain and Tom were shoved roughly forward in to view.  Janeway looked liked she was ready to spit bullets, and Paris’ eyes were narrowed, his mouth set in fury at the man who kept poking him from behind.

“Captain, Lieutenant, are you all right?”  Chakotay’s voice drew their attention to the view screen.   For one second a look of utter weariness passed across Janeway’s face.  Only the very astute, or those who knew her intimately  would have even seen it.  Then she was all business, nodding briskly at her second-in-command.

“We are for now, Commander,”  was all she said.

“I’ve explained to your officers what their fate would be if you did not agree to return our citizens to us,”  Pleckso’s attempt at looking smug only served to make him look like he was suffering from indigestion.

Ovron’s attention wandered from the pompous little man with a bad attitude to the young lieutenant standing behind him.  He was staring at someone on Voyager with a longing that tore at the passionate man’s heart.  Ovron glanced around the room and saw that the gaze was focused on none other than the stormy engineer, who was  returning the look with equal fervor.  ‘Oh ho’ he thought, ‘so that’s the way the wind blows.  No wonder the pilot wasn’t anxious to take Raimeen up on her offer.’  He stifled a  sigh.  Since the lovely Kathryn had managed to evade his overtures for the past several days, he had toyed with pursuing the engineer  when this was all over.  Never had he seen such fire.  Ah well, such is the way of life.  He turned his attention back to the ramblings of the lunatic on the screen.

“…so I’m certain that, having thought this over, you’ve come to the proper decision.  And I believe your captain will concur.”

Beside him, Janeway stood rigidly at attention.  At a nod from Pleckso, she stepped forward.  “Chakotay, this is a direct order.  You will obey me without question.”  Pleckso was smiling so gleefully it almost seemed his faced would break.

“Under no circumstances are you to deliver those children to this talking rectal orifice.”

It took a second for her words to sink in.  When they did, Pleckso snarled and grabbed at his prisoner, smacking her face hard with his open hand.  Behind them, Tom let out a shout and jumped forward, knocking Pleckso into the wall with a sharp upper cut.  As Tom drew back his fist for another swing, the guard who had been so ardent at poking Tom’s kidneys lifted up his gun and brought the butt of it crashing down on the back of the lieutenant’s head.  Tom crumpled like a rag doll.

The roar that came from the conference room was accompanied by the sound of cloth tearing.  Pleckso was still reeling,  rubbing at his sore jaw, when he heard the sound and jerked his eyes back to the view screen.

B’Elanna was holding onto the back of a conference room chair.  Her nails had dug into the fabric, shredding it.  The back of the chair, built to withstand the rigors of  space battles, was bent to a forty-five degree angle.  She was panting as she leaned forward.

Pleckso’s full attention was on the young woman.  “You just made the worst mistake of your pathetic life,” she spoke through gritted teeth.  “When I’m through with you, they won’t find enough pieces to bury.”

Pleckso’s eyebrows shot up, and he signaled to someone, cutting the link.  In the conference room, everyone  but Chakotay stepped back from the enraged woman.  The commander bravely moved forward, lightly touching her arm.  She looked up at him, her chest  heaving, her eyes still glowing in her fury.  “B’Elanna,” he began, but he was interrupted by Mackenzie.

“Another incoming message, Sir.”

Pleckso appeared once more.  There was no sign of Voyager’s officers.  His jaw was starting to swell a little, and B’Elanna found some small satisfaction in that.  He refused to look in her direction.

“I urge you to ignore your Captain’s order, Commander.  I assure you she will be most willing to trade those worthless brats for her freedom after a few days with our ‘specialists’.  But,”  he gestured congenially with his hand, “I am a man of my word.  You now have 23 Dosceni hours before we introduce a new level of pain to your crewmates.  I will be in touch.”  With a twisted smile, he severed the connection.

“We got ’em, Commander.  We know where they’re at.”  Harry was beaming his excitement as he punched the information up on the main screen.  Everyone moved forward to see.  Ambassador Dreeeeel and Captain Ovron  spoke at the same time.

“Conteric.”

Tuvok looked at the men with one eyebrow raised.  “Do you refer to the element Lieutenant Paris was attempting to bring back to Voyager when he was kidnapped?”

“Yes, Commander, ” Ambassador Dreeeeel answered.  “The element was named for the planet on which it was first located.  It’s uninhabited, and there’s an abandoned mining operation there.  Information about it would be available on any star chart of this region.  For Pleckso’s needs, it’s the perfect spot to hide.  Scanners, communications devices, phasers, nothing like that works on the planet.”

“Then why can we talk to them?” Harry asked.

Tuvok spoke up.  “They are most likely in orbit around the planet, where the effects of the mineral would not interfere with their communications.  However, they could be keeping the captain and lieutenant on the planet, so that we would be unable to scan for them.”

Harry nodded his understanding, “That would explain the delay in letting us speak to them.  If  Pleckso had to bring them from the planet to the ship, it would have taken time.”

“Agreed,”  Chakotay spoke up.  “It would appear that we will have to launch a direct rescue attempt from the ground.”  He looked at the star chart before him.  “This planet is about fourteen hours from here, so I suggest we get moving.”

Ambassador Dreeeeel started to protest, reminding them once again that this was Network space and a Network problem, when Ovron stopped him by grabbing his arm and pulling him aside.  “You’ve heard their story.  You  know what these people have been through in the past five years.  Under normal circumstances any crew would want to take part in rescuing their own.  And these people are more than an ordinary crew.  They are a family.  Give them the help they need, but let them handle this.”

The ambassador stared at the G’nalro for a moment.  His species was so filled with extreme passions of all types that the very serious Corrrders usually didn’t pay much attention to them .  But what this man said made sense this time.  He finally nodded his acquiescence.

While Voyager and several Network cruisers sped on their way, the various factions spent the next three hours  in a strategy session as plans were proposed, rejected, accepted and refined. Finally, everything was set and there was nothing more to do.

Chakotay  told his senior staff to get some food and some rest, though B’Elanna protested  that she wasn’t hungry and was going to Engineering to check on some things.

Chakotay narrowed his eyes at her.  “B’Elanna, you’ve been up for over twenty hours, and I don’t remember the last time you ate.   It won’t do any of us any good, especially Tom, if you collapse from exhaustion and low blood sugar.  Now go.  That’s an order.”

B’Elanna allowed Harry to lead her from the room, but not before she tossed a glare in Chakotay’s direction  Beside him, Ovron fingered the torn fabric of the bent chair.  His eyes  moved up to meet the commander’s.

“This pilot, Lieutenant Paris, he must be a very, very brave man.”  Ovron conjectured.

Chakotay saw how the G’nalro captain was looking at the destroyed chair and a laugh escaped him.

“Yes, indeed, Captain, a very brave man,”  Chakotay said as he led him to the mess hall..

Chapter Sixteen

From the motion, Tom knew that he was on a small craft of some kind, most likely the ugly little shuttle that had brought them to the hulking Dosceni vessel where they were able to confront their captor at last.  Though what good it had done them escaped him at the moment.

He also knew that he must be laying with his head in someone’s lap, because that someone was holding him solidly in place to keep the bumps of atmospheric turbulence from shaking him too badly.  He gingerly opened one eye a crack, and winced fiercely at the pain that shot through his head from the bright light.  The pain was compounded as the craft shook even more.

“Whoever this guy is, he can’t fly worth crap,” Tom muttered softly.  He felt Janeway’s hand squeeze him more tightly.

“How are you feeling?”

Tom tried opening his eye again, and managed to keep it open just a slit.  “When I was seventeen, a friend and I stole a bottle of blood wine from his father’s liquor stock and proceeded  to get gloriously drunk.  The next morning I was hung over so bad that I thought I would have to die to feel better.  I wish I felt that good right now.”

Janeway chuckled sympathetically.  “Do you think you can make a run for it when we land?”

“On the path between the buildings and the landing sight, near that outcropping of rocks?”

“Very good, Mr. Paris.  And I thought you weren’t paying attention.”

“You know better than that Captain,”  he said as he started to push himself up off her lap.  She held him in place.

“No, stay down.  They’ll be less attentive if they think they’re escorting a couple of invalids.”

She was right, and besides that, it would make his head feel so much better if he could just nap again for a few minutes.  He clamped his lips together to keep from groaning out loud as he rolled his head onto the spot in the back where he had taken the hit.  When he could, he was going to put a very big hurt on the guy that hit him.  Thinking that happy thought, he allowed himself to slip into the soothing darkness.

Janeway looked down at the sleeping Paris and wondered for the hundreth time in the past five years how different their lives would have been had she chosen otherwise at the Caretaker’s Array.  And for the hundreth time she told herself that she had done what she had to do.  But the years of relentless striving for home weighed heavily on her and she was growing  tired.  Each time she asked the question now, she found it harder and harder to convince herself that she had been right.

She closed her own eyes, and forced herself to relax.  They would need all their energies to make an effective escape.  Memories of home, usually kept so carefully at bay,  flooded her mind.  Mark, the puppies, her sister.  Autumn days in Indiana.  With a sigh she leaned her head against the shuttle bulkhead.  She was certainly getting sentimental of late.  She needed a vacation.

The jarring thud of an inexpert landing jolted both of them awake.  “Son of a bitch!”  Tom exclaimed as he slid off the bench and landed on the floor, cracking his already damaged head on the edge of the seat.  This was a source of great amusement for the three guards sitting across from them as he rubbed at the aching knot.  He pulled  his hand away and looked at it.  It  was streaked with sticky blood.

The door opened and the guard who had been his particular nemesis grabbed him and pulled him to his feet, practically throwing him out the door.  Behind him, he knew that Janeway was getting much the same treatment.  He staggered and she grabbed at his arm, as if she were helping to hold him up.  The guards laughed again and one made a sneering remark, which made Tom  grateful that without a translation device he could no longer understand them.

Janeway was praying that his stumble had been just an act or this was going to be one very short escape attempt.  They headed through the woods toward the compound.   If she remembered correctly, the spot they had chosen was about three hundred meters down the path.  She tried to appear cowed and hurt while keeping a watchful eye out for any opportunity.

There!  The outcropping of boulders on one side and several broad girthed trees on the other caused the path to narrow to where it could only be traversed single file.  As she had hoped, one guard stepped ahead while the two others walked behind.  She felt Tom’s muscles bunching beneath her arm just before she let go of him, and she knew that the time was now or never.

