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Chakotay sighed heavily. "I hate to say it, but I'm afraid it doesn't look good."
Captain Kathryn Janeway's blue gaze flickered to the face of her first officer. She didn't answer at once. When at last she spoke, her voice was heavy but resigned.
"I knew I could count on you to tell me the truth." Chakotay had only spoken aloud the suspicion that had been growing in her own gut.
Chakotay nodded solemnly. His unhappiness was plain on his handsome face. "It doesn't look good at all."
A smile crept onto Janeway's lips. "All right, no need to rub it in," she said. "Well, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Grimly, she stepped forward and drew a cloth over the abysmal painting, hiding it from view. "Into the replicator it goes."
"You did have some interesting usage of color over in the upper right-hand corner," said Chakotay.
Her smile was a full-fledged grin now. "You're backpedaling. No, it was a pretty bad effort. I guess abstract is not for me."
"It wasn't for da Vinci, either," offered Chakotay.
"And now we segue into flat-out flattery," Janeway retorted, her hands on her hips. "Are you bucking for my job, Commander?"
"When we get back I might just want a little ship of my own again."
A variety of emotions rose inside Janeway. First, and most powerful, was joy. "When" we get back, Chakotay had said. Everyone aboard Voyager was now substituting that hopeful, happy word for the ambiguous "if." Their brief communication with Starfleet Command, through the auspices of one Reginald Barclay, had infused the entire crew with hope. Torres had already informed Janeway that the new hyperspace technology and the modifications for the com system looked promising. There was now every reason to substitute "when" for "if."
But there was also unhappiness and apprehension commingled in that thought. Tough as things had been over the last few years, they'd faced it together, she and her crew. They'd lost some good people -- and gained a few others in the forms of the remaining crew of the Equinox and the four Borg children. Janeway and Chakotay had grown very close. She hadn't even dared showed Tuvok the painting; she couldn't have dealt with Vulcan art criticism. Janeway could open herself to Chakotay as she could to no one else. The thought of him leaving her side, even to captain his own ship, was not one she wished to entertain overlong.
And of course, there was always the question of what kind of welcome Chakotay, B'Elanna, and the rest of the former Maquis would receive. The war was over, but she knew there were enough hawks in Starfleet Command that "forgive and forget" would likely not be the watchword of the day. From the little they had been able to gather, the Dominion War had exacted a dear cost. Some would want their pound of flesh, and with all the other Maquis safely accounted for, they might want to extract that pound from Chakotay, B'Elanna, and the others.
She'd fight for them, of course. With every ounce of strength she had in her small body.
"I hope you get that little ship, if that's what you want," Janeway said softly, impulsively reaching to squeeze his muscular forearm.
Sensing the change in her, he smiled gently. "Then again, who wants the hassles of command? It's easier being first officer."
"Barclay's changed everything, hasn't he?" She went to the replicator and ordered a cup of coffee. Turning to look at Chakotay, she inquired with a raised eyebrow if he wanted anything. He shook his head.
"Discipline has gone out the proverbial window," Chakotay said. "You've got a happy crew, but a pretty giddy one."
"Let them be a little giddy. They've been incredible. They deserve it."
"We all do."
"How is our little assimilation experiment going?" Janeway asked, sipping her coffee.
Chakotay chuckled. "Seven's doing her best, but she still doesn't think she's the best person for the job."
"Nonsense. Who better to help Borg children adapt to the challenge of individuality than a Borg who's made the journey herself? It is, as Tuvok would say, the logical choice."
"Logical doesn't always mean easy."
"I'll grant you that." Janeway thought about Chakotay's commentary on Seven's schedule for the children. "Fun" had been allotted one hour, on Seven's terms -- scheduled exactly the way mealtimes, exercise, and lessons had been. And Neelix's comment about Seven's blunt statement at playtime: "Fun will now commence."
"I don't think Seven quite gets the whole fun concept," Janeway sighed.
"Sometimes I don't think her mentor does either," said Chakotay.
Janeway narrowed her eyes. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what it sounds like." Chakotay sat down beside her and regarded her intently. "When was the last time the captain of Voyager had some real fun?"
"Just last night," Janeway retorted. "I went to Fair Haven."
Chakotay was grinning. "Oh, yes," he agreed, "for all of fifteen minutes."
Caught, Janeway stalled. "Neelix wanted to see me."
"Neelix's new coffee substitute could have waited until the morning."
