A Fire of Devotion: Part 2 of 4: Louder Than Bells: Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

“Stay the course!” Captain Rudolph Ransom shouted over the sounds of alarm klaxons and exploding consoles on the bridge of the Nova-class starship Equinox.
“Shields are down to 29%, they’re breaking through,” Ransom’s first officer, Lieutenant Maxwell Burke said as another explosion rocked the bridge.

“Let them,” Ransom said.
“Sir?” Burke said, looking back at his captain in shock.

“Take the shields off-line and recharge the emitters. That’ll bring ‘em up to full power. I know we’ll be vulnerable during the forty-five second recharge, but we’ll be dead if they fail altogether. All hands, arm yourselves!”

While Burke manipulated controls, Ransom and everyone else on the bridge picked up their phaser rifle, tense, waiting for the worst.

“Shields dropped, sir,” Burke said, looking around him, choosing to keep an eye on the console instead of picking up a weapon, a potentially suicidal act, but someone had to make sure the shields came back up after the recharge.
Assuming we aren’t all dead by then, Burke thought, the mental image of every crew member lost to the attackers so far only adding to his fear.

“Thirty seconds to go,” Burke said.
A dry, high-pitched screeching whine filled the bridge, and Burke almost caved and went for his weapon. Portals began appearing around the edges of the wrecked bridge, Captain Ransom and the other officers firing into them as each one appeared.

One of the attacking creatures managed to avoid the phaser fire and emerged from one of the portals, and immediately closed in on one of the officers behind Burke, he couldn’t tell who right away.

“Time!” Ransom yelled.

“Ten seconds!” Burke said, looking back in time to see three streaks of light slash across Ensign Akuji, the officer collapsing as his body immediately desiccated into a dried husk, just like all the others.

The remaining officers desperately fired at every portal and creature which emerged from it as the countdown reached zero.

“So the Equinox did end up out here after all,” Chakotay said. “Just like Admiral Hayes said they might’ve.” He, Captain Janeway. and Seven of Nine watched the loop of the distress signal that Seven had just picked up in astrometrics. Whatever was happening to the Equinox, it looked bad. Behind Captain Ransom, who looked dirty and tired, holding a phaser and constantly looking in every possible direction while still facing whatever console he was recording the distress call on, the bridge was dark, but clearly in severe disrepair, whole chunks of bulkhead having fallen to the deck, console sparking, steam pouring out of places that Chakotay couldn’t make out.

“This is Captain Ransom of the Federation Starship Equinox! We’re under attack! We need assistance! Repeat-”

“This distress call was sent approximately fourteen hours ago,” Seven of Nine said. “Distance of 3.2 light years. I’m attempting to get a fix on their location.”
“When we have it, send it to Tom,” Captain Janeway said.
“It’ll be interesting to hear how they got so far ahead of us,” Chakotay said, echoing a thought he’d had last year when the Captain had informed him that Starfleet thought the Equinox may have been taken by the Caretaker as well while on a covert mission near the Breen border.

“Let’s save the debriefing for after we’ve saved them,” Janeway said.

“I’ve got their coordinates and have sent them to the helm,” Seven said.
“Good,” Janeway said, tapping her comm badge. “Janeway to Bridge, go to red alert. Mister Paris, take us to the coordinates Seven just sent you at maximum warp.”
“Understood,” Tom Paris said, not asking why.
Probably figures we’ll tell him when we get to the bridge, Chakotay thought. For Tom that’s a remarkable amount of patience.

“Seven, you’re with us,” Janeway said as she motioned for her and for Chakotay to follow her out of astrometrics.

“Captain,” Seven said, “we do not know what we will be up against when we get there, I should continue to monitor long range sensors from astrometrics.”
“You can do that just as well from the bridge, Seven” Janeway said.
Chakotay didn’t have anything to add to the conversation so he kept quiet on the quick walk to the turbolift. He did, however, have a nagging concern at the back of his mind about Captain Ransom, though why that was he had no idea, beyond the fact that Ransom apparently had the trust of the notoriously closed-off and borderline paranoid Elena Nechayev of Starfleet Intelligence.

That shouldn’t matter, he thought. What matters is he is a fellow officer who needs help.

The three exited the turbolift onto the bridge. Neelix was there, though Chakotay wasn’t sure why. He had probably been up there for another purpose but decided to stay once the red alert was called.

Captain Janeway quickly filled the bridge crew in on the basics about the distress call, leaving out that she had been made aware of the possibility of the Equinox being out here last year, which Chakotay figured was the right decision. If the rest of the senior staff was excited at the prospect of meeting new Starfleet officers for the first time in almost six years, they didn’t show it, and Chakotay was, not for the first time, proud of their professionalism.

“We’re approaching the coordinates,” Tom said, several minutes later.

“Take us out of warp,” Janeway said.
“I’ve got them,” Harry said. “Two thousand kilometers off the port bow, moving at low impulse.”

“Intercept,” Janeway said. “Can you get a visual?”
“On it,” Harry said. The viewscreen changed to show the small Starfleet vessel, its shields glowing in a pattern that would be pretty if it weren’t a sign of near constant bombardment, even though sensors showed no sign of any attacking ships, or any ships within light years of the two Federation ships for that matter.

“They are heavily damaged,” Tuvok said. “Multiple hull breaches, warp drive is offline.”
“What’s happening to their shields?” Neelix said.
“They’re being disrupted by some kind of energy surges,” Seven said.

“We’re in hailing range,” Harry said.

“Open a channel,” Janeway said. “This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the starship Voyager. We’re responding to your-
Voyager! You’ve got to extend your shields around us!” the voice of Captain Ransom shouted. Match the emitter frequency! Do it!”
“You heard the Captain,” Janeway said. “Quickly.”
“Getting into position now,” Tom said.
“I am attempting to match their shield frequency,” Tuvok said.
A dry, high-pitched screeching whine began filling the bridge.
“Did anyone else hear that?” Neelix said.
An alert noise from the auxiliary tactical console where Seven of Nine stood grabbed Chakotay’s attention.
“Interspatial fissures have opened on decks ten, six, and one,” she said.
Chakotay looked around, trying to see the portal. If it wasn’t where he could see one the only other options were the captain’s ready room and the briefing room.
“Tuvok?” Janeway said, standing up as she spoke.
“Stand by,” Tuvok said. The whine suddenly stopped. “Shields are holding,” he added.

“The fissures?” Chakotay said, looking at Seven.
“No sign of them,” she said.
Voyager to Equinox,” Janeway said. The only response over the comm channel was static. “Captain Ransom?” Still no response.
Janeway turned and looked directly at Chakotay.
“Assemble rescue teams. Secure the Equinox,” she said.
“Aye, Captain,” Chakotay said. “Chakotay to the Doctor and Lieutenant Torres, report to transporter room 1 immediately. Doctor, bring a full med-kit. Tom, you’re with me.”

B’Elanna followed behind Chakotay and next to Tom as the three of them, split off from the rest of the groups combing the ship for survivors, entered the Equinox’s engineering section, which B’Elanna would’ve found too small for comfort even without all the debris cluttering the deck.
“Hello?” Chakotay said. “Anyone here?”

“I’m going to try and get main power back online,” B’Elanna said.
“Go for it,” Chakotay said. “Tom?” Chakotay pointed his wristlight towards a desiccated and shriveled body slumped up against one of the consoles. Tom took out a medical tricorder, though B’Elanna could tell from the glance she’d gotten as she walked by that there was nothing the Doctor could do for him, let alone Tom who was only a field medic. A very competent one, but still.
B’Elanna went over to the warp core, and quickly noticed the odd looking device attached to it. She scanned the device with her own, non-medical tricorder, and shook her head at the readings.
“Commander,” she said, “I can’t make heads or tails of this injector manifold. And it looks like the dilithium matrix has been completely redesigned.”
“We’ll have to find one of their engineers to help,” Chakotay said. “In the meantime, see if you can bypass the core.”
“Aye, sir,” B’Elanna said. As she continued to try and find a way to get main power back on-line, she had to admit that she was impressed with some of the patchwork repairs this ship’s crew had obviously had to resort to. The way some of the equipment in this engineering was held together, she tried to imagine how desperate she would have to be to try something like that on Voyager.
Some of these power conduits look like they’d explode if you looked at them too hard, she thought.

