TBFTGOG – Part 1: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Thomas Riker had never been born. He was a mistake, a transporter accident, a horrible byproduct of the clash of technology and natural energy—the ‘road not taken’ version of William Thomas Riker, the Enterprise’s former executive officer, now captain of the newly christened USS Titan. More than a twin, more than a clone—Tom was Will Riker, at least for the first twenty-six years of his life. Their memories and experiences, their Starfleet training—their very bodies—had been one. Then, during what should have been a by-the-book mission to Nervala IV, William Riker was split into two men, one of them stranded undiscovered and abandoned on the planet for eight long years.

As she re-read his official file, Kathryn Janeway took a long drink of coffee and drummed her fingers on her ready room desk. She had met Will Riker—ever so briefly—at Starfleet Academy, set up on an ill-fated blind date by well-meaning friends. They’d crossed paths on several occasions afterward, first as young officers, later as they made their ways through the ranks—and one final time that didn’t really count in a Q-orchestrated show trial aboard Voyager—and the two had developed a casual passing acquaintance. Riker was an incorrigible flirt, Kathryn quickly learned, and she had always wondered if the twinkle in his eye and the lilt in his voice were offered as generously to every other woman as they had been to her. Not that it had mattered; Will was brash and overconfident—definitely not her type.

Still, the scientist in her had taken great interest in the discovery of Commander Riker’s duplicate on Nervala IV. And she’d admired the solution the newly-found Lieutenant Riker had improvised to his unique situation: this William Thomas Riker would take his middle name as his first, would try to pick up the pieces of the existence he had left behind, and would make no claims on the rank, position, or property of the man he had once been. So Thomas Riker was welcomed back into Starfleet, accepted a post on the USS Gandhi, and tried to get on with his life.

Kathryn didn’t know until after Voyager’s return that Tom Riker eventually left Starfleet to join the Maquis. Two months after her own ship disappeared into the Delta Quadrant, he had shown up on Deep Space 9 impersonating Will. He’d stolen the USS Defiant, tried to attack an Obsidian Order base in the Orias system, and was captured and handed over to the Cardassians in a deal to spare the lives of his crew. The labor camp where he was imprisoned was ultimately attacked and destroyed in the war—but apparently not before Riker and a small group of other Maquis had escaped. Their stolen vessels were last seen heading into the Badlands, damaged but intact.

So, for the second time in her career, Kathryn Janeway would takeVoyager toward the swirling plasma storms in search of a renegade Maquis commander and his crew—once again looking a missing old friend. Only this time, the friend and the rebel leader were one and the same. And she had been sent not to capture her quarry, but to set them free.

And, in another strange twist of fate, the man she had first hunted down over seven years earlier was at her side, no longer a Starfleet traitor but her partner—both in her mission and her life. ‘Ambassador’ Chakotay had already played a critical role in getting key tactical information from the Cardassians; now his job was to make sure his old friends and colleagues surrendered without a fight—something neither he nor Kathryn could easily imagine. Still, they held out some hope that seeing Chakotay and B’Elanna and the other redeemed Maquis would be the proof Riker and his cohorts would need that their long battle with the Cardassians—and the Federation—was finally over.

They hadn’t had much time to prepare for this mission, however, and for the first time since leaving the Delta Quadrant, Kathryn knew she’d be flying by the seat of her pants once again. The thought made her laugh—the last time she’d approached the Badlands, the idea of improvising a tactical plan would have seemed inconceivable. Trained as a scientist, her habit had been to over-prepare, to anticipate the variables and plan for each potential outcome.

She barely remembered what it had been like to have that luxury.

She caught a glimpse of orange in her peripheral vision, and turned her chair to stare out the viewport. It was coming into view now, a swirling mass of ionized gas that had once served as the portal to a future she could never have imagined for herself. It was a strange sensation, seeing it again, just as she had eight years earlier.

Almost without warning, Kathryn found herself overwhelmed by sadness. The last time she’d steered Voyager this way, she remembered, she’d been looking for Tuvok, determined to find out why he’d disappeared—determined to bring him home safely to his family. Of all the things she regretted about her life, her failure to successfully complete that particular mission was among the most painful.

Tuvok, Harry Kim, Megan and Jenny Delaney, Michael Ayala, Pablo Baytart, Tabor Jost…for months while Chakotay was in Auckland, Kathryn would find herself sitting alone in her quarters at the end of a long workday ticking off the names in her mind. With each one would come a flash of a smile, a quick conversation in the corridor, a playful debate about her human recklessness, a wistful conversation about the taste of real apple pie. She felt the loss of Harry and Tuvok most personally—her senior officers had become her next of kin in the Delta Quadrant—but she’d mourned each ensign and crewman just the same.

Chakotay’s return and their mission to Cardassia Prime had been a welcome and necessary distraction. But now, taking Voyager back to where it had all begun…part of her wished she could send a message to her younger self, warn her about Seska and the Vidiians, to anticipate their run-ins with the Borg, to avoid the Hirogen at all costs.

It was a silly thought. Even if it were possible somehow, she knew in her heart she never could. As painful as their journey had occasionally been, it was also the kind of adventure that had called most of them to Starfleet in the first place. They’d spent seven years pushing themselves against every limitation, forcing themselves to become their most creative, toughest, best selves. And it had forged the kinds of unbreakable bonds that had turned enemies into friends and strangers into family. She wouldn’t have traded one moment of it.

Well, perhaps a few moments. The cost had been unbearably high.

So she promised herself, as she looked out the viewport, to send another letter to John and Mary Kim. To check up on Mike Ayala’s young boys. And to contact T’Pel as soon as she could—to finally arrange to visit Tuvok’s tomb on Vulcan.

She’d do it, she resolved. Just as soon as they’d brought Tom Riker and his friends safely home…

Her ruminations were interrupted by another Tom—her new first officer.“Paris to Janeway,” she heard over the comm.

“Go ahead, Commander,” she said, snapping out of her reverie.

“We’re approaching the Badlands. I’ve called the senior staff to the briefing room.”

She sat her cup down and took one more look at the last known photo of Riker before flicking off the computer display. “On my way,” she said, pushing away from her desk—and pushing her grief at the loss of her old friends out of her mind.

It took her less than fifteen steps to reach the bridge, and she watched the unmistakable russet swirl of plasma and ions growing larger in the viewscreen as she entered. “I don’t know about you,” Paris said as she joined him on the middeck, “but I’m having a strange sense of déjà vu.” He cocked a sideways smile.

“If we end up in the Delta Quadrant again, I’m not sure Starfleet will give me another shot at this,” she threw back to him. Somehow having Tom Paris at her side eight hours a day had honed her already sharp sense of humor—and instantly put her in a better mood.

“Bite your tongue,” he said as he followed her toward the conference room, “I remember what happened to your first First Officer.” Then he tossed out over his shoulder, “Ensign Lessing, you have the bridge.” As they walked, Kathryn caught a glimpse of Vorik waiting for the command team to pass by before joining them.

Even though they’d had at least two dozen staff meetings sinceVoyager’s relaunch and deployment to Cardassia Prime, it was still a bit of shock to see her senior staff—this staff—gather around the briefing room table. Tom—with his new pip—taking what had usually been Tuvok’s seat to her left. Seven and B’Elanna arriving together, talking amicably, both in their new-issue gray and black Starfleet uniforms, both with the shiny pips of commissioned officers. The Doctor—Doctor Zimmerman now—without his mobile emitter, which was made unnecessary by the newly installed holoprojectors on Decks 1 through 6. And Chakotay, wearing his Maquis leathers and looking much like he had the first time she’d seen him—except for a few extra lines on his handsome face.

As for Neelix…well, Neelix arrived late as usual, wearing one of his many garish Talaxian tunics. Thank goodness there were some constants in the universe, Kathryn thought to herself.

But it was the brand new faces at the table that were the most jarring: Lieutenants Vorik and Lang, her new Operations and Tactical Officers, seemed horribly out of place there. Janeway wondered how long it would take for the newness—the wrongness—of it all to wear off. She forced the feeling aside. “Report.”

Tom leaned in and put his elbows on the table. “I don’t think it will be a huge surprise that our normal sensor sweeps aren’t picking up anything. Most of the known Class M planetoids are deep inside the Badlands. The plasma storms are masking any lifesigns that might be there. The astrometric sensors are more powerful, but…”

Seven—Ensign Hansen according to her new Starfleet personnel file—jumped in to finish the sentence. “…but, the ambient ion radiation is reflecting their signal back to us. We are getting trace lifesigns, but there is no way to tell if they are humanoid.”

“True. They could be canine, or bovine, or feline—” Vorik interjected, seeming to feel the need to catalogue every possible genus of animal the ship’s sensors might detect. Kathryn watched as Tom cleared his throat and made a slashing motion across his neck. She admired Paris’s desire to save the young Vulcan—and the rest of them—from Vorik’s tendency to explain the obvious.

Tom leaned back and swiveled his chair toward her. “In any case, Captain, we’re going to need a close-in survey if we’re going to find them. Assuming, of course, they’re alive at all.”

She nodded. “Agreed. How near to each planet’s surface will we have to bring Voyager in order to make an accurate assessment?”

A moment passed before anyone answered. Kathryn was almost surprised when it was Lang’s voice she heard. “Too close,” the young woman said, a hint of nervousness in her tone. “We would practically have to dip into the atmosphere.”

Janeway nodded. “Yes, Lieutenant, we would. But Voyager was designed specifically for maneuvering through this sort of environment. We shouldn’t have a problem as long as—”

This time it was Vorik who spoke up. “If I may say so, Captain, it would be an inefficient use of resources when there is another more logical alternative.”

Kathryn cocked her head to the side, then turned to look at Tom. He avoided her gaze, staring intently at Vorik as if he were psychically pulling the strings of a Vulcan marionette—and Janeway quickly knew without asking what was going on. From the expression on Paris’s face, it now seemed clear that her first officer was having his least experienced colleagues do his dirty work for him. B’Elanna and Seven were obviously aware of the plot—their expressions gave them away—but they seemed less than interested in interceding on his behalf. Just as she was about to force Tom to come clean with his plan, Kathryn heard a baritone voice from her right.

“Sounds like a job for the Delta Flyer, don’t you think, Commander Paris?” Chakotay’s barely concealed grin was followed by the slightest tap of his shoe against her boot under the table.

Tom slowly began to nod his head. “You know,” he said, “you have a point. The Flyer would be much more maneuverable. We could cover more ground in a shorter period of time. Though, in this kind of environment, we would need a strong pilot at the helm. Someone with experience navigating the plasma storms.”

Of course, there were only two men aboard Voyager who fit that description—and one of them was no longer a Starfleet officer. Janeway knew, at that moment, that somewhere aboard the ship, whether around the briefing room table, at a duty station in engineering, or in the bowels of the exhaust manifold maintenance room, someone onVoyager was about to win the pool. Kathryn hadn’t been allowed to enter it, herself, since the decision would ultimately be hers. But it was a barely concealed secret that Voyager’s first officer was chafing at his move from the conn to the middeck. He had gone so far as to suggest that they put off naming a chief helmsman until Noah Lessing, their alpha shift pilot, and Ensign Wang, a talented-but-undisciplined recruit fresh from the Academy, could be put through their paces in a fair test of each man’s skills. Until then, Paris had pointed out, he could speak to any navigational challenges their missions might pose.

Kathryn had agreed—mostly because he was right. But Tom missed flying, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before there was some ‘urgent’ need to dust off the Delta Flyer for an away mission tailor-made for his skills.

Janeway nodded, trying not to smile. “Agreed. It’s your mission, Tom. Assemble an away team. And use caution that you’re not detected. We don’t know how much of their ships’ equipment Riker and his crew were able to salvage, and I’d prefer not to lose the element of surprise.”

Paris was barely suppressing a grin. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, “Vorik, Seven, B’Elanna—you’re with me.”

Kathryn dismissed her crew and watched as Tom almost bounded out of the room. She and Chakotay waited for the others to follow. “That was charitable of you,” she said once they were alone, “not making Tom come right out and ask for this assignment.”

Chakotay smiled. “Not exactly,” he admitted, smiling. “I just won 147 replicator rations.”

She shook her head, grinning. “We’re not in the Delta Quadrant any more—there are no more rations!”

“Old habits die hard,” he said, before softening his expression and moving to look out the large viewport behind them. The swirling storms of the Badlands cast a strange, amber glow on his face, and Kathryn wondered why his mood had suddenly turned.

In the privacy of the empty briefing room, she let her hand gently stroke his arm. “What is it?” she asked.

He turned to look at her for a moment, and forced a half-smile onto his face. “This place,” he said softly, “I lost a lot of friends here, Kathryn. Good people who died at the hands of those monsters I just spent a month helping to save from the consequences of their own greed and arrogance.” He turned back toward the window. “You know, if it weren’t for the Caretaker, I’d have died with them. B’Elanna and I, the others…we would be just another footnote in the history of the Dominion War. It’s humbling.”

Kathryn didn’t know what to say. Instead, she wrapped her arm around his back and leaned against him. After a moment, she pulled away just enough to look up at his face. “They would understand, you know. If Riker and the others are alive, your friends would want us to do whatever it takes to bring them home. You’re doing the right thing.”

Chakotay pulled her back against him and let his lips brush her hair. “We’ll see,” he said softly. “We’ll see…”

~*~

For a man who had once chafed at being confined to a single suite of rooms, Voyager’s chief medical officer was surprisingly happy to be back aboard the small starship. His time traveling the Alpha Quadrant lecturing about his medical breakthroughs had been intellectually stimulating, but he’d begun to miss the crew he’d come to think of as his family—Captain Janeway and the Parises, most especially. Why his goddaughter Miral, whose father had taken to calling her—of all things—“monkey,” had grown to nearly twice her size while he was away!

Of course, he’d missed Seven the most. She’d stayed behind in San Francisco while he was gone, spending her days on McKinley Station assisting with the refit of Voyager, and her evenings reviewing the course material for the Academy equivalency exams with B’Elanna Paris. Strictly a formality, to be sure, but one that had allowed the women to merit an official commission and stay in Starfleet—a fact for which he was now particularly grateful since it allowed them to be working together once again.

His months alone had been unsettling. As he and Seven each discovered, the sentient hologram and the liberated drone were quite the curiosity back on Earth. At times, he’d felt more like a circus sideshow act than a person—an experience he knew from their almost nightly subspace conversations that Seven had shared. He was relieved, at least, that she’d had her Voyager crewmates close by—particularly B’Elanna. For despite their years of personal animosity and their ongoing professional rivalry, the two women had come to an unspoken understanding that, from the outside, could easily have been mistaken for friendship.

Still, the companionship of friends could never take the place of the special bond he and Seven had developed. And, as they left the briefing room and walked down the aft corridor toward the turbolift, the Doctor was suddenly very aware that a new chapter was beginning in all of their lives. Perhaps, now that Voyager was safely home and welcomed back into the Starfleet fold, her crew might be able to have the best of both quadrants, as it were.

“So who was the big winner?” B’Elanna asked as she followed her husband down the hallway. Not surprisingly, Voyager’s new first officer seemed anxious to arrive at his office to begin planning for their away mission.

“Ambassador Chakotay, if I’m not mistaken,” Seven answered. “Though there is a case to be made that he manipulated the outcome in his own favor.”

Tom punched the button for the lift, then turned to face them. “I’m not sure I like having everyone betting on my life like this,” he said as they stepped inside. “Deck 3.”

“Turnabout is fair play, Mister Paris,” the Doctor chided him. “As I recall, you’ve placed regular wagers on the lives of your colleagues—and on matters infinitely more personal than piloting a shuttlecraft.” He subtly reached down and took Seven’s hand as a silent apology for the reminder. In fact, it was one of Paris’s bets about Seven’s ability to have a successful date that had first made the EMH realize the depths of his feelings for his protégé—and that had subsequently derailed their courtship before it had even begun when she found out.

Seven squeezed his fingers gently and he could see a hint of a smile come and go from her face in his peripheral vision.

“Well, those days are over,” Paris said definitively. “Though I’d bet a week’s worth of credits that we find Riker and his friends before nightfall.”

B’Elanna shook her head. “I believe the word ‘irony’ isn’t in Tom’s vocabulary,” she said. “But I’ll take that bet. I think it will be a week, at least.”

“Two days, six hours, and seven minutes,” Vorik chimed in. The lieutenant had been so quiet, the Doctor had almost forgotten he was there.

“Well, I’m ‘betting on the house,’ as it were,” Zimmerman said definitively. “I have a new opera house program I’ve been anxious to try.” He turned to Seven. “Assuming you make it back in time, do you prefer Puccini or Verdi, tonight?”

The doors to the turbolift opened and the away team stepped out into the Deck 3 corridor—with Seven first through the door. “We can discuss it when I return,” she said hesitantly. “I’ll stop by when our mission is complete.”

With that, the doors closed, leaving the Doctor alone in the lift. “Deck 5,” he called out. Then after a moment, “Puccini,” he said confidently. “Definitely the Puccini.”

B’Elanna didn’t look back at her friend as the lift whisked the EMH on his way. “You’re going to have to tell him sooner or later,” she said over her shoulder.

Seven knew it was true. “I will,” she said. “Perhaps tonight.”

Tom was confused. “Tell him what?” he asked, as he punched in the access code for his office door.

“That Seven hates opera—almost as much as you do,” B’Elanna said, laughing. Then they stepped inside and got to work on their plan.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris had been waiting for this moment for weeks. He’d known, as soon as he’d seen their orders, that having Voyager running low sweeps of each rock in the Badlands would be a bad idea. Taking the Delta Flyer made much more sense—and his unspoken agreement with Captain Janeway dictated that he had ‘right of first refusal’ of any away missions requiring the craft he’d designed. Still, Tom knew Kathryn was worried about his ability to adjust to his new position, and he was anxious to reassure her. He had known what he was giving up when he agreed to be Voyager’s first officer. He was ready to live with the consequences of that decision.

So it had to be someone else’s idea.

B’Elanna was too obvious. Seven, too immutable. Instead, Tom had worked on Voyager’s youngest—and therefore most impressionable—senior officers, making his case so subtly that they’d come to believe it was their own idea. When it came down to it, though, Lang was too intimidated to articulate her point, and Vorik’s observation was so obtuse that it almost missed the mark.

Chakotay to the rescue. Tom made a mental note to thank his friend as soon as they got back.

He adjusted his approach trajectory and began a controlled dive. “Within scanning range…now,” he said as he watched his proximity sensors.

