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Captain Kathryn Janeway sat in her command chair, staring at the image of the speeding craft on her main screen. Around her the bridge was silent; a waiting silence, a holding-breath silence, as her bridge crew stood or sat at their stations and watched.
At best the small craft was big enough to hold four humans, but the design was nothing Janeway had ever seen before. Swept-back, finlike wings made it seem more like a bird in flight, while its long "nose" curved upward like the front of a water ski. The craft was painted a gold metallic, with black stripes that gave it the sense of motion. It seemed clearly designed for atmospheric use, but it was a long, long way from any atmosphere.
Janeway was fascinated by it, especially since it seemed to be in a very great hurry. They had been tracking it from a distance for the last ten minutes, and unless the craft had very good sensors, she doubted that they had even seen Voyager yet.
She picked up her half-forgotten cup of coffee and sipped, letting the wonderful flavor fill her mouth. Even barely warm, it was still delicious. Neelix had found some fascinating beans on an uninhabited planet six days earlier, and had managed, for the first time, to really brew a good cup of coffee. It was rich, with an aroma that woke her up and soothed her at the same time. There was only one small problem. Unless they could do a decent replication of the bean, their supply was only going to last another week, especially with most of the crew drinking it. It would be a sad day when the last cup was poured. Until then -- hot, warm, or even cold -- she wasn't going to waste a drop.
"Can't tell exactly where it's heading, Captain," Harry Kim said, finally breaking the silence.
"It seems to have originated," Tuvok said, "from a planet a few light-years away."
"Sure is a great-looking ship," Tom Paris said. "I'd love to get a look inside."
"I doubt you're going to," Kim said.
Janeway glanced around at her operations officer and took another half sip.
Kim shrugged. "From what I can tell with distant scans, they're overloading the engine."
Janeway set the cup down beside her and stared at the beautiful and very alien ship on her main viewscreen. "Tom, take us in closer. I want more information."
She turned to Kim. "Ensign, hail them. Let them know we have no hostile intentions."
The bridge again fell silent.
"No response to the hail, Captain," Ensign Kim said.
"Keep at it," she said.
On screen the small ship seemed to grow in size. Janeway studied its lines, swept-back and beautiful. Like Paris, she wanted to see the inside of the thing. But the real question was why was it out here in the first place? And why was it pushing so hard? It was almost as if it were running from something.
She turned to Tuvok. "Do a long-range scan along the path the ship has taken."
Tuvok nodded and set to work.
"Still no response, Captain," Ensign Kim said.
"Captain," Tuvok said. "A large, unidentified ship is on an intercept path. It will overtake the smaller craft in three minutes and seven seconds."
Janeway nodded, then turned back to stare at the beautiful small craft that now filled her screen. So she had her answer as to why the craft was in such a hurry. It was being chased.
"Captain," Ensign Kim said, "the small craft's engines are about to overload."
Kim shook his head. "They'll go critical in thirty seconds, if they aren't shut down."
"Open a hailing frequency," she said, turning back to the screen. "This is Captain Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. You are about to self-destruct. Shut down your engines and we will offer what assistance we can."
"Incoming message from the larger ship," Kim said.
She turned as he glanced up.
"They are demanding that we stand aside."
"They are not our match, Captain," Tuvok said. "In weapons, or in screens."
"Small craft powering down," Kim said.
Janeway nodded. "Mr. Paris, put us directly between the two ships. Ensign Kim, open a three-way conference between us and the two ships."
She turned back to stare at the beautiful small craft, now floating almost dead in space relative to Voyager. Her coffee was now completely cold, but she sipped it anyway, waiting, savoring the smooth taste, and wondering what they had gotten into now.
It took a few minutes before she could see the split screen in front of her. The small craft's pilot had features that were essentially human, but with broader forehead and larger green eyes. She looked intense and full of a fighting spirit. Janeway suspected she would like this person, and have trouble with her at the same time. It almost seemed as if sparks had flown from those green eyes.
From what Janeway could see, the small craft's pilot wore what appeared to be a streamlined, dark-red tunic that did little to conceal her athletic upper body. Janeway had watched Tom turn around and raise his eyebrows at Ensign Kim when the alien first appeared. Janeway had ignored the look.
Tuvok had reported that the small craft held only two, and was basically unarmed. Clearly not designed for deep space.