“Hang on,” she heard Chakotay say. She glanced over to see the commander moving debris. He’d obviously found a survivor.
“Need any help?” she called to him.
“I got her,” Chakotay said.

With turbolifts down, Seven of Nine and Lieutenant Kim found themselves resorting to jeffries tubes and ladders to search for survivors.
“Over here!” Harry called out as he lifted himself up to the next deck. “Don’t worry,” Seven heard him say, “help is coming.”

Seven finished climbing up herself, craning her neck to see where Harry was, finally spotting him standing next to an officer under some debris. There was a lot of it, but a quick scan with her ocular implant showed that it was light and the Equinox crew member, who was awake and groaning, had likely not suffered any crush injuries.

“What’s your name?” Harry said.
“Lessing,” the man said. “Noah Lessing.” Seven began clearing debris away from the man, while Harry kept him talking.
“I’m Lieutenant Kim,” Harry said. “This is Seven of Nine.”
“What are you doing in the Delta Quadrant?” Lessing said.
“The answer is complicated,” Seven said. “Keep talking, you may have a concussion.”
“Can do,” Lessing said. “Seven of Nine he said your name was?”
“That is correct,” Seven said, finally spotting Lessing’s legs under the debris and seeing no immediate signs of bleeding. She hoped that the man could still walk, but that would be for the Doctor to determine.

“Odd name. Sounds like a Borg designation.”
“It is,” Seven said.
Lessing laughed.
“We can’t have been gone that long,” he said. “You telling me the Borg are in the Federation now?”
“Just me,” Seven said.

“An exchange program?” Lessing said. Despite his injuries and dire situation, the man was still able to joke, a human trait that Seven still didn’t understand despite the number of times she’d encountered since joining Voyager, but one she had to admit she’d come to admire.
“An early mid-life crisis,” Seven said, hoping her delivery wasn’t too deadpan. “Even got the blonde girlfriend to go with it.”
Lessing laughed, though he was clearly trying not to laugh too hard. Seven wondered if he might have internal injuries.

“I guess some things are just universal,” he said.

Captain Janeway got the turbolift door to the bridge forced open and entered, Tuvok behind her. Immediately she saw the body of a female officer. She glanced around, keeping her phaser rifle ready, while Tuvok scanned her.
Janeway looked around, and saw another body, a male human, in even worse shape, leaned against a still sparking console, though the body did not look burned at all. Whatever had killed him, it hadn’t been the console.

Janeway and Tuvok went around a large chunk of bulkhead that had fallen, and found someone slumped over the helm console. She was ready to assume he was dead too, but the man groaned when Tuvok touched him.
“Huh? What?” the human lieutenant said.
Another console nearby sparked, and Janeway reflexively turned to face that direction, and that’s when she saw him, slumped back in the Captain’s chair, but visibly breathing.
“Captain Ransom,” she said, moving over to him, ready to help him up if need be. She moved his head to the side, checking for wounds. Ransom’s eyes fluttered open.

“My, my crew?” he said.
“You took heavy casualties,” Janeway said. “We’re treating the survivors. Who attacked you?”

“We don’t know,” Ransom said. “We can’t communicate with them. They’ve been attacking us for weeks. I’ve got to secure the ship.”

“Leave that to us, Captain,” Janeway said. “Janeway to Voyager, prepare to beam-”
“No, no,” Ransom said, “I can’t leave my ship.”
“I can’t pull rank on you Ransom, but you’re in no condition to put up a fight,” Janeway said.
Ransom sighed, then smiled and even laughed a little, which Janeway took as a good sign.
“So,” he said, “how’s Earth.”
“Wish I could say,” Janeway said
“You weren’t sent to find us?” Ransom said.
“‘Fraid not,” Janeway said. “My ship’s been stranded in the Delta Quadrant for five years. We were pulled here by an alien called-”
“Caretaker?” Ransom said.

Starfleet’s theory, confirmed, Janeway thought.
“We were able to contact the Federation briefly last year,” she said, “through an ancient series of alien arrays, but the arrays were destroyed, so beyond what they were able to tell us, we know nothing about what’s going on in the Alpha Quadrant. As far as they’re concerned, your ship is as lost as ours was.” She decided to leave out the information about the war with the Dominion and the Cardassians for now.

“I guess we can compare notes later,” Ransom said. “I’ll go to your sickbay if you insist.”
“I do,” Janeway said, helping Ransom to his feet.

All of the Equinox survivors stood at one end of the mess hall, while Captain Ransom walked among them. The Voyager crew members who had taken part in the rescue stood at the other end, except for Captain Janeway, who stood close to, but not among, the former group.

This was an impromptu memorial, Seven had been told. There would be time for the two crews to interact afterwards.

“We’re here to commemoratee our honored dead,” Ransom said. “Lieutenant William Yates, Lieutenant John Bowler, Ensign Shogo Akuji, Ensign Dorothy Chang, and Crewman David Amantes, who all served with distinction. Their bravery and sacrifice will not be forgotten. They will be missed. But now, there is cause for optimism. Captain Janeway, on behalf of my crew, thank you.”
“We’ll have time to give the newest members of our family a proper welcome in the days ahead,” Janeway said, “but for now we’ve got our hands full.” Janeway moved closer to the Voyager crew’s side of the room. “The Equinox is secure,” she continued, “but its primary systems are still badly damaged. Harry, B’Elanna, make that your priority. Ensign Gilmore is the senior engineering officer, she can-”
“Uh, Captain?” the woman whom Seven had been told was named Marla Gilmore said, “I, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can go back there, right now.” Ensign Gilmore looked pale, and her lower lip quivered the way Naomi’s would when she was afraid. Seven hoped that she would be okay, as her trauma, on first glance, seemed deeper and more severe than Harry’s had been post-Year of Hell.
“Ensign, the Captain gave you an order,” Ransom said.
“It’s all right,” Janeway said, “I understand. My people can handle it. Captain Ransom has supplied us with data regarding the alien attacks. Tuvok, Seven, you’ll be working with First Officer Maxwell Burke. Everyone else, dismissed.”
Seven and Tuvok shared a quick glance, and immediately walked up to Maxwell Burke, ready to get started on their assigned task.
“We should begin by familiarizing you with Voyager’s defenses,” Tuvok said.
“Can you give me a minute?” Burke said. “There’s someone I’d like to say hello to to first.”
Seven glanced over her shoulder to see who Burke was looking at when he said that. B’Elanna was looking in their direction too, and seemed to be maneuvering herself as close to Tom Paris as she could without actually merging their bodies together, the latter looking slightly confused.

“B.L.T.,” Burke said with a grin on his face.
“Max,” B’Elanna said. Burke gave B’Elanna a hug, and B’Elanna accepted it, even though she looked uncomfortable doing so. Tom simply looked confused.
Seven and Tuvok shared another look.
“You two know each other?” Tuvok said.

“So, where’s my sweater?” Burke said to B’Elanna, ignoring Tuvok’s question. “The blue one, class insignia on the back?”
B’Elanna was smiling, but Seven could see the discomfort in it.
“We went to the academy together,” she said to Tom, who smiled and nodded.
“Ah,” he said.
“So, First Officer,” B’Elanna said. “That’s impressive. Last time we talked I heard you were about to drop out of Starfleet.”
“Heard you beat me to it,” Burke said. Seven looked to her left and saw that Tuvok had already left. She figured he was on his way to astrometrics, and that she would have to be the one who made sure Burke got there. “The Maquis?”
“For a while,” B’Elanna said, practically radiating discomfort. Seven wondered if Burke was that oblivious, or just didn’t care. “Anyway, this is Tom Paris. My boyfriend.”

“Hi,” Tom said, offering his hand to Burke. “So, B.L.T.?”
“It’s a nickname I had for her. When she and I were dating,” Burke said.
“Ten years ago,” B’Elanna said through a forced smile, and making sure Burke saw her arm around Tom’s waist.
Seven rolled her eyes. “We really should get going Lieutenant. I will escort you to astrometrics,” she said. When Burke looked in her direction, B’Elanna mouthed “thank you” at her.