“Beginning surface sweep,” Vorik answered flatly. “Deflector power to maximum. I am masking our energy signature.”

Paris’s team had very strict orders to track down and verify the status of the missing Maquis, but to take no other action on their own. The last thing they needed was to provoke the very people they were there to rescue. Now, six hours into their survey, they’d hit only one minor snag—an electromagnetic tendril had struck their forward sensor array. TheFlyer’s long-range sensors had been overloaded by the energy surge and were offline until B’Elanna and Seven could repair them.

“Any word from our pit crew?” Tom asked as he banked to complete the elliptical grid search. As long as the women were working below, he’d have to keep the Flyer’s inertial dampers at full—infinitely less fun than tossing Vorik around with each maneuver.

“No, sir. The indicator shows red and power readings are still minimal,” the young Vulcan answered.

It hadn’t mattered much in the thick of the Badlands where ion interference made their sensors useless anyway. But in a moment, Tom knew, they would be reaching a calmer ‘eye’ within the swirling storm: eight hundred million kilometers, give or take a few, of virtually normal space. With functioning Borg-enhanced sensors, they would have been able to scan the entire area without so much as a fly-by. As it was, they’d have to continue their close-range reconnaissance of the habitable planetoids, each lined up like a cadet review inside the Belt.

The Terikof Belt, Chakotay had named it in honor of the Liberty’s navigator, a short intense man with a big nose and no discernable sense of humor. Tom had been with them at the time, during his short stint as a mercenary for the Maquis. As he recalled, there were fifteen planetoids that ran from the edge of the plasma field, then out into the clearing. Eight were capable of sustaining humanoid life, and Paris had been ticking them off in sequence—so far finding nothing.

It would take a few seconds before the computers would tell them if their shut-out was about to end. Not that Tom expected there to be any real news—at least not on the inhospitable rock below them. He had read and reread the intelligence information Chakotay had gathered from the Cardassians, and his money was on one of the larger Class M bodies on the Belt’s interior. By all accounts, at least two and maybe all three of Riker’s ships had been badly damaged, and would have been hard enough to maneuver under the best of circumstances. Tom suspected that, if given a choice, they’d have chosen to set down where both their landing and long-term survival chances were the strongest. That’s what he would have done—what any decent pilot would have chosen—and everything he’d heard about both Tom and Will Riker said the men were excellent pilots who loved to fly.

Not that either of them had chosen to make a career out of it. With state-of-the-art navigation systems on all its ships, Starfleet didn’t place too high a value on any one man’s individual piloting skill. If you wanted to advance, you did your helm rotation and moved onward and upward—or so Admiral Paris had drilled into his only son his whole life. Which is exactly what Will Riker had done—with great success, especially as the first officer of the fleet’s flagship.

Tom wondered if he’d ever feel more like a first officer than a pilot. ‘Not today,’ he decided.

“Completing equatorial orbit,” he said, mostly for the benefit of the flight recorder as he tried to get his mind back on his work. As he banked up and out of the atmosphere, he suddenly had to evade a wave of ion turbulence that appeared out of nowhere on his short-range sensors—and Tom realized he should probably just appreciate this time in the Flyer and keep his mind on his mission. This was no time to second-guess his career choices.

“Three down,” he called out to Vorik at tactical.

“Five to go,” the young man deadpanned back to him, slowly but surely learning his first officer’s vernacular. The stoic Vulcan was getting more comfortable in his new role, not only as Voyager’s operations officer, but as straight man to Paris’s comic. Vorik was living proof that a devotion to logic didn’t preclude a decent sense of humor, and—against all odds, considering their history—Tom was coming to appreciate his young friend’s company.

Still, this kind of gonzo flying made him miss more than just his old job, and Tom pretended just for a second that it was Harry Kim sitting behind him…

Forcing himself to concentrate on the task at hand, he snuck a quick look at the data from the short-range sensors, even though he knew he’d get a detailed verbal report a moment later. Vorik didn’t disappoint him. “No humanoid lifesigns. Evidence of scattered debris in the southern hemisphere, however it is inconsistent with the missing Cardassian vessels. Intelligence data records a Maquis/Jem’Hadar battle in this vicinity on Stardate 50932.5. It is a reasonable hypothesis that this debris is a result of that encounter.”

“Ah, the Jem’Hadar,” Tom quipped. “Walking, talking salamanders. And I thought the Malon were ugly.”

“They were,” B’Elanna chimed in as she appeared from the rear maintenance bay. “And they smelled like month-old gym socks.” She had only caught the last few words of her husband’s wisecrack. “Don’t tell me: all this plasma is really just vented waste from a stray Malon freighter? The Badlands were their first dumping ground?” She smiled as she walked toward them.

Vorik catalogued his sensor readings as he answered her. “The actual subjects at hand were the Jem’Hadar,” he felt compelled to correct her, “and their resemblance to salamanders, which, if I may point out, is none. Bearded dragons, perhaps, or certain species of the western chuckwalla.”

“Whatever,” Tom tossed back. “I’m not sorry we were out of town when the lizards came to visit.”

B’Elanna could feel her mood instantly nosedive. “Those ‘lizards’ killed a few thousand Maquis, and it’s just dumb luck that I wasn’t one of them,” she blurted out. She forced herself to take a deep breath then sat down at the engineering station.

Tom had just begun a steep dive down toward their next survey target, a familiar looking Class M planet, but he wished he could stop for a moment to glance back at his wife, to apologize for his insensitivity. “B’Elanna…”

“Forget it,” she said, knowing she had overreacted to what had been an innocent comment—and suddenly distracted by the view of the planetoid beneath them. “Tom, is that…?”

“Yep. Unless someone rearranged the Belt since the last time we dropped by.”

Vorik looked up at her, puzzled. “I understand it’s common place for married couples to finish each other’s sentences,” he said matter-of-factly. “But if your observations are related to our mission, perhaps verbalizing your entire thought would be more appropriate.”

Tom snickered—though from the sound of her sigh, he assumed his wife wasn’t amused. “B’Elanna and I have been here before, Vorik,” he said as he flattened out their decent and began his elliptical sweeps. “Back in our outlaw Maquis days.”

B’Elanna smiled, enjoying hearing Tom refer to himself as a Maquis. “And, while I wouldn’t want to live on it, this planet can definitely sustain a humanoid colony,” she added. “I’d watch those sensor readings if I were you, Vorik.” Which reminded her why she had come forward. “Torres to Seven, I’m ready to test it.”

‘Acknowledged,’ Seven’s disembodied voice answered over the comm.

B’Elanna entered the initialization sequence for the long-range sensors…nothing. “Dammit,” she muttered before slapping her commbadge again, “No good, Seven. It looks like the secondary relay still isn’t getting enough power.”

It only annoyed her a little that Seven never seemed to be bothered by their setbacks. ‘Confirmed,’ B’Elanna heard her say evenly. ‘We may be unable to repair the problem without access to the diagnostic computers in the shuttlebay.’

Seven’s Vulcan-like need to point out what was crystal clear to everyone was also starting to wear on B’Elanna’s nerves. Before she could answer, however, she was distracted by a strident tone in Vorik’s voice.

“Commander, I’m picking up an anomalous energy signature from the surface. No humanoid lifesigns—and no trace of the Cardassian vessels… However, there is definitely something down there.”

Tom adjusted his heading to match the coordinates Vorik had automatically fed to his navigational computer. “Forget about the sensors for now, Seven,” he said, activating the comm,  “I need you up here.” He barely registered her acknowledgement as he alternated looking between the tactical display and the viewport. There was something familiar about that energy signature…

“B’Elanna,” he finally said, “are you reading this? A wave pattern on the low end of the EM spectrum?”

She nodded, even though Tom couldn’t see her. Instantly, she knew what he was thinking—though it made no sense. “Yes. But how can that be possible?”

Tom just grinned as he adjusted his course. “Maquis ingenuity—with some better-late-than-never help from your mother’s side of the family.” He heard the hiss of the maintenance bay hatch opening then closing. “Seven, see if you can’t boost the short-range sensors and direct them toward the coordinates Vorik is scanning.”

“Aye-aye,” he heard her say. After a moment, and the sound of some lightening-fast data input, “I’m reading a fluctuating energy signature and a characteristic displacement wave.”

“Characteristic of what? If you don’t mind my asking,” Vorik wondered, sounding mildly annoyed that he seemed to be the only one who didn’t understand the significance of whatever the others were seeing.

B’Elanna answered his question. “Characteristic of outdated Klingon cloaking technology,” she said with a sigh.

Tom smiled. “Starfleet intelligence reports said the Klingons supplied the Maquis with a few hundred cloaking devices in the final days of the resistance. I think we just may have hit the jackpot. Vorik, launch the multi-spatial probe toward Voyager’s coordinates and activate its homing beacon. Send the sensor data and—” Before he could finish the order, an explosion rocked the port side of the Flyer. “What the hell was that?!” he asked.

Seven answered before Vorik could. “We’ve struck a photonic mine,” she called out. “We’re venting plasma.”

B’Elanna was stunned. “A mine? Why didn’t we detect it?!” she was already starting a damage assessment—and she didn’t like what she saw.

Tom struggled to regain helm control. “If they can cloak three transport ships, I guess cloaking a few mines was a piece of cake.” Paris compensated and tried to level their flight. It was no use. “We’re going down,” he said matter-of-factly. “Vorik launch that beacon. And warn the captain that the atmosphere is mined!”

“Acknowledged,” he heard, with the clipped calm of an anxious Vulcan.

It was all Tom could do to keep the Flyer in controlled flight. “B’Elanna, I need port thrusters now or I might not be able to pull out of this spiral.”

Her fingers were flying over her console. “Try it again!” she shouted back to him.

The helm was still sluggish, but at least he could make a halting turn. The green forested surface of the planet was hurrying toward them out the viewport as Tom finessed the breaking thrusters. “Hang on, everybody. We’re coming in fast and hard!”

A loud bang, a shower of sparks, and the detached realization that he’d been hit in the face were the last sensations Paris felt as he quickly lost consciousness…

~*~*~*~*~

It was another hot-as-hell day—which Tom Riker knew from first-hand experience; he’d been a prisoner in Cardassia’s versions of hell for more time than he cared to remember. And even though he realized he’d miss the heat come the stinging cold of night, there were times in the middle of the afternoon when he wondered how he’d get through another day.

Maybe he was just getting old. Leading a rebellion was probably best left to the young. Not that there was anyone left in the neighborhood to rebel against.

As he usually did at this point on his patrol, he took off his tattered t-shirt and dipped it into the cool stream before gently wringing out the excess water and slipping it on again—hoping each time that the threadbare fabric didn’t just disintegrate in his hands. If the damn Cardie shuttles had been equipped with working replicators, he would have just made himself a new one a long time ago. Probably for the best, though: what little energy reserves they had were needed to hide the colony from passing sensors.

Grateful to feel the relief of the wet shirt on his back, he headed off along his daily rounds. The price of his people’s survival was eternal vigilance, he knew. Even when the younger Maquis—Gieszl and Roberto especially—tried to convince him that the cloaks were a waste of power, he’d insisted. Someone would come looking for them one day, he believed—whether after eight months or eight years. The only unanswered question in his mind: would they be friend or foe.

As he also did every day, he wondered how the War was going—if the Federation brass had lived to regret their deal with the devil. The rumors had been flying fast and furiously around the prison on Quinor VII—not just the whispered torments of their bastard jailers, but stories from the occasional Cardassian turncoat—that their fight over the colonies had exploded into a full-scale galactic war. Some of the tales were apocryphal: a stealth attack on San Francisco, the Klingons declaring war on the Federation, shape-shifting imposters infiltrating Starfleet. Others, however…others seemed all too possible.

He had been in the labor camp on Lazon II when he first heard the rumors: Jem’Hadar goons were systematically hunting down and murdering the Maquis—while the Federation turned a blind eye to it all. At first, Riker hadn’t believed it; he’d always expected deep down that Starfleet would recognize the unconscionable mistake it had made and help the settlers in their fight. He wanted to believe the rumors were all lies—just Cardie tricks to try and break the spirits of the defiant colonists and Federation expatriates who were a captive audience for their mind games.

But soon he and his fellow inmates were moved to an antiquated prison on Quinor; the Cardassian government seemingly unconcerned that the less secure facility—so close to the Badlands—was a much easier target for staging a prison break. Clearly they weren’t worried anymore about a Maquis raid.

Maybe it was all true, he’d begun to believe then. Maybe no one was left to come to their rescue.

So Tom had decided to stop waiting, and exploited the first opportunity he could to make a run for it—or to die trying. No one was more amazed than he was when they’d actually gotten away. Even more surprising—that the three broken-down runabouts they’d stolen had survived their trip through the plasma storms of the Badlands without getting vaporized. Their luck ran out just as their journey did, however, when they struck a series of cloaked Klingon mines in orbit around their final destination. Tom was grateful they’d been able to land the old rust buckets, even though it was immediately obvious that they’d never take off again.

He’d named the planet Deanna, and began making a new life for himself—again.

That was over four years ago—or was it five?—without a single sign of Cardassian, Federation, or Dominion life since. Years without so much as a clue as to what was going on in the galaxy around them.

Still, he thought about it every day as he walked the tropical heat of the Deannan afternoon.

He came up on the ninth boundary marker and strained to read the small print on its display gauge—which was complicated by more than just his failing eyesight since the alphanumerics were in Klingon. As he suspected, the power cell was running dangerously low. Three months—six at most—and the cloak would fail. Tipping his head back, Tom looked up into the cloudless sky and wondered if maybe Roberto and the others were right: maybe he was wasting precious energy trying to hide them from an enemy that would never come. Maybe he should just—

His thoughts were interrupted by a bright flash in the northern sky. Three seconds later he heard a faint, low rumble and saw a corkscrew spiral of plasma that soon flattened out into a concave arc. It took him a moment to realize what he was watching: a small scout ship tumbling toward the forested glade no more than a half-kilometer from where he stood.

Well, he mused, maybe the answers to years of questions had finally arrived.

The long run back to base had winded him, despite the adrenaline rush of anticipation. He sucked in a deep breath before calling out to the farming detail working in the south field. “Roberto! Sara!” The two came running and he motioned them to follow him up the ramp and into the Jolly Roger’s galley. He took a quick swig of leftover water from a cup on the counter, then headed to the weapons locker.

“Tom, what the hell…?” Gieszl had come from the kitchen. From the smell of things, she’d just started lunch.

“Arm yourself and see if any of those tricorders still work,” Riker said as he grabbed a rifle and checked it for power. He heard footsteps on the ramp and turned to throw phaser rifles into his startled friends’ hands. “Roberto, go down to the mill and get as many people as you can find. We’ve got company!”

Roberto Adame was a head shorter than Riker, with long dark hair he’d recently taken to braiding down his back. “What do you mean, ‘company’?” he asked nervously. “Cardies?”

Tom tucked a hand phaser into his belt. “I don’t know,” he answered, reaching for the tricorder Gieszl was handing him. He hoped she’d remembered to test it—there was no time to stop and ask. “I saw a ship crash land by the eastern perimeter. It’s a design I’ve never seen before, so all bets are off.”

He started to head back down the ramp, then his Starfleet training kicked in. He shouted back over his shoulder, “Someone grab a medkit.”

Tom watched Adame head off for the mill to get the others, then motioned for Sara N’Don to follow him. “So,” the older woman said as she paced him, “do you think this is really it?”

He didn’t know how to answer her. “I think we need to be prepared for anything,” he said grimly.

N’Don was about ten years older than Tom—a buxom firebrand of a woman who had spent most of her life in the Federation diplomatic corps. The daughter of a Kalandran engineer and a Betazoid doctor, she’d been a part of Admiral Alynna Nechayev’s negotiating team after the Federation-Cardassian War of the late 2360’s. She’d resigned in protest of the Treaty of 2370—which she’d fought to stop, since she knew in her heart it would mean abandoning innocent colonists to the mercy of a race she considered amoral and untrustworthy. Ten months later, she was running a Maquis cell.

A better strategist than foot soldier, she’d been captured by the Cardassians three months after Riker arrived at Lazon II. As they hurried now across the stone bridge and up the hill toward the crash site, Tom remembered their long nights sitting in adjoining cells talking about anything to keep each other sane: poker, fashion, the finer points of trombone playing. He also remembered her saying that her phaser aim was lousy—which was how she got caught in the first place. ‘Move your ass, Roberto,’ he silently wished. He didn’t want to face a potential ambush alone with someone who shot like a diplomat.

“Lieutenant, wait for me!” he heard from behind him. He didn’t have to turn around to recognize Tal Gieszl’s all-too-distinctive voice. The young Bajoran cook fell in alongside him. “I found the medkit,” she said breathlessly. He noticed, however, that she was unarmed.

“Here,” he said, pulling the hand phaser from his belt. “Don’t accidentally shoot yourself.”

Some days, Tom thought—if the rumors were true—it wouldn’t be much of a mystery why the Maquis had lost…

They were coming up on the glade, and Riker hesitated for a moment. He wanted to give Roberto and the others a chance to catch up to him, but he wasn’t sure he had the time. If anyone in the small craft survived the impact, they’d already had plenty of time to begin scouting around the area. He needed to keep the element of surprise on his side for as long as possible before stepping outside the cloaking grid.

Deciding to risk it, he crossed through the barrier and motioned for the women to circle around on either side of the crash site. He’d take the direct route in and count on them to cover him. They were just about to move when Roberto and three others crested the southern hill and started running toward them. Tom waved his rifle in the general direction of the glade and moved forward.

The hiss of venting drive coolant made it fairly easy to find what they were looking for. When they got within ten meters of the wreck, at least one of their questions was immediately answered: while the ship design was unfamiliar, the markings were very clearly Starfleet. They were still too far away to read the shuttle’s parent designation, but the registration number was clearly visible just below the starboard shield grid: 74656. There was something familiar about the number, but Riker couldn’t quite remember what.

Just then, a blur of movement in the bushes ahead caught his eye. He raised his phaser rifle to his shoulder and waved Adame and the others to come around from the back. When they were in position, he called out. “We have you surrounded. If you come out with your hands on your head, we won’t shoot.”

After a moment, two men—one human and one Vulcan—stumbled forward from the foliage. Their uniforms were different from the ones Riker had last worn, but clearly a Starfleet design. The Vulcan’s hands, as instructed, where laced behind his neck. The other man, however, seemed to have a problem following orders.