She stepped forward as if to follow the guard, then swung her arm up, bringing her hand down in a fierce chop across the back of his neck.  He slammed forward into the tree, loosing his grip on his weapon as he turned a stunned face toward her.  She kicked out with her foot, knocking his head back into the tree with a sickening crunch.  He slumped to the ground and she didn’t have to touch him to know that he was dead.

Behind her, Tom had also moved quickly, spinning and knocking the man behind him into the other guard who was following closely on his heels.  The two men went down in a tangled heap as Tom grabbed for the gun of the man on top and swung it in a wide arc, bringing it down on the man’s head.  The other guard was struggling to get his gun free, but the dead weight of the man on top hindered his movements long enough for Tom to pull the weapon away and point it at him.

Janeway knelt down and felt for the pulse of the man Tom had hit and shook her head.  Tom’s lips tightened.  He would allow himself to think about one more death weighing on his conscience at some other time.  He turned to look at Janeway’s guard, and saw from the angle of his neck that he would not cause them any trouble.  Janeway, meanwhile was pushing the other Dosceni toward a medium sized tree, where she used his belt and the belts of the other men to gag and bind him. Tom noticed that one side of her face seemed distorted, but there was no time to check on her.

They headed out, making certain that the guard saw which direction they were going while trying to make their movements seem furtive.  Several hundred yards beyond the path, they turned and began to carefully make their way back around the compound and in the opposite direction of the one the guard had seen them head.

They both knew they should have killed the man.  Yet Tom didn’t even question Janeway’s actions in tying him to the tree.  Killing the other two in the heat of combat had been bad enough.  Cold murder after the fact was something of which neither of them was capable.

Once they  were a couple of kilometers away from the compound, they stopped, sliding to the ground in exhaustion.  For the first time since they had been on board the Dosceni ship, Tom got a good look at the left side of the captain’s face and molten rage shot  through him.  He reached out to gently touch her cheek, checking with a medic’s hands to see if the damage was as bad as it looked.

Her cheekbone was swollen so badly that her eye had almost disappeared.  Her lower lip was split, and still oozed a small drop of blood.  His concern, however, was with the trickle of  dried blood below her ear.  Blood from her ear could only mean trouble.  He carefully studied her eyes looking for signs of concussion or irregular pupils.  He didn’t like what he saw.

He thought about her comment on the shuttle when she told him to lie still so the guards  thought they had a couple of invalids on their hands.  Chastising himself for not picking up on her implication that she, too, was injured, he asked with a worried smile if she felt as bad as she looked.

She tried to grin, but the effect was grotesque and hurt too much, so she just shrugged.  “I’ll live.  But I can’t say the same about Arb Pleckso if I ever get him one on one.”  At Tom’s questioning look she explained, “He took exception to my order to Chakotay and proceeded to demonstrate that fact while you were unconscious.”

His blue eyes met her gray ones in an unspoken  bond of impotent fury and frustration.  There would come a reckoning later, they both knew.  She patted his hand and let him help her up.  They needed to find water, and if possible, some food.  It had been a long time since either of them had eaten.  And they also had to find some shelter, because the sun was dipping lower in the sky, and night would soon be upon them.

Chapter Seventeen

Harry set the tray down on the table in front of B’Elanna and scooted into the chair across from her.  She picked up her fork and played with a piece of broccoli for a moment before she looked up at Harry and smiled.  Just a little smile, but it was genuine.

“Thanks, Harry.  You take good care of me.”

Harry grinned and picked up his own fork.  “Somebody has to.”

B’Elanna acknowledged the hit with a dip of her head.   She did have a tendency to let herself go when she was wrapped up in something.

She watched Harry eat his meal with a little more speed than usual.  It had been a while since he had eaten, too.  He was as worried about Tom and the captain as she was.   She chewed on  her lower lip a moment, then reached her hand across the table to lay it on his.  He gave her a startled look.

“Harry, I’m sorry about losing my temper in there.  I guess I owe an apology to everyone else, too.”

“Nah.  You just said what everyone else was thinking.  Only you said it out loud.  Very out loud,” he grinned again.  Then his face grew serious.  “I just wish we didn’t keep getting into these messes.  It seems like most of the population of this quadrant want us dead or in pieces.  And when we do meet some friendly folk and try to help them out…..  I guess what my grandfather used to say is true.  No good deed goes unpunished.”

“Why Harry, what a cynical thing to say.  Keep that up and you’ll lose your Joe Optimist title, ” she laughed.  Harry joined her until they both remembered that it was Tom who had first called him that, one night during a pool game on the holodeck.

As B’Elanna’s hands curled into fists where they lay on the table, Harry reached out and grabbed them.  “We’ll find them.  We’ll get them back.”

She smiled a not so very convincing smile at him.  “Yeah,” she answered softly, “but what shape will they be in?”

That the Voyager crew would get them back had never been doubted, even before they knew where Pleckso had hidden them.  One way or another, they would catch up to that creature who held them captive and gain their release.  But the thought of Pleckso’s threat to dismember them a part  at a time hung heavily in her mind.

What would he take?  Tom’s hands, those beautiful hands, long fingered and skilled at everything they did?   His eyes, infinite shades of blue and full of life?  Janeway’s hands, able to soothe and encourage just by their touch?  Her eyes, warm and comforting yet capable of conveying an order with a mere glance?

She sighed softly.  If Tom were here he would calm her down.  He would pick a fight with her  until she blew up and vented her emotions on him.  Or he would tease her until she could no longer stay angry and had to laugh instead.  Or he would find other ways, more physical ways, for her to release this pent up energy.  If Tom were here.

Sometimes imagination is a horrible thing.  It allows you to fill yourself with a thousand different worries and a thousand more what-ifs.  Exhaustion was taking it’s toll.  She needed  sleep, and as soon as she finished eating she was going to get some.

As she ate, she glanced around the room.  The mess hall was full of people.  Federation, Dosceni, Network, all eating, all subdued.  Especially quiet were the Dosceni children, who were picking at their plates without so much as a giggle or the outbreak of a sibling battle.

“Do the children know what’s happening?” she asked.

Surprised, Harry looked up at her, then followed her glance around the room.  He shrugged.  “I don’t know, but it’s most likely.  No one’s tried to keep it a secret.  Why?”

It was B’Elanna’s turn to shrug.  “I just hate that they have something else to worry about.  I mean, they’ve already been through so much.”

Harry nodded his agreement.  “Yeah.  I know what you mean.”

At a table near them, Seven of Nine was observing the children as well, but not with the same viewpoint as B’Elanna.  Having eaten her required nutritional supplement, she carried her tray to the dispenser.  She had  questions and only the doctor or Tuvok could answer them.  Tuvok was preoccupied with the upcoming rescue attempt, so she headed toward sickbay.

When the doors slid back, she paused a moment, wondering if she had made the right choice.  The doctor was in a most undignified position, sitting in the middle of the floor with Fayren’s pups crawling all around him.  He looked up to see her standing there.

“Seven!  Come join me,” he smiled cheerily as he patted the floor next to him.  Gingerly she moved forward, carefully avoiding stepping on one of the tiny creatures.  Fayren lay nearby, keeping careful watch on both puppies and two leggers.

As soon as she sat down, the doctor deposited a soft golden bundle of squirming fur in her lap.  The look on her face showed her extreme discomfort with the situation.  As she sat with her hands at her sides, staring at the puppy, the doctor made a tisking sound and lifted her hand to place it on the small bundle.

“You pet them, like this,” he offered, showing her how to stoke her hand through the silky fur.  “And hold them like this,” he demonstrated, putting one near his shoulder, so that it wiggled its way happily up to curl against his neck.

Reluctantly, she lifted the puppy up to her neck, holding it in place while she rigidly ran her hand down its back.  The doctor watched her for a moment, then with a sarcastic smile said, “Well, I guess that’s a start.”

The puppy started whining and Seven hastily put it back onto the ground near the others.  She turned to the doctor.  “I wish to speak to you about the current situation regarding our crewmembers and the Dosceni children.”

She had the doctor’s attention.  He nodded for her to continue.

“It is my understanding that if we give the Dosceni to their compatriots, then the captain and lieutenant will be returned to us unharmed.”  The doctor nodded once more.

“The value of  Captain Janeway and Lieutenant Paris is well established.  They bring both expertise and skill to their respective areas of command and they are essential  to the well being of this crew.”  Now the doctor was looking at her oddly, wondering where this was heading.

“Since the Dosceni children offer no such expertise, and in fact have not proved their value at all, I fail to understand why we are so quick to sacrifice key crewmembers in order to save these children.  They are of no worth to us.”

The doctor’s eyebrows shot up.  He gently placed the puppy on the floor and turned his full attention to the woman sitting beside him.

“It is an instinctive imperative in all known humanoid species and most non-humanoid to protect the young, Seven.”

Seven nodded, “I understand that, Doctor.  That imperative would be necessary for the continuation of the species.  Also, as Lieutenant Torres and I have discussed, the creation of offspring is a powerful demonstration of bonding between two people….”

This caused the doctor to blink his holographic eyes.  She had discussed that subject with Lieutenant Torres?  B’Elanna?  Oh, what he wouldn’t have given to be a spider on the wall during that conversation.

“….which would cause those people to wish to protect their progeny.  But these children do not belong to any species aboard Voyager, nor are they the result of the pairing of any Voyager personnel.  There is no reason for us to protect them at the expense of two of our own crew.”

The doctor rolled his eyes ceilingward, looking for inspiration.  How do you explain the very human urge to protect  those unable to care for themselves to a person who was reared by a species that only knew exploitation?   He realized that she had no context from her world to allow her to understand. He would have to try a different tactic.

“All right, Seven, let me ask you this.  What would happen if the Borg managed to assimilate every single species in the galaxy?”

This caused Seven to hesitate a moment.  Then she straightened her spine even more and said, almost proudly, “Then we will have accomplished perfection.”

The doctor raised one skeptical eyebrow, but all he said was. “Would you?  Well, that’s neither here nor there.  What I mean is, currently, the Borg ‘reproduce’ by assimilating other species.  But once all the species are assimilated, then the Borg population will become stagnant.”

Seven nodded reluctant agreement.

“Now, in spite of your perfection, Borg die.  Either through accident, or gradual necrosis that even Borg technology cannot stop completely.”  He didn’t wait for or expect Seven to acknowledge that, truth though it was.  “So, with all the species assimilated, and  your numbers declining through sheer attrition, the only way that the Borg will be able to continue is to begin producing its own replacements.  Ergo, children.”

