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The Doctor floated in black so thick no sensation could penetrate. He tried moving his limbs, opening his eyes, seeking to touch, and failed to discern if his holographic body still existed. None of his programmed senses functioned as he was accustomed, and yet he knew he was someplace because he existed. When he was deactivated aboard Voyager, his sentience simply stopped a suspended pause until he was reactivated and his lifeline continued. Here and now, he knew only himself, as if the sum total of his existence had been reduced to self-awareness, nothing further. Not even his vast database could provide a reference point. Or had he even retained a connection to his database? He couldn't say for certain. So many of his thoughts were blurry and unfocused. He imagined his current state had much in common with what patients experienced post-anesthesia: aware, but not awake; cognizant of one's body, yet disconnected from it. Whatever force had ripped him from Voyager had sent his holomatrix into a state of shock, though the Doctor didn't know how that was possible.
Though he couldn't sense his limbs, he mentally directed his arms and legs to move, reaching into the darkness to find the parameters of his environment. The instant the thought left him, an impenetrable barrier, that he sensed but couldn't see, surrounded him. A force pressed right up against the parameters of his program. Drowsily he sought to lift his arm to touch his combadge. "Docplur . . . coo . . . sib . . . gib-blehb " he muttered thickly, his tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth. The incomprehensible garble emerging from his mouth was beneath one of his abilities. He tried again. When his third attempt proved futile, his determination awoke. The luxury of lolling about like some lazy lush on eternal shore leave wasn't granted to one of such vital importance as himself. He must return to his patients and a crew who desperately needed him. Exerting his will, he pushed against the unseen force that cocooned him in this blackness. The force pushed back, squeezing him into claustrophobic confinement. Dizziness assaulted the Doctor; he would not be deterred, though his body quaked from the effort. The slightest give in the resistant force imbued him with confidence. With persistence, he would free himself, of that he was certain. A nanosecond of warning alerted him to possible danger: a faint, warm sizzle brushed his back. Nothing specific about the sensation worried the Doctor, who routinely passed through forcefields that would cook the innards of a carbon-based life-form on contact. Believing the sizzling sensation to be evidence of progress, he increased his efforts. Clenching his teeth, he thought, One last push. . . .
Jagged energy threads sizzled and sparked, burrowing thorough his body at lightning speed. His matrix frazzled, splintering him into bits of matter; every particle in his being spun at reckless velocity, unleashing torrents of superheated, subatomic tornadoes, scorching through every millimeter of his form. Out of self-protection, his thoughts instantly retreated into a detached, drifting place. From a separate vantage he processed the searing torment coursing through every photon he was composed of. It is odd, he thought, to have existed as long as I have and not understood pain before. His matrix oscillated with such speed and force that he wondered if he would explode into billions of tiny bits. As reflex took the reins from conscious thought, he twitched uncontrollably, soon jerking with seizure force. A single thought lingered: Save me.
As instantly as the attack had begun, it ended. The forces coursing through him ceased; cohesion returned. The Doctor's consciousness lurched for a few moments longer until stumbling to a peaceful stop. He recovered quickly from his ordeal; his matrix hummed along as though it had never been disrupted. More importantly, he had been freed from whatever forces had bound him. Sensation returned to his body and he became keenly aware of being sprawled, flat on his back, his vertebrae pressing uncomfortably into a cold, hard surface. He blinked several times but the impenetrable, silent darkness still surrounded him. Clearing his throat, he touched his combadge. "Doctor to sickbay."
He repeated the action, calling on the ship and half the members of the crew before he accepted, howbeit reluctantly, that he must be out of combadge range. A few of Lieutenant Torres's choicer curse words came to mind, but he believed he was above such impulses. As a thinking being, he would reason his way out. He eliminated being trapped in the Gremadian black hole (no out-of-the-ordinary gravitational pull) and being suspended in a space vacuum from the list of possibilities. He sensed neither motion nor mechanically generated noise, allowing him to rule out a presence on any starship or traveling craft. Methodically, he contemplated every potentiality his mind could conjure until a strangely beautiful sight drew his attention from his ruminations.
Funnels of glowing specks swirled around him, casting shadows and illuminating, in flashes, rippling velvet black walls. He instinctively knew, as a distant relation, that the specks were individual photons. A steady stream of photons poured from an unseen place above him until a saturation point was reached, and the Doctor felt as though he was encircled by a glittery, golden tube. A transformation began. Sparkling white-yellow flecks danced, touched, and joined together in waves. In turn, waves braided with other waves, forming ribbons that became progressively brighter with each added strand until curtains of light revealed all. At last, the Doctor could see his surroundings.
The velvety black surface was not a wall, but hanging bloodred curtains; the hard surface beneath him was a floor of joined wooden slats painted matte black. High above, he saw row after row of red, blue, yellow, and white spotlights mounted on metal strips. A canvas backdrop painted with a typical pastoral setting grass, trees, blue sky, and sun stretched horizontally behind him and up past catwalks and hanging ropes. The ceiling was at least sixty meters away. I'm on a stage, he thought. The realization filled him with pleasure.