“I said put your hands up!” Tom barked angrily. Starfleet or not, he wasn’t about to take any chances with these two.

“And if that were even remotely possible, I’d oblige you,” the man grunted. Riker noticed, then, that the officer’s right arm was cradling his left, and there was a long, bloody gash under his eye. “But unless you have a bone knitter on you, I’m afraid this is as good as I can do.”

Tom kept his phaser steady. “Gieszl,” he called out, never taking his eyes off his prisoners, “check out the commander’s story.”

He waited as she pulled a medical tricorder from the kit on her shoulder and turned it on. She had to smack it twice to get it to power up—then turned to look at him with a puzzled expression. “The readout is in Cardassian,” she said helplessly.

Their human captive chuckled under his breath—then hissed in pain. “Listen,” he said as he winced, “you can put your weapons down, Lieutenant Riker. We’re not here to arrest you. The war is over. We’re here to bring you home.”

Tom flinched at hearing his name—but he didn’t lower his rifle. “Gee, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “I’m sure you’ve planned a big party at the Embarcadero in our honor, too. But considering the way my last encounter with Starfleet turned out, I know you’ll understand if I have a hard time believing that.” Part of him wanted desperately for it to be true, but with all of the stories he’d heard in prison, there was no way he was about to just blindly trust anyone’s intentions.

The two prisoners looked at one another, trying—he suspected—to get their stories straight. “I think if you’ll let me explain—”

Just then, Adame and the others stepped forward from the bushes behind the two prisoners. “There’s no one else here, but it looks like—” Roberto suddenly stopped and began staring at the human Starfleet officer. A strange look came into his eyes, and he began circling the men suspiciously. “Paris…” he said with an edge of both shock and disgust.

There was an equally wary look in the commander’s eyes as the two stared each other down. “Yes…I’m Lieutenant Commander Tom Paris. Do I…know you?” he said hesitantly.

Adame snorted angrily. “I doubt it. But I know you!” With that, his fist came flying back and landed squarely in the center of the taller man’s gut. Paris was doubled over instantly, and dropped to his knees. The Vulcan took a step toward his injured senior officer, and Sara swung the butt of her rifle into the man’s chin, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Just as Riker was sure all hell was about to break loose, he heard a booming female voice from behind him.

“Back off! And drop your weapons!” he heard her say. “My team has you surrounded and…”

She stopped mid-sentence and Riker considered turning around to see why. “Roberto?” he heard her say after a moment, her voice softening. In a second, a slight woman with dark hair blew by him and ran to Adame’s side. “Roberto, how…?!”

“B’Elanna!” Adame gasped—looking very much like he was seeing a ghost. It took him less than a second to begin twirling the woman—who appeared to be part Klingon despite her diminutive height—in the air, his hands wrapped tightly around her waist. “B’Elanna, how can it be you?!”

Before she could answer, the doubled-over Paris groaned and the woman struggled out of her friend’s arms to kneel at the injured man’s side. “Tom, are you okay?”

“I’ve had better days,” he joked, his voice husky with pain. “But your friend’s sucker-punch really took my mind off the throbbing pain in my arm.”

Almost instantly, the woman was on her feet again, her face just inches from Adame’s. “What did you do to him?” she asked, now clearly furious with the man she’d just been embracing.

“B’Elanna, what are you doing here—and with him?!” Roberto was obviously confused—and he seemed to know these people. Riker and the other colonists were completely in the dark.

The Klingon woman took a deep breath, visibly straining to keep her temper in check. As she answered, she looked around at all of them. “The war is over. We were sent here to find you and bring you home.”

Adame seethed. “What home? The Cardies stole my home and killed my family. And the Federation stood by and let them do it. The only home Starfleet wants to take me to is prison.”

She shook her head. “No. Not anymore. The Federation is offering you all full pardons.”

Roberto rolled his eyes and paced a small circle. “Did Paris tell you that? And you believed him?” He then turned to Riker, the hatred dripping from his voice. “He was a mercenary pilot in Chakotay and Seska’s cell—or so they thought. But he was really a Federation spy! He betrayed them! Then he lured the Liberty into a trap and then took off!”

“That’s not true!” the woman shouted back. “Roberto, you have it all wrong!”

He wouldn’t hear it. “B’Elanna, I can’t understand why you’re in that uniform! You hated Starfleet. They’ve brainwashed you!” Adame tried to pull her away from Paris’s side—but she checked Roberto’s arm and threw a right cross that sent him staggering.

Sara and the others turned toward Riker—wondering if they should get involved—but he waved them off. He knew Roberto could take care of himself, and it was clear that this woman could, too.

Rubbing his jaw, Adame took a step back, but wasn’t about to back down. “Why would you believe this espia! He’s the enemy!” Then he lunged again at Paris again.

The woman jumped between the two men as she answered. “Roberto, stop! He’s my husband!”

B’Elanna wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing—telling her old Maquis friend that she was both literally and figuratively in bed with ‘the enemy’. But she couldn’t just stand there and watch him beat the hell out of Tom. Besides, she had just as much right to wonder what was going on: Chakotay’s old friend Sveda had told him that Roberto and all of the other Maquis had been killed years earlier by the Jem’Hadar. Now the sight of his ‘ghost’ had caused her to ruin the one chance she and Seven probably had to regain control of the situation.

She could hear Tom moaning behind her, but didn’t dare turn around to check on him. Instead, she pivoted just enough that she could see the colony’s leader while keeping an eye on Roberto. “You are Lieutenant Thomas Riker?” she asked. The man standing before her was older and thinner than the picture she’d seen in their briefing.

“I’m Tom Riker,” he confirmed. “Would you care to tell me what the hell you’re really doing here?” Then looking around at the empty hills, he said sardonically, “Or should I let your ‘team’ disarm us first, Lieutenant…?”

“Torres,” she said, glad for the moment that she was still using her own last name professionally. B’Elanna made a snap decision to lie—to preserve some minor tactical advantage—and prayed it was the right choice. She also hoped Seven’s hearing was as good as her Borg-enhanced eyesight. “And you’re looking at ‘my team,’” she said matter-of-factly. “I was bluffing. There’s just the three of us. We were on a scouting mission, trying to find evidence of your settlement. Our orders were to locate you and report back to our ship. We weren’t supposed to make contact.”

She motioned toward the wrecked Delta Flyer, its nose buried up to its useless long-range sensors less than a dozen meters away. “As you can see we ran into…a little problem.”

“A cloaked photonic mine, to be precise,” Vorik chimed in from behind her. B’Elanna hoped it wouldn’t take a mind-meld for his Vulcan brain to hear her silent shouts for him to keep his damn mouth shut and leave the talking to her.

She paused for a moment to try to figure out if Riker believed her, to give him a chance to digest her story a piece at a time. After all, the truth was both complex and hard to believe. But his expression was hard to read.

B’Elanna took it as a good sign when he lowered his weapon—even though she was all too aware that the others with him hadn’t followed suit. “Why would Starfleet send you looking for us? For that matter, how did the Federation even know we were here—unless they’re still in league with the Cardassians?”

“I can see how it would look that way,” she said honestly. “But you have to believe me that we’re not. I hate them as much as you do.”

“Why should I believe you?!” Riker barked back at her.

“Because I’m Maquis!” B’Elanna said proudly, realizing that it was—and would always be—true. She stared Riker square in the eye, and tried to stay calm. “Look, I can explain everything if you’ll give me time. Right now, though, I need to get the medkit out of our ship so I can treat my husband’s injuries. His arm is broken, and he may have a concussion.”

She could see Riker’s mind working. “Why didn’t you bring it out with you in the first place?”

B’Elanna wondered why everything they’d done, every choice they’d made, only made them look more suspicious. Sometimes, though, the truth was just the truth. “There wasn’t time. We had a coolant leak we couldn’t seal off. So we powered down, vented the atmosphere, and got the hell out of there until it could dissipate.” She pointed to the tricorder at her waist. “It should be safe now, though. If you’d like, you can check it yourself.” She reached down slowly and removed the scanner from her belt, tossing it to Riker—who caught it with his one free hand.

Of course, it occurred to her afterward that a sweep of the area would probably show a Borg-enhanced human woman hiding in the brush just west of their position. She’d be caught in a lie—potentially putting all of their lives at risk. It was too late to worry about that, though, so Torres just held her ground—and her breath.

Just as she would have expected, Riker flipped open the device and scanned the woods for life signs. B’Elanna was grateful, but more than a little confused when he didn’t seem to find anything. Then he scanned the Flyer’s hull. She could hear the pattern of the beeping change as he fine-tuned the device.

“There are still traces of the gas, so you only have two minutes inside,” he said evenly, his brow still knit in suspicion. “My medic and I will join you.” He motioned to the short brunette standing to Vorik’s left. The Bajoran woman swallowed hard, but did as she was told.

Before she’d move away from her injured husband, though, B’Elanna looked Adame dead in the eye. “You’re my friend, Roberto,” she said firmly, “but if you so much as touch him, I’ll break your arm.” Without tempering her glare, she muttered over her shoulder, “Keep them away from him, Vorik.” Only when she was sure Tom would be safe did she step toward Riker and the Flyer’s open escape hatch.

As they walked across the glade and headed up the ramp, B’Elanna tried to sort through a confusing wave of emotions. Here she was in the Badlands again, surrounded by Maquis—including a living, breathing old friend whose death she had finally allowed herself to grieve—and yet she was the enemy now. She was Starfleet. To top it off, they’d run smack into yet another person who was sure he knew the real truth about Tom Paris—and who was hell-bent on making her husband pay for things he’d never done. Add to all of that her sense of déjà vu about being back on a planet where she’d almost died a decade earlier, her questions about what had happened to Seven, her worries about Tom’s injuries, and the better than 50/50 chance that their damned probe hadn’t survived its trip back to Voyager

The pressure of it all threatened to overwhelm her; she was anxious to have someone else shoulder this responsibility. ‘Hurry up, Chakotay,’ she thought to herself. ‘Hurry up…’

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay pressed the ‘back’ button on his PADD’s touchscreen and reread the last few paragraphs of his latest written report to Federation Headquarters. His negotiations with the Cardassians had been tense, but had gone without a hitch, and the tactical information they had gathered should make finding Riker and his friends a little easier. At the very least, the Delta Flyer’s crew now knew exactly what they were looking for.

Three Hideki Class Cardassian strike fighters-turned inmate transports had been stolen from the Quinor penal colony. While the prison’s records were destroyed in a Dominion attack at the very end of the War, the guards on duty at the time put the number of escaped Maquis at between ten and twenty. The Cardassian government had seemed confused as to why twenty prisoners would risk stealing three transport ships—any one of which could comfortably hold a crew of thirty. It was no mystery to Chakotay, however: Maquis to the end, he was sure Riker and the others hoped to add the shuttles to the rebellion’s fleet. Too bad, he thought; by that time there was no fleet left—no Maquis left—to benefit from their heist.

There was no official manifest of names, no way of knowing who—other than Tom Riker—had even been held in the facility much less escaped from it. He’d heard from Sveda just before Voyager left Earth that Sara N’don, a former high-ranking Federation diplomat—was rumored to be held there, but even that was just speculation.

As he had for so many days since their mission began, Chakotay began to wonder what the hell he was doing, agreeing to act as a diplomatic liaison to the people who had killed his father, decimated his homeworld, and caused such incalculable pain and suffering across three quadrants of the galaxy. Yes, intellectually, he knew the answer to his question, he knew he was making the reasonable, rational choice. For all his years as an ‘angry warrior,’ in his heart he was a man of peace. An explorer. A scientist. For centuries, honorable societies used the end of a war to rebuild trust and hope. Continuing to demonize the ‘enemy’ only made another battle more likely.

Still, it was a war he would be convinced to his dying day could have been avoided if the Federation had only lived by the principles it espoused…

He tossed the PADD on his desk and moved to look out the viewport of what had once been his quarters. It was now a spacious, comfortable office, and he was grateful for the chance to spend so much time in the rooms that had been his home for almost seven years.

During his six months in the Auckland penal colony, he hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on his years in the Delta Quadrant. He knew he needed that time to meditate, to reconcile himself to the new reality of his life, and to redefine the person he had become. Thinking of his time aboard Voyager would have complicated his decision to give up his career in Starfleet—a decision that had been surprisingly difficult.

Slipping back into his rank and position as Commander Chakotay had come all to easily in those early weeks and months aboard Voyager. Their work had seemed noble and pure in a way that life as a Starfleet officer in the Alpha Quadrant hadn’t for quite a while—at least as far as he was concerned. At home, exploration and scientific discovery had begun to take a backseat to politics and posturing. The principles the Federation had lived by for centuries seemed to have faded from black and white to shades of gray, and Chakotay had begun to wonder if any organization or government—no matter how noble its beginnings or how lofty its doctrines—could resist the temptation to secure its power at any cost.

In the Delta Quadrant, though, Kathryn had insisted they live up to the Federation’s ideals—in spirit at the very least. They’d made moral choices even when those choices weren’t expedient. They’d put their trip home on hold whenever there was a chance to witness a stellar phenomenon or make peaceful first contact with a new race. They’d practiced their honorable principles. Those years aboard Voyager had given Chakotay a taste of what Starfleet life once was and could have been—should have been—still. And he now understood all too clearly that he couldn’t bend his own ethics to what the Fleet—and the Federation—had actually become.

No, he’d done the right thing by agreeing to resign.

Being there in his old quarters, however, staring into the Badlands, his lives as a Starfleet officer and as a Maquis rebel—and now as a diplomat riding the line between the two—churned in dissonance inside him. And a question began to nag at the back of his mind: Voyager’s current mission to rescue Riker and the others would last a couple of weeks—a few months at most. After it was over, what then? Kathryn’s entire life had been in service to the Federation. He would never ask her to give that up. Yet he couldn’t exactly see himself living as the civilian spouse of a Starfleet captain—watching Tom Paris do his old job, contributing nothing to life aboard ship. And living planetside, being with Kathryn only when she was home on leave…after having just spent six months away from her, he knew he would never be happy with that kind of arrangement.

And he wondered, not for the first time, what might have happened if Kathryn had agreed to his plan to stay in the Delta Quadrant and colonize the planetoid Tom Paris had named New Phoenix…

His circular train of thought was getting him nowhere. He turned away from the viewport and walked over to his credenza, carefully removing the medicine bundle and Akoonah from the top drawer. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he turned his back to the windows and began the meditation ritual.

“Akoochimoyah, we are…” He hesitated, understanding that, for the first time in a very long while, the prayer was now more metaphorical than true. “We are far away from the sacred places of our grandfathers. Far from the bones of our people…”

~*~

‘Doctor Jonas Zimmerman. Doctor Johann Zimmerman. Doctor Amadeus Zimmerman. Doctor…’

“Excuse me, Doctor.”

The EMH looked up from his very important work—trying to pick a first name that both reflected his interests and sounded good with his newly adopted surname—and found himself face to face with his first potential patient since the start of their mission almost three weeks earlier. She was a new addition to the crew and, without a conscious thought, he accessed the personnel manifest stored in the medical database to recall her name: Kayla Hower. An ensign assigned to engineering beta shift, Ktarian ancestry, graduated at the top of her class, Pareses Squares champion…and apparently an excellent violinist and skilled holoprogrammer. The last two items were of particular interest to the Doctor and he smiled up at the young woman. “Yes, Ensign, what can I do for you?”

She was staring at him in a way that began to make him self-conscious—yet she didn’t say anything. “Has the ‘cat got your tongue’?” he asked after a moment. “Or is your inability to speak a medical condition that requires my services?”

The young woman finally shook her head and laughed nervously. “Excuse me, sir,” she finally said in a soft voice that sounded almost familiar, yet which he couldn’t place. “It’s just that…well, the resemblance is uncanny.”

‘Great,’ the Doctor thought to himself. ‘Not another one…’ During his lecture tour he’d run into a series of cadets who had worked with Mark One EMH’s who had been adapted for menial engineering and maintenance duties. Invariably, as he tried to explain the complex molecular structure of the Vidiian phage, someone would stand up and ask if he also had experience degaussing deuterium manifolds—in some feeble attempt to get a laugh out of the crowd. It was hard enough to take that kind of ignorance and prejudice from strangers, much less new members of his own crew. He tried not to look as annoyed as he felt. “Yes, I know: seen one Mark One, seen them all.”

Hower tilted her head to the side with a questioning look. Then she seemed to blush from her toes to her cranial spikes. “Forgive me, Doctor—no. I was lucky enough to be assigned to the holoprogramming lab at Jupiter Station during my final semester. What I meant to say was that you bear such a strong likeness to your father, Louis Zimmerman. It just caught me by surprise, I suppose.”

“Oh,” he said, once again smiling, “yes, I suppose we do share a ‘family resemblance.’ But I hope you will find that the similarities end at the tips of our noses. I’m afraid my father lacks a decent bedside manner.”

The ensign laughed, and when she did, the EMH immediately knew why she sounded so familiar. While physically she resembled a more mature/less human Naomi Wildman, her voice—the alto resonance, the gentle delivery—could have belonged to Kes.

“You know, you remind me of someone, too,” he said, a wistfulness creeping into his tone before he forced himself to change the subject. “Now, what can I do for you?”

Hower reached behind her and removed a tricorder from her belt. “Actually, I think it’s more a case of what I can do for you,” she said. “Lieutenant Torres seems to think that my engineering and holoprogramming skills make me a good candidate to serve as, well, doctor to the Doctor. I’m here to give you your first check-up of our new tour of duty.”

Before he could decide if he was flattered or offended to have his own personal physician—who was fresh out of the Academy and greener that Vulcan blood—a familiar claxon sounded followed by Lieutenant Lang’s insistent voice, “Red Alert. Doctor Zimmerman and Ambassador Chakotay to the bridge.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said before reflexively reaching for a mobile emitter he no longer needed. As he corrected himself, he realized that a red alert at the perimeter of the otherwise peaceful Badlands most likely meant that Seven and the others had run into trouble on their scouting mission.

Was she hurt, he wondered? Was there an accident? It occurred to him, then, that he was experiencing an unusual sense of anxiety. Seven had been on much more dangerous missions in the past—and while he’d always been concerned for her safety, he’d never felt such a sense of panic at the idea of her being in harm’s way before now.

Walking as fast as he could to the turbolift, he realized that dating a crewmate brought with it some serious challenges to one’s professionalism whenever there was a chance that person was in danger. If he and Seven were going to continue to explore a romantic scenario, he’d have to find a way to control himself.