Seven’s eyes bore into him, wide and unblinking.  The doctor’s rationale was, as usual, sound.  She had never thought that far ahead to the collective’s ultimate destiny.  She could not recall the collective even touching on that subject.  But he presented a viable scenario.

“Now,” the doctor continued relentlessly, “once you begin to reproduce, you will see that it is not only beneficial, but  imperative to protect all the offspring of the Borg.  Not just those who belong to a paired couple, because, due to Borg efficiency, the offspring will most likely not be reared by or even know those whose genes they carry.  And not just those who belong to one species, because by then all species will be Borg.  The drive to continue the Collective will win out over all other Borg objectives.”

He noted with satisfaction that he was getting through to her.

“In sentient species that same drive manifests itself as a need to protect every child. In fact, it is so ingrained that it tends to carry over to the offspring of all species.  And eventually,  the need to safeguard the young becomes more than  just a biological imperative.

“Each child, whether human or non-human, represents hope.  Not only a chance to perpetuate the species, but a chance to better it, to raise the species to a higher level.  For example, to the Dosceni aboard Voyager, these children are their best chance at peace and a return to a democratic government.

“Inevitably, that feeling will also insinuate itself into the Borg Collective consciousness, even in the face of, or perhaps because of your alleged Borg perfection, because the children will give the Borg a chance to improve itself in a way assimilation never could.”

Seven regarded him solemnly for several long moments.  He watched as one of the puppies crawled up onto her lap and she began to absently stoke its soft fur.  The pup settled itself with a small contented sigh.   Startled, she glanced down, but she didn’t put the pup away from her or stop her steady stroking.

“I believe I understand, Doctor,” she said softly, her eyes on the tiny creature in her lap.

“Good,” he beamed happily at her.  She had just taken another step toward accepting her own humanity.  Now maybe he would see how she felt about helping to clean up puppy poop.

Chapter Eighteen

For the second time that day Lieutenant j.g. Thomas Paris of the starship Voyager was holding Kathryn Janeway, captain of Voyager, in his arms.  Captain Janeway being the lovely and shapely lady that she was, and Lieutenant Paris being the hedonist that he was, he would normally be enjoying the situation immensely.

The situation, however, was not such to lend itself to enjoyment.  They were both cold, wet, worn, hungry and hurt.  They had stumbled along for several kilometers until the  mist  turned to rain an hour earlier.  With no cover, they were soon thoroughly soaked, which only served to make them even more miserable.

Finally, in desperation, they  found meager shelter in the tangled roots of a huge, Sequoia-like tree. Night had come quickly thereafter and with no moon or starlight breaking through the clouds, the darkness was nearly complete.  Since their escape, the only good thing that had happened to them was the small clear stream they  found where they were able to quench their thirsts.

Janeway shivered again and Tom moved as best he could in their cramped quarters to pull her closer to him.  His hand brushed against her breast and he begged her pardon, only to hear her chuckle.

“If we keep this up, Lieutenant, we’ll have to announce our engagement.”

He laughed softly.  “I don’t think B’Elanna would understand.  Just how good are you with a bat’leth, Captain?”

This brought an answering laugh from her, though the exchange made Tom  worry even more.  During the last leg of their journey, he noticed that she was favoring her right side, limping slightly.  And her speech was slurring worse as the night progressed.  He was certain that Pleckso’s beating had caused some brain damage.  The bleeding from her ear, though it had stopped,  was cause for concern.

“I don’t think I’d like to challenge her, even if I were healthy.  Not after I saw what she did when they knocked you out.”

“What did she do?” Tom asked, his attention drawn from his fear for her.

“She nearly ripped a chair in half after letting loose a Klingon war cry that sent a chill down my spine.  Then she told Pleckso that when she was through with him, they wouldn’t find enough pieces to bury.  I think Pleckso believed her.  I know I did.”

Tom grinned broadly.  “That’s my lady,” he offered proudly.

“She is, indeed, Tom. She is indeed.”  Tom didn’t ask her whether she was agreeing to the fact that B’Elanna was a lady, or that she was his.  It didn’t matter.  He knew the answer to both.

Her reference to his being knocked out made him think of the gun butt that had done the deed, and that reminded him of something that had been nagging at him all evening.  “Captain, did you take a good look at the guns they’re using?”  He picked up the weapon which lay at his side and held it for her inspection in the dim light.  It wasn’t necessary.  She was quite familiar with it.

“They remind me of the rifles we had to use when the Hirogen had us rigged up in World War II on the holodeck.”

“Yeah.  But why, Captain?  Why some old fashioned weapon like this?  The Dosceni have phasers.  Why would they revert to this kind of gun?”

Janeway wrinkled her brow.  It was becoming harder and harder for her to think.  “Maybe the phasers don’t work down here.”

Tom nodded.  “That’s what I was thinking.  We also haven’t seen any evidence of a communications system.  Maybe that’s why we had to go up to the Dosceni ship to  talk to Pleckso and that idiot pilot had so much trouble flying that shuttle.  Didn’t Ambassador Dreeeeel say that conteric came from an abandoned mining operation on a nearby planet?”

Janeway  tried to force herself to alertness.  What Tom was saying was important, yet she couldn’t concentrate on the words.

“Maybe that’s where we are.  And if that’s the case, even if Voyager finds us, they won’t be able to scan for us or locate us, even if we had our communicators.”  He waited for her to answer, but she remained silent.  “Captain?” he spoke softly.  She was laying limply in his arms now.  He moved his hand to the pulse at her neck.  It was weak, but steady.  He cradled her as closely as he could and settled back, being careful not to bump the knot on his head.

“Please,” he whispered to whatever deity happened to be listening, “Let her be all right.”  The steady beat of the raindrops on the leaves was his only answer.  Exhaustion tore at him and he wished he could join her in slumber.  But even though they had done their best to cover their tracks, the possibility that Dosceni soldiers could be on their trail even now meant posting a watch.  And with the captain unconscious, he was it.

With a sigh, he tried to think of other things.  He was a pro at escapist day dreaming.  It was the only thing that had kept him sane at various moments in his life.  His thoughts turned to B’Elanna and what the captain had said about her reaction to his being hit.  He smiled into the night, wishing he could have seen his lady at her fierce warrior best.

Her brains and beauty combined to make her one of the sexiest women he had ever known.  Her temper made her the biggest challenge he ever encountered.  She kept him guessing, on his toes.  He wouldn’t want her any other way.  Conjuring up memories of more pleasant times spent with B’Elanna, he hoped that she was all right, wherever she was.

At that moment she was swearing loudly and in Klingon at the replicator in her room.  Yes she had used all her personal rations for the month, but this was most definitely not a personal mission.  With a growl, she overrode the computer using her code as chief engineer and gleefully retrieved the black turtle neck, jacket and slacks that appeared on the grid.

She was already running late.  Once she  finally managed to get to sleep, she slept soundly and long, over seven hours.  A check with navigation when she awoke told her they were approaching the coordinates where the Network cruisers would break off from Voyager to serve as decoys for the Dosceni ships orbiting Conteric.  Soon the rescue party would be shuttling down to the planet, and she intended to be one of that party.

During the briefing in the conference room, Dreeeel told them that Conteric’s average temperature at this time of planet year was about 10 degrees celcius in the early morning, which was when they would be making planetfall.  It was also the rainy season.  She dressed in the warm woolen turtle neck  and pants, carrying the jacket with her.

Before she headed out the door toward the shuttle bay, she lifted one more thing from the replicator grid.  The knife gleamed in the dim light of her quarters as she removed it from its sheath.  It was not a Klingon weapon.  To her mind those were unwieldy and awkward.  This  knife was long and slender, wickedly curved along its edge.  She had carried one like it as a Maquis, though it was more for show than use.  But she could use it if she needed to.  She strapped it to her left side, oddly comforted by its familiar heft against her hip.

B’Elanna headed out the door, preparing herself for the first of two battles she would have to face that day.  She knew she would have to fight Chakotay to be allowed to go.   He had adamantly refused her request to be allowed to accompany Tuvok to the surface.  But she was going, no matter what he said.  Even if it meant that she would have to steal the second of Voyager’s two remaining shuttles to do it and spend the rest of the trip in the brig once she got back.

As she entered the shuttle bay, she saw that she was not the first to arrive.  All the members of the security team selected by Tuvok were already there, as were Voyager’s second and third ranking senior officers.  She hesitated a moment, then squared her shoulders and marched forward to where Ayala was issuing sidearms.

He smiled at her and handed her a weapon.  He knew that she wasn’t supposed to be there, but he also knew what she was capable of from their days in the Maquis together.  There was no doubt in his mind she would be on the planet with them.  Where she belonged.  If his wife or children were in danger as Tom Paris was, nothing would keep him from getting to them.  He saddened.  Nothing except seventy thousand light years.

She strapped the pistol holster onto her right hip, then moved forward to stand in the circle surrounding Tuvok and Chakotay.  As soon as Chakotay saw her, he moved forward and pulled her out of line.

“I thought we had established that you were not going on this ride, Lieutenant.”

B’Elanna’s eyes narrowed.  “Don’t start that ‘Lieutenant’ crap with me Chakotay.  I’ll resign my damn commission if I have to, but you’re not going to stop me from going.”

“Tuvok’s team is set.  He is taking security personnel who are trained in this sort of mission.   Your going along will serve no purpose other than your quest for revenge, and you know it.  You’re not needed down there, B’Elanna!”

Furious, B’Elanna opened her mouth, but was  interrupted by Tuvok.

“On the contrary, Commander, I have observed Lieutenant Torres’ skills while serving with her in the Maquis.  Her knowledge and expertise in hand to hand combat will be a most welcome addition to this team.  With your permission, I would offer her a place.”

Chakotay turned to look at Tuvok in surprise.  The Lieutenant Commander rarely countered one of his or Janeway’s orders like that.  Especially under these circumstances.  B’Elanna on this mission was not really a good idea and Tuvok should recognize that.  It wasn’t that Chakotay was worried for her.  He had seen her in action too often to think that she couldn’t handle the situation they were about to enter.

But her very volatility was what might endanger the whole thing.  She was a time bomb, waiting to go off.  He just hoped that she waited for the right place and time to let loose.  He glanced from the emotionless face of the Vulcan to the cautiously triumphant face of B’Elanna, and held his hand up in defeat.