As he became more aware of his surroundings, he heard the faint strains of music playing somewhere beyond the curtains. He listened carefully. String instruments. Repetitious, almost atonal melodies, though the key progressions in that last section are quite sophisticated. Nothing in the style or sound of the piece recalled anything in his vast knowledge of music across the galaxy. He decided to investigate in the interest, of course, of augmenting his database. Placing his palms against the floor, he pushed himself up to his knees, then onto his feet. He took a few careful, creaking steps toward the curtains, the music becoming louder by the meter. Recalling his recent encounter with near-dissolution, he surveyed his surroundings to assess the danger and found nothing more troubling than an abandoned backstage area furnished with light panels, props, and cast-off costumes thrown over chair backs and tables. He walked more quickly to the front of the stage, curled his fingers around the edge of the curtain, and pulled it back.
The magnificent trappings of an ornately decorated theater perhaps nineteenth-century European filled his view. Upward of two thousand people could sit in this auditorium, resplendent in its gold-leafed railings and red velvet seats. The Doctor's eyes glanced upward and that chandelier! Voyager's bridge could hardly contain it! Flickering candlelight glinted through the teardrop crystals, illuminating the ceiling painted in round-cheeked cherubs and gauzy angels floating among the clouds. He stepped through the curtains into the empty auditorium and for the first time saw the source of the music.
The orchestra pit was filled with a large string ensemble as he had anticipated. What he hadn't anticipated was instruments playing themselves. He watched, fascinated by the bows seesawing over the taut strings, the plink-plink-plink of plucks by unseen hands. The Doctor, who didn't believe in ghosts, failed to understand why a creator with the brilliance to either perfectly automate an instrument or endow it with sentience would set his creations to playing rather obscure, purposeless music with no audience looking on. He was approaching the pit, hoping to study the curious technology, when the stage curtains parted abruptly and were pulled into the wings. The Doctor spun around and saw the pastoral backdrop, illuminated by spotlights calibrated to evoke the sense of dawn. Though the curtains had been drawn by an invisible hand, he was no longer alone onstage.
When the transformed Assylia emerged from the cocoon in sickbay, awe had filled him. Such beauty had been a flickering candle compared with the blazing sun that he witnessed descending from the stage's rafters. Creatures of light and wings illuminated the muddy gloom, radiating with serene majesty. One by one they emerged from a place beyond, until a dozen became a hundred, then thousands. In the lifetime he'd experienced since he'd been activated, he had come to know the fragility of life, both the steadily weakening flutters as a life was extinguished and the exuberant celebration of a life seized from death's grasp. Neither of those emotional extremes could compare to the rapturous wonderment he felt watching these astonishing creatures. Their wings beat rhythmically, up and down, with the strength of a massive sail catching the wind. The Doctor watched the creatures dashing around the vivid sky-canvas, feeling an unfamiliar longing to be freed from the restraints of his holographic existence, to live with utter abandon.
Tentative fingers of sunrise cleaved the blue. One by one, golden pink sunbeam spotlights heralded the day. Like angels, the creatures flew among tufts of clouds singing up the dawn. And the music! Had there ever been a more divine chorus? The Doctor, who prided himself on understanding the nuances and subtleties of the most complex music known to galaxies, satiated his senses on the glorious harmonies, soaking in each chord progression, each trilled treble note. With soul-starved intensity, he devoured the songs ringing through the sky, imprinting the memories into his holomatrix with the fervent hope that someday he might be able to join his voice with their song and, by so doing, reexperience the choruses he now heard.
A thought occurred. Tuvok's music, the music that drew him from Voyager and led him to Gremadia this must be what he heard. Understanding and empathy overcame the Doctor as he comprehended what Tuvok had forfeited when he gave up his own transformation so that Assylia might join her people. Her people. . . . He mused on this for a long moment, and then realized, These angelic beings are the Monorhan's Fourteenth Tribe!
A shadow darkened the sky. The Doctor's holographic innards twisted.
A sextet of shiny black chitinous, segmented legs curled over the edge of a cloud. How such a thing could be conjured on stage astounded the Doctor. Attached to the legs was a globular abdomen, covered with coarse shaggy hair. Sharp pincers descended from the abdomen, flexing open and snapping closed. A pair of glowing eyes, the color of dried blood and mounted on slithery tubules, emerged from the abdomen and hovered, shifting from side to side, watching. Even from this distance, the Doctor could hear the insectoid creature chittering hungrily, tapping its legs together with a clicking crackle. Soon another insectoid followed, and then another, until they stained the dawn sky.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. The chatter rained from the sky, pelting the stillness with angry hisses. Legs tapped together more rapidly and the hissing grew. The Doctor could sense the malevolent rage radiating from the insectoids directed toward . . . the angel creatures. The transformed Monorhans. But, why? Surely such lovely beings could hardly have malicious capacity they would harm no one. From what the Doctor could see, the angel creatures sought only to play, to fly, to rejoice in their existence. To that end, the angel creatures continued their carefree play, seemingly oblivious to the storm gathering around them.
