“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be prepared for an altercation,” Chakotay says, raising a hand, palm out. “Given our history in this quadrant, preparing for the worst is more than warranted.”
Janeway waits, letting him reach his point before jumping in. It’s nearly the end of alpha shift, and there’s a cup of coffee with her name on it. Maybe even time for a chapter of her book over lunch instead of the daily waste report; it’s been a slow shift in a slow day in a slow week. At least as far as aliens and spacial anomalies are concerned. Speaking of preparing for an altercation…
“I’m just not sure the enhanced focus on re-arming is the best way to keep crew morale up. After all…” Chakotay shifts slightly in his chair, keeping his voice low so it doesn’t carry forward to Tom at the helm. “Your people signed on for exploration. As officer in charge of personnel, I’m letting you know that some of us...them...are less than enthusiastic about...this. Devoting time and resources--resources that, even a few years ago, we would have spent on surveys and scans and first contacts--to scooting by m-class planets while rebuilding our torpedo banks, instead.”
Your people. Well, that phrase is something less than a good sign.
Janeway forces herself to take a breath instead of responding instantly. The pause gives her a moment to notice the stiff set of Chakotay’s shoulders; the tension in his face.
“Chakotay.” She waits for a moment, but he doesn’t respond to the question in her utterance of his name. “Chakotay. What’s bothering you?”
“I suppose,” he says, even more quietly, after a pause, “I haven’t seen much good come from Starfleet arming for war.”
Janeway glances toward the halm, marshalling her thoughts for a moment before forming a response.
“Chakotay, we are one ship. We are not making policy decisions for anyone. My only motive--our only motive--” She tries not to let annoyance creep into her voice. Even a captain can’t act entirely unilaterally on a months-long project; this was hardly her idea alone. “Our only motive with the increased tactical focus is to prepare ourselves for what has become inevitable attack."
“Have you ever heard the old Earth proverb, ‘If you build it, they will come?’”
“Look. I’m not here to swap ancient proverbs. And I don’t think going minimally armed is a sure way to get kind-hearted potential attackers to leave us alone.”
“That’s not what I--”
“No, it’s not. It’s not what you’re saying, because you’re not looking at our current situation, you’re thinking of the past. This is not the Cardassian border. This is the Delta Quadrant, and we are one small, part-Starfleet, part-Maquis ship, run as a Starfleet crew. You said yourself, many years ago, that I need to question whether I always act in the best interests of that crew. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here.” She winces internally at the way her whisper has become a hiss, but there’s no taking it back inside her now.
“What if,” he returns, just as quietly, but still with that hardness behind his voice, “there are interests of this crew beyond the physical?"
Janeway closes her eyes for a moment, biting back an immediate retort. Opening them, she gazes out through the viewscreen at the starfield flashing toward them, then sliding past Voyager’s flank into their wake. The unknown, growing closer every minute.
“Last time we argued like this,” she says slowly, voice still low, “you told me a story.” She smiles a little at Chakotay across the console, a wry smile. “You always do have a story.”
“I’m afraid the only story this situation reminds me of,” he replies, mouth twisting upwards just slightly in return, “is not very ancient, and hardly entertaining at all.”
“What if I told you that this time, I have an ancient legend?”
It’s plain as the tattoo on his face that that catches him off guard. She smiles again, crooked but sincere.
“Have you heard the legend of the Siege Perilous?”
“It rings a bell.” Some of the tension has left his face, and she sees what she thinks might almost be an amused sparkle in his eyes.
“Camelot,” Janeway elaborates. “King Arthur and his knights united Britain, then built a round table so that none should sit above the others.” She glances at him, checking that he follows, and he ducks a head in understanding. Before he does, she sees what might even be an echo of a grin. “One seat was left to the knight who would go out to quest for the Holy Grail, the most beloved treasure it was possible for them to seek. And to sit upon that siege perilous and survive, he had to be without sin.” She sighs and blinks, shaking the past away as she shakes her head. “Well, they say one did it, but how can a knight be sinless if to kill was a sin in their society? Percival went questing for the Grail, but an Arthurian quest is always violent. Even a knight with a pure heart found a dark knight blocking his path sooner or later. Wouldn’t the act of questing itself inherently disqualify him from the very quest he was on? So if the round table let him do it…go out to seek what was most valued by his society…” She gestures toward the starfield before them, Starfleet’s precious unknown rushing constantly toward them on the viewscreen. “They must have been willing to make some compromises about the definition of sin.”