The larger ship, however, was a different story. It had full weapons and screens, and carried a crew of sixty-four beings. Its captain was male, with lizard-like features, slits for eyes, and skin that seemed rough. It was covered with scales. He wore a thin tunic, with weapons banded over his chest. Clearly a warlike race of some sort, at least at first glance.
Janeway spoke up first. "I am Captain Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. We are from another galactic quadrant, here for scientific exploration. We would like to help you resolve your dispute without recourse to violence."
"Captain Qavim of His Imperial Majesty's frigate Falcon," the reptilian captain said. "We are pursuing the two rebels who stole a yacht belonging to our royal prince. We demand that you cease your intrusion immediately! Stand aside, or you will suffer the consequences."
"That's completely untrue!" the small craft's pilot said, her eyes even angrier. This woman's anger was not to be taken lightly.
"I am Lieutenant Tyla of the Lekk Deep Space Force. Lekks are not a subject race in the Qavok Empire." She faced Janeway directly. "They kidnapped us; we were trying to escape from their captivity."
"Nonsense!" Qavim said, a snort of disgust clear as thin flaps where his nose was flared open. "Your political leaders are voluntary guests in our world, preparing to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor."
Lieutenant Tyla looked at the Qavok captain in utter disbelief. "Lies! All lies! You Qavoks abducted our First Citizen and his cabinet members under deception, and took them to one of your miserable planets. Forced incarceration and coercion are a lot different from voluntarily taking a pledge of fealty!"
Turning her attention back to Janeway, Tyla went on, "When the abduction took place, Dr. Maalot and I happened to be at the Congress Hall and were captured by sheer bad luck."
Janeway glanced over Tyla's shoulder to where the other passenger of the small craft stood, looking timid. Clearly he was the Dr. Maalot she had mentioned.
"We commandeered this yacht and made a getaway. We are now trying to get home fast and warn our people about the Qavok plan. If we give them enough time, they might be able to stop it. At least save some lives."
"So you attempted a suicidal interstellar journey home with a small vessel designed basically for interplanetary trips?" Janeway asked.
Tyla stood firm, her jaw jutting out more than before. "We did what we felt we must to save our people."
Janeway nodded. She could see the clear determination in Tyla's eyes. For the moment Janeway was willing to accept Tyla's version of the events. The Qavok captain, on the other hand, was pushing the envelope. Janeway compressed her lips in irritation.
"The Lekk woman is telling you a child's tale, Captain. It is a waste of time to listen to her. If you do not remove your ship within the next five minutes, we will destroy your ship and take the yacht. It will be the same to us either way."
"Captain Qavim," Janeway said, turning to face him squarely. "If attacked, we will defend ourselves. Do I make myself clear?"
"We have the right to our property," he said, seemingly sneering at her, if she was interpreting his expression correctly.
"Any attempt to destroy or capture the other craft before a peaceful resolution is reached will be regarded as a hostile military action against us." Janeway stared at him, not blinking. "Trust that we will respond accordingly."
The Qavok captain's eye slits seemed to enlarge slightly; then he cut off, leaving only Tyla on the screen.
"Stand ready," Tyla said to Janeway. "He will not wait the five minutes. He will attack."
"Thank you," Janeway said, smiling. "We can take care of ourselves. You just hold your position."
"Thank you, Captain," Tyla said, and cut the connection.
Janeway turned to Chakotay and nodded.
"Shields up," he said. "Stand by weapons."
Janeway sat down in her chair as the first volley of the Qavok's directed-energy weapons hit Voyager.
"Short five minutes," Tom said.
"The guy's predictable," Janeway said, holding her coffee cup to keep what was left of it from spilling in the slight shaking.
"Screens holding," Chakotay said. "One hundred percent."
"No report of damage, Captain," Kim said.
"Return fire," she ordered. "Target their weapons only. We don't want to destroy them and start an all-out war."
It took only five quick shots, less than three seconds, before the Qavok frigate was disarmed.
"Cease fire," Janeway said. "Hail Captain Qavim."
"Hailing, Captain," Kim said.
A few moments passed. "No response, Captain."
Janeway leaned back in her chair and sipped her cold but still wonderful coffee. "We'll just let him sit for a minute," she said. "Give him time to have a cup of coffee and think over his options."
