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Survivor's Epitaph

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CHAPTER ONE : A COLLAGE


The Heart asks Pleasure - first
And then - Excuse from Pain
And then - those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering -

And then - to go to sleep -
And then - if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die

-Emily Dickinson

Lieutenant Tom Paris tore his way toward consciousness, his body remembering more of his frantic last waking moments than his mind. The pain that met him forced a gasp from his lips. He twisted, desperate to ease his agony, and met only resistance. Rational thought fought with instinct, and finally he quieted, stilled, and took stock of his situation. He was prostrate. He was bound. He was hurt.

And he was completely blind.

A deep breath, meant to calm, allowed a low moan to escape dry lips. A clatter answered him. Had he alerted his captors, or summoned his friends? Footsteps echoed closer. He held his breath.

Someone touched him, tightened one of the straps that held his leg. Then a sharp pain on the inside of his elbow - a hypospray? A needle? He lay there, his breaths unsteady, waiting for the mysterious forces to work their will on his helpless body. Not knowing what was happening, what would happen, was a torture all its own.

He cleared his throat and forced authority into his voice. "Where am I?"

The breath of his assailant felt hot on his skin as the being continued to work around him, on him. His senses strained against the blackness.

"Who are you?"

Clammy fingers pulled at the fabric that covered one of his eyes. The material peeled away. Air played across his naked flesh, his brow. The agony swelled.

He was still blind.

"No... no!" His whisper became a cry. Gasping, he stiffened and clenched his hands into fists. Despite Paris' panic and pain, the unknown being continued to work, and replaced the cloth that covered the sightless face.

Somewhere across the chamber, a guttural growl rumbled. Once. And again, more insistently.

"Beh... B'Elanna?" The lieutenant's voice broke in fear, in need.

Another jab at his arm. Awareness fled.

***

An insistent buzz filled his ears. If he had possessed enough energy, he would have been irritated. As it was, he was simply numb, insulated from his surroundings by the fogginess of the drugs they had pumped into his system. They. There'd been a they. Who were they? Where was he? What was happening?

It took a great deal of time and effort to put the thoughts together. It took even more for Paris to register the voices that echoed across the chamber.

"...would be so much easier on us all if you would be more cooperative."

"He's been asking for water for hours. Give him some."

"We're giving him fluids intravenously. He is in no danger."

"He's thirsty. Give him some water."

"You'd be better served worrying about yourself. He's sedated. He has no idea what's happening."

"Bastard. Give him some water."

"If I do, will you be more cooperative with these tests?"

"If you do, I may not kill you... today."

A resigned chuckle. "It's a start."

Paris did not follow the conversation. But one of the voices, despite its hostility, was reassuringly familiar. And water. He focused on the word. They were talking about water. His mouth was so dry - the drugs, no doubt. He tried to swallow, but his swollen tongue proved uncooperative.

Then, without warning, a hand slipped beneath his throbbing head and lifted it. A whimper. His own? He couldn't tell. He felt disconnected from the sounds he heard.

And then, against his lips, a trickle of moisture.

He tried to lean forward, to gulp, to lap it up. But the water caught in his throat and choked him. He coughed. Then he tried again.

So very little. But it was better than nothing. Cool wetness. It felt so good.

The sensation dragged him closer to clarity. Paris grabbed at it and struggled to reel himself in. Focus, focus. Think of the voice. Who was she?

The pain at his arm again. He was robbed of knowing.

***

"Shhh, Tom. It's B'Elanna. You need to be quiet. If they hear you, they'll drug you again. Do you understand me? Tom?"

She was talking to him. Finally, the words penetrated his muddled senses. The twisting and moaning he barely even registered as his own eased as it dawned on him. It was real. She was here. B'Elanna was here.

"B'Elanna?" The tubes attached to him, in him, twisted as he tried to turn toward her voice. He shivered with the aches of the multiple violations.

"Yes, it's me. Don't try to talk, Tom. Save your strength."

But this interaction was too precious to abandon. He'd been trapped, paralyzed within his own quiet skull, confused and alone far too long. "Where...?"

"We're on a Vidiian ship. In their lab. I don't know about the rest - some are dead, and I think some of the others are being held as laborers."

A Vidiian ship. Of course. The memories began to resurface now. He remembered running down a hall, following one of the teams, turning and firing at the Vidiian intruders. The predators were overrunning Voyager, too many for the battered crew, too quickly for the disabled defenses. He remembered the shock of being stunned, the sudden absence of everything.

Now they were Vidiian prisoners. The lab, she said. She meant organ processing.

"B'Elanna..." It hurt to talk. But then it hurt, regardless. "Are you okay?"

She exhaled, something like a shaky sigh. "I'm fine. I'm still their ticket to a cure. But this time they're letting me keep both of my halves together. So far." The silence held a potent question, and she paused before asking it. "Is the pain very bad?"

The question answered itself. "What have they... done to me?" He strained to keep his voice level, and flinched at his failure.

"You're on some kind of support system... They've - taken some of your organs."

"I... I can't see."

"There are bandages -"

"I couldn't see... when they took them off." His panic was rising. "They've... taken my eyes, haven't they?"

He could hear his own breaths panting out his fear.

"Just one, Tom... Just... just one." The voice was faint and wavering. So unlike her. That frightened him as much as the Vidiians.

For a moment she said nothing. Then, "Don't give up, Tom. You've got to fight." Now that was better. That was B'Elanna, unbroken.

It gave him the courage he so desperately wanted. "B'Elanna, promise me something."

"Tom, don't -"

"Please."

He chose to accept the silence as acquiescence.

"Get out of here. Find a way. Escape. And don't... don't remember me like this, okay? Please -"

"I thought I heard something in here." The alien voice interrupted the plea, steps tapping on the hard floor. Paris heard Torres gasp in shock. He cringed, hyperaware of his utter vulnerability.

The footfalls grew closer. "You fight the drugs. They will free you from the pain, if only you accept them."

The lieutenant shook his head feebly. "No, no more. I don't want them. Dammit, let me..." He gasped as he felt the dreaded injection. "No..."

***

The touch was not a clinical one, but a comforting one. Fingers gently stroked the hair back from his forehead. He jumped at the contact.

"Easy, Tom. It's the captain. I won't hurt you."

The captain. She was here. Where was here? Was he safe? Complete disorientation. Wherever here was, he might have been here a year or a day. Space and time meant nothing anymore.

He lifted his head in a pathetic attempt to look at her. The bindings bit at him. So, he was still a captive. And so was his captain. He tried to turn away, so she would not see him like this.

"Captain." His lips formed the words, but no sound came.

"Rest, Lieutenant." She sounded tired, and bitterly sad.

Her hand came to rest on his bare shoulder. Skin on skin. So different from the sterility of most of the sensations that met him. The touch was warm, and living, and its honest simplicity made him want to cry.

The implications of the bare shoulder only sluggishly occurred to him. He wondered if he were nude. The idea unsettled him, somehow made his helpless position before the captain even more humiliating. He didn't want to be an embarrassment to her. He didn't want her to have any connection to the ill use they had made of him. But perhaps they had covered him with a sheet. He could feel little of his body now, since he'd been tied to this biobed, immobile and drugged, for so long. There was no way to tell.

But wait. There was some quiet, steady fear that nagged him from the corner of his mind. Perhaps she was the key. Perhaps the captain could help him. What was it?

Yes. "Harry?"

Janeway put a finger to his cracked lips. "We sent him over. Harry's safe. Don't worry about him."

Sent him where? What did she mean? There were so many things he couldn't remember. But she said Harry was all right. He trusted his captain. He nodded, satisfied.

"You must come with me now." It was a different voice, deep and demanding.

Her hand left him with a reassuring pat.

Another touched him, rolled his arm over to expose its vulnerable veins.

He tried to pull away, to prove to his captain that he hadn't given up. If she were still there, he had to show her that they hadn't broken him. Mangled his body, perhaps, but not his spirit. He didn't want her to think that, when the time came, he would die easily. He didn't want to disappoint her.

But the restraints pulled so tightly, he could not resist. The familiar pain of the drug injection. Trapped inside the blind silence of his own mind, Paris raged against the numbness until it won him.

***

"We're through for today."

B'Elanna Torres climbed off the table and curled over on herself, shivering as air moved across her sweat-soaked frame. Her arms wrapped around her slender sides and rubbed against the folds of the abrasive lab gown.

The armed escort arrived to watch her as she wearily trudged back to the main transplant chamber, the usual number of guards doubled. She didn't look at them, count them. She continued on as she did every day. Enduring. Hoarding her energy. Waiting for the moment to act.

"What's the meaning of this?"

"Sir, we've been sent to secure this chamber. Some of the prisoners have escaped, and may be headed this way."

Without moving, her entire body quickened at the news. Her fingers and toes tingled in their bath of adrenaline. Think, think. Another such chance might not come again.

The guards took up position around the lab as their leader barked orders. "Try to save as many as you can. Just stun them. Only kill if absolutely necessary. As for their leader, I want him alive. And conscious. I have plans for him."

"Chakotay," she whispered to herself like a blessing. She knew it was him. Coming for her.

And the door burst open in a flurry of shots. Starfleet officers fell, Vidiians fell, and equipment sparked and smoked as phasers missed their mark. From the center of it all emerged a dark figure, calling toward her sheltered position between the biobeds.

"B'Elanna!"

She rose instinctively at the voice, and raised her arms in reflex to catch the tossed phaser rifle.

"Can you walk?" Chakotay's outstretched arm waited to steady her.

She dove for him and grabbed his filthy worker's tunic like a life preserver. "Tom! Let me get Tom!"

He nodded, and pulled her toward the door, firing all the while. "We won't be able to hold them back for long. They've got us blocked up the west passageway. Now's the chance to punch through. Get him back here now."

She confirmed that the phaser rifle was set to kill, and then took off around the corner and into the central organ processing room. Unsteady legs betrayed her, and she leaned against a row of terminals and caught her breath. The issue of Paris' condition suddenly hit her. How could she move him if he required life support? They would make it somehow. She'd see to it. How long had she watched him fight for every second of life? She wouldn't let him down now.

With a few shaky steps she was past the equipment, at the foot of his bed.

He was gone. They had deactivated the machines. The wires and tubes curled atop the bunk neatly, no longer needed.

