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The Guardians

Chapter Text

There was an ominous silence before the body hit the floor with a muted thud. Air gushed out of caved lungs from the impact against the hard surface.

"Ah!"

"Captain, are you injured?" a cool alto voice asked and a tall blonde kneeled next to her fallen commanding officer.

"Damn," the petite woman groaned, pushing sweaty tresses of hair out of her face, glaring at the blonde. "Seven, where did you learn that move?"

The younger woman extended a hand and helped her captain up. She was equally dishevelled, her blonde hair tousled, framing her narrow face. She was a stunning woman with cybernetic implants adorning her left eyebrow and right cheek, remnants from Seven of Nine’s time as part of the Borg collective.

"I have been playing velocity with Lt Torres," the ex-Borg explained. "We have also practiced old Klingon combat skills. I find the Bath’let particularly intriguing, not at all as crude as it initially appears."

Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship USS Voyager resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She should have known that her astrometrics officer’s budding friendship with the somewhat volatile chief engineer would produce some interesting results.

"Training behind my back, I see?" she said with an accusing tone of voice. "I guess I’ll have to keep that in mind. You’ve certainly learned your lessons well."

Seven frowned.

"It was not my intention to act with secrecy, Captain," she said. "I was not aware that …"

"I’m joking, Seven," the captain smiled. "I think it’s good that you are socialising with the crew, especially with B’Elanna. You two didn’t get off to a good start. I’m glad that you are getting along better these days."

The blonde nodded.

"It seems that Lt Torres has decided to accept me as part of the Voyager crew, possibly even as a … friend."

Janeway had begun to wipe her face with a towel and now she stopped, looking curiously at Seven.

The younger woman sometimes had vulnerability about her, almost childlike at times, that made the captain feel strangely protective. This was one of those moments.

"I would’ve thought you had lots of friends after three years on Voyager," she said casually. "You have more than proved yourself as a worthy and instrumental member of this crew."

A shadow passed quickly across the ex-Borg’s narrow features.

"I do not make friends easily, Captain," she stated slowly. "I am respected but not necessarily liked."

Janeway inhaled sharply. She had no idea that Seven felt this way. After three years surely the crew had gotten over their initial prejudices? Couldn’t they see what a remarkable person she was? Well, it was obvious to her. Seven was a brilliant young woman with a sensitive soul.

The captain walked close to the blonde and firmly met her eyes.

"I hope you know that I’m your friend," she said.

Seven cocked her head.

"You once said that because you are my captain, you can not always be my friend," she replied quietly.

Janeway cringed. She recalled saying those words to Seven while they were held in the brig aboard Arturis’ ship as he steered it towards Borg space intent on carrying out his revenge by delivering Voyager’s crew and her captain into the Borg’s hands.

"I remember," the captain admitted. "We’ve come a long way since then."

"Still, the facts remain the same."

"Yes, but …" Janeway replied insistently then stopped. She didn’t know why she wanted to object or even if her objections were valid. She was the captain, which meant that there were limits to the relationships she could form even if she personally desired something more.

Seven looked expectantly at her.

"I am your friend, Seven," Janeway stated firmly. "I’d like to think that you are my friend as well."

"I am, Captain."

The urgent tone of voice made Janeway eyes widen but before she had time to pursue the conversation further she was hailed by her first officer via the comm system.

"Captain Janeway, please report to the bridge."

Impatiently she slapped her comm badge as she began to walk, exiting the holo deck.

"On my way, Commander."

She walked briskly towards the turbo lift and entered it. Seven joined her.

"Bridge."

The lift rapidly transported them to deck one. The doors opened. Disregarding her appearance, Janeway strode to the centre of the bridge.

"Report."

"We are approaching the inhabited M-class planet we picked up on long range sensors a week ago. According to our readings, it appears that there is significant seismic activity occurring on the planet’s surface. These disruptions seem to be focused in the northern hemisphere, a highly populated region, and there is more," Tuvok responded.

"Go on," Janeway urged.

"We have picked up an urgent subspace message requesting assistance."

"I wasn’t aware that the inhabitants of this planet had that capability."

"They do not. The request originated from a ship orbiting one of the planet’s moons."

