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Tom's worried pacing became erratic, he ended up nearly bumping into the crowd that had gathered in it. The second he did it, they stepped out of the way just in case. Doing so caught his attention to one of them.
"Craig," Tom said to him.
"Going alphabetically are we?" Chakotay teased him.
"We'd get through this a lot quicker if you didn't make comments about everything," Tom snapped at him.
Craig nodded, "you could say the same about you and the series."
Tom wasn't about to argue with that. "We need someone at Tactical but we also need as many fighters as we can get. Where do you recommend I put you?"
"Since Jessie and Lena are the other Tactical options, I'd say Tactical," Craig replied.
"It's possible you may still need to fight, to defend the bridge. We have no idea what they'll throw at us," Chakotay pointed out.
Tom stared at him as if he'd kicked him in the shin. Chakotay had no idea why, so he just shrugged. "Are you suggesting we should substitute Jessie to Tactical, just in case a mad Soft or vampire runs in to take over the Bridge?"
Craig cleared his throat to raise his hand, "I think I can manage that. Jess would be more useful as a physical attacker."
"You're forgetting that a month ago she had a baby. It's not something you bounce back from in a few weeks," B'Elanna reminded the three men.
"Did you hear what she did to her mother? No problem for Jessie," Tom said.
Chakotay sighed, "isn't it a bit pointless to be planning where everyone is, when we don't actually know what will happen?"
Tom scowled at him. "I'll tell you what, Chakotay. Let's discuss leadership roles." Chakotay rolled his eyes in response. "Janeway can take over Enterprise."
"Hey," Harry piped up.
"Second in command can go to Harry or B'Elanna," Tom said carefully. He wasn't surprised that both of them weren't too happy with the idea. "And you, you can Captain a shuttle with your super secret keeping, plot twist creating power. The Flyer's already damaged, it's yours."
Chakotay had to groan, "I thought we explained this already."
"He has a point, Tom. What if our final plan involves ship combat only?" B'Elanna said.
"Then we'll still have the right person at the right station. I'm just suggesting that we be ready for both. It's not up for debate," Tom explained. He passed a wary glance toward Chakotay. "Except for you, but I'm honestly not sure if we should trust you."
"We can trust the Captain, at least," Harry said, not sounding fully sure himself.
"We don't know where we'll end up," Kathryn addressed the room. She turned, her arm gestured to a zoomed out view of the galaxy undisturbed by the Sphere. "Could be the Delta Quadrant, Beta..." Then she pointed away from it, zooming the view out to a different galaxy. "Or beyond. There's no telling what will happen, whether we'll survive."
Ersa felt the need to interrupt, "are you giving us a chance to..."
"No, no chance," Kathryn said stubbornly. "Your worlds, your space is right here in the Game. Return to them. When it's over you'll still be there, home and relatively safe and sound."
The room erupted into many raised voices. Tira spoke the loudest, desperate to be heard by the captain. "They've attacked us. We can help you fight them. Best of all, most of us want to."
Kathryn didn't expect much, if any resistance. It took her by surprise. "We will be far from home regardless of what we do. No area so far matches the Alpha Quadrant. We can afford to take the risk, you cannot."
Ersa was another who wasn't convinced. "Our home is gone. I know a lot of my crew want to avenge that. Whatever you have planned, we're going too."
His newly elected first officer agreed with him. "All we're asking for is a choice here. Helping you is the least we can do after everything that's happened."
"I know how you feel..." Kathryn said in a low voice.
Trainee Shar stomped forward, her eyes burning. "Do you? We've only just met. Who are you to be making these decisions for all of us?"
Tom jumped to Kathryn's defence, "she's the Captain. This is her ship." Shar huffed in distaste.
Kathryn wasn't sure if she should thank him for that or not. "No Tom. Voyager is ours. You're her captain now." He looked at her gratefully. "I stranded it and a crew of over a hundred and fifty in the Delta Quadrant, because of something I believed in. My crew are all in together on this one and we're lost anyway. You may want to fight the Game and the Softmicron, but some of your crew may just want to get back home. You can't make the same mistake I made."
"Seems like you're doing the same thing again. It's just the opposite side of the decision," Tira said.
"Yes," Shar agreed. "I've been with Voyager since the beginning of this hell hole. I want to see this through. I won't be chucked aside. This is what I've been training for, right?" she said the last part towards her remaining team mates.
Kathryn quickly scanned the whole room, starting with the small group of alien trainees that Wesley had recruited. From what she heard only one trainee would be left if they left Voyager. What with one Human member dead and the other in the brig. It did seem a bit wasteful and insulting to teach them for exactly this, then send them home after one mission. At least one she knew about. Her eye then settled on Maraina, the leader of the refugees that Voyager had rescued fairly recently from their own fleet. Their world was still under Softmicron control, she knew that much. She had kept quiet, so Kathryn was unable to figure her out. From her posture, her strong face, she felt to Kathryn like a woman of kind determination who had been through hell and back.
Tira, the captain of a lone Krralef ship. The species who felt they were in debt to Voyager, twice. Who a mass majority believed were on the brink of their apocalyptic prophecy. The last she saw them they were fighting back quite well against the shapeshifters. It was no surprise that she'd want to fight for both her world and to pay back Voyager. Then there was her relationship with Harry.
So far she knew that she had a fight on her hands. The final two her gaze fell on, there was no way she'd be able to convince them. She understood their reaction perfectly. Yana and Ersa, representing the Katane and Erayas' survivors respectively. If what happened to Erayas happened to Earth, Kathryn wouldn't just do as she was told and wait around Federation space for the Game to end. She'd fight.
"Some of us don't want a way out. We want this to end just as much as you," Tira said passionately.
Despite her feelings on the matter, Kathryn had to convince these people. At least some of them. "Our plan won't be improved by more ships. We only need two. Ending the Game will not solve all of our problems. The Softmicron will still be in the same places. They'll be furious, they'll be vengeful. Some of you know that all too well." Maraina glanced to the floor, her shoulders weighed down. "That's where you can make a difference."
The speech had seemingly convinced the majority. A few were slightly unnerved as well.
"Without the towers and the Game itself, we can drive them out," Maraina said, looking up with some optimism in her eyes.
Yana only had to think about it for a brief moment before she saw a flaw. "The experimental beasts though. They will still remain on worlds with older towers."
"They are still people physically, with the same weaknesses. They can be taken down by conventional means. Phaser blasts set to kill will stun for example," Kathryn said.
Tom shook his head afterwards. Sending these people into further danger was not what he really had in mind. "I'm not going to ask you to do anything like this. We just don't want to drag you with us into the unknown."
"I'm sure most of my crew will want to force the Softmicron from our home. Others may want to fight alongside you, while some may simply want to return," Tira said. "You may have a point about one thing. We can't decide for our people. We should discuss with them what they want."
"I certainly agree with that. My crew are civilians. They're not soldiers," Maraina said. "Where to go though, is difficult."
"Me too. How long have we got?" Ersa questioned.
"We leave tomorrow, it will take ten days to arrive." Kathryn then turned back to the astrometric data behind her. She keyed in a few commands on the station to bring up their incomplete and very distorted map of the Game Sphere. A few points were highlighted, a line each emerged from Voyager's location to them. Kathryn pointed at an area near the ominous blue cloud. "The Katane could stay with us until we enter."
Her arm gestured towards two close together but very distant locations to Voyager. "Shar and Jach would have to leave tomorrow, as well as Sonla and Onlan." She heard a grunt from the very vocal Shar. Her attitude so far had been annoying to say the least, however her spirit was admirable so she chose to give her a pass.
Another destination lay roughly in the middle. "Captain Tira. Four days and we'll be too far out of range for you to return in time," Kathryn said. Finally she turned to another area of space close by. "Maraina, your space is on route too. We'll have to take a detour to avoid occupied Ruvan ships. There's a habited moon on that course seven days in which my ship have offered to ferry you to, or another place of your choosing."
"Yes, I know it. We have a small colony there," Maraina said.
"It'll take more than ten days to get back to our planet from here," Jach spoke up timidly.
Onlan had a bemused stare on his face. "So it wasn't just me being an idiot. It didn't look right."
"No, but you should be in an area close to your world. If Li'Chin and Wesley's navigation records are to believed," Tom said.
Shar folded her arms, "how are we supposed to get there? Walk?"
Kathryn had to laugh, if only briefly. Shar didn't take offense at it, she discreetly did the same. "I'm still working that part out. My crew are cross referencing Wesley's records and what we stole from the Tolg ship, to see if we can drop you off somewhere after Maraina's stop. It's difficult to know where the Beta Quadrant ends and the Delta begins. We don't even know if Ruva is in either quadrant."
"We're closer to those two worlds," Tira brought up reluctantly. "We'd have to leave earlier than you suggested. If they're willing to go home, then any of my crew who do as well can do it."
Kathryn shared a concerned stare with Tom. He nodded after half a minute. "We'll leave it up to you. However before you discuss it with your people, you have to understand the risks of staying with Voyager and Enterprise," Tom said.
"We could end up anywhere in the universe if we survive at all. I don't think anyone missed that," Shar said.
"Don't get too comfortable. The plan may not work and we could die in its failure," Kathryn said as gently as she could. "The less with us the better. If we fail, it's up to you."
A cold feeling took over Tom, forcing him to shudder a few times. He tried to make himself feel better by forcing a smile onto his face. "But no pressure, right?"
"Tom," Kathryn warned him.
Tom laughed brightly. "There's no real use in being so grim and emo about it, is there. One way or another tomorrow we're setting a course for the hornets glitched nest. No turning back, no second chances. Fear is catching, so I choose not to be the lighter of it and fan its flames."
"Dear lord," Kathryn groaned to herself. She hinted to everyone that they should go. They didn't need any encouragement, off they went, gradually leaving Tom on his own.
"This time the Softmicron will know fear. We will burn but so will they," Tom continued. He pulled a face, unhappy with his final line. "Burn in fear with us. No, we shouldn't be burning. Damn it, let me start again." Thankfully by that time he noticed he was on his own. He sighed sadly, "no one has any respect for showmanship."
Everyone on the Bridge watched Kathryn as she stepped from the turbolift and made her way to the command centre. She gave a nod to Chakotay already starting there.
"Where's Tom?" he asked.
"Probably with his head stuck in the fiction library, trying to find a more suitable speech he can steal," Kathryn replied with a smile. Chakotay did the same.
"Or the actual library. I never saw the point in it. Though Ian and I..." Danny started to giggle.
Kathryn quickly raised her voice to at the very least drown her out. "We're ready. Signal the fleet. Set a course for the anomaly, maximum warp."
Danny pouted, "fine, spoil sport."
Leading the way, Voyager moved forward, its warp nacelles raised up. It shot ahead into the far distance in a blinding light. The Enterprise and their three allies jumped to warp in near perfect synch.
"Oops, a bit premature, wasn't I?" Danny's voice laughed rudely.