No.

She whirled toward the door, frantic to find him, to find Chakotay, to find an answer. Any answer but the one she feared. She plunged headlong into an armed Vidiian commander.

With a matched set of sky blue eyes.

For a moment they both struggled for balance and for weapons, winded and shaken from the unexpected collision. Then Torres made a decision. It was a conscious choice, one she made without regret. She released the terrible Klingon, poured her last energy into the mindless and merciless warrior whose memory lived imprinted on each cell of her body. With a disconsolate shriek she threw herself at the surprised officer and clawed at him, ripping out his throat, watching in fascination as his life bled out in pulsebeats onto the white tile floor.

Then, with a steady, bloodstained hand, she closed the dear blue eyes.

She did not know how long she kneeled there. All thoughts of meeting her crewmates, of taking flight, were gone. By the time she looked up, the room was full of guards transfixed by the gory scene. Slowly, she rocked back onto her heels, reclaiming the phaser rifle.

"Careful. This one's important. No one fires." The head guard turned to face her, a measure of compassion on his hideous features. "You can see you're outnumbered. The rebellion is over. Your friends cannot help you now. Surrender, and you will not be harmed."

Fools. Of course they would not harm her. They needed her. They needed her precious Klingon DNA. She was the hope for them all. She was their cure. She was their deliverance from the dreaded Phage.

With perfect hatred, Torres slowly smiled. Chakotay, if still alive, would understand. She hoped he would forgive.

She turned the rifle on herself too quickly for them to stop her.

***

The Vidiians could not afford to make a martyr of Chakotay. No, they did not need a hero. Just an example.

The rebellious Starfleet prisoners were chained together to await escort back to the laborers' barracks. Before they were returned, however, there was the issue of punishment. The first officer of the Vidiian ship paced threateningly around the singular figure of Chakotay, who hunched on his knees, wrists chained to ankles on the hard deck tile. He kneeled, unmoving, turned within himself, considering the reasons why B'Elanna had not returned to meet him. So still, so intense, Chakotay seemed ready to implode like a black hole and drag everyone nearby with him.

He barely noticed the mock trial taking place. The crewmembers that had joined him from his shift in the mine would not be hurt, he knew. Vidiians had already claimed the rights to their precious body parts. As for himself, he could not bear to give them the satisfaction of fear. He'd known the odds when he instigated this revolt.

"You will work double shifts every other day at the mines. Two days' work for every one day's rest period. If you have the energy to attempt escape, you have the energy to labor."

So, they would work him to death. Or age him too soon, at least. A subtle torture. The crew could watch him fade before their eyes. Terrible, unremitting. Yet eminently practical.

His sentence began immediately, despite the fact that this was normally his rest period. The muscle of his arms and the width of his shoulders marked him as an ideal worker. They had set his quota high. And as his bleeding hands fought to scrape away the amount of rock his captors demanded, he saw her.

Her eyes were deeply shadowed, nearly blackened, and her hair clung to her sticky neck and cheeks like an auburn spider web. She was carrying rock, eyes half closed, when she fell into him.

"Kathryn!" He caught her and eased her to the ground.

"I knew you were alive," she whispered, and fainted.

***

"Kathryn, you have to wake up. Just for a minute. C'mon, Kathryn."

She seemed to glow with feverish heat. He cupped her face in his dirty, battered hands and willed her to hear him.

With a sharp gasp, she came awake. Her brows drew together in alarm at the concern on his face.

"Kathryn, it's okay. I need you to stand up for just a second. Then you can rest."

The Vidiian guard was already turning the corner. Chakotay wrapped his arms around the captain and bodily lifted her to her feet. She reached out and steadied herself against the rock wall, digging with one hand and balancing herself with the other.

Beneath her was a pile of mined rock. Chakotay's. Passing for hers.

The Vidiian guard walked by them, uninterested.

Immediately, Chakotay lowered her back to the ground. "Rest now."

She watched him helplessly as he dug, and carried, and added to his own pile and to hers. And as he paused to rewrap his torn hands in strips of his tunic, then returned to work. He'd told her that he would take care of her in the mines, see that she recuperated and grew stronger. And he had, without complaint. Day after day.

When her shift ended, he was still digging.

And when she returned.

***

After Janeway grew quiet, Chakotay sat up on his bunk and crossed his legs. He was too tired to sleep. He moved stiffly, trembling, like an old man. Only meditation could bring renewal. He would seek it soon. The strength to survive, to fulfill their plan.

But plans failed.

He was not a fatalist. He was a realist. This would not be, after all, his first attempt at escape.

They had plans together. And Chakotay had another plan, all his own. From within the folds of the bandages that covered his hands he produced the stone. It was a flake of a larger block, slender and jagged. He had sharpened it against the ledges in the mine until its edge was razor-sharp. He tore a long strip of cloth from around the waist of his tattered tunic and set it aside.

He remembered the Vidiian's smile as a diseased finger traced the tattoo at his temple. "I should like to wear this painting," the alien voice had said, nodding to the doctor in approval. Nausea had choked the commander, made standing difficult as he fought the bile that filled his throat.

Opportunity had flared and submerged so many times. This might be the last. He needed one reassurance, just in case. Victory over one's enemy came in many forms, in varying degrees. It need not be absolute to be triumphant.

The makeshift blade went to his brow. Blood ran down his cheek. Chakotay grimaced and held his breath. When he feared he could not go on, he silently implored his father's spirit to guide his awkward, swollen hand. He made no sound.

Symbol was sacred, as was the human body. But the destruction of both could be as well, if the sentiment fueling it strengthened the living, or remembered the dead. Chakotay had brought many pains upon himself on this Vidiian vessel. Only this one could be said to heal.

When she woke in the night, Janeway found him facing her on his bunk, curled in a fetal position, a bloody strip of material wrapped around his head. He was not asleep. He was far away.

"Chakotay? What have you done?" The whisper carried the few feet to him.

Protected the memory of my ancestors. Spit at these murderers. What I should have done long ago.

"Saved my soul," he whispered evenly, and closed his eyes.

***

She only needed a moment more to infect the entire system. It was fitting to use a virus against them. The dramatic irony was not lost on her. One tiny warrior introduced into a body to wreak havoc. Western Europe reeled from the Black Death. And North America's depopulation after the Columbian encounter made the plague look like the common cold. And now the Vidiians with their bloody Phage.

Well, germs of an idea could destroy just like germs of a disease. She was killing computers - databases, directories, defenses - not beings. Not that she wouldn't if she could. A part of her longed to kill until she drowned in their blood. But she would take the opportunities presented to her.

Yes, yes, she watched the contaminant infect and disable. The destruction it promised renewed her waning strength. Now she could launch her precious buoy and nothing could stop her. She would free it, and liberate its dear message. Send it far away, let it become as distant and remote as her hope had grown.

And then she would escape this chamber of horrors, this floating tomb. She would steal a shuttle and go. Just go. Or lose her life trying.

She wanted to show her enemy one last time the might of the human spirit. She wanted to honor the memory of her dead. She wanted to act out the final scene of this twisted tragedy.

Whether she lived or died as a result made little difference. She would go through the motions - good motions, with the right purpose. She needed to act far more than she needed to live.

As to her own fate, Kathryn Janeway no longer cared.


END OF CHAPTER ONE

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO: A STORY

 

Of Glory not a Beam is left
But her Eternal House
The Asterisk is for the Dead,
The Living, for the Stars

-Emily Dickinson

 

"I also reorganized the duty shifts around the celebration of Baby Wildman's new holosuite program, 'Talaxian Zoo.' All of those responsible for writing the program - B'Elanna and Carey in Engineering, Staten in Xenobiology, and Neelix, of course - wanted to be there for Baby's first experience."

Kathryn Janeway chuckled into her coffee, making small mocha bubbles surface in the cup. "The child has a name, Chakotay. Do you think Naomi will be scarred forever because everyone insists on calling her 'Baby'?"

He dropped his eyes and smiled, a dimple forming in his bronze cheek. "At least we've humanized it. Tuvok kept calling it 'The Infant.' He made it sound about as personal as 'The Jeffries Tube.'"

It seemed ludicrous to them both, and they gave up trying to take the issue seriously.

"So, what else to report? How about Stellar Cartography? How are they handling the new workload?" She drew her legs up under her, perching side-saddle in her chair. The steaming mug remained cradled in her hands.

"They've set up a biweekly schedule for raw data examination, chart documentation and downloading. You will be forwarded a copy of their reports after each cycle is complete." His fingers worked the datapadd even as he looked at her.

"Good. Now that we've left the space known by the Talaxians, we are completely on our own. Everything we encounter will be foreign. It's up to us to record what we find out here." A reluctant grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. "We're really pioneers now, Chakotay. We're going where no one -"

The chirp of her communicator startled them both. In one swift action she uncurled, poised for action.

"Kim to Janeway."

She and Chakotay locked gazes at the concern in the ensign's voice.

"Go ahead, Mister Kim."

"We're picking up a message buoy on scanners. Its signal is a wide-band continual hail."

"A distress signal?" Chakotay pitched his voice toward Janeway's commbadge.

"Not a conventional one... but I think you should hear this." His agitated tone told far more than his words.

"On our way. Who's it from, Harry?" She was already circling her desk, with Chakotay right behind her.

"It's... it's from you, Captain."

The words brought her to a halt right where she stood, and Chakotay caught her elbow. She reached out and carefully placed a hand on his chest, as if physically drawing some kind of support from him, and took a deep, preparatory breath.

Then she turned to meet the mystery.

***

"On screen, Mister Kim." The captain came to stand in the middle of the bridge, arms folded. She could not help but think of the last time she had come face to face with herself. The memory left her heartbeat pulsing in her ears.

"There's no visual, Captain, only audio."

Well, in some ways, that made it easier. "Let's hear it, then."

"Aye, Captain. It isn't the best quality, but here's what we have."

"THIS IS CAPTAIN KATHRYN JANEWAY OF THE FEDERATION VESSEL VOYAGER."

The voice was hers, but strained and thick. The inherent authority survived in her tone, but it trembled, as if long unused and now unsure.