"We have identified their warp signature, Captain," Chakotay said as he crossed the deck to stand next to Janeway. "The ship appears to be Federation."

*****

Janeway let her gaze travel around the familiar faces on the bridge.

Tuvok’s expression was as emotionless as always while her first officer had a deep frown distorting the tattoo on his forehead. Harry Kim looked apprehensive while Tom Paris had simply turned in his chair and regarded her steadily while he awaited her orders.

Her eyes fell upon Seven standing calmly at her station behind the command chairs. The young woman stood there, her face as emotionless as Tuvok’s except for the fact that she still looked tousled from their velocity game earlier.

"How long before we’re within hailing distance?" Janeway asked, keeping her voice calm and matter of fact.

"Twenty minutes at present speed, Captain," Tom Paris said.

"Good. That will give me time to change. Seven, I suggest you do the same and then report back to the bridge. Harry, find out everything you can from external sensors. I want to know more about the seismic activity that is disturbing the planet. Tuvok, I want you to verify the signature readings of that ship. If it is Federation I want to know as much as possible about it before we hail them."

"Yes, Captain."

"You have the bridge again, Chakotay," Janeway said briskly and walked back to the turbo lift with Seven following her lead.

"Deck three."

Neither of them spoke until the doors opened and Janeway stepped out.

"See you back on the bridge, Seven," she said with a crooked smile. "This should prove interesting."

"Indeed," Seven replied. "Deck eight."

The captain hurried down the corridor and entered her quarters. Discarding her velocity outfit she took a quick sonic shower.

Pulling on her uniform and attaching the pips to her collar she felt knots tightening in the pit of her stomach.

She remembered the ordeal with the Equinox all to well. How her colleague, Captain Ransom, had betrayed the Federation, its principles and ideals. The mere thought caused bile to rise in her throat. She had thought she was over the Equinox. Apparently she wasn’t.

If this was a Federation ship, how did it get here and what the hell was it doing interfering with a pre-warp civilization?

She would not be so open or trusting this time. If this were another example of the type of behaviour that Ransom had so recklessly displayed, then she would be her on her guard. She would not be taken in a second time.

She brushed her hair vigorously and then regarded her reflection in the mirror. Her blue-grey eyes were dark with shadows and her lips pressed to a fine line.

She was ready.

*****

Seven fastened the clasp in the back of her neck, securing her plum bio suit.

She tried to process the conversation she had had with the captain just after their velocity game.

After living aboard Voyager for almost three years, the ex-Borg now knew enough about the chain of command to have an idea of how lonely Janeway’s position could be.

When they travelled through peaceful areas of space, Janeway would relax and spend free time with the crew. Sometime she would show up at Sandrine’s or would join the crew for dinner at the mess hall. Seven discovered during these periods that Janeway made it a habit to stop by astrometrics at least once a day. She would ask Seven about her work as well as other topics of discussion while leaning against the blonde’s work console with one hand on her hip. Sometimes, like today, they would meet for a game of Velocity or Janeway would insist that she accompany her to some function to develop her social skills.

Then there were those late nights when Janeway would show up unannounced at cargo bay two. She would enter the bay quietly and just stand there, watching Seven as she regenerated. The young woman assumed that Janeway was unaware of the fact that regeneration was not quite like sleep. Some of Seven’s cybernetic implants were still active and registering everything that went on around her during the regeneration cycles.

Seven was not sure why she had never mentioned this to the captain. All the blonde knew was that she felt comforted in an odd way by the captain’s presence and did not want the intermittent nocturnal visits to stop, so she refrained from raising the subject.

Seven arranged her hair in its usual austere fashion and then left the cargo bay.

*****

Tuvok had briefed her just minutes before they were within range. The ship orbiting the M-class planet’s far moon transmitted a Federation signal but with certain alien distinctions.

"We’re coming into hailing distance now, Captain," Harry Kim announced.

"Good. Keep scanning the vessel, Harry, and open all hailing frequencies."

Janeway got up from her command chair, walking closer to the view screen.

"Vessel in need of assistance, this is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager. How can we be of help?" she hailed the ship.

There were static and only a blurry, flickering image on the screen but then a male voice replied.