Then he made a mental note to ask Tom Paris how he’d coped with it for so many years…

~*~

“Is that the entire message?” Kathryn asked as she paced in front of the tactical station. Not that she didn’t trust Lang’s ability to play back recorded data from a multi-spatial probe.

“Yes, sir—ma’am—Captain,” Alissa spat out nervously. If she’d had even a spare second to think about it, Kathryn would have thought of how much like a young Harry Kim her new tactical officer could occasionally be. “I have their coordinates,” Lang said, regaining her composure.

“Send it to the helm,” Janeway instructed, just as the lift doors opened.

Chakotay was so rarely on the bridge these days, it was almost incongruous to see him walking toward her. “There’s been an accident,” she said, just as she saw the Doctor enter from the aft corridor.

“What happened?” both men said simultaneously. The EMH looked almost stricken. “Was Seven…?”

“The Flyer struck a photonic mine,” Kathryn answered, simultaneously waiving off the question she knew her chief medical officer was about to ask. “No one was hurt in the explosion, but they were about to attempt a crash landing on one of the Class M planetoids in the Terikof Belt. It looks like we’ll be taking Voyager into the Badlands after all.”

She stepped down to the conn and stood behind Noah Lessing, putting her hand on his shoulder. “You’re relieved, Ensign,” she said, before turning to face Chakotay. “Are you up for a little time travel, Ambassador?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” Chakotay was just as confused as the helmsman seemed to be.

“It just so happens that both my first officer and my best pilot are otherwise occupied,” she answered solemnly. “You’re the only other person aboard who has navigated these plasma storms. I need you to forget for a moment that you ever retired your uniform.”

Chakotay hesitated. This wasn’t the Delta Quadrant. There were regulations about letting a civilian take a duty station on a starship. Still, he knew she was right. Neither Lessing nor Wang were ready for the ion turbulence of the Badlands. “You’re the captain,” he said, letting out the deep breath he’d been holding. Then he slipped into the chair Noah had reluctantly vacated.

Uplinking the coordinates from tactical, he let the computer calculate the shortest route. “Course plotted and laid in,” he said, hoping that the old adage was true about flying a starship being just like riding a bicycle. It had been a while…

Kathryn motioned for the Doctor to take the first officer’s station—just so he’d stop pacing the deck—as she headed for her own seat. “Shields to maximum,” she said confidently. “Engage.”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris flexed his newly knit arm as he paced the floor. He still ached—the colonists had confiscated all of the medkit’s analgesics—but it was a huge improvement over the throbbing pain of the break itself. He’d have to compliment that Bajoran medic on her work—and B’Elanna on her skills as a diplomat.

As the senior officer in charge of their mission, Tom was frustrated that he’d been forced to leave the heavy lifting of their negotiations to someone else. But he knew—especially after their ‘warm’ reception—that B’Elanna was the right person for this particular job. He was anxious to talk to her, though, to see how she was holding up after the shock of finding one of her old Maquis friends alive.

That would have to wait—unless he decided to stage a jailbreak to go looking for her. Which, all things being equal, probably wouldn’t help make the case that he could be trusted.

He sighed loudly, which Vorik seemed to take as an invitation to talk. “I am certain Lieutenant Torres is doing an effective job of explaining the nature of our mission.”

Tom scowled, and wondered—not for the first time that day—if the young telepath had been reading his mind. “I’m sure she is,” he agreed. ‘But that’s my job,’ he thought but didn’t say, ‘and I wish they’d let me do it.’

“Because of your history, you lack a fundamental credibility in the Maquis’ eyes,” Vorik blurted out.

Considering the number of times Tom had had erotic fantasies about his wife while on duty, he was more than a little unnerved by Vorik’s running commentary on his thoughts. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Still…he began making an informal survey of their surroundings, just to get his mind off his current situation.

Of all the ‘prisons’ he’d been in—and there had been more than he cared to admit—the interrogation room of the Cardassian runabout ranked somewhere slightly below average. It was much less comfortable than Voyager’s brig, but a huge improvement over his filthy pilfered crate on Akritiri. A desk, three uncomfortable chairs—and a device he didn’t recognize, but which he feared was some kind of inducement to confess one’s crimes—were the only furnishings. And, perhaps from a lack of use—as well as a lack of power reserves to properly filter the air—every surface was covered with a thick layer of dust.

Tom considered writing a comparative analysis one day: the best and worst of cross-quadrant penal facilities. Maybe some Starfleet cultural anthropologist would help him publish it…

His daydreams were interrupted by the loud clank of metal bolts being thrown; a moment later, B’Elanna and a woman he didn’t recognize were stepping though the door. Tom was optimistic—until he saw Riker and a Bajoran man carrying one of the Flyer’s phaser rifles right behind them.

“You okay?” he said to his wife. “You were gone so long, I was beginning to worry you’d been abducted by the Borg.”

His comment was a non sequitur to their Maquis ‘hosts,’ but B’Elanna understood his meaning. “Nope. No Borg, no cowgirls or Indians, and no sign of Voyager,” she quipped, answering his question about whether she’d seen or heard from Seven, the captain, or Chakotay. “Just a lot of very skeptical Maquis.”

Riker scowled at them. “Can you blame us for being skeptical? You expect us to believe you were trapped in the Delta Quadrant for all those years? That a whole ship full of Maquis joined Starfleet just to hitch a ride back home? And that you conveniently missed the second Cardassian War while you were away?”

“Current historical parlance refers to the conflict as the Dominion War,” Vorik corrected. Tom shot him an evil look, which effectively silenced the young Vulcan.

Riker didn’t even seem to notice. “While I was in prison, I heard stories about shape-shifters infiltrating Starfleet. How do I know you’re not them? That this isn’t some elaborate hoax to get us to betray the other Maquis.”

B’Elanna answered grimly. “Because there are no other Maquis. I told you—we’re all that’s left. Sveda and a few others who were in Federation prisons, the survivors of the Liberty, and you and your friends here. We’re it. And when Chakotay gets here, he’ll find a way to prove it to you.”

“I can’t wait to see him again,” the woman standing with B’Elanna whispered. She was a Trill, maybe sixty years old, with squinty dark eyes and an inviting smile. From the warm expression on B’Elanna’s face, it seemed she’d had another unexpected reunion with a dead friend.

“Neither can I,” Tom blurted out, then tried to explain. “Believe me, this isn’t the way we wanted to make ‘first contact’ with all of you.”

The woman walked toward Paris, suddenly eyeing him as if he were a carcass on a Klingon dinner table. “So,” she said to B’Elanna, “this is him? Funny…I don’t see horns or a forked tail.” Then she smiled warmly at Tom. “From the way Chakotay once described you, I would have expected a Trakian Beast.”

B’Elanna walked over to join them. “Atara Tos, this is my husband, Tom Paris. Atara and I were roommates for a few days right after Chakotay rescued me.”

“Three of the longest days of my life,” the woman joked. “One day you must tell me how you can stand to live with her.” B’Elanna just rolled her eyes.

“Her bark is worse than her bite,” Tom answered, smiling. “Nice to meet you, Atara. We didn’t expect to…meet any of B’Elanna and Chakotay’s old friends on this mission.”

Atara nodded, and her smile faded to a painful grimace—clearly B’Elanna had told her about the reports of the Maquis massacre. “Roberto and I got separated from the rest of our cell during a raid on a Cardassian munitions depot. We were captured not long after we’d heard that Sveda was arrested by Starfleet. I suppose, if what you say is true, she just assumed we were with the others when they were…killed.”

She turned to B’Elanna, and took the engineer’s arms in her hands. “So all of them? Sahreen, Li-Paz…”

B’Elanna just nodded. “Until this morning, I though you and Roberto were dead, too. But it’s all true, Atara. They were…massacred.”

Tos stepped away to try and compose herself, and Riker took her place at B’Elanna’s side. “We don’t know that. We don’t know that any of what you’ve said is true!”

Before they could respond, the young man Tom now knew to be Roberto Adame came running into the room. “The cloaking grid is failing!” he told Riker breathlessly. “The power cells are shutting down in sequence all over the complex. They’re planning some kind of attack!”

Tom forced himself not to look at B’Elanna for fear the knowing look in their eyes would give them away; clearly Seven was doing her part to help Voyager locate the settlement. He only hoped they could find a way to talk themselves out of trouble until the cavalry arrived.

B’Elanna was already one step ahead of him. “Roberto, we’ve been here with you the entire time. Besides, if even one of the cells overloaded, it would probably cause a cascade failure. The grid wouldfail in sequence.”

Paris could see Riker’s internal dialogue playing out behind his eyes. “She may be right,” he finally said. “The boundary marker on the eastern perimeter was almost drained when I checked it this morning. It could have failed on its own…I suppose.”

Atara turned back toward them. “It doesn’t matter—someone will come eventually,” she said sadly. “Whether they’re Starfleet or Cardies in disguise—we can’t hold off a starship.” She walked over to Riker and put her hands on his face in a gesture that was almost maternal. “It’s over.”

Just then, they heard the sound of muted phaser fire from somewhere outside the ship. “Doesn’t sound like it’s over to me,” Riker said angrily, as he, Adame, and the Bajoran took off down the corridor.

“Please, Atara!” B’Elanna called out to her friend who was about to follow the men. “I don’t want to see any more Maquis hurt! If they do something stupid…”

She didn’t have to finish the thought; the woman nodded for them to follow her out the door.

As they ran down the short corridor and up a maintenance ladder, Tom wondered if Voyager had finally arrived…and how the situation had deteriorated into weapons fire so quickly.

His question was answered when they reached the bottom of the ship’s access ramp. The shooting had stopped, and Paris could see the young Bajoran medic who had treated his arm drop a Cardassian hand phaser as she stood over the bodies of three prone figures. One of them was wearing a Starfleet uniform.

“Seven,” he whispered under his breath, before he took off at a full run, B’Elanna and Vorik right behind him.

“Hold your fire,” he heard Riker tell his people.

Seven was laying on her left side, her hand pressed to her right temple. Tom noticed that her left eye was twitching spasmodically, as were the fingers of her left hand. “Seven, it’s Tom, can you hear me?”

He checked her pulse—it was thready and weak. Yet he didn’t see so much as a phaser burn on her.

B’Elanna stood up and turned to Riker. “Where’s our medkit?”

“So you didn’t have a ‘team,’” he said angrily. “How many more of you are there? The truth this time!”

Just as B’Elanna was about to answer, they heard the whine of transporter patterns materializing. In a moment, they were surrounded by an armed contingent of Voyager’s Starfleet and Maquis crew, their phaser rifles pointed in every direction.

“Drop your weapons,” Chakotay shouted out. Reluctantly, the Maquis—most of whom were unarmed—complied. He was about to ask what the hell was going on when he saw Tom Paris kneeling on the ground, frantically treating Seven of Nine.

“Call the Doc and get us to sickbay,” Tom shouted to him. “Now!”

Trying to keep one eye on the stunned Maquis around him, Chakotay slapped his commbadge. “Chakotay to Voyager: medical emergency. Beam Commander Paris and Ensign Hansen directly to sickbay.”

The two figures shimmered and disappeared almost instantly, and Chakotay took a moment to look around him. “B’Elanna, what the hell happened?”

She was obviously shaken up, but didn’t seem to be hurt. “I’m not sure. Vorik, Tom and I were being held inside. I think Seven was trying to rescue us.” Torres turned toward the young Bajoran as she continued. “This one shot her, but I don’t know why.”

Gieszl, the young medic, was trembling. “I…she…she was trying to sabotage the cloak. When Baylin and L’Aponte tried to stop her, she shot them. I fired back…I was only trying to…I didn’t think I even hit her…” She was babbling almost incoherently.

“We can sort all of this out when we’re back on the ship,” Chakotay said, touching his chest once again. “Voyager, beam our guests to the brig—minus their weapons.”

As he waited for his order to be carried out, Chakotay noticed the familiar faces of several old friends—one of whom, a distinguished looking female Trill, winked at him just as she shimmered into her component molecules.

He turned to B’Elanna, stunned. “Was that…?”

“Yes,” she said. “Roberto’s alive, too.”

Chakotay just stood there for a moment, too shocked to speak. Then he slapped his commbadge one last time. “Chakotay to Voyager. Bring us home.”

~*~

The Doctor had been on the bridge when the call came in—and he’d taken the unusual step of transferring his program directly to the sickbay holoprojectors. When he recompiled, he could see Tom Paris activating the diagnostic hood on the surgical table and shouting orders to the young medic at his side. “Ten cc’s trianaline.”

Seven was lying on the table, barely conscious. As he ran to her, the Doctor could see a small red welt forming just over her right eye. “What the hell happened down there?” he demanded to know as he checked her biosigns.

“I’m not sure. I think she got grazed in the forehead by a Cardassian disruptor,” Paris answered as he recalibrated the bed’s diagnostic screen. “She should have a mild headache—instead, it looks like all of her Borg implants are starting to fail. I can’t seem to stop it.”

Doing everything he could to hang onto his professional detachment, Zimmerman reached for a medical tricorder and adjusted its scans for Seven’s unique anatomy. Tom’s assessment was right: Seven’s mechanical components were shutting themselves down in random order. Already, her ocular implant was causing her left eye to blink and water uncontrollably, and he could see new metallic eruptions on her cheek and throat.

They’d seen this kind of damage before. The Doctor knew what it meant. One pass of the tricorder would confirm it…

He hesitated for a moment, not wanting to know, needing just a few more seconds when he could pretend to himself that it wasn’t true…

“Doc,” Tom said as he frantically worked on her, “if the blast damaged her cortical node…”

“I know!” he barked back, angry that Paris had dared to confirm a truth he’d been trying so hard to deny. Then he raised the tricorder and forced himself to look at the readout.

It was true. The node was pulsing erratically. Some kind of electrical short.

He stood up straight and tipped back his head, letting a deep, holographic breath escape from his mouth. He barely noticed as Tom reached over and pulled the tricorder from his hand. “Dammit,” he heard Paris whisper under his breath. “I’m sorry, Doc…”

His sympathy was only fuel for the Doctor’s fire, however. They hadn’t come all this way—survived all they had survived—only to lose Seven to a minor flesh wound. Zimmerman walked to the bed’s control panel and initiated a synaptic shock—just enough, he hoped, to recharge the damaged node.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked, walking toward him.

“Treating my patient,” he answered tersely. As he hurried to the crash cart and searched it for the right hypo, he heard Paris excuse the medic and deactivate the surgical hood.

“What the hell do you think you doing?!” the Doctor demanded. “If you’re not going to assist me, then step aside. You’re relieved!”

Tom grabbed his arm, but Zimmerman pulled away. “Doc, you can’t relieve me. I’m not your medic anymore. I’m your commanding officer…and your friend. And I’m asking you to think about what you’re doing.”

The Doctor tried to push past him, but Paris spun him around, grabbing the hypo from his hand. “This won’t work, Doc. We tried it before. We tried everything…remember?”

Zimmerman closed his eyes—and considered shutting down his auditory subroutines. Anything to block out Paris’s voice.

“Is this how you want her to spend her last few minutes?”

The words stung the Doctor back to some semblance of rationality. “No,” he heard himself mutter.

And he knew Paris was right. Over a year earlier, they’d learned through days of trial and error that there was only one successful treatment for a damaged Borg cortical node: a complete replacement of the faulty component from a live donor. In the Delta Quadrant, surrounded by Borg, there would have been some miniscule chance. But there, in the middle of the Badlands…

Pulling himself together, Zimmerman turned back to the surgical bed and shut off everything except the cardiac monitor. When he took Seven’s fingers into his own, her unaffected human eye opened. “Doctor,” she whispered. “You look…distressed.” Her left hand was reaching up to touch his face, and he grasped it before she could see how badly it trembled.

“I’m fine,” he lied. He took both of her hands into one of his and brushed a stray lock of golden hair from her brow with the other. “Are you in any pain?” he asked.

She took a halting breath. “The discomfort is…manageable,” she answered. “Though my face feels wet.”

He brushed the last of the tears from her now-inactive ocular implant. “Better?” he asked softly.

She nodded, then flinched in pain. Before he could move to help her, Tom Paris appeared from nowhere and pressed a hypo against Seven’s neck. She relaxed almost instantly, and the former medic stepped away to give them some privacy once again.

Zimmerman could hear the sickbay doors swish open, and recognized his captain’s voice. “Seven?” Janeway asked quietly. He didn’t have to hear Paris’s reply.

He also didn’t need the erratic blip of the diagnostic bed to tell that his patient was fading quickly. As a physician, he’d lost friends before. He’d even lost loves—from Freya to his holographic daughter. But Seven was different. In their five years together, she had gone from being a medical challenge to his pet project to his best friend to his soulmate—one of the few organics he’d ever met who believed a hologram could have a soul. Each of them part machine, part sentient being, they were alike in ways that no one else would ever understand. He couldn’t bear the thought of living without her.

But it was inevitable—a fact Seven didn’t seem to realize. “Perhaps we should put off our trip to the opera house for the evening,” she said, fading in and out of consciousness. “Until I have had time to completely recover.”

“Actually,” he whispered, his brow knit and his voice cracking, “I was thinking that…perhaps we should try some Cole Porter instead.”

Another tear appeared, this time in Seven’s human eye. “Or the brothers Gershwin?”

He couldn’t make his vocal subroutines work, so he nodded in agreement.

The look on her face suddenly changed. “You’ll contact Icheb,” she muttered. “And Naomi Wildman…” She seemed to be struggling to breathe.

“Of course,” the Doctor said, barely processing the flood of emotions that threatened to overwhelm his program.

It took all of her energy, but she freed her hand from his and brushed her fingers across his cheek. “Do you remember the first song you ever taught me to sing?” It was a non-sequitur of a question—not uncommon in the last moments before death.

“Yes.” Like every other event in his life, the memory was a permanent part of his program. This one was special, however: he could still recall the exact stardate, what she’d been wearing, where she’d been standing in the cargo bay…and the ambient temperature of the room, which had seemed to rise as he heard her clear, perfect pitch for the first time. It was the very first moment he’d realized he was falling in love with his pupil.

“You are,” she paused for a breath, “you have been…my sunshine.”

His chin quivered as he took her hand from his cheek and kissed it, then he leaned over and gently kissed her lips. When he pulled away, he could see that the light had left her eyes. She was dead.

He was vaguely aware of Captain Janeway’s soft gasp and stifled sob—and of Tom’s turning off the cardiac monitor as it began its steady hum, then gently touching his shoulder. He stood there for a moment, wondering how a day that had begun so insignificantly had ended like this—with the unraveling of his entire world.