"MY CREW AND I WERE TAKEN CAPTIVE BY THE VIDIIANS AND HELD ON THEIR ORGAN PROCESSING AND MINING SHIP, BEEYAI ACHUSS. OVER THE LAST YEAR, MY CREWMEMBERS WERE SLAUGHTERED FOR THEIR BODY PARTS. I AM NOW... THE SOLE SURVIVOR."

Janeway took a staggering step backwards, as if to escape.

"I AM SENDING THIS BUOY AS A WARNING TO OTHER SPECIES. THE VIDIIANS ARE ON THE MOVE, BRANCHING OUT FROM THEIR TRADITIONAL SPACE IN THE HOPES OF HARVESTING ALIEN ORGANS AND, ULTIMATELY, CURING THE DISEASE THEY CALL THE PHAGE. CONSIDER THEM HOSTILE, FOR THEY ARE.

"THIS RECORDING IS ALSO SENT AS A TRIBUTE TO MY CREW. AFTER I LAUNCH THIS MESSAGE, I SHALL ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE FROM THE VIDIIAN VESSEL WHERE WE HAVE BEEN HELD. I DOUBT THAT I WILL SURVIVE. IN THE EVENT THAT I AM LOST, THIS RECORDING WILL ALLOW THE NAMES AND DEEDS OF THE VOYAGER CREW TO BE REMEMBERED. THEY WERE BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN, AND THEY DESERVE TO HAVE THEIR STORIES TOLD. WHOEVER HEARS THIS MESSAGE, PLEASE REMEMBER THEIR NAMES AND DEEDS WITH HONOR. THEY EARNED IT."

Chakotay quietly rose from his seat to stand next to her, an empathetic show of support.

"THE CREW OF VOYAGER FELL TO THE VIDIIANS ON STARDATE 49548.7. AT THE TIME OUR SHIP HAD EXPERIENCED A SPATIAL ANOMALY THAT IN EFFECT DUPLICATED OUR SHIP AND CREW. IN THE VIDIIAN ENGAGEMENT THAT ENSUED, I CHOSE TO SACRIFICE MY VESSEL TO SAVE OUR SISTER SHIP. WE ACTIVATED OUR SELF-DESTRUCT MECHANISM AND EXPECTED TO DIE, AND TAKE OUR VIDIIAN ATTACKERS WITH US.

"BUT WE DID NOT DIE."

Tom Paris, who had swiveled to share a glance with Kim as they listened, turned away and closed his eyes in mute horror.

"ALL WE KNOW IS THAT SOMETHING - PERHAPS A CASCADE EFFECT CAUSED BY THE FIRST WAVE OF THE EXPLOSION, BUT WE NEVER HAD THE LUXURY OF SCIENTIFIC ANALYSIS - MULTIPLIED THE PHENOMENON WE EXPERIENCED, DUPLICATING YET ANOTHER VOYAGER AND THE VIDIIAN BOARDING SHIP ATTACHED TO IT. WE THEORIZE THAT ONE SHIP EXPLODED. ONE SHIP ESCAPED. AND WE, THE THIRD SHIP, WERE CAPTURED.

"THEY TOOK ALMOST HALF OF THE CREW FOR HARVESTING IMMEDIATELY, BEFORE WE KNEW WHAT WAS HAPPENING. WE LOST..." Despite the static in the recording, a long breath was clearly audible. "MY OLDEST FRIEND, TUVOK. AND SO MANY OTHERS, SO MISSED: KES, NEELIX, WILDMAN, NICOLETTI.

"KNOWING WHAT I DO NOW, I BELIEVE THAT THEY WERE THE FORTUNATE ONES-"

"Cut it off, Harry." In the hush that followed the transmission, Janeway stared ahead as if her eyes could burn holes in the viewscreen. At his station Tuvok turned to look at her. Torres did the same. She did not meet their eyes.

"Voice print?" She had to hope against hope.

"Exact match, Captain."

Damn, damn, damn. "Engage out tractor beam, Mister Kim. Bring it in." Under her breath, she spoke to Chakotay. "I'll be in my ready room."

Janeway fled the bridge.

***

"Come."

Chakotay entered tentatively, hands clasped behind his back. "They've recovered it. Initial scans show a primitive recorder attached to a modified Vidiian buoy. Estimates indicate over half an hour of recorded message." He waited.

"She had a lot to tell." She continued to stare at her desk. "How long has the buoy been in space?"

"Not long. Less than a week, we think. Which means the Vidiians may be close by. She indicated that they're moving beyond the recognized borders of Vidiian space."

Janeway nodded agreement. "We'll keep our eyes open. Perhaps the message will have other useful information as well." She appeared ready to say more, yet she made no move to complete her thought.

Finally, he spoke again in the attempt to ward off the demons to which she was so obviously falling prey. "Captain, it took us a long time to adjust our sensors to pick up the other Voyager. There's no way we could have known that a third was created during our escape. This is tragic, but it's not your fault."

"I wonder if our counterparts felt the same way as they suffered for a year under the Vidiians." She could not hide her shiver of revulsion. She did not try.

"At least the alternate Kathryn Janeway had the courage to record their story so that we could remember them and mourn them."

She finally looked at him, a sharp glance, biting in ferocity. "You heard her voice. She was unstable. This recording was nothing more than her attempt at absolution, a means of keeping herself sane. Her crew died and she survived. Don't give her credit she doesn't deserve."

"With all due respect, you shouldn't give her blame that she doesn't deserve. You can't carry her feelings of guilt and yours as well. Clearly she did what she could, and we must honor that."

"Thank you, Commander. But I can't help but think of all of those officers -"

"That's the point, isn't it? Remembering them?"

"If we did, they wouldn't be dead."

"We couldn't then. But now we can. She saw to it."

The replies died. They lingered in awkward silence, their concerns clashing and their arguments hurtling past one another, unredeemed.

Finally she pushed herself away from the desk, a gesture of dismissal. "Have B'Elanna detach the recorder and bring it to me. I'll see what intelligence data I can get about the Vidiians."

He turned to comply, then halted. "Is that it?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean there's a bridge full of officers who know that there's a story about their counterparts' deaths. The cat's already out of the bag. Will you allow them to hear the recording?"

"What good could come of it? We know how the story ends."

"Closure could come of it. The damage has already been done."

"The effect on morale -"

"Would be less devastating than knowing that you had the truth and you kept it from them. They deserve the chance to know. And to grieve."

She stood. "Your position is noted, Commander."

Her crisp formality hung between them.

"They won't blame you, Kathryn." Soft but insistent words.

He left her alone.

***

"My Thomas is pensive. Look at his worried brow." Sandrine had surprised Paris from behind and now held him, one arm about his waist and powdered chin on his shoulder. "He needs l'amour, oui? Nothing eases the mind like the sport of love." She kissed him suggestively on the cheek and ran wine-red nails up his muscled bicep.

Affection won over irritation, and he flashed her a genuine boyish smile. "I think a game of pool is all I'm up to tonight, Sandrine."

"Bah!" She pushed him away in one melodramatic thrust and leaned conspiratorially close to Torres. "Perhaps you will have more luck fanning his fires, Cherie."

Torres glared at him murderously, but could not keep from chuckling at the amorous hologram.

"And what of you, my sweet young thing?" Already attentive to her next conquest, Sandrine placed her hands on Kim's arms and scrutinized him. "I should like to teach you all the things Sandrine knows. I could rest my head on your powerful shoulder and whisper things most scandalous."

Although used to her advances, Kim still blushed furiously. He stepped back, out of her clutches, and turned to the billiards table. "I'm afraid I've already committed to a game." He became suddenly absorbed in chalking his cue.

"You young men are to be pitied. You don't know what you are missing!" She winked at them all and swished back toward the bar, hips swaying and satin rustling.

The mood of the three instantly fell back into its preoccupied gloom.

"So, do you want to hear it?" B'Elanna leaned a hip against the table, clearly disinterested in their usual game.

"Of course I do. I don't want to keep thinking about it. I just want to know. Get it over with." Paris turned to Kim.

"The question isn't if we want to hear, it's whether we'll even be allowed to." Chalky fingers rubbed together absently. "I can see them thinking it would be bad for morale."

"We have a right to hear that recording." B'Elanna retorted, voice rising. "If our family members died, we'd have the right to know how. And these people weren't family, they were us!"

Dropping his eyes, Kim spoke softly. "They were my shipmates. If the captain hadn't sent me over with Baby, I'd have ended up on the Vidiian ship, too."

Paris rested a supportive hand on Kim's shoulder. "You can't dwell on that, Harry. It'll drive you crazy."

He nodded, and looked straight at Paris meaningfully. "But I owe it to them to know find out what happened."

"Merdre! What must I do to win your affection, my dark, brooding, mysterious man? Play a drum? Kill a deer?" Sandrine's voice carried and they looked to see Chakotay, pinned by the proprietress as he walked in the door, struggling as she nestled herself against his broad chest.

"I'm in too bad a mood for this tonight. Let's get out of here," Torres sighed, slipping down off the table.

***

"It's a little early, isn't it?" Janeway smiled as she spoke, revealing the question as a tease rather than an indictment. But the smile was brittle, forcing lines that ran a bit too deeply into her shadowed face.

He took the offered seat across from her desk. "Well, you weren't in your quarters or the mess hall and, though I didn't try, I guessed that you weren't at Wuthering Heights, either."

"Mmm. I never use the holosuite before my morning coffee. So what brings you here first thing, Commander?"

He drew a breath, trying to adjust his tone to communicate, instead of aggravate. "What would you say if I told you that several bridge officers believe they have a right to hear that tape and are anxious to do so?"

"You spoke to them?"

"Last night."

"In other words, you crashed Sandrine's to find Tom, Harry, and B'Elanna to take their pulse on the situation."

"Crashed is a rather harsh word. Sandrine was glad to see me."

"I bet."

"And I wasn't trying to poll them. I merely wanted to suggest that they refrain from sharing their knowledge of the tape with other crew members. I expected dissatisfaction, and I figured it didn't need to spread."

"I appreciate it, Commander. That was good thinking." She poured herself another cup of coffee from the large carafe. His eyebrow raised of its own accord. He guessed she had not slept at all last night. After a deep swallow, she continued. "Okay, what would you say if I told you that I haven't listened to it yet?"

"I would... ask why." He spread his hands.