The attack came so swiftly the Doctor might have missed it if he looked away. The insectoids plunged over the cloud top toward the angel creatures. With their pincers, the insectoids ripped the wings from the angels' bodies, crushed them, and tossed them away with gleeful abandon, then grasped the wounded creatures between their three sets of legs before snapping the bodies into small pieces. Helpless, the Doctor watched as long as he could bear it before looking away, their pained cries tearing at him.
Just as their song had called the sun, their nightmare brought the storm. The sky darkened, rumbling with thunderous protest. The angel song became howling, mournful cries of suffering. From among the wails, the Doctor discerned that some of the angels fought back: he heard the shrill, insectoid squeals, the crunch of broken exoskeletons shattering to bits. He returned his gaze to the battle, hoping that the angels could defeat the insectoids swarming through the sky. Hope wasn't enough. He wanted to fight beside the transformed Monorhans. He opened his mouth to shout warning: what emerged was song.
The Doctor sang with all the conviction he could muster, pleading with the creatures to cease their fighting. Words he didn't know came to mind and he set them to music that came from a place deep inside. As he sang, the sparkling funnels of photons swirled around him, creating a spotlight. Their presence strengthened him. His musical commands slowly overtook the cacophony pouring from the painted sky. The demonstrable progress prompted him to sing as loudly and powerfully as he could. One by one, the combatants broke apart from their fighting until nearly half of the insectoids had retreated behind the clouds. I've done it, he thought, buoyed by confidence.
So filled with the power of his song was the Doctor that he almost didn't notice that the instrumental song from the orchestra pit had changed. With the decreased battle noise, he became keenly aware that the instrumental music behind him was playing counterpoint to his song instead of the odd music of before. As much as he felt compelled to continue forging peace, instinct told him he needed to see what was happening in the orchestra pit. He walked back to the edge of the stage, singing with each step.
His eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open. Each instrument in the orchestra had a player: him. There he was many of him, in fact attacking the violin with the expertise of a fifteen-fingered zessi, and again with the cello and bass. He had no idea where he'd learned to play the piano with such expressiveness, but there he was bent over the keyboard, making hand-over-hand runs with a finesse that even he didn't know he had. Curious as to the results, the Doctor continued his aria but transposed the notes into a different key. On cue, the instruments followed him, playing harmony. Satisfied, he smiled. He took a deep breath, prepared to embark on yet another measure of musical brilliance.
A female figure materialized beside him, her auburn hair flowing out behind her, like a figure out of a Raphael painting. The blue eyes, the high forehead, the full lips were familiar to him. . . . Then he remembered: the woman was a replica of one he'd met in sickbay. The captain had introduced her as Phoebe Janeway, but she was actually a Nacene taking on Phoebe's appearance. Could this be the same Nacene poseur? The version the Doctor knew from Voyager was off her rocker, to put in mildly. Presuming this redhead was Nacene might mean that he'd been transported to Exosia. The thought of being in the realm of the Nacene chilled him, knowing that, thus far, he'd found the pandimensional species to be far from sympathetic creatures. Unbidden, the Doctor heard a refrain of the old air "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" whistling in his mind.
Her eyes didn't smile; her eyes radiated cold rage.
"I want it transported to engineering." B'Elanna Torres studied the tricorder readout for perhaps the twelfth time in the last five minutes, enraged that the results, yet again, were useless. "I'll study it there."
"Lieutenant, I believe you have already obtained any diagnostic results that will be forthcoming from the remains of the tetryon transporters, " Ensign Vorik said, his voice an even monotone that made B'Elanna want to squeeze his throat until his vocal cords emitted a sound other than irrationally-calm-in-the-face-of-disaster. He studied the padd in his hand, which contained all the data they'd accumulated since Tom and Harry vanished nearly a day ago.
B'Elanna could quote every line on Vorik's padd chapter and verse. She knew the code and the frequency of every sensor and piece of communications equipment on the now-vanished shuttle. She also knew that Vorik was absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation: they already had whatever data they were going to get from the junk heap in the shuttlebay.
And she didn't care. There had to be something she'd missed even if she had to analyze that congealed glob of circuitry and metal one molecule at a time.
She touched her combadge. "Torres to Seven. Update me on the Blue Eye microsingularity."
"We have been able to conclude only that there may be a link between the growth of the microsingularity and the destruction of Gremadia and the subsequent disappearance of the Gremadian black hole. If our theories are correct about the artificial nature of this region, we may encounter more navigational or communication problems due to subspace destabilization, perhaps even deterioration."
"Subspace doesn't rot like a bad piece of fruit!"
"You are theoretically correct, Lieutenant. But the fact remains that if my current projections hold, subspace, as we understand it, will change evolve into something else, and no, I cannot explain it."
"Will Voyager clear this region before this evolution begins?"
"I cannot say."
B'Elanna balled her hands into fists and counted backward from ten, clinging to the knowledge that losing her temper now would get her nowhere. If it's not one problem, it's fifty. "Thank you, Seven. Let me know if you have any breakthroughs. Torres out." Turning, she noticed wide-eyed Ensign Matthews waiting nervously at her elbow, clutching a padd tight against her chest.
