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Chapter 1 "That's the biggest piece of claimed space I've ever seen!" blurted Lieutenant Tom Paris as he and the rest of the senior staff stood gathered in Astrometrics. Before them on the huge screen was a grid displaying a particular area of space. Even though the grid had been scaled down dramatically, the mapped area filled the screen.
"That's why it's called an empire," said Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres, softening the gibe with a smile.
"Well, yeah, but -- wow! I mean, look at it!"
"Crossing through it, even at its narrowest point, will take several weeks. And circumnavigating it would take almost a year." Captain Kathryn Janeway crossed her arms and glared at the vast expanse of the Lhiaarian Empire, an imperfect circle of pale blue on the map.
Paris had used colorful terms, but he was essentially correct. It was the single biggest area of claimed space that any of them had ever seen. It made the Romulan and Klingon empires look like anthills. Janeway suspected that the Borg's area of dominance would give the Lhiaarrian Empire a run for its money, but Seven of Nine had not been forthcoming with any details. Besides, the Borg considered the entire universe their empire -- they just hadn't charted all of it yet.
"Mr. Neelix, what do you have on the Lhiaari for me?"
The Talaxian perked up at the mention of his name and strode forward. He examined his padd with a flourish. "Well, as we can see, it's quite the, ah, piece of space, isn't it? The term Lhiaarian Empire is actually something of a misnomer. The Lhiaari only live on a single planet, which is their homeworld and the capital of the empire, located about..."
He delicately tapped the console and the mapped area shifted, zooming in on a single orb. It looked so much like Earth it made Janeway's heart skip a beat. "Here. They are an intelligent race, not overly given to warfare, and quite advanced. However, they do seem inordinately fond of red tape.
"The entire perimeter of their space is loaded with checkpoints, and there are more sprinkled about here, here, and here. Apparently, it can sometimes take weeks for ships to negotiate passage if a vessel hasn't been given express clearance by Emperor Beytek himself."
"That is unacceptable." Seven of Nine stood erect at the console. Her face, pale, blue-eyed, and graced with a few remnants of Borg technology, was almost as unreadable as that of Commander Tuvok, the Vulcan security officer who stood silently beside her. The blue light from the screen played across her features, glinting on the metal of her implants.
"We do not have the resources to sit idly in spacedock awaiting clearance."
"Hate to say it, but I'm with Seven on this one," said Torres. "Isn't there something we can do?"
"There are times on this journey when I would rather have a good old-fashioned firefight than keep kowtowing to the diplomats," said Janeway, a smile crinkling the corners of her eyes. "And right now is one of them. This sounds like the Bowmar all over again. But I don't see any other alternative. I'm not going to add an entire year to our journey just because we don't want to be annoyed by red tape. Neelix, how are we doing on foodstuffs?"
The Talaxian's dappled brow furrowed. "We're doing all right on seasonings, but staples are dipping below my comfort level. We haven't passed through any space where we could stop to replenish our supplies. There is of course always the replicator and rations if we get into a tight spot."
"Rations. Mmmmm," said Harry Kim, rolling his eyes.
"If we are going to be stalled in space, twiddling our thumbs at an emperor's whim for a week or two, I would respectfully request that the replicator be reserved for medicines and medical supplies," put in the Doctor.
"Now wait a minute," interrupted Torres, turning with a frown. "Engineering needs --"
"That's enough!" Janeway's voice held an edge. "We're not even in Imperial space yet and already we're arguing about who gets the replicators! Tom, how far are we from the first checkpoint?"
"We should be there in a few hours if we maintain present speed, Captain." Janeway smothered a smile. Paris looked like a choirboy, eyes wide and guileless, careful to not attract attention after Janeway had just reprimanded the others.
"Do it. We'll see if we can't hurry up passage to the next point after this one. Perhaps we can manage an audience with the Emperor and get a hold of one of those coveted free passes. I think a ship from another quadrant might be something Emperor Beytek would be interested in seeing. Seven, do the Borg know anything about this species? Anything that might give us an edge in negotiating with them?"
