Written
20th June 2016
19th September 2016
18th, 19th, 24th October 2016

 

Many different types of flowers and plants lined both sides of the awayteam's path. Lots of different colours and smells radiated from them.

Ocampa working on the gardens stopped whatever they were doing to stare at these strangers in fear and wonder. The thump of the pulses being fired at them echoed around, and again much quicker than only hours before.

"Captain, the pulses are continuing to accelerate," Tuvok reported.

"Look, there's flowers here," Kathryn said in a disgruntled tone.

Tuvok raised his eyebrow quizzically. "By zero point eight seconds. I'm surprised you could tell."

Kathryn growled impatiently but ignored him. The team reached the end of the garden, where a larger concentration of Ocampa watched them without moving a muscle. All except one, who hurried forward when Kes did.

"Kes," he said in relief.

"Hello Daggin," Kes said with a friendly smile.

"We thought we'd never seen you again. How did you get back?" Daggin asked.

Kes glanced over her shoulder towards the awayteam. "These people rescued me from the Kazon."

Neelix puffed his chest proudly, "yes I did."

He got a disgusted scoff in response first. As he expected, it came from Kathryn. "Oh keep it in your pants you disgusting little hedgehog!"

"What?" Neelix stammered.

The Ocampa continued their conversation as if the pair had not spoken at all. "I'm trying to help them find three of their crew," Kes said.

"Oooh look at me, aren't I butch and manly?" Kathryn snarled humourlessly. "I'll help you out, no. I've seen well read Mr Men books with more spine than you." Neelix was now speechless, but it amused Tom to no end.

Kes' struggled to keep her voice from wavering, "does anyone know where the aliens are kept?"

"Oh don't even tempt me Bum Hair Paris," Kathryn muttered.

Kes coughed, "the ones the Caretaker sends here?"

"I think they're at the central clinic," Daggin quickly said before anyone else spoke.

"You're one to talk," Tom mumbled under his breath at the same time, hoping it would mean Kathryn would miss it.

It seemed to work as Kathryn glanced toward with Kes, interest piqued. "Can you take us there?" she asked her.

A male voice intruded in all of the awayteam's minds, forceful and commanding, "no she cannot."

Kathryn twitched in quiet fury and swung around behind her. She wasn't the only one. Kes' face tightened, her eyes shone defiantly in the same direction. "They can't talk telepathically Toscat, please talk aloud."

A tall man approached from the same direction the team had entered. His demeanour didn't match his commanding tone earlier. He looked almost sorry for himself. Chakotay thought to himself that Kathryn's earlier stare may have had something to do with it.

"I apologise, I didn't mean to be rude. But you should not be here," he told the team.

Tom rolled his eyes, "my hair's fab anyway."

Kathryn snorted into quiet laughter. "Already going bald, combover Paris." Tom gasped.

Chakotay sighed from the secondhand embarrassment blowing across from them. "You have our people here. That's all we're here for."

"At least I don't change my flat hair style every five minutes," Tom grumbled.

Kes shook her head while thinking, "ignore them, we have been." Toscat nodded.

"That won't be possible. We cannot interfere with the Caretaker's wishes," he said.

"Maybe you can't, but we can," Chakotay countered.

Toscat sighed, pained at the thought. "You don't understand."

Kathryn gingerly checked her hair, now loose over her shoulders. Her face turned bright red, "my hair's not fla... I had a headache." Tom smirked, sending her into yet another rage. "Oh fine, I'll beam back to the ship and start again shall I!" She even tapped her commbadge.

Tuvok sighed, "Captain, this isn't a scene."

"It is now," Chakotay muttered.

"You're right. They don't understand," Kes soldiered on without them. "They can't imagine being dependent on a higher being for so long. That we don't think for ourselves anymore, we merely follow the same routine every day until the day we die. They don't know what we once were before him; a people who had full command of our mind's abilities."

Toscat laughed, his tone turned patronising, "the stories of our ancestors' cognitive abilities are apocryphal. At the very least exaggerated."

"Someone take this guy's thesaurus off him before I beat him with it," Kathryn snarled.

Kes seemed to be on the same page. Her eyes were fired up, jaw clenched. It was clear to the rest of the team that she had this argument many times, with many similarly minded people. "We lost those abilities because we stopped using them," she bit back.