A sensor design specialist, Voyager had been Matthews's first posting on a nonscience vessel. She'd been used to quiet, respectful research laboratories. The constant chaos of Voyager had been an adjustment, to say the least, never mind the stress of working with a boss who lacked appreciation for the romance of pure science.
"Yes?" B'Elanna snapped, threading her arms across her chest, immediately castigating herself for her tone when Matthews flinched visibly. She took a deep breath and tried again, using a calmer voice. "You have the results of the latest sensor and communications sweeps searching for the Homeward Bound."
Wordlessly, Matthews passed the padd over to B'Elanna, who scanned them quickly, looking for a hopeful sign.
When she saw none, she cursed and kicked the remains of the transporter; the bones of her toes crunched like shells against rocks. An involuntary cry of pain escaped her before she clenched her jaw and forced any further traitorous noises back into her throat. A fiery pain surged through her tissues, shot through her leg muscles and into her torso before it diffused into throbbing stabs. Breathe, B'Elanna, she ordered her lungs. Through gritted teeth, she managed to dismiss Ensign Matthews before collapsing onto the deck.
"From the sound emitted when your foot came in contact with the transporter, I believe you may have broken the bones in your foot, Lieutenant," Vorik said. "Shall I initiate a site-to-site transport to sickbay?"
"No, transport these heaps of tetryon trash to the lab adjoining main engineering. I'll walk to sickbay."
"Is that wise?" Vorik asked.
"You don't get a vote in the matter." Squaring her shoulders, she started toward the turbolift, each excruciating step bringing tears to her eyes. A sudden, knifelike pain gave her pause; B'Elanna suspected it was a bone shard puncturing her skin. And yet, surprisingly, she felt liberated by the pain instead of crippled by it. It was as if the howling nerves in her feet sliced through her knotted-up insides, released all the pain she had carried since the shuttle disappeared, and allowed it to melt together into one big old seething mass. The emotional burden had been far more difficult for B'Elanna than her current physical predicament and now it was all indistinguishable. Pain was pain.
She entered the turbolift and after ordering the computer to take her to sickbay, she took advantage of the brief private moment. Her head dropped to her chest, she scrunched up her face and let loose a loud, visceral wail until her ears rang with the echo of her own voice. Exhaustion overtook her; she covered her face with her hands, slammed back against the wall, and slid to the floor.
She couldn't fathom her world without Tom. Whether she liked it or not, he'd become the emotional epicenter of her tempestuous existence. Slipping past her defenses using characteristically charismatic, clever ploys had been easy for a mercenary like Tom. Had it been the challenge of the impossible conquest that drew him to her? The place, the moment she knew he'd succeeded in making her love him she couldn't name. She still hated herself for being stupid enough to fall for his gambit. And now she was stuck, sick with shock and nausea, wondering, worrying, waiting for answers that might never come. Please let him be safe, she thought. Please let him come home.
"Don't do it, Tom," Harry warned again, panic contorting his face.
Tom recognized the look. It was the same look Harry wore when Tom suggested that the captain really wouldn't care if he appropriated Chakotay's password to "borrow" from Tuvok's replicator rations to cover an unexpected gambling debt (unexpected because Ensign Tariq was obviously cheating: the way the chips landed on the wheel made a full-color quarto impossible!). Hypercautious Harry felt about risk the way Ferengi felt about loaning latinum. The irony of Harry's reluctance to wade into the unknown was that he, more than anyone in Tom's acquaintance, was most likely to be mutilated, squashed, or killed, regardless of how careful he was. So why be careful? In Tom's experience, most of the risky situations Harry studiously avoided had a component of fun.
Tom liked fun.
And he was hungry. If room service had food, he wanted some. He twisted the door handle and pulled the door back to admit the visitor. "Come on in!"
Harry cringed, scrunching up his eyes as if expecting a photon torpedo to detonate where he sat.
A uniformed server, a man wearing gold, purple, and black striped trousers with an antiquated military-style high-waisted solid purple jacket sporting rows of shiny brass buttons, wheeled his covered cart past Tom and stopped in front of Harry. His black pillbox hat with gold braid (being a holoprogrammer who specialized in "vintage" designs, Tom had an eye for such details) featured an ill-fitting chin strap. The syrupy light from the clown lamp failed to illuminate his face, which was bowed toward the cart.
Luscious smells wafted up from the cart. Tom's stomach growled impatiently. "I hope you've got pepperoni pizza in there " Tom began.
The server yanked the burgundy drape off the cart, revealing a tray of hamburgers stacked with bacon, tomatoes, and lettuce; mounds of chili fries sprinkled with stringy, melted cheese; and two milkshakes as tall as Tom's forearm. "It's on the house, boys," the server said, meeting Tom's eyes and smiling predatorily.
"Q!" Tom's initial shock at Q's presence gave way to a backdoor sense of relief. The illogic and seeming randomness of their current predicament, with Q figured in, made more sense in kind of a Q-like way. How else could he and Harry have taken a test flight using the tetryon transporter and ended up in this stinky dive? He reached for a milkshake and took a long pull on a red-and-white-striped straw. Mmmm . . . chocolate malt.