"Please say again."

Janeway glanced around the bridge, raising an eyebrow. Moving a hand to her hip she repeated her greeting.

"My God," she heard an astounded voice over the comm system, "I don’t believe it!"

"This is getting silly," Voyager’s captain mumbled shaking her head. Raising her voice she continued. "Identify yourself."

The screen flickered again and then Janeway found herself looking at a dark haired man, apparently human, dressed in black leather like uniform with a tall golden collar. It wasn’t Starfleet but the communicator on his chest was.

She could make out some of the consoles behind him on what had to be the bridge.

"I’m Commander Max Toriello, First Officer of the Starship Excellence."

Only Janeway’s command training kept her from gasping out loud. The Excellence - it couldn’t be. It had been lost almost fifteen years ago, all presumed dead.

The large bear of a man on the view screen looked as shocked as she felt. Pulling herself together she nodded, vaguely remembering the name Toriello. Glancing at the small view screen on Tom Paris’ console, she could see the exterior of the Sabre Class starship. It was hardly recognisable due to the alien alterations. It boasted a number of weapon arrays and several other features which purpose eluded her.

"This is a surprise, Commander Toriello," she allowed. "We picked up your call for assistance on our subspace receiver. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, as do I, but before we get into how we all ended up in the Delta quadrant together; what can we do to assist you? I take it there is some kind of an emergency?"

"Affirmative, but our transmission was only meant for one of our sister ships."

"There are more federation ships here?" Janeway asked doubtfully, not quite understanding.

Max Toriello laughed.

"No, Captain. As far as we knew we were the only Federation ship here in the Delta Quadrant." He didn’t volunteer any more information. "My God, I can’t believe it! Tell me; are you any relation to Admiral Janeway? "

"Yes, I’m his daughter."

"That’s right, I remember he has a daughter named Kathryn. How is he?"

"He died a number of years ago."

The smile on Toriello face disappeared

"I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good man."

Janeway acknowledged the sympathy by nodding briefly.

"Commander Toriello, does Captain Montgomery still command the Excellence?"

"Yes, she does."

"Is she available? I’d like to talk to her."

A shadow passed quickly over the dark haired man’s face.

"The captain is down on the surface dealing with the local authorities. I don’t know when she’ll be back."

Janeway smirked.

"Surely you are in constant touch with your captain, Commander, or are you not operating under Starfleet regulations anymore? Unless I’m mistaken, she will want to know that you’ve run into some old friends, so to speak."

"I’m sure she will but the situation on the planet is chaotic, ma’am."

"Captain, sensor readings confirm that," Harry Kim informed Janeway. "The northern hemisphere is highly unstable and something is going on several kilometres below the surface that’s throwing our readings off the scale."

"Explanation, Mr Kim? Janeway asked.

"None, Captain," the ensign replied after punching in several commands. "There are too many unknown variables at work. I don’t have enough data to make an educated guess, all I can say is that it doesn’t look good."

"Can you shed some light on this?" Janeway asked, turning towards the view screen.

Max Toriello shook his head.

"We’re having the same problems monitoring the situation. Our captain is on the surface with an away team trying to find answers." He frowned. "We’re here to assist but something is not … right."

Janeway could see the man was worried. She got the feeling he wasn’t too happy that his captain was on the surface. What were these people up to? How was it that a Federation starship long presumed lost on a deep space mission, was there to assist?

"Well," she said calmly, "it seems that so far none of your sister ships have responded to your subspace signal. I’m taking Voyager into orbit for now. I think we have a lot to talk about, don’t you?"

"Captain, it would be better if you kept some distance. The planet has no clue of our existence. The moon provides sufficient cover and concealment for us to remain unobserved but I’m afraid that your ship would be spotted and the inhabitants aren’t up to dealing with that."

"Of course, Commander. Maintain our current position Mr Paris."

"Aye, Captain."

"We have a lot to talk about, Commander Toriello."

"We most certainly do."

"Is there something we should be doing right now?"

"If you can be patient, Captain, we need to await Captain Montgomery’s return. If you can continue to monitor the situation from your ship it would be of great assistance."

"Very well, Commander. When your captain returns from the planet, please have her hail me?"