Chakotay walked down the corridor, making his way to his office to prepare the next day’s duty roster. Normally he didn’t have to start quite so early, but the addition of the Equinox crew made things a bit more complicated.
“Commander?” he heard a voice say from behind him. He turned to see Ensign Gilmore from the Equinox trying to catch up to him. He stopped walking so she could do so.
“I didn’t get the chance to thank Captain Janeway for letting me stay on Voyager for awhile, I’m just-”
“It’s okay Ensign,” Chakotay said. “No need to explain. This crew is no stranger to PTSD. Everyone deals with it in their own way, at their own pace. You should talk to Lieutenant Kim, he’s been through something like what you have.”
Gilmore tilted her head. “Just him?” she said.
“Well, time travel was involved so-”

“Oh, god, stop right there,” Gilmore said, frowning. “I’ll just take your word for it.”

The two officers continued walking, GIlmore looking at the walls of the corridor as if she’d never seen the inside of a Starfleet vessel before.
“Such a clean ship,” she said. “I’m used to falling bulkheads and missing deck plates.”
“In a few weeks,” Chakotay said, “you won’t even recognize the Equinox. You’ll be happy to go back.”
“Unless I stay,” Gilmore said. Suddenly, that nagging feeling Chakotay had had when they first discovered the Equinox’s presence in the Delta Quadrant was back.

“I don’t think your Captain would appreciate that,” Chakotay said, “he’s got a skeleton crew as it is.” Find out why she doesn’t want to go back, a voice in the back of Chakotay’s mind said. Chakotay reached the turbolift. Gilmore stared at it, visibly nervous.
“Claustrophobic?” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “I just haven’t set foot in a turbolift in three months. If one of those fissures opened up in here, where would one take cover, you know?”

Seven of Nine didn’t like having so many people in “her” lab at once, but she didn’t let it distract her from her work. Captains Janeway and Ransom had joined her, Tuvok, and Lieutenant Burke before she had completed her initial assessment of Ransom’s data on the alien attacks. When she finally had something for them, she spoke up.

“I’ve run a thermographic analysis of our shields,” she said. “It revealed multiple stress points. We believe they’re the result of alien attempts to infiltrate our vessels.”
“So the attacks didn’t actually stop,” Janeway said.

“Each time a fissure opens within a meter of our shields,” Tuvok said. “it weakens them by 0.3%. At the current rate of attacks, we have less than two days to mount a defense.”

“Captain Ransom,” Seven said, “According to your records, bio-scans say the aliens can only survive in our realm for several seconds.”
“They’re like fish out of water,” Ransom said, “but they can do a lot of damage in those seconds.”
“Nevertheless,” Tuvok said, “it is a tactical weakness. Perhaps we can exploit it.”
“What have you got in mind?” Lieutenant Burke said.
Seven had an idea.
“If we can show them we have the ability to hold them here,” she said, “they’ll think twice before launching another attack.” Ransom and Burke’s face went blank, both men suddenly and very obviously trying to hide their emotional response to Seven’s suggestion.
“All well and good,” Janeway said, bringing Seven’s attention back to her. “But how do we catch these fish?”

“You build a net,” Burke said.
“Lieutenant?” Janeway said.
“A multiphasic force field,” Burke said. “We wanted to see what we were up against, so we built a small chamber that could keep one of them trapped for several minutes.”
“If we could expand on that technology,” Janeway said, bypassing what Seven thought should’ve been the first question; why only tell us about this now. “we might be able to create a latticework of multiphasic force fields around both ships.”
Burke nodded. Seven couldn’t help but notice Ransom looking somewhat uncomfortable. She made a mental note to bring this up to Captain Janeway later.

“We’ll need to examine that stasis chamber,” Janeway said, audible excitement for the plan in her voice.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Ransom said. “It’s in our research lab. That whole section was flooded with thermionic radiation during the last attack. It’ll be days before anyone can go in there.”

“Not necessarily,” Seven said. “We could speak to the Doctor about repurposing the metreoninoculation, like we have before.”
“The design schematics are in our auxiliary data core,” Burke said.
“I’ll see if I can download them,” Ransom said. “Care to give me a hand Captain?”
Janeway nodded, and the two Captains left astrometrics.
Seven had a negative feeling about Rudolph Ransom, but she couldn’t precisely say what it was. She felt he was hiding something, but what it could be she had no clue, and she doubted Burke would tell her. She then remembered Noah Lessing, the only other member of the Equinox crew she’d spoken to. He’d seemed friendly enough.
Perhaps if I can convince him to have lunch with Sam and myself, she thought, we can get him to open up about what’s really been going on on that ship.

Captain Janeway and Captain Ransom worked on separate consoles on the bridge of the Equinox, the severity of its damage now more visible thanks to the ship’s lights having been restored to full power.
“Captain,” Janeway said, “before the memorial service, I noticed that some of the crew called you ‘Rudy.’”
“When you’ve been in the trenches as long as we have Captain Janeway,’ Ransom said, not looking up from his work, “rank and protocol are luxuries. I don’t care what they call me, so long as they get the job done.”

“Fair enough,” Janeway said.
“Do you? Let them call you by your first name I mean?”
Janeway laughed.
“I can count on one hand the number of officers I let call me Kathryn, and none of them get to call me Kathy. My sisters, and my ex-fiancee, get to call me that. Everyone else, they can do so but it’s at their own peril.”

“You do seem to run a tight ship,” Ransom said.
“We’ve been known to let our hair down from time to time,” Janeway said, “but I find that maintaining protocol reminds us of where we came from and hopefully where we’re going.”

“It seems to work quite well for you,” Ransom said. Janeway thought she heard some bitterness in that reply. She wondered if maybe there was some resentment about the state of their respective ships. Voyager had been through a lot, sure. However, thanks to having a mostly full crew compliment, even after the losses they’d suffered, and the occasional successful trade deal with other spacefaring cultures, Voyager looked almost exactly as she had when she first left Utopia Planitia six years ago. If that was the case, she couldn’t hold it against him.
I’d have to be a real asshole to do that, she thought.

“Well, we’ve had to overcome a few obstacles here and there,” she said. “Integrating Maquis into our crew, the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Borg-”
“The Borg?” Ransom said, seeming surprised. “Well, there’s one area where we got lucky. We haven’t seen so much as a single cube since we got here. The Kazon I remember though. Tell me, were The Kazon-Sakkra still in charge when you showed up, or did they finally lose their little turf war with the Kazon-Ogla?”
“Seeing as we never heard of the Kazon-Sakkra during the two years we were in their territory?” Janeway said.

“Hmm,” Ransom said. “A shame really. They were actually relatively helpful. Rude, but helpful. How did you handle the Krowtonan Guard?”

“Never heard of them,” Janeway said.
“That’s a surprise,” Ransom said. “We had to deal with them our first week in the Delta Quadrant. They claimed we violated their territory. I gave the order to keep going. I lost thirty-nine people to those bastards. Half my crew. If you didn’t run into them though, I guess their little war with some of the other Kazon sects went badly. Good.”

“I’m sorry,” Janeway said.

“We never recovered from that loss,” Ransom said. “It changed everything.”
“What do you mean?” Janeway said.
“When I first realized we’d be travelling across the Delta Quadrant for the rest of our lives,” Ransom said, his voice getting quiet, “I told my crew that we had a duty as Starfleet officers to expand our knowledge and uphold our principles. After a couple of years, we started to forget that we were explorers. And there were times when we’d forget we were human beings.”

“This is a Nova-class science vessel,” Janeway said. “designed for short-term research missions, minimal weapons, can’t even go faster than warp eight. Frankly, I don’t know how you’ve done it. You’ve obviously traveled farther than we have, even if only by a little. And you did it with much fewer resources.”

“I can’t take all the credit,” Ransom said. “but we stumbled across a wormhole, and made some enhancements to our warp engines.”
Janeway considered mentioning that Chakotay thought that a wormhole might be involved, but although she couldn’t think of a reason not to mention it. She also decided to keep quiet about knowing about Ransom’s secret mission for Nechayev on the Breen border. She wondered if anyone else on the crew knew about it, or if Ransom had misled them under orders. She wouldn’t put it past Nechayev to make a Captain lie to their crew like that.