"Ah, but then I wouldn't have known it wasn't a success, and I'd be drinking that sludge to wake up instead of this," Janeway countered.
Chakotay hesitated. "Look. You know and I know that we've been going nonstop. The last time we visited a planet was hardly an occasion for R-and-R."
Janeway's stomach clenched at the recollection. On Tarakis, the crew had all been forced to relive memories that were not their own. Janeway vividly recalled pleading with Saavedra not to massacre the colonists, but to no avail. Some nights, she still had dreams about it.
"No," she agreed softly, feeling a vestige of the pain brush past her. "It wasn't."
"Astrometrics to Captain Janeway."
"Go ahead, Seven."
"I suggest that you report to astrometrics immediately. And Commander Chakotay as well."
They exchanged glances, and as one rose and headed for astrometrics.
Seven's beautiful visage was unreadable. It usually was, but the request didn't bode well. "What have you got for me, Seven?" asked Janeway.
Quickly the former Borg stepped to her station and deftly manipulated the controls. A star chart appeared on the large screen.
"This," she said. It was all she needed to say.
Janeway's heart, which had lifted a little after the banter she'd exchanged with Chakotay, sank again. She was looking at a star chart that might have been drawn by an artist with an overactive imagination and a bent for the depressing. There wasn't a single asteroid belt, but a whopping four of them. Over there -- and, now that she looked closer, over there and there too -- was evidence of a singularity. A swirl marked the site of what she was afraid was the event horizon of a black hole. There were two red giants. Ripples indicated the presence nearly everywhere of gravity waves.
"I do hope you're not going to tell me that we have to travel through there," Janeway said.
"Unfortunately, the path we need to take in order to stay on course is this." Seven touched a control, and a jagged red line appeared. It went straight through the worst areas. "We could adjust it like so," Seven continued, and plotted an alternative course. "But that would take three weeks longer."
"And a course to avoid this No Man's Land altogether?"
Seven frowned at the unfamiliar term, but replied, "Seventeen months, six weeks, four days, and nine hours. I explored all the various options before calling you, Captain."
"Efficient," said Janeway dryly.
Seven inclined her blond head. "Thank you. I strive to be."
Slowly, Janeway shook her head as her gaze traveled over the charts. She was not about to add seventeen months to their journey. Even if they took the middle option Seven had outlined, the one that missed the worst of it, they were going to be in for a very rough few weeks.
With an odd twinkle in his eye, Chakotay said in a serious voice, "I hate to say it, but it doesn't look good. It doesn't look good at all."
And no doubt Seven was left wondering if she would ever understand non-assimilated humans when Janeway, unable to help herself, burst into laughter.
"We're calling it No Man's Land," said Janeway as the star chart bristling with obstacles appeared on the smaller computer monitor in the briefing room.
"That is an incorrect usage of the term," said Seven, surprising Janeway. "I have researched the phrase. It was used during Earth's First World War to describe the ground between two opposing trenches. We are currently facing no adversary. Therefore, there can be no No Man's Land."
"But we are facing an adversary, Seven," Janeway corrected her gently. "It's the same enemy that we've been locked in battle with ever since the Caretaker snatched us out of our own quadrant. Our adversary is the Delta Quadrant. It's the light-years that lie between us and reaching our loved ones, between our home and us. The No Man's Land of World War I was a bad place to be. It had a great deal of barbed wire, it was full of broken and abandoned military equipment, and after a battle, there were bodies there too. It was hard to gain even a meter of ground of No Man's Land, and that little amount was always dearly bought."
She turned again to regard the ominous star chart, took in its visible, predictable dangers, and wondered for a brief moment about the dangers they weren't even aware of yet. "No, Seven. I'd say No Man's Land is a perfect way to describe what we're up against."
Seven pursed her full lips in a gesture that Janeway had come to recognize meant she didn't approve, but it didn't matter. No matter what they chose to call this, it was bad news.
"I don't want to head into that space until we're performing at peak ability. Status reports," she requested.
Torres went first. "We're presently performing a level-one diagnostic. Everything seems to be all right. Engineering's ready to tackle it, unless the diagnostic reveals something unexpected."
One by one, they gave their reports. Paris reported that the helm had been performing more than adequately, and added that he had just done something he called a "tune-up" to the Delta Flyer. Tuvok was prepared to run a series of drills to make sure tactical was up to par. Harry Kim had nothing to report about ops. The Doctor reported treating only two minor injuries in the last week.