“Computer,” he said, suddenly having the overwhelming urge to stop the pain he felt beginning to overtake him. “Deactivate the EMH.” And he was gone.

~*~*~*~*~

The news of Seven’s death had spread quickly throughout the crew. Unfortunately, with a few dozen angry Maquis in Voyager’s brig, Kathryn hadn’t had the luxury of grieving her lost friend, or even planning a memorial service. Instead, the ship stayed in orbit around the colony while B’Elanna salvaged the Delta Flyer and evaluated the Maquis’ Klingon cloaking technology—and while Tom oversaw Seven’s autopsy in the Doctor’s absence.

She and Tom had discussed it, and agreed to leave the EMH offline for the moment—or until a medical emergency made it necessary to reactivate him. They both had vivid memories of how his program once degraded after the very emotional loss of one of his patients, and—while this situation was totally different—they didn’t want to risk reactivating him until they had the time and resources to devote to seeing him safely through his loss.

Besides, they hoped they were sparing him some measure of the helplessness and grief they now felt. Kathryn almost envied a hologram’s ability to disengage so totally from the reality of the organic world. It was a luxury she didn’t have.

Slipping into the cold comfort of her duty, she sat behind her ready room desk and steeled herself for her guest to arrive. Right on time, the announcer sounded. “Come,” she said.

The doors opened to reveal a thin, tanned, older version of the man she’d known as William Riker standing with Chakotay. The men were followed into the room by an armed security detail. “Kathryn Janeway,” Riker said, a look of recognition flashing into his eyes. “Lovely as ever—and captain of the legendary Voyager. Or is it the Flying Dutchman?”

She wasn’t in the mood to be charmed—or condescended to. “I can assure you, Mister Riker, this isn’t a ghost ship. Nor are we agents of the Cardassian government nor shape shifters nor figments of your imagination.” She motioned for the men to take a seat, which—after Riker’s reluctant pause—they did. Then she excused the security guards.

“You’ll forgive me, Captain, if it’s difficult for me to believe that you were sent to ‘rescue’ me and my friends. Not while we sit here on a ship that was built specifically to track my people down.” He was smiling as he spoke, but his eyes were steel. “I find it interesting that you seem to be the person Starfleet calls every time they go hunting Maquis.”

Kathryn’s commitment to diplomacy was wearing thin; she had no patience for any of this. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not interested in your analysis of my motives. My crew and I were given this mission because we’ve had some experience in integrating former Maquis back into Federation society. Which is what we were sent here to do.”

Riker snorted. “Yes, so I’ve been hearing from the Ambassador: how you were all kidnapped and dropped on the other side of the galaxy. Amazing, isn’t it, that you were able to make a seventy-year journey home in one tenth of that time.” His skepticism was palpable as he turned to Chakotay. “And did you receive the same warm reception, Ambassador, when she apprehended you? Did your ‘welcome’ include confinement to Voyager’s brig?”

Chakotay could see that Kathryn was on the verge of losing her temper—so he did everything possible to hang onto his. “No. But then my crew hadn’t just shot and killed one of her officers.”

“That was an accident,” Riker said, suddenly losing his edge of bravado. “I know Tal Gieszl—in addition to being a terrible shot, she’s a pacifist. I’m sure she didn’t mean to injure your ensign much less kill her.”

“Nevertheless,” Kathryn said, “we were forced to take measures to protect our people.”

“I understand,” Riker said, reluctantly. “So, what now?”

A look passed between Kathryn and Chakotay. She nodded to him, and he tapped his commbadge. “Mister Neelix, report to the captain’s ready room.” Then he turned back to Riker. “That depends on you and the rest of the Maquis—and exactly what it will take to convince you that we’re sincere.”

Chakotay could see the deliberations going on behind the man’s eyes—to trust or not to trust Starfleet officers he’d come to believe were his enemies—and he understood the dilemma all too well. He’d once had only a split second to make the same choice. He’d trusted his instincts—and Kathryn Janeway. History had proven him right. But he couldn’t just assume Riker would make the same choice.

Chakotay did know enough about Riker’s history and psychological profile to believe that, while he could be a bit of a lose cannon, Thomas was first and foremost a reasonable, honorable man. A man who seemed to be giving serious consideration to their question. “I suppose if there was some way for you to prove that what you say is true. I mean, standing in my shoes, you’ll have to admit that…”

Before he could finish the thought, the door chirped and Janeway called out for it to open. “You sent for me, Captain, Ambassador?” Neelix said as he walked in.

The look on Riker’s face as he stared into the mottled skin and flaming orange Mohawk-like hair of the man in front of him could only be described as dumbstruck. Chakotay pretended he didn’t notice. “Neelix, I’d like you to meet Thomas Riker.” Then turning to face the former lieutenant, “This is Ambassador Neelix. He’s been arranging for your accommodations.”

Always reliable, Neelix immediately slipped into the role of cordial host. “A pleasure to meet you, Mister Riker!” He extended his hand enthusiastically.

After a moment of skepticism, Riker returned the gesture. Neelix pumped their clenched fingers vigorously as their guest located his tongue. “I’m not familiar with your…species, Mister…Neelix?”

“Not at all surprising. I’m one-of-a-kind—at least around here. I’m Talaxian. My homeworld is in—”

“Let me guess,” Riker interjected, “in the Delta Quadrant.”

Kathryn smiled. “Neelix was the first friendly face we met there. He agreed to assist us on our journey home. He became our guide, our cook, our morale officer…and a good friend to the entire crew. He’s now acting as a civilian ambassador for the Federation.”

Riker’s brow furrowed. “You left your homeworld to travel 70,000 light years with a ship full of strangers?” he asked. “Why?”

Neelix took a deep breath, and his smile suddenly reflected a hint of sadness. “Well, it’s a long story—one I would be happy to tell you someday. Let’s just say that, well, there wasn’t really any reason for me to stay behind.”

Chakotay kept his eyes focused on Riker’s as he added, “Neelix lost his entire family in a war—at the hands of a cruel people not all that different from the Cardassians. Over the years, he was a great comfort to the former Maquis on Voyager’s crew. He knew from personal experience what many of them had been through.”

Riker’s face softened. “I’m sorry…about your family,” he said.

Neelix shrugged uncomfortably. “Ambassador Chakotay is being too kind. He and the Captain—everyone—they did more for me than I could ever do in return.” His expression turned uncharacteristically serious—almost protective of his adopted Starfleet family. “These are good people, Mister Riker. I’ve trusted them with my life a hundred times over—and they’ve never once let me down.”

There was a moment of awkward silence before he continued. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty of assigning you and your colleagues quarters on Deck 4. You’ll have limited use of the replicators—though you’re welcome to dine with our crew in the mess hall. And we’ve also arranged for a dedicated subspace channel, if any of you would like to contact your families once we’ve cleared the Badlands.”

“I assume we’ll be under guard—our communications monitored,” Riker asked, testing the limits of his hosts’ generosity.

Kathryn shook her head. “For the moment, we’ve taken some basic security precautions. But your people will be free to come and go as they please. And, unless you decide to place a call to the Romulan Empire or the Breen, we won’t be listening in on your private conversations.” She forced herself to smile, even though she didn’t particularly feel like it. “I’m willing to trust you, Mister Riker. It’s a courtesy I hope you and your friends will eventually decide to return.”

Riker seemed surprised—almost grateful—though still wary. “Thank you. If it’s possible, I’d like your physician to take a look at my people right away. It’s been years since any of them have had medical attention—a few have developed chronic conditions that should be treated as soon as possible.”

Neelix looked uncomfortable. “Oh, I’m afraid our doctor is offline at the moment, though I’m sure one of our medics would be able to—”

“Offline?” Riker asked. “How can your chief medical officer be offline?”

Chakotay sighed. Another long story. “Neelix, I believe Commander Paris is working in sickbay at the moment. Perhaps he could—”

“Tom Paris?” Riker interrupted. “I don’t want that man near my people.”

It was strange for Chakotay, as if he were looking at himself eight years earlier: angry, suspicious—especially of Tom Paris. It wasn’t a flattering reflection, and he decided to ignore the comment. “Neelix, ask Commander Paris to prepare the junior medical staff for some visitors.” Then he turned to Riker. “We’ll have our medics triage your people, then schedule appointments with our doctor for any of those who need further treatment once he’s returned to duty.”

“In the meantime,” Kathryn said, standing up from her chair, “I would encourage you to spend some time reviewing the ship’s database, perhaps speak with some of our former Maquis, so you can catch up on what’s happened since you’ve been away. I’m sure what you learn will inspire more questions than answers. My crew and I are at your disposal.”

Riker was quiet, staring Kathryn in the eye, clearly trying to make sense of all he’d been told. After a moment, he nodded. “Alright. I’m willing to play this your way,” he said. “But don’t think that this means—” He was interrupted by the comm.

‘Paris to Janeway.’

Kathryn excused herself and hit the button on her desk’s computer terminal. Her first officer appeared on the screen. “Yes, Tom, what is it?”

A look of quiet resignation appeared on Paris’s face. ‘I think I know what caused Seven’s cortical node to fail,’ he said. ‘B’Elanna just ran a diagnostic on the cloaking device’s power generator—the one Seven was trying to disable. It shows a massive overload. I think our Maquis friend’s disruptor blast hit the generator, not Seven. She must have been in physical contact with it when it blew. The power surge shorted out most of her Borg components—including her cortical node.’ He sighed. ‘It looks like it was an accident.’

Janeway considered for a second if Tom’s news made it easier or harder to accept her friend’s death. While they would now be spared an awkward diplomatic situation with the Maquis they were sent to rescue, hearing that one of her closest friends and most valuable officers died in a tragic accident seemed even more senseless. “Understood,” she said quietly. “Janeway out.”

She indulged her emotions for just a moment and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she turned to face Riker. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, it’s been a long, difficult day.” She motioned toward the door. “Mister Neelix, can you escort our guest to his quarters?”

Riker locked his gaze onto her eyes as he stood, as if he were trying to read her soul. “Thank you, Captain,” he said after a moment.

Neelix turned to leave and Riker followed him—then turned back as the door opened. “I am sorry about your loss,” he said sincerely, before sighing and following Neelix into the corridor.

Riker followed the effusive alien down the Deck 1 passageway, simultaneously trying to process a flood of contradictory feelings and some snippets of information that seemed to make no sense. He still wasn’t sure he bought Janeway’s story about Voyager’s Maquis crew or their seven year detour to the Delta Quadrant. For that matter, he wasn’t entirely convinced that anything about this was real.

Still, part of him wanted to believe it—wanted to think that the eight years he’d spent trapped on Nervala IV, and the four—five?—stranded in the Badlands were more than just the precursor to a giant Cardassian deception. That, if all of what Janeway said was true, maybe he couldfinally build a new life for himself. Somehow.

As they stepped into the turbolift, Riker realized that his personal welcoming committee had been speaking to him the entire time. “…to let me know if you would like anything particular programmed into the food replicators. When we were in the Delta Quadrant, replicator use was rationed, and I had to cook most of the crew’s meals from vegetables I grew in the airponics bay—along with whatever we were able to forage for along the way. I’ve been told you have quite an extensive garden down at the colony. If you don’t mind, I might ask the captain if we can harvest some of what you’ve planted before we leave orbit. It seems a waste just to leave it there to rot.” He finally took a breath to give the lift their destination. “Deck 4.”

It occurred to Tom that he might be able to get some of the answers he wanted from this talkative fellow. “Mister…Neelix, was it? I was wondering: what did you mean about your doctor being ‘offline’?”

The expression on the Talaxian’s face suddenly turned contemplative. “Our Chief Medical Officer is photonic.”

“Photonic?” Riker repeated. “You mean he’s a hologram?”

Neelix nodded. “Yes, a sentient hologram. You see, Captain Janeway lost her original physician in the unfortunate incident that stranded them near my homeworld. For almost seven years, the supplemental medical hologram was our only doctor. His program ran continuously for almost the entire trip back to Earth.”

“Wait a minute,” Tom said, “an EMH is your Chief Medical Officer?” He shook his head. “And they didn’t replace him with a real doctor when you were refit?”

The Ambassador seemed surprised by the suggestion. “Real? I can reassure you, Mister Riker, that Doctor Zimmerman is as real as you or I. And, with the exception of an occasionally, well, acerbic observation, he is an exceptional physician. He’s taken up golf and holoimagery—and is quite the opera singer…though, to be honest, I never developed a taste for Terran opera. He is amazingly talented…so he tells me. And, as of four months ago, he is also a fully commissioned Starfleet officer.”

This was straining the limits of credibility. Still, Tom had more questions, so he would play along. “And this…Doctor Zimmerman…he’s offline now? For maintenance?”

This time, the effusive man seemed pained by the question. “No. He deactivated himself after Seven—Ensign Hanson—died. We’re all just heartsick about what happened to her. She was a unique individual…and a good friend.” For the first time since they’d been left alone, Neelix stopped talking. Riker wondered if the two had been close.

The mention of the dead woman reminded Tom of another question, and—as much as he was enjoying the silence—he had to ask it. “Did I hear Paris correctly? Did he say your ensign died from the failure of her Borg components?”

Neelix sighed. “Apparently so. What a tragedy.”

“Your ensign…was Borg?” Tom was trying not to sound too incredulous.

“Well, no, she was a human who was freed from the Borg. She and her parents were assimilated when she was six. She spent most of her life as a drone—until Captain Janeway formed an alliance with the Collective and was able to rescue her. The Doctor was able to remove many of her mechanical, well, ‘organs,’ but some of them were just too much a part of her, I suppose.”

Riker’s head was spinning. Janeway had formed an alliance with the Borg? And how could this ensign, who appeared to be in her thirties based on the quick glance Tom had gotten of her lying prone on the ground at the colony, have been assimilated at age six when the Collective wasn’t even in the Alpha Quadrant back then? He forced himself to stick to the subject at hand just to get an answer to his original question. “So your Doctor blamed himself for your ensign’s death? Because he couldn’t remove all of her mechanical components? And that’s why he shut himself down?”

Neelix cocked his head to the side. “You know, I hadn’t even thought of that! It is possible he might believe that—though no one else would hold him responsible, of course. Least of all Seven. I certainly hope that idea never occurs to him.”

Okay…now Riker was really confused. “So why would the EMH deactivate himself if he didn’t feel responsible for your crewman’s death?”

There was suddenly an orange flush in Neelix’s mottled cheeks. “It really is inappropriate for me to discuss the intimate details of my shipmates’ romantic lives,” he said somberly.

Either the inertial dampers were slowly failing, or Riker’s equilibrium was in a freefall. Had he heard the man right—was he implying that Voyager’s holographic EMH and their Borg science officer…were having an affair?

Before he could think of how he’d even phrase that nonsensical question, the lift stopped on Deck 4. Suddenly Tom was all too anxious to spend a little time with the ship’s database—particularly the crew manifest. And though what he was learning seemed bizarre to say the least, for some reason it made Riker begin to believe that the stories Janeway and Chakotay had told him might be true.

After all, given the chance to invent a cover story, who would make up one so absolutely unbelievable?

A short walk down the corridor and Riker was shown to a cabin door. Referring to the datapad in his hand, Neelix punched in an access code and stood back, motioning Tom inside. “This is it,” he said.

The room was spartan, but comfortable—not unlike his quarters on theGandhi. It was an interior cabin—which meant no viewport—but Riker was hardly in a position to complain. “Will we be allowed to retrieve our belongings from the colony before we leave orbit?” he asked. Not that there was all that much worth salvaging. He didn’t even own a change of clothes.

“I’ll make sure to discuss that with Captain Janeway,” Neelix answered. The Talaxian’s mood had taken a turn for the subdued ever since Riker’s questions about their doctor and the dead Borg woman. Handing his PADD to Tom, the Ambassador pointed out the replicator. “Your access codes,” he said, sounding a little like a sad hotel bellhop. “Don’t hesitate to make full use of Voyager’s clothing library and historical archives. And there’s a commbadge on the nightstand. I’ll let you know as soon as the rest of your people are assigned to quarters.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Tom and he headed toward the room’s only other door, which he assumed must be the bathroom. “Is there a sonic shower?”

Neelix smiled. “Why, yes, of course. There is a water shower as well—though I’m afraid these quarters don’t have a full bathtub. Personally, I love a nice long soak.”

“That’s okay,” Riker said. “I’ve taken enough cold baths in the past few years to last a lifetime. But I’ve had a recurring dream about a nice long sonic shower.” He smiled—this time sincerely.

“Well, then,” the furry man said as he headed for the door, “I’ll leave you to get settled in. If you need anything, Ambassador Chakotay and I are at your service.” Then he headed out the door.

Looking around the empty room, Riker wasn’t sure what to do first. The replicator, the shower, and the computer terminal each sang its own particular siren song. Removing his threadbare prison uniform, he began to head toward the bathroom—but a loud growl from his stomach trumped his need to feel clean again. Looking at the PADD Neelix had left, he memorized the five digit code and punched it into the replicator’s access panel. “Computer, give me a pan-seared porterhouse steak—charred on the outside and rare on the inside, a baked potato with sour cream, and a chocolate sundae with terra nuts,” he said. “Oh, and a large Trakian ale.”

In all of three seconds, his first decent meal in years appeared like a miracle in front of him. Never, he promised himself, never again would he take replicators for granted.

Gathering the plate, utensils, sundae dish, and beer stein carefully into his hands, he headed for the desk instead of the dining table. For a moment, he considered trying to find a way to drag the food and the computer into the shower—then his all-too practiced sense of patience took over. Sitting down in the chair, he breathed in the aroma wafting up from his plate then sawed off a large piece of steak. Slipping it into his mouth, he closed his eyes—and nearly wept.

He didn’t care any more if this was all some elaborate illusion. IfVoyager and her crew were an alien-induced hallucination—or a trick of Starfleet’s to get the Maquis to surrender. He and his people had lived to fight another day. Whatever else was to happen to them…well, at least they’d go into this battle clean, rested, and with their bellies full.

Four more bites and a swig of ale later, Tom turned on the computer and thought about what he should do first: search for the names of other surviving Maquis, ask for a recounting of the last news of the war? Maybe test the databanks against his own knowledge—see if he could find any discrepancies that might prove that this was all some elaborate deception.

Even as his brain wrestled with the logical order of his inquires, he heard his voice make a request. “Computer, access the Starfleet personnel database and display the service record of Deanna Troi, last known assignment: the USS Enterprise.”