“I’d like to ask you something,” Ransom said. “Captain to Captain.”
“Shoot,” Janeway said.

“The Prime Directive. How often have you broken it? For the sake of protecting your crew?”

Janeway leaned against one of the few intact pieces of railing on the Equinox bridge and stared at the blank, cracked viewscreen. Should I tell him the truth? she thought
“I like to tell myself that I’ve never actually broken it, just bent it a little,” she said. “And for awhile I actually managed to convince myself it was true, but not too long ago Voyager found itself in an area of dark space. No star systems for light years around, no ships, theta radiation blocking long range sensors, just, nothing. We were there for months, the first time since we got to the Delta Quadrant where we went more than a few weeks without a crisis of some kind.

“It gave me time to think about everything we’d gone through the previous four years. I went over every decision I made starting from when I made the call to destroy the Caretaker’s array to keep it out of Kazon hands, and every excuse I made to justify every decision. Some things I stand by, sure, and there were plenty of situations where the Prime Directive didn’t apply, but between you and me Captain, sometimes I think I’ve used it as an excuse to avoid making a tough decision.”

Ransom nodded sympathetically. It felt good to open up like this. She’d shared her concerns about her command with Chakotay, Tuvok, even Kes before she left, but they all knew her to some degree. Ransom was effectively a stranger, someone with a fresh perspective.
“Your secret’s safe with me Captain,” he said. “Though since we’re being honest, I think you’re hardly the first captain who’s done that. I feel like sometimes we forget the original point of the Prime Directive.”
Janeway nodded herself.
“My helmsman, Ensign Paris, made a similar point to me earlier this year,” Janeway said. “He basically said we treat a good idea like inflexible dogma. I think he may be right. What if we really do fear violating the Prime Directive so much that in the process we forget to actually follow it?”

Ransom chuckled.
“Captain?” Janeway said.
“Just remembering something my cousin Joel once told me. I’m going off memory here, so I may mess up a word or two, but, he said the Prime Directive has good intentions in place;  to protect other civilizations from us, and to protect us from being embroiled in affairs that shouldn’t concern the Federation. Like many aspects of the Articles of Federation, it’s something we latched onto as a sign of enlightenment of the Federation. But, as so often happens with these things, like the old American Constitution, support lead to devotion and devotion lead to worship, and something went from ‘good idea’ to, like your helmsman said, ‘inflexible dogma.’“

Ouch, Janeway thought.
“So basically,” she said, “the Federation is a secular government that behaves like a theocratic one?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Captain,” Ransom said. “Even with all our mistakes, whether we admit to them or not, I’d take the Federation over any of the other government in the Alpha Quadrant any day. Maybe I’m being guilty of that dogma myself, but I’d at least like to believe that we’re better on our worst day than the Romulan Star Empire, or the Tholian Holdfast, or the Cardassian Union.”

“I sure as hell hope so,” Janeway said.

Ransom nodded.
“How about you?” Janeway said.
“I’ve walked the line once or twice,” Ransom said. “Nothing worse than what Jim Kirk ever did in his time, really.” Ransom turned around. “Ah, there you are,” he said. He walked over to where a bulkhead had collapsed, blocking off one of the two paths to the turbolift from the captain’s chair.

“What is it?” Janeway asked.
“The Equinox dedication plaque,” Ransom said, picking it up and wiping the dust and debris off of it. “feel off weeks ago, but things didn’t let up long enough for me to go looking for it.”
“I’d call that a good omen,” Janeway said. “Let’s put it back where it belongs.”

Rudolph Ransom walked the corridors of Voyager, looking for his first officer. When he didn’t find him in astrometrics with Janeway’s Borg crewmember, something that he still had a hard time accepting, he decided the mess hall would be the next most likely place.

He walked through the door, and the smell of freshly cooked food filled him with mixed emotions. Hunger, and anger.
How dare they have it so good, he thought. What makes them so goddamned special that they get the nice ship, the Talaxian who isn’t a bigot or a pirate or both, the happy couples, the child. Why them and not us?

He saw Burke eating alone at one of the tables.
“Ah, I thought I’d find you here,” he said, Burke turning his head to look at him.
“Can you blame me after two years of replicator rations?” Burke said.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Ransom said quietly. He leaned in so that only Burke could hear him. “If Janeway is any indication, these Voyager people will never understand.”
“They’re going to find out eventually, Rudy,” Burke said.
“Not if we can keep them out of the research lab and away from the warp core injectors,” Ransom said.  “Be careful what you say around the crew, especially old girlfriends and their new boyfriends.”

Ransom took a piece of something that looked like a french fry, off Burke’s plate and took a bite.
“Hmm,” he said. “Pretty good.”
“Agreed,” Burke said, his tone implying that he didn’t just mean the taste of the food.

Seven heard the door to astrometrics open behind her. She turned around to see who was entering, and saw Noah Lessing walking in.
“So, how’s my angel of mercy?” he said, smiling.
“Angel of mercy?” Samantha Wildman said, giving Seven a wink.
“Crewman Lessing,” Seven said, “I didn’t expect you to recover so quickly.”
“You have an outstanding EMH,” Lessing said. “Ours can barely hold a laser scalpel. Sorry to interrupt by the way.” It was then that Seven noticed that Sam still had a hand on Seven’s back. “I promise not to tell,” Lessing added with a grin.
Seven just smiled and shook her head, while Samantha let out a loud belly laugh.
“Oh, it’s not an issue, trust me,” Sam said. “The crew has known about us for, what’s it been Annie, over a year now?”
“Approximately,” Seven said.
“Annie?” Lessing said.
“My name before I was assimilated was Annika Hansen. I prefer to go by Seven of Nine, though in my fiancee’s case I make an exception.”
“Fiancee! Wow,” Lessing said. “I gotta say, I’m jealous. The Equinox has been under constant siege so long, nobody’s had the time to even think about pairing up for just a night, let alone long term. Maybe now that things seem to be settling down, maybe, I don’t know.”

“Anyone in particular you’re thinking about there, Crewman?” Sam said.
“No, Ensign,” Lessing said, his voice losing it’s jovial tone rather suddenly. “Dorothy Chang and I had gotten pretty close before the Caretaker grabbed us, but, well…” his voice trailed off, and Seven understood. Dorothy Chang had been one of the names Captain Ransom had spoken at the memorial. The aliens who were now a threat to Voyager as well had killed her in the last attack before Voyager had found the Equinox.
“Well,” Sam said, “I will let you chat with your new friend here.” She turned to face Lessing. “I just got off shift and wanted to see my girl before I went to pick up my daughter from the holodeck. Maybe you can join us for dinner later?”
“Would that be alright with you Seven?” Lessing asked.
“Of course,” Seven said.

“I might just take you up on that. Thank you.”

“Okay then” Sam said, giving Seven a quick kiss on the lips, and goosing her on the way out.
I still flinch every time she does that, Seven thought, grinning the whole time, but I don’t care.

“Anyway,” Lessing said, “sorry for forgetting to mention this when I came in but I’ve been assigned to help you sort through our biodata.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve already nearly completed the-”
The screeching noise, the one Seven had heard the first time fissures opened on the ship, started again. Lessing immediately pulled out his phaser, and she grabbed hers as well, looking up, and around, ready to shoot the first portal she saw.

The noise on the bridge might’ve caused a panic had this been the first time they heard it, but Janeway’s crew had been briefed, so everyone was ready. Phasers immediately left belts while Janeway asked where the fissures were and how they’d gotten through the shields ahead of when they were expected to.

“Lateral shields are offline,” Tuvok said.
“How is that possible?” Chakotay said.
“Fissures are opening on decks one, eight, and eleven,” Harry said, sounding legitimately panicked for the first time in over a year.

“Reroute power!” Chakotay shouted, beating Janeway to the punch as she’d been about to say the same thing. She allowed herself to glance at Tuvok, then at Harry, both men working simultaneously. After what felt like minutes but had actually been seconds, the noise faded away.