Janeway looked right into him, bloodshot eyes steady. She whispered her next words. "I tried to prepare myself, and I didn't know how. I tried to rationalize, to just dig in. I told myself I was worried about issues of privacy and ethics. But I realized that... I didn't listen simply because I'm afraid of what I will hear."

She relaxed at the understanding she seemed to read in him.

"No one wants this, Captain. But we do need it."

She nodded, agreeing. Nothing more was said.

***

The captain and commander emerged from Janeway's ready room, a unified front.

"Good morning," she offered in a pleasant voice, although her weary features gave an equally blatant message. "I've made a decision regarding the recording, and I would like to share it with you."

Paris, Torres, Tuvok, and Kim all watched her expectantly. She paced in a small square in the center of the bridge.

"After shift, at nineteen hundred hours this evening, I invite you to come to the conference room. Only the bridge crew will be allowed. At that time I will play the recording from the Vidiian buoy."

She waited for them to exchange looks, to register her words, then began again. "You are welcome to come and listen. You are equally welcome not to come. You may also come and choose to leave before the recording is over. I leave that up to you. This is an informal, optional activity. I have not yet listened to the recording, so I will be hearing it for the first time tonight with those of you who choose to come. I ask that you remember that this is a private and emotional message. What you hear will not leave the room."

An elegant nod ended her announcement. "Thank you. Carry on."

A collective sigh of relief filled the bridge. As the shift progressed, however, the anxiety began to mount.

***

They all came. Early.

By the time Janeway entered with the recorder and a mug of coffee, the entire bridge crew was waiting. From the look of their civvies, she gathered that, with the usual exception of Tuvok, they had taken the adjective "informal" seriously. Good. She feared that they would need whatever comfort they could gather.

At last willing to pierce the contemplative quiet of the gathering, Janeway cleared her throat.

"Thank you all for coming. Let me remind you that no one is required to stay through the entire recording. Let me also remind you that nothing we hear in this room will be discussed with crewmembers other than those present. Does anyone have anything to say before we begin?"

No one did.

"All right, then. Let's do it. I'll begin where we left off."

With the touch of a button, the hoarse voice of another Captain Janeway filled the room.

"THEY TOOK ALMOST HALF OF THE CREW FOR HARVESTING IMMEDIATELY, BEFORE WE KNEW WHAT WAS HAPPENING. WE LOST... MY OLDEST FRIEND, TUVOK. AND SO MANY OTHERS, SO MISSED: KES, NEELIX, WILDMAN, NICOLETTI.

"KNOWING WHAT I DO NOW, I BELIEVE THAT THEY WERE THE FORTUNATE ONES.

"THERE WERE TOO MANY OF US TO 'HARVEST' ALL AT ONCE. THOSE OF US LEFT WERE PUT TO WORK AS LABORERS. THE BEEYAI ACHUSS CONTAINED AN ONBOARD MINE, MUCH LIKE DEEP SPACE NINE DID IN THE OLD CARDASSIAN DAYS OF TEROK NOR . THE VIDIIANS SPLIT US INTO TWO SHIFTS, ONE SLEEPING WHILE THE OTHER WORKED. WE HAD NO CONTACT WITH THE OTHER SHIFT, NONE AT ALL. WE COULDN'T TELL WHO WAS STILL ALIVE AND WHO HAD BEEN MURDERED.

"THEY PUT CHAKOTAY, MY FIRST OFFICER, IN THE SHIFT OPPOSITE OF MINE, FOR FEAR WE WOULD PLAN ESCAPE TOGETHER. SO WE PLANNED ESCAPE SEPARATELY. IT TOOK WEEKS - MONTHS - TO MAKE STRATEGIES AGAINST THEM. WE WERE WORKED UNTIL EXHAUSTED, AND WE HAD SEEN NONE OF THE SHIP EXCEPT THE MINES AND THE BARRACKS. NEVERTHELESS, MISTER CAREY AND I, WITH SEVERAL OTHERS, DEVISED A PLAN TO INTRODUCE A VIRUS INTO THE VIDIIAN COMPUTER SYSTEM. WE BUILT THIS RECORDER OUT OF PARTS WE MANAGED TO FIND OR STEAL, HOPING WE COULD LAUNCH A DISTRESS SIGNAL WHILE THE SHIP'S SYSTEMS WERE PARALYZED. PROGRESS WAS AGONIZINGLY SLOW.

"MEANWHILE, THE VIDIIANS HAD DEVELOPED A CLAIMRIGHT SYSTEM OVER US, THROUGH WHICH THEIR CREWMEMBERS, IN ORDER OF RANK, COULD INDIVIDUALLY CHOOSE THE DONOR OF THEIR PARTS AND HARVEST THEM PIECEMEAL, AS NEEDED. THIS ALLOWED THEM TO... RAPE OUR BODIES SLOWLY INSTEAD OF BUTCHERING US IN ONE BLOW." Janeway's voice trembled, and she paused for a moment. The audience in the conference room carefully avoided eye contact as they considered her anguish.

"AS MACABRE AS THIS WAS, IT OFFERED US NEW OPPORTUNITIES TO SEE THE SHIP AS WE WERE TAKEN BACK AND FORTH TO THE ORGAN PROCESSING SITE. I LATER LEARNED THAT IT WAS AT THIS TIME, SOME FIVE MONTHS INTO OUR CAPTIVITY, THAT CHAKOTAY DISCOVERED THE WHEREABOUTS OF LIEUTENANT B'ELANNA TORRES, AND HIS PLANS BEGAN TO COME TOGETHER.

"WE KNEW THAT THE VIDIIANS HAD FOUND SOME KIND OF POTENTIAL CURE FOR THE PHAGE USING B'ELANNA'S KLINGON DNA THE LAST TIME SHE WAS TAKEN CAPTIVE BY THEM. SHE ESCAPED BEFORE THEIR STUDIES WERE COMPLETE. ALTHOUGH NO ONE HAD SEEN HER UP TO THIS POINT, WE EXPECTED THAT SHE WAS STILL ALIVE AND ONCE AGAIN THE SUBJECT OF VIDIIAN EXPERIMENTS."

Paris shot an anxious look at Torres, whose crossed arms slid around herself, hugging her sides as if she were terribly cold.

"ENSIGN MCDANIEL SPOTTED B'ELANNA WHEN SHE WAS TAKEN TO ORGAN PROCESSING, AND REPORTED BACK TO CHAKOTAY. THE VIDIIANS DID NOT SEPARATE THE LIEUTENANT'S HUMAN AND KLINGON HALVES, AS THEY HAD BEFORE. APPARENTLY, THEY WERE QUITE AFRAID OF HER KLINGON SIDE."

Several nervous snorts and chuckles punctuated the quiet of the conference room.

"FROM WHAT MCDANIEL SAW, B'ELANNA WAS UNDERGOING SERIES OF TESTS. OTHER THAN BEING TIRED AND HEAVILY GUARDED, THOUGH, SHE SEEMED UNHARMED. WHILE MEMBERS OF MY SHIFT CONTINUED TO WORK ON THE COMPUTER SABOTAGE ANGLE, THEN, CHAKOTAY'S GROUP WAS MAPPING ALL KNOW PARTS OF THE SHIP AND PREPARING AN ARMED ESCAPE TO THE SHUTTLE BAYS. I KNOW CHAKOTAY WAS WAITING FOR INTELLIGENCE ABOUT B'ELANNA. HE WOULDN'T MOVE WITHOUT HER. AND NOW HE HAD WHAT HE NEEDED TO CONTINUE WITH HIS PLAN. OF COURSE WE ONLY KNEW THIS LATER. AT THE TIME, BOTH CHAKOTAY AND I WERE WORKING BLIND, NOT KNOWING EACH OTHER'S PLANS, BUT BOTH INTENDING TO RESCUE THE OTHER'S SHIFT IF OUR ATTEMPT SUCCEEDED.

"THEN A WAVE OF HARVESTING BEGAN. I WAS ONE OF THE FIRST ONES TAKEN FROM MY SHIFT. I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT WAS TO BE DONE WITH ME... WHEN THEY CAME FOR ME, I BELIEVED I WAS GOING TO DIE. IT'S STRANGE, WHAT YOU THINK OF WHEN YOU'VE CONTEMPLATED YOUR MORTALITY FOR HALF A YEAR AND THEN YOU'RE SUDDENLY FACE TO FACE WITH IT."

Sitting at the head of the conference table, Janeway eased back into her chair and swiveled it away from the officers to stare at the wall.

"I KEPT THINKING... OF HARRY KIM AND THE WILDMAN BABY. I KEPT THINKING THAT AT LEAST I DID SOMETHING RIGHT. THEY WERE SAFE. MY FAILURE WASN'T COMPLETE... " The short gasps translated her tears. "IF ONLY I'D KNOWN..."

Kim leaned forward and ran his fingers through his hair, letting out a long sigh. Then he rocked back again, eyes squeezed shut.

"THE GUARD WHO TOOK ME HAD BEEN ONE OF THE FEW THAT HAD SHOWN KINDNESS TO US. OFTEN THE GUARDS WERE SIMPLY ROTATED IN AND OUT TOO QUICKLY TO KNOW, BUT HE WAS A REGULAR ASSIGNED TO MY SHIFT. IT WAS... VERY HARD FOR ME... TO BE NEAR HIM. HE HAD BEEN... RECONSTRUCTED... AFTER TUVOK'S DEATH. HE CARRIED HIS ORGANS, EVEN WORE PARTS OF HIS FACE. I ALTERNATED BETWEEN WANTING TO KILL HIM WITH MY BARE HANDS AND WANTING TO TOUCH HIM, TALK TO HIM, AND PULL ANY BIT OF TUVOK THAT WAS LEFT OUT OF HIM.

"HE TOOK ME TO THE ORGAN PROCESSING ROOM. I DIDN'T SEE B'ELANNA. BUT I DID FIND... I SAW TOM PARIS. I'D THOUGHT HE WAS KILLED IN THE BEGINNING, WITH TUVOK. I... I WISH HE HAD BEEN. CHAKOTAY LATER ASKED ME IF I STILL HAD A SENSE OF HOPE. I TOLD HIM THAT I STILL HAD A SENSE OF DUTY. THEY WEREN'T THE SAME THING. I WANTED TO ESCAPE BECAUSE I KNEW I SHOULD. BUT HOPE... HOPE DIED WITH ME THAT DAY I SAW TOM. I WANTED HIM TO DIE, AND ME WITH HIM, AND THE VIDIIANS, TOO. I WISHED WE'D EXPLODED INTO A MILLION BITS OF FIRE RIGHT THEN AND THERE. I AM DAMNED, TO HAVE KNOWN ABOUT HIS SUFFERING AND YET LIVED. DAMNED."