"Paris to the Bridge, now," Kathryn's groaned.
Lieutenant Commander Paris' Log Stardate 58931.4: Day one on our journey to the infamous blue, black cloud of hallucinations. Preparations for the upcoming battle is going slowly.
A team of four Security officers hurried down a corridor carrying rifles. When they reached the end of the corridor before it split into two, they chose one side and threw their backs against it, hiding them from whatever was in the adjacent corridor. One gestured to the other side; one, two. On three they leapt forward to point their weapons, two one way and the other two the other. The pair on the right were surprised to find somebody they didn't expect there.
"Oooh, well hello big boys," Annika purred.
Since one of the pair pointing the rifles was actually a woman, she didn't look impressed at all. Her teammate dropped his rifle and ran off screaming the way he came. That of course startled the other pair. They soon followed him. Half way down they ran by Craig as he was about to ask what was happening. Since he didn't get a chance he just sighed despondently.
He finally understood when Annika stepped around the corner with her hands on her hips. She directed a wink that looked so forceful and cheap he took it as a threat.
Crewmembers are in the middle of being re-assigned to make up for the skeletal crew of the Enterprise.
As he walked around and tried to settle in, the Doctor realised he didn't like the Enterprise's cold and baron primary Sickbay. He considered closing shop and moving it to the one on the lower decks, since it appeared so much like home. He realised at that thought that he was already getting home sick. A laugh chased that away for the moment. He had to make sure everything here was in working order.
Footsteps approached. With a smile the Doctor swung around to greet the hopefully not serious patient. "Please state the nature of..." his voice trailed off. The patient standing before him wasn't somebody he expected to see here. He wasn't alone. Standing behind him were two armed Security officers. "The medical emergency," said still with the same smile on his face.
For now repair teams are its crew. Over the months we haven't had much time to spruce the ship back to its former glory. Modifications to the shields have caused a few issues. Integrating the Game loss frequency with the mods cancel each other out. While the damaged systems still on Enterprise are sparking power outages in random places.
"That should..." B'Elanna mumbled, shoulder deep inside an engineering console. The only light source came from a couple of flashlights, one lying on the floor, and another being held.
Damien stood nearby, judging her every move. "Hardly. As per usual, I'm the only smart one here." His finger tip barely brushed the panel above where B'Elanna was working, when blue energy from it tried to get to his flashlight through him.
The lights sprung back to life. B'Elanna pulled out of the station with an accomplished smile on her face. "One down, one thousand to go," she joked to herself.
A whimper beside her got the engineer's attention. She looked up to see Damien twitching, still in the same position he was earlier. Only his hair stood up on end, and smoke rose from him. His flashlight had also gone out.
"You really should get another one that'll last sixteen more decks," B'Elanna smirked.
He muttered a few stuttered swearwords in between tremors.
B'Elanna believes that replacing a few of the damaged conduits with spare bio-neural gel packs may help speed things along. The shortages are getting in the way of the clean up and repairs over there, so if it takes too long we may have to concentrate on modifying and testing Voyager first. Once Enterprise is in better condition, there should be less problems.
Turbolift doors opened, Harry hurried out of them before they finished. He immediately almost ran into Triah busy sweeping the floor with a broom. He kept his bemused stare on her as he walked around. She grunted irritably while continuing to sweep the same spot.
Apart from Bryan at the helm, the stations were empty. Everyone else was focused on repairs. A group of four gathered around the back stations, already a good way through repairing the outer shell of them. Other crewmembers were dotted around doing minor repairs.
Even though they all knew what they were preparing for, the crew's morale seemed reasonably good. The four member team had a good banter going on while they worked. The rest would chat as they crossed paths.
Harry decided he should help out. He noticed the crewman making modifications to Opps had been in the same spot the longest, so he rushed over to help them. He barely had time to say one word when one noise took over the entire bridge. Harry knew exactly what it was, he heard it before. A glance over his shoulder confirmed it.
Triah had magically brought a vacuum out of thin air, and had already pushed it around the back of the bridge. A big and wide smile on her face, it looked like she was humming, not that anyone could hear it.
Harry and the crewmen laughed between themselves, before opting for talking via typing words from opps onto the viewscreen.
I'm hoping the Enterprise will be ready for battle when we arrive or we may have to delay entry. I'm remaining optimistic. Ten days is more than enough time to prepare for a battle such as this.
A red piercing light grazed by the Voyager's shields, detonating in its path instead. The forward shields fluctuated momentarily.
"One day I'll learn not to tempt fate," Tom muttered to himself as a tremor made him stumble into his seat.
"You say stupid things. Be proud of who you are," Jessie said, her hands had a tight grip on her station. "Somebody should be."
Tom ignored the probably millionth jab from her for the time being. "Where's it coming from and don't say a ship."
"I don't know, I don't recognise their design," Faye answered.
"Hail them again," Tom ordered.
Silence followed by light rumbles as the enemy continued firing. Faye eventually shook her head, "no answer."
A quiet, "hmm," came from Chakotay in his old chair. Tom focused on him. "Just in case I ran a bio scan. I've got a match."
"Two days travel and we're already running into the Softmicron, this is..." Tom grumbled.
"No," Chakotay interrupted him. His eyes drifted up to meet the Lieutenant's. "They're Sarazian."
"Who?" Jessie asked.
Tom had to think about it as he didn't know either. The name was familiar to him, it wasn't recent he knew that much. He began to list all the races that they encountered from recent to not so. Chakotay didn't wait for him though, "Shar and Jach's species."
Tom leapt from his chair to face Opps. "Hail them again, tell them to scan us like we have." Faye meekly nodded. "Get one of them to come to the bridge, quickly," he whispered to Chakotay. The Commander tapped his commbadge to do just that.
"They're scanning," Faye said.
A brief ten seconds that felt like an hour silence later, and Jessie piped up, "they're powering their weapons down."
Faye sighed in relief, "they're hailing."
Tom glanced at them both, "best not let our guard down again. On screen." He turned to face the viewscreen just as it activated. As Chakotay said, the alien on the screen had similar features to the Security trainees Jach and Shar. The eery yellow eyes were the first detail that struck him. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Paris of the Starship Voyager."
The alien wasn't too pleased to hear that, they kept a growing temper in check with a firm scowl. "Parseei'an Lomelak of the Trabor. The markings NCC-74656 and Voyager were spotted on a vessel that attacked one of our colonies."
Jessie winced, "uhoh."
"Four of our people were recruited by another vessel of yours. We've scanned two. Care to explain yourselves," the alien continued.
"It's a long story I'm afraid. I'm not sure you'll even believe it," Tom said honestly.
Lomelak wasn't impressed with Tom's non-answer. "I'm listening."
The sound of the turbolift arriving on their deck gave Tom some brief relief. He hoped the first one to arrive was the much calmer and reasonable Jach. He didn't dare have a look to find out.
"Maybe he can tell you," Chakotay said, giving it away.
It was Jach that arrived on the Bridge first. Upon seeing the man on the screen he quickened his pace to join the two commanders. "Commandant Parseei'an, sir."
"You know him?" Chakotay questioned.
"By reputation only. What's happening here?" Jach stuttered.
"It seems like the Flyer and your current boss paid one of your planets a visit," Tom answered reluctantly.
Jach's jaw dropped, "that's..." He glanced at Chakotay instead. He nodded. "Ohno, does that mean...?"
"It means your friends opened fire on your own people. Fortunate for them, there were no casualties. Which is why I'm still waiting for an explanation," Lomelak said. "Once I have that we demand the safe return of the two captives, then you will be paid back in kind."
Chakotay cooly stepped forward while maintaining eye contact with him. "Look around you. We aren't alone. It's five ships versus yours. We don't want to fight you but we are on an important mission that will help you as well. We can't let anyone get in the way of that."
"Help us? Like you helped destroy our power network," Lomelak hissed.
"Sir, if I may," Jach stuttered nervously. He cleared his throat, hoping it would level his voice a little. "You know why the governors allowed the others and I to leave with these people, right? You know of the Games and the Slayers. We've had a long relationship with the Watchers coven for centuries."
"Coven," Jessie whispered with worry.
"Their people were chosen this time around. That wouldn't happen if they were as evil as you think," Jach argued. Lomelak studied him carefully, it gave Jach a little time to think his next words through. "I assume the power network you mentioned was relatively new."
"Yes, one was still under construction. Why is that important?" Lomelak said.
"Better yet, why were there no casualties?" Jach questioned. As he spoke another turbolift arrived so he didn't hear it. "Why would a vessel like this send one tiny ship to destroy a building, but intentionally not hurt anyone? Did the destruction of the network have any repercussions at all?"
Shar hurriedly arrived at his side, her lips quivering and her eyes wide. "What is this? How, why are you here?"
Lomelak's own lips curled at the sight of her and her reaction to him. "Shar Tinah, I assume."
She was further taken aback, "what?"
"Your reputation is colourful to say the least," Lomelak said to her. He focused back on Jach, a curious glint in his eye. "You raise some interesting points. Is it Jach or Binene?"
"Jach sir," Jach answered timidly.
"Our sensors didn't detect any lifeforms aboard your small vessel, Commander Paris," Lomelak said. "Coupled with what Master Jach has spoken of, it is clear that there was more going on than a mere attack."
Shar's face scrunched up. "Attack? Small vessel. Will someone tell me what the hell is going on?"
"One of our colonies has been or was taken over by the Soft," Jach whispered to her.
The colour in her face drained. "No."
"The Soft... micron?" Lomelak said in shock. "The shapeshifters the watchers spoke of. How are they connected to this?"
Tom sighed a little out of relief, mostly out of exhaustion. "Well, that makes it a slightly less long story I suppose. Maybe since we've cleared the air you'd like to come aboard."
"I would," Lomelak nodded. He then disappeared from the screen.
Tom turned to the two alien trainees. The look of horror still painted on Shar's face gave him a brush of sympathy for her. "Would you both want to be in this meeting?" he asked gently.
"Yes," Jach replied while Shar only nodded lightly.
Chakotay walked towards Tactical, "Jessie." She seemed out of it until he said her name. "Maybe James would like to explain his actions to his, I need another word other than victims."
Jessie spotted Shar trembling and speechless. It was obvious to her that the young woman's home was on a colony, and she was imagining the worst. "I'll talk to him," she answered.
The uncomfortable silence had gone on too long. Shar hadn't said a word to him, or looked at him directly at all during the meeting yesterday or since. James expected something from the trainee that hated him. Scorn and anger, an insult, blame. If she thought he did anything wrong she'd call him on it aggressively.
Now the student stood by his office window, staring into space. He hadn't asked her to see him, nor was there any training scheduled. It was clear she had something to say to him, but so far had chosen to keep him in suspense.
When she finally said something her voice was strained. "My mother and sister live on Dizhien. It occurs to me that you probably didn't even care to learn the name of the colony. Just like you didn't care to tell me you were there. Or what happened."