"We should not dwell on what's been lost but on what's been gained," Toscat said.

"What, the talent for dependency, laziness?" Kes said harshly.

Kathryn smiled before leaning in towards Tuvok, "I like her." Tuvok wasn't surprised in the slightest. Chakotay was though, he didn't think she was capable of liking anyone.

"I'm going to help them Toscat, whether you like it or not. I think my friends will join me," Kes continued, briefly glancing over to Daggin and the others. Many gave her a firm nod.

Toscat approached her, gently taking her arm to bring her to one side. "You defied the Caretaker by going to the surface, Kes. Learn from the experience. Follow the path he has set for us."

"A path you've interpreted like everything else," Kes said, shaking her head. "I've learned more out there than I ever could here. I saw the sunlight. I can't believe our Caretaker would want us to live our whole lives with our eyes closed." She defiantly turned away from the man to address the awayteam, "come with me. We'll find your people."

She lead the way out of the garden. The team, her friends followed. Only Kathryn remained behind briefly to make sure the helpless Toscat saw her smirk.

 

The path ahead of them looked to be neverending. Nothing but miles of winding metal stairs going up. Going up several flights of them was exhausting enough, without dragging the heavy shovels as well.

Jessie was the first to show it. Her steps had slowed. Most of them she hunched over slightly so she could use her left hand to help push her up them, making her constantly drop the flashlight. The shovel dragged across the floor the whole time.

Harry trailed behind her sideways, his back leaning against the rail for support as he climbed. Even that wasn't enough after a forgotten amount of flights. He began to slide further down until he was almost sitting on the steps he was climbing.

James had been only a few steps above Jessie a short time ago, but even though he had slowed as well, he found after hearing the sixth flashlight clatter that he was a flight ahead of both of them. He staggered back down from the midsection and offered to take the heavy shovel from her. The stubborn groan he expected, still he crouched down to get it. Her only resistance was incoherent mumbles and half a step.

"We should take a break," he said.

"I'm sorry," Harry gasped for breath.

James shook his head, "no, I am." As he tried to straighten up, the swollen patches stung as if they were on fire. It seemed to eat whatever was left of his energy, his limbs felt so heavy. Still, he forced himself to climb back to where he had been and dump the two shovels on the midsection behind him. "We should've stopped sooner."

Jessie settled on the step she had tried to lift up to before. It didn't take long for her to drift off into halfway sleep, still conscious but resting. Both of her teammates looked concerned. James thought about climbing back down again, but Harry was closer and he dragged himself up a couple more.

"I'm fine," she mumbled still with her eyes closed.

A few minutes passed silently, with only the thump of the pulses occasionally flying over. Harry broke the silence as well by going up a step. He didn't notice James frowning at him as he squeezed by Jessie, who had sensed it in her daze and flinched at his proximity, her legs bunched up and pressed against the railing. Harry made sure the gaps in between those steps were shorter.

Eventually he settled three quarters the way up and once more rested his back against the railings.

"This isn't a race," James said once he did.

It took some effort for Harry to even glance up at him on the top step. "You're not kidding," he tried to quip, it took his breath away. He wondered if James had similar difficulty when all he did was stare back. "Got a second wind, at least I thought I did. Wasn't a good idea," he weakly laughed at himself.

James nodded in understanding. "Yeah, a woman was beating you." Harry frowned. He saw a glint in James' eye as he turned his head back to stare ahead. "Inspiring," he then mumbled, at least that's what Harry thought he said.

He was exhausted, but Harry wasn't going to take that lightly. "I didn't want her to worry, think that she was holding me up." To his further annoyance James chuckled and shook his head. "She wasn't, but if it got too much, it's further effort to slow down." Laughter continued. "Why are you like this? What about you and the shovel, shooting off ahead of us?" he ended up snapping.

That shut him up. Harry wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not yet. After a few seconds of awkward silence, James looked back down at him. His face was blank, he couldn't read it. "I don't care," he said simply.

"Don't care? About what?" Harry asked, still out of anger.

James slowly glanced up, his fingers began to drum against the metal floor. "Been through worse." The sores punished him for even that. He sighed impatiently and grit his teeth till it faded away. "That wasn't a hint."

