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High Water

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“When I was your captain, I always thought I’d lose you on some away mission and have to go on,” she mused, shivering in his arms. “Dying together never occurred to me.”

“I still intend to die first, Kathryn.” He sounded grim. Well, no wonder , she thought.  

She raised an eyebrow. “That may be hard to manage.” The water still rose steadily in the windowless cell, rib-cage deep, on her at least. “You’re taller.”

His humorless smile reassured her not at all.

-----

The earthquake -- if that’s what it had been -- had jolted them out of bed, five days into a deeply inconvenient but otherwise unremarkable confinement. They had been sent to the planet to explore its government’s future with the Federation. While their detention was an outrageous and disqualifying breach of terms, they had not been mistreated and so had made a studied decision to wait it out, counting on eventual release negotiated by Starfleet or, if necessary, rescue. This newly warp-capable society offered no military or technological obstacles to the latter.

Kathryn had been sleeping in Chakotay’s arms. She’d woken to a violent jerk, his pained grunt as she landed on top of him, and then the sound of distant rumbling. The quake had gone on for half a minute, perhaps, the longest half minute she’d ever endured, fully aware that most of a mountain loomed above them.

They’d heard nothing through the heavy door of their cell, no running feet or shouts, and the power had stayed on -- the light encased in the ceiling never went out, an annoyance at night but a deeply reassuring sign now. They’d been unhurt and saw no evidence of damage within their cell. They’d returned to the bed and, eventually, to sleep.

They’d not seen their captors since.

Once the water seeping in through the air vent became calf-deep, she’d ceased worrying about lack of food and started worrying about hypothermia.

They’d stacked their two cots for more elevation and tried to sleep between the two thin mattresses for warmth. They’d been woken by the damp chill and squish of water wicked upward through the bedding.

They’d renewed their efforts to break out of the cell. The door handle and hinges were on the outside, and the door fit so snugly in its frame that Kathryn couldn’t fit more than a fingernail into any crevice. It was watertight, or as good as; they’d observed no current in the door’s direction.

They’d established on their first day of captivity that the air vents were too small for Kathryn to squeeze into. Chakotay nonetheless now shattered an elbow trying to bash open the metal grates. If they could get a hand, maybe a head into one vent, perhaps they could somehow signal for help, or block the flow of water, though they had nothing in the cell that could seal off the space, and though doing so would also cut off their air supply.

Then the water had risen above the vents, and had continued rising, and now it seemed the only question was whether they would asphyxiate or drown first.

-----

She probed further into his plan, teasing him about wanting an early check-out, until, squeezing her hand but not meeting her eyes, he confessed he was screwing up his courage to drown himself.

“You’ll have more oxygen. More time to be rescued.” Then, “I should have already done it. Forgive me.”

She let anger burn away the vision of herself alone in this hellhole with his floating corpse.

“Drowning people reflexively seek air. You wouldn’t be able to suppress the instinct to break the surface and breathe.” She spoke drily, lightly. “And if you did somehow manage to lose consciousness, you wouldn’t be able to stop me resuscitating you.” She knew she now sounded pissed. “And just think of the oxygen all that thrashing around would waste.”

His face as she spoke: defeat, relief, desperation. Then, as he finally looked at her, fierce and joyful love.

They were shoulder to shoulder, perched on the stacked cots, water to their waists, over Kathryn’s head if she stood on the floor now. Her hair had come loose in their last battle with the door and vent grates. They were both shaking with cold.

“Your lips are blue,” he choked out, and then kissed them, his own flesh stiff and chill, the water’s dank stench in her nostrils. His breath and tears were hot on her face.

After a long time she broke the kiss.

“Come on,” she said. “There’s one more thing we can try.”

With his one good arm and her hands and legs they forced apart one cot’s metal frame. She held a rod in each hand as he stood on the remaining bed, stance wide for balance, and lifted her. Neither of them remarked on how the pain in his arm made him sway, gray with nausea.

He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. “Keep talking to me. Please.”

What was left to say between them? How glad she was that they’d finally reached Earth and married? How furious she was that they’d had only months together in the end? How heartsick she was at having dragged him along into her new diplomatic career and this premature watery grave?

He knew. He’d always known what lay silent in her heart.

She spoke. “If I can just break through the light cover … it’s translucent, it should be more fragile than the stone and metal of the rest of the cell. If that light is powered by electricity, that means there’s … some sort of conduit from this fixture above the ceiling. There may be an open space, some way to … escape, or at least get air …”

She was pounding against the light cover, with all the strength and leverage she could muster, hearing him grunt with every impact as her weight shifted against him and he struggled in the deep water to balance both of them.

She would not voice her fear that if she did break through she would electrocute them both. She would not break his concentration by asking him how much longer he could hold on. She would not stop trying; she would go down fighting to free them …

She would not say goodbye.

He toppled, not with a splash but with a sideways drift, submerging them both. She dropped the metal rods, twisted in his slackening arms to grasp him around the chest, found the floor under her feet, and thrust them both upward. Scrambled, kicking, to reach the elevation of the cot. Stood upon it, now on tip toes to get her own face above the surface, his head rolling back limply against her shoulder. Her muscles straining, her vision tunneling as she panted bad air.

The water rose that little bit higher, and she was treading water, Chakotay barely conscious, unable to respond to her command to kick, to find his feet and stand.

She weakened. His weight pulled them both under, and she knew she could not drag him onto the cot again, could not bring both their faces above the waterline.

-----

She’d been wrong, it turned out. Her body’s instinctive need to seek air did not overcome her determination to hold on to Chakotay, to hold onto him, come hell or high water. She held on. She held on. She held on.