She knew she made the demand sound like a polite request but she was also aware that the Excellence’s first officer understood.

"Of course, Captain," he replied smartly.

When his image faded from the view screen again, Janeway turned to her first officer.

"Chakotay, round up the senior staff in the conference room. I’ll join you as soon as I can."

With that she crossed the bridge and entered the ready room. Sitting down at her work console she punched in commands, set on finding what kept eluding her mind. She knew there was something special she ought to remember about the Excellence.

*****

Captain Eliana Montgomery regarded the five officials sitting in dark wooden chairs at the far end of the table. She had been on her feet for more than twelve hours, several of them together with the authorities of Bunthora, the nation occupying the northern hemisphere of the planet. Her accompanying crewmembers flanked her on both sides, as did one of the officials from the Protectorate’s Embassy. She knew they were just as exasperated as she was yet they were professional enough not to show any outward signs of it.

"I assure you, Guardian, this is all the information we have at the moment," the Bunthoran to the far left said smilingly. "These earthquakes are purely a natural occurrence. So far we have dealt with the disaster to date but we are grateful for any assistance you might grant us. However, I really do not see the need for alarm. I assure you, this is something well beneath you or the Protectorate’s concern."

Biting back an urge to set the man straight in less than diplomatic terms, Montgomery tightened her fists. A familiar headache flashed behind her eyes but she kept her steady dark green eyes locked on the men in front of her.

She had been sitting in this briefing for over an hour trying to determine what these men knew but the politicians refused to be forthcoming. It was highly unlikely that this phenomenon was a naturally occurring event. There were far too many inconsistencies.

She realised then that there was more to the impending catastrophe that had taken the lives of hundreds and threatened the lives of thousands than she or her crew had predicted in their initial estimates.

She began to grow increasingly suspicious of the men in front of her, thinking them far too optimistic, oblivious, on the verge of stupidity even, regarding the dangers of their current situation. No, they knew something. These men weren’t in denial; they were in collusion.

"Respectfully, Prime Minister Nontha," she said digging deep for a diplomatic tone of voice when all she wanted to do was wipe the obliging grin off the man’s face with her infamous razor tongue, "there have been at least three disastrous quakes in the region over the past seven days and hundreds of aftershocks. Each quake has increased in intensity and the frequencies between the quakes get shorter. You have been fortunate that the areas affected to date have been mostly uninhabited but our models show that you can expect more events and that the coastline where most of your population resides could be destroyed. My experience tells me that an evacuation of the settlements along the coastal plains at this time is prudent."

"I admire your expertise," the minister interrupted condescendingly which infuriated the captain even more. "I assure you that our own experts …"

"Have you really listened to your own experts, Prime Minister? Do you have any clue what you are dealing with?" Montgomery said, losing her patience with the self-righteous little man. "Enough. The facts are undeniable. You have a serious situation on your hands with millions of lives at stake, perhaps the entire mainland population of Bunthora. I’ve talked myself hoarse for hours and we are getting nowhere with this procrastination on your part. I demand you put me in touch with the Emperor. I am sure that he will not be pleased when he learns that you and the civil authorities have not taken the appropriate measures to mitigate the danger to your people. I will also contact the officials of Gothiara since they too will feel the impact of this."

Her voice, low but strong, carried through the marble hall where they were conducting the meeting, causing the five men to flinch and her accompanying crew members to inhale and pale. They knew her well.

"Guardian, I assure you …" The prime minister began again but broke off when the tall blonde woman rose from her chair, not bothering with the protocol of these meetings.

"You will connect me with your best geologists, engineers and city planners as well. I also wish to meet with your emergency service officials as well as representatives of your military. I know disasters, Minister, but I will not be able to save anyone if my hands are tied or if certain facts are withheld," she said drilling the prime minister with her glare.

"The Protectorate is prepared to act but time is running out. Your inability to see the impacts of your actions or should I say lack of actions, on this planet are deplorable. Do you really want to waste any more of my time, sir?"

Prime Minister Nontha swallowed hard.

Montgomery regarded him sternly, not prepared to give an inch.

"There will be no need to involve His Majesty at this point," the Bunthora official said quickly. "I will give the order to gather all the expertise you need, Guardian."