“What the hell happened?” she said.
“Apparently,” Tuvok said, “the aliens have changed tactics. They have focused their attacks on a single shield vector. It collapsed before the auxiliary emitters could respond.”
“Looks like we have less time than we thought to mount a defense,” Janeway said. “Tuvok, report to the briefing room. Chakotay, get Seven, Ransom, Burke, and Gilmore and bring them there. We need solutions and we need them fast.”
“Ensign Gilmore?” Chakotay said. “May I ask why?”
“According to Captain Ransom she helped design the containment chamber. We’ll need her help. Think she’s up to it?”
“We may have to get her up here through the Jefferies tubes,” Chakotay said, “but I think so, yes.”
Janeway decided not to ask.

“We’ve examined the schematics of your multiphasic chamber,” Seven of Nine said. “It can be adapted. We intend to create an auto-initiation security grid.” Seven tapped a few buttons on the console in the briefing room, turning on the monitor. “The moment one of the aliens invades either ship, a force field will surround it.”
“Once we modify our field generators to emit a multiphasic frequency,” Tuvok said, “it will power the security grids on both ships.”
“How long will it take?” Janeway said.
“Approximately fourteen hours,” Seven said.
“We don’t know when they’ll break through again,” Ensign Gilmore said. “We may not last that long.”
It was only her second time meeting the Ensign, but Seven already saw a noticeable improvement in Marla Gilmore. She wasn’t shaking so much, and wasn’t quite so pale. She considered asking her to join Crewman Lessing at Sam’s quarters for dinner, though she would require Sam’s approval first.

“We could cut the time down if we evacuate all personnel from the Equinox and focus all our efforts here on Voyager,” Chakotay said.

“We are still thirty-five thousand light years from Earth,” Ransom said. “We should try to preserve both ships.”
Lieutenant Burke nodded. “With two vessels,” he said, “we’d be able to pool our resources, doubling our chance as finding a shortcut home.”

Seven had to admit, both First Officers made a good point. She figured Captain Janeway would need time to weigh both options.

“Normally I’d agree,” Janeway said, “but right now one of our ships is vulnerable.”

Nevermind, Seven thought.

“Chakotay’s right,” Janeway continued. “We should make our stand on Voyager.”
“I don’t want to force the issue,” Ransom said, “but I am prepared to return to the Equinox with my crew.”

Janeway and Chakotay shared a look, and Ransom sighed.
“What is the protocol here?” he said. “We have two Captains, two ships, Who gets the last word?”
“Starfleet Regulation 191, Article 14,” Janeway said. “In a combat situation involving more than one ship, command falls to the vessel with tactical superiority. I looked it up this morning.”
“Good thinking,” Ransom said, though the look on Lieutenant Burke’s face suggested he didn’t agree. Once again, Seven of Nine felt there was something about the situation that they needed to know, but that, for whatever reason, was being withheld from them by the Equinox crew.

“In this case, protocol recognizes my authority,” Janeway said, her tone suggesting she was less than thrilled at the prospect. Seven assumed the Captain was hoping the Equinox could be salvaged.
Perhaps it still can, Seven thought, an idea coming to mind, but Ransom began speaking before she could suggest it.
“Are you ordering me to abandon my ship?” he said. It wasn’t said loudly, and there was more sadness than anger in his voice, but she imagined that, as a Starfleet captain, and a human one at that there had to be some anger within him at the prospect.
“I’d rather not have to,” Janeway said.

“That protocol was written in the Alpha Quadrant,” Ransom said. “I’m not so sure it makes much sense out here.”

“May I interject, Captains?” Seven said.
“Go ahead,” Janeway said.
Seven looked Captain Ransom in the eye.
“Captain Janeway is correct in her assessment of the regulations,” she said. “However, this does not preclude saving the Equinox.”
“How so?” Ransom said.
“We relocate you and your crew to Voyager for the time being. Once we have the new shields in place, and once we know they work, we will be in a defensible position, which would allow us time to create a second grid for your ship. It is not a guarantee, there is still a sizeable chance that we would be forced to abandon your ship regardless. But I do consider it worth the attempt.”
Ransom looked at Janeway. Seven did as well.
Janeway nodded.
“Alright,” she said, “But have your people grab everything from the Equinox they can’t bear to live without, just in case. I hate to sound heartless, but if I have to leave your ship behind to save both our crews I will do it without hesitation.”

“Understood,” Ransom said. “Thank you, Captain. And thank you, Seven of Nine.”

“You’re welcome,” Seven said.

“Max, let’s go ahead and let our people know what needs to be done,”
“Okay, sir,” Burke said, seeming less than optimistic about Seven’s plan.

“Intruder alert,” B’Elanna said jokingly as she finished climbing the ladder to the upper engineering level, where she saw Maxwell Burke at one of the command stations, a tricorder sitting open atop it. “Same old Max, going through my things.”
“You going to throw me in the brig?” Burke said jokingly. B’Elanna sighed and shook her head.
“I’ll overlook this for now,” she said, “on condition of you telling me what you’re doing.”

“Just doing some homework, studying your propulsion system,” Burke said.
“Well, if there’s a chance I’m going to be stuck on Voyager I’ll need to know my way around. How good is your second?”
“Joe?” B’Elanna said. “He’s good. A little rigid in his thinking sometimes, but good. Don’t tell him I said that though, if it gets around that I respect him I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Hmm,” Burke said, “maybe I can learn enough to take his place. Or whoever third in line is.”
“I hope you aren’t flirting with me Max,” B’Elanna said. “I’ve got a guy now. A good one. Annoying as hell sometimes, and his taste in music leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s mine and I intend to hold onto him as tightly as Seven of Nine holds on to Samantha Wildman.”
“Yeah, about that,” Burke said, “it really doesn’t bother you at all, one of your crewmates is marrying a Borg of all things?”
“Seven is a pain in the ass sometimes, I’ll grant you that,” B’Elanna said, “but she’s not just a Borg drone. She’s not fully human either. I’m not sure what she is really but she is someone else I respect.”
“I assume I’m not supposed to tell her either?”
“You got it.”
“Okay, okay,” Burke said. “Believe it or not, I can take a hint.” Burke went back to the console and picked up his tricorder.
“Hey, Max,” B’Elanna said, “if you do end up having to leave the Equinox for good, you could do a lot worse than Voyager. This ship seems to bring out the best in some people. Me, for instance.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Burke said.

Chakotay, Harry Kim, and Marla Gilmore all held mugs of coffee as they made their way to an open table in the mess hall, the latter holding a PADD in her other hand.
“Now, before we abandon the Equinox,” he said.
“If,” Harry corrected.”

“Right, if, sorry.” Chakotay took a sip, once again marvelling at how Neelix’s coffee making seemed to improve almost like clockwork every six months. “Anyway, if we have to abandon the Equinox altogether, we should try to salvage any useful components. I’d start with the dilithium crystals.”
“What’s left of them you mean?” Ensign Gilmore said. “I’m afraid we only have a few isograms.”
“That’s barely enough to power the sonic showers,” Harry said. “Oh jeez, I just rhymed didn’t I?”
“Happens to the best of us Harry,” Chakotay said, chuckling.

“Can I make a suggestion?” Gilmore said.
“By all means,” Chakotay said.
“Let’s forget about the primary systems,” she said, “They’re too badly damaged. Let’s focus on supplies. We picked up a few items I think might come in handy.” Gilmore picked her PADD back up and began reading from it.
“Uh, two kilotons of kemacyte ore, a dozen canisters of mercurium…”
“I’ll make a note to tell Neelix to make room in cargo bay 1,” Chakotay said.
“Could you use a synaptic stimulator?” Gilmore asked.
“Depends,” Chakotay said, “what is it?”
“It’s a neural interface you wear behind your ear,” Gilmore said. “It taps into your visual cortex and shows you different alien vistas. Just think of it as a poor man’s holodeck.”
“So that’s how you kept yourselves entertained,” Harry said.
“Beats checkers,” Gilmore said. Chakotay noticed that this was the first time he’d seen her smiling since she’d come aboard. “The Ponea gave it to us.”
“Never heard of them,” Chakotay said.

“We call them the life of the Delta Quadrant,” Gilmore said. “They see every first contact as an excuse to throw a party.”
“Man,” Harry said, “would’ve been nice if things had been like that with the Malon.”