"Don't eat that, Tom!" Harry said, his eyes wide. "It's probably "
Tom paused in midsuck. Harry had a point. But he was hungry and this was the best malted milkshake he'd ever had; so what if it turned him into a tribble? He took another long pull, savoring the cold icy sweet streaming down his throat.
"Probably what?" Q leaned over, nearly touching his nose to Harry's. "What kind of Q do you take me for? I'm insulted, Mr. Kim." He held his hand thumb touching his middle finger, poised to snap next to Harry's ear.
Harry pulled back. "I didn't mean I wasn't I, um . . ." he stammered. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his face became a decidedly paler shade.
Q arched an eyebrow. "Gotcha." He glanced at Tom. "Is he always this easy?" he asked, jerking his thumb toward Harry.
Tom shrugged and reached for a chili fry. "Well yeah " Tom said, hesitantly. "Pretty much."
"Have you missed me? I regret that I haven't stopped by since Q and I procreated, but the rigors of parenting and restoring order to the Continuum since the war have left me little time to socialize." Q took a seat on the edge of the bed beside Harry; Harry scooted over to put space between him and the entity. "What, pray tell is this? He lifted his arm, jammed his nose into the armpit, then inhaled extravagantly. Withdrawing, he wrinkled his upper lip and said, "Do I offend?" Shaking his head, he answered his own question. "No! Kathy's clearly failing to teach her kids how to demonstrate proper respect for their superiors. But more than that, we have history. I thought we'd be backslapping like old buddies!" He smacked Harry between the shoulder blades, who eked out a painful grunt in reply. Leaning over, Q peered up into Harry's hand-covered face. "Are you nervous, Mr. Kim?"
Harry shook his head. "This has to be a dream."
Q crossed his legs and looked over at Tom. "Regretfully not. Look, boys, I don't like having to involve myself in the troubles of lesser beings "
Ply us with food, then start in on the insults. At least he's still the same old Q . . . Tom rolled his eyes and reached for a burger. He might as well be full before Q ruined his life.
"Oh don't start with me, Mr. Paris. There's nothing untoward about my intentions," he said snippily. "Fine. I confess: Toying with you lowly creatures can be amusing. But in this case I absolutely wish our rendezvous could come under more pleasurable circumstances. Inebriation, carousing, and other hedonistic pursuits might actually be fun with you two " He glanced at Harry. "All right, maybe not him, but definitely you, Tommy. Let's wager half the galaxy and find ourselves some strippers from Plaranik V, shall we? I hear they're very flexible."
"What do you want, Q?" Tom asked. "Because, in spite of the food "
"I knew that would win you over," Q said, obviously pleased. "You're a creature of very fundamental desires. Speaking of which, how's the little Klingon spitfire?"
" it's been a long day and we're not in the mood," Tom concluded. "If there's no point to all this, send us home. Now."
"Well, well! Your testy girlfriend's domesticated you, Tommy. Too bad. First Vash loses her sense of humor, now you're all work and no play. What's a Q to do?"
"Q," Harry said, raising his voice. "I'm with Tom. Voyager's in trouble. We can't sit around here and make small talk."
Tom had to agree: Q's obvious enchantment with his own relentless prattling was testing his patience.
He cocked his head and offered Tom a put-out sigh. "Fine. I'll send you back after we take care of a few problems. Your esteemed captain really needs to curtail her humanitarian impulses and focus on the task at hand: namely, getting all you miscreants home. Voyager's getting a reputation for not being able to work and play well with others. Kathy needs to learn to stay in her own sandbox or else there'll be a dustup." He paused. "Get it? Sandbox? Dustup? I keep throwing them, but you just stand there and watch the ball go by."
Tom suppressed a groan and struggled to stay on topic. "You're saying Captain Janeway caused a problem in the Monorhan sector?" he guessed.
Q smiled. "And it's a doozy. No half-measures for our Kathy! This time, she's managed to start the reversal of the Big Bang. Quite an accomplishment for such a primitive life-form, but nonetheless, ill advised in the grander scheme of things."
"Hold on there," Harry said suddenly alert, shaking his head with genuine incredulity. "That's quite a responsibility to heap on what was it you usually call us, 'ugly bags of mostly water'?"
"That wasn't Q, that was " Tom said.
"The point is," Q interrupted, rolling his eyes, "your species is mostly insignificant, but every once in a while you do something that makes your betters in the universal hierarchy take notice. Much the same way you might take note if a bunch of amoebas got together and built a tractor. Something audacious and daring and, in this case " He sneered at Harry. " asinine."
Tom pulled a tipsy wood chair out from the desk where it was tucked and straddled it backward, facing Q. "Granted astrophysics wasn't my best subject at the Academy, but I'm failing to see how anything that Voyager's done lately would have such catastrophic consequences."
A look of annoyance or exasperation flitted across Q's face. "It's always 'why this?' and 'why that?' with you corporeals. Patience, children. You'll have your answers soon enough. But we have to be on our way "
Harry crossed his arms across his chest and exhaled loudly. "No. I'm not agreeing to go anywhere until you tell us where we are, what you want with us, and when we're going home."