"Thank you, but be assured, I will be in contact with the Emperor as well as the Protectorate. You will notify our Embassy when you have gathered the people I have requested but make no mistake, Prime Minister; I plan to hold you and the rest of your cabinet personally responsible if we are too late to prevent further loss of life," she replied with cold politeness. "Lt Commander Darok, my attaché, will accompany you to ensure there are no further misunderstandings. He is familiar with the expertise that is needed and can assist by advising you and your staff on what specific expertise is required. Do you have any questions, Prime Minister?"

"No, Guardian."

"Then I will leave you to your work."

She turned to her staff nodding towards the door; they stood and made their exit.

"Guess we have work to do, people." She glanced at the distinguished older man at her right. "So, Ambassador, you’re awfully quiet. Did I make a botch of it?"

He turned towards Montgomery and shook his head.

"No, Eliana, you said all the things I have wanted to say for weeks but I must be diplomatic in my approach. I take it from your comments that you too suspect something else is at work here besides nature?"

"I do but I have little evidence to go by. You know these people well J’Aoh. What might be they be hiding?"

"My dear the list is endless, but I don’t know what would cause this type of catastrophic instability. That is why I contacted the Protectorate."

Montgomery turned to address her staff.

"Darok, why don’t you take Ensign Graham with you and perhaps a member of the Embassy’s staff. J’Aoh, any recommendations?"

"Yes, I have a young woman on my staff who has been working on this situation from its beginnings."

"Perfect. Take two officers from security with you as well. I want to encourage the Prime Minister to do the right thing. Better get back in there, Darok and start encouraging him and his staff."

"Yes, ma’am."

"Ambassador, may we drop you off?"

"No Eliana, you have much to do, as do I, starting with a little diplomatic damage control with the prime minister. I will re enforce your statements to him and impress upon him the importance of cooperation and openness. I’ll also send for my assistant to work with Darok. Do you wish for me to contact the Emperor?"

"Yes. He has to be kept informed."

"He’ll want to see you, you know."

"Anyway we could do that without all the hoopla?"

"Hoopla? I love the way you Earthborn speak! If you mean can we dispense with all the protocols and procedures befitting His Majesty? I will do my best."

"Thanks, J’Aoh. There really isn’t time for it."

The old man looked deeply into the captain’s eyes.

"Then it is as bad as I feared."

"Yes, and there are limits to what we can do."

The Excellence had arrived at its current location in a less than desirable shape. Neither the crew nor the ship had had a chance to recover from its last mission. No one within the Protectorate had realised the magnitude of the impending disaster until the Excellence had arrived on the scene.

The initial assessment made by the crew was alarming. They weren’t prepared to handle this type of planetary disaster and neither were the planet’s inhabitants.

Making matters worse was the fact that government officials were being far from cooperative. Her gut told her the stupid bastards had violated one of the treaties but how? What could they possibly have done to trigger events of this potential magnitude?

As soon as she had recognized the enormity of the problem she had given the order to send an urgent subspace message to all ships in the Protectorate’s fleet, assessing them of the situation and requesting assistance. It was standard procedure but she was quite sure there were no other Guardians within proximity of this region of space. She then notified Ambassador J’Aoh, the Protectorate’s representative to the planet, and quickly briefed him on their findings and requested that he set up a meeting with the authorities immediately. J’Aoh had done so at once and had contacted the Protectorate directly through diplomatic channels to see what other assistance might be available. The Protectorate had responded and was dispatching assistance but help was light years away.

The seriousness of the situation and the escalating headache caused her stomach to turn over. Swallowing hard she hailed the bridge.

"Montgomery to the Excellence."

"Toriello here, Captain. Go ahead."

"I’m done here for now. Darok and Graham will stay to work with the prime minister’s office in rounding up the local experts. How are the away teams doing? Anything I should know about?"

"The away teams are reporting in every hour on the hour, Captain. The team closest to the epicentre of the last quake is reporting back every thirty minutes. They’re starting to form opinions on what’s going on down there."

"Hm, so am I."

"Are you ready to transport back here yet?"

There was something in Max’s tone of voice that tipped her off. Something wasn’t right.