“Or the Hirogen,” Chakotay said.
“Or Species 8472,” Harry added.
Gilmore laughed, then sighed.
“I wish,” she said, “we’d encountered more species like them. You’re the first friendly faces we’ve seen in months. I’m glad we found you.”

Chakotay smiled back. He couldn’t begin to imagine what living on the Equinox had been like. Times on Voyager had felt rough, but it never occurred to him how much worse it could’ve been.

“Your ship’s modified plasma injectors,” he said, deciding that a change of subject might keep things from getting too maudlin, “they look pretty elaborate. What were you trying to do?”
“Uh, we were experimenting,” Gilmore said, suddenly sitting up a little straighter. “Experimenting with ways to enhance our warp drive I mean. It didn’t work.”
“Maybe we should let B’Elanna take a look,” Harry said.
“It won’t work,” GIlmore said, sounding defensive when she did.
There’s another red flag, Chakotay’s inner voice told him. Something is definitely screwy with the Equinox crew.

“I mean, we tried for months,” she said.
“Excuse me,” a small voice said. Chakotay glanced over and smiled when he saw Naomi WIldman walking up to their table.
“Oh, hello there,” Gilmore said, her smile having returned.
“Commander,” Naomi said. “Permission to interrupt?”
“Granted,” Chakotay said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Ensign Gilmore?” Naomi said.

“That’s right,” Gilmore said.
“Naomi Wildman, Captain’s Assistant.”
“Is that so?” Gilmore said.

“I wanted to officially welcome you aboard the starship Voyager,” Naomi said.
“I’m glad to be here,” Gilmore said.
“If you need anything,” Naomi said, Chakotay smiling the whole time at just how well the young child imitated the mannerisms of a typical Starfleet officer, “replicator rations, a tour of the lower decks, I’m your man.”
“Thank you, Miss Wildman, I’ll keep that in mind,” Gilmore said.
“As you were,” Naomi said a huge grin spread across her face as she turned and left the mess hall, Harry barely stifling a chuckle.
“I didn’t realize you had children on board,” Gilmore said, smiling herself.
“Just her,” Harry said. “She was born here. Her mom’s our chief xenobiologist.”
“I have a nephew back on Earth,” Gilmore said. “about the same age. Well, not anymore. I guess he’s a teenager by now. I probably wouldn’t even recognize him.”

“You’ll see him again,” Chakotay said. “I’m sure of it.”

Gilmore’s comm badge chirped.
“Ransom to Gilmore. Report to the Equinox bridge.”
Gilmore sighed.
“On my way, Captain,” she said, before closing the channel. “I suppose I couldn’t put it off forever. Thanks for the coffee. And the talk. I needed it.”

When she was gone, Chakotay turned to Harry. “Lieutenant, once you’ve finished your drink, assemble a salvage team.”
“Aye sir,” Harry said.

“Once we take their field generator, we’ll part company,” Burke said, as Marla Gilmore looked at the schematics on the monitor in front of her. Her eyes widened as the weight of what Max Burke had just said finally hit her.
“What happens to Voyager?” she said.
“They have weapons, shields, a full crew. They’ll survive,” Burke said as casually as if he were reciting his laundry list. Gilmore was appalled, but Captain Ransom spoke up before she could protest.
“What would you suggest, Marla? Abandoning ship?”
“Maybe we should,” Noah Lessing said.

“No,” Ransom said. “Is a shower and a hot meal all it takes to forget what’s at stake here? We’re going home. We can’t let Voyager stop us. I made a promise to get this crew back to the Alpha Quadrant as fast as possible, no matter the cost. You can accuse me of turning a promise into an inflexible dogma if you like, and maybe you’re right. But I am going to keep my promise. Then, once we’re home, I will turn myself into the proper authorities for a trial, at which I will plead guilty. Until that day comes though, I am still your captain, you are still my crew. My responsibility. Now, are there any other objections?”
Gilmore looked at Lessing. She could see it in his eyes, he wanted to just leave this whole ugly mess behind, even if it meant spending more time in the Delta Quadrant than they were looking at if they stayed with Ransom. She did as well. But neither of them said anything. They had already crossed a line, one she didn’t think either of them could come back from. Plus, part of her was scared of what Burke would do if she said no. She feared him much more than she feared Ransom, even if Ransom was the one who had started this.

“I need each and every one of you,” Ransom said, “to give me your very best, as you always have. Max?”

“The plan.”
“It won’t be easy, Rudy. The generator is on deck eleven, next to the warp plasma manifold. We can’t get a clean lock without boosting the signal. Marla, we need you to set aside your claustrophobia and crawl through the access port and set up the transport enhancers.”

Say no, Gilmore’s inner voice told her. Say no you dumb cow, say no!
“Okay,” she said.
“Next, we’ll have to take the internal sensors in that section offline,” Burke said. “Noah, that’s gonna be you.”
“You can count on me, sir,” Noah said.

“I’ll disengage the power couplings from engineering,” Burke said.
Ransom exhaled sharply, appearing as nervous as the rest of them.
“You’ll all have time for one last shower,” he said. “Make the most of it.”

A shower, Gilmore thought, after I throw up.

Seven of Nine looked at a schematic of Voyager to double check the location of the minor power fluctuation she’d spotted. Once she had it, she passed that information to Tuvok, who was standing right next to her, but looking at a different console.

“The fluctuation in the security grid is within tolerance levels,” Tuvok said.
“Still, I believe I can correct it. The discrepancy is in the Equinox research lab,” she said. “If we can determine the exact frequency of their multiphasic chamber I will tune our field generator to match it.”
“There are times when perfection hinders efficiency,” Tuvok said.
“This is odd,” Seven said, having heard what Tuvok said, and not disagreeing with him, but something was odd, and it only added to her negative feelings about the Equinox. “The lab is still permeated with high levels of thermionic radiation.”

“It should have dissipated by now,” Tuvok said.
“Precisely,” Seven said. “And I believe I now have an explanation. Three EPS conduits have been rerouted to the lab. They appear to be emitting the radiation. I am now convinced that the Equinox crew is attempting to hide something from us.”
“Agreed,” Tuvok said. “Come with me. We are going to present this information to the Captain.”
Seven nodded, and tapped her comm badge.
“Seven of Nine to Samantha Wildman,” she said.
“Hey hon,” Sam replied. “What’s going on?”
“Are you alone?”
A chuckle came through on the line.
“The line is supposed to be ‘what are you wearing,’” Sam said.

Seven blushed.
“I’m serious Sam. Are you currently anywhere an Equinox crew member could hear you?”
“No. Annie, what’s-”
“I’m afraid our dinner plans tonight will need to be canceled. I will explain later. I’m sorry.” Seven closed the channel and followed Tuvok to the bridge after transferring the information she’d gathered about the deception onto a PADD.

After handing the PADD to the Captain, she motioned for the two of them to follow her to her ready room.

“Theories?” Janeway said.
“Only one,” Tuvok said. “Ransom doesn’t want us to enter the research lab.”
“He has been adamant about protecting his ship,” Janeway said. “I thought it was just a Captain’s pride, but… I want a closer look at that lab. If we close off those EPS conduits, how long will it take to vent the radiation?”
“Several hours,” Seven said.
“I don’t want to wait that long. Send the Doctor,” Janeway said. “Monitor his progress from astrometrics.”
“Understood,” Seven said.

The transporter beam finished its work, and the Doctor found himself inside the mostly dark Equinox research lab, lights flickering all over the place. He tapped his comm badge.
“I’m in,” he said. He began sweeping the lab with his wristlight, walking around slowly. A hard light hologram could still trip after all. He couldn’t be injured, but he’d rather not risk the embarrassment.

“What do we have here?” he said, spotting something. He walked over and saw the dried-out husk of what had once been one of the aliens that had been attacking Equinox. It was evidence to be certain. Evidence of what though, that he wasn’t yet sure of, though he already knew he probably wasn’t going to like it.