Harry smiled. This was the first real sign that he was as affected as they were, until now he seemed almost inhuman with their first meeting and the flying up the steps. It wasn't a smug finally smile, but a one of sympathy. Still, he had a score to settle so it didn't last. "And I'm the macho showoff. Interesting."

He got a bemused stare directed at him. Harry sighed, at least he wasn't mad. Yet. "Careful, that spine's stiff from lack of use."

"Oh don't you worry about me," Harry laughed quietly.

"Already there," James said with a half smile, then he looked away again.

Harry shook his head once more. "It can't be a coincidence that there's another Taylor whose good at hacking, has a temper, and is the second rudest person I've ever met."

James continued to drum his fingers on the ground, more rapidly than before. "I hope not," he muttered. He glanced back down looking offended, "only second?"

Harry smirked down at his crossed hands, and feet. "Why don't you want your friend to know you were at the Academy?" James slowly looked over his shoulder, down at him. "Were you kicked out, and that's why you...?"

"Joined the Marquis," James finished his sentence for him. "No. I joined because I'm racist enough to think all Cardassians are murdering bullies." He smiled a little unnerving, "or I was bored. Take your pick."

Harry studied his expression carefully, it didn't scare him this time. "You're my age, twenty, twenty one?"

"Random, aren't we? Yeah I'm twenty one, so what?" James said with a raised eyebrow.

"The entry exams are very tough, selective. If you fail you've gotta wait till the next year. I got lucky, in first time," Harry said, raising the other man's eyebrow even further. "I was graduating the same time you... sorry Taylor had started. That's..." he sighed sadly at the ground, "that's a good few wasted years of trying to get in, only to throw it away immediately because you don't think you fit in."

James quietly laughed down at him, then toward the rocks straight ahead of him. Harry watched him with a frown. He noticed James' check on Jessie before saying anything, "joining Starfleet isn't everyone's dream job. Not everyone sees themselves eventually commanding an Enterprise, or aging behind a desk dreaming of their wonder years."

Harry shifted uncomfortably. He knew that but he found it hard to imagine wanting to be anyone else. "Then why did you even join? Were you bored when filling out your application?"

"Maybe," James smirked. Harry almost took that as a confirmation that he was right, but he continued. "Or maybe I had enough of Starfleet's boring and very militarised way of life at the prep school, and decided to give it a miss altogether. I didn't think anyone would hear of my reputation over the pond and get the wrong idea."

"Pond?" Harry frowned. A realisation hit him. "Oh, Atlantic. You're English." James looked down at him again with a raised eyebrow. "Is the prep school those special high schools that help kids study for the entry exams? So you must have had some interest."

James sighed impatiently, hinting he should let it go. "If you must know, my step father worked there. He and my mum thought I was wasting my intelligence doing nothing. Stupid," he shook his head. "They just wanted Starfleet to tame me. I can't blame them."

"Why not both?" Harry said. James gave him another bemused look. "You have to have some smarts to take down a server at Starfleet command. Even if it was only two minutes."

"I'm not really looking for someone to kiss my ass, Harry," James sniggered.

Harry smirked back at him, "ah ha, you admit that was you?" James' eyes briefly sliding to one side answered that for him. "So why hide it? You're ashamed you left or that you were there at all?"

The thumps above them increased in frequency, with very little pause in between.

"They're still getting faster," James said. Harry nodded, mouthing a worried yeah. The suddenness of the speed increase startled Jessie out of her doze, she immediately looked up.

 

They weren't the only ones who noticed. Most of the natives the awayteam spotted were fearfully glancing upward at the screens. Instead of it increasing every now and then, each thud arrived quicker like a heart monitor attached to a dying patient.

The team hopped onto the escalators. Halfway up Kathryn quickly did up her hair into a makeshift bun, clipping it into place with a single file. "There, are you happy now?" she snarled back and down at Tom.

He rolled his eyes. "You missed a hair." The next thing he knew there was a palm in his face, the recoil from it made him stumble back a few steps. Since the escalator was going up he was stuck in the same spot, dizzy from the blow and that this kept happening.

The thumps then stopped for good. The entire habitat was left in an eery silence.