"Max, what’s up?" she asked sharply.

"I’ll brief you as soon as you’re get back," he responded to her utter amazement. "You wouldn’t believe me if I told you so why waste time," he chuckled.

"I hate surprises, Commander," the captain mumbled. "Montgomery out."

She looked at the two security officers that were still with her.

"Okay, guys," she smirked joylessly, the throbbing headache now making her nauseous. "Let’s go. Montgomery to Excellence, three to beam up."

One good thing about transporters was that for a second or two you felt nothing. Not even pain.

*****

Montgomery entered the bridge with her jaw firmly set.

"Report."

"All away teams are performing their duties accordingly," Max Toriello answered smartly, rising from the command chair. "As for that other matter, I recommend we discuss it in your ready room, Captain."

Studying the dark haired man for a brief moment before nodding, Montgomery tried to make out his expression.

"Very well," she said and entered her ready room. Forcing back a new wave of nausea she walked over to the replicator. "Club soda."

A tall glass took form and grabbing it, she held it to her forehead before lowering it to her lips, sipping it carefully.

"You okay?" Max asked.

"I’m fine. What’s going on?"

"I knew you were trying to close the meeting with Nontha and his men, I didn’t want to disturb you but something unexpected turned up. Someone responded to our call for assistance."

"Thank God!" the captain replied with relief. "Which ship? I want…."

She interrupted herself when her second in command shook his head.

"It’s not one of ours, Eliana," he said.

"Then who? How could they pick up on our coded subspace frequency?"

Max hesitated and walked closer.

"Would you believe, the Federation?" he allowed.

Not many things surprised or shocked the seasoned captain of the Excellence these days. They had seen too much, experienced things no other humans had ever dreamed existed in the universe. Still this piece of news stunned Montgomery and made her go weak at the knees.

"What?"

"We’re not the only starship hiding out behind this moon. We’re accompanied by the USS Voyager."

Slowly sitting down on the edge of her desk she sipped her club soda again, trying to not let on that her hands were trembling.

She trusted Max implicitly. He had held the position as her first officer for close to twenty years.

"Federation? Max, are you sure?" she asked quietly.

"Our sensors confirm that their ship is Federation. It’s Starfleet all right even though I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It is a new class of ship called Intrepid; it has completely new Federation technology that is far more advanced than the Excellence’s was."

"The crew?"

"Mostly human. All, with an exception or two, originated in the Alpha Quadrant."

"How did they get here?"

"I have no idea. Thought I’d leave the honours to ask to you."

Montgomery rubbed her forehead, trying to grasp the news with composure.

"How do they look?" she asked cautiously.

"They look fine, Eliana. Really, they look fine."

"What was their reaction to our presence here?" Montgomery asked.

"The captain is no fool," he smiled. "She kind of reminds me of another Starfleet captain I know. Naturally, she’s on her guard. I can just imagine what’s going on in her mind!"

"Hm, so can I," the captain allowed. "What’s the captain’s name?"

"Her name is Janeway," Max stated, rubbing the back of his head.

Stopping the glass half way to her lips, Montgomery paused.

"Kathryn Janeway? I can’t believe it!"

"She politely demanded to talk to you."

Smirking against the rim of the glass, the tall blonde chuckled.

"I’m sure she did. Well, we better not disappoint Captain Janeway then," she said and put the glass down after emptying it.

She walked onto the bridge again with Max right behind her. She regarded the image on the view screen. She couldn’t help but admire the sleek starship orbiting the planet behind them. Montgomery had to agree with Max, she had never seen anything like it.

"Hail Voyager," she ordered. "USS Voyager, this is Captain Eliana Montgomery of the Starship Excellence."

Momentarily the view screen flickered and the familiar of a compact auburn haired woman in her early forties came into view. Montgomery put her hands on her hips and smiled at the expression on the other captain’s face.

"Long time no see, Kathryn."

*****

Janeway found herself staring in disbelief, simply not accepting the image her eyes relayed to her brain.

Captain Eliana Montgomery, missing and presumed dead, was standing on the Excellence’s bridge. She looked different in her black uniform but other than that she seemed as vibrant and as charismatic as Janeway remembered her standing in the lobby of Starfleet headquarters in San Francisco so many years ago.