“All right, Tuvok.  It’s your mission,”  was all he said.  He was puzzled by Tuvok’s interference, but in a way he was relieved that it had come to this.  In his heart he understood how B’Elanna was feeling.  The urge to go find Kathryn was almost overpowering him, and he wanted more than anything to kick some Dosceni butt.

But he was acting captain of this starship with over 180 souls aboard it at this moment, and his own wishes had to be sublimated to what was best for Voyager, those she carried, and her missing officers.   So he would stay behind and do what a good acting captain should.  He glanced once more at Tuvok before heading back to the bridge.

B’Elanna also looked at Tuvok, giving him a look of gratitude.  His face was impassive as ever, but she saw the slight nod he gave her before turning away to give the final briefing to his team.

B’Elanna had been in the conference room when the final plan was set.  But she listened carefully anyway, reviewing all the steps in her mind as Tuvok recounted for his team what was about to happen.

“Four Network cruisers have split away from us and are headed in the general direction of Conteric.  Two will remain just outside the distance Ar Ziel tells us the scanners on the Dosceni warships will reach.  Two others will go in as if they are on routine patrol, and challenge the Dosceni ships which astrometric scanners confirm are at present in orbit about Conteric.

“If the Dosceni allow the Network personnel to board and inspect their craft, then we will know that the captain and Lieutenant Paris are most likely on the planet.  If the Dosceni refuse or offer violence for resistance, then the Network cruisers will call in the other ships and attempt to disarm and board the Dosceni ships without destroying them.  Since we are uncertain that our crew members are really on Conteric and not aboard one of these ships, it is to be hoped that the Network cruisers accomplish their mission while causing minimal damage.  Either way, we will soon know whether this rescue mission is necessary.

“Once Voyager and Captain Ovron’s ship, G’irndal, receive confirmation that the Dosceni are engaged by the Network cruisers and that we are to proceed, our two ships will approach from the far side of the planet.  Ambassador Greeeeel has given us the coordinates of the mining camp.  Crewman Hamilton will land one point five kilometers from the camp in the hopes of avoiding detection.

“Remember, no communication devices, scanners or phasers will work once we enter the atmosphere.  You have all been versed in how to use the weapons issued to you, though they are noisy and you are to attempt to subdue the guards as quietly as you can.  The screen behind you contains a schematic of the camp.  Take these few moments to familiarize yourself with the buildings.  It is believed that the hostages will be held in the miners’ dormitory building, here, since it is the only one with locks on the doors.

“Because we are unable to scan the sight nor do we even know how many guards are in place, we will have to improvise much of our procedure.  Each of you possesses the skills  required to do what you must to accomplish our mission.”

With that, he nodded at them and went toward the shuttle, while the security team gathered around the camp map on the screen and reviewed  the layout.  There were seven of them all together, plus another six coming from Captain Ovron’s cruiser.

The number to send had been a matter of long debate at the planning session.  Too many, and the Dosceni would be alerted before the rescue party could reach the hostages.  That could mean their removal to another hiding place, or even death.  Too few, and their force wouldn’t be strong enough to win access to them.

Ar Ziel said that at the most, the Dosceni war ships could carry a crew of thirty.  Even if Pleckso sent half of each ship’s contingent to watch the prisoners, that was still thirty guards.  Sending twelve or thirteen people in the rescue party seemed a reasonable compromise. When someone mentioned that the odds were still more than two to one with that number, Ovron  laughed and said, “You’re right, maybe we’re being too soft on them.  Should we make it five to one?”

As everyone chuckled at his audacity, Ambassador Dreeeeel expressed surprise that Captain Ovron volunteered to accompany Voyager in the planetary rescue mission.  “I would think a man of your passions would enjoy a good space battle,” the Corrrder said almost snidely.  Ovron  simply grinned at him.

“Aye, I’m sure you would think that.  Space battles are fun if they’re the only game in town, but a good fist fight, now there’s where the action is,”  he laughed, slapping the ambassador soundly on his back and nearly sending him flying across the room.

The doctor entered the shuttle bay, his hands full of hyposprays, which he began passing out.  “These contain a sedative which will keep the Dosceni unconscious for up to twelve hours.  I thought they might come in handy.”

He began to hand one to Tuvok, then paused. “Of course you can create the same effect with your nerve pinch, Mr. Tuvok.”

Tuvok took the hypospray from the doctor with a nod.  “Yes, Doctor, but as you said, the sedative could prove beneficial.  It is good that you thought of this.”  The doctor beamed at the unexpected praise from the normally laconic Vulcan.

B’Elanna tucked the instrument into her belt.  She wished the action would start.  This not knowing was driving her already stretched patience to the breaking point.  Kahless only knew what was happening to Tom and the captain right now.  It was still over an hour until Pleckso’s deadline, but what if he decided not to wait?  What if he decided to…she sighed.  She had to pull herself together.  This speculation was not doing anything for her concentration.

Then the wait was over.  Chakotay signaled the shuttle bay.

“Go ahead, Commander,” Tuvok said.

“The Network cruisers have sent word that the Dosceni refused to be boarded, and began firing instead.  During the battle one of the cruisers was destroyed.  They are still fighting with the other.  Before the first cruiser was destroyed, a shuttle managed to get away  to the planet.  We’re headed for Conteric now.  ETA twenty minutes.  And Commander, they know you’re coming.  It’s not going to be easy.”

Tuvok acknowledged Chakotay, then nodded for  his troops to board the shuttle.  As they moved forward, Hamilton looked at B’Elanna.

“Don’t worry, Lieutenant.  We’ll find them.”

She smiled faint encouragement at him.

“Yeah,”  Ayala teased, “Providing you can get us down without killing us.”

Hamilton took the ribbing as it was meant and glanced at the chief engineer again.  “No sweat.  I’ve had a good teacher.”

B’Elanna knew that he was talking about Tom.  As Senior conn officer Tom put
his subordinates through regular and unrelenting drills, a fact that surprised most people who thought they knew the laid back, easy going pilot.  B’Elanna’s head snapped up and she glared at Hamilton and Ayala.

“You’ve been taught by the best, and don’t you forget it.”

“No Ma’am,” they chorused.

Chapter Nineteen

The twenty-five minute ride down to the planet was longest of her life.  B’Elanna leaned her head back against the bulkhead and tried not to think about Pleckso’s deadline, which would soon pass, or the destroyed cruiser that may have held Voyager’s missing crew.

A nervous cough from Ayala who was sitting next to her brought her attention back to the people in the shuttle.  Aside from Tuvok, Ayala and Hamilton, Ensign Wildman, Crewman Rogers and Ar Crotol made up the balance of the rescue team.

Ensign Wildman was there to serve as field medic, in case Tom was too…..she caught her breath in a quick gasp…wasn’t up to taking care of any injured.  And Ar Crotol was there to serve as a translator in an odd way.

When word spread that the  captain and lieutenant were missing, all ten of the remaining Dosceni adults wanted to offer themselves to the Dosceni army in exchange for their presumed hostages.  Commander Chakotay had gently but emphatically refused the offer.  Then when news spread that a rescue mission was being planned, all ten, including one hundred and eight year old Elder Arb Fretzer wanted to go.

When Chakotay once more began to refuse, Ar Ziel stopped him in mid-sentence with a daunting observation:  if communicators didn’t work on the planet, then neither would translators.  And without someone who spoke Dosceni, the odds of their completing a successful mission  dropped considerably.

She was correct and everyone present knew it.  They agreed to allow one of the Dosceni to accompany the Voyager team.  And while they were waiting, the team would work out a series of hand signals to help them communicate with each other, since each group would only be able to understand its own kind.

When Ar Crotol came forward as the Dosceni team member, most everyone was surprised.  The witty, quiet, peaceful woman was popular among Voyager’s crew, especially its male contingent with whom she had flirted outrageously.   B’Elanna had great respect for her intelligence and not only because of the heroic effort Ar Crotol had made to keep the Sky Rider running until Voyager came along.  But no one thought of her as combative.

None the less,  if anyone had their doubts about her ability to perform on this type of mission, they kept them to themselves as members of both teams worked together for over on hour on the signals they felt would be most useful for the situation they were about to enter.

Looking at her now, B’Elanna laid to rest once and for all her qualms about Ar Crotol’s skills as an in-fighter.  The engineer also wore a knife strapped to her side, but it made the one B’Elanna carried look like a toothpick.  Any Klingon would have been proud to own such a weapon.

She wore the gun holster at her side with practiced ease.  B’Elanna hadn’t been in the bay when Ayala handed it to her, but she would have been impressed with the way Ar Crotol promptly checked the ammo clip, pulling the slide back to make sure the chamber was already filled.  She sighted along the barrel, accustoming herself to the feel of the weapon.  This was a woman who could take care of herself, and anyone else who was with her.

On the planet below them, Tom Paris was admitting to himself that he may not be able to take care of himself or anyone else much longer. The endless night was nearly over, though it didn’t much matter because he was unsure what they were going to do with the coming day.

Twice during the night his heart had begun to pound at the sound of something fairly large moving through the brush some distance from where he and the captain huddled.  He held his breath both times, hoping it was just a wild animal, no, correct that, a friendly wild animal and not that the Doscene soldiers were already searching in this direction for them.  When the sounds faded in the distance, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Also twice during the night the captain had come to long enough to ask where they were and what the situation was.  The second time she tried to sit up, wanting to take her turn at standing watch, but Tom lied and told her it had only been a couple of hours, and that he would awaken her later to take a turn.  He was actually encouraged by her conversation during that second time, because not only did she seem more coherent, but her speech wasn’t as badly slurred.

So he made the mistake of allowing himself some optimism which lasted  until an hour earlier when he had finally yielded to the pressure from his bladder and slid out from under the captain to find a spot to relieve himself.  It was while he was standing there that he was beset with the worst case of the shivers that he ever remembered having.

Making his way back to the tree, he stood outside their shelter hugging himself tightly in a vain  attempt to stop the chills that were running rampant through him.  He knew that his throat was sore and his chest felt heavy, but he kept hoping that it was just a mild case of exposure, not a full fledged what ever the hell it was that he had caught.

Finally he slid down to crawl up to the captain, seeking her heat now as he had given her his the night before.  She awoke with a start, then realizing  that the odd noise she was hearing was Tom’s teeth clicking together, she lifted a weak hand to touch his forehead.