Chakotay is silent for a moment. “You’re saying that if we seek out new life and new civilizations--or in our case, blunder through them as we head back to Camelot--” He chuckles, a little more warmth coming back into his eyes. “We have to be willing to respond in kind when new life and new civilizations push back.”
Janeway sighs, leaning back in the captain’s chair. “I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. I’m just…”
“Serving me some payback for all my stories.”
“Suggesting that a society that treasures peaceful exploration and arms its starships well is at its very heart built on contradiction. And that this is a compromise it has willingly made. By consensus. Back home.” She leans forward. “We did not invent violence out here in the Delta.”
“Point taken. It’s not our fault, we’re just repeating Starfleet’s original sin,” he says, tone neutral, with that slight raise of the eyebrows.
Janeway feels her own shoulders stiffen. “Point taken in return. We’re not all Starfleet on this ship. Maybe you’re not pleased with all of Starfleet’s compromises, Chakotay, but don’t pretend the Maquis never chose violence, because that isn’t exactly the case.”
She knows he’s flashed right back to his earlier anger when he glances away for a minute, gaining composure before he turns back to her to speak. She braces herself internally, waiting for him to retort.
“Captain.” Harry’s voice is urgent from behind them. “Four ships are approaching at slightly over warp nine point five. Estimated time of arrival, two minutes.”
“Red alert.” As the lights go down and the alarms begin to shriek, Janeway repeats, “Two minutes?”
“They just appeared on sensors. Some kind of cloaking--”
A pause. “No response.”
“I can’t read much. Advanced shielding. The tech doesn’t read like Romulan cloaking; they have something entirely different.”
“We can’t outrun them for long at that speed, Mr. Paris. Tuvok, prepare to fire torpedoes.” She glances at Chakotay. “I’m not giving up on diplomacy quite yet. Hail them again.”
Four vessels drop out of warp in point formation, sleek and blue-grey. Janeway holds up a hand. “Don’t arm torpedos yet. Let’s see if we can show them we’re friendl--”
The alien ships fire simultaneously, grey points of light bridging the gulf between them and Voyager in instants. The bridge trembles.
“Shields at seventy-three percent!”
Janeway grips the arms of her chair, letting herself sink into her role on this ship, to become the center of gravity of a vessel built for exploration and prepared for violence.
Voyager's yellow bursts fizzle on the ships’ shields as the enemies fire again.
“Evasive maneuvers, Tom--”
Two booms in quick succession this time, Voyager’s inertial dampeners absorbing the hits less readily. B’Elanna’s voice is clipped and urgent over the comm.
“Warp core is critical, Captain. We’re preparing to shut down to prevent a breach.”
“Hold on, B’Elanna. Warp might be our only chance out of--”
“Shields at seventeen percent.”
“Captain, I’m sorry, we’re--” The comm cuts out just as the attacker lands another hit. More alarmingly, one vessel has broken off, veering toward them as though threatening to--no, it’s actually on course to collide--
“Evasive maneuvers. Don’t let that ship anywhere near us.”
Tom pulls them away, slipping under the approaching attacker like a flying fish, beginning to gain speed until another BOOM! shakes Voyager.
“We’ve lost impulse, Captain!”
“Return fire. Target their propulsion, not their weapons.”
Photon torpedoes flash away.
Janeway slaps furiously at her combadge, hoping against hope that Harry has been able to pull comms back up. “B’Elanna, can you get us warp?”
“Negative, Captain,” says Nicoletti’s voice, and Janeway senses rather than sees Tom stiffen even amid the rest of the disaster unfolding around him.
“Captain, three of the ships are moving away!” Harry reports. “The fourth ship is…” He stops as the situation becomes explicitly, terribly visible on the screen. Once again, the ship is flying at them, immense as a Devore inspection vessel. Janeway grips the arms of her chair. They may as well be about to crash into a planet.
The ship hits.