Janeway had asked the question deliberately. Though Seven was human now -- well, mostly human; eighteen per cent of her body was still cyborg technology -- she had been raised by the Borg and had no doubt personally committed more than her share of atrocities in the name of assimilation. It was simply a part of who she was, and Janeway was determined that, eventually, her crew would get used to that fact. Though the information Seven harbored was gleaned in a monstrous fashion, it was still information. Much of what Seven knew about various species had proved helpful in the past. Once, in the case of the Katati, it had even given them the means to evade destruction and to make some kind of reparation to a race the Borg had decimated. And the knowledge of Species 149 had brought Neelix back from the dead. Janeway liked those kinds of ironies.
Seven arched a pale eyebrow. "The Lhiaari were not assimilated by the Borg in the time that I was with them. The name is known to me, however, because we assimilated the inhabitants of some of their conquered worlds who dislike and distrust the Emperor."
"Not an unusual attitude, for the inhabitants of a conquered world," Chakotay said quietly. Janeway smiled sympathetically at her first officer, then looked at the screen. She moved forward, touched the console, and restored the full image of the circle of the Lhiaarian Empire.
They had to find a way through. Janeway knew that she would lay down her life for her crew. Such a sentiment was nothing out of the ordinary for a good starship captain. But she was also prepared to swallow her pride if it meant getting them a year closer to home. She'd bow and scrape and smile and do whatever was necessary to win passage through this mammoth area of claimed space.
That was a lot harder than taking a phaser blast.
"Stations, everyone. According to Mr. Paris, we should be arriving at the first checkpoint inside Lhiaarian space at 1400 hours. Let's put our best foot forward."
Out of the corner of her eye, Janeway saw Seven of Nine looking down at her feet with a puzzled frown.
Seven of Nine, personal log: I do not understand the human fondness for what they refer to as "slang." It is inefficient and leads to confusion and misunderstandings. However, I am attempting to integrate such terms into my vocabulary matrix and cross-reference them in order to facilitate conversing with this crew. Lieutenant Paris seems to be an inexhaustible reservoir of various bizarre terms.
The Lhiaari have already proven Mr. Neelix's observations of them to be accurate. Rather than send a delegation aboard Voyager, they have required that we beam down to the planet's surface and submit our request through certain established channels. Mr. Paris says this makes us "sheep." I am uncertain as to how obeying protocol transforms humanoids into ovines, but I shall observe and hope that he is incorrect. I do not think I would like to be an ovine.
"My God," breathed Janeway. "This is worse than I thought."
"Ellis Island must have looked like this back in the nineteenth century," said Paris, glancing around. "Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. I'd say this qualifies as a huddled mass."
"More like a huddled mess," said Janeway. Frowning, she tapped her commbadge. "Janeway to Voyager."
"Chakotay here. What's the situation?"
"Looks like we're going to be here a while." It was an understatement. They had beamed into the midst of a swirling sea of people. Some were humanoid, some most definitely weren't. Some of them practiced...different hygiene from those aboard Voyager. All of them were loud and apparently annoyed. Janeway almost had to shout to be heard above the din. Her translator struggled to interpret the various yelps, groans, squeaks, whistles, and purrs and finally, exasperated, Janeway yelled, "I'll update you as necessary, Chakotay. I'm turning off my commbadge and so is the rest of the away team." And she did.
Her team of Paris, Seven, Kim, and Tuvok imitated her, grimacing at the noise and smells into which they had found themselves abruptly plunged. A faint ripple of displeasure marred even the normally tranquil surface of Tuvok's face.
Seven of Nine glanced about with curiosity. The place, a poorly lit and poorly ventilated single chamber, was crammed with bodies. There were clearly supposed to be lines, but such niceties had been ignored, probably for some time. A few scanning booths, designed to detect weapons or unauthorized communications devices, were set up at various locations. Few people seemed to be passing through without a lot of very loud arguments.