“You’re burning up, Lieutenant.  Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Oh yeah,” he managed to get out between clenched teeth, “like you’re in any better shape than I am.”

She didn’t answer him.  He was right and they both knew it.  Instead, she squinted through the pre-dawn light, trying to evaluate their surroundings.  She turned toward Tom, whose shaking seemed to have subsided down to an occasional shudder so long as he remained perfectly still.  “Report,” she ordered.

Tom reacted to the command in her voice as she hoped he would, forgetting his miserable condition to give her a report on and his assessment of their situation.  She listened carefully, ignoring the throbbing ache on the side of her face.

“Not bad, Hamilton,” B’Elanna tossed the compliment over her shoulder as the team disembarked the shuttle.  He had managed to set them down with a somewhat gentle bump.  He smiled shyly at her, but she was already walking away to join Tuvok and the others where they gathered to wait for the G’nalrons.

There was a decided chill in the air, made even worse by the heavy mist which covered the ground like a blanket.  The mist scattered and rolled around the legs of Captain Ovron and his crew as they moved into the clearing, and the rescue team moved out.

No one spoke, partly because they were under an order of silence, and partly because most of them wouldn’t understand each other anyway.  The inability of their translators to work on the Conteric was confirmed when they were well into the planet’s atmosphere and Ar Crotol had said something  which came out in a language no one understood.

None of them had heard each other’s true language before that thanks to the universal translator.  Now, without it,  B’Elanna thought the Doscene language was like its people, flowing, elegant and graceful.  She wondered what Federation standard sounded like to Ar Crotol.

They moved single file through the woods, in the general direction they hoped took them to the camp.  Tuvok’s superior hearing picked up a sound, and he signaled for the others to move under cover.  B’Elanna knelt behind a large tree beside Ar Crotol, who held the knife comfortably in her hand.  She was totally at ease as she awaited the soldiers all of them could now hear approaching.  B’Elanna wondered at her calmness.  Then the soldiers were passing their position and she didn’t have time to wonder about anything for a while.

A kilometer away in the clearing they had just left, the bench seat on one side of the shuttle lifted cautiously.  Large brown eyes peered anxiously around until their owner was certain she was alone.  Then she flipped the seat back and stood up.

“Petrek, it’s safe.  They’re gone now,” she called.  The other bench seat rose and Petrek stood, stretching his arms and legs.  The space had been cramped, even for his small body.

“Are you sure, Seely?” he asked.

“Yes, they left.  Now we need to go so we can help Lieutenant Tom and the captain.”  Petrek climbed out of the seat, then offered her a hand.  Together, they stepped to the door of the shuttle, pressing a key pad on the side as Petrek had observed Mr. Tuvok do during an inspection of this same vehicle two weeks prior.  Then they were outside in the forest, on a quest of their own; to save the missing officers, to save Lieutenant Tom.

Chapter Twenty

“Commander, we’ve got a problem,” Ar Ziel’s normally calm voice was strained and Chakotay wondered what had happened now.

“Go ahead, Captain,” he said quietly.

“Two of the children are missing.”

“Missing?” he asked as he rose up and glanced toward Harry.  Harry’s eyes met his in equal concern.

“Yes.  Seely and Petrek are nowhere to be found.  Several members of your crew have been kind enough to help us search.  Your computer says they are no longer on Voyager.”

“Then where the hell can….” he started to ask, but didn’t finish.  His startled look was mirrored on Harry’s face.  “Computer,” the ensign said, “where is the last known position of Petrek and Seely?”

“Petrek Mickelar and Seely Forsta are on board the shuttle..”  Before the computer could finish Chakotay was ordering a security team to the shuttle bay.  “Search for anything you can find to verify that the kids left on that shuttle. And get a team ready to head for the planet.  Tell Ar Ziel to meet us there.”

He walked toward the turbolift, stopping only long enough to look towards Harry.  “Ensign, you have the bridge.”  Harry nodded acknowledgement and moved to sit in the captain’s seat.  He settled down with a slightly dejected sigh.

With his superior tracking skills, it was right that Chakotay should go down to the planet to find those kids himself.  But sometimes it got to be just plain boring being the one who stayed behind keeping things running.  Sometimes he’d like to be in on the action.  Then he thought about the times he had been ‘in on the action’.  Like when he and Tom were imprisoned with those God-awful clamps on their heads, or when they went down to the demon planet to find some deuterium and nearly died.

In fact, nearly every time he went on an away mission, especially when Tom Paris was involved, he ended up in pain.  So, on second thought, maybe staying on the ship keeping things running was just fine with him.  After all, ‘They also serve who stand and wait,’ or some such nonsense.

Chakotay arrived in the shuttle bay just as one of the security officers walked out from behind a side console carrying what appeared to be an EVA suit and some other equipment normally found in the bench seats of the shuttles.   A second officer followed him, with a teddy bear perched on top of his pile.

Ar Ziel was already there, and she walked over to pick up the bear.  “It’s Seely’s,” she said.

Chakotay nodded grimly.  Smart kids.  They would have had to time it perfectly.  He knew that a pre-flight check had been done on the shuttle by Tuvok.  The Vulcan would have checked the equipment lockers to make sure all was in place.  The kids must have sneaked the stuff out and stowed away after that.

Ar Ziel seemed to read his mind.  “These are children of war, Commander.  Accustomed to furtive acts.  In fact, they may fare better on the planet than your own people.”

Chakotay smiled grimly at her.  “That may be, Captain, but I’d just as soon get them back up here.  If Pleckso should capture them, in spite of their skills, then it makes this whole thing moot, doesn’t it?”  Ar Ziel could only nod.

“Why would they do this?” he asked her.  She shrugged and opened her mouth, but was stopped by Neelix, who stood in the doorway holding Naomi’s hand.

“They went to rescue the hostages,”  he said, walking forward with Naomi, gently patting her hand the whole time.  “Tell them, Sweetings,” he encouraged her.

Naomi looked up at Chakotay with wide eyes.  Chakotay stood expectantly before her, but she was reluctant to betray her friends.  Chakotay recognized her recalcitrance for what it was, and said softly, “Report, Crewman.”

Growing up on a Federation ship had trained her well.  She came to attention and began to explain.  “Seely said that Lieutenant Tom and the captain were in trouble and it was their fault.  She said that if they turned themselves in to that Pleckso man then he would let Lieutenant Tom and the captain go.  Then everybody said they were going to rescue them so nobody had to turn themselves over to that Pleckso man, except Seely didn’t believe it and neither did Petrek because that Pleckso man killed Petrek’s Mommy and Daddy, and he said that Pleckso man was really mean and so they went down so that if our people can’t save Lieutenant Tom and the captain they can give themselves up and that will save them.”  She took a deep breath and smiled tentatively at Chakotay and Neelix.

Chakotay’s raised eyebrows was the only sign of his frustration.  He looked at Neelix who shook his head.  “We came as soon as she told me about it, Commander.”

“I know, Neelix.  The thing is, now we have to go get these kids before that Pleckso man gets them first. ”  He glanced down at Naomi and nodded his head.  “Thank you Naomi.  You may have just saved your friends’ lives.”

He headed toward the shuttle, accepting the pistol and holster that one of the guards handed him.  He didn’t waste time for preflight.  Once everyone was on board, he fired up the engines and signaled that they were ready to launch.

The children in question were surveying the scene before them with practiced eyes.  Two of the five men were dead, their chests still, their eyes open and staring.  The other three seemed to be alive, but not moving.  Their eyes were closed, and it looked like they were sleeping.  The acrid smell of some kind of gun powder filled the air.  There was blood on the ground in spots, but they couldn’t tell if it all came from the dead men.

Petrek went forward cautiously, slipping around the area where an obvious battle had been fought.  Seely followed slowly behind him.  Once they were through and certain that the sleeping men weren’t going to wake up and follow them, they moved quickly.

A few minutes later, Petrek pulled on Seely’s hand, quietly signaling her to look down.  As she did, she saw the disturbance in the leaves and ground that showed them someone had gone in a different direction from the rescue team.  The trail was older, some of the footprints and markings were obscured by the team’s more recent passing.

Following the other trail, a few meters away they found the clear imprint in the mud of a boot unlike any Dosceni soldiers wore .  There was no mistaking it.  These were Federation shod feet that had come this way.  And that could only mean that Lieutenant Tom and the captain weren’t in the direction the rescue team was headed.  Excited, the children continued on the trail, carefully watching for more clues.

Ensign Wildman knelt beside Ayala, checking on the bandage she had wrapped around his shoulder and upper arm.  The bullet had ricocheted off a boulder before it entered the soft tissue of his upper left shoulder.  Otherwise it would probably have traveled on through him and out his back.  As it was, she knew he must be in a great deal of pain. Ayala refused any meds, though, asking her just to bind it so they could move on.

Tuvok had started to order him back to the shuttle, but Ayala  protested that his right hand still worked and he could keep up.  Surprisingly, Tuvok relented and let the man stay with them.  He was just full of little surprises on this trip, B’Elanna thought to herself.  She watched Ar Crotol kneel beside Wildman and place a consoling hand on Ayala’s other arm.  She smiled a little to herself.  Aren’t we all full of little surprises?

They had encountered one more group of soldiers, just three of them this time.  They managed to keep one alive and awake long enough for Ar Crotol to question him.  Through gestures and finger counting, she had conveyed to the others that there were about twenty guards all together on the planet.  Most of them were out on patrols, looking for the prisoners.

Looking for the prisoners?  No one needed an interpreter to understand the question in B’Elanna’s voice or the raised eyebrow Tuvok turned to her.  Had they understood her correctly?   Ar Crotol drew a picture in the dirt, stick figures representing a man and a woman with a federation insignia on both of them.  Then she drew three other figures, two lying flat, one wrapped around a tree.  She drew arrows away from the male and female stick figures, then pointed toward the woods.

“They’ve escaped,”  B’Elanna laughed.

“And they kicked some butt doing it,”  Hamilton added gleefully.  Everyone but Tuvok was grinning.

“Yes, Lieutenant, it would appear that they have, and it is important that we find them before one of these patrols does.”  Tuvok rose and stared off into the woods.  “But what direction do we take?”

That question calmed everyone down.  Ar Crotol looked down at the man, who was kneeling before her and asked a question.  He answered her, but it obviously was not to her satisfaction.  She bent over and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back and snarling in the man’s face.  B’Elanna reached down to pull the woman’s hands away, shaking her head at her as Ar Crotol looked up in astonishment.

