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THE U.S.S. VOYAGER SWEPT through the long night of the Delta Quadrant and all around it the unknown stars were white diamonds strewn across the black velvet of space.
Captain Kathryn Janeway gazed at the vast starlit field on the bridge's main screen and pondered the distance between Voyager and home. Seventy-thousand light-years. It was a figure that haunted her dreams.
"Captain?" The voice belonged to Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres, chief engineer.
Janeway swung her command chair to face her. "What is it, B'Elanna?"
Torres peered at the diagnostic screen of her engineering console. A frown wrinkled her already corrugated brow. "Our power levels are much lower than they should be. I've detected a problem with the theta-matrix compositing system. It's not recrystallizing the dilithium fast enough."
"Can you fix it?"
"Unknown,"' Torres responded. "I suggest we supplement with additional dilithium stores while I run a level-one diagnostic on the system."
Janeway might have paused to wonder where in this vast quadrant she would find a fresh source of dilithium. But her expression was one of complete confidence and self-possession: the armor of command "How much time do we have before this problem becomes critical?"
"Perhaps twenty-six hours before we experience serious power fluctuations. After that I won't be able to guarantee our warp capability."
"We'll initiate a priority search for dilithium immediately," Janeway said.
The crew moved to do her bidding as smoothly as well-maintained microrelays. The sound of the captain's voice -- the confidence and certainty within it -- kept morale high, an important consideration for a crew traveling through an unknown quadrant.
"Initialing short-range scans," announced Ensign Harry Kim. Voyager was his first deep-space mission and he was obviously determined not to disappoint Janeway.
"Bearing zero-three-five, mark-two-five," he said. "Negative results."
"Mr. Tuvok, assist Mr. Kim."
Tuvok, with that deep, steady Vulcan composure which had seen him and the ship through so many crises, moved swiftly to respond. Only his expressive eyes occasionally betrayed him, and they now revealed that although the head of Voyager's security was controlled he was not at ease, not at all. "Long-range sensors reveal no trace of dilithium, Captain," Tuvok said.
Janeway's nod was barely perceptible. "Increase sensor range."
Harry Kim bent over his scanner. As he reconfigured his scan parameters the young ensign forced himself to look unperturbed, but his hands gripped the console and his heart began to pound. The fate of the ship might depend upon his search.
Then he saw it. There. Quickly double-checking to be sure, he smiled with relief as the scanner reconfirmed his findings. "Raw dilithium crystal deposits," he reported. "Class-N planet bearing three-two-nine, mark one-seven-five."
"Excellent," Janeway said, smiling briefly. "Good work, Mr. Kim. Mr. Paris, divert to the planet on half-impulse power."
"Full impulse would be faster," Torres said.
"And use up our resources more quickly, too." Janeway let that sink in for a moment before turning back to the helmsman. "As soon as you're ready, Mr. Paris."
"Ready now, Captain."
The ship shot forward through the cold night, hurtling toward its goal.
This is not a diversion, Captain Janeway told herself. This is a necessary step on the long path home. And we are going home, even if it takes us years to get there.
A sudden arcing light, the sparking of electrical components, and a startled cry brought Janeway to her feet.
Tom Paris was sprawled motionless at the base of the helm controls. The explosion had left his console a fused and blackened mass.
Commander Chakotay, the Native-American first officer, was already on his knees beside the fallen pilot, searching quietly for a pulse.
Janeway was again grateful for Chakotay's rock-steady dependability in a crisis. He had been a formidable antagonist for both Starfleet and the Cardassians in his days as captain of a Maquis ship, but fate -- and the Caretaker -- had led him to the Delta Quadrant and bound him to Voyager.
She tapped her communicator. "Sickbay, medical emergency on the bridge. Initiate emergency medical holograph on screen."
A moment later the image of a sour-faced, balding man in medical uniform appeared on the viewscreen, "Please state the nature of the medical emergency."
"Explosion. Crewman unconscious."
On screen, the doctor read the ship's internal sensors. "Hmm. Second degree bums on the left hand and arm. Shock. Blood pressure dropping. I'll transfer him to sickbay. Please ask Kes to meet me there. I'll need her assistance to treat him properly."
Commander Chakotay looked at Janeway, who nodded. "Transporter," Chakotay said. "Prepare for intraship beaming, on my signal." The bearlike first officer tapped in coordinates and Tom Paris disappeared in a shimmer of light.
The holodoctor smiled thinly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll attend to my patient."
"'Of course," Janeway said.
The doctor's image rippled and was gone.
"B'Elanna," said Janeway. "I want some answers. To begin with, I want to know why that panel went up."
The engineering chief was already examining the damaged comm with obvious chagrin. "I wish we could fix machinery as quickly and easily as that doctor does flesh," Torres said. "Sometimes I envy him." Crawling beneath the console, she pulled at a protruding wire and half a panel came loose, narrowly missing her head. "Captain? I could use some help."
"Mr. Kim," Janeway said.
Ensign Kim covered the space between his station and the helm in two long steps, taking his place at Torres's side. Already deep into her diagnostics, she gave him the barest nod of acknowledgment.
Janeway watched quietly, musing on the strange fate that had brought a rebel half-human, half-Klingon engineer into Voyager's life and engine room. Thank goodness, she thought, for the woman's quicksilver brilliance and for her surprising friendship with Harry Kim. Their joint victimization on the Ocampa planet as subjects of the Caretaker's biological experiments had welded a solid rapport between them. Janeway had to acknowledge that Harry's interest in physics didn't hurt the bond.