"They've stopped," Chakotay said.

Kathryn chuckled, "he won't, not for a while." She tapped her commbadge, "Janeway to Voyager, what's happened to the station?"

"It's no longer sending out pulses, Captain. It's changing its position."

"Keep me informed of any changes. Can you handle that Crewman?" Kathryn asked dangerously.

Voyager:
"But I'm an Ensign," Rollins whimpered.

B'Elanna rolled her eyes in disgust. "No wonder, you're spineless."

"Excuse me. You have no idea how cruel Janeway can be," Rollins said huffily.

"Please. She's all bluster. I don't know how any of you can take orders from and respect that witch," B'Elanna said.

A lot of the Bridge were frozen solid, paranoid that the comm was still active and Kathryn had heard everything.

Rollins chuckled nervously, "respect? Most here will take orders from people they fear, as for me..." B'Elanna narrowed her eyes toward him, melting what was left of his stubbornness. "I'm willing to take suggestions."

"Mmmhmm," B'Elanna smiled. "We should monitor the Array's power levels. We might be able to figure out what he's doing before he does it. Danny?"

"Yep," Danny said eagerly, that was until she tried to figure out what station to use. She span on the spot whilst pointing her finger. B'Elanna groaned and pointed towards Opps. "Oh obviously," Danny laughed as she wandered to the Science station.

 

Kes and her friends approached the awayteam in a hurry. "They haven't been at the clinic for hours."

"We can search the city. Ask if anyone's seen them," Daggin said.

Kathryn waved him off, "no need. If I were them, I'd be looking for the nearest exit. How would they do it?"

"There's only one way out. Up one of the ancient tunnels," Kes replied.

"What, there's more than one? We'd better split up," Kathryn said, casually shoving Tom towards Neelix. They both looked at her with dismay and judgement. "There, my headache's already fading."

"Captain, if I may? I suggest one team should speak with the staff at the clinic. We know nothing of their condition and how to treat it. We should gather all the information we can," Tuvok said.

Kathryn smiled toward him, "thatta boy, I can always count on you to keep me right." The rest of her team rolled their eyes. "I saw that!"

"We'll check the tunnels, get out of Queen Janeway's wig," Tom said toward Neelix, and then Kes. They both nodded, Kes lead them away.

"Maybe we should acquire a sample of this deadly illness and leave him here," Kathryn said.

Chakotay sniggered, "I'm all for it."

Tuvok's eyebrow managed to reach the surface. "We must hurry, then join the search."

"Yes yes, you're always ri..." Kathryn said, interrupted by the ground shaking violently. "Bawlings, I told you to keep me in the loop! What the fu..."

"Yes you're very scary but we're very busy here, I'll wet myself later okay," B'Elanna's voice said flatly. Before Kathryn could say anything back she continued, "the Array is firing a high yield energy weapon at the surface. It looks to be sealing the energy conduits on the planet."

"If I meet one more sarcastic ass pain, I'm going to butt some heads," Kathryn said through gritted teeth. She marched off without them.

"Understood Miss Torres. Keep the channel open," Tuvok said. He and Chakotay hurried to catch up to her.

 

B'Elanna squinted her eyes at the viewscreen. She was the only one, everyone else were averting theirs and grimacing. On it sat a odd scrawny looking alien, his or her's ears pointed to the ceiling and a bulging green right eye apparently staring at everyone it freaked out.

"Okay one weirdo sorted, so what were you saying?" B'Elanna asked.

"My name is Hohehoheho, from the Shriyanan Collective..." the alien answered slowly, trailing off into a low hmm. "I think."

B'Elanna checked around behind her, then to both sides. "You think what?"

"Uhhh you, er take care," Hohehoheho probably replied, no one was sure.

"Um thanks, we will?" B'Elanna said awkwardly. "It would help if idiots didn't fire on us."

Hohehoheho stared at her for a very long time, only blinking with its less engorged eye once. "Did we?"

Too many people were sniggering quietly by now. B'Elanna meanwhile seethed.

"Yes, our little neighbour doesn't usually spin around on the spot, even with Chakotay at the helm," Danny said.

"I don't feel so good. Somebody put a tractor on, anything!" Ian's voice groaned over the comm.