When she realized that the Voyager people and the G’nalrons were not going to let her question the prisoner her own way, she threw up her hands in disgust and walked away.

“Since we don’t know where to begin looking, I suggest we proceed to the compound.  Perhaps someone there can give us more information.”  Tuvok gestured in the direction of the miners’ camp, and Captain Ovron nodded his head in agreement.

One of his men had been wounded also, but in the leg.  He sent the man back to the shuttle along with another crew member.  If there were twenty guards and they had already accounted for eight of them, that only left twelve to worry about.  He was almost disappointed that the odds had dropped so much to their favor.  Signaling his troops to move out, he watched Ar Crotol with a smile.  Now there was his kind of woman.

About two kilometers away, Petrek and Seely crouched  behind a rock as the four men walked past.  One of them was grumbling about the miserable weather and being stuck in the middle of it and that his feet hurt.  Finally one of the others told him to shut up and keep his eyes open.  If any one of the men happened to turn around, and if the ground hugging fog lifted at the wrong time, the children knew they would be seen.  They moved on silent feet to the other side of the boulder, clearing it just as a twig snapped under Petrek’s foot.

Both children froze as the soldiers spun around.  There was nothing to see.  The forest behind them was damp, dreary and silent.  Dismissing it as some falling branch or small animal, the men continued and the children let their breaths out in slow measured doses.  They hurriedly moved away, following the trail left by the lieutenant and captain which was now partly disturbed by the soldiers’ passing.  Both children knew that if the Doscene soldiers ever bothered to look down, they would be able to track the two people as easily as they had.  They had to get to the lieutenant before that happened.

Chapter Twenty-one

Chakotay set the shuttle down easily, in a clearing not far from where the other two shuttles sat.  They didn’t take time for pleasantries.  The door was opened almost before he shut the engines down, and the second rescue team headed straight for Voyager’s other shuttle.  When they got there, the bench seats were pushed up and the hatch had been left open. If he needed any further proof, Chakotay now had it.

He knelt down, noting the direction taken by everyone, and headed out that way.  It only took them a short while to reach the scene of the first confrontation.  The scuffed ground and bodies strewn about told them all they needed to know.  The fact that none were the good guys made it all the more encouraging.

He was so intent on studying the ground through the dense mist that he nearly missed the cutoff where the kids split away from the main trail.  He had walked a couple of steps beyond it when out of the corner of his eye he noted a slight displacement of the damp leaves which caused him to look more closely in that direction.  Wondering what would make the kids head away from the rescue team, he followed their trail.  The first team could take care of itself.  It was the small footprints he needed to follow.

Then he saw the larger footprint.  Placing his own boot beside it, her realized that this was the boot of a Federation man.  A tall Federation man with big feet.  Why would the rescue team split up like this?  A little further down the path he noted the partial print of a much smaller boot.  So one of the women had come this way also.  Perhaps someone was wounded and had split off from the main group.  Curiouser and curiouser.

About five minutes later they heard someone talking on the trail ahead of them.  Ar Ziel moved forward to tap Chakotay on the arm, showing him the signal for soldiers.  They were in a partially cleared area of the woods, and there was no place to hide.  They moved to the side, using whatever shrubbery they could find for cover and waited for the men to round the bend.

Moments later Chakotay surveyed the scene before him with a shudder.  It reminded him too much of his Maquis days. They had tried to just subdue the Dosceni, but the men were determined to put up a fight.  In the end, one of his own crew was critically wounded and three of the four soldiers lay dead.  All this, he thought to himself, just because we wanted to help out some people.

He inhaled deeply, then choked a little at the acrid smell of gun smoke which lingered in otherwise pristine air.  What he wouldn’t give for an efficient, clean phaser.  Ordering two of the men to carry the wounded man back to the shuttle, he led the other two forward.  They were getting close, he could sense it.

Tom and Janeway sat back to back, staring into the woods around them.  Janeway could feel Tom shiver from time to time, and his body jerked against hers as he tried to stifle the sneezes that were coming more and more frequently.   She was in as bad a shape.  While the throbbing in the side of her head had subsided a little, she still had difficulty holding the heavy rifle upright in her right hand.  She rested the barrel of it on her knee.

For over an hour now they had heard the sounds of gunfire echoing faintly across the forest.  It seemed to come from all directions.  Not understand what was going on, they refused to allow themselves to hope that the sounds meant that Voyager was here, and that rescue was on the way.  That sort of thinking made you too assured, less aware.  And less aware under these circumstances got you dead.  So they set up a double watch, back to back, and waited.

The sound of a soft footstep brought Tom to full alert.  Janeway heard it also, and peered over her shoulder waiting.  Tom lifted the rifle, preparing to fire when he saw furtive movement by the edge of a tangled shrub.  His nerves taut, he put his finger on the trigger, ready.  Then a small figure stepped into the clearing, followed by another.

Janeway cried out, “Tom!” but it was unnecessary.  He had seen Seely’s face break into a wide smile at the sight of him.  Too stunned to do anything but sit there, he allowed Janeway to slowly push the rifle barrel toward the ground before he removed his finger.

“Seely, Petrek!”  He finally found his voice, which came out in a hoarse croak.

Seely ran across the small clearing to tumble into Tom’s lap as Petrek came up to shyly place his hand on Janeway’s shoulder.   “How?  How did you get here?  Where is everyone else?”

Petrek spoke, and though the words were rolling and mellifluous, they meant nothing to Paris or Janeway.  Rolling her eyes in frustration as Tom looked at her and shook his head, Seely tugged at his hand, pointing back the way they had come.

“Do we go, Captain?” he asked.

“Do we have a choice?”  Janeway answered.  “I don’t know how these kids got here, but they obviously know the way back to wherever they came from.”

Slowly, the two of them rose.  Tom tried to support her, but a fit of sneezing overtook him.  Seely and Petrek stared at him almost in awe.  Then they looked at each other and giggled.

“Glad you think it’s so funny,”  Tom sniffed.  Then he pulled the captain against him as they followed the children back to whatever fate awaited them.

Chakotay heard the heavy footsteps long before he caught sight of the oncoming party.  With a sigh, he motioned Ensigns Murphy and Golwat toward an outcropping of rocks, while he and Ar Ziel slipped behind a large tree.

He saw the flash of red and his heart began to pound.  The Dosceni soldiers all wore brown uniforms.  The only people he knew on this planet wearing red were Starfleet.  Then he heard the sneeze.

Stepping out from behind the tree, he called out, “Paris?  Is that you?”

“Aye, Commander.”

The voice was hoarse, weary and strained.  On alert again, Chakotay squinted into the mist, which was rising once more.  Then the motley little entourage stepped out of the fog, and Chakotay’s feet were moving forward before his brain fully registered what he saw.

He grabbed Janeway, lifting her into his arms as she slipped out of Paris’ grip.  Ar Ziel and Seely supported the Lieutenant until Murphy and Golwat came to help.  Tom grinned at them.

“Good to see you guys.  What took you so long?”  Then he was beset by a fit of coughing.

Chakotay saw Janeway’s face and nearly roared out his fury.  When Tom was finally able to breath again, he nodded his understanding.  Panting, he explained, “Pleckso didn’t like what she said to you.  Took it out on her while I was knocked out.”

“We need to get you back to the ship,” Chakotay stated as he turned and headed back to the shuttle.  Then another spate of gunfire echoed from the distance and he hesitated.  Finally, he handed Janeway over to Baxter and ordered him and Golwat to take everyone to the shuttle.

“Once you get there, secure the area, then bring  McKenzie and Orlando and come to the compound, in case they need help.  I’ll go now to let our people  know the prisoners they’re looking for are safe.”  Realizing what he was doing, Ar Ziel nodded her agreement, and followed him toward the sounds of the shots.  Before she left, she looked down at the children and with a few cryptic sentences let them know that they were to stay with the Federationers, and that she would deal with them later.  Subdued, both children went quietly.

B’Elanna tucked into a roll and spun forward, springing up in time to aim and fire.  The bullet that sent her spinning had passed close enough that she heard the sound of it whizzing by her to smack into the wall.  Her first shot went wide, but the second slammed into the man’s arm, rendering it useless and causing him to drop his gun.  In a second she was on him, injecting him with the sedative and watching him crumple before moving on.

Around her, the rest of the team was also putting up a good fight.  They were trying to get to the miners’ dormitory, needing to ascertain that the Voyager crew really had escaped.  B’Elanna, Tuvok and Ar Crotol arrived at the door within seconds of each other.  Tuvok tried the knob, but it was locked.  He lifted a foot and kicked.  With the crack of splintering wood, the door slammed back.  A shot rang out, but none of the rescue team was foolish enough to be standing in the open doorway.

Ar Crotol rolled on the ground aiming and firing while still moving.  The guard dropped, then the man behind him fell as Tuvok hit his target.

Both B’Elanna and Ar Crotol entered in a crouch, guns held high.  Tuvok followed, glancing frequently behind them where others were still battling.  Cautiously moving forward, they stopped at each doorway,  inspecting every corner of the room before going on.  It slowed their progress, but all of them had been in this type of combat often enough to know that it would probably keep them all alive.

Tuvok entered an area that looked like a central gathering room.  Several doors opened off it on one side and he went to check out each one.  A shot rang out and the plasterine above his head shattered, spraying down on him.

He spun around to see the man who had shot at him standing in the doorway, his eyes wide with shock.  He held the gun up as if to shoot again, then his grip weakened and the weapon dropped to the floor with a clatter.  When he fell forward Tuvok saw the long, slender, wickedly curved blade that had pierced the man’s back.

He looked up at the doorway where B’Elanna calmly stood putting a new clip in her gun.  As his eyes met hers, it was her turn to nod slightly.  Finished reloading her weapon, she moved forward to retrieve her knife.

Tuvok’s only concession to the moment was the slight raising of one eyebrow.  Then he went on to inspect the rooms behind those doors, which proved to be mostly storage closets.

There was a commotion further down the corridor, and both of them ran.  Two shots were fired, then there was silence.  They slowed their headlong flight, shifting into the stealth mode required in close-in combat.

They had to step over one guard who lay sprawled in the doorway.  Then they saw Ar Crotol, blood seeping from her side, standing with her knife blade at the throat of a man who knelt before her.  They recognized him from the view screen images.  They had Arb Pleckso.  Or rather Ar Crotol did.  And the look on her face told them that she wasn’t going to let him live much longer.