Q sighed. "Think of this place as a suburb of the Q Continuum. There. Satisfied, Mr. Kim? The sooner we leave, the sooner we get back to that tin can you call a spaceship. Let's go." Q grabbed Harry's arm and tried unsuccessfully dragging him to his feet. "Be advised: You are moments away from becoming a newt."
"A suburb not the Continuum proper?" Tom said. "Why? We've been in the Continuum before. Saved you from civil war last time we visited. Thought we'd be welcomed as heroes." Q's explanations weren't passing the "smell" test.
"The Continuum has a strict visitors policy these days. No riffraff." Q looked at them both disapprovingly. "Not to mention a dress code. Let's be on our way "
A thought occurred. A wide, toothy grin split Tom's face. "You're in trouble."
"Am not!" Q said a little too quickly.
"You can't bring us into the Continuum because you don't want anyone to know. I'd say that puts us in a pretty good bargaining position. Say, we help you and you get Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant." Tom removed the burger platter from the cart and passed it to Harry. "You really ought to try one. The sauce is outstanding."
"Don't mind if I do." Harry selected a double-decker cheeseburger with a large onion ring sandwiched between patties and bun.
Q threw his hands into the air. "All right! I admit that my reasons for bringing you here weren't entirely altruistic, but you have to believe me when I tell you that there wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for Kathy."
"Still falling back on that tired excuse, Q?" Harry said between bites. "If you've got that explanation, I'm all ears."
Q snapped his fingers. With a flash of white light, an enormous ear appeared in place of Harry's head.
"You really need to work on some new material, Q," Tom said.
Q frowned as he considered Harry. "Too predictable?"
Tom shrugged and nodded.
Q harrumphed and snapped his fingers.
Chakotay scrolled through the list of Voyager's crew, studying their recent duty schedules, still amazed at the faithful service they continued to render, even under such strenuous circumstances. He didn't know how he could ask them to do more. There had to be another way he hadn't yet considered. He was just too damn tired to see it. Placing his hands over his face, he rubbed his eyes and rolled his neck around a few times to stretch out muscles cramped from sitting so long. Using a technique taught him by a shaman from his tribe, he cleared the clutter from his mind and revisited the task before him.
The list still looked the same as it had the last few times he'd studied it.
Slouching back in the Doctor's chair, he sighed aloud and looked over at Captain Janeway in her stasis chamber. Seven, after having done everything within her ability to help Janeway, had left a short time ago to continue her work in astrometrics. Not even the "miraculous" nano-probes would restore Kathryn to health.
"What would you do, Kathryn?" he said aloud. Being alone in sickbay meant he could indulge in a little crazy behavior like talking to his nearly brain-dead commanding officer. As acting ship's captain, he ought to be on the bridge, and he would be shortly. He just needed a little bit more time to think, without the eyes of every person on Voyager following his every move, worrying, seeking reassurance that their deepest fears wouldn't be realized. Recalling the worst of their recent near-catastrophes, from the war between the Borg and Species 8472 to the Hirogen takeover of their ship, Chakotay finally knew what it must have felt like to have the fates of these hundred and fifty people hinging on every decision you made. Janeway didn't have the luxury of being liked or being soft; she expected the best from herself and would accept nothing less from her crew. He was trying to figure out if there was room for mercy in the equation too.
"I've examined every name on this list the same way I have since you gave me this job and for the first time in many years, I'm stuck," Chakotay said, glancing over at the stasis chamber. He wished for something, a miracle, perhaps. But he'd settle for an answer. He paused for a long moment, contemplating the silence, then said, "I guess I'll have to figure it out myself, which is probably what you would have told me if you could."
He asked the computer to change the sort parameters, providing him with each department's rosters organized by the most hours worked over the past week to the least. Within seconds, the reconfigured list appeared, and it was as useless as the previous one.
He recalled a time when each name on the list existed only as a rank and a department assignment. The names existed as pieces of this greater organism called "Voyager" and he would shuffle them around based on a host of easily quantified variables. Creating a duty roster was simple in those days, because the needs of the ship dictated his decision making. After four years of numberless hours living, working, and dying side by side with them, Chakotay couldn't look at these names without imagining the faces of the loved ones they left behind and the relationships they'd formed since arriving in the Delta Quadrant.
His eyes flickered over the engineering shifts and he discovered, not surprisingly, that B'Elanna hadn't slept in days. No wonder she was so ornery and short-tempered. The well-being of his chief engineer (or lack thereof) wasn't the only concerning factor in drafting the new duty roster. Years of scheduling Ensign Matthews taught him she was prone to anxiety attacks, especially when she worked more than two consecutive shifts. Sensors were vital to a successful exit from Monorhan space. Could he afford to let her take a break now? Take Crewman Crana, a technician. The Argelian had a tendency to become so absorbed in his work repairing gel-pack relays that he'd work three consecutive shifts before collapsing at his workstation. Crana's shifts had started after Sem had tampered with the gel packs. From what Chakotay could tell, he hadn't stopped working yet. Every individual on B'Elanna's staff had a similar story. All of them needed a full two weeks of shore leave, not the extra duty shifts Chakotay was assigning them.