"You're right, I didn't. I didn't wonder about who was living there or what their names were. I just wanted to get rid of those towers," James said, his own voice grew more and more hoarse with every word. He saw her shoulders flinch. "I didn't know it was your home. If I did..."
"It isn't," Shar snapped. "I ran away long ago. I hated it. A small planet, still being terraformed, one tiny city, too many people packed into equally tiny houses. I wanted to go home, so I did."
James had felt terribly guilty when Lomelak asked him about the attack, and he could not put a planet to a name. All he could think about was if his interference caused anything like what he had seen, after he left it. Why else would this race pursue Voyager for answers or retribution. It stung a lot more knowing that his two trainees could have easily been from there. Shar was difficult enough to work with as it was.
Now that she had described it, he remembered vividly which one they were all talking about. Thinking about it, he realised how easy of a target it would have been for the Softmicron. The towers were placed in such remote places on the guise of boosting power and even speeding up the terraforming, that the eventual damage to the environment wouldn't be noticed by the colony until it was too late. If they did, they'd assume it was a natural occurrence or a product of their interference on the new world.
Thankfully though there was no way he could imagine the Soft would blame the civilians for the destruction. Only ships could reach them and only the two building crew ships were around. It wouldn't surprise him if they were 100% manned by Softmicron operatives.
They had no realistic way of punishing the colony, no reason to either, they wouldn't lose out on much power from such a tiny planet and colony. Still, from what he witnessed on the last few worlds he visited, there was a high chance that they'd still do something. It occurred to him then they probably did it to hide what they were doing, while at the same time, point an accusing finger at Voyager. At him. To discourage him from attempting to destroy anymore.
Shar faced him, her face riddled with concern lines. "Lomelak tells me the colony was fine when he left. That the possible cause of the tower project was a newly elected governor assigned to oversee colony growth. I can't stop thinking and worrying about it though." Her eyes flashed as they focused on him. "Because of what you did on other worlds, there have been riots, civil wars, villages being burned to the ground. Fortunately for you the ones who are unaware of the danger the towers bring are left alone, which should be the case with Dizhien."
His throat throbbed, he tried to swallow what felt like a lump away, it only made it worse. All the while maintaining a normal and slightly neutral expression. "I won't make excuses and I won't hide from what I've done. At the time I was naive to think what I was doing was saving them. I can't say sorry, it's such an empty gesture."
Shar took a step forward, cheek bones flaring. "Do you want to know why they were building a second tower on the northern equator?"
James' expression slipped slightly, showing his confusion to her. "What?"
"I'll take that as a yes," Shar said icily. "The colony had suffered blackouts every day until finally the power went out for good. The governor claimed that the first tower had failed, but they knew what went wrong and that they'd build a new one."
James wasn't sure what to say to that. He had no idea what her point was, especially when until they attacked Voyager, Lomelak had no idea what the towers truly were.
"Until both towers were destroyed, the colony had to rely on emergency power. And guess what?" Shar said.
"That was going down quicker than they thought," James replied.
Shar nodded, "hundreds died huddled around fires that wouldn't stay alight due to diminishing oxygen. Hundreds more were starving to death. So many people would go to sleep and never wake up."
The thought of it made his body shudder in revulsion and anger. James could feel the guilt sliding back in. "It's not enough, but I am sorry."
Shar stomped closer to him, her hand raised in the air as if to slap him. For some reason she didn't do it. "What the hell are you sorry for?" she shouted at him.
"I wish I could do some..." James stuttered, partly out of anger at himself. Then he realised what she said and it confused the hell out of him. "What? Why wouldn't I be?"
She couldn't believe him, her head shook with her jaw hanging open. "You're an idiot. I suppose something must be sacrificed in Slayers brains so they can be stronger than everyone else." James wasn't about to disagree with that anytime soon, at least in his case anyway. "Because of what you did, my mother and sister may have survived. At the very least thousands are not dead from starvation, hypothermia or worse. I don't know how you can be sorry about that."
"You, I thought because of what you said earlier about village razing and riots that..." James said uncomfortably and still a little confused.
Shar's face seemed to relax a little, she smirked at him. "I've never liked you. I've not made that a secret. You've done some questionable things in the past, but when push comes to the shove, you make the tough decisions and sometimes it works out. When it doesn't, well I've seen the toll it takes on you and I realise that it can't be easy living with that. It was a little hard for me to come here knowing that I'd have to be nice to you."
James laughed lightly in response. "Yeah, I can imagine. It wasn't necessary though. It's your right to hate me, and your reasons are the same as mine."
"Thanks," Shar struggled to say. She sighed afterwards. "Better. Now, I want to give these little creeps a piece of my fist. At the same time I want to make sure my family are alive, and if necessary defend my people from the Soft. I... It's possible they don't need me back home, that the Soft ran away when the towers were gone, and I'll miss my chance of payback with Voyager. I'm not sure what to do."
"Lomelak knows the truth, he knows about them. From what I scanned there were no experiments, the towers were mostly empty," James said.
Shar scoffed irritably, "that reminds me, what's up with triggering an evacuation alarm everytime you blasted one? They don't deserve any mercy and you're not a merciful type."
James turned away as he thought about how to answer that. "This may be hard for you to believe but, I don't actually get any joy out of killing anyone."
"Even monsters like the Softmicron?" Shar said in shock.
"Even them. Sometimes it was unavoidable. Sometimes if there were obviously experiments inside, I had to," James answered, his voice filled with regret and pain. He cleared his throat, determined to get back on topic. "I don't think your colony is in that much trouble, if at all. However the one that ordered the towers will still be alive somewhere. I remember one of the ships flying away on that first one. If it's revenge you want..."
"It isn't just my colony. Binene and L'Era, who I came here with. Janet and Leesa, even bloody Li'Chin. The resistance. The things I've seen, I can't forgive them for that," Shar grumbled.
James showed he understood with a nod. "Just remember, if you stay there's little chance you'll see home again. If we somehow make it to ours, it'll be three decades before you could return."
"This is what I came out here to do. No use running now," Shar said and smiled now that her mind was clear.
Everyone's eyes were on the viewscreen as the Sarazian ship changed course. Due to both of their speeds, they were gone instantly.
Tom relaxed back in his chair, sighing with regret. "And so our numbers begin to dwindle."
"I hope that Lomelak will be able to convince some people about the towers and the Softmicron," Jessie said.
"Me too. We can't afford to get a battering so close to the big finish," Tom said.
James entered out of the turbolift closest to Tactical. He stopped there beside Jessie as Tom glanced over his shoulder expectantly. "Sonla and Onlan. Lomelak offered to ship them home, it isn't far from their world."
"Can't say I blame them," Faye commented.
"Me neither, their development's been little to none," Tom tried to lighten the mood. No one was biting, he attempted to laugh it off. "Two out of four ain't bad. At least Stewart won't be on his tod standing next to the big boys."
James smiled dangerously at him, "I'm so glad you didn't italicise the big part of that sentence."
"Yeah well, I'm feeling generous today," Tom chuckled. Jessie and James shared similar amused looks to his relief. "Okay, so five more days until the biggie, I have a feeling they're going to be eventful."
"Jinxing doesn't work that way Tom," Chakotay said. Tom shushed him.
Lieutenant Kim's Personal Log Stardate 58938.3: Today's the final day that the Krralef can remain with us if they want to return home in time. I must admit, that I'm feeling especially torn about the whole thing. I can't bear the thought of saying goodbye to Tira, however I cannot ask her to stay. I know how difficult it is to be so far from home, with no hope of ever seeing it again. I don't want her to go through what I did.
"Good thing it's not really up to you, is it," a woman's voice said from afar.
"Tira? Oh hang on."
After some rushed footsteps and rustling around, the log ended.
Harry hurried over from the desk to the Ready Room door, where Tira stood smiling at him. "Does that mean you've decided what to do?" he asked her.
"We had a bit of a tussle about it over the last few days. It came to blows, arm wrestling. It wasn't pretty," she answered playfully. "The majority of the crew felt they could be more useful fending off the Softmicron at home, while the rest wanted to fight them with Voyager. We were told that you only needed two ships so... we came to an agreement."
Harry's eyes lit up for a few seconds, his face fell immediately. "Tira, you must understand what you're doing. Seventy thousand lightyears from home isn't a laughing matter, it's not easy. It can get so lonely when you're so isolated from your own species."
"I won't be. Twelve of my crew have requested to stay behind as well. Most of all, I'll have you," Tira said.
"Will your ship be okay without you?" Harry asked.
Tira clutched both of his hands gently. "I think Shilar can handle a week long trip home. You can't talk me out of it."
"Who?" Harry stuttered.
"My second in command. She used to be my tactical officer. You met her," Tira laughed.
Harry imagined a few years, maybe a decade down the line when Tira had probably tired of him. Resentment building until neither of them could take no more. He saw her staring out of a window, whether it was on Earth or another starship, dreaming of a home she'll never get back to. Just like he used to a few years ago. He didn't want her to regret this for, very likely, the rest of her life. Harry also didn't want to be part of the reason.
"This is my decision. I want to end this, like you do. I want to be a part of it," Tira said softly. There was a twinkle in her eye, daring him to argue against her. "I know you'd do the same in my position."
"Eerm, I'm not so sure about that. I miss my mom's cooking far too much," Harry teased her.
Tira's smile brightened, the laugh he loved so much filled the room. Her raised eyebrow and mischievous glint hinted to him that what he said was serious, laughing at how pathetic he was. Years ago he would've been partly. The crew made fun of his near obsession with getting home. Nowadays he could live almost anywhere with Tira by his side.
"Are you doing a cheesy and or soppy narrative in your head again?" Tira asked, killing the mood.
Harry stared dumbfounded at the woman. He'd only known her a few months yet she could read him like a book. He sighed, Tom had warned him.
Lena hovered outside the door for a few more minutes, steeling herself before walking inside. She berated herself for her curiosity. Why had she read it? There was no one to really talk to about it. The final sentences were all too clear.
"If you have to, only who you trust the most. Who you feel haven't..."
She couldn't bring herself to think about the rest of it. For now, the sole other recipient of the data file was her choice. She wondered if he had read it yet. What if he hadn't? Lena wished she was still ignorant to its contents, so why force the same burden on him?
The door opened without any movement from her. Somebody on the other side had triggered it. As she had placed herself as close as possible to it, he almost walked straight into her.
She found an almost mirror image of her own worry staring back at her. He tried to hide it within the same second. It was too late, she'd seen it.
"Lena? What's wrong?" her brother asked.
She tried to answer, the words would not come out. Her head instead shook meekly.
"You've read mum's file?" James whispered.
So he had read it. Lena should have known he wouldn't wait like Kathryn had suggested. The question was how long had he known its contents? "It doesn't end, does it?" her voice finally worked, although it was weaker and higher in pitch.
Any attempt to hide similar feelings crumbled away from James' face. There weren't any words that either of them could say to fix it. The pressure, the uncertainty was overwhelmingly suffocating the pair of them. Afraid of what was to come. For the moment, all they could do was hold each other until they could bury it away once more.