Paris stiffened and fixed his eyes on the wall opposite him.

"HE WAS... THEY HAD TAKEN HIM, WITH TUVOK, BUT HE WAS CHOSEN BY..." Her words slurred with sorrow. "ONE OF THE COMMANDERS OF THE SHIP HAD CHOSEN HIM AS A DONOR BECAUSE... HE WANTED TOM'S BLUE EYES... BY THE TIME I SAW HIM, THEY'D PLACED HIM ON LIFE SUPPORT. THEY'D TAKEN ONE OF HIS EYES, AND SEVERAL ORGANS. FOR... FOR ALMOST SIX MONTHS HE'D BEEN THERE, CONSCIOUS OFF AND ON, DRUGGED AND BOUND ON THAT BED... BLIND...

"THE GUARD ALLOWED ME TO SPEAK TO HIM. TOM WAS SO BRAVE, I WANTED TO HELP HIM SO BADLY... HE WAS WORRIED ABOUT HARRY... AND IN SO MUCH PAIN... THOSE, THOSE BASTARDS...

"GOD KNOWS HOW LONG THEY KEPT HIM ALIVE LIKE THAT, KILLING HIM A BIT AT A TIME. HE WAS A FIGHTER, AND A HERO. HE SURVIVED IN THAT ROOM... COURAGEOUSLY..."

A sharp gasp split the static. "THE GUARDS ARE COMING BACK." The tape went dead.

"That's enough for one night." The officers jumped at Janeway's voice as it echoed from behind the back of her chair.

Chakotay cut off the recorder and hazarded a look at his crewmates. Harry seemed upset, but steady. He was running his hand over his eyes. Torres had curled into a protective knot on her chair, hands balled into angry fists. Paris continued to sit ramrod straight, eyes narrowed and chin thrust out in self-protective defiance. But the eyes were full, the pose tremulous. Only Tuvok seemed unchanged, and even he did not look back at Chakotay.

"There's more. Let's get some rest and try this tomorrow, same time and place." She spoke hastily, her husky voice tripping on her words. "Thank you."

Before any more could be said, B'Elanna was out the door. Paris and Kim followed more slowly, Paris' hand on Kim's shoulder, both giving and accepting reassurance.

Tuvok rose, straightening his uniform, and looked at the back of Janeway's head.

"Captain, do you require any assistance? Are you well?"

A small, self-deprecating laugh answered him. "Tuvok, my old friend... thank you. I'll be fine."

He nodded to her, then once at Chakotay, and left.

Several minutes later, Chakotay continued to sit at the conference table. His eyes were shut but he seemed more than alert. His palms pressed against the table with a terrible strength as he sought to center himself. Calm himself. Wait for whatever she needed.

Finally the chair swung around. Janeway's face was tracked with tears. "So," she smiled slightly, "do you still think this was a good idea?"

***

They were halfway to Kim's quarters before either of them spoke.

Paris had to clear his throat before it could produce sound. "Y'okay, Harry?"

"Tom, were you listening in there? Of course I'm okay - I'm the only one that is. 'Save Harry and let everyone else die.'" His cheeks filled with air and then blew it out in a hot gust. "I shouldn't be here..."

Paris caught Kim's shoulder and half-turned him as they walked, brining them face to face. "You think it would be better if you were dead and hacked up on some Vidiian ship?"

"No, but... I just... wouldn't feel so guilty." He hung his head ashamedly. "To hear her talking about you..."

"Don't, Harry." They stopped in front of Kim's door. "Just... don't." Their awkward huddle against the wall continued for a moment, neither of them sure what to do for each other, for themselves.

"Guess I just need some 'down time,'" Kim mumbled.

"Yeah," Paris straightened, taking his signal to leave. "Me, too. Breakfast?"

"Sure."

As Kim retired, Paris set off for the holodeck. But by the time he got there, he decided he couldn't face the crowd at Sandrine's. Or anywhere, for that matter. But he couldn't stand the thought of being alone in his quarters, either.

After thirty minutes of aimless walking, he was back standing in front of Kim's quarters. He knew Kim needed his privacy. Coming back was stupid. Yet there he was.

Through the door came the haunting notes of the clarinet, melancholy and clear. Paris leaned into the cold metal.

He just listened for a while.

***

"Who's there?" Chakotay's voice held the gruff blend of suspicion, defensiveness, and power that reminded Torres of Maquis days. It comforted her somehow.

"It's B'Elanna."

"Come on in."

She squinted as she entered the darkened quarters. As he climbed from his bed, the commander ordered the computer to brighten the lights and grimaced as it obeyed. Chest and feet bare, he wore only a long pair of pine green pants.

The familiarity that this private man was showing, the ease of their comrades-in-arms relationship, moved her, and she had to bite back her traitorous emotions. This man would not leave her in some Vidiian chamber of horrors.

He reached for his robe but instead sat abruptly as he saw the look on her face.

"What is it, B'Elanna?"

Although he gestured to a chair, she remained standing, nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet with frantic energy.

"Just wondered what you were up to."

"Sleeping, until about three minutes ago." He shook his head slowly, with a shy half-smile. "Well, that's not entirely accurate. I haven't had much luck. Do you want to talk?"

"No, I don't want to talk." She began to pace. "If I wanted to talk I would tell you that I wanted to talk. What good is talking, anyway? It wouldn't change anything. I don't want to talk."

He raised his hands as if to surrender and ducked in response to her verbal onslaught. "No talking, then. So what do you want?"

"To play hoverball."

"Now? It's oh-three hundred hours."

"You like to get up early."

"True, but I like to get up after I've gone to sleep. I'm eccentric that way."

She appeared unmoved. "I've seen you go days without sleep at all. You used to say you liked the adrenaline high."

He sighed. "We're not at war now. Besides, I'm not as young as I used to be -"

"I'll take it easy on you, old man."

He winced at the gibe but did not rise to it. "Ever tried holographic opponents?"

"Just did an hour ago. No good. Look, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have bothered you, it's just... I need to hit something. Hard... And you're a great loser." Her fierce eyes grew a bit desperate.

"That's it." He shot up in mock anger and headed for his bathroom. "Give me five minutes."

She collapsed back into his chair gratefully.

They would play hard. Not talk.

***

All of the officers returned again the next night, after a bridge shift marked by little discussion and even less humor. With the exception of Tuvok, they had all opted for wearing civvies and bringing beverages, little things to increase their collective comfort level.

"Are we ready?" Janeway searched the faces around her. "Okay."

"THE GUARDS HAVE PASSED. I WAS TALKING... TALKING ABOUT TOM. I KNOW THAT HE WAS... DEAD SEVERAL WEEKS AGO. BUT I DON'T KNOW WHEN OR HOW IT HAPPENED. I WISH I DID. I WISH I HAD SOME ANNIVERSARY TO MOURN. I'VE TRIED TO IMAGINE HIM PEACEFUL AFTER SEEING HIM SO HURT..."

To his credit, Paris did not flinch as he listened. He colored, and shot a glance at Janeway's chair - which began the evening turned away from the table - once, but otherwise remained still.

"THEY HAD TAKEN ME TO ORGAN PROCESSING, I THOUGHT TO KILL ME. BUT IT TURNED OUT THAT THE VIDIIAN WHO CLAIMED ME MERELY NEEDED A KIDNEY. THE SURGERY WAS QUICK, AND I WAS ALMOST IMMEDIATELY RELEASED TO GO BACK TO THE MINE. ONE MOMENT I WAS ON A BIOBED, AND THE NEXT I WOKE UP IN THE LABORERS' BARRACKS.

"IN THE MEANTIME, CHAKOTAY AND HIS FORCES MADE THEIR ESCAPE ATTEMPT. THERE HAD BEEN RANDOM ACTS OF REBELLION ALMOST EVERY WEEK, EVERYTHING FROM A SHOVE TO AN ATTACK, BUT THIS WAS THE FIRST LARGE-SCALE ATTEMPT. AND CHAKOTAY CAME DAMN CLOSE TO PULLING IT OFF. MEMBERS OF HIS SHIFT MANAGED TO KILL THEIR GUARDS, ARM THEMSELVES, AND MAKE IT AS FAR AS ORGAN PROCESSING. AFTER THAT, THEY PLANNED TO SPLIT, HALF OF THEM SECURING THE SHUTTLES AND THE OTHER LIBERATING MY SHIFT.

"BUT HE NEVER MADE IT PAST ORGAN PROCESSING. HE FOUND B'ELANNA, WHO IN TURN WENT BACK TO SAVE TOM. CHAKOTAY DEFENDED HIS POSITION AND WAITED FOR HER, BUT SHE DIDN'T RETURN. EVENTUALLY HIS FORCES BUCKLED AND WERE OVERRUN. HE NEVER SAW B'ELANNA AGAIN. I NEVER SAW TOM AGAIN. I KNOW HE WAS HAUNTED BY NOT KNOWING... I UNDERSTOOD HOW HE FELT."

Like the night before, Chakotay stared stoically at his folded hands. Paris and Torres locked gazes for a moment, then each looked away, embarrassed. Kim closed his eyes, and every once and a while his throat worked as he forced slow swallows.

"THE VIDIIANS WERE BADLY SHAKEN BY THE ESCAPE ATTEMPT. THEY TOOK IT OUT ON CHAKOTAY. IN WHAT I UNDERSTAND WAS A FAIRLY PUBLIC 'TRIAL,' HE WAS SENTENCED TO EXTRA DUTY IN THE MINES - RATHER THAN WORK FOR A SHIFT AND REST FOR A SHIFT, HE WOULD BE EXPECTED TO WORK FOR THREE STRAIGHT AND THEN REST FOR ONLY ONE. IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE. AND YET HE DID IT.