Scanning the list now in an attempt to organize the crew into a cohesive, functioning unit for the next several days was proving to be an exercise in futility. He knew, without asking, that virtually every person in every department had been working round the clock since they entered Monorhan space. In recent hours, he'd come across more than a few crew members curled up in the corners of their stations or slouched down on the floor, attempting to catch a little shut-eye between crises. Trying to organize a fair duty roster that took into account crew exhaustion when they lacked so many critical senior staff members was proving to be impossible.
"Computer, close file Duty Roster Charlie-Two-Six."
"File has not been updated. Do you still want to close?"
Before Chakotay could bark an affirmative answer, he heard footsteps behind him. He spun around to see who it might be.
"Why, hello, Commander," Neelix said. "Surprised to see you here. Figured you'd be on the bridge. Crewman Chell had an unfortunate mishap with a wok and a plesbrian sea urchin and I came by to get a dermal regenerator." The Talaxian craned his neck to look around to see behind Chakotay. "Looks like there's one over on the shelf. Do you mind ?"
Chakotay held out his hands as if to say "help yourself." "Crewman Chell's in the galley?"
"Helps him burn off some steam. Keeps his mind off things. Everyone's a bit on edge since " Neelix nudged his head in the direction of what Chakotay was beginning to think of as a sarcophagus.
"Right." Chakotay understood the feeling. He'd rather be anything but in charge at the moment. The screen filled with the unfinished duty roster nagged at him.
Neelix slipped the dermal regenerator into his pocket along with an analgesic hypospray. "Well, I'll be seeing you around, Commander," he said, and they exchanged waves before he started for the door.
Ambivalent, Chakotay watched him leave. Torn between the desire to get his job done and having an excuse to avoid dealing with his work, Chakotay wasn't sure how he felt about Neelix leaving.
Midstep, Neelix paused and spun about to face Chakotay. "So do you mind my asking?"
"How the new assignments are going," Neelix said, resting an elbow on a console. "Everyone's talking about it."
Neelix nodded. "With Tom, Harry, and the Doctor gone, everyone is curious who will replace them."
"You can let the gossip mill know, Neelix, that we're not replacing them," Chakotay said, wondering if his declaration sounded believable. Only the hope that he hadn't lost half of the senior staff was keeping him going. "We're just temporarily reassigning their duty shifts to junior officers."
"Of course they're irreplaceable! We know you haven't given up looking for them!" Neelix grabbed Chakotay by the uniform sleeves and squeezed his arms like a father offering reassurance to a child.
While he appreciated the Talaxian's enthusiasm, Chakotay needed to attempt to maintain the aura of command. "Thank you for your concern, Neelix," he said, calmly. "But let go."
"Just got carried away. My apologies." Embarrassed, he stepped back, brushing away nonexistent creases in Chakotay's uniform.
"Not necessary, I assure you," Chakotay said. A long moment of uncomfortable silence elapsed. If he waited long enough, he knew Neelix's talkativeness would get the better of him and Chakotay would learn what he wanted to know about how the crew perceived their present circumstances.
Neelix rocked back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet, then paused. "You know, Commander . . ."
"As morale officer, I hear things things that might be useful to you."
Chakotay smiled. "Such as?"
"The crew is in universal agreement that Clarice Knowles would be the best choice to take over for Tom. Unflappable, she is."
"Ensign Knowles is definitely that," Chakotay said. "And what about Harry?"
"Not quite a consensus yet, though the smart money is on Rollins. If Seven were Starfleet, she'd be the first choice."
Chakotay had actually been considering Ensign Vlar, but selecting Rollins definitely had its merits. He had the bridge experience Vlar lacked. "And the Doctor?"
"Lieutenant Nakano," Neelix said confidently. "Yuko might not have the Starfleet training, but who could doubt her after all that she went through during the guerrilla warfare in the Demilitarized Zone with the Maquis?" He waved aside what Chakotay presumed were any doubts that might be raised about Nakano's fitness for the position. "And of course, Commander Tuvok will be first officer "
At the mention of Tuvok, the knot in Chakotay's stomach suddenly cinched tight, prompting a wince. He would have to deal with Tuvok; he hoped, however, to postpone the inevitable confrontation as long as possible. He had reviewed the Doctor's entries regarding Tuvok's medical condition as well as examined the brief log entry Janeway had made regarding Tuvok's reckless behavior. Intellectually, he understood that both the captain and the Doctor had concluded that Tuvok had been under the influence of forces beyond his control, literally "possessed" with some kind of alien transformative agent, and that there would be no disciplinary action imposed on him beyond a notation of the incident in his file. Telling his gut to accept Tuvok's exoneration was another matter. While he had too much trust in Kathryn's judgment to second-guess her decision regarding Tuvok, that didn't mean he had to agree with it.
Hindsight was always clearer than foresight, and one of the damnably annoying aspects of this space-time continuum was that you didn't have the luxury of going back and changing your mistakes. In this case, hindsight proved, without dispute, that Tuvok's choices (alien influence or not) had initiated a series of events that Voyager was not likely to recover from anytime soon. Chakotay's innate sense of fairness required that someone, namely Tuvok, should be held accountable. Noting that Neelix was waiting expectantly for him to speak, Chakotay said, "I find it interesting that the crew would assume that Tuvok would be my first officer. Do they trust him after his little field trip to Gremadia?"