When B’Elanna walked into the room, Pleckso’s face paled even more and his eyes grew wide with fear.  B’Elanna bared her teeth at him in a feral snarl, then leaned casually against the wall to watch him squirm.  She toyed with her own knife, twirling the point around the tip of her finger, then holding that finger up to show the single drop of blood which gathered there.  Slowly moving it to her mouth, she ran her tongue along it, then moistened her lips in an almost erotic display.  Pleckso nearly wet his pants.

Tuvok stood near the doorway, assessing the situation.  He knew that B’Elanna would not kill the man in cold blood, though he was not certain that she wouldn’t remove a few of his body parts if she were given the chance.  He did not know Ar Crotol’s history with Pleckso, but it was obvious that she was looking forward to ending his life.  Two women equally capable of inflicting damage.  This would require every ounce of diplomatic skill he had.

Deciding to trust B’Elanna’s judgement and control, he turned his attention to Ar Crotol.  His language meant nothing to her, he knew.  But he hoped to reach her by the tone of his voice.  B’Elanna had seen that look on the face of Maquis who had lost everything to the Cardassians.  She didn’t give Tuvok much of a chance.  She settled in to watch the show.

By the time Chakotay and Ar Ziel arrived at the compound, it was all over.  Dosceni soldiers lay dead or unconscious, a couple of G’nalrons were nursing minor wounds while the others guarded the prisoners.  Voyager’s people were nowhere to be seen.

Chakotay  asked about his shipmates, drawing a hand across his forehead like ridges and making imaginary points on the end of his ears.  The woman pointed toward a building a few feet away, where Captain Ovron was just emerging.  Expressing obvious surprise at seeing the commander, he held up his hand in greeting, then looked over his shoulder as if looking for the reinforcements he assumed Chakotay brought with him.  Chakotay shook his head, indicating that he and Ar Ziel were the only ones present at the moment.

Through a complicated and sometimes amusing exchange of hand signals, he was finally able to get through to Ovron that the captain and lieutenant were safe.  Ovron’s handsome face split into a big smile, then he waved the commander toward the building from which he had just emerged.  As Chakotay moved on, Ovron began issuing some orders to his troops.

He walked into the hallway, noting the splintered door.  Then he heard the sound of raised voices, the male’s pleading, the female’s threatening.  The language was Dosceni.  Ar Ziel shoved her way past him and went running toward the sounds.

Rogers stood in a doorway, his weapon drawn and aimed at someone within the room.  While his stance was alert, there was nothing about him to indicate that he was concerned.  Instead, he seemed almost amused at what was happening in that room.  Ayala sat a little ways down from him, slumped against the corridor wall.  Wildman sat beside him.  A little further down, another Dosceni soldier lay unconscious or dead.  Chakotay neither knew nor cared.

As Rogers looked up and saw them coming, he relaxed his stance and greeted Chakotay and Ar Ziel with a nod.  Entering the room, Chakotay saw B’Elanna and Hamilton leaning against a wall.  B’Elanna’s arms were crossed against her chest in a pose that indicated frustration and boredom.  Everyone seemed surprised at the appearance of the two, especially  Pleckso whose relief was obvious.

He began to speak to Ar Ziel, his voice an irritating whine.  Twice he called  her  Moroiska during his dialogue, just as he had referred to her when they were on Voyager.  This made Chakotay wonder what relationship there was between the two.  Ar Ziel had explained during dinner with him and Kathryn one evening how Dosceni names worked.

The children were given birth names, which they used throughout their youth until they were about sixteen.  At that time, in an elaborate naming ceremony which indicated the passage from childhood to adulthood,  the child took on the last name of either his mother or father, depending on whose house ranked higher.  After that, only close family members and long cherished friends were permitted to use the birth name of an individual.

The titles Ar, meaning woman, or Arb, literally translating to mean not-woman, were used in respect.  To not use them was a direct insult.  Ar Ziel did not use his title now.  Though the language was incomprehensible, the meaning was crystal clear.  She truly didn’t care whether Ar Crotol slit his throat.

Pleckso’s pleading grew more frantic.  Ar Ziel’s indifference grew more blatant,  and Ar Crotol grew more fidgety.  Finally Chakotay grew weary of the whole charade and  walked over to Ar Crotol.  He pulled her arm away from the man’s throat, grabbed Pleckso  by the shirt front and threw him into Tuvok’s waiting grasp.  Chakotay turned to look at Ar Crotol with a quirky smile, and she answered with one of her own.

“It is good to see you, Commander, though I must admit to being surprised at your presence here,”  Tuvok said as he casually held the weeping man by the shoulder.

“You can thank Seely and Petrek for that,” he said, “And for finding Tom and the captain.

At this B’Elanna jerked up from where she was leaning against the wall.  Chakotay nodded at her.  “They’re a little worse for the wear, but they’ll both live.  I sent them back to the shuttle to wait with the kids.”

Only five years of Janeway’s discipline kept B’Elanna from running out of the compound.  Knowing that, Chakotay told her to take Ayala, Wildman and Hamilton back to the shuttle.  “Rollins was hurt pretty bad, too.  Get all the wounded back to Voyager.  Let the Network ships know what’s happened and ask for help with the clean up.  Some of our people are on the way back from the shuttle now.  We’ll be fine until help arrives.”

B’Elanna wasn’t the only crew member who didn’t need to be told twice.  The others were on their feet and moving out even as she and Hamilton left the room.  Ar Crotol realized where they were heading, but refused to go.  Ar Ziel chose not to argue with her, since the wound on her side did not appear life threatening.

They went as quickly as they could while still maintaining a cautious scrutiny of the surrounding terrain.  They had no way of knowing that all the Dosceni were in fact captured, and they had no wish to add to the list of casualties.

Halfway to the shuttle they met up with the four returning crewmen.  A quick exchange of words assured them that the erstwhile hostages were settled on the shuttle.  B’Elanna stayed on point, anxious to keep going, so she missed the significant look that passed between Wildman  and Baxter.  Tightening her lips, Wildman hurried to catch up to the chief engineer, while Hamilton slid an arm around Ayala to help him move along.

The last hundred  meters were too much for B’Elanna.  She took off running, pausing only to key open the shuttle hatch.  A barely audible whimper escaped her as she tried to catch her breath. She stood in the hatchway, taking in the scene before her.

The captain lay on one bench, unconscious or asleep.  Rollins lay on the other, a blood soaked bandage held in place against one hip.  Sitting on the floor between them, his head resting against the back of the co-pilot’s seat, Tom watched her with bloodshot eyes.

“Hi ya, Gorgeous,” his voice was a hoarse croak.

B’Elanna moved forward slowly, kneeling down beside him.  His eyes and nose were running, his hair was an unkempt mess, his lips were cracked and his cheeks were flushed with fever.  He was the most wonderful sight B’Elanna could ever recall seeing.

“That’s Lieutenant Gorgeous, Mister,” she said, reaching out a hand to brush his hair out of his face.

“I still outrank you, Lieutenant, ” he smiled weakly at her.

“Tom…” His name came out in a strangled gasp as she tried to speak and her
throat seemed to close on her.

“Shhh,” he comforted her, taking her hand and moving it down to press the palm against his chapped lips.  “We’re all right.  We’re all right.”

By that time the others had arrived and began to move quietly into the shuttle.  No one intruded on the reunion of the two lovers until Tom finally realized that Wildman was bending over the captain, wincing when she saw Janeway’s battered face.

“Her left cheek bone is broken in at least two places, and there may be damage to the eye socket, though there was too much swelling for me to tell without any instruments.  But I’m mostly worried about brain damage.  I think she may have some bleeding into the brain.  Her whole right side is weak and her speech is slightly slurred, though she seems to be making a slow recovery on her own.  I gave her a shot of neurozine.  She should remain out of it until  Doc can get her into sick bay.

His attention turned to the other patient, “Rollins’ hip’s been shattered.  I don’t think even an osteogenic stimulator will help.  Doc will probably have to replace it.  I gave him a shot too.”

“And what about you?” the ensign asked, leaning over to place a hand against his forehead in a gesture known to mothers throughout the universe.  Tom just grinned at her.

“Me?  I have a cold,” he joked, only to be bent over in another fit of coughing.  When it was over, he looked up at her, his breath coming in ragged gasps.  “See?  Just a cold.”

Wildman looked at Hamilton, who was stepping over and around people to get to the pilot’s seat.  “We need to get back to Voyager now,” she said, injecting Tom with a broad spectrum antibiotic and following it up with a bronchodilator to ease his breathing.

As Ayala settled into the co-pilot’s seat beside him, Hamilton began the ascent back to Voyager.  Tom leaned back against B’Elanna, his body radiating far too much heat.

“Now I know you’re sick,”  B’Elanna teased to cover her worry, “You’re letting someone else fly a shuttle while you’re on board.”

“Ha, ha,”  Tom made a face at her before he let his eyes close.

They were into the upper atmosphere when the oppressive silence seemed to bring out the demon in Tom Paris.

“Hey, Torres, you know the Doc’s probably gonna put us in quarantine until he figures out what little bug I caught.”

“Probably,” B’Elanna answered him, wondering where he was going with this.

“So, you think maybe he’ll give us our own little isolation unit for two?”  he tried unsuccessfully to leer at her.

B’Elanna’s lips twiched.  “Paris, did I ever tell you you’re a pig?”

This time his smile was genuine as he leaned back against her, settling happily into her arms.  “Once or twice, Torres,” he sighed contentedly.  “Once or twice.”

Chapter Twenty-two

Paris’ racking coughs first drew Janeway’s attention.  Forcing herself out of  velvet darkness into bright lights that caused her to wince, she also became aware of  Rollins’ soft swearing and the doctors gentle encouragement as he explained that it would take the crewman a while to become accustomed to the new hip.  They were back on Voyager.

The throbbing in the side of her face was no longer there.  She tentatively lifted her hand to feel for herself that all was well, only to be surprised at the effort it took.  She closed her eyes for a moment, or at least she’d thought it was just a moment, until she opened them again to see the doctor leaning over her, anxiously reading the instruments in his hand.

“Easy, Captain.  You’ve suffered an ischemic episode due to the rupture of a small blood vessel on the left side of your brain.  I’ve managed to repair most of the damage, though you were on your way to healing yourself by the time I was able to get to you.   But I must warn you Captain, full recovery will take some time and a regimen of physical therapy.  What’s more, you must avoid further injury to that area at all costs.  Another incident like this and the damage may be irreparable.”