"Friends take care," Hohehoheho said a tad faster, he or she looked mad. "Home is far."

Voyager shook only a little. It was still enough to set B'Elanna off. "Why are you telling us to be careful while firing on us!? I'm really starting to lose my patience with this thing."

Hohehoheho's eyes glazed over, well one did. It nodded. "You are not take care. Work on anger." The viewscreen switched over to show the Marquis ship doing somersaults.

"I'm gonna hurl," Ian's voice gurgled.

B'Elanna cringed and gestured Danny to cut him off.

"They're setting a course for the Array. OH!" Danny said abruptly, startling nearby crewmembers. "Take care, care taker."

"Yes I got that," B'Elanna sighed.

Rollins and Danny both reacted at the same time but differently, Danny with a bit lip and Rollins with a cringe. "Oh boy," she said first.

"What?" B'Elanna asked.

"They flew straight into the Caretaker's firing range," Rollins replied.

B'Elanna shook her head, "of course they did."

 

Meanwhile the command trio of Kathryn, Tuvok and Chakotay hurriedly walked from the clinic.

"I don't understand it. If the Array is the Ocampa's sole source of energy, why would the Caretaker seal the conduits?" Chakotay asked.

"What kind of name is Howhehidihu? I swear some people are taking the piss," Kathryn asked.

Tuvok chose to answer only one question. "He would seal them if he no longer intended to use them. To protect the Ocampa from their enemies. Captain..."

"I'm glad I wasn't there, so embarrassing," Kathryn mumbled.

"I believe the Caretaker is dying," Tuvok tried to get her attention.

Kathryn waved him off flippantly, "I heard you and of course the old codger's on death door. Any moron could see that."

"It wasn't that obvious, he may be leaving," Chakotay said.

"Yes I'm sure," Kathryn laughed. "I'm sure it's some extremely late life crisis. He'll trade in that Array for a red hot rod and chase women and or men young enough to be his great grand kids." She grimaced. "Eugh, is that why he kidnapped us?"

Chakotay shook his head in much disbelief. "How did she make Ensign, let alone Captain?"

"People tend to find her... endearing," Tuvok answered with a slight waver in his voice.

"Aaaw Tuvie, I love you to..." Kathryn smiled at him. It didn't last, she slapped both of their arms. "...Stop talking about me like I'm not here, patronising pillock. First things first, we rescue our people. Theorise later, get the lead out and lighten up."

Her pace accelerated, she left them in her dust.

Chakotay looked on in bemusement, Tuvok's eyebrows looked like they wiggled as the raise swapped to his left. "To quote her last Captain's promotion recommendation; she's unorthodox but gets fecal matter done."

"I see," Chakotay sniggered.

"PS, please transfer her anyway, or I'll smother myself in those coffee hankies she leaves everywhere," Tuvok continued. "Captain Kris was an odd fellow."

"Yeah I bet he wasn't always," Chakotay said. "So you're convinced the Caretaker's getting ready to die?"

"He spoke about a debt that could never be repaid. I believe that debt is toward the Ocampa. He also frequently complained about running out of time," Tuvok replied.

Chakotay nodded uneasily, "I hope you're wrong. If you're not we're stranded here."

 

Tom lead the way into a darkened shaft. Metal winding stairs lay ahead. He pointed his tricorder upwards, the torch tied to his wrist shone but could barely pierce a few floors up.

"They are in this one, I can't see..." Tom stammered. He raised his voice into a shout, "Harry!"

He didn't get an answer. Nevertheless the tricorder said there were three lifesigns. He hurried to climb the stairs, Kes and Neelix were right behind him. "Paris to Janeway."

"Yes?"

"They're definitely in one of the tunnels. They must be pretty high up, can't see them. We're going up," Tom reported.

 

"Good. When you catch up, Voyager should be able to do a wide field transport. We'll head back up," Kathryn said. "Janeway to Voyager. Three to transport."

"No can do. Those discharges are causing interference, we can no longer find any of the holes in the barrier," B'Elanna's voice said.

Kathryn sighed as if defeated, "oh of course not. That'd be too easy."

"B'Elanna will figure something out, I'm sure," Chakotay said.

"We need a contingency plan if she does not," Tuvok pointed out.