"I THINK OF HIM, OF THE FIRST TIME I SAW HIM... IT HAD BEEN SO LONG, AND WE'D HEARD RUMORS THAT HE HAD BEEN KILLED IN THE REVOLT. HIS HAIR HAD GONE GREY, AND HE LOOKED SO TIRED, SO THIN. BUT HE WORKED LIKE A DOZEN MEN, AS STEADY AS HE'D ALWAYS BEEN.

"AT THAT TIME I FELT TERRIBLY SICK. I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT WAS - THE SURGERY ITSELF, THE LOSS OF AN ORGAN, A REACTION TO THE VIDIIAN DRUGS - BUT I FELL ILL. I'D SEEN WHAT HAPPENED WHEN PRISONERS BECAME SICK. THE VIDIIANS KILLED THEM IMMEDIATELY TO PROTECT THE ORGANS. I KNEW THAT, IF THE GUARDS DISCOVERED MY ILLNESS, IT WAS A DEATH SENTENCE.

"BUT I WAS FAILING. I TRIED TO WORK, BUT I COULD HARDLY HOLD UP MY HEAD. AND THEN CHAKOTAY WAS SENTENCED TO THE EXTRA SHIFTS. HE SAVED MY LIFE. I REMEMBER... I REMEMBER HIM TELLING ME THAT HE'D TAKE CARE OF ME. I STILL DON'T KNOW HOW HE MANAGED IT, BUT HE DID HIS WORK AND MINE, AS WELL, AND MANAGED TO FOOL THE GUARDS LONG ENOUGH TO LET ME RECOVER. HE WAS... HE WAS SO STRONG, THE STRONGEST PERSON I EVER MET. I'D WATCH HIS HANDS BLEED..." The voice faltered, "AS HE STUMBLED... AND YET HE WOULD TELL ME TO REST AND SAVE MY STRENGTH."

Chakotay, sitting at Janeway's right elbow, caught the flicker of movement as she hung her head in her hand.

"I MISS HIM SO MUCH..." Her tired voice broke. "HE SAVED MY LIFE... AND I WATCHED HIM DIE... " Muffled noises filtered through the static.

"Turn it off -" The breathy syllables barely carried.

"I WISH -"

"Turn it off." It was definitely an order.

Tuvok beat Chakotay to the recorder's button.

"I apologize for the nature of this recording." Janeway swung back to face them. Her eyes were dry, her body held in painfully rigid angles. The full frost of formality hung upon her words. "The... the captain... was clearly in an disturbed state at the time she taped this log. I am sorry. Let's try to finish this tomorrow night. Dismissed."

Her brittle resolve scattered Paris, Torres, Kim, and Tuvok. Only Chakotay remained behind.

When they were alone, he drew a breath to speak. She raised her hand to silence him without looking in his direction.

"Later, Commander. Please."

She left with the recorder tucked under her arm, pulling her over, weighing her down.

***

"Computer, lights off."

The quarters disappeared behind a veil of blackness.

He lay in his bed, motionless. Ears sought sound. Soon he grew mesmerized by the rhythmic rush of blood in his ears, the only stimulus for starved senses.

His eyes were open, but he could not see. For hours.

So this is what it was like.

Although the environmental settings reflected his preferences, he was bathed in sweat. A trickle slid down his neck and pooled in the hollow of his throat. He shivered.

"Lights on. Full intensity."

In the waning moments of early morning, Paris finally fell asleep. In a room as bright as day.

***

Chakotay entered the mess hall a good half hour before the regular breakfast crowd could be expected. This time belonged to those who had work to complete before shift, to those who had trouble sleeping, to those who had never made it to bed at all. And to Vulcans.

He paused in front of the table where Tuvok sat eating breakfast and reading figures on his datapadd. After scanning a screen's worth of data, Tuvok looked up at the first officer and arched a black brow.

"May I?" Chakotay asked quietly, indicating the seat opposite Tuvok.

At Tuvok's nod, Chakotay sat.

"I was, um, hoping to talk to you about the buoy recording."

Tuvok set aside the datapadd with elegant precision. "I expect that you know I was opposed to the decision to play the recording to the bridge crew."

"I'm not surprised." The admission was an honest one, devoid of sarcasm.

"I could have personally gleaned all relevant security information regarding the Vidiians without ever subjecting anyone to this counterproductive... emotional ordeal."

"There is more of worth on that tape than mere security information, Tuvok. But I didn't come here to debate you. Believe me, I do see your point. And the dangers." The tired commander was clearly not in the mood for a sparring match. His gentle tone deflected any rebuttal.

"Beyond the obvious message, the recording also contains some encrypted data stolen from the Beeyai Achuss computer. I am currently cataloging the new details regarding the Vidiian vessels, practices, and technology." Tuvok pointed to the datapadd. "For the captain," he added, like an afterthought.

Chakotay studied the impassive face and then nodded, as if satisfied that he had found what he expected. "I know, Tuvok. I'm worried about her, too."

He pushed back his chair and excused himself, leaving an expression that could only be called surprised on the Vulcan's face.

***

"Let's get this over with." Janeway hit the recorder's button as if she were throwing the switch on her own electric chair.

"I WISH -" There was a pause, as if she were catching her breath. A long sigh whispered through the tape.

Moments passed.

"I WISH MANY THINGS." Her tone had changed. Now it was hard, coarse, frozen. Throaty control replaced teary murmurs.

She sounded brittle, like she could break. Like she couldn't care if she did.

"WE LOST MORE OFFICERS AFTER MY RECOVERY. EVEN THE FEW CREWMEMBERS THAT HAD GROWN SYMPATHETIC WITH THE VIDIIANS, SOME FROM HONEST PITY AND OTHERS FROM SELF-INTERESTED DESIGN, EVENTUALLY LOST THEIR FAVORED STATUS. AND THEIR LIVES.

"THEY DIDN'T COME FOR CHAKOTAY. HE WAS THE LAST ONE WHOLE. I THINK THEY WERE A LITTLE AFRAID OF HIM, OF THE FACT THAT HE HAD BROKEN AWAY, AND OF THAT PEACEFUL STRENGTH HE HAD, EVEN IN THE FACE OF THEIR PUNISHMENT.

"THERE WERE SEVEN OF US LEFT, READY TO MOVE, WHEN THE VIDIIANS THREW US A CURVE AND ATTACKED ANOTHER SHIP. THEY TOOK ON ALIEN PRISONERS FROM A SPECIES KNOWN AS ASTRELLAN. THAT MEANT MORE GUARDS, LESS PRIVACY, AND SEPARATION FROM EACH OTHER AS THE SHIFT ROTATION RETURNED. WE HAD TO ALTER OUR PLANS. BY THE TIME WE COULD MAKE ANOTHER ATTEMPT, CHAKOTAY AND I WERE THE ONLY ONES LEFT OF THE VOYAGER CREW. OUR TIME WAS RUNNING OUT, WE COULD FEEL IT. WE HAD COMPLETED BUILDING THE RECORDER AND PREPARING THE VIRUS. IT WAS JUST A QUESTION OF OPPORTUNITY.

"LOOKING BACK, I KNOW THAT CHAKOTAY KNEW. I DON'T KNOW HOW, BUT HE DID. WE'D MADE IT OUT OF THE MINE TUNNELS - WE KNEW THE GUARDS' SCHEDULES DOWN TO THE SECONDS - AND ALMOST TO THE ANTEROOM CONSOLE WHERE WE'D PLANNED TO DOWNLOAD THE VIRUS. AFTER THEIR SYSTEMS WERE SCRAMBLED, WE WOULD GET TO THE SHUTTLE BAY AND ESCAPE. BUT WE HADN'T EXPECTED THE RETURN OF TWO OF THE ASTRELLAN PRISONERS, FRESH FROM ORGAN PROCESSING SURGERY. WE'D GOTTEN WITHIN SIGHT OF THE TERMINAL WHEN THE VIDIIANS TURNED THE CORNER WITH THEIR VICTIMS. THE MOMENT THEY SAW US THEY ALERTED THEIR SECURITY. IT ALL HAPPENED SO FAST.

"CHAKOTAY JUST TURNED TO ME AND SAID 'GO BACK. FOR ME. PLEASE, KATHRYN.' THEN HE LAUNCHED HIMSELF AT THEM. MAYBE HIS ATTACK WAS TO KEEP THEM FROM STUNNING HIM AND TAKING HIS ORGANS. MAYBE IT WAS SIMPLY TO BUY TIME FOR ME. MAYBE IT WAS THE WAY HE'D DECIDED HE WANTED TO MEET HIS END.

"BUT I DIDN'T GO IMMEDIATELY. I TUCKED AWAY THE EQUIPMENT WE'D HOARDED AND PROTECTED FOR SO LONG, AS IF IT STILL MATTERED. AND I WATCHED THEM TAKE HIM DOWN. AFTER ALL WE'D SEEN, ALL WE'D EXPERIENCED, THIS WAS THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN. I FELT NUMB. I FELT LIKE I DESERVED TO WATCH IT, TO WATCH THEM KILL THE LAST GOOD THING I KNEW. I DESERVED IT BECAUSE I WAS STILL ALIVE.

"HE DIED HARD. HE WAS SO OUTNUMBERED, AND BESIDES THEIR FISTS THEY HAD THEIR BOOTS, AND THE BUTTS OF THEIR PHASERS... BUT HE GAVE THEM A FIGHT, A GOOD FIGHT. WHEN IT WAS... OVER, I WENT BACK LIKE HE'D ASKED. THE GUARDS DIDN'T STOP ME. I GUESS THEY THOUGHT I WASN'T WORTH THE EFFORT.

"FORGIVE ME." Her tone was as lifeless as she herself clearly expected to be soon.

"IF YOU ARE HEARING THIS, PLEASE REMEMBER WHAT MY CREW SUFFERED. REMEMBER THAT THEY FOUGHT AND DIED BRAVELY. THEIR FAMILIES CANNOT MOURN THEM. PLEASE, I ASK YOU, GRIEVE IN THEIR PLACE.

"AND BEWARE THE VIDIIANS.

"THIS IS CAPTAIN KATHRYN JANEWAY OF THE FEDERATION VESSEL VOYAGER. I WISH YOU PEACE."

But there was no peace. How could there be?

***

"I'm just sick of feeling helpless. It's like Akriteria all over again."