On the bridge of the Qavok frigate, reports of damage poured in. A faint smell of smoke filled the air, and Qavim's junior officers standing at three stations seemed far too excited for their own good. Excited officers are reckless officers, he thought. He would have them replaced later.
"Gun Turret Number One totally destroyed!" Qubo, his executive officer, said. "No survivors."
"Go on," Qavim said.
"Gun Turret Number Two completely demolished. No crew reporting in. All presumed dead."
Qavim nodded and the list of damage continued. The naturally cheerless atmosphere of the Qavok bridge was now grim. Only the executive officer's voice droned on through the faint smoke and smell of burnt wires.
Qavim partially listened while thinking back over the last few minutes. He had underestimated his enemy. He would not make that mistake again, providing there was an "again." Surviving to have another chance at that ship would have to be his priority.
After the list of damage was finished, he stood up from his captain's chair as if trying to regain a measure of control over his destiny.
"They hail us, Captain."
"No response," he said, staring at the screen and the alien ship floating between him and the yacht. "Withdraw from the combat zone immediately."
"Yes, Captain!" His executive officer executed the order without delay.
As the ship turned and moved off, Qavim again sat down in his command chair. He had made a mistake that should have gotten them killed. For all he knew, Voyager's captain could have been as bloodthirsty as many of his fellow officers in the Qavok Space Forces. She might still come after his frigate to finish it off, if he provoked her sufficiently. But he didn't feel she would. He had been taught that retreat could be the wisest course of action under some circumstances. Not often, but now seemed to be one of those times.
He would retreat, repair their weapons, and possibly watch from a safe distance for the next move Voyager would make. The fact that his enemy only disarmed his frigate signaled to him that the Federation ship did not wish to engage his powerful vessel in battle. This Voyager captain was wise.
But now was not the time to let professional respect get in the way of his plan to exact revenge from Voyager. The real question was, how he could pass the buck for his own failure to recapture the prince's yacht. The Voyager captain was no longer his immediate enemy. It was certain that someone's head would roll. His task now was to make sure that rolling head was someone else's.
"Orders?" Qubo asked.
"Start repairs on weapons. Hold position."
He watched his men start to work, then went back to the most important problem facing him: survival. Would the admiral believe it if he said his ship had been ambushed? No, that would probably not work. Nobody would believe that the renegade Lekks would have been able to set up an ambush in advance of their escape. Especially not in intersellar space. He needed a story that would be corroborated by his crew, or at least not refuted by the ship's records.
There was no doubt that Qubo was looking for an opportunity to take over as captain. There was no way that Qubo would lie for Qavim; by simply telling the truth he would be in line for promotion. That thought gave Qavim an idea. Suppose he made his executive a collaborator with the Lekks? His mind started working on a scenario that might convince the admiral. Qavim would first tell Qubo a story that was calculated to cause him to compromise himself. And, then, he would see where that would lead. With luck, he would return with ten ships and destroy this Voyager.
"Return to home base," he ordered. "Pace one."
"Captain," Ensign Kim said. "The Qavok ship has jumped to warp, heading back in the direction it came."
"Giving up, or going for reinforcements?" Janeway said. "I'd wager on the latter."
"So would I," Paris said.
"The yacht apparently suffered damage during the pursuit," Chakotay said. "It's going to need some major work on the engines."
Janeway nodded. "Is the yacht small enough to be brought into our shuttlebay with the tractor beam?"
Chakotay glanced at his screen, then nodded.
"Fine. Do it and let me know when it's aboard. I want to talk to our guests."
Chakotay only nodded as he set to work.
Janeway stood and took her empty coffee cup. "I'll be having a word with Mr. Neelix."
Chakotay glanced up at her and smiled. "Don't worry, B'Elanna will find a way to replicate the coffee."
"I sure hope so," she said, laughing. "But until then, I'm not missing my second cup for anything."
Tyla watched the Qavok ship retreat in disbelief. In all her years, she would have never imagined such a day. But she would have also never imagined being captured and then escaping in the Qavok prince's royal yacht, either.
She dropped down into one of the plush chairs and looked around. She felt comically incongruent in the posh quarters of the princely yacht. The tapestries on the walls of the living quarters alone must have cost more than she had earned in her entire life. Even the simple boxes on the dressing cabinets were inlaid with gold and encrusted with glittering jewelry.