Kathryn rolled her eyes, "or we can climb up the same tunnels Paris is." She ran off without them, "come on you pansies!"

Tuvok and Chakotay glanced briefly in surprise at each other before following her.

 

Tom, Kes and Neelix hurried up yet another flight, Tom had already lost count. Their speed had slowed at least a couple ago. The constant shuddering from the weapon wasn't helping matters.

He saw a few figures sitting on the next flight, he felt relieved they wouldn't have to climb any further.

"Janeway to Paris. You're gonna have to keep climbing once you find them. The transporters aren't working."

Tom's shoulders fell, he quickly looked further up, then down from where they had started. At least they were more than half way, he tried to tell himself.

"Yeah, no problem," he lied.

"We'll catch up in a few minutes, I'm sure. Janeway out."

The trio wordlessly carried on until they circled up to the next level. They reached Jessie first, seemingly passed out where she sat to rest. Tom thought to get her first, but his friend a few steps up groggily groaned on noticing him. He hurried past her to get to him.

"Took you long enough," Harry murmured.

"How could I let down the only friend I've got," Tom said as he struggled to lift him to his feet.

"Friend? What makes you think I'm your friend," Harry said.

Kes and Neelix stopped to check on Jessie. They shared a worried glance. "We may have to wake her," he said.

Kes wasn't a fan of that idea, "no, we should carry her." She then looked up towards Tom and Harry. They hadn't gotten far, Harry tried to mumble at him to stop, but Tom didn't hear him over the sound of the weapon fire. What did stop him was James slumped over the top of the stairs, blocking their way.

"Neelix!" Tom shouted down.

Neelix stalled while he was beginning to lift the unconscious Jessie from her resting place. Kes smiled and shook her head at him. Then she hurried up.

"It's okay he's still conscious, or he was," Harry muttered.

Tom gently side stepped them both so Kes could get by. She immediately crouched down to tend to James. She noticed his eyes trying to open as if they were heavy, she placed one hand on his arm, the other around his back.

"It's okay, don't worry. We'll get through the barrier," she said softly.

"Why don't I..." Tom said, about to step forward to help. Kes though succeeded in rousing him, and James started to slowly get back up. Kes helped keep him steady as he did.

"Sweeting, perhaps we should swap," Neelix said even though the latest discharge had him and Jessie wobbling.

Kes held onto James until they were both on their feet, he gave her a nod and a silent thanks. He seemed to be ok to walk, still she kept a hold.

"We should hurry," she said.

"Not gonna disagree with you there," Tom smiled.

They all headed up the rest of the stairs with Kes leading the way. Little did they know Kathryn, Chakotay and Tuvok had just then entered the tunnel to follow them up.

It felt like it took hours to reach what looked like the top. The metal stairway had ended, a horizontal rocky tunnel lay ahead of them. A purple forcefield flickered relentlessly, blocking their path. Not completely though, Kes noticed. She checked James first, he nodded, then let go of him to approach it for a better look.

At the right side a few rocks had broken from the wall, leaving a slight gap at the edge of the forcefield. It looked big enough for her to squeeze through. She turned to the others.

"We should be able to get through. Be careful though, if you touch it, it apparently can burn your skin off," she said. Despite what she said, Kes edged closer to it sideways and slid her way through the gap.

The rest approached. Tom glanced warily at the unconscious girl Neelix was carrying. "We're gonna have to wake her after all."

"Maybe," James said groggily but with a determined glint in his eye. Harry worried what he was gonna do, especially when he approached the forcefield. He didn't expect it, he genuinely thought he'd help his friend, not leave her in the lurch. He was still thinking it as James scanned every edge of the field.

"Okay, I'll put her down first, don't wanna..." Neelix said as he crouched down gently. A bang, immediately followed by a slight rumble ahead startled him. It also startled Jessie awake, though she was too tired to do little more than open her eyes.

Tom swirled around to see what it was. All he saw was James nudging a few rocks he swore weren't there before to one side with his foot, the gap in the field looked somehow bigger. He blinked a couple of times to make sure as he didn't notice immediately; James was doing this on the other side of the field. Kes watched on with a sort of bemusement. It seemed to wipe him out as he stumbled into a kneel on the ground.