Paris started at the mention of their prison experience. He studied Kim carefully, then shook his head. "No it's not, Harry. Those people are gone. There's nothing you can do for them. You can't save them."

"I left them, Tom. I left you." Kim rolled off of the couch and collapsed spinelessly onto the floor in a rumpled, disturbed heap.

"Last time I checked, I'm still here. Harry, if you hadn't come over, you'd be dead on both ships. There would be no Harry Kim anymore. Or Baby Wildman." Paris pulled in the leg he'd draped across Kim's chair arm and leaned forward to emphasize his point. "You did the right thing. You saved lives. You preserved a complete crew for Voyager. Can't you see that?"

Twining fingers through his thick bangs, Kim finally nodded. "I guess so." He shook his head, like a dog would shake water from its coat. "But now that we've heard all this, what are we going to do? I just want to do something, you know, just wrap it up."

They sat quietly, thinking.

Then Paris snapped his fingers, inspired. "What did the captain say, Harry?"

"Not much - you've seen her. She's clammed up even more than usual."

"No, I mean the captain on the recording. She said to mourn them. How do you remember someone close to you that's died?"

Harry shook his head, not following his friend's sudden plan.

"C'mon, Harry, let's go get B'Elanna and get to Sandrine's."

"Sandrine's? Why?"

"For the wake, of course."

***

"To absent friends," Sandrine crooned, pouring the last glassful of amber synthehol.

The glasses touched in silent tribute, then met the lips of the three friends.

"So what do we do now, sit around and tell stories about ourselves?" B'Elanna threw back the synthehol with the anger of one who really wished she could get plastered on the synthetic, non-alcoholic, replicated beverage.

Kim chuckled as Paris scowled. "No, B'Elanna," Paris sighed. "We're here to remember them. What would they want to do if they were here?"

"Probably go to bed, since it's about oh-one-hundred hours."

"Be serious."

"B'Elanna," Kim added, "I think Tom's right. We wanted to know and now we do. We can't help them, but we can remember them. And remembering shouldn't be depressing."

But it was and the three knew it. They passed uncomfortable pauses between each other, focusing their blame and their pain on themselves.

"Excuse moi," Sandrine purred, sliding in between Kim and Paris. "These friends you have lost - do I know them?"

Paris squared his shoulders for the difficult task of answering her query, for a moment even contemplating deleting the curious character instead of responding. "You could say that. They were us. Our ship... well, it involved this anomaly... in the end, we were attacked by a race called the Vidiians and, uh, our ship duplicated itself."

He seemed painfully aware of how inadequate his explanation was. "They wanted to take us to harvest our organs." Sandrine listened with a worried scowl, chewing her lip in sympathy. "So there were two of everyone. And the Vidiians got our counterparts."

"So what you are telling me," she glanced at Kim and Torres, as if afraid that she were falling for a practical joke, "is that this enemy tried to capture you? And yet you are here?"

Kim almost smiled at the simplification. "Well, yes, but they got the other ship, the duplicate."

"Oui, but you are still here, non?"

"True," Torres agreed.

"So you beat them. They tried to kill you, and yet you live. So you beat them, yes? You have the last laugh on them?"

"Well... yes, I guess so, if you put it that way." Paris sounded uncertain.

"You should celebrate the fact that you are alive, that the others bought you the chance to see another day. Wouldn't that honor your dead, to enjoy their gift in thankfulness? Otherwise, if you drown yourself in pity and sorrow, all their efforts were in vain, non?"

With one hand, the proprietress motioned a violinist to play his part. But her eyes never left the three at the table. "Enjoy," she whispered fiercely, determination playing across her painted features. "Live." She tapped a manicured nail on their table. "Be their immortality."

Her words, so serious and sage, shocked the three officers from their self-absorption. They had beaten the Vidiians? They looked to each other, trembling with nervous energy, waiting for the next move.

And Sandrine made it, leaning over Paris from behind his chair. "So, now, Thomas, would you dance with Sandrine, and make her a happy woman?" Her hands played across his arms, fingertips brushing the muscles she so obviously admired.

It was good to see Harry chuckle, to see B'Elanna roll her eyes. Paris would never forget the sight of them, the feeling they gave him, the camaraderie they offered. He drank in the view with thirst.

He rose slowly, gratefully, and gave Sandrine a little bow. "It would be an honor."

***

Replicating the carafe ranked as one of her better ideas. It was worth the credits and then some. Janeway poured another cup of coffee for herself, blowing on the bitter steam before sipping. The brew was a biting one, stinging her tongue.

"L." Her lips moved without sound. "Langley."

Each person on the ship's roster. She read through each record one crewmember at a time. Every name added to the list. Every face accused her.

She looked for the time, digging a finger into the frown between her eyes. An hour still remained before her shift began.

By then, she'd be up to the "Ns."

***

The stones felt smooth in his hands. Warm. Living. Well.

Chakotay sat cross-legged in semidarkness, centering himself. He had championed the right of the bridge crew to listen to the recording, but his exercise in ethics had spawned more questions than answers. He did not know whether to seek atonement, pardon, or approval. But he knew he had to seek.

The vision was a long time coming, and his joints ached in penance as his soul summoned Kolopak. When his father finally emerged from the shadows of the quarters, he was not alone.

Chakotay feared.

"My son." The old man's eyes glowed, reflecting some unseen firelight.

At the side of the rugged Kolopak stood a uniformed Chakotay, pillar straight, immovable, and calm. One broad hand rested on his father's shoulder. Before the old man kneeled a second Chakotay, clad in stained workers' rags, a bloody strip of cloth tied across his forehead. This Chakotay was leaner, weathered, his hair mostly grey and his eyes deeply shadowed. Despite the bruises and dirt, the proud posture was unmistakable. Kolopak rested his hand on this Chakotay's shoulder, uniting the three.

"Father?" Before his eyes, his two twins flickered like fragile flames.

"It seems that I now have three sons where once was one." Kolopak's dark eyes smiled kindly. "I do not know the scientific explanation, but I do know that I claim all three of them."

"They are with you, then." His relief was tangible.

"Yes. We are together. The first," he turned to his side, where the uniformed Chakotay met his eyes and smiled warmly, "came to me some time ago. His sacrifice for his crew honors our people." He dropped his gaze before him, visibly tightening his grasp on the kneeling figure. "The second came recently to me, after valiant struggle. His courage brings me pride." The second commander raised his hand, covering his father's with his own.

Again they flickered. All three spirits looked to Chakotay.

"They are each here, yet they are not complete. They wait for you, my son. As do I."

"I need your wisdom, Father. I need your guidance."

"You need little, Chakotay. But what I have, I will give. I know your heart, my son. You have shown that you will die for your ship, for your crew, for your heritage. I do not question your bravery. But your tests are not complete. You have died for what you hold dear. Now you must live for it."

Kolopack's lyrical voice rose and fell with a passion Chakotay remembered well. "Do not worry about me, or your brothers here. Meet your fate, son. We will be waiting for you. Until then, live, Chakotay. For us. For them. For her. You cannot help her until you let your brothers rest."

Chakotay nodded slowly. His stare burned them into his memory. "Thank you. Be well, father."

"And you, my son. Remember that your name is on my tongue."

The figures trembled and faded into grey.

He rose stiffly and ordered off his quarter's safety locks. He would have to start a small birchbark fire in the well-worn stone bowl to remember his spirit brothers. And to set them free.

The sweet smoke clung to his clothes, his hair.

He let them go.

***

"And what... what was that last dance?" Torres could hardly speak. Her question sent Kim laughing again, after he spewed a fine coffee-colored mist onto the shiny table surface.

Paris, red to the tips of his ears, had to chuckle himself. "It's called the twist. Mid-twentieth century craze, you know, rock-n-roll. I came across a song about it once and looked it up in the cultural database."

"It looked..." - Torres fanned her face with her hand, fighting for breath - "like your foot was jammed in a conduit... and you were trying to wriggle free!"

"The expression on Sandrine's face -" Kim's shoulders shook.

Neelix stopped by their table, filling their cups. "Well, we are up early this morning!" He enthused. "I haven't seen you three much in the last few days. I was afraid that you'd been buried in important work, but it seems you've been buried in Sandrine's, instead!"

"You missed quite a show last night, Neelix. Tom is a regular..." Kim's face twisted in thought.

"Chubby Checker," Paris added, and burst into laughter.

Torres held her mug for Neelix, then touched the cook apologetically on the shoulder. "We never made it to bed last night, Neelix. I'm afraid we're rather giddy."

"Ah, you need not explain, B'Elanna. But I am afraid that, if your mood is catching, there will be no more need for a morale officer on board..." His smile was genuine enough, but his animated tone reflected the insecurity inherent in the Talaxian's personality.

"You're needed, Neelix. And very appreciated." Paris turned suddenly, painfully serious.

The stumpy cook studied the helmsman, his expressions revolving from curious questioning, to tentative theorizing, and finally to satisfied understanding. Paris fidgeted under the burnt-orange gaze, afraid that Neelix would ask for answers he could not give.

But he did not. Instead, Neelix stepped forward and gave the surprised Paris one of his characteristic one-armed hugs.

"So are you, Tom."

He headed back to the kitchen without another word.

There was an intimate moment of quiet at the table before the laughter began again.

***

"I want reports, Commander, heavy on information and light on sermon. What do you have for me?" Janeway stood, hands on hips.

He was taken aback.

Choosing to stand as well, he marshaled his scattered senses and chose his gentlest voice. "I took the liberty of rearranging the shift rotations so all of the bridge crew could attend Baby's 'Talaxian Zoo' program party. After focusing on the duplicate Voyager so much recently, it seemed fitting that they all get to celebrate the life that came from it."

Her nod communicated neither agreement nor objection.

Try again. "Will you attend?"

She turned to face the stars. She didn't look at them, really. She just stared. "I should, shouldn't I?"

"The question isn't whether you should, but whether you want to."

A little laugh, dry and humorless. "I should, shouldn't I?"

How could he answer that?

"The crew needs me to get on with it, to keep up morale." She provided her own response.

"No." Not accusatory. Still gentle. "The crew doesn't want you to be there, or to be anywhere or anything in particular. Everyone just wants you to be comfortable. They want you to be happy."