“I’ve found the multiphasic chamber,” he said, taking out his medical tricorder and scanning the corpse. “There’s a corpse of one of the aliens inside, its cells have vitrified. This is more than just a containment chamber, this is some kind of matter-conversion technology. Hold on, there’s a control port here.”
“Careful, Doctor,” Tuvok’s voice said over the Doctor’s comm badge.
“Hmm. The chamber contains a polaron grid and a sub-molecular resequencer. It looks like it was designed to convert the alien cell structures into some kind of crystalline compound.”
“That function was not specified in their schematics,” Seven of Nine said.
“I have a feeling there’s a lot here they didn’t specify,” the Doctor said. “I’ve accessed their research logs. They’re encrypted, but judging by the file headings they’ve performed this procedure dozens of times.”
The Doctor glanced to his left, and so another lump of what looked like organic matter. He scanned it.
“More of the compound,” he said, “but it’s been biochemically altered. They’ve extracted the base proteins. Its molecular structure is most unusual. It appears to store a great deal of nucleogenic energy. I’m no engineer, but I’d say they were trying to convert this material into a source of power.”

“I’m going to miss this ship,” Burke said, leaning a little closer to Ransom so he wouldn’t be overheard by the female Voyager crewmember who had politely nodded at them as she passed them in the corridor.

Ransom sighed. “When we get back to Earth there will be plenty of women,” he said. “Focus. What’s our status?”
“Ready on all fronts,” Burke said, his tone all business now. “The transporter enhancers are in place, and Noah’s created a subroutine to mask Voyager’s internal sensors.”

“Power couplings?” Ransom said.
“Bypass controls have been routed to our bridge,” Burke said, his voice full of pride. “All you need to do is say ‘energize.’”
“Janeway wants to bring the security grid on at 1900 hours,” Ransom said. “We’ll have to act before then. Tell the others to…”
Ransom’s voice trailed off when he saw two of Voyager’s security officers coming towards them, phasers drawn.

Shit, Ransom thought. So who turned? Gilmore or Lessing? Or was it both?
“Max, a transporter room’s not far from here, keep moving,” Ransom said, turning quickly to backtrack the way they had come, only to find Commander Tuvok and another security officer, both armed, coming from the other direction.
“Captain Janeway wishes to speak with you,” Tuvok said.

Captain Janeway sat, stern face, across the table from Captain Ransom. Behind him, security officer Lydia Anderson stood at attention, her hand near her phaser. In front of Janeway was the sample the Doctor had collected from the Equinox.
“The alien compound,” she said. “Ten isograms. If I understand your calculations,” she stopped to pick up a PADD, though she didn’t need to. She remembered the fact well enough, she was only pausing for dramatic effect, giving Ransom time to stew. “That’s enough to increase your warp factor by .03% for one month? Unfortunately, that boost wouldn’t get you very far. So you’d need to replenish your supply. And that means killing another life-form, and another, and another. How many lives would it take to get you back to the Alpha Quadrant?”

Ransom didn’t say anything. Janeway put the PADD down.
“I think you know the reason we’re under attack,” she said. “These aliens are trying to protect themselves from you.”
“Sixty-three,” Ransom said. “That’s how many more it will take. Every time I sacrificed one of those lives, a part of me was lost as well.”
“Bullshit,” Janeway said. “I might have believed you, but I examined some of your research. These experiments were meticulous, and they were brutal. If you’d felt any real remorse, you wouldn’t have continued, so spare me your crocodile tears.”
Ransom’s face went from that of man hoping for mercy, to one determined to make his case.
“Starfleet Regulation Three, Paragraph 12. In the event of imminent destruction, a captain is authorized to preserve the lives of his crew by any justifiable means.”
“Since when is mass murder justifiable?” Janeway said, “You didn’t kill these aliens in self-defense, you killed them for fuel. And even if they had attacked first, there is nothing in the regs that allows for the bodies of the enemy to be treated the way you treated theirs.”
“We had nothing,” Ransom said, “my ship was in pieces. Our dilithium was gone, we were running on thrusters. We hadn’t eaten in sixteen days. We had just enough power to enter orbit of an M-Class planet. Lucky for us, the inhabitants were generous. They were called the Ankari, and they provided us with a few supplies. Food, a few dilithium crystals, and they performed one of their sacred rituals to bless us on our journey. They called them spirits of good fortune.”

“The aliens,” Janeway said.
“Nucleogenic lifeforms,” Ransom said. “Our scans revealed they were emitting high levels of antimatter. Later that same night, we managed to obtain one of the summoning devices. Not through theft, if that’s what you’re thinking. We exchanged an energy converter for it. We constructed a containment field that would prevent the life-form from vanishing so quickly. Something went wrong though. We tried to free it so it could return to its realm, but it was too late. It died right in front of me. We examined the remains, and discovered it could be converted to enhance our propulsion systems. It was already dead, what would you have done?”

Janeway didn’t reply to that question. She already made it clear, or so she thought, how she felt about treating a sentient being’s remains. She had literally treated dead Borg with more respect. Ransom kept talking.
“We managed to travel ten thousand light years in less than two weeks,” he said. “We’d found our salvation. I swore when we first got to the Delta Quadrant I would get my crew home at any cost. It doesn’t matter that the cost was my morality, my conscience, my career or my freedom. I know damn well what Starfleet will do to me when I get back. If I’m lucky I’ll live to see the outside of a Federation jail cell again but as far as I’m concerned every day of that sentence will be worth it.”

Janeway didn’t know how to respond to that at first. The scariest part for her was she believed him, but that only made him more dangerous.

“And what about your crew? They’ll face the same charges as you,” she said.
“I intend to take full responsibility,” Ransom said. “Their protests are noted in the ship’s logs.”

“You’re delusional if you think that Burke, Lessing, Gilmore, or any of the other survivors won’t face prison too,” Janeway said. “Less than you maybe, but you’ve thrown away their freedom too.”
“No!” Ransom said, slamming his fist into the briefing room table. Janeway made a motion to stop Anderson from attempting to restrain him.
“You’re a Starfleet officer,” Janeway said. “You took an oath to seek out new life, not to destroy it.”

“It’s easy to cling to principles when you’re standing on a starship with a clean deck, its bulkheads intact, its crew not starving.”
“It’s never easy,” Janeway said, “to stand by your principles when things are difficult, and I won’t be a hypocrite and say I don’t have choices that weigh on my conscience but at least I didn’t commit mass murder to get this far. I never tortured innocent creatures for their biomatter.”
“Torture?” Ransom said defensively. “That ridic-”
“This crew has been experimented on by aliens that had as much regard for our lives as you did for the Ankari’s ‘spirits,’” Janeway said, nearly wincing at the memory of the intense migraines and irrational decision making that the Srivani’s experiments on her had caused. “We know torture here on Voyager when we see it. Those aliens can’t survive outside of their realm for more than several seconds. Did it ever occur to you how much pain it causes them when you kill them for the sake of your engines? I’m putting an end to your experiments effective immediately. You are relieved of your command, and you and your crew will be confined to quarters.”
“Please,” Ransom said, his hands shaking, “show my crew leniency. They were only following my orders.”

Their mistake, Janeway thought about saying, but the situation was difficult enough as it was. Wronged though they were, the aliens were still attacking Voyager, and that had to be dealt with first and foremost. Now was not the time to be petty.
“We’ll deal with that issue after we’ve got the security grid on-line,” she said. “Anderson? Get him out of here.”
“Yes, Captain” the security officer said.
Once they were gone, Janeway tapped her com badge.
“Janeway to the Doctor,” she said. “Return to the Equinox. Retrieve all the data you can on the aliens. I want to find a way to communicate with them.”
“Aye, Captain,” the Doctor replied.
“Take Seven with you, and get someone from engineering to go with her. I want them to go to the Equinox engine room and take their modified warp core offline.”
“It just so happens that I was about to clear Mister Carey. He hurt his wrist yesterday on the holodeck, and only today told me about it. I’ll draft him.”
“Do it,” Janeway said.

A security officer walked behind her, a phaser rifle slung over his shoulder. Commander Chakotay was by her side. Marla Gilmore had never felt more guilty in all her life, but she knew she probably should feel worse.
“What’s going to happen to me?” she said, hating how selfish the question sounded.

“That’s going to be up to the Captain,” Chakotay said. “For now, you’ll be confined to quarters until we can make contact and hopefully make peace with these aliens you’ve been killing. If it’s not too late.”