‘Let it go, Will,’ he scolded himself even as he said it. ‘Let her go.’

Still, the computer had already gone to the trouble of calling up the file. What harm was there in reading it?

He hesitated before looking down at the screen…

Starfleet Command, Personnel Records Search Results—
Last Name: Troi
First Name: Deanna
Date of Birth (Terran Calendar): 2336, March 29
Current Rank: Commander
Current Assignment: Ship’s Counselor,  USS Titan

The Titan? She’d left the Enterprise?

Next of Kin: Riker, Captain William Thomas—husband…

He stopped reading.

She was married. To Will—to the man everyone thought of as the ‘real’ Will Riker. To ‘Captain’ William Thomas Riker of the starship Titan.

The captaincy and Deanna. Will had them both.

Tom stared away from the screen and down into his almost full plate. Suddenly, he wasn’t very hungry anymore.

Chugging the last of the ale, he turned off the computer and headed into the bathroom. As he activated the sonic shower, he made one last request of the ship’s database. “Computer,” he said, “play the collected works of Billie Holliday in random order. Full volume.” Then he rested his head on the bulkhead, closed his eyes, and contemplated for the millionth time how a man’s entire life could be made or broken with the flicker of a single transporter beam…

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris was beat—and glad to be heading home. He wasn’t as young as he used to be and six months of parental leave and a milk run to Cardassia Prime hadn’t exactly gotten him in shape for having his ship drop-kicked onto a rocky glade or being sucker punched by an angry renegade Maquis. Maybe he should start working out, he thought to himself. The very idea made him ache even more.

He’d finished assisting the junior medical staff with the analysis of Seven’s autopsy results, then had them make some minor adjustments to his newly knitted arm before heading home. He was exhausted—not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. Losing coworkers was a part of life aboard a starship—he had known that since his childhood, and he’d had more than his fair share of personal experience in dealing with the anger and pain. Losing friends under his command, though…it had a sick, familiar feeling to it. Even though this time it wasn’t because of some mistake he had made, he’d still been the one to choose the away team. The pressure of the responsibility he now held for decisions that could cost his shipmates—his friends—their lives began to weigh on him. And he had a new appreciation for the toll life in the Delta Quadrant must have taken on Captain Janeway.

As he dragged himself from sickbay to the turbolift, his mind wandered momentarily to the Doc, and his stomach turned as he realized how he would be feeling if it were B’Elanna they had just lost. Just as quickly, he forced the thought from his mind.

Tom realized he was hungry, but was too tired to even think about eating. All he wanted was eight uninterrupted hours of sleep. Stumbling into the lift, he sagged against the wall. “Deck 6,” he mumbled.

Being first officer meant never really going off duty, though, and he reassessed Voyager’s situation in his mind. Their rescued “guests” were safely settled into their quarters—not confined exactly, but with Lang’s security detail standing by in case they decided to stage a little rebellion or re-ignite the war. Tom wondered how long it would take to convince Riker that, with a handful of exceptions, all the surviving Maquis were now living aboard Voyager.

Not that it would matter for long. As soon as the captain gave the order, they’d declare their mission a qualified—though costly—success and head home. They would be in comm range of San Francisco in less than a day, and could signal Starfleet with the news of the Maquis’ capture…and Seven’s death. Then Voyager would head home and await new orders—most likely (considering the make-up of their uniquely mixed crew) helping to secure the peace in what had once been the very militarized demilitarized zone.

This thought led to ten others, and Tom wished there were an ‘off’ switch he could throw to let his brain wind down. Two seconds after crossing the threshold to his quarters, he realized that there was: the sight of B’Elanna—sound asleep with their baby daughter draped around her chest—made him forget whatever it was that had seemed so important just a moment earlier. He looked at them for a minute and smiled. His whole world, everything that was anything to him, was there on that couch. He burned the image into his memory, along with a thousand other otherwise insignificant moments he had catalogued over the past year, determined not to take even one of them for granted.

He kicked off his boots and threw his jacket on a chair. Then he walked to sit next to his sleeping wife and daughter, and gave in to the impulse to kiss them both, first bussing the top of Miral’s head, then laying a slightly more passionate kiss just below B’Elanna’s right ear. At first she flinched, but as she quickly came to consciousness, she tilted her head to give him better access to her neck.

“We are both too exhausted for this, you know,” she said groggily. “Don’t start something we can’t finish.”

Tom pulled back and sighed. “I couldn’t help myself,” he said, leaning his own head back against the couch. “You looked delicious—and I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

She shook her head, and gently patted the baby wrapped around her. “Well, make yourself a sandwich, then, because I’m heading to bed as soon as I put her down.”

Tom grunted as he forced himself to his feet. “I’ll take her.” He lifted his comatose daughter and tucked her over his shoulder, not at all worried about waking her. Miral could sleep through most red alerts, he knew. He walked to their bedroom and gently flipped her onto her back in a well-practiced aerial maneuver. Before he could turn away from her crib, he felt small cold hands wrap around him from behind.

“What happened to not starting something we can’t finish?” he said, draping a light blanket over the baby before turning into B’Elanna’s embrace.

She looked up at him. “I was just thinking about the last time we were on this planet together,” she said wistfully. “You saved my life…then you disappeared for a year.”

It was true. He’d been a Maquis mercenary less than two weeks when they’d stumbled across this place while scouting sites for potential bases. It was hot as hell—as it had been earlier that day—and B’Elanna had been caught in an underwater rockslide while they were swimming to cool off. Tom had pulled her to the surface just as her lungs had been about to burst—and he’d made a promise to himself that day to look out for her from then on, even though he was sure she could easily take care of herself. Three days later—as a way of keeping that promise—he’d let his shuttle be captured by Starfleet so the Liberty could escape a trap. The next time he saw B’Elanna, a year had passed, they were on the other side of the galaxy, and she was sprawled next to Harry on a rickety Ocampan staircase. The rest, as they say, was history.

Tom hadn’t thought about those days in years, and the memory was bittersweet. He pulled B’Elanna against him and kissed the top of her head. “Well, you’re stuck with me now,” he said lightly. “Besides, I came back for you, remember?”

“You came back to help them arrest me!” she corrected his memory as she tightened her hands around his back and rested her head on his chest.

Tom chuckled, “Ah, that’s just what I wanted Starfleet to believe. They never caught on to my secret plan to save you from a life of crime and convince you of my charms by getting stuck together on the other side of the galaxy. And all these years you thought it was the Caretaker’s idea.”

She looked back up at him and smiled, but then turned away as a strange look crept over her face. She didn’t say anything, though, and they just stood there for a moment, holding onto each other—and propping each other up. Tom knew that finding Riker—and especially Roberto and Atara—must have brought back a lot of old feelings for B’Elanna. When she’d first heard about the violent deaths of the other Maquis, she’d pretty much shut down, retreated from her life. Being back in the Badlands, seeing the walking ghosts of her two old friends, must have brought it all back to her.

It occurred to him, then, that even as she’d found two old friends, they’d lost another. Neither of them had so much as mentioned Seven’s name. Tom squeezed B’Elanna tightly, then pushed her a step back so he could see her eyes.

“You okay?” he said softly, searching her face for the answer.

She nodded, but wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I’m fine.”

He decided to push a little. “Do you want to talk about what happened today?”

B’Elanna shook her head. “No. I’m tired. I just want to go to sleep.” She started to take a step toward the bed, but Tom pulled her back and searched her eyes again. They were blank, almost distant, and the fear he now felt gave him energy he’d been without just a few seconds earlier.

So he kissed her—first gently, then forcefully. He could sense B’Elanna holding back at first, then he felt the sharp sting of her fingernails cutting into his back as she maneuvered her hands under his turtleneck. It was the honest answer he knew her words wouldn’t admit: she was okay—and she wasn’t. And while they were both exhausted, Tom knew now that they wouldn’t be going right to sleep.

He let his hands slide down her arms and onto her backside, and he squeezed her sharply as he pulled her against him. She clawed at the neck of his shirt, and he wriggled out of it before she ripped it right off him. Three well-practiced maneuvers and he was out of his pants, too. He pulled B’Elanna against him, before literally ripping her nightgown off of her. Then he bit into the soft flesh of her shoulder and braced himself for her response.

She was shorter than him by a head, but just as strong, and her carefully aimed push sent him backward onto the bed—nights like this were the reason they didn’t have a footboard. As soon as she was on top of him, she forced his head to the side and scraped her teeth along his cheek, preparing him for her bite—which was deep and stung like fire. Then he flipped her over and pinned her beneath him. She struggled to gain the advantage, but his height and weight put physics on his side. The tired look on her face told Tom she didn’t really mind.

He let his chest stroke hers and could feel her nipples—and his own body—harden as he teased them. She was moving her hips against him, taunting him, urging him on. Suddenly, her feet were wrapping around his legs, and she knocked his full weight down onto her. He regained his balance only long enough to maneuver himself inside her, finally releasing her hands from his. She clawed at his back as he thrust against her.

Together they rode a wave of fear and pain-disguised-as-passion, as Tom kept a promise he had made not to let her bottle up her feelings when they threatened to overwhelm her. Instead, he’d be her outlet, her reminder that life not only went on, but was worth whatever guilt and rage and pain she was occasionally forced to face. He would push her human control aside and coax the Klingon to the surface—the only way he could guarantee her release.

On those rare occasions when this sort of ‘therapy’ had been necessary, Tom had let himself enjoy the vigorous sex that would follow. Tonight, however, neither of their hearts were in it—and his stamina was quickly waning. He was afraid his already-tired legs would cramp before they could finish, and his freshly healed arm was starting to ache. So he was surprisingly grateful to hear the guttural groan that signaled B’Elanna’s climax. His own followed soon after, and he collapsed next to her, totally spent.

It wasn’t their longest—or most vigorous—lovemaking session, but it had served its purpose. Tom had reassured B’Elanna that it was okay to celebrate her own survival even in the face of a tragic loss, and she had renewed her silent promise to reach out to him when she had her doubts. As soon as a hint of strength came back into his tired body, he leaned over and kissed the bite he’d placed on her shoulder.

“Thanks for coming back for me,” she whispered as her hand stroked his hair.

He smiled, sadly, and leaned over to kiss her. “Anytime,” he said softly. Then he rolled onto his back, pulling her tightly against him, and drifted off to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~

The memorial service was quiet and dignified—befitting the incredibly private person Seven had been. The ensign’s Starfleet-mandated will had instructed that her body be vaporized in lieu of a ceremonial burial, but her friends had mutually decided to spend a few private moments honoring her life before heading back into what would surely be an official—and perhaps public—inquiry into her death.

Chakotay had suggested holding the service on the planet’s surface near the site where Seven had been shot. He’d said, perhaps from his experience in grieving his father, that it sometimes helped to see the place where a loved one had died, to share the final moments of life with them—if only symbolically. Kathryn agreed: something about this act seemed to give humans a modest degree of solace, a sense of closure and finality. She hoped that was true for holograms, too.

She and B’Elanna had reactivated the Doctor that morning, and had monitored his program for a few hours before agreeing that—while in understandable grief—he was stable. He was subdued to the point of stoicism, however, and Janeway wished (not for the first time) that she knew how to handle the emotional and psychological needs of a sentient computer program. Even if they’d had a ship’s counselor—which they didn’t—this was uncharted territory. So she did what she would have done for any of her friends: she stayed close, listened, and tried to wait out the pain. It felt entirely insufficient.

The service had helped, though—at least it had given them all something to do. Protocol called for dress uniforms, but B’Elanna had insisted on something more personal. This was a family funeral, she’d said forcefully—and with the Doctor’s indifferent agreement—not an official Starfleet ceremony.

For her part, Kathryn was just as glad. The heat would have been overwhelming in their regulation whites—and she didn’t feel much like being a captain at the moment. Seven’s loss had hit her hard. Having once made the decision to free the human drone from the Collective against her will, Janeway had continued to feel a special protectiveness about Seven over the years—one that was different from her feelings for the rest of her crew. It was almost maternal; an impulse to take care of an adult woman who was more capable than most of taking care of herself.

It was ridiculous, she knew.

But Seven’s death also made Kathryn realize that life in the Alpha Quadrant didn’t insulate her crew from being hurt or killed while on her watch. And while Starfleet captains were trained to “mourn and move on,” somehow she had done more than her fair share of both recently. She couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something she could have done to save them all.

She pulled at the neckline of her cotton dress and wished for even the slightest breeze. Walking along the shore of the lake, she looked around at the land where Riker and the other Maquis had fashioned a new home from next to nothing. Two of their stolen shuttles had been scavenged to build their settlement, which included a dozen tiny, scattered structures that Kathryn assumed—based on the way each had been personalized—were private quarters. A large vegetable garden had been planted on the flat plain at the top of the hill, with what looked like an improvised barn or silo a short distance away. Alongside it rested the one remaining intact ship, which seemed to act as the community’s base camp, mess hall, and—according to Tom and B’Elanna—jailhouse.

While the accommodations were hardly luxurious, the colony had clearly sustained its Maquis inhabitants well. They’d made a decent life for themselves on this inhospitable rock in the middle of nowhere. A life she almost envied…

Chakotay interrupted her daydream as he came up from behind her. “Contemplating life as a Maquis?”

“Contemplating life as a colonist,” she admitted as she turned toward him. “And wondering if it really would have been so bad.” She reached out her hand, which he took, quickly kissed, then held as they began walking along the lake.

“I know from personal experience that you would have made an excellent tomato farmer.” He shot her a dimpled smile. “Are you contemplating a career change I should know about?”

Her expression turned serious. “Just thinking about how different our lives might be now if I’d listened to you and Tom about settling on New Phoenix. If I hadn’t insisted on getting home at any cost.” She sighed softly. “Of course, I never imagined the cost would be quite so high.”

“We made that decision together,” he reminded her. “All of us. Besides, you couldn’t have stopped Harry, for one, from trying to get home.”

“Yes,” she said firmly, knowing it was true. “I could have. But I didn’t. And he, Tuvok, and the others—and now Seven—are gone. And I have to find a way to live with that.”

Chakotay was quiet for a moment, and Kathryn sensed a lecture coming. “You followed your conscience and your principles—that’s all anyone could ever expect. There are no certainties in life, Kathryn. You know that.” He tightened his grip on her hand and pulled her to face him. “Almost none, at least,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Except that I love you—and I’m not going to let you blame yourself every time something bad happens that you couldn’t control.”

Kathryn nodded, believing intellectually that he was right—but still feeling so…responsible. And so tired of attending memorial services for young friends. “I know,” she said, placing her hand on Chakotay’s face and letting her thumb stroke his cheek. “I suppose second-guessing my decisions is an occupational hazard. It comes with the damn fourth pip.”

The look in Chakotay’s eyes changed and he was quiet for a moment. When he faced her again, his expression was guarded, unreadable. “Well, I can think of a permanent cure for that problem,” he said tentatively. He was staring at Kathryn in a way that was beginning to make her nervous. Then he dropped her hand and motioned for her to follow him down a sheltered path along the edge of the water, clearly trying to put more distance between them and their shipmates still lingering at the base camp.

She gave him the space he obviously needed, following only a step or two behind. He’d be ready to tell her in a minute, she knew—even if she couldn’t imagine what he’d say.

They’d walked about fifteen meters before he headed for a twisted tree with limbs that mimicked huge open arms reaching out over the lake. Leaning in the crook between two branches, Chakotay picked off a sprig of leaves and began tossing them absentmindedly into the water. After a moment, he looked up at her. “I’ve been here before, you know,” he said—the non sequitur shaking Kathryn completely outside herself.

“No,” she admitted. “I didn’t realize.”

He smiled sadly. “I’d just recruited this drunken daredevil pilot, who decided to show off his skills by plunging us into the worst plasma storm I’d ever seen. Just about the time I thought he was going to get us all killed, this clearing appeared right in front of the ship, and with it a Class M planet with a crystal clear blue sky. And I realized it might make a decent home base—a place to regroup in between missions.”

There was a point to this, Kathryn knew. She’d learned many years before that Chakotay always couched his deepest feelings in a story when speaking directly was too painful. Still, it was unusual for him to discuss his time in the Maquis. She’d never really asked, and he certainly hadn’t volunteered much more than the occasional anecdote. Crossing her arms, she leaned back against the tree’s trunk and let him go on.

“Those were frustrating days: dodging Cardassian disruptor fire, having to rely on indifferent mercenaries or recruits whose hearts were in the right places—mostly—but who often times lacked in skill what they made up for in passion. Yet, even in the worst moments, those times when I was sure our luck had run out, I never had a single second of wondering if it was all worth it. We were fighting for our principles, for an idea that was bigger than ourselves. I was proud to be Maquis.” He looked away, then back into her eyes. “I still am.”

Kathryn hesitated. “Proud?” she clarified. “Or Maquis?”

He took a deep breath. “Both.”

It was a moment of incredible honesty.

“When we were pulled into the Delta Quadrant, suddenly my ship was gone, my crew and I were all in Starfleet uniforms, and our fight—and the Cardassians—were a lifetime away. And, as much as I had grown to hate and fear what the Federation had begun to symbolize back in the Alpha Quadrant, on Voyager it was easy to let that go…to pretend that Starfleet was what I’d always wanted it to be: principled, dedicated people on missions of peaceful exploration.”

Kathryn was confused. “That’s what we are,” she said, not sure if she was agreeing or disagreeing with his point.

Chakotay looked up at her. “That’s what you are, Kathryn,” he clarified. “Owen Paris, Tom, Reg Barclay. But Starfleet…I’m just not sure I can trust that what happened to my people won’t happen to others at some point—the next time it’s politically expedient to look away.”

She shook her head as if that might order the random thoughts that were darting around her brain. “Chakotay, what are you saying?”

He looked directly into her eyes. “I’m saying that, when this mission is over, I’m leaving Voyager and going home. And I’d like you to think about coming with me.”

Kathryn’s eyes widened. “Home. To Earth?” she asked, knowing that wasn’t what he’d meant.

“Home,” he confirmed, “to Dorvan V.”

“There’s nothing there,” she reminded him. “Just ruins.”

Chakotay stood and took her hands. “There’s a colony to be rebuilt. Lives to be honored. A way of life to be reclaimed. I owe that to my father. And to his father. It’s why I joined the Maquis. It’s what I have to do.”