Her silence battered at his careful control. "Kathryn," his plea was clear, "they worry that you keep yourself so isolated. I'm concerned that this recent... incident... will increase that distance between you and the officers. If it should change anything, it should draw us all closer."

"It does change things, Chakotay. It does." Her reflection showed a vacant listlessness that chilled him.

"What? What does it change? We didn't learn anything about each other that we didn't already know."

Her shoulders moved. A shrug? "Yes, we knew that Tom has an amazing capacity to suffer in silence. And that B'Elanna is a fighter with a valiant but self-destructive heart. And that you are a paragon: noble and brave and strong -"

He tried to speak. She didn't give him the chance.

"- but if you think that was the purpose of that recording, then..."

"Then what?"

"Then you're not as insightful as I thought you were."

"I don't understand." It was an understatement.

"She," she spat the word like an epithet, "intended for me to get that message, all along. She knew we were out here. The details would've been meaningless to anyone else."

He took a breath. "I've thought about that. Go on."

"She wanted to warn me."

"About the Vidiians?"

"About me. She mapped her descent quite effectively." If he had not been watching her face reflected in the viewport, he would not have understood the quiet whisper.

This had to stop. "What would you prefer, that she had gone down with the ship? She had no options. She did everything she could. Kathryn, you cannot blame yourself for what happened to the crew."

She whirled, leaning forward on her desk, anger supplying the little strength exhaustion hadn't claimed. "There are always options."

"No. I won't let you crucify yourself so easily. You want to talk about options? I came from a people who were nearly made extinct when the Westerners 'discovered' them, who were hunted for the next two hundred and fifty years, and who were finally driven from their home planet. You want to talk about options? Do you really mean to say that our history resulted from a simple lack of creativity on the part of my ancestors? Don't try that road. I know about blame and guilt and responsibility." Keep going. A small step forward, try to bridge the gap.

He rushed on before she could reply. "You don't have the luxury of self-pity, Kathryn. They are dead. We need you now."

The fists he had not realized he had clenched uncurled slowly. His palms stung where the nails had nearly pierced the flesh.

She took her seat stiffly. "Thank you, Commander. I will take your words under advisement."

Her tone was noncommittal. He could not read her. He didn't want to leave her there, agonizing over things she could not control. But he seemed to be, ironically enough, out of options.

***

"What about that anomaly, Mister Kim?" Chakotay rolled his shoulders, stretching lazily.

"It seems to have disappeared as quickly as it began. I'm beginning to think it was a routine fluctuation after all."

"A routine fluctuation that only occurs in the trail of a warp signature?"

"That's what it looks like."

"There always has to be a little twist involved -"

As soon as Chakotay mumbled the innocent comment, both Kim and Paris erupted in laughter. Kim sank behind his console, beet red and nearly hyperventilating, while Paris lifted a hand in silent apology.

Tuvok scowled.

"What did I say?" Chakotay asked no one in particular, looking decidedly uncertain as to whether he truly wanted to know.

"It's a long story," Torres responded, smiling. "You just had to be there."

"I'll take your word for it, B'Elanna." His pleasure at their spirits was evident. He pressed them no further.

"Commander, I have something on long-range scanners." Still breathless from his outburst, Kim's voice seemed like it belonged to another crewman. An alarmed one.

"What is it, Harry?"

"Make it two, Commander. A shuttle and a ship."

Instinct propelled him to his feet. "They're Vidiian, aren't they?" He watched Paris' knuckles go white at his controls.

"Yes."

"Red alert. Chakotay to Captain Janeway. You're presence is needed on the bridge at once. Harry, get that on screen now. Magnify." Another unexpected turn. Another moral dilemma.

Janeway strode onto the bridge, directly to Chakotay's side. "What do we have, Commander?"

Her eyes grew wide as Kim enlarged the picture further. She knew.

"Move us in closer, Mister Paris. Slowly. Mister Kim, how long until the ship intercepts the shuttle?" On the screen, the shuttle was dancing and dodging the mammoth ship in the familiar pattern known as evasive maneuver Beta-One. It was a Starfleet standard. One of the oldest on the books.

"Captain, the shuttle should be in firing range -"

"They won't fire on it; they'll tractor it."

"In that case, it will be in tractor range any second now. I'm," his voice shook, "I'm reading one human life sign on board the shuttle."

"She's still alive?" An incredulous Paris gasped.

"Captain," Chakotay spoke softly, "we've got to save her."

"That Vidiian ship outsizes us and nearly outguns us. I won't risk this ship and crew for one -"

"Captain," Paris turned, blue eyes fixed on Janeway. "We can do it. I can get us in and out before they know what hit them."

She shook her head. "If we go in close enough to beam her out, they'll engage us."

"And we can take them!" Paris nearly shouted.

"I won't risk it." She took a step closer to the viewscreen, glaring at the images its shared.

"Captain," Kim nearly groaned the words, "the Vidiians have locked their tractor beam on the shuttle. They're bringing it in."

All eyes were on her.

She nodded to herself and straightened. "Mister Paris, you're relieved."

He turned to face her, silently offering one last plea for the life of the woman in the shuttle.

"Surrender the helm, Mister Paris." Her voice was soft, nearly kind.

Paris obeyed.

"Kathryn -" Chakotay began.

She brushed away the bronze hand that reached for her arm and slid behind Paris' console. "Fire," she breathed, punching the controls, playing them with obsessive precision.

Before them, the other Janeway's shuttle burst into flame.

Exploded.

Then vanished.

Janeway withdrew, staggering back from Paris' station, straightening her uniform. "Get us the hell out of here, warp nine, Mister Paris." She turned her back to the screen, glanced at Chakotay, and then continued on past him.

"Are they pursuing, Mister Kim?"

He shook his head dumbly.

"Good. I expect they still have repairs to make to their systems. Let them. Just put as much distance as you can between us and them."

Chakotay continued to stand, stricken, in the center of the bridge.

She drummed her fingers on the railing, seemingly oblivious to those all around her. "I'll be in my ready room if you need me," she added over her shoulder, and left them.

***

The holodeck pulsed with activity. Bright streamers in splashes of primary colors dripped from the open gates of the Talaxian zoo. Pockets of crewmembers huddled around, milled about, entered in, and exited from the new attraction. The salty scents of popcorn, roasted peanuts, and golligah seeds competed with the smells of Talaxian countryside and exotic wildlife.

In the center of the crowd laughed Samantha Wildman, who clearly had her hands full with gifts and wishes for her firstborn. Little Naomi meanwhile drooled happily on the shoulder of her rescuer, Harry Kim, as Tom Paris made funny faces and sounds to entertain the child. He had several crewmembers entertained as well, but he didn't seem to care.

B'Elanna Torres found Chakotay off to one side, tasting treats from Neelix's party tray and complimenting the beaming cook. She pulled him away to a quiet spot.

"Thanks for making this possible, Chakotay. It's really good to see this come together."

He raised his eyebrow in surprise. "I didn't write the program. You're the one who deserves thanks."

"But you made it possible for us all to be here. It means a lot." She looked over her shoulder to see Paris rolling his eyes comically, his tongue hanging out from the side of his mouth. Kim and Naomi were both duly impressed. Torres shook her head and grinned. "All the babies are having fun."

"It's good to celebrate the little things. They aren't so little. They remind us that we're alive."

"Chakotay," she grew serious for a moment, and avoided his eye. "I ... on the Vidiian ship... I don't know why I didn't return when you came to rescue me. I just... want you to know I thank you... and I'm sorry."

"It wasn't you, B'Elanna," he replied gently.

"Yes, but... still -"

"I know you would've come if you could have. You don't need to say anything else. The balance is even between us. Always has been. Just like the old Maquis days." She forced herself to look him full in the face, and then looked away before a crack formed in either of their public demeanors.

"Well, I think I'll go show Baby the carnivorous garth napares. They look a lot less scary than Tom does right now."

He chuckled. "You go do that."

Chakotay was headed for the larpi pit when he saw her. Her hair was down, brushing shoulders left bare by her sleeveless burgundy top. Her exhaustion was evident for all to see, but it meant a great deal she had made the effort to come. Her khaki slacks and sandals spoke of informality. She smiled, talked to those around her, greeting them, congratulating them, and continued to walk to the crowd, through the crowd, alone.

After several minutes Janeway seemed to feel his warm eyes on her. She nodded her chin at him in greeting, and he waved to her in return. He watched, fascinated, as she slowly made her way to a large flowering bush at the fork of two paths that led from the entry square. She leaned into one of the blooms and inhaled deeply, eyes closed, then leaned back and pointed to it, as if recommending the blossom to him. She smiled, a little sadly, and followed the path leading away from him, disappearing behind the foliage.

He sank against the nearest rail, lost in thought. Before him, one of the larpi surfaced, splashing, and leaped into the air, screaming at the sky.

***

"Captain, I'm so glad you could come!"

Janeway had followed the curving trail into a clearing to discover Kes leaning over
a railing that had been thoughtfully disguised as naturally twining vine. She wore one of the bright orange flowers tucked behind her ear.

"The bracheel emerge at intervals - I think they'll come back out in just a few moments. They are spectacular. Would you like to wait and see them?"

"I think I'll pass, Kes. It reminds me too much of staring into a turtle shell, waiting for it to peek out its head. A watched turtle never peeks. But thank you."

Kes smiled, looking more like a forest nymph than an Ocampa medical assistant. She belonged there. "It is beautiful, isn't it? They did a marvelous job. The smells, the sounds, it's all just so vital. Growing. I can't think of a better gift for Baby. For any of us, for that matter." Her features twisted in the effort to locate the dormant bracheel.

"I can't either," Janeway murmured under her breath.

"We need to do more of these kinds of things, as a community." Kes continued, resting her weight on her stomach and swinging her legs playfully. "Just to celebrate life."

"Only if it's worth living," Janeway answered. "Only if it deserves to be lived."

By the time the captain's cryptic response fully registered with Kes, Janeway was gone. "Captain?"

Kes hopped off of the railing and looked around the path, confused. "Captain?" She called out again, reluctantly stepping away from the spectator's ledge.

"Captain?" It was a shout.

No answer returned to her.

"The bracheel are out now, Captain," she whispered to herself. "You're missing them."

 

THE END