Kathryn Janeway's Personal Log Stardate 58940.5: Day five of our journey and tensions are definitely becoming more and more noticeable. To make sure we're ready for whatever's ahead for my crew, every member are scheduled to report for at least one self defence training session. However it's not helping with the dwindling morale.
Three crewmembers in their regular clothes hurried down the corridor, each with a hand hovering over the phaser in their pockets. They joined Craig standing around the edge of a corner. With his fingers he gestured for them to carefully go around him and secure the adjacent corridor. Two of them understood and did so. The third didn't react right away. When they did, they abruptly moved forward and tripped over their own feet. They managed not to fall, but the phaser fell to the floor with a bang. He snatched it back as quickly as he could so he could join the other students.
Craig stared after him, reminded of how he used to be when he first started this job. As if on cue the third crewmember jumped back, startled. Craig quickly reached for his own weapon, only to see another crewmember walking the opposite direction with a wide eyed expression on her face.
Voyager's been through many more battles than I can count. This one feels different somehow. There's a sense of finality. As I look around, I know I'm not alone in this.
Carefully wrapped up so it was nice and safe, Neelix carried his precious bundle down the corridor. On the way he passed a few people carrying supplies going the opposite way. He maneuvered out of their path as their cargo was heavier.
As he turned the corner he spotted two more crewmembers coming his way. For some reason he couldn't understand, they parted, forcing him to walk in the middle of the corridor. He was almost by them when one of them swatted the container out of the Talaxian's hands. The contents flew all over the floor.
"Ohno, my babies!" he cried. The two crewmembers kept walking despite that, unknown to him they were sighing in relief. Neelix grew angry with them for not stopping to help, "what have you got to say for yourself!"
The girl who did the deed stopped to look over her shoulder. "Hurray." Then she brazenly walked away.
Neelix began to sob. There was no way he could rescue them. Now he would have to save the last of his Leola Root for the final couple of days. The future was definitely feeling bleak now.
As of yesterday we are a fleet of four. Two days time another will leave us, bringing us ever closer to the way we began this journey. On our own. However we will be stronger for it. There is no alternative. We will win. The Softmicron will regret what they've done.
"Let's try it again," B'Elanna said, irritated and exhausted.
The rest of Engineering feared for their heads. If it didn't work again they had collectively decided to run. Everyone for themselves.
She and the ones in the same work station area, worked in unison. B'Elanna turned to a metal canister sitting on her control panel. She stared at it intently while her fingers tapped the console. The others were done, she kept going. Everyone held their breath.
A fizzle, then a constant hum. There was a shared exhale amongst the Engineering staff. A blue shield sprang up around the canister. The relief was so great, a few broke out into applause.
"Let's not break out the champagne just yet," B'Elanna smiled. "How's the energy readings?"
"Steady at one million," Ian beside her replied.
B'Elanna said the words the whole room were dreading, even more than another failure. "We need the test subject." Then she stepped her commbadge.
It didn't take long since that moment for it to arrive. A shrill voice pierced through the door, getting closer and closer. One woman attempted to flee for the other exit, her neighbour clutched her arm. Two others squeezed each other's hands.
"Hellooooooo?" the voice was just outside. Seconds later the doors parted. Everyone froze, hoping that the thing reacted on movement. It sauntered into engine room. Covered neck to toe in a blinding white with flowery patterns dotted all over. Hair wrapped in a loose ponytail swishing from side to side, reminding one car enthusiast of window wipers in a heavy rain.
A sad, almost childlike sigh came from it, "hmm?" Head turned to inspect the room. "I was told someone found a suit. Red with bows, and a flattering bum."
B'Elanna got the shudder out of the way before replying. "It's here," gesturing to the canister. "I think someone intended it to be for you, but left it by accident."
The test subject whooped and giggled as she ran over to it. "Ooh a pressie!" Her hand tried to grab it, only to be deflected by the blue shield which hissed at her for doing it. "Ow!" A few fingers ended up in her mouth. The nearby people heard her sucking on them. "I suppose my outfit's particularly fluffy today, must be static."
B'Elanna faked a smile and nodded. "Really?" It was obvious to anyone unfortunate enough to be too close. This latest catsuit looked very fuzzy and somehow snugger than her usual outfits. If she were alive, B'Elanna imagined she'd be suffocating in it.
Then she tried again carefully this time. The shield buzzed and spat back at her. "Ouchy," she cried. That didn't stop her trying again, only for the same to happen. "Ooph, who's a naughty box?"
B'Elanna leaned closer to her neighbour, "turn it up to 1.2 million." Ian sniggered before obeying.
"Ohhh!" Annika whined, this time using both of her hands. Her eyes narrowed. Her next attempt seemed to be giving it a bear hug, her chest hit the shield first. Some engineering staff swore they saw them deflate a little on contact. "I want the pretty bows. What kind of wrapping paper is this?"
"I don't know what you mean," B'Elanna said innocently. Annika bought it and tried once more, only poking her finger. "I think we can safely say the test was successful."
"What now?" Ian asked.
"I don't know about you, but I'm tempted to test this in random places around the Enterprise," B'Elanna smiled deviously.
Nobody thought this was a bad idea. Annika might have objected if she wasn't in the middle of gearing up to run at the canister. A few crewmembers thought it would be a good idea to move out of range of any fallback damage for this one. Fortunately they did, as her vampire super speed made her slam into the shield so forcefully it threw her to the other side of Engineering.
B'Elanna sighed happily, "I love my job sometimes."
Scattered around her lay different types of sharp, metal weapons. The bed nearby left unkempt. Clothes were abandoned wherever she had changed.
Lena clipped a leather belt with multiple sheathes and pockets around her hips. Then began the task of choosing which weapons would go in it. Another similar belt lay on the drawers nearby, still empty.
No matter which way she arranged it, she wasn't happy. Swapping two knives proved harder than she thought. One refused to sit still without her hand on it. As soon as it fell to the ground she felt her patience snap. The belt was flung over her head and slammed into the floor. The loud clatter it made dwarfed the sound of the door chime.
Whoever rang it tried once more. Lena heard it that time. "Go away."
"Lena?" she heard Craig's voice from the other side.
Lena tried to calm herself down by breathing in and out deeply, before she could answer. "Yeah."
The doors parted, allowing Craig to enter cautiously. He looked around at the mess, then at her. "Should I ask?"
"No," Lena quickly replied. Her eyes squeezed closed for a moment, her face grimaced. "I don't know what I need. I don't know what I'm doing. What's coming after. Just one thing I know, and I hate it."
"The plan, yeah?" Craig said, his voice low. "I'm not keen either. But we need to sever the link."
"Not that," Lena murmured. "I can't talk about it."
Craig shuffled his feet on the spot, his head dipped a little. "Is it about what I said during the meeting a few days ago?"
Her eyes opened, briefly they met with his. "I don't even know how... No, it doesn't matter because it's not you."
It was a small relief that he wasn't the one that upset her. Craig was still very worried about her. He watched her pick up the belt on the drawers.
"I think you are right about one thing at least," she said quietly.
"What's that?" Craig asked.
"Could be just me hoping for a pass or something but... The last thing I remember from my timeline, was Voyager being destroyed by an advanced Borg ship. I alone survived," Lena said quietly. "It's why I thought the whole paradox was about James and not me. He couldn't die again."
Craig nodded, "yeah with the Frenit fight and the revival. There was a lot of focus on him too."
"Don't get me wrong. I didn't want it to be him," Lena said. She saw Craig mouth the words I know. It wasn't enough. "I already know how it feels. All of that pressure, the guilt over a whole dimension just erased, forgotten about because of you." She absent mindedly fiddled with the belt as she pulled it over her head, resting on her right shoulder. "Now, I wish it was just me."
Craig froze in horror. He watched her attempt to arm herself again, getting frustrated with every weapon. He stepped forward, determined to change her mind. "Why would you ever think that? You hated the thought of being the sole reason everything was changed. You just said you didn't wish it on your brother either. What's so bad about neither of you being counted on, alone, to save anything? Now it's shared equally between us all." His face turned a sickly white. "Is that why? You'd prefer to suffer the burden alone?"
"I can't, it doesn't matter," Lena muttered.
"Why, because you can't do anything about it? It doesn't change the fact that you feel this way," Craig said.
"I don't!" Lena snapped at him. "You have no idea. The Game isn't over when it's over, Craig. Destroying the sphere is just the beginning, and the end as well."
Craig hid his confusion well. The worry from before blocked it from spreading. "No matter what happens, I'll be there by your side. Behind you. Wherever you need me, if at all."
Lena laughed humourlessly. "Of course I need you. Why wouldn't I?"
"Well in my really crap defence, I'm not the same guy you befriended. He wasn't even the same one that joined Voyager. Come to think of it, he's probably nothing like your timeline's one either," Craig said.
"Didn't we agree to forget that, so it was less awkward?" Lena winced.
"Yeah. Still, it's important. Some people do drift apart when they get older and change. For better or worse. True some still fit despite all that. Us; I'm not that pleased with who I am now. I was warned that you wouldn't be either. I feel they're right," Craig explained painfully.
His words struck a chord, not the one he expected. She wasn't sad or doubtful, he saw her features brighten a little. "My brother did tell me how drastically different you were. I don't see it though. Maybe your bad boy phase wore off months ago."
Craig stared, blinking rapidly. "Bad boy?"
"Oooh yeah. You got the Security crew all in a tizzy. James was old news. Now they had to watch out for grouchy pants. He'll snap at you good," Lena said, eventually slipping into giggles.
Craig normally would have found it impossible to resist her infectious smile and laughter, and joined in with it. His shame over his past actions and attitude held him back. It had the unfortunate side effect of killing off her recently good spirits. Her face soon matched his stoic expression.
"Grumpy Craig, girl chaser Craig, love struck, shy kid. I have no idea which one of them, if any, are me. Until I work it out, whichever one you need I'll be," Craig said.
"Stupid," Lena said to his shock, her head shaking. "Those things don't define you on their own. The Craig I trust and care about is brave and thoughtful. He's a worrywart who needs to focus on himself for once. Be who you want to be, not what you think I do."
Craig struggled to swallow the lump newly formed in his throat. It throbbed in protest. "What if I'm useless to you? You just gotta look at James and Jessie to know how it should work. Anything he can't do, she picks up the slack. She supports him, keeps him in line or at least tries to. That's what you need. Someone who's got your back who genuinely cares for you."
Lena bit her bottom lip while her widening eyes drifted from one side to another. She looked puzzled to him, until her chin started quivering and lips curled only slightly. "Are you, are you saying I should marry Jessie?" Her giggles were back, one of her hands raised to press against her mouth in an attempt to stop it. Craig could feel his cheeks turning red. "I don't think James would ever forgive me, and the creep factor is huge. I doubt he'd share either, sometimes when he steals from my plate, I steal his plate."