The two crew members worked smoothly together, probing, quietly commenting. Soon Torres stood up, brushed herself off, and nodded with studied control.
Janeway steeled herself. "How bad?"
Dark eyes met hers. "Not good. Backup flight controls can be temporarily improvised from engineering, but it'll make an unwieldly system worse, and even that won't last very long."
"We need to replace the parts and rebuild the helm," Janeway said. Her heart sank at the thought of yet one more obstacle blocking their path back home, but she banished the notion that Voyager was an accursed vessel. She'd had her share of bad luck, yes, but most ships did. "Any thoughts as to what caused the damage and how likely it is to happen again?"
Torres shrugged. "My guess is that a power surge caused it, but I won't know for certain until I've run more tests. As to its source, and whether it will recur, unknown."
Janeway felt that word grating upon her. Unknown. It just wasn't acceptable. An unknown power had brought her ship and crew halfway across the galaxy. But she fought back her irritation. "Get started, B'Elanna. Mr. Tuvok, how far off course did that power surge send us?"
"Approximately fifteen degrees off course," the Vulcan replied. "Might I suggest . . ."
Harry Kim burst in, garnering a frown from the protocol-conscious Tuvok. "Captain, there's a class-M planet in the next system, fifth planet from a type-B binary sun. We might find dilithium mineral deposits there -- or metals that we could refine and use."
"Well," Janeway said. "We don't have much choice, do we, Mr. Kim. Chakotay, you'll work helm temporarily from engineering. Let's get into a wide orbit. Mr. Kim, once we're in range, scan that planet within an inch of its life. And get Mr. Neelix up here in case he can identify it."
Under the first officer's steady guidance, Voyager limped into orbit.
The lift doors flew open and the short, stocky figure of Neelix, a Delta-Quadrant native and volunteer member of Voyager's crew, entered the bridge. His coxcomb of stiff orange hair straggled above his heavily freckled scalp, looking even more unkempt than usual.
"Captain," Neelix said. "I was just popping a meeg truffle soufflé into the oven. If it falls I don't know what the crew will have for dessert."
"Somehow we'll manage, Mr. Neelix," Janeway said dryly. "Take a look and tell me if that planet ahead seems familiar."
Neelix squinted at the viewscreen and muttered, "Could be the Donyx System -- that has a binary sun. In which case that's Donyx Five. But its landmasses are the wrong color. Maybe the Giddis System? No, the suns are too small and far apart." He ran a hand through his sparse hair. "Now, don't rush me."
"Captain," Ensign Kim said. "I've finished my scan and I have good news and bad news."
"Report, Mr. Kim."
"The planet is inhabited, and its civilization is advanced enough to provide at least rudimentary engineering. They seem to have some mass transportation and communications systems and there are signs of developing air travel."
"And the bad?"
"The system's binary suns are very active, even volatile. I'm getting some odd energy readings from them. There's no telling how the ship's systems might be affected."
"Can we compensate?"
"For the time being."
"That doesn't sound too bad considering how few choices we have," Janeway said. "Anything else?"
"The planet -- it's a pre-warp civilization."
Janeway and Tuvok exchanged guarded looks of dismay.
Harry Kim watched them, his discomfort obvious. "I know that Starfleet prohibits contact between pre- and post-warp technological societies."
"Except in an emergency," Janeway said. "And this surely qualifies." She saw Tuvok frown but decided to ignore it. The ship had to get repaired.
"Folog's Moon?" Neelix mused. "No, they don't have any atmosphere anymore. Sar Este Fourteen? It's the right size, but there should be warning orbitals and a gas giant. . . ."
Janeway waved him away. "Never mind, Mr. Neelix."
"Captain," Ensign Kim said. "The planet -- the people below. They're hailing the ship, or trying."
"It appears that the first-contact decision has been taken out of our hands," said Tuvok.
Janeway nodded. "Open a hailing channel, Ensign."
"They're coming in on some strange frequency," Kim said. "It'll take me a moment to -- there, got 'em. Audio only." His eyes met Janeway's. "You're on, Captain."
She stepped forward, took a deep breath, and said, "This is Kathryn Janeway, captain of the Federation Starship Voyager. I send greetings and request your aid. Our ship is in urgent need of repairs. We request your permission to send down a party for supplies."
In response the universal translator spat and whistled, producing birdlike twitterings almost beyond the range of Terran audibility.
But they did not, apparently, outstrip ultrasensitive Vulcan hearing. Tuvok flinched as a particularly high squeal climbed several octaves in as many second@' "Mr. Kim, I request that you lower the volume."
"Yes, sir." For the first time Harry Kim reflected that possessing enhanced physiological abilities was perhaps not always a blessing.
The translator fought with itself, yielding gibberish and static from which only one or two words -- "deputized" and "planet" -- could be understood.
"Can you make anything of that?" Janeway asked, glancing at Tuvok.
He shook his head.
"Please repeat your message," Janeway said. "We regret that we are having difficulty receiving it."
Again the translator warbled. Then the gibberish resolved into comprehensible words and a smooth male voice could be heard to say, "Voyager. Greetings from the planet of Sardalia. You and your crew are welcome, most welcome. Come ahead. We will have people deputized to meet you. Please hurry, we await you most eagerly."
"Friendly, isn't he?" Janeway said sotto voce.
Tuvok stood and approached Janeway. "Captain, I suggest caution."
"Of course, Mr. Tuvok. That's why I'm going to send you and Commander Chakotay down to the surface. I can't think of two more cautious individuals, can you?"
Copyright © 1996 by Paramount Pictures.