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Scorched Earth

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2384

Smoke still hung, acrid and heavy, in the air.  For the first time she could remember, the wind had stopped entirely. Seven of Nine pressed her shoulders back, taking in shallow breaths, as she surveyed the ruins in front of her. There was nothing left of the bungalow Nayeli Marit and her husband had occupied. To the right of the Marits’ destroyed home, the remains of the canteen still smoldered despite the passage of several days. An occasional cloud of ash rose from the smoking ruins, drifting aimlessly through the air before landing softly on the red clay soil. The terrible stillness wrapped around her. Only a few weeks ago, she’d purchased milk from Zapotec Uri just a few meters away from where she now stood.

“Seven.”

She turned at the sound of Icheb’s voice.

“No luck,” he said apologetically, shifting his bag to his shoulder. His black leather boots crunched on the charred sand. Seven said nothing about the thin line of mud hemming the edge of his Starfleet uniform pants. “I couldn’t find—"

“It doesn’t matter,” she said curtly. She lifted her chin, as she shaded her eyes – an automatic reaction as the lingering smoke haze dimmed the sun’s brightness. “I’ve seen all there is to see in this spot. Let’s go on.”

Icheb hesitated. “You don’t have to do this, you know. Are you sure?”

It was an odd question. After all, it had taken them three days to travel here. She wouldn’t have made the journey to the edge of Romulan space if she hadn’t wanted to.

“I need to do this,” she said, her voice cracking. She didn’t look at him as she led the way.  Most of the paths had been obliterated in the attack, familiar landmarks toppled and destroyed. The buildings, the signposts - even the most mundane objects had been shattered into a trillion pieces. The enemy, whoever they had been, had shown no mercy.

Icheb hurried to catch up to her. His breath came in short spurts. In other circumstances, she would have asked if he was keeping up with his mandated Starfleet exercise regime. But today, she merely gave him an irritated glance.

“Are you fatigued?” she asked.

“Sorry. The bag is heavy.” It was the first time she’d realized he was carrying a large black bag that bulged at the sides. At her questioning look, he added, “I thought we might need some tools.”

Tools. As if there was anything left here that wasn’t beyond repair. She pressed her hand briefly to her chest, willing her heart to continue beating, and continued forward as if he hadn’t spoken. The remains of the path curved to the right, and then ended abruptly at a large pile of rubble. Beneath the boulders and shattered duranium panels, Seven saw a desiccated hand attached to an arm. She recognized the red material of the sleeve immediately and knew who it belonged to.

“Kamari.”  How she had loved red; Seven couldn’t recall her ever wearing another color. Seven’s voice trembled with emotion as she said aloud, “She sang so beautifully.” She didn’t dwell on the memory of the time she found the young woman humming as she brushed dirt off an ancient piece of pottery. Instead, Seven kept going, her feet feeling heavier with every step.

Finally, they crested the hill and she was face to face with the building she’d once called home. Compared to most of the other dwellings, it was in relatively good shape. It still stood, though the door hung off its hinges, the glass in the windows shattered, the roof blown off. The right wall was tilted inward; it wouldn’t be long before it collapsed under its own weight. There was nothing left of the small garden that had been planted in the shade of the oak tree. Even that proud tree had fallen to the ground, its trunk burned. Seven bowed her head, fighting back the tears. Icheb touched her forearm in silent sympathy. After a long moment, she raised her head.

“I am going inside,” she said.

“It’s not safe.”

Her eyes flashed at him. She would never feel safe again. “I am going inside,” she said again, and did just that. The tiled floors were cracked and covered in dirt. Only bits of the furniture remained; it had been broken, burned, destroyed. But beneath the debris, a piece of tan leather caught her eye. She sucked in her breath and pulled it free. It was a small bag, and she knew exactly what it held. Reverently, she pulled out the tiny brush and its accompanying probe. She held them out to Icheb.

“Chakotay’s favorite set,” she said. “He had six. He used this one most often.”

Icheb examined them and then handed them back. “Perhaps you can find more of his personal belongings.”

Lost in thought, Seven nodded, almost absently-mindedly, as she gingerly picked her way through the debris. She found a few of Chakotay’s PADDs. These she put into the canvas satchel slung over her shoulder. There was nothing left of the kitchen except for a few damaged pots and pans. Seven made no move to touch them, let alone pick them up. It was impossible to think that she would not stand here with Chakotay ever again, not feel his breath warm against the back of her neck, as she prepared their evening meal.