“To be honest,” Gilmore said, “I’m glad you stopped us. Living the rest of my life knowing what we’ve done…”
“You could’ve stopped yourself, why didn’t you?” Chakotay said.
“I don’t know,” Gilmore said. “When the Captain ordered me to modify the warp core, I concentrated on the work. I tried not to think about how it was going to be used.”

“Well, think about it now because we need your help,” Chakotay said.

“After you,” Chakotay said as the door they were heading to slid open. This was not one of the crew quarters, nor was it the brig. She stepped inside a room with a massive viewscreen. Data she recognized from the Equinox was on it, but it was encrypted. She recognized Seven of Nine, who turned, and quietly acknowledged their presence. Ensign Gilmore remembered that the former Borg drone was involved with the mother of Naomi Wildman, the little girl who had taken it upon herself to be a welcoming committee for the Equinox survivors.

“We’re having trouble making sense of all this,” Chakotay said. “The schematics are encrypted.”
“Do you know the decryption codes?” Seven said.

Gilmore hesitated before speaking.

“Yes,” she said.
“Proceed,” Seven said, stepping aside to grant her access to the console.
Gilmore did what was asked of her, and immediately the data Chakotay and Seven of Nine wanted filled the viewscreen.
“I’d heard you wanted to learn more about humanity,” she said to Seven. “I guess we’re not the best of examples.”

“On the contrary,” Seven said, “there is value in having a diverse pool of reference.”
“Seven, one last thing,” Gilmore said.
“Yes, Ensign?”

“Forgive me, but I overheard how you and your fiancee haven’t selected a date for your wedding yet.”

“That is correct,” Seven said. “What is the relevance of that statement?”
“Don’t wait too long,” Gilmore said. “Life out here in the Delta Quadrant is dangerous. One of you could be taken from the other in the blink of an eye.”
Seven seemed to ponder Ensign Gilmore’s words.
“I will take that into consideration,” she said.

“This file has been decrypted,” the Doctor shouted in frustration, glad that Joe Carey and Seven of Nine were both in engineering and couldn’t hear his outburst. “Why can’t I access it?”
“Emergency medical hologram’s authorization required,” the computer said.
The Doctor sighed.

“Computer,” he said, “is your EMH still functional?”
“Activate him.”
The EMH of the Equinox, another Mark I so it looked exactly like the Doctor, materialized right next to him.
“Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” he said.

“I require your assistance,” the Doctor said.
“Who are you?” the Equinox EMH said.

“Your counterpart from the starship Voyager,” the Doctor said, pointing to his mobile emitter. “This device allows me to leave my ship. I can explain later, but right now, as I said, I require your assistance.”

“Where’s Captain Ransom? Where’s my crew?”
“In custody,” the Doctor said. “In case you weren’t aware, your crew has been running criminal experiments here.”

“I know,” the Equinox EMH said, picking up a PADD as he spoke. “I designed them.”
“You?” the Doctor said, shocked. “That’s a violation of your programming.”
“They deleted my ethical subroutines,” the Equinox EMH said, suddenly swinging his PADD at the Doctor’s mobile emitter. He didn’t have any time to react before-

“I’m picking up spatial fissures,” Harry said. “Hundreds of them.”
“Looks like they stepped up their attacks,” Tom said.
Captain Janeway bit her lip to keep herself from admonishing Paris for stating the obvious. She refused to let herself take out her residual rage at Rudolph Ransom on her own crew.

“Reroute all available power to shields,” she said.

“They’re holding,” Chakotay said, “but at this rate it won’t be long before the aliens break through.”

“Bridge to Tuvok, we need that security grid,” Janeway said.
“We’re preparing to bring it on-line,” Tuvok said from down in astrometrics, where he and B’Elanna were putting the final touches on the grid.

“Bridge to the Doctor,” Janeway said next.
“Sickbay here,” the EMH said.

“Did you find anything?”
“Could you be, more specific?”

What the hell? she thought. Is he having memory problems again?

“Neural patterns,” she said, “cortical scans, anything that could help us program the universal translator.”

“Negative. I couldn’t access the Equinox data files. They were encrypted.”
“Keep studying the information we have, see what you can come up with,” Janeway said.
“Acknowledged,” the EMH said.
“Odd,” Chakotay said, “he should’ve been able to access the files after Ensign Gilmore gave us the decryption codes.”
“Maybe she lied,” Janeway said.
“The information on the warp drive modifications cleared up for us right away,” Chakotay said, shaking his head. “Maybe there was another layer she just didn’t know about.”
“We’ll find out later,” Janeway said.

“I suppose so,” Chakotay said. “Chakotay to Seven of Nine, what’s your status?”
“Mister Carey and I have dismantled the antimatter injectors,” Seven said. We’ve almost got the dilithium matrix neutralized.”
“Good thing we’ve got two people on that one,” Joe Carey’s voice said over Seven’s com badge. “Shaves a few minutes off the time we’d need to get that part done.”
“You’ll need to hurry it up more than that,” Chakotay said, “we’re running out of time.”
An alert noise emanating from one of the rear consoles grabbed Janeway’s attention.

“Phaser fire, deck nine, crew quarters,” Harry said.

Ransom, Janeway thought.
“Security, seal off deck nine,” she said.

“Shields are down to 84%,” Chakotay said.
“Tuvok to Bridge.”
“Oh now what?” Janeway said.
“The field generator is offline. Its power couplings were disengaged,” Tuvok continued over the open channel

“Someone reconfigured the internal sensors so we couldn’t detect it,” B’Elanna said.
“Whatever it takes, get that grid online,” Janeway said.
“We’re trying,” B’Elanna said.
“Shields down to 55%,” Chakotay said. “Make that 54%.”

“Captain,” Harry said, “unauthorized transport in progress. It’s the Equinox crew.”

“Block it,” Janeway said.
“They’ve bypassed ops control somehow,” Harry said. “They must’ve had help. They’re already on board.”
“40% and falling,” Chakotay said.
“Janeway to Seven of Nine.” Silence. Janeway was officially worried now, but refused to let it show on her face. “Seven, respond. Janeway to Lieutenant Carey.” No response. She was prepared for the worst now, her hand already going to the phaser in her belt. She’d done simulations during Command School at the Academy where she had to go up against rogue Starfleet captains, but those tests had utterly failed to prepare her for the real thing. She remembered with bitter irony what she had said to Chakotay after the incident with Captain Archer; that she hoped it would be a good long time before she met another Starfleet captain who had lost their way. That good long time ended up being less than a month.

“We’ve got less than a minute,” Chakotay said.

“Open a channel to the Equinox,” she said. Soon, Rudolph Ransom’s face filled her viewscreen, and Janeway very much regretted that she couldn’t punch it. “Ransom, if you don’t stop what you’re doing we’ll both be destroyed.”
“What’s my alternative? My crew rotting in your brig? If you had just accepted my request to give them leniency-”

“Don’t try to put this on my head, Rudy,” Janeway said, practically spitting out the name as she said it. “Stop this, now. I’ll open fire if I have to.”
“We’ve been through worse,” Ransom said before cutting off the link.
“Ayala, target their power systems and fire,” Janeway said.
“Yes ma’am,” the Lieutenant said from Tuvok’s station.

“Bridge,” B’Elanna’s voice said, “they’ve got the field generator.”
“What?” Janeway said.
“They beamed it off Voyager,” B’Elanna said. “it was Burke, he used a modified version of a trick I taught him ten years ago. I didn’t catch it until it was too late.”

“Oh hell,” Tom said.
A few seconds later, Chakotay looked up from his console.
“Shields are down,” he said.
“Arm yourselves,” Janeway said, a split second before the noise that signified the arrival of the attacking aliens began. Everyone on the bridge was standing, phasers out and ready.
“Fissures opening, all decks!” Harry yelled, sounding the most scared Janeway had heard him sound in years.

What an odd thing to think about, Janeway thought, as a portal opened in her peripheral vision. She fired into it right away, but several more portals began opening.

“The Equinox has gone to warp,” Ayala said, somehow managing to hit every portal he fired at dead center despite looking down at the tactical console.
With our best defense against these aliens and two of my crewmembers with them, she thought.

“Kathryn!” she heard Chakotay yell at the moment she felt more than saw the fissure open right behind her head.


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