"No, god no," Craig protested. She was still giggling, it was starting to effect him enough to bring a smile to his face. "You and him are different, so you'd need somebody different to balance..." Her giggles turned into full on laughter. There was no holding back now, he was laughing with her. "Maybe we can start with finding you a friend who can explain things better. That'd be great."
"Oh, so no wedding. I'm so confused," Lena sniggered.
"Me too," Craig sighed, shoulders slumping.
Lena walked over, trying her best to calm her laughter down. She stopped directly in front of him. Her eyes sparkled, the smile left behind made his heart flutter for a moment. He knew his cheeks were still red from earlier, he didn't want her to get the wrong idea. "I think I get it," she said. Craig thought he may have been dreaming all this, or at least the second half of the conversation. Why else would she be so close to him. He was still thinking that when she leaned in even closer. His eyes widened as her lips met his only for a few seconds.
He took a step back, his voice stuttered, "the couple part isn't a requirement. You don't have to do that."
"I know," Lena said, still with the smile on her face.
Now he was definitely sure he was dreaming. It happened again, but longer than before. Her head turned away when it was over, and rested on his shoulder.
Voyager and the Enterprise continued their journey with the stars streaming by them. Two more ships still remained with them, following closely behind. Those being the Katane and the silver ship the ex-Tolg's had obtained. It wasn't to last. The smaller of the two ally vessels slowed down. Within barely a second they were gone.
Kathryn watched on the viewscreen, feeling like she had left a part of herself behind. She hadn't forgotten anything. There was plenty of time to say her goodbye's to her former comrades. The refugees they had offered to ferry home boarded safely yesterday. She advised her crew of what was going to happen, making very sure that they knew to avoid being re-assimilated if the Game ended.
When, not if, she told herself inwardly.
Kathryn realised then what was really troubling her. Seeing her temporary home leave without her was a reminder there was no going back. There was still many things she had to do here, on Voyager itself before the mission. So much unfinished business to take care of. Only two full days remaining. It was difficult to know where to start.
A walk around her ship would help re-organise her mind and figure that out. The Captain felt that she would never have that chance again.
Eleven years, and Tom only found himself wondering now why the lights had to dim whenever it was Red Alert. It took him stumbling to find his chair in the darkness, only to find the arm rest instead to do it. With a triggered old coccyx injury, Tom decided it was better to stand anyway. Every time the ship shook, he felt the pain vibrate through him.
Faye shook her head, "they still won't listen. All I keep getting is justice for such and such." The bridge trembled once more. "It could be planet Suchensus, I'm not sure."
"They're targeting the nacelles, the shield strength in that area is struggling to cope," Jessie reported.
"Re-routing power," B'Elanna said from the Engineering station.
Tom hurried forward despite what he was feeling. "Danny, neither of our ships are in our trail, right?"
She looked up at him curiously. "No."
"Shift our speed to warp nine point five, then to whatever number you feel like it. Just keep it random," Tom ordered. He tried to turn back to the command centre, the next hit brought him there faster. "Two ships at warp, going at the same speed. We might as well be standing still. If we keep changing our speed..."
B'Elanna smiled smugly at him. "They can't keep a constant lock, they'll have to constantly re-target."
"Don't give them time to match us, Danny," Tom said. The Engineering station was his next destination. "B'Elanna, I think it's the perfect time for our test."
"The emitters are only in place on Voyager," B'Elanna reminded him, hoping it would change his mind.
Tom's smile told her that wasn't going to happen. "That's all we need for now. Trust me."
B'Elanna wasn't sure what he had in mind. Still, she trusted him and nodded. "One minute, I need to double check if every one is responding."
"It's all I need," Tom grinned confidently. He had forgotten about the pain until he turned to rush away. The urgency kept it brief so he continued to ignore it. He headed for Tactical to stand beside Jessie. "Get ready to return the favour," he told her.
"I'd love to but..." Jessie said.
"I'm ready," B'Elanna reported.
"Now!" Tom's hand slammed on the Tactical station, luckily not any of the controls, only the edge. "Danny, prepare to drop our speed by point five warp."
"What?" Danny was dismayed. She did it anyway and hoped for the best.
The gap between Voyager and the rest of the fleet remained steady, with Voyager lingering in the back. Its hull then shimmered and warped, seconds later it disappeared completely.
An alien ship shot by, changing their line of fire to the other two vessels. None of the attempts got anywhere close, all of them detonated too soon before they could reach their target. Behind them three orange blasts of energy appeared from seemingly out of nowhere. Each one slammed into the back. Phaser blasts followed relentlessly until their shields began to fluctuate. Their engine lights flickered. They slowed to an almost stop, unaware of what happened to them.
Voyager reappeared as soon as they were long gone. They picked up speed to shorten the gap between them and their fleet.
"That was..." Jessie stuttered.
Tom's grin was getting a little obnoxious now. "Genius. I know."
"What we did to the Katane, only with a fancy cloak," Jessie said, wiping the smile off his face.
B'Elanna caught a laugh in her throat. Tom stared at her, his eyes screaming traitor. "You just want the credit Jess. They were following our every move. We needed to disappear," she said.
Tom was more than relieved that her reaction wasn't directed at him, like he thought. She gave him a wink and a mock glare to hint that he owed her one for doubting her.
"Sure, encourage him further. I don't have to live with him," Jessie commented playfully.
B'Elanna nodded and was about to respond when the Bridge shook again. All eyes were instantly on their stations, desperately scanning for the reason. Tom was stuck with looking at Jessie's.
"Impossible," B'Elanna whispered.
"What?" Tom's eyes were wide.
"Engineering to Bridge. The port nacelle is venting plasma. We're trying to seal it off."
Tom's head and shoulders darted around, "what? They didn't get through our shields, right?"
"Right," Jessie replied nervously.
B'Elanna leapt out of her chair, all the while tapping on her panel. "Nope, this isn't happening on my watch." There was no time to argue with her, she disappeared in a transporter beam.
"The Enterprise is reducing speed to join us," Faye said. Her station bleeped at her. "They're hailing."
"On screen, quickly," Tom stammered.
The viewscreen's image changed from a rear shot of the Enterprise to its Bridge. On it, Harry looked on with panic.
"Tom, we've detected..." he said.
"I know!" Tom's own panic was growing. "If anyone can fix it, it's B'Elanna." It didn't help that the commline to Engineering was still open. Everyone could hear the frantic voices and the sound of hissing.
The commlink beep repeated itself, it was quieter than it normally was. Harry tapped his commbadge. "Bridge here."
Ian's muffled voice was just heard over the viewscreen, "I thought I could help from here and I spotted something."
B'Elanna's voice overlapped, "why won't this thing seal? It should. We can't afford to shut down the core until we fix it."
"The type of leak, the location. It's an exact match to the one on the Enterprise," Ian's voice said.
"What?" Faye stuttered. "You have a leak too?"
Danny resisted a snigger. Jessie still noticed her cover her mouth with her hand. "How is that rude?"
"No, not now. I meant..." Ian's voice said quickly.
Alarms started ringing out from Engineering, the voices turned deathly silent. That was until B'Elanna started growling. The Bridge crew heard her slam her hand several times onto something metal. "No. Prepare to eject. Bridge..."
Tom's face drained, he felt faint. "Please don't tell me."
Faye was feeling the same, and a little sick. "Confirmed. Warp core breach in progress. Ten minutes."
"Well, at least this one is slower," Ian's voice said.
Harry's already wide eyes threatened to go even further. "What do you mean this one?" He realised while he was saying it. "You mean Enterprise's leak before we lost it?"
Tom shook his head frantically. "No time. Jess lower the shields." He tapped his commbadge. "All hands, this is the Captain. Evacuate the ship. Everyone head to the nearest transporter room. Repeat..."
"Ian are you sure?" Harry was meanwhile asking.
"Not fully. The Enterprise's was odd. The core wasn't hit. The nacelles are designed to withstand a leak like that. It shouldn't have happened. It didn't," Ian's voice said.
Tom groaned in frustration, and a little in panic. "Harry, you need to lower your shields. We're beaming over. We'd both better drop out of warp. Faye, contact the Katane."
Faye nodded, the viewscreen switched off after a few taps. Harry was about to protest when it did.
"Tom, I'm not giving up. We'll get this core out if we have to push it out by hand. We need Voyager, remember?" B'Elanna's voice snapped.
"There's no harm in evacuating the majority," Tom said. He looked at Jessie. She reluctantly nodded.
On their viewscreen, Voyager was trailing behind with what looked like smoke billowing from one of its nacelles. The image gave the entire crew a sense of dread.
"We're almost in transporter range," Bryan noted with a lump in his throat.
Harry grimly nodded. Something about this was terribly wrong. Ian's warnings weren't helping. A part of him felt like he was in denial, and this could be it. He couldn't stand to watch, but he couldn't keep his eyes off the viewscreen.
"Steady," was all he could muster.
"Craig, prepare to lower the shields. We gotta make this quick, just in case someone tries to take advantage," Chakotay ordered for him.
The Red Alert signal echoed down the corridors, encouraging the people already hurrying through them to pick up speed.
A turbolift opened. James stepped out with a large shoulder bag, the handle of a sword clearly poking out of it. He frowned at everyone rushing around. Then he spotted a few crewmembers standing by one of the port windows, chatting in rapid bursts of panic. He had to see what the fuss was all about, so he walked over.
A quick look out the window and everything seemed perfectly normal to him. Stars streaming by, the red hint of the warp nacelle several feet below them and much further ahead. The two noticed him, he recognised that look of disbelief they both had. Like something crazy was happening.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Eeery huh?" one crewmember said, their eyes glued to the window.
"We were so close. I wonder if it was them," the other said.
James had more questions than answers after hearing that. He looked outside to check again. The two crewmembers were reacting to something. Still he couldn't see it. He had felt the battle. It was why he left his inspection of Deck Thirteen early. Apart that, he was none of the wiser.
The first one inhaled sharply, realising the same thing. "They're trying to stop us. Without Voyager..."
"Excuse me," James interrupted as politely as he could despite the situation. It still was abrupt enough to startle them back into looking at him. "What's apparently so eery? What's outside?"
The pair stared, astonished by the questions. It seemed more than obvious to them. The first to speak pointed outside. James wasn't going to look again until he knew what he was supposed to be seeing. He hoped the second crewmember would tell him.
"Just look, can't you see..." they started to answer.
He didn't hear the rest. Following a flash, Voyager hurtled out of warp so harshly he felt the forces pull him backward. It stayed there, alone and adrift with no signs of damage. Moments later the Enterprise appeared from directly ahead of it. Its smooth exit from warp, a huge contrast compared to Voyager's dramatic one. The larger ship approached so they were closely nose to nose.
"Lower the shields," Harry ordered. Craig nodded an acknowledgement before doing it.
Chakotay hovered over Opps closely, directing Triah. "Co-ordinate with the transporter rooms. We need to bring 'em in quickly," he told her.