She held his gaze for as long as she could stand to, trying to absorb all of the ramifications of this news. “And you want me to resign my commission and join you there.” It wasn’t a question; she understood very clearly what he was proposing.

Before he could answer, her commbadge sounded. She hesitated a moment, then let go of his hands and tapped her fingers to her communicator. “Janeway here.”

‘Tom Riker, Captain,’ she heard. ‘Can I have a word with you privately. My colleagues and I have a request.’

Her eyes had never broken Chakotay’s gaze, and she could see a veil of emotional distance begin to settle across his face. He was pulling away from her.

“I’ll be right there,” she answered. “Janeway out.”

She stood there for a moment, wondering if all of her fantasies about rebuilding their lives in the Alpha Quadrant and aboard Voyager would continue to crash down around her. Then she banished the thought from her head—the fates had been cruel enough without tempting them any further.

“Duty calls,” Chakotay said matter-of-factly—with just a hint of resigned realization in his tone.

Kathryn tried not to show how much his comment had stung. “I have to go,” she said softly.

“I know,” he answered. “I’ll see you back on the ship.” His smile was sad, half-hearted.

Janeway called for the transporter, and just as the beam began to carry her away, she caught a fleeting glimpse, not of the man who had served her faithfully for seven years—the man she’d fallen in love with—but of the Maquis captain she’d been sent to chase down. A man she wasn’t sure she really knew. Despite the planet’s heat, it sent a cold chill up her back.

She materialized in the cool, dim transporter room and her metaphorical chill turned to gooseflesh as her body adjusted to Voyager’s climate controlled air. She walked to the turbolift, preoccupied, and started toward her ready room. Her senses came back almost as an afterthought, and she stopped the lift. “Deck 3,” she corrected.

As soon as she was inside the door of her quarters, she unbuttoned her soft cotton dress and placed it in the refresher, then opened up her wardrobe. Hanging inside were a white silk suit, two cotton dresses…and ten regulation Starfleet uniforms—seven of which were her new black and gray duty attire, with one corresponding set of dress whites. The other two were outdated black-and-reds: the uniform she’d worn the day the Caretaker kidnapped her and her crew, and the virtually identical one she’d donned at the impromptu mess hall celebration the day Owen Paris’s ship towed Voyager back into the Alpha Quadrant.

She stopped and stared at them for a moment…then grabbed a clean duty uniform and got dressed.

~*~

Riker was waiting for her in her ready room. He looked as drawn and tired as she felt. “What can I do for you Mister Riker?” she asked, pulling her professional mask into place as she took a seat behind her desk.

“I believe you,” he blurted out. The cocksure posturing, the smug self-protection—and the contempt masquerading as charm—they were all gone. The man standing before her was solemn, lifeless.

Kathryn was surprised at how seeing him so defeated saddened her.

He continued, “I had a chance to review the Starfleet database last night, and I finally believe what you and your crew have told us about the war with the Dominion. And about your own years in the Delta Quadrant.”

She exhaled and nodded her head. “I imagine much of what you read was difficult for you and your people to accept. As soon as we reach Earth, I’m sure Starfleet will be glad to assign a counselor—”

“No,” he interrupted her sharply. “I don’t think that will be necessary.” He paced for a moment, then turned back to face her. “So, what happens now? I have trouble believing the Federation is going to just welcome us with open arms after some of the things we did.”

Kathryn wished Chakotay had come back with her. Finessing this part of Riker’s return was supposed to be his responsibility. Still, she felt that Tom was reaching out to her, and she didn’t want to risk undoing any of the progress he seemed to be making in trusting her. “You said you reviewed the information about the war in Voyager’s database—so I assume you know the situation the Federation is facing.”

Riker nodded. “You mean, considering their losses, it’s expedient for them to just ‘forgive and forget.’”

She shook her head, “I mean that this war took an incalculable toll on everyone involved. Mistakes were made on all sides. The Federation doesn’t want to compound those mistakes by re-fighting those battles in a courtroom.” She smiled sadly. “It’s time for us all to pick up the pieces and get on with our lives.”

A strange look crossed Riker’s face. “Those who have lives to get on with,” he muttered under his breath. Then he looked up at her. “I’m not sure it’s going to be that easy for the Maquis, Captain. Many of my people lost everything: their families, their homes, most of their friends. Now they’ve lost their cause, too—their reason to keep going. Most of them don’t have many pieces to pick up.”

Kathryn’s mind shot instantly to Chakotay and their conversation less than an hour earlier. She considered for a moment how hard her own adjustment to being back in the Alpha Quadrant had seemed—how apart she still felt from her own life. Yet, she had come home to her sister and mother, to her family homestead, and to an even more promising career than the one she’d left. How incredibly insensitive she had been…

She realized she’d missed the last few sentences Riker had spoken. “…can’t guarantee how they’re going to react. Some wounds aren’t so easily healed.”

“I understand,” Kathryn assured him. Still, what could she do? What could anyone do? After a long and awkward pause, a question occurred to her. “When you called, you mentioned a request…?”

Riker nodded. “We’d like to retrieve our personal effects from the colony. We didn’t have much—mostly journals and things we’d made to decorate our living quarters. Also, Ambassador Neelix asked about harvesting some of our vegetables, though I’m sure that, with Voyager’s replicators you don’t really need…”

“Yes, of course,” Kathryn interrupted. “Bring back whatever you want. I’ll have Commander Paris see to it that storage space is made available for anything that won’t fit in your quarters.” Riker blanched at the mention of Tom Paris’s name, but he didn’t object this time. Kathryn decided to ignore the man’s obvious discomfort, and continued her thought. “Besides, Neelix has been looking for an excuse to put his culinary skills to work. As long as you haven’t been growing leola root on your colony, I’d actually look forward to eating his cooking again.”

“Leola…?” Riker quirked.

Janeway smiled. “Don’t ask,” she warned him. “Let’s just say that I’m glad there are some things we left behind in the Delta Quadrant.”

They shared a smile, and she saw an old twinkle appear in Riker’s eye. Then something…more intentional. “What you did—getting your people home despite the distance, the Borg, integrating the two crews…very impressive. Especially for a scientist who never had any interest in command. What was the topic of your junior thesis? Artificial gravity wells…?”

So, he had decided to trust her—after a little test. “Massive compact halo objects, actually. And, as I recall, you were studying exopaleontology. Ironic, isn’t it? I could have used you as my science officer; your expertise would have come in handy in the Delta Quadrant.”

He looked chagrined—caught in the act. Still, his question had given her an opening, as she remembered another thing they had discussed on their one and only—aborted—blind date. “You were wrong, you know. About Admiral Paris. What was it you called him, the Scorcher?”

Tom grinned and nodded. “That’s right! Scorched Earth Paris. I forgot he was your thesis advisor. So his reputation was undeserved, huh?”

Kathryn exhaled a laugh. “Well, he was no pushover. Demanding, intolerant of foolishness, unmoved by excuses—even legitimate ones. But he’s a good man who became a good friend. He made me a better officer.”

Riker nodded. “All the best ones set the bar higher than you think you can reach. Then they hand you a strong pole to help you vault over it.”

She smiled. “Impossibly high standards make for a good commanding officer. But they do leave something to be desired in a father.” She brought the subject around to her real point. “It’s not easy living up to that kind of pressure. Add onto it an almost mythical family legacy. Takes quite a toll on a young boy.”

He practically snorted his disdain. “I didn’t realize having a cold, career-driven father was justification for our character defects as adults. Hell, I wish I had thought of mentioning mine when Starfleet was handing me over to the Cardassians.” His tone was suddenly flat calm. Ice.

“You were wrong about Admiral Paris,” she repeated. “And you’re wrong about his son.”

A pained expression came and went quickly from Riker’s face. “I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, it seems,” he said sadly. Then after a moment, “Now about the timetable for our beaming down to the colony…”

~*~

The planet was as hot and humid as B’Elanna remembered—which suited her just fine. Tom, on the other hand, started to melt at anything over thirty degrees, so she’d left him sitting under a shade tree talking to Noah Lessing about the finer points of piloting starships through plasma storms and decided to take Miral for a walk around the lake. She wondered if he got just as bored listening to her talk shop with another engineer.

B’Elanna envied her husband’s ability to disassociate himself from the sense of loss and pain she knew he must be feeling over Seven’s death. She had seen it over and over, every time fate kicked Voyager in the teeth: Tom would click on some kind of personal autonav program, then act like nothing got to him. It had driven her crazy early in their friendship, made her wonder if he was some kind of iceman who didn’t care about anyone or anything. It was Harry Kim who had helped her realize the truth; Tom buried his true feelings where no one could see. It was his way of protecting himself.

It wasn’t the same, B’Elanna realized, as her own emotional withdraw a few years earlier. When she’d heard about the Maquis slaughter, she’d slowly begun to lose touch with her ability to feel anything. Tom felt things he chose not to share.

Miral, of course, seemed oblivious to it all as she sang a nonsensical song to herself, perched as she was on her mother’s hip. She was a naturally happy baby—something B’Elanna had found almost ironic. She rarely cried, was glad to amuse herself with her toys, and seemed fascinated by everything around her. As they walked, the baby’s head bobbed up and down as her eyes darted from the trees to the birds, to the brilliant blue sky. She soaked in life—and the company of her large, adopted family aboard Voyager, who clearly adored having her there.

B’Elanna let the fingers of her free hand dance through the raven curls at the nape of her daughter’s neck and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. Seven was right, she thought, when she’d said that Miral had developed her own, personal Collective aboard Voyager.

It occurred to B’Elanna, then, that her daughter wouldn’t have any real memories of Seven, of the nights Miral spent falling asleep in the woman’s arms, or the way Seven would read to her—whether from Emily Dickinson or about advanced spatial harmonics—as she and B’Elanna studied for their Academy equivalency exams. There was something innately maternal about her friend, which B’Elanna found both confounding and refreshing.

It was a quality B’Elanna had found she had to work at. She loved Miral with all her heart—but it was Tom who came more naturally to parenting. Somehow, she couldn’t seem to stop applying her engineer’s analytical skills to her childrearing, following the baby’s development as if she were evaluating a new warp engine. The fact that Miral’s uniquely mixed human/Klingon heritage made all the normal baby milestones meaningless didn’t help.

As they reached the edge of the wooded glade, B’Elanna found herself thinking about her own mother—another woman her daughter would never get to know…

There was a rustling in the brush off to her left, and she turned to see the Doctor staring aimlessly out over the water. Moving Miral up to her shoulder, B’Elanna walked toward him.

“Mind a little company?” she asked as she sat down next to him. Not that she was giving him any real choice.

His eyes were vacant—which worried B’Elanna a little. “Suit yourself,” he said. His voice was almost monotone.

Miral seemed oblivious to her godfather’s anguish and leaned out of her mother’s arms, her fingers clenching and unclenching spasmodically for him to take her. “Da-da-da-da-da-da…” she said over and over.

The Doctor reached out for her without really looking and let the baby stand on his lap—where she immediately started bouncing up and down as he wrapped his fingers under her arms. “Don’t let your father hear you say that, Monkey,” B’Elanna said at her daughter’s continued rambling. “She calls every man ‘Da-da’—except Tom.”

Under any other circumstances it would have been an irresistible opening for one of the physician’s playful jabs at her husband—or a chance for him to complain again how unworthy he found the child’s nickname to be. Instead, he just turned Miral around and sat her on his lap, absentmindedly stroking her hair.

B’Elanna swallowed hard. She hated seeing her friends in pain. Hated the helplessness and anger that rose inside her as a result. And she never could seem to say the right thing to ease their minds. “It was a beautiful service,” she tried.

Silence.

How many times had she wished for an off button to end the Doctor’s incessant rambling? Now she would have been grateful for a grunt of acknowledgement.

Deciding to leave bad enough alone, she stood up and held out her hands to her baby. Miral understood the gesture and leaned into her mother’s arms. “You know,” B’Elanna said after a moment, “Tom and I will do anything we can to help you through this.” She smiled sadly and started to turn away.

“Anything?” the Doctor asked. His voice was gravel, despite his pristine holographic throat.

B’Elanna turned back to him. “Anything we can,” she assured him.

He seemed to contemplate her offer as he looked out over the lake. “A few months before Voyager got home from the Delta Quadrant, I asked you to write a new emotional subroutine for me. Something that would let me experience the depth of tragedy of Puccini’s Tosca.”

She nodded. “I remember.”

The Doctor looked up at her. “Help me delete it,” he asked. “And my other emotional subroutines. I don’t want them anymore.”

“I see,” B’Elanna said, nodding. She paused for a moment and walked back to sit with her friend once again. Miral immediately wriggled her way back onto her godfather’s lap, as her mother wished she had Chakotay’s, or Kathryn’s—or Tom’s—way with these kinds of situations. Deciding to trust her own instincts, she took a deep breath—and a bit of a risk. “Alright,” she said. “We can do it tomorrow.”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” she continued, “that means the Captain will probably want to find another chief medical officer. It wouldn’t be good to have a doctor that can’t empathize with his patients.” His lack of reaction forced her to raise the stakes. “And I’ll ask Chakotay tonight if he’s still interested in being Miral’s godfather.”

This time her aim was more accurate. “Why?” His tone was almost indignant.

“If something were to happen to Tom or me, her godparents would be responsible for raising her.”

A hint of life came back into his voice. “And?” She noticed he was looking back and forth from her to Miral.

“And we’d want our daughter to be raised by someone who could love her as much as we do.”

The Doctor’s eyes darted up to B’Elanna’s. For the first time since his reactivation that morning, they were filled with the pain she knew he had been feeling. Holographic tears started to well up inside them. “I don’t know if I can get through this,” he said to her, finally admitting what he really meant.

Once again, B’Elanna wished she knew what to say. “Seven spent sixteen years of her life as a drone. Because of you and the captain, she was able to spend the last five becoming human again. I won’t pretend to speak for her, but I think she’d be angry that you’d consider giving up your own humanity because of her.”

They sat there quietly for a few moments before B’Elanna spoke again. “I need to go rescue Ensign Lessing from Tom. Can you watch the baby until I get back?”

The Doctor nodded as he blinked away his tears. As she stood up and walked across the glade, B’Elanna heard him start to hum softly, absentmindedly, to Miral—a tune she vaguely remembered her grandmother singing to her when she was a child. Just before she was out of earshot, he began to sing—softly and slowly—and B’Elanna could hear her daughter babble her own song in reply. “You’ll never know, dear… how much…I love you…. Please don’t take…my sunshine…away…”

~*~*~*~*~

“Admiral Paris? On v-v-vacation?!?” Reg Barclay was stammering and trying to catch his breath all at the same time. “W-w-why I don’t remember the Admiral ever taking a vacation in all the years I’ve n-n-known him!”

Dawson smiled up at the panicked man standing in front of her desk. “Yes, Lieutenant, which is why he’s taking one now—now that the war is over and his son is home. It’s long overdue, don’t you think?”

“Yes, of course,” Barclay answered, finally breathing close to normally. The run across the grounds of Starfleet Headquarters had winded him—but that was only part of why his heart was racing. “Yeoman, I understand the Admiral’s need for a little R&R, but you must trust me that he would want me to interrupt him with this news. Please, you must tell me where I can contact him!”

Brigid Dawson had been Owen Paris’s personal yeoman for over three years—ever since the Admiral began the Pathfinder Project marking the formal search for a way to bring Voyager—and his son—home. Now that he and Lieutenant Commander Paris had been reunited, her boss had taken his wife on what he’d called a “second honeymoon” to the Italian Alps. A trip she wasn’t about to interrupt.

“Admiral Billingsley is handling all requests for Admiral Paris, sir. Perhaps you should speak with him.”

Barclay tried to hold himself together, but he knew he was getting nowhere with the bodyguard disguised as a secretary sitting in front of him. He decided a new approach was needed. “Thank you, B-Brigid,” he said, forcing himself to calm down. “Perhaps I’ll do that.” He turned to leave, then turned back. “Incidentally, since I’m already here, Admiral Paris said I could borrow a novel from his collection. I believe he left it in his office for me—third shelf on the right hand side.”

Dawson looked skeptical. “And the name of this novel…?” she asked.

Reg scanned his memory for the mental image of the bookshelf, then read the words off the book’s spine. “The Prince and the Pauper,” he said, “by Mark Twain.” Having an eidetic memory came in handy some days.

Brigid stood up from her desk and walked to the locked door of the Admiral’s office. Entering her access code, she looked over her shoulder at the now smiling lieutenant as she went inside and over to the Admiral’s collection of 19th century hardbound literature. It was there, just as Reg had described it. Suddenly she felt a little silly for having doubted him.

Grabbing the book she headed back to the outer office, wondering if she should apologize. He was gone.

“Lieutenant Barclay?” she called out, going so far as to walk out into the corridor to look for him. It was deserted.

She walked back to her desk and tossed the book onto it. Strange. It was a word that always seemed to come to mind when Reg Barclay was around. Sighing, she sat down and spun to face the display screen on her computer. The dossier she’d been preparing on Thomas Riker had been closed and in its place, the Admiral’s travel itinerary filled the screen—including the name and room number of his chalet at Lake Como.

“Dammit!” she thought as she watched her career flash before her eyes.

Sighing, she closed the itinerary and called up the list of open postings in the Starfleet personnel database. Maybe if she requested a new job before the Admiral got back, she could avoid a stint in the Martian secretarial pool…

~*~*~*~*~

Noah Lessing let the turbolift doors close behind him before slapping the walls full force with his palms. Two days earlier, he’d been relieved from the helm in the middle of a duty shift—replaced by a Federation Ambassador who wasn’t even a commissioned officer any more. Now, while in the shuttlebay recalibrating the navigational sensors on the newly repaired Delta Flyer, he’d heard Robert Wang, the arrogant asshole son of Starfleet royalty and his chief competition for the permanent seat at the conn, telling the other pilots that Commander Paris would be flying them home—and publicly speculating on why Lessing couldn’t be trusted with the mission they’d been sent to do.

It was a question Noah wanted answered, too.

He had to get out of there, so he’d made an excuse and headed for the turbolift. He let out a sigh and chose his destination. “Deck 4,” he muttered.

As he always seemed to do when he didn’t know what to do, he went looking for the one person aboard Voyager he knew he could trust. A short walk down the corridor and he found himself in Transporter Room 2.

Noah knew she would be there—yet he didn’t see her when he stepped inside. “Chief?” he called out.

Standing up from behind the transporter console, Marla Gilmore looked very confused. “I told you not to call me that! And I thought you were on duty,” she said, shaking her head as if to make his appearance make sense. “We’re getting ready to leave orbit; why aren’t you on the bridge?”