Unfortunately, the lavish extras hid no console for weapons systems in the ship. Judging from the absence of anything warlike, Tyla assumed the ship was never intended to travel any great distances without a military escort of some sort. The yacht was clearly designed solely for the comfort and privacy of the prince and his guests.
Tyla had laughed as she searched the vessel. The prince's taste in women was truly ecumenical, judging from the various holophotos of Qavok women in various stages of undress. She wondered how many of them were his wives. Or were they just slaves, like the Lekks were supposed to become.
The small ship jerked slightly as the alien ship Voyager took it under control.
Tyla glanced at Dr. Maalot and tried to nod reassuringly. This Captain Janeway looked trustworthy, but too much was riding on how Tyla handled matters next. If she could reach an understanding with the captain of the Voyager, she might be able to get home in time to save her homeworld.
Tom Paris watched as the bay doors closed behind the flowing lines of the Qavok yacht. He'd seen a lot of beautiful ships, but this one was right up there near the top of the list. He wanted to just go over and stroke the gold- and silver-plated surface. Even sitting on the deck, the ship looked as if it wanted to fly, as if it were speeding through a blue sky over a calm ocean.
But he didn't move. Instead he stood waiting alone as the door in the side of the yacht slid silently open and Lieutenant Tyla stepped out onto the deck, followed by a Lekk man.
Tom felt the tightness in his chest as Tyla stopped and looked around the bay, then turned and strode toward him. She was gorgeous, in a dark red tunic and black tights. The tunic accented her bright red hair. Even more beautiful than she had appeared on the screen.
Behind him the door to the shuttlebay slid open and Seven of Nine entered, moving to his side.
He forced himself to swallow and then smile, making sure Tyla had a friendly face to greet her.
"Welcome to Voyager," he said, stepping forward and extending his hand.
The vivacious redhead grasped his arm firmly when he extended his hand toward her. Apparently, an arm-grasp, quite similar to that practiced in ancient Rome, was the Lekk custom of greeting, at least in their military.
"I'm Lieutenant Paris. Tom," he said. "Welcome aboard Voyager."
"Second Lieutenant Tyla of the Lekk Deep Space Force," she said. Her gaze held his for a moment, and then she smiled. "A real pleasure!"
Turning toward her passenger, she added, "This is Dr. Maalot, ship's astrophysicist."
"Seven of Nine," Tom said, taking a deep breath and forcing himself to do his share of introductions.
"A Borg?" Maalot asked, somewhat shocked.
"I was with the Collective, once," Seven said. "I am no longer."
Tom managed not to smile. He'd seen Seven go through this sort of introduction a number of times now.
Maalot nodded; then with one long, last gaze at Seven, he turned back toward Tom.
"Lieutenant Paris," Tyla said, moving to a more formal posture. "I must report to your captain. I have important information your ship will need if the Qavoks return in force."
"I don't see a problem with that," Tom said, smiling at Tyla. "But first the captain ordered me to see to it that you two receive medical attention, if needed."
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Tyla said, relaxing a little and touching his arm again. "But we are fine. We are most anxious to talk to your captain immediately."
Tom wished he had an excuse to delay her for just a little while longer. But duty called.
"And your science officer," Dr. Maalot said. "Since much of my report is of an astrophysical nature, I will need to talk to a science officer."
"I think the captain will, most likely, be the best person on both counts."
"I will also be able to supply needed information," Seven said.
"Good," Dr. Maalot said, again glancing somewhat fearfully at the Borg. "There isn't much time left."
Paris glanced at Tyla, who only shrugged. "He's right."
"I think Voyager can handle the Qavok ships," Tom said.
"It's not the ships I'm worried about," Dr. Maalot said. "It's the dying neutron stars."
Seven stepped forward suddenly and faced Dr. Maalot, towering over him. "Explain."
Tom pulled Seven back gently by the arm. "I think it would be better to tell it all to the captain."
Seven glanced at Tom, then nodded and turned toward the bay entrance without saying a word.
Tyla and Dr. Maalot both looked a little shocked.
Tom smiled and shrugged. "She gets a little excited when science comes up."
"So should we all, Mr. Paris," said Maalot, whose tone reminded Tom of one of his stuffier professors at the Academy.
"Uh, yes, well. Please come this way," he replied, gesturing for the two to follow him. They did, at a distance. This was going to be a long day.
Copyright © 1999 by Paramount Pictures