There's never time for a whole life to flash before your eyes and she's skimmed near death often enough to know that. In a frozen instant, the ceiling flying at her face, two snapshots of the afternoon are all that come, lunch with Harry and B’Elanna, laughing, and her argument with Chakotay. They were both so ordinary and before she collides with the ceiling all she can realize is that if this is Voyager’s end, they will no longer be ordinary, they will be the last.
Her out-thrust arm takes the worst of the impact, the rest of her body meeting the surface face-on an instant later. There's no time to absorb the crunch of nose and wrist before she falls to the floor again, a back-first fall now and no way to break it. But Voyager catches her, the bridge railing breaking her fall before the floor can break her head, slamming into her back and balancing her for a moment before her body picks a side of the railing to tumble down.
She lies for an instant, supernova points of pain flaming at her wrist, her chest, her nose. Gasping a breath that conjures more pain in her torso, she pushes up on the left wrist that feels broken but not shattered. The crew is crumpled around the bridge. No movement. From somewhere on the left side of the room comes a solitary moan. The red alert sirens wail. She inhales again, an odd crackling sound filling her ears as she tries to fill her lungs.
Everything else is silent.
Through the viewscreen, Janeway sees three attackers slowly backing off, only one remaining, keeping pace with Voyager as the Federation ship slowly tumbles, momentum from the collision carrying them in a lazy spiral through the vacuum. So we look good and dead to you.
Hot blood streams down her face, dripping over her lips and onto her teeth when she opens her mouth to gasp for breath, salty as sweat and metallic as the fracturing components of her wounded ship. Pushing herself onto her stomach, Janeway reaches out with hands and elbows, crawling her way towards the helm and levering herself into the seat. Tom is slumped face-up on the deck, bloodier than her, and there’s no time to kneel beside him, only buttons glowing in readiness for the touch of her fingers. She stretches her hands over them, rerouting ops functions, rerouting power. Finally she has thrusters back, then weapons. Impulse comes slowly back online under well-trained Starfleet hands, while the ship lurking over its kill extends a dark purple tractor beam towards Voyager as it revolves gently through space.
For a moment, she considers hailing them. Trying one more time to connect, to explain, to gain quarter and to give it. But they did not listen twice, and sometimes it's a dark knight you find on your quest and sometimes the light, and sometimes there are things more important than ascertaining just which is which. Chakotay would hail them but Chakotay lies dead or at best dying beside the captain’s chair. That chair is hers and hers alone and at the end of the day it has always been her own siege perilous, a balancing point between love and rage.
Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager looks, and considers, lessons in ship’s systems and tactics flowing from her mind to her fingers as she stretches them once more over the helm, summoning the long-ago teachings of command school, part and parcel with the long years of teachings of fire and blood and silence. Reroute and compensate, plan and aim and fire.
The scavenger ship explodes in a dandelion’s puff of green and white light, fragments grazing Voyager as it scatters itself across the vacuum of space. Behind her, in the same instant, she hears Harry cough. The life to the death, the love to the rage.
The three departing ships turn at the destruction of their comrade, racing toward her on sensors, not yet on screen. She doesn’t bother to magnify their distant approach on the viewscreen; they’ll be visible soon enough. There’s far from time, still, to attend the living (living, still living, some of them are sure to still be living) components of Voyager, but she reroutes some more power, checking which systems throughout the ship are in danger of losing containment and cutting their energy before they get there, an underappreciated duty of the ops officer that has saved as many lives in battle as anything done at the tactical station. Then a quarter of an instant to brush the sweat from her eyes and wipe at the blood drying on her face.
Three dots appear on the viewscreen, rapidly growing larger. She takes a breath, waiting for them to approach a ship that to them still looks dead in the water. They don’t know if the explosion was a terrible accident aboard the ship that stayed behind, or perhaps merely a final frantically-fired torpedo.
In a minute, they’ll find out.
For now, Janeway lets herself slip deeper into the calm clarity of one task to do, the crystalline comfort of a perfect balance. The only treasures she seeks lie bleeding meters behind her, and her only quest is to fight for them.
The enemy ships are fully visible now, screaming toward her across the starfield. They fly in an attack formation that leaves them with blind spots at the rear, but a wall of weaponry and awareness to the front and side. As they approach Janeway’s broken starship, they fan out without slowing, gaining visibility of all Voyager’s sides, their eyes finding every part of the ship except the slight woman poised at the helm, waiting.
Let them come.