Willing her chin not to hit the floor, Janeway merely quirked an eyebrow and nodded.

"Captain Montgomery," she replied calmly finally finding her voice. "As I told your first officer, this is an unexpected surprise."

The Excellence’s captain smiled wryly.

"Formal as always, Kathryn. However, I find your observation a bit of an understatement. I never thought we’d see another human again in the Delta Quadrant let alone another Federation starship. I thought the Excellence was the only one to have that dubious honour."

"I’m afraid not. The Excellence is the second Federation vessel we’ve come across," Janeway said casually, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Really? How did you manage to get here?"

"A being known as the Caretaker hauled us and the other ship across the galaxy against our will sic years ago."

"Where is the other ship?"

"Destroyed," Janeway replied in a cold tone of voice. "And what of your fate? How did you and your crew manage to be stuck here?"

"A space anomaly, think of it like a galactic tidal wave, carried our ship here but that was a long time ago, almost more than fifteen years."

There was a moment of silence as the two women eyed each other trying to absorb what the other had told them.

"Kathryn, I’d be thrilled to catch up on recent events," Montgomery said briskly, "but I’ve got work to do and damn little time to do it in."

"We picked up your call for assistance," Janeway responded. "I can see that the planet is unstable and that the populations is at risk. How can we help?"

The direct question made the other woman miss a beat.

"I’m not sure there’s anything you and your crew can do, Kathryn," she said slowly. "We were hoping that one of our sister ships might respond to our subspace signal."

"I know, but is seems that we’re all you’ve got right now. Can you afford not to take advantage of what we can offer?" Janeway replied firmly. "Can the people down there afford it?"

Eliana Montgomery turned to her first officer and exchanged what seemed like some wordless communication. He only smiled and nodded. The blonde captain shrugged.

"What the hell, when all else fails …" she mumbled.

"… improvise," both women replied at once.

Montgomery looked at Janeway and shook her head.

"I’ll beam over with my senior staff members to discuss the current situation and possible courses of action. Expect us in fifteen minutes. Montgomery out."

The screen went blank for a moment and then showed a view of the moon.

"Correct me if I’m wrong, Captain," Chakotay said, "but did she just give you an order?"

Janeway smirked.

"In case any of you missed the obvious, that’s an old acquaintance of mine. You all heard the lady; we have fifteen minutes before they show up. All senior officers report to the conference room."

The command automatically reached all parts of Voyager, resulting in the quick gathering of the nine officers in the conference room adjoining the bridge.

Janeway stood by the view ports collecting her thoughts until the last person had taken a seat around the drop shaped table.

"People, we have twelve minutes before Captain Montgomery and her senior staff officers board this ship. Tuvok, what have you discovered so far?"

"It appears that the Excellence is boasting more alien technology than Federation."

"Captain," Chakotay began, "we have no way of knowing yet whether theses people are really who they claim to be."

"I agree, Chakotay. I want each of you to be on your guard. Furthermore, I’m concerned about what their true mission is regarding the planet."

"What do you mean?"

"Don’t you find it strange how reluctant they are to accept our help?"

"Perhaps it has something to do with the Prime Directive," Tuvok offered. "If you recall, they did not want us approaching the planet when we arrived."

"True, but there may be other factors at work here. They didn’t want the planet observing us yet Montgomery was on the planet when we arrived or so they claimed."

"I never saw a shuttlecraft return to the ship so how exactly did she get back?" Tom asked. "It’s too far to transport someone from here and I would think the moon would be in the way."

"Or might I offer an another explanation?" Tuvok countered. "Our technology would not allow it however that does not prevent the Excellence from boasting such capability. I do not believe you can discount the fact that there is much we do not understand about the Excellence."

"You’re right Tuvok. We really know very little about the ship, the crew, or its captain."

She let her gaze travel around the room, looking firmly at each and everyone of the serious faces around the table.

"We all know what impact the ordeal with the Equinox had on us all. In some ways we’re still dealing with it. The five crewmembers from that ship still struggle to find their place and earn our trust. I do not want to experience that again."

"You know this captain, ma’am?" Harry Kim asked.