Seven recognized many of the alien life forms present at this waystation. There was a member of Species 2822, approaching the bored, irritated, and apparently hungry people in line with some sort of food. They were a species which thrived on opportunity, surviving apparently devastating natural disasters with ingenuity and skill. Their distinctiveness was added to the Borg several decades ago.
Over there was a cluster of Species 1811. Not added; dismissed as unworthy. They would have weakened the whole. They did not adapt well to the rigors required of the drones and died quickly.
"This line does not appear to be moving with any rapidity," observed Tuvok.
"This line does not appear to be moving at all," said Paris, "nor does it appear to even be a line. Captain, this is ridiculous. It could be hours before we even get to talk to anyone."
"At the rate in which the line is progressing forward," said Tuvok coolly, "it would be nine point seven hours."
Janeway sighed deeply and rubbed her temples. "Any suggestions? I'd rather wait nine point seven hours than spend a year going around the Empire's space."
Idle chitchat and complaints. Something that Seven had observed comprised a great deal of human conversation. She returned her attention to the crowd. Analyzing the variety of life before her was more interesting than listening to her crewmates squabble.
She narrowed her eyes. A small group of Species 4774 had noticed them and was now pushing through the crowd in their direction.
"Captain," said Seven. "We are being approached by --"
"I see them, Seven," said Janeway. The aliens took a few more moments -- the press of the crowd was tight -- but it was clear that the five members of the Voyager crew were the object of their interest. At last, one who appeared to be their leader stood before them.
Species 4774. Known as the Skedans. A race of telepaths with a protective ridge of bone on the skull that protrudes down the back. Non-aggressive. Resistance was minimal. The young are inefficiently nurtured in pouches. Physically, they did not make good drones, but their telepathic abilities were analyzed and added to the technological and biological distinctiveness of the Borg.
The alien looked at them expectantly, and uttered a series of whistles and clicks. Belatedly, Janeway seemed to remember that they had switched off their communicator/translators and quickly activated hers. She smiled at the alien, but the smile grew quizzical as she sniffed the air. Janeway shook her head and chuckled. "If I didn't know better, I'd say someone was brewing coffee." Seven marveled, not for the first time, at the human capacity for distraction.
"I'm sorry, our translators weren't active. Can you repeat what you just said, please?" asked Janeway, apparently shaking herself out of her reverie.
"Certainly. Please excuse the intrusion. You are Captain Janeway of the Alpha Quadrant vessel Voyager?"
Janeway nodded. "Yes. And you are... ?"
The alien bowed deeply. "I am Tamaak Vriis. I have a favor to ask, and a favor to offer."
"My people," and he gestured to the cluster of thirty-odd large-eyed beings who stood respectfully behind him, "are without a home. We Skedans are good citizens of the Lhiaarian Empire, and we are attempting to reach the Emperor and ask for repatriation. You are also seeking passage through Imperial space, or you would not be here. If I can move you swiftly through all the checkpoints, will you give my people passage to Lhiaari aboard your vessel?"
"Tamaak, if you can speed up this process, I might let you pilot the vessel," said Janeway, hope lighting her face. "But I don't see how --"
Tamaak turned his head and half-closed his eyes. A few seconds later, one of the heavily armored, burly, four-armed aliens who served as guards in the place trundled up to them.
"Your admission requirements are being addressed. Please, follow me."
They all turned to stare at Tamaak, mouths open with shock, then hastened to follow the guard before he was swallowed up by the crowd.
Seven was unimpressed. Janeway and the others did not know of the Skedan's formidable telepathic powers. Clearly, he had "suggested" to the guard that the Voyager crew should be given priority. She followed, the last in line, pushing her way through the crowd. For a moment, she lost sight of the black-and-red uniform of her captain, and craned to see her.
A horrible scent assaulted her nostrils. It was the rank, stomach-churning stench of rotting flesh. Suddenly fear squeezed her heart, sent adrenaline spurting through her. Seven's mouth went dry.
Straight ahead, perched atop a scanning booth and impaling her with its yellow-eyed gaze, was an enormous black bird.
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.