The Tactical station screamed, the Red Alert signal woke up to join in. The ship trembled viciously. Consoles and panels all around them exploded, there was no time or earlier warning for the people manning them to duck and cover. Fire quickly overwhelmed the back of the bridge.
"What's going on?" Harry roared over the noise.
"Three ships surrounded us. They came out of nowhere!" Craig shouted. Before Harry or Chakotay could tell him to, he shakily said, "shield emitters are damaged. I can't... They're targeting the warp core."
"How did they know?" Chakotay mumbled to himself.
The three tiny ships flew around the two starships fast, brutally firing without pause toward their engines. They targeted Voyager with the most fury. One hit to the port nacelle sent the starship into a spin as it erupted into flames.
There was little time to do anything. Something inside the starship trembled, ripping it into pieces in seconds.
"... the plasma's leaking. It's hard to miss." The voice was muffled, it was enough to kill off the image before the Enterprise did the same thing. James was back in the corridor, still with the two crewmembers by the window. He hadn't left. Nothing had changed. What he saw still remained fresh in his mind, far more than any bad nightmare. The pair stared at him, wondering why he was trembling out of nowhere.
"Maybe we should get to a safer place," the other said. They gestured for him to come with them.
"No. There's no plasma... I don't understand it," James stuttered, his eye went to the window. The stars still streamed by, the ship from what he could see was fine. "We can't stop." He ran back to a wall panel. It took him little under a minute to get access to the transporter controls, leaving the two crewmembers baffled by his reaction.
Craig hovered his finger around the shield controls, uneasy at the prospect of why he was doing it. His commbadge chirped, snapping him out of his thoughts.
"Craig?" Lena's voice rang out of it, it sounded panicked. He tapped it quickly. "Don't lower the shields. Don't let them stop the ship. It's a trap."
"What is?" Craig questioned. He trusted her judgement, his fingers moved to the sensors to see what she was talking about. He couldn't even detect the attacking ship anymore. It was long gone.
Chakotay walked over to him, his eyebrow raised quizzically. "Lena? What are you talking about?"
"We have to keep going," Lena's voice said.
"We can't. Voyager's in trouble. We need to evacuate the crew, and that's a lot safer when we're not at warp nine," Harry stuttered.
"If we stop, that'll be for nothing," Lena's voice answered.
Chakotay turned his head toward the viewscreen. The image of Voyager following them, leaving behind a trail continued to unsettle him. His daughter's warning did so even more. "A trap," he whispered as he watched. The longer he looked at it, the nagging feeling that something was wrong with the picture grew. He noticed Harry doing the same. They exchanged a mutual glance.
"Keep us on course," Harry said.
Engineering was pandemonium when James entered, but not for any reason he could see. He overheard words like overload and leak. B'Elanna and a few others hovered around the foot of the core, all armed with various tools. She barked orders while swinging herself underneath the barrier to get back to the stations.
"Why won't this thing seal? It should." A brief look over her shoulder and she exhaled roughly, almost growling. Her hands flew over the station, tapping furiously. "We can't afford to shut down the core until we fix it."
James walked towards the warp core, narrowly dodging a crewmember who didn't notice him until the last second. He knew very little about the core, but even he knew that a breach or a leak would look more chaotic than this. To him, the core hummed as it normally did during a warp flight.
A collective gasp stopped the constant stream of voices. James looked over his shoulder to see why. B'Elanna rushed forward towards the core, horror all over her face. She wasn't the only one, everyone else he could see were the same.
"No," she whispered. Then she swung around to bark orders again. "Prepare to eject."
The image of Voyager harshly leaving warp re-entered James' head. He looked again to the supposedly leaking or breaching core, purring gently away. There wasn't any time. He allowed a quick brief glance down at the panel in front of him. It looked normal. He only had a few seconds before B'Elanna would give the computer her authorisation codes to eject the core. He saw what could happen if she did it. He didn't get why this was happening, he didn't have the luxury of time to think about it. He had to listen to his instincts, which were screaming at him to stop her.
"Bridge..." B'Elanna thought to warn into her commbadge first.
James worked quickly. His first port of call was to get into the security override system. A few seconds was all it took to completely change her codes. It would give him time at least.
The warning Tom gave out repeated over the comm system. "All hands, this is the Captain. Evacuate the ship. Everyone head to the nearest transporter room."
The new arrival stared at the screen in silence, her face slowly crunching up.
"So, if we both dropped out of warp... Craig, are there any ships?" Harry asked.
"No, I checked," Craig replied.
Lena snapped out of her daze to turn away from the screen, then toward Tactical. "Can I?" He nodded when she was already on route to him.
"Voyager's not going to last much longer," Triah warned them.
Harry swallowed hard and nodded. "Understood." He found himself staring at the supposedly doomed starship on the screen.
Lena reached Tactical, her eyes quickly scanned it. Craig pointed at one particular part, which her eyes followed. Chakotay watched them both intently.
"Do you know who attacked us?" he asked.
"No, I didn't recognise them," Lena mumbled in response, briefly glancing up to look at him. "There," she said, pointing at the sensors. Craig was puzzled to say the least. There was nothing there. She didn't look annoyed or surprised by his confusion, instead she looked relieved. "The breach, it's an illusion."
"What?" Harry blurted out.
Lena shook her head, "don't ask me how, but Voyager's core is functioning fine from where I'm standing. There are three ships following us on a parallel path. There's no plasma leak."
Harry swung around to hurry over to Opps. "Is it possible we reached the anomaly already?"
"No, not a chance," Triah replied.
Chakotay groaned, annoyed at himself for not figuring it out sooner. "Typical Softpraton tricks. They're the ones following us, they won't attack until we lower our own shields for them. This is just their MO."
"We need to warn Voyager," Harry said.
"They'll be fine. It's us we need to be worried about," Chakotay said ominously. "Triah, tell Voyager to activate the enhanced shields."
"We don't know if that will work," Lena said.
Chakotay smiled confidently, "only one way to find out."
"Will we need to warn them? You got the vision, James should have too, right?" Craig asked Lena quietly. She nodded, still she looked worried doing it.
"What do you mean the helm won't respond?" Tom stuttered as he rushed over to Danny's side.
Danny bit her lip. She didn't bite her tongue though, "well, I mean that I'm having roast potatoes with my tea tonight, and some Yorkshire puds. What do you think I mean?"
Tom sighed irritably, he reached over to try as well. Every command he entered the computer beeped negatively at him, and gave him an error telling him his access was denied.
Faye cleared her throat nervously. "Um, we're getting a message from Enterprise." Tom merely grunted in response. "They're telling us to activate the enhanced shields. What's that?"
"The enhanced..." Tom mumbled. His eyes lit up. "B'Elanna's portal system inspired shield. I hope she's done, 'cos... Jessie."
"On it," Jessie said with a nod.
"Am I missing something? How will that help with a core breach?" Faye asked.
Danny shrugged, "I dunno, all I know is that Ian thought it was similar."
"To the core breach that didn't destroy the Enterprise," Tom said while watching Jessie work as fast as she could. The positive beeps gave him hope she was getting somewhere.
"If there's something there, it'll take a moment to gather enough energy to..." Jessie explained. She didn't have time to finish, a smile spread across her face. "It's online and stable."
"Engineering to Bridge. Um, two things," B'Elanna's irritated voice said. Tom chuckled quietly. "One, the warp core's magically fixed itself. Two, where's that spell book that takes James' power away? I'm going to kill him. Scratch that, I don't need it."
Tom's laughter was momentarily stopped, "James? Um..." He continued to laugh.
Jessie joined in, but not because of B'Elanna's remark, the joke was too soon for her. It was Danny's earlier problem. "That explains the helm."
"Yes it does, doesn't it. I couldn't even replicate any tools, I didn't have authorisation!" B'Elanna's voice trembled with anger.
"You're welcome," was James' casual reply.
Tom had to breathe in through his nose to stop himself from laughing further. B'Elanna would kill him next if he didn't. "You could have told us."
"I would, but I didn't know what was happening. I still don't," James' voice said.
"Enterprise worked it out. They told us to activate the thingymabob shield," Danny said, giggling at one of the words.
"At least your new shield works. That should cheer you up," Tom said.
"Mmmhmm, sure," B'Elanna's voice mumbled.
Jessie frowned, "uh... it's no longer drawing power. It's got enough to last a few hours luckily. Oh, that's odd."
"What isn't?" Tom said, shrugging over-dramatically.
"Three ships were following. They've changed course away from us," Jessie replied.
They all heard a sigh over the comm. "That'll be the ships who did this. All I know is they took advantage of us stopping and evacuating," James' voice said.
"Okay. I think I'm going to need to pop by Sickbay for headache relief," Tom groaned. He rubbed his forehead for extra effect, "and home for a change of underwear." Everyone had a shared hope that he wasn't serious. Since it was Tom, it was hard to tell.
"A what bubble?" Kiara asked.
Harry gestured to the wall panel screen showing a star chart. The icons representing the three ships were surrounded by a large blue oval. Three other icons were following their course and speed exactly. "Think of it as a concentrated zone of the sphere. Its power is amplified."
"Like the anomaly," Lena said.
Harry nodded. "Exactly, but intentional."
Kathryn watched the screen intently, a grim expression on her face. "They know we're up to something. They wouldn't attack so boldly if they didn't. Too risky."
"I'm thinking they saw us and thought it would be funny," James said.
"Now that's optimism I can get behind," Tom commented lightly.
B'Elanna shook her head at the both of them, smirking slightly. "Whatever the reason is, they gave us a reason to test the shield in the field. It works. If I can get it working on the Enterprise, our journey into the anomaly tomorrow should be a little easier."
"Tomorrow," Harry said with a feeling of foreboding. Everyone felt it as well, it left a chill in the air.
Tom turned his attention to the side of the table James and Lena were sitting at. "So it seems that we still have a great need for you both. It isn't only Voyager that we need to win this."
The pair glanced at one another, sharing similar expressions of reality slapping them hard in the face. Even still, they didn't look surprised, only dejected. Lena tried to recover by straightening her back and lifting her chin back up.
"There goes my plans for a trip to the Holodeck when the battle starts," James said, forcing a smile.
Kathryn watched them both carefully. Her shoulders tensed, the rest of her body frozen in place like something strong was holding her there. She knew why, there was nothing more she could do and yet the guilt still weighed her down.
She failed to notice Chakotay's passing glance of concern for her. He looked around at everyone, it helped him come to a decision. So he stood to address them all. "1800 hours tonight. Mess Hall. Every one of you will be there. No one's going to talk about the mission, the Game Sphere, our enemy. Whatever you're doing, you'll drop it and forget about it for a few hours." By this time everyone stared back, most of them with their jaws agape. "We're going to have a few drinks, eat a good meal..."
Neelix was the only one who perked up at this. Chakotay threw him a glare, "a good meal Neelix. The kitchen is closed, permanently." The Talaxian looked horrified at the thought. It picked everyone elses spirits up though. There was always a silver lining. "And we'll talk, reminisce, catch up. Nobody will talk about tomorrow. That's an order."