She blinked furiously to ward off the tears, and then coughed to cover up the tiny sob that escaped.  It would not do to lose composure now. She had endured tremendous loss and upheaval before, and she would again.  But she didn’t protest when Icheb took her by the arm. She forced herself to move, giving him a small grateful smile. Together, they went into the bedroom. Linens were scattered, the mattress overturned and shredded. The lamp and nightstand on her side were the only things left mostly intact. Even as she wondered how that had happened, she immediately went to nightstand and pulled open the top drawer. The collection of holo-images still lay where she had left them. She added them to her bag.

“This is where they found him,” she said. Her eyes drifted to the spot just on the other side of the bed where a large stain darkened the concrete floor. “He was unarmed when they confronted him.”

“Because you took the phaser with you.”

“Yes.” It had been a last-minute decision. Chakotay’s idea. He’d argued that she was leaving a safe world, traveling to a market in hostile territory half a light year away. She would need the protection it offered more than he would while negotiating for the warp coils and replicators the settlement desperately needed. Handing her the phaser was the last thing in a long list of things that he had done for her in this life.

“This is not your fault,” Icheb said firmly.

“Isn’t it?” Seven asked, her eyes fixed on the spot where Chakotay had fallen, had died. Had been murdered. “If I had been here—”

“You would have been killed, too.”

Seven knew he was right, even if she didn’t want to admit it. It might have been different if she had been here, if there had been two of them. Despite having seen the bodies of their friends and neighbors, she persisted in her fantasy that perhaps she would have been able to hold off the invaders long enough for Chakotay to call for help. Together, they might have had a chance. There were a thousand scenarios she’d run through in her head, complex situations she had computed, but all of them ended with an indisputable fact: Chakotay was dead.

When the authorities had found her, had explained to her about the raid, she’d asked for the attackers’ motive. The officer had shrugged and simply told her that there was no motive, no reason to attack the dig site. She couldn’t quite comprehend the words. It’s a safe world, she had said again and again. Surely there had been a mistake. A small settlement on a small M-class world, tucked a few light years away from the system’s main planet, Vashti. And that, Seven considered the biggest injustice of them all: they hadn’t even named their new home yet.

“They didn’t even take anything,” Seven said softly. She didn’t even know who ‘they’ were; the authorities were vague in recounting the details. Seven was human enough now to know they were lying to her, knew more that they’d admit – and that they were afraid. “They destroyed and killed because they could.” Her lip curled slightly. “They value nothing.”

“The Federation will find those responsible,” Icheb said.

“The Federation!” Seven practically spat the word out. “The Federation has forgotten all about us.” She took in the red stripe on Icheb’s uniform and the single pip at his collar. “And Starfleet is spread so thin. They do not have the resources or even the desire to protect the Qiris sector. We are small, unimportant.”

“I would never describe you like that,” Icheb said pointedly.

Seven stooped to pick up a boot she found lying on its side. Chakotay’s boot. “This was an archeological site. It only had value to those who were studying the culture that once lived here. A culture which was also wiped out by invaders.” She let the boot fall to the ground once more and closed her eyes. “Once, Starfleet would have protected such an expedition. Once they would have believed in the scientific mission being undertaken here.”

“And it will again,” Icheb said earnestly. “I won’t let something like this happen. I will remind them of where their duty lies.”

“Yes, you will be different,” Seven said, her lips quirking up slightly, because of course he would be. Always stubborn as a youngster, he had gone into Starfleet, determined to emulate Kathryn Janeway. Thinking now of Voyager’s captain, Seven wondered if Janeway knew what had happened to her former first officer. Time and distance had weakened the connection – but not affection – between them. She resolved to call the admiral as soon as they returned to their shuttle. It had been too long since they last spoke.

Icheb’s gaze scanned the room. “Is there anything else you wish to do here?”

She thought about when she’d been brought to see Chakotay’s broken and battered body, his bloodied face. She thought about how she’d held the edge of his casket to keep her fingers from trembling; she’d looked only long enough to definitively identify him and then she’d turned around. Turned away. And now, three weeks after his death, she stood in the ruins of the place they’d once called home and realized that coming back here was quixotic at best. There was nothing left for her now. The invaders had successfully destroyed everything she’d held dear.

Seven raised her head. “I have seen enough.” She knew she could spend hours here searching through the wreckage, salvaging more of their possessions. Mementos of a good life, a happy one even. But what difference did it make now? They were just things. They meant nothing without the man. “And you need to return to the Coleman. You have duties to attend to.”

Icheb looked as if he wanted to protest, but then he nodded, the expression in his eyes indicating he understood. Hand in hand, they left.

Seven didn’t look back.