"How, what..." Tom stuttered.

Harry tried to smirk but even that was difficult, he wasn't surprised in the slightest. "Let's go."

"Right," Neelix said cheerfully, standing back up. Apart from him they all headed through one at a time while Kes once more crouched down to tend to James.

Once Neelix squeezed through with Jessie in one piece, Tom lead the way further down the tunnel. It didn't take long to reach a dead end. He waited for the others to catch up.

"This looks like the top. Neelix, phaser," Tom said.

Neelix carefully crouched to put Jessie down. Bringing out his phaser as he walked up to join Tom. The pair aimed at the roof of the tunnel and fired at the same time. Rocks and dust tumbled down ahead of them, the harsh sunlight tried to slip in through the haze which gave their eyes a little more time to adjust to it.

Tom didn't wait for the dust to settle, he turned to the others. "I'll go first, and pull you all up. Someone..." Neelix volunteered by rushing onto the fallen rocks, then gesturing his arms out in front of him. "Thanks." It was a struggle, some wobbling as he tried to climb up using them as leverage. If the situation wasn't quite dire, the others would laugh at the pair.

"Almost," Tom groaned as he stretched for the hole. His fingers grazed the edge. It wasn't enough. He almost slipped when he felt a bit more stable and a few more hands on him. He pushed up further and was able to rest his arms against the surface. With that he could drag his whole body to the ground.

He quickly turned around on his hands and knees to reach into the hole. First to grab his hand was Kes being lifted by Neelix. Next up was Harry, he needed both Tom and Kes to pull him up since he had little strength left. For some unknown reason Neelix was next, he didn't look at all happy about it. Tom helped drag him the rest of the way up.

As he and Neelix collected themselves, not only Jessie's hand shakily grab the edge, one of James' did as well. She did have her other arm tightly around his shoulder until then, it seemed to pain her a lot to reach around him to grab the edge. Kes and Neelix both quickly grabbed her arms and pulled her out. Tom meanwhile went to reach for him.

James tried to bring his other arm up to help push himself up, but instead it missed by a smidgen, weakened by the growing sores on his shoulder, and slid back. It was grabbed at the very last second, still Tom felt gravity try to pull him back down into the tunnel.

It all felt quite a bit lighter, he noticed another pair of hands grab onto the arm. Tom briefly looked beside him thinking it was Neelix again or Kes. Instead he saw the previously unconscious one grumbling something while straining. "You always do this. Idiot."

Ignoring that for now, Tom pulled with all of his might. All three tumbled onto the surface finally.

"Do what?" James coughed out, apparently wiped out by the whole thing.

Jessie looked far better than him, her anger seemed to give her life, at least that's what Tom thought. "Help everyone else, but who cares about you, right?" she snapped in between heavy breaths.

"Guys, bicker later," Tom said. He decided to help his friend up first, mainly to avoid them. Quickly with a spare finger he tapped his commbadge. "Voyager, can you get a lock on us now?"

"I can only detect six signals, shouldn't there be nine?"

Tom glanced around to make sure the others were following him. They were. "The others are..." another light, moving caught his eye. It was getting closer to them. "Get down!" he shouted as he threw him and Harry to the ground. Everyone did the same as an energy blast thundered down, crashing close to them.

Once it was over Tom shakily looked across at the hole they escaped from. Dust blew out of it, looking at it gave him a sinking feeling. "Paris to Janeway. Chakotay, Tuvok? Damn."

"You don't think...?" Kes stuttered in concern.

Tom didn't break his gaze. "Voyager, prepare to transport everyone in this group except me."

"Right."

Neelix jumped to his feet in outrage, "you're not thinking of going back there?" Tom turned to him, unwavering. It brought a smile to his face, "well if a fool needs company." He directed his attention down to Kes and the others, "take care of them dearest, I'll see you later."

"Voyager, make that four to beam up," Tom said, reaching over to claim Neelix's commbadge. He handed it down to Kes. "Lock onto Neelix's signal and energise." The pair headed back for the hole.

"Beat you to it for once huh," Jessie smiled weakly at James, who followed his glance after the two with a frown. They as well as Harry and Kes dematerialised.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

Part Five <<  >> Part Seven