Noah sighed. “Apparently, you have to be a reformed Maquis to get to do any real flying around here,” he said angrily. “I apparently chose the wrong life of crime.”

Gilmore smiled sadly. “It’s funny,” she said, “I was almost recruited into the Maquis right after I graduated from the Academy. But I couldn’t do it. I mean, I was against the treaty—I guess—but I thought joining the rebellion was unethical. Kind of ironic in retrospect.”

Noah snorted. It was true: the Maquis were once the scourge of Starfleet, traitors to the Federation. But at least they had the virtue of committing their crimes for humanitarian reasons. Not like the pariah survivors of the USS Equinox. They’d made the unpardonable mistake of exploiting other creatures to keep themselves alive while trapped—likeVoyager—in the Delta Quadrant. Darwin clearly hadn’t anticipated the 24th century ethical implications of his ‘survival of the fittest’ theory. “Do you think they’ll ever come a time when they let us forget? Treat us like any other crewmen? Let us get on with our damn lives?”

Marla paused for a moment. “Yes,” she said with a calm confidence. “Or I wouldn’t be here.” She rubbed her hand up her friend’s arm. “Noah, maybe you just weren’t the right man for this particular assignment,” she suggested. “Maybe being one of the ‘Equinox Five’ had nothing to do with it.”

Lessing inhaled sharply and blew out his frustration with his breath. “I know,” he said sadly. “And I know Commander Paris wants me here—hell, he asked me to stay. But the captain…”

He didn’t have to finish the sentence. Marla knew all too well how rigid and judgmental their commanding officer could be—and how outrageous her behavior toward Noah had been back in the Delta Quadrant when she’d uncovered the crimes in which they’d been complicit. Still… “It’s Janeway’s ship,” she reminded him. “You wouldn’t be here if she didn’t want—or trust—you.”

Noah smiled. “You’re annoying, you know that? Why is it that you can always see the bright side of any situation?” he asked. “It’s impossible to stay mad when I’m around you!”

Gilmore shrugged off his compliment disguised as an insult. “Good,” she said before pushing him toward the door. “Now get back to your post before we get court-martialed for fraternizing while on duty!”

Fraternizing? Were they…fraternizing? He opened his mouth, not at all sure what if any words would come out, but his commbadge sounded before he could speak. ‘Paris to Lessing.’

Noah shot Marla a look that was equal parts fear and hope. “Lessing here, Commander.”

‘Noah, the Flyer can wait. I need you on the bridge.’

“Sir?”

‘Voyager’s not going to fly herself home,’ Paris explained. ‘On the double, Ensign.’

The channel closed and Gilmore grinned at her friend. “See?” she asked. “Not every cloudy day means rain.”

Lessing just shook his head. “You’re scaring me, Marla. Seriously. My blood sugar is spiking just standing here.” He shot her a wry smile. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, then hurried into the corridor and toward the bridge.

As he double-timed it toward the turbolift, Noah wondered how he got lucky enough to find a friend like Marla. She was the only truly good thing that had happened to him in years.

Maybe until now.

As the lift carried him toward the bridge, he found himself wondering—not for the first time—if she felt the same thing, the same sense of connection when they were together. Not that he had any romantic interest in her. They were just friends. Good friends. Still, as he took his station, for a moment it wasn’t the challenge of riding the plasma storms that occupied his mind.

As he tapped Ensign Montgomery on the shoulder and slid into the helmsman’s chair, Noah caught a glimpse of his first officer and mentor coming up behind him. “Remember,” Paris said under his breath, recalling the conversation they’d had on the planet’s surface that morning, “this kind of flying you do with your gut, not your brain. Feel it. Anticipate it.” Then a hand clasped on his shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”

With that, Captain Janeway stepped out of her ready room and Paris followed her up to the middeck. “Prepare to break orbit,” she said as she took her seat. Lessing noticed that she looked tired, preoccupied.

“Secure all stations,” he heard Tom Paris say as he turned to face the viewscreen. The image of the bright blue planet spinning peacefully beneath them seemed out of place with all the adrenaline pumping through Noah’s body. He could do this. He knew he could do this. He checked the navigational sensors and the engine readouts and readied his fingers for the order he knew was about to come.

“Plot a course for Earth, Mister Lessing,” he heard the captain instruct him. “Engage.”

Steering the ship away from the horizon, Noah scanned the ion-charged plasma field that lay between them and normal space. Bringing the impulse engines up to one quarter, he held his breath…and they were off.

~*~

They’d barely cleared the Badlands when the call came in.

“Captain,” Vorik said, a hint of surprise showing though his normal Vulcan monotone. “We’re receiving a Priority 1 subspace message. It’s from Admiral Paris.”

Tom looked over at Kathryn, worried for just a moment that something had happened to his mother—or maybe one of his sisters. Janeway met his eyes with equal concern. “Aren’t your parents supposed to be on holiday?” she asked, her brow knit.

Paris nodded. “I helped Dad plan the trip for months,” he said. “They’re not due back for another three weeks.”

Janeway breathed deeply. Was it the Cardassians? The Dominion? The Borg, perhaps? No matter, it was clearly something urgent enough to pull her old friend and commanding officer away from his vacation. She spoke to Vorik, but continued to look at Tom. “I’ll take it in my ready room, Lieutenant,” she said evenly. “Commander…you have the bridge.”

“Captain—” Tom started to object, and she discretely put her hand on his arm.

“If it were a personal matter,” she whispered, “he would have directed the message to you. And if there’s any chance that the war has reignited or the Borg have attacked, I’ll need you on the bridge. Who knows what we’re about to fly into?”

Tom knew she was right. “Yes, ma’am,” he said stoically. Still, his heart began to race wildly.

Kathryn stood up and steadied herself as she headed into her office. Sitting behind her desk, she sent Vorik the command to transfer the message to her computer console. The face of a young woman suddenly appeared.

‘Hold for Admiral Paris, Captain,’ the woman instructed. Janeway took some comfort in the woman’s smile. Whatever was going on seemed not to phase Owen’s yeoman.

After a moment, the display blinked and she was once again face to face with her old friend. ‘Kathryn,’ he said. There was something strange about his expression, yet he didn’t look fearful or intense the way she might have expected if the Federation were under some sort of imminent assault. His next question confirmed her impression. ‘How is the mission going?’

She cocked her head to the side, but answered the question. “We have Riker and his people safely aboard. They’re going to have quite an adjustment to make, but I feel confident they finally believe that we’re sincere in our offer to reintegrate them into Federation life.” Her answer rolled off her tongue without much thought. She hadn’t expected to be discussing their Maquis passengers—not in an unexpected Priority 1 communication. Still, it occurred to her that there was other news to share. “We did have one casualty,” she said solemnly. “A member of my crew.”

A hint of worry came into Owen’s eyes; Kathryn realized the fear that must be running through the Admiral’s mind and set out to allay it immediately. “Seven of Nine—Ensign Hansen—was killed in an accident during the mission.”

The relief on Paris’s face might have been imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know him so well. Still, he nodded solemnly. ‘I’m so sorry for you and your people,’ he said sincerely. ‘A loss for all of Starfleet, actually—she was a remarkable young woman.’

“Yes, she was,” Janeway sighed, part of her still not able to believe it was true. After a silent moment, she pulled her chin up and looked Owen in the eye. “Admiral, I assume from the Priority 1 nature of your hail that you didn’t call to check up on our mission.”

Paris nodded. ‘I assume we can speak privately?’ he asked.

“Yes, sir,” she assured him. “What is it?”

He let out a deep breath. ‘You may want to consider carefully how you break this news to the rest of your people. And Kathryn…I take it you’re sitting down?’

~*~

Tom had done as she’d asked, arranged for the senior staff—minus Vorik and Lang—to come to the Captain’s quarters at 2400 hours. That alone was strange. If the Federation were preparing for some kind of emergency, the crew would have met in the briefing room. And while Janeway had assured him that all of their families were safe and no one was in danger, Paris couldn’t begin to imagine what really was going on.

“She didn’t say anything?” B’Elanna asked for the tenth time, pacing the floor like a cat.

“Just that everyone at home was fine and that I shouldn’t worry,” Tom reassured his wife. “Then she locked herself in her ready room and hasn’t come out since.”

Chakotay looked equally anxious as he tried to play host to the friends gathered in his small livingroom. B’Elanna walked toward him, but he cut her off before she could ask. “No, she didn’t tell me, either.” He handed her a cup of coffee, then walked over to the viewport, watching the almost imperceptable orange glow of the Badlands fade off in the distance.

The announcer sounded, and Chakotay called for the door to open. The Doctor stepped slowly inside, barely making eye contact with any of his friends. “Am I late?” he asked, not really seeming to care.

“You’re right on time,” Neelix said, his voice artificially cheery. “I saved you a seat right next to me!” He patted the couch by his side.

The EMH shot Tom a resigned look as he walked past him to take the seat. “Oh, good…” he deadpanned. It was an optimistic sign, Paris knew. Sarcasm was one of the physician’s best coping mechanisms.

The door opened again and Kathryn walked purposefully inside, a strange expression on her face. She met and held each of her friends’ eyes in turn, then let out a deep breath. “Thank you all for coming,” she said evenly. “And for your patience.”

“You’re welcome. Now, put us out of our misery,” Tom prodded her. “What the heck is going on?”

“Have a seat,” she said, then walked to her desk and turned her computer console to face them. She reached over to enter a command, then hesitated a moment. “I know you’re all aware of the role the Midas Array played in allowing us to communicate with Starfleet while we were in the Delta Quadrant.” It was a rhetorical question, still she paused to let them get their bearings. “What you may not know is that the array was temporarily deactivated after Voyager was found drifting in the Beta Quadrant. The scientific staff—both at the array itself and in the Pathfinder offices—were reassigned to other projects while Starfleet figured out how best to redeploy the antenna.”

The Doctor nodded. “Yes, Reg Barclay told me they were considering using it as a long-range detection system for transwarp signatures. A Borg ‘early warning system’ of sorts.”

Kathryn nodded. “That’s right.”

Tom stood up from the arm of B’Elanna’s chair. “And have they detected Borg activity?” he asked, suddenly concerned at the direction their conversation was taking.

“No,” Janeway reassured him, then corrected herself. “Not exactly.”

She smiled a strange half smile. “Lieutenant Barclay and a team of engineers at Starfleet Headquarters reactivated the array a few days ago in preparation for its reconfiguration. As a part of their work, they began purging its computer core of old files from the Pathfinder project. Yesterday they discovered this…”

Kathryn turned and tapped a series of commands into her computer. Within milliseconds, her own face appeared on the screen—looking exhausted, defeated. ‘Captain’s log, Stardate 54857.2. I have orderedVoyager’s crew to prepare our final datastream transmission from the Delta Quadrant. I’m afraid our experiment in creating a stable transwarp conduit has failed.’

The crew began to murmur, and Kathryn shushed them as the message continued. Voyager is badly damaged, and we are operating on emergency power reserves. I have instructed my people to prepare final messages for their loved ones, and am including them, along with our ship’s logs and personnel records, in this one final transmission in the hope that Starfleet and our families will know that we are alive and safe—even if our mission to find a way home has failed.’

The woman in the image swallowed hard and tried to compose herself, while the group watching her story unfold sat in stunned silence. After a second, she continued.

‘We are heading on impulse power for a small Class M planetoid in a binary system in sector 20.03. If we can reach it before our deuterium reserves are drained, we will attempt to establish a colony there. I am transmitting the planet’s exact coordinates in the hope that a technology will be developed someday to allow Starfleet to launch a rescue mission to bring us…or our descendents…back to Federation space.’ A claxon began to sound in the background, and she was distracted for a moment from her recording.

‘Kim to Janeway,’ they could hear her being paged.

“Harry…” B’Elanna gasped out loud. Tom sat back down and took his wife’s hand.

‘Captain, primary power is failing on Decks 4 though 9,’ Kim said over the comm. ‘A plasma conduit has ruptured in Astrometrics! We need you on the bridge!’

A hint of anger mixed with a hurried look of purpose as the woman in the recording acknowledged the message. Then she turned back to the screen. ‘I have to go,’ she said, almost to herself. ‘Please know that I have done everything within my power to get my crew safely home. Tell our families…’ She began to blink away tears. ‘Tell everyone we did our best. Janeway out.’

Kathryn reached over and paused the display. After an electric moment, Neelix spoke up. “What, what does this mean?” he asked.

Tom looked at his friend. “It either means that someone from the Delta Quadrant is impersonating Captain Janeway, or…”

Chakotay finished the thought. “Or there’s another Voyager—another crew—still stranded out there somewhere.”

“That’s impossible!” B’Elanna spat. “It’s some kind of trick or forgery!”

“Perhaps an alternate dimension of some kind!” Neelix agreed.

Kathryn put up her hand to silence the speculation. “I’ve spent the last four hours reviewing the telemetry and logs that were imbedded in the datastream,” she said. “I believe it’s genuine.”

Tom was incredulous. “How is that possible?!” he asked.

Janeway entered another command, and a stream of data began flashing on the screen. “Freeze image,” she said after a moment. “B’Elanna, take a look at this.”

Torres stood up and shot a skeptical glance to Tom. When she walked over and reviewed the data, however, her expression changed. “Their entire antimatter supply—it vanished two seconds after they opened the transwarp conduit.”

Kathryn nodded. “And notice the subspace readings,” she said.

B’Elanna’s eyes grew wide. “It looks like a divergence field. And there’s a momentary phase variance—just like last time.”

“What do you mean, ‘just like last time’?” Tom asked, clearly not following what seemed so obvious to the women.

“Stardate 49584.7,” the Doctor said, suddenly more animated than he’d been in days. “The spatial rift that duplicated the ship while we were evading the Vidiians. Ensign Wildman was in labor at the time—I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

Janeway nodded. “Only that time the antimatter was trapped by both ships’ containment fields. Antimatter can’t be duplicated, so we were forced to share it—and the tug of war between the two warp cores almost destroyed us both. According to these readings, however, this time the other Voyager’s containment field failed just as the rift developed. We got the entire supply of antimatter…”

“And they got trapped in the Delta Quadrant,” Chakotay finished her sentence. “Without any way to get home.”

Kathryn nodded.

They were all quiet for a moment as their imaginations expanded to accommodate such an incredible thought.

“Captain,” Tom said after a moment. “If Voyager and the crew were duplicated, just like last time, then that means Harry…”

“…and Commander Tuvok,” Neelix added.

“…and Seven!” the Doctor practically shouted.

“…and all of the others are probably out there somewhere—alive,” Janeway confirmed before pointing out something the others seemed not to have considered. “Along with duplicates of each of us.”

The six friends stared at each other in wide-eyed amazement.

Kathryn exhaled and walked over to look out the viewport. She realized that only a few hours earlier, Voyager had passed directly over the spot where the Caretaker had kidnapped and flung them 70,000 light years from home. Somehow, someway, they’d made it back. Yet now a mere 30,000 light years seemed like an unfathomable distance.

Alive,” the Doctor said, clearly reveling in the word. “Seven’s aliveout there somewhere.” He seemed to realize the implications of that thought. “We’ve got to go back for her!”

He said it as a fact, without question. Without speaking the words, they each knew it was true: they had to find some way back to a spot they’d risked everything to leave. To traverse an almost unimaginable distance—again. To find and bring home some too-long absent friends.

“Yes, Doctor,” Janeway said, turning back to face her crew. “We have to go back for them all. The only question is…how?”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom never liked sitting still. He needed to be in motion—always in motion. Now, though, there was nothing else to do but plant his withered roots in the colony’s dry soil. Nothing he could do to escape their grim existence…except run—as far and as fast as his legs would take him—even if it was only through the foothills that surrounded their improvised community.

He crested the highest peak then stopped to catch his breath. Leaning against a twisted excuse for a tree, he looked down at the ten square kilometers where he would probably spend the rest of his life—the place where his dreams had died.

His peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a wild rabbit darting away from him into the wilderness. For a fleeting moment, he considered following it, escaping from the responsibilities that lay in front of him. But he couldn’t. He owed these people. They needed him.

In that moment, a flash of memory came to him: a petite dark haired woman, with the deepest brown eyes, and a smile that could make him forget his name. A smile he still dreamed of whenever his mind allowed him to dream—which wasn’t often these days. Of a twinkle in those dark eyes he doubted he’d ever see again.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the image was gone.

He tipped his head back and stared up into the rose-pink sky. As it often did, his mind envisioned—just for a second—that he saw a ship breaking through those clouds. He tried to imagine what he would feel—fear? Relief? Hope? Not that it would ever really happen. He knew deep down that his second chance at happiness had come and gone. It was more than time to face the reality of his situation: he was trapped, an inmate in a totally new kind of jail. There was nothing to do but accept it.

‘Keep going,’ Paris said to himself, a silent ritual he had first begun while lying in a prison cell, determined not to be broken. ‘Keep going.’ Eventually his body complied, and he was running again, this time toward home…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

To be continued in Part 2,
“Dead Man Walking,” Coming Soon…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Comments

5 Responses to “TBFTGOG – Part 1: Déjà Vu All Over Again”

  1. Hi Barbara!

    I just finished re-reading both stories and I still love them. I was hoping you would have finished the sequel…Should I just give up hope? Something like the Tom in the DQ?

    You are a wonderfully talented writer and these two stories are wonderful. I like your versions much better than the “official” versions.

  2. Hello again, I’m still hopefully waiting for you to come back to this story! I keep on wondering what will happen. Please, put me out of my misery and write the rest.

  3. Penny Douphinett says:

    Hello again, I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads your stories – just the only one that comments. If I was rich, I’d offer to pay you to write the rest of the story; if I was talented, I’d try to finish it myself, but I’m neither. So, I hope sometime, somewhere you can finish this.

  4. Ally says:

    I just found your stories and voraciously read through BCWYWF and the first part of this. I’m hopeful that you have continued them and just haven’t posted…in years…okay, okay, it’s a faint hope but still there. I’m so intrigued by this! So no Harry, Tuvok, or Seven in the AQ and no B’Elanna and whoever else your devious mind is planning on in the DQ, but at least Tom in both? And wouldn’t Tom Riker be just great for helping them figure out the “there’s two of me” conundrum if they do find a way to get back to the DQ? Gah, I need to know! Please please please? Pretty please?

  5. Dee says:

    Hi

    Love your stories. Really looking forward to chapter 2. Please.

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