"One of which Mr. Paris incurred in what he describes as a minor disagreement with Seamus in Fair Haven," he added, in a disapproving tone of voice.
"Which won't happen again," Paris insisted a little too vehemently.
Janeway sat for a moment, absorbing the information. She hardly dared believe it, but it seemed as if they were ready to venture forth into No Man's Land. If that were so, then why did she feel so strangely reluctant?
She had just opened her mouth to order that they proceed first thing in the morning, but Chakotay spoke first.
"There is one thing, Captain."
"What is it, Chakotay?"
"There has been an egregious lack of fun on the part of the captain and the crew," he said in a completely serious voice. "That could have severe repercussions if the crew is not in as good a shape to tackle the challenges of No Man's Land as the ship is."
She raised an eyebrow. "I see. What do you recommend?"
She could tell he was fighting to keep from smiling, but largely succeeding. He rose, went to the screen, and touched it. At once, the image of a planet appeared. It had blue oceans, brown-and-green landmasses, and swirling white clouds. It looked so much like Earth that she felt an unexpected pang of homesickness.
"While Seven of Nine is exemplary in her execution of her duty, she needs to develop a little imagination."
Seven bridled. "I am not accustomed to evaluating situations with regard to -- their fun factor."
"My point exactly. This planet is located directly on our way to No Man's Land. It's a perfect class-M. No life, other than plant life, although there are microscopic organisms in the planet's oceans. Someone's many-times-great-grandfather, no doubt, but for the present moment, we won't have to worry about the Prime Directive. There are beaches, mountains, rivers, oceans, rain forests, deserts -- you name it. It sounds like an excellent place for shore leave. We could then tackle No Man's Land refreshed and renewed." He looked over at Janeway. "Captain? What do you think?"
Some decisions, Janeway thought, were just easier than others. "Mr. Paris," she said, rising and striving to maintain an authoritarian demeanor, "lay in a direct course for that planet. We could all use some R-and-R."
For once, Chakotay didn't have to do any arm-twisting to get his captain to enjoy a bit of shore leave herself. Janeway was in the second group of people to transport down. Tom Paris, B'Elanna Torres, and Neelix, along with seven others, had already gone on ahead. They had reported that the planet's climate was every bit as nice as Risa's, though, according to Paris, the lack of scores of beautiful women was keenly felt. Janeway wondered if Torres had overheard that last comment, and if so, what her retort might have been.
Ensign Lyssa Campbell, usually a little shy around her captain, positively grinned at Janeway when she came in lugging her paints, palette, and easel.
"Going for a few landscapes?"
Janeway returned the smile. "Absolutely. According to Seven, there are some exquisite mountain ranges. She also went into great detail about how the location I have selected will produce an optimal concentration of particles in the air, resulting in an increased profusion of shorter wavelengths of light."
Lyssa Campbell regarded her blankly. Taking pity on her, Janeway explained, "That's Seven's way of saying the sunsets watched from the beach ought to be particularly colorful."
Campbell blushed. Janeway winked at her and stepped onto the platform. The plan was for her to have several hours of uninterrupted painting time -- a rare luxury -- before Chakotay transported down with a picnic basket. Janeway knew herself pretty well, and realized that she sometimes didn't take the time she needed to truly relax. Well, Chakotay couldn't call her on it after this.
She was still smiling as she dematerialized.
"The smell of the sea is the same everywhere," said Tom with a sigh of contentment. He and B'Elanna had walked hand in hand by the ocean for about an hour. She had spotted the little cave a short climb up, and now they sat contentedly watching the huge golden sun set over orange and scarlet waves.
"That's poetic license," murmured Torres, who, even though she was arguing with him, still had her eyes closed and was languidly inhaling the aforementioned ocean scent. "Every planet has different organisms. Therefore, the smell -- "
"Is always enchanting," said Tom. "Just like you."
She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. He reached for her, thinking that this would be a lovely little place for a tryst, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
He turned his head and frowned. "There's something out there. In the ocean. Look."
She looked where he pointed. For a moment, he thought his eyes had been playing tricks on him. But then it surfaced again. It was small, dark, and definitely alive.
"But that's not possible," said Torres. "This planet doesn't have any life more developed than amoebas."
"That's definitely a life-form more advanced than an amoeba," said Tom, scrambling to his feet. "And it looks like it's drowning."
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