“I’ll do my best, Doctor,”  Janeway answered him as she struggled to sit up, wondering privately how she was to be expected to keep her head from getting pounded again given the vagaries of their present situation.  Across the room B’Elanna sat next to an empty biobed, her head pillowed on her arms as she stared at Tom where he remained confined behind an isolation field

Her brow wrinkled in concern.  “Report,” she ordered the doctor.

“Aside from yourself, Ensigns Rollins and Ayala were also injured during the melee.  Ayala took a bullet in his shoulder, which was easily extracted and repaired.  Rollins’ hip was shattered and needed to be replaced.  Like you, he will need to undergo therapy for a period of time, but he will also return to normal function.”

Tom’s body shook with another series of coughs. Janeway’s eyes turned to the doctor.

With a grimace, he answered her unspoken question.  “Mr. Paris was correct in his diagnoses of everyone’s injuries except his own.  His “simple cold” is in fact a particularly pernicious form of pneumonia.  Though both Mr. Paris and I are putting up a good fight, there is still some question of whether we will win this battle.”

As the doctor’s words sank in, Janeway turned startled eyes back to him. “He may die?”  B’Elanna’s head turned toward her and for the first time she saw the look on the young woman’s face.  There was her answer.

The doctor turned to stare at the lieutenant, whose labored breathing could be heard from across the room.  “I’m trying everything I can to prevent it, Captain.  But this virus mutates as fast as I can create an antibiotic.  It counteracts everything I’ve been able to throw at it.

“However, I’ve been in touch with the medical personnel on the Corrrder home world below, and they have promised to send up a medical team that specializes in this particular form of virus.  I have high hopes we will beat this.  We are fortunate in that none of the rest of you have shown any sign of infection.”

Janeway’s eyebrows shot up.  The Corrrder home world.  Then they were back where the whole thing started.    “I need to talk to Chakotay,” she said, sliding gingerly off the biobed.  Five years with one of the most stubborn women in the universe had taught the doctor not to argue with her when she decided to get up.

“Of course, Captain.  May I suggest you have him escort you to your quarters.  I’m sure you can be updated there, while resting, as easily as you can in your ready room.”

She looked at him for a moment before the appearance of the impish smile that meant she was conceding to his wishes, but only because she wanted to.  “All right, Doctor, I’ll wait for the commander’s escort,” she sat back on the biobed.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity.  Members of the Network’s legal societies  met with her and the rest of the crew, taking one deposition after another.  Ambassador Dreeeeel apologized, but explained that since Pleckso’s trial would undoubtedly take months, Voyager’s crew would not be expected to remain in Network space that long.  Therefore,  both the prosecution and defense attorneys were trying to gather as much information from everyone as they could while the key witnesses were still available.

Mumbling an amused “Amen,” to the ambassador’s comment that Network justice may not be swift, but it was certainly thorough, she and everyone else had endured the repeated questioning with growing impatience.  Then, a couple of days ago, two pieces of good news gave the entire crew cause to rejoice.  The depositions were over, and Tom was recovering enough to be griping about staying in sick bay.

There remained only the fate of the Dosceni to decide.  Which led her to this place and time.  Stating that it would be inappropriate for the Dosceni to argue on their own behalf, Ar Ziel and Dreeeeel had asked her to address the assemblage as the representative for the refugees.

So here she sat on a bench outside the Great Hall where the representatives of the seventeen member systems of the United Planetary Network were in the last hours of debate over the granting of asylum.  On either side of her sat her two senior officers.  That was Ovron’s suggestion.  “Go in with all your flags waving,” he winked at her.  “Let ’em know that you are somebody.  Political types love somebodies.”

Chakotay squirmed a little beside her.  Janeway caught the impatient movement of her first officer out of the corner of her eye.  She sympathized with him.  It seemed they had been sitting on the hard bench for hours, waiting to be called by Ambassador Dreeeeel.  On her other side Tuvok sat, his face  impassive, his gaze fixed on a point somewhere near the top of the wall across from them.  Her mouth quirked a little.  He appeared catatonic.  Maybe the secret to Vulcan stoicism was that they could make themselves unconscious at will.

She sighed.  What would happen if she was unsuccessful in her bid to convince these people of the Dosceni’s need?  Seven systems, including the G’nalrons and Corrrders stood for asylum.  Six stood against.  The debates were being waged to win the votes of the remaining four systems.

She hunched her shoulder a little.  Her right side ached slightly, though there was great improvement in her range of movement over the past seven days.  Still, she knew that it would be a while before she completely recovered.

Finally, the doors opened and a young woman of a species they had never seen stepped before her.  “Captain, if you’ll follow me.”  Janeway, Chakotay and Tuvok rose, straightening their uniforms and marching forward, knowing that the fate of forty-six people rested on their capable, but weary shoulders.

The two commanders stood flanking her, their hands clasped lightly behind their backs, their legs spread in parade rest.  As Janeway stepped up to the podium, she exuded an impressive aura of calm assurance.

“I have been asked to speak to you today on behalf of a people whose world is in turmoil.  They have come to you, seeking sanctuary for their children.  Like most refugees, they can offer nothing but their gratitude in exchange for this sanctuary.  Some of you have said that gratitude is not enough to risk taking your systems into a war with the Dosceni home world.  I cannot answer to that sentiment.  I cannot know what goes on in your hearts.  I can only tell you what is in ours.

“In our own quadrant, we have an organization similar in nature to yours.  We call it the United Federation of Planets.  Membership includes over 150  planets spread across eight thousand light years.”  A small rumbling filled the room, and Janeway inwardly smiled.  Ovron said make them think she was a somebody.  That ought to help.

“Since the beginning it has been a policy of the Federation to offer aid wherever it was required,” she continued, conveniently forgetting to mention the limitations to that policy engendered by the Prime Directive.  “All Federation members, including and especially Starfleet, are bound by duty as well as morality to assist anyone in need.  We do this regardless of the circumstances of those we help.  We neither expect nor accept payment for what we give.

“This quality in us, this compassion for others if  you will,  symbolizes more than anything else the very center of who we are.  Like too many societies, our past is a bloody one filled with war, death and violence.  Yet always, even in the worst of times when everything decent seemed tainted by dark hatred, hope represented itself in unexpected acts of compassion and mercy.  Often those acts involved great sacrifice.  Our history is filled with such stories. I would like to tell you one.

“In this instance, a star ship called the Enterprise responded to a distress call from a settlement of Klingons, a fierce warrior race whose empire marches alongside Federation space.  Although the Federation had endured over a century of  hostilities with the Klingon Empire, an uneasy truce resided between the two factions at that time.  Still, the rumblings of war were sounding once again.  Diplomatic efforts were failing, and open conflict seemed inevitable.

“Even so, when the Klingon colony fell under attack from another enemy, our star ship responded to their call for help.  It was a suicide mission.  The ship was outnumbered, the situation was hopeless.  Yet our crew fought valiantly, trying to save a people who had never been more to us than despised adversaries.”

Janeway studied her audience, looking for signs that she was loosing them.  She wasn’t.  The rapt attention of every representative was focused on her.

“The Enterprise and her entire crew were lost in that battle.  But the people of the Klingon Empire heard of their heroic efforts.  The death of those crewmen was hailed and respected.  Their sacrifice helped pave the way for a peace agreement which has lasted for decades.  War was averted.  And millions of lives were saved.

“It is easy for me to stand before you and say that the potential for war is far outweighed by the potential for good that you generate in taking in these children.  After all, we will not be here to fight the battle should it come to that.  However, you already know from the events of the past few days that my people have sacrificed before, and we will again.  We are not asking you to do anything that we have not done ourselves.

“What we are asking is that you give these children a place to grow where they will learn the ways of peace.  Let them stay and nurture them as the best hope their people have for a future.  In doing this, you have a chance to make a difference for an entire world.

“A great philosopher among my people once said we define ourselves by the way we treat our young, our old, and our infirm.   Consider the statement you are making about your own people with the vote you cast.”

Not one person spoke as Janeway made her way out of the Hall.  She had no idea if she had turned the tide in the Dosceni’s favor.  All she knew was that she was feeling very tired, and had the ridiculous desire to take a nap.  Resuming her seat on the bench next to Chakotay and Tuvok, she rested her head on Chakotay’s broad shoulder.

“A most impressive speech, Captain.”

She smiled at him.  “Impressive is nice, Tuvok, but convincing would be better.”

“You convinced me,” Chakotay said.

“She turned her head to grin at him.  “Doesn’t count.  You’re biased, ” she laughed quietly  as he grinned back at her.

It was nearly an hour later when the doors opened and the representatives began filing out.  Nearly every one of them nodded in the direction of the Voyager crew.  Their attitude was that of respect.  Finally Ovron worked his way through the crowd.  The smile on his face told them what they needed to know.

“The final vote was twelve to five.  You even convinced one of the original nay sayers to change.  Good going, Kathryn.”  He patted her heartily on the arm, then left to go find Ar Crotol.  Janeway looked up to see Ambassador Dreeeeel standing a few feet away.  They rose to greet him.

“I will leave it to you to tell Ar Ziel the good news, Captain,” he said as he offered her his arm and they walked down the corridor.  “We will work out the logistics of housing and support with her in the next few days.”

Janeway nodded her understanding.  She would miss the captain’s companionship.  Yet she knew that it was necessary for Voyager’s role in the lives of these children to come to an end.  Soon there would be tearful farewells, especially for Naomi, who would be  loosing the first real life play companions she ever had.   However, frequent good-byes were a part of the Starfleet life.  She would recover.  They all would.

***********************************************************************

The shower door opened  and Tom turned.  “B’Elanna” he sighed, a slight degree of amusement showing in his voice, “There is barely enough room for one in this stall, let alone two.”

“I thought maybe you’d want me to scrub your back.”

“Hmph!” was his only reply.

After a moment he gasped, then chuckled.  “Um, Torres, if you think that’s my back, then you need a remedial lesson in male anatomy,” he said, turning to take her in his arms.

“Mmmmm,” she purred, “Sounds good.  Of course, you know I’m an engineer.  And engineers always learn better through hands on training.”

“Oh, I think that can be arranged, Lieutenant,” his voice a husky whisper.  “Shall we begin?” He lowered his head to hers.  “Now pay careful attention.  These are my lips…..”

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