Kathryn smiled warmly at him. It definitely seemed like a great idea to her. The rest of the Conference Room echoed how she felt about it, it broke the tension into such little pieces there wasn't anything left to be seen.
Tom raised his hand, "if this extends to the entire crew, it's going to be a problem. The Mess Hall is far too small. It kinda beats the point if we use both Mess Halls and the Enterprise's Ten Forward."
"What do you propose?" Chakotay asked.
Tom laughed like he said something dumb. "Oh Chakotay, it's like you don't know me. You're making me paranoid again that you've been a Softmicron spy all this time."
"Holodeck," Chakotay said with realisation. He began to laugh himself until he thought about Tom's other sentence. "Wait, you thought what?"
A few members of the room talked amongst themselves, making the Commander extra nervous and a little offended. "If I was a spy, wouldn't I act like I used to?" he muttered.
"He's got a point. Any good spy wouldn't alienate everyone by being a selfish prat. Unless he was pretending to be Damien," Jessie said.
Chakotay stared at her blankly for a while. She smiled back sweetly in return. "Thank you Jessie."
"Oh anytime," Jessie said.
Tom rose from his seat quickly, clapping his hands once before he straightened up. "Okay then it's settled. 1800 hours in Holodeck One. Leave the preparations to me."
"I may be a little late. I don't think I'll be finished with the shield modifications to the Enterprise before..." B'Elanna said, trailing off when Tom pointed a puppy dog stare at her. "Oh god," she groaned in partial disgust.
"Well, at least we know Miral didn't get that from him," Harry teased.
B'Elanna had to laugh, "oh I don't know. She's gotten the idea from him at least. Look, if you want me there, I'm going to need a few extra hands. The Enterprise is a much bigger ship, more ground to cover. The fact that it didn't have the initial system or its own Deck Thirteen has slowed me down."
"Yes it does. We call it the bottomless fight pit. Two men enter, one man falls forever," Craig sniggered.
Chakotay groaned, "that's it, I'm dismissing myself. Anyone else?" He got up to leave. A lot of the room also filed out, leaving few behind.
Tom thought about the topic a little too seriously. "You know, I was its commander for years, I've never found this pit."
"Probably because there is no Deck Twenty Nine, no giant Jeffries Tube slide. I'm starting to think it's a myth," Harry said.
"Well the guy who discovered it was a bit dense. He probably couldn't count and the pit he was talking about was just how hungry he was," Tom said. Harry frowned. "Only Riker saw it."
Harry nodded, "oh. Bottomless pit. Good one."
"What have I done?" Craig whispered.
He hurried out as well, leaving the two men to discuss it not entirely alone. A third person still remained. Kathryn had been sitting quietly, tuning out the pair's conversation. Eventually she glided out of her chair to walk to the Bridge. With most of the stations unmanned and the usual people not around, it was quiet. Only the sounds of the consoles being occasionally pressed, the hum of the engines and an odd few footsteps from a crewman walking from one back station to another.
The calm before the storm, she thought. A bitter laugh radiated out of her as she then mumbled to herself, "try to be more cliche Kathryn." Once she reached the centre, her body turned on the spot, taking in her surroundings. Voyager, her ship, her home. She had missed it far more than she expected. It seemed only right that they had been reunited before this pivotal battle. It would be a crime if she missed all the fun. A small smile grew from her previously straight lips.
There was no doubt in her mind as she approached her old chair. Her hand caressed the arm rest while she slowly pivoted around to sit. The other hand glided along the other rest, she sank back as far as it would allow. The back of her head pressed into the cushion and she allowed her eyes to close. For those few seconds she felt like the last few years hadn't happened. That she never left and they were still exploring the Delta Quadrant, trying to find a way home. It seemed laughable that those days were the calmer, simpler ones.
It brought back memories of their return to the Alpha Quadrant, where she really thought their problems would be over. They were only just the beginning of another, harsher journey. It would be easy to wish they never took that shortcut, but Kathryn was glad they did. Their hardships would pay off in the end. The menace that plagued their universe needed taking down a peg or two. It had to be them and their enemy knew it.
"Tomorrow," she whispered.
One last look around. She wanted to take a deep, lingering breath to take it all in. Attempting to do so reminded her of the sacrifice she made to get this far. The word rang in her head over and over. Q's haunting words of warning to her came back to her.
"If I told you what to do, you'll wonder why it effects the timeline, and then I'd have to explain what will be the result. You will not want to make such sacrifice."
"Sacrifice? You should know I'd sacrifice myself if it meant saving lives."
"I know, your fate would never bother you."
Kathryn thought she knew what he meant by that, even if she couldn't recall when he told her. With the knowledge of previous timelines in her mind, it seemed obvious that he didn't say it to her, but another Kathryn Janeway that no longer existed. Remembering more of his words and her own, allowed dread to rise in her chest.
What if I'm wrong?
The rest of her crew seemed united on the idea that the timeline was altered so Voyager would make it here, to take on the Softmicron. Was it necessary to put her two children through so many rewrites of death and trauma to do this? A simple change in direction, a poke here and there would have done the trick. Lena and James' interference saved both ships from allowing themselves to be destroyed by trickery. It couldn't have been done with only one of them. They needed to be Chosen to see through it. The answer was unfortunately yes, it was necessary.
Tom's innocent at the time statement about still needing them. Kathryn assumed that giving them that burden was the sacrifice Q had been talking about, so she had kept that thought to herself at the time.
What if I'm wrong?
The feeling of dread had risen so far it threatened to choke her. She knew that without the Chosen abilities James wouldn't have survived. Lena herself wouldn't exist at all. All of that pressure on them was horrible, but they were alive and well because of it. It was more of a requirement than a sacrifice. So what was Q actually hinting at?
I was wrong. The dark foreboding feeling rose further, smothering her. It pulled her down as her body sank deeper into the chair. The Bridge never felt more empty.
Evening soon rolled around. The crew filed into the Holodeck, all of them relieved at the change of pace. Grateful for the distraction. It was decided to have a few crewmembers to take turns keeping watch of each of the Bridges, for very short shifts. After the attack the previous day, nobody wanted to take any chances.
The program itself seemed simple for something that was created by Tom. He had created a pleasantly warm nighttime environment, by the beach at B'Elanna's suggestion. Bars and cafe's filled the promenade.
Everyone had showed up wearing casual attire. Anyone in uniform Tom would approach and advice them to go home to change. Uniforms would remind them of where they were, and the point was to forget that for a few hours.
It seemed to be working well. The Holodeck was buzzing with laugher and chatter. Tables were full. The children ran around in the large playground.
On the empty beach, one crewmember walked alone, gazing wistfully at the crowds. Her face glided slowly over her shoulder, to watch the foot prints she left behind in her wake. All the while softly humming to herself.
"The stars glow black on the upcoming fight. Not a trial to be seen. A crew in isolation, and everyone's being mean," Annika's voice trembled, holding back tears.
Her head tilted up to watch the gentle waves brushing the sand near her feet. "My hatred's flowing like the blood that helped me die." She huffed, her whispering turned into a light and sad singing voice, "couldn't compete with her, heaven knows I tried."
The anger bottled up had began to slip from her. Shoulders rose in defiance. "Don't let them win. Don't let them take. Be the only one they will ever need. Reveal, don't cry, don't change or grow. Soon they will know!"
So she ran, undeterred by the bad combination of sand and stick thin heels. "I don't care, what they think of me! Let their hate rage on." She stopped abruptly, striking a fierce pose to no one in particular, "I'm better than her anyway."
Her singing to herself had gotten the attention from a few stragglers walking on the promenade. One in particular watched whilst leaning on the wall with an amused interest.
Not realising this, Annika continued her stride down the beach. "It's funny how some copycat, makes everyone feel small. That the stories that once were mine, don't change much at all," she continued to sing.
The moonlight peeped its way out of the clouds, reflecting off her sparkly skin. Her eyes fell on her arm, mesmerised by how it looked. It gave her a boost of confidence. "It's time to see what I will do." She pulled her hands to her chest, balling one of them into a fist. "To test their cruelty and show mine. No time travel, no familial ties. Just me."
She span around on her heel, her arms flailing about. Her singing voice turned itself up a notch to an almost shout. "Shut it up, no one cares! So you're strong and so quirky. No one cares, shut it up! You'd never see me cry."
The girl watching her laughed pitifully, knowing full well that the burst into song was about her. "That's because you need reprogramming," Lena said quietly.
"Here I stand, against you all. Let bitterness rage on," was sang as the ex-drone stomped her foot. Clouds of sands flew up and covered her head to toe. She didn't expect it, that was clear to anyone watching. As if she knew she had an audience, she patted her catsuit to clear it away, disguising it as some bad sultry dance routine.
Lena couldn't resist joining in the song now, it was almost as if she were daring her to anyway. "Your machine routine failed to keep people awake."
The glare that was received was laughable. It should have put her off, yet Annika carried on singing anyway. "Your chosen one trope is tired. My contributions are all mine."
"Oh they are, are they, I thought those things were really fake," Lena laughed while she sang back.
Annika swung around, flipping her hair. "No one knows who you are, while I'm Seven of Nine!" she boasted, hand pressed to her chest.
Lena struggled to keep a straight face. "At least I have a character arc and flaws, you wish you had."
"I cried..." Annika began to sing back.
"You malfunctioned," Lena ad-libbed over her.
Annika growled, and yet she still sang, "I loved."
Lena pushed her body up to sit on the wall separating them. Her legs flew over the side. "You malfunctioned."
"I developed," Annika pretended to ignore her and carried on singing.
"Reset and done again," Lena added on with a cheeky smile. She jumped down.
"I stole your father," Annika hissed.
Lena shuddered before answering, "hold me back."
Annika slowly crept over to her. The nearby street lamp gave her golden eyes a reddish tint. "I'm never going back. Your jibes are in the past."
"I can say them again if you want," Lena smiled.
The pair stood within metres of each other, stepping forward with each line they sang. "Shut it up!" Annika screeched.
"Let it go," Lena immediately followed with.
Annika sang over her aggressively, "while I'll rise as the true heroine."
Lena casually shrugged. "You were nothing more than eye candy."
"No one cares!" Annika sang louder than ever, determined to drown her out.
"You're right there," Lena smirked. They could no longer take steps forward without bumping into each other. Annika glared as fiercely and intimidatingly as she could. Apart from her change of eye colour from yellow to red, Lena continued to find it funny.
"That helpful girl will ruin..." Annika sang, gesturing to the promenade.
Before she could finish, Lena cut in. "...You won't star, in anything again."
"Let the hypocrisy rage on," Annika changed her singing style to a low grumble and growl.
Lena smiled darkly, a playful but deadly glint appeared in her eyes, "your whines are funny to me anyway." Before Annika could counter with anything, Lena swung around over dramatically, mimicking Annika's earlier pose when she thought she was alone. Then to add further insult she squeaked a hmmph and stomped off.