"Yes, I knew Eliana Montgomery. She taught at the Academy when I was a cadet and became a mentor of sorts. She was someone I admired very much."

"Do you think it’s really her?" Tom Paris wondered. "She sure seemed very ‘Starfleet’ to me."

"The thing is, she is exactly as I remembered her," Janeway said slowly, putting emphasis on the word ‘exactly’. "She looks the same, she hasn’t aged at all."

"You mean; they could be clones?" B’Elanna Torres asked.

"I don’t know but it makes me very suspicious."

"If they’re clones, there are different techniques I could use to confirm that," the Doctor added. "Unless there is a method of cloning that leaves no trace."

"Captain," Neelix said, rising from his chair. "I think I might be able to shed some light on this."

Janeway looked at her moral officer who also served as Voyager’s unofficial ambassador, noticing the little man’s unusually serious demeanour. The little Talaxian was generally in a very good mood, inspiring all of Voyager’s crew to keep going both during hard and challenging times as well as when every day was the same as the day before.

"Yes, Neelix?" she encouraged him, not sure she liked the look on his face.

"I saw the ship and caught a glimpse of its first officer on the view screen when I was on the bridge with a tray of … never mind. The way they dress, the way they operate. It rang a bell, Captain. I talked to Ensign Kim about his findings and … well, I’ve heard rumours about these people."

"About the Excellence?" Chakotay asked doubtfully.

"No, Commander, of these kinds of people or should I say, these kinds of crews. They have been around for thousands of years. They travel across vast areas of space, saving people, in some instance entire planets and leave as mysteriously as they came."

"What are they? Guardian angels?" B’Elanna mocked, sneering at Neelix tone of admiration.

"I don’t know, Lieutenant, maybe they are. People worship them for the help they extend but the people who crossed them fear them. The myth says that they are as vindictive as they are merciful."

"That sounds like a not so angelic contradiction," Janeway said, not sure what to think. "I guess the myths add to the rumours and get better, or worse, for each person forwarding it."

"I’m not so sure, Captain," Neelix said, sitting down in his chair again. "The stories about the Guardians are many and very detailed. I didn’t pay them as close attention as I wish I had now, but their power is great, that much I remember."

"I too am familiar with the stories, Captain."

Janeway turned to look at Seven.

"Have the Borg come across them before?"

"There is a part of space that the Borg tended to avoid. It is a region of space known as the Protectorate. An elite force known as the Guardians guards it."

"Are you trying to tell me that the Borg fear the Guardians?"

"No, the Borg fears the Protectorate. I find it curious how a group of individuals from the Alpha Quadrant could become members of such an elaborate organisation," Seven of Nine replied.

"So do I," the captain agreed. "I think we will have to approach Captain Montgomery with caution and I suggest we do not let on that we’ve ever heard of this myth. Thank you for showing us this possibility, Neelix. It’s always good to have an ace or two up your sleeve."

She leaned down on her hands against the table.

"Two minutes before they arrive. Chakotay, Seven, you’re with me. Tuvok, Harry, keep scanning the planet and the Excellence; any abnormalities I want to know about them immediately. The rest of you will perform your regular duties. Dismissed."

They all rose and left the conference room.

When Janeway exited the room last with Chakotay and Seven, the tall blonde turned to the captain with a frown.

"I know caution is prudent during circumstances such as these, Captain," she said. "However, I think it is of importance to remember that all information points to the fact that this crew, whether they are ‘Guardians’ or not, are here to assist the inhabitants of the planet."

"You want me to keep an open mind, is that it, Seven?" Janeway asked, pressing her lips together. "I certainly will try to give Montgomery the benefit of the doubt but I must be honest and tell you that’s about as far as I’ll stretch it. Something isn’t right here and I plan to find out what it is."

"I am certain that you will succeed, Captain," Seven said as they entered the turbo lift.

Janeway wished she could have been as certain as her astrometrics officer. The muscles in her stomach clenched as she prepared mentally to face the woman who had influenced her more than any other person, with the exception of her father, the admiral, when she was young.

It was time to determine if the striking captain of the Excellence was indeed Eliana Montgomery.

*****

Continued in The Guardians - part 2