Neelix scrutinized him, his forehead wrinkled. "No one else is as qualified. He's the senior officer behind you," he said matter-of-factly.
A sudden notion to play devil's advocate possessed him. "These are extraordinary circumstances, Neelix. Perhaps I should choose someone more unconventional, say Lieutenant Torres or Seven of Nine?" Chakotay shrugged.
"Pshaw," Neelix said, shaking his head and dismissing Chakotay's decision with a hand wave. "While I don't see the Maquis and Starfleet people sitting on opposite sides of the mess hall any longer, there might be some raised eyebrows if two Maquis commanded this ship. And Seven?" Neelix snorted. "She has a strong will to lead, but no clue how to get people to follow her."
Reluctantly, Chakotay had to admit Neelix was correct on all fronts, but he wasn't willing to let the issue go quite yet. "But what about his recent behavior? And by extension, what happened to the captain as a result."
Neelix threaded his fingers together, rested them on his chest, and pondered thoughtfully for a long moment. "You know, Commander," he said gently. "I don't think she'd hold it against Tuvok, so should you?"
Chakotay's gaze wandered over to the stasis chamber as he contemplated Neelix's words. Kathryn loved Tuvok, revered him and trusted him. She would always choose to see the best side of him, and in most cases she'd apply the same standard to anyone else under her command. He took a deep breath and exhaled the same, hoping to release some internal tension, but found his burden unchanged. Forgiveness would have come eventually. It was too soon for Chakotay to say when. Meanwhile, he would put Voyager's needs first.
Neelix followed Chakotay's glance across the room. "She looks so peaceful in there, doesn't she?" he said. "Like she's in a deep sleep, living in dreamland. I just wish she'd wake up."
Such a wish squeezed his chest so tightly that Chakotay lacked the voice to respond. He acknowledged Neelix's words with a nod instead. The two of them stood together, side by side, looking at the captain. A nearly imperceptible touch on his sleeve interrupted his drifting thoughts. He heard the soft shuffle of Neelix padding across the floor; the door hissed open and closed.
Once again, Chakotay was alone with his thoughts.
The Nacene who once had taken the form of Phoebe Janeway settled on the second planet from the yellow star that still warmed Monorha. She, who was accustomed to manipulating every facet of her existence, quivered with outrage; she currently lacked the ability to fix her circumstances or herself, for that matter. Janeway . . . White-hot energy rippled through her plasmatic tentacles. She . . . she . . . hated . . . no, loathed Janeway, and even that word failed to encompass the radiant heat surging through her.
Being forced to use humanoid words to explain what she was experiencing was yet another indignity to add to the humiliation she'd already endured. Lesser creatures had feelings. Biochemical responses and physiological inadequacies defined the lives of lower life-forms, not the Nacene. Janeway had reduced her to this pathetic state! And for what purpose? So that the abominations could traverse the gateway into Exosia?
Eighty thousand years confined in this space-time continuum, learning, growing, and absorbing knowledge had come to naught! Phoebe and her fellow outcasts had been denied their right to be reborn and return home. Her only consolation was that Vivia would now have to deal with the abominations.
Vivia would hate them. Even more than the exiled Nacene.
At least Phoebe wasn't alone in her suffering. The human woman's body lived, but her life force had been drained from her. She would die. Deservedly, thought Phoebe, taking pleasure from the feeling of vindictiveness. But the momentary triumph would not compensate for the devastating consequences she and her fellow outcasts had suffered because of those pathetic, dull creatures from Monorha who had taken their spores. Aided and abetted by Janeway. She wanted them punished, demolished into their subatomic components. Revenge would have to wait, however, until she dealt with a more immediate situation. In their last encounter, Vivia had promised that her armies would come swarming out of Exosia if the gateway were broached.
Phoebe had no reason to doubt the veracity of Vivia's threat.
Thanks to Janeway, Phoebe was hardly in a state to survive such an attack. She recognized, from past experience, that her energy waves had taken on irregular, variable patterns. Consequently, she would have a difficult time sustaining any long-term transformation unless she wanted to risk taking on the transformation permanently. Aiding her fellow outcasts had depleted her far more than she had expected. Such a circumstance hadn't happened in a millennium, but now returning to Gremadia for renewal wasn't possible. Across thousands of lifetimes in more life-forms than those humans could fathom, she had always had the capacity to change herself or her surroundings to suit her. Her consciousness twisted restlessly, seeking a solution to her dilemma. Now, when she needed her abilities more than ever, she was denied.
She gathered her fragmented strength and focused on calling out to her fellow outcasts, bidding them to join her. One by one, they came from across the galaxy. She offered them comfort. They did not have Exosia, but they could find strength together.
We have been divided, she called out. We can unite so that Vivia cannot stop us.
One last time, they would join together and wage war. She would not easily accept defeat. Copyright ©2006 by Paramount Pictures