By the time it was over there was a huge crowd hanging around the same wall Lena jumped down from. One of the audience sniggered to himself, his head shook in disbelief. "So much for being done with the Disney crap." He cackled and walked away.
A few bars away Tom sat down at an occupied table, armed with a relieved smile. He wrapped an arm around the back of his neighbours chair, "so glad you made it."
B'Elanna tried to relax into it. "I still have a few emitters to install. The shield itself can't be tested until we go in, so..."
"Shh, no ship talk. Don't make me throw you out," Tom teased.
On the opposite side of the table, Harry gently nudged Tira's arm with his elbow. "This should be good." She responded with a smile.
B'Elanna faked a scowl, it seemed real enough to everyone. "You'll be the first casualty if you try."
Tom fought back with one of his own. "That's an order, Lieutenant."
"Oh really? So does that mean you're taking the lead after all?" B'Elanna asked, allowing her scowl to pass naturally.
The question made Harry a little uncomfortable, Tom passed him a friendly nod. "One of us has to lead the way. I'm not handing over the baton on the final lap after running the entire race. No way."
B'Elanna also looked toward Harry as he tried to get settled in his chair again. "The Enterprise was never mine anyway," he said regrettably. "She's not the Leda."
"So..." B'Elanna said, her gaze wandered toward the playground nearby.
A few adults kept a close eye on all the children. One of them crouched down next to two of the girls. The eldest's face lit up when she spotted her. "Grandma Janeway."
"What are you two playing?" Kathryn asked softly.
"Hide and seek," Sasha replied while her little sister stared at the Captain warily, her eyes wide. "Duncan's too good at it."
Kathryn laughed behind her a hand. "I see. Maybe I can play the next round."
Sasha nodded eagerly. Amy still stared, her bottom lip stuck out slightly. "Are you mean like other grandma?" she asked innocently.
"Only to mean grandmas," Kathryn answered with a twinkle in her eye.
"And coffee stealers," Jessie added as she walked over. "You still haven't found him?" she asked her daughters.
Amy spotted the top of a head peek over a bar, right as Neelix tried badly to stealth his way behind it. She ran towards them. Neelix barely got around the end of it when he stumbled backwards to the floor. Anyone else who saw him assumed he was drunk. Not put off, Amy ran around him and jumped behind the bar. Kathryn and Jessie heard a disappointed groan from a boy they knew all too well.
"Oh come on. They have sausage rolls back here," Duncan complained as he and Amy stepped back into sight. She shrugged, snatched the roll out of his hand, tagged him and ran off. He was about to chase after her, but decided instead to go back. He walked back out with a box half his size, stuffing his face with the contents. Since it was so large, he didn't notice he was walking right by his dad on route back. He whined as it was lifted out of his hands.
"Really?" James said, eyebrow raising. Duncan nodded, then brazenly held his hand out while smiling sweetly. "At least it isn't coffee," James sighed while handing his son one mere sausage roll.
Duncan mumbled, "worth a shot." He ran off to join his sisters.
"A Janeway has to be addicted to something I suppose," Craig commented from behind. He stopped a few feet away from him, his body tensed for no reason James could see. "Um, I need to tell you something," Craig said nervously.
James wondered what he wanted to say that would make him nervous of him, especially now. He mentally slapped himself, it was obvious. He had to laugh. "It's okay. Lena told me."
Craig didn't feel any better. He was tempted to side step further away. "She did? Oh god why."
"Oh god, why not?" James tried not to laugh. "Craig, you're not going to screw this up again. You'll be safe, I assure you."
"Oh I'm very re-assured," Craig rushed out in one breath.
"It's not up to me who Lena picks. I had no right to be a bitch about it all the time. It won't happen again," James said.
Craig was unsure about how to respond, he started to stammer. "I always thought it was because I was too; accusing you and her..."
"We're friends, aren't we?" James asked, throwing him off even further.
"I... wasn't sure. I think so, that's why I thought I should tell you," Craig said as firmly as he could, his voice still shook though.
James smirked at him, "then do me a favour, stop being scared of me."
Craig tried to laugh his nerves away. It improved his mood somewhat. "I can do that."
"Good, it gets old and fast," James said.
"Just like you," Lena said from behind them. They looked over their shoulders, James kept a straight face this time. "Couldn't resist."
"Do you really want to pick now to go back to old jokes, Lena?" James asked, his eyes gesturing towards Craig.
Craig broke out into quiet laughter at the pair as they bickered. The longer it went on the more uneasy he felt. There was something about it that was off.
Lena glowered at him back, it wasn't convincing in the slightest. "Aren't we getting a little old for this? Oh wait no, that's just you."
"So you're still sixteen going on twelve? Not surprising," James said.
"Better than a thirty plus man going haha you kissed a boy, giggle," Lena bit back, though she didn't sound angry or amused. To Craig she sounded nothing.
James briefly responded with a laugh that sounded like he was faking it to make fun of her. "How was the sing off contest?" he asked plainly.
"Haven't had as much fun in years," Lena admitted. Her face turned to a mild scowl. "Making fun of Annika is immature now? So, you're old and boring. Okay, good to know."
Craig hadn't paid attention to any of their words since Lena's thirty plus comment. Without any context, their voices didn't feel spirited at all. There was no energy behind their taunts toward each other. Their expressions seemed almost lazily forced. If Craig didn't know any better, he'd think he was witnessing two bad actors bouncing lines off each other. The reasons for it, Craig thought about them quietly to himself.
Kathryn waited for her grandchildren to begin another round of their game. Amy ran off first, her head darted around to find a hiding place. She was drawn over by another child gesturing to her. Kathryn didn't recognise this younger girl with much redder hair than herself. The Klingon ridges on her forehead and the devilish smile on her face reminded her immediately of B'Elanna and Tom. The two girls seemed friendly enough, the red head pointed somewhere and lead her away holding Amy's hand. Kathryn's smile turned into a smirk at the thought of a child of Tom's being friends with any of James and Jessie's children. She didn't see that one coming.
Duncan stopped counting, then gave Sasha a disgruntled groan. "I hate Amy's turns. She'll probably be hiding on another ship." His sister laughed, mouthing yep. The pair ran off in separate directions. Now that they were out of earshot, Kathryn could finally talk.
"At least I can rest easy knowing you'll always be looking out for my son," she said.
Jessie flinched at the abruptness of her words, "of course I will. There was never any question."
"I know," Kathryn nodded. She smiled warmly. "It couldn't have been easy for you though. Your own mother."
"Rachel's not my mother," Jessie said frankly. "As far as I'm concerned, my family comes first and I'll do whatever is necessary. That's all."
"You should know that I consider you as part of mine, despite our rocky start," Kathryn said.
Jessie's earlier worries were getting bigger. She watched the Captain carefully. "Shouldn't you be doing this with your actual children?"
Kathryn's face fell, "what do you mean?"
"I think you know exactly what I mean," Jessie said firmly but she avoided doing so in a harsh tone.
"Jessie you misunderstand," Kathryn said quickly. "Tomorrow anything can happen..."
"Exactly. I appreciate the gesture, but I'm not who you should be talking to," Jessie said.
Kathryn shook her head stubbornly. "We're going to win. This isn't the end. I only wanted to thank you for what you did."
"Why? I'd do almost anything for James. It would be like thanking me for going clothes shopping," Jessie said.
Kathryn chuckled to herself. "Almost? I suppose you're right. If you'll excuse me." Her arm raised to gently pat the other woman on the shoulder as she walked away. The gesture made Jessie feel even more uncomfortable than she did before.
She wasn't the only one feeling that way. Craig noticed Kathryn slowly approach them, his head turned to make sure. It was then in the blurriest corner of his eye he noticed Lena's hand sneak over to clasp her brother's. He only had a bad feeling, paranoia from the way they were talking earlier, but now Craig knew something was bothering the pair of them. It wasn't the fear and uncertainty of the battle tomorrow. She was walking toward them.
Craig looked to Lena for any hint that he should stay. Even before her answer he was side stepping away. He already felt like he was intruding on something, that it wasn't any of his business. She gave him a subtle nod, he almost missed it. It was enough for him. Craig did the same back as he turned to leave. Kathryn gave him a friendly smile and a similar pat on the back as she passed. Something was doing somersaults in his stomach, it made him feel sick.
When he reached where Jessie stood he knew he was trembling in very plain sight. The look she gave him, she didn't mean to but it made him feel worse. He had been hoping he was overreacting to what he had seen. Jessie's worried expression meant that she noticed the same thing. He slowly turned to stand directly beside her. At that moment Kathryn wrapped one arm each around her two children. She said something neither Jessie or Craig could make out. Whatever it was made Lena hold her back and bury her face in her shoulder. James moved around so he could put his arms around both.
It would have convinced Jessie and Craig further, if they didn't see more incidents like this amongst the crew as the night went on. Everyone was nervous about tomorrow.
Friends and couples, even mere colleagues were exchanging hugs ranging from very brief to almost suffocating.
Glasses clinked together so many times, toasting to something.
B'Elanna took a break from the double date to check on her children in the playground. It was perfect timing as Tom and Harry had turned into a solo one, unfortunately leaving meant that Tira would feel like a third wheel for a while. Miral she spotted first. There was no need to go over to her, she thought. She was happy enough on the swing, being pushed by her best friend that she was convinced she lost only a few weeks ago. Her laughter could be heard from where she stood.
"Higher!" Miral would yell every now and then. B'Elanna noticed Amy cringe each time. Reluctantly instead of just one, she started pushing the swing seat with two fingers.
Chakotay made his way through the crowds, stopping to talk to anybody who were alone or confronted him. Most of the time he had a gentle smile on his face, when he didn't, it struggled to keep from breaking.
As he entered one cafe he overheard a familiar voice talking in an amused tone, "place your bets. Who will die, who will be maimed? Will the Enterprise be floating in the anomaly again? What..." Chakotay grabbed him by the collar and dragged him forward. The two crewmembers previously enjoying a meal sighed in relief.
"Tell me, do we have any need for you anymore?" Chakotay hissed.
"Obviously," Damien sneered while waving the PADD. Chakotay groaned, nobody would be callous enough to be taking bets like this. At least he hoped so.
The Doctor walked by as discreetly as he could to avoid a trip back to Sickbay. It was only Damien after all. The most he expected to treat were hangovers. He didn't want to have to think about what he may be doing tomorrow. For now he was only interested in finding out where the karaoke bar was, as he had heard singing when he entered the Holodeck. His shoulders slumped when he couldn't find such a thing, unaware that the only singing was Annika's beach performance.
He spotted Neelix sitting on a karaoke like stage in one bar. The Doctor's first thought was there'd be a stampede any minute. Thankfully all Neelix did with the microphone he had found was talk into it. Some crewmembers had gathered around to listen to him, so far there was no hint he'd start singing. As he got closer he heard him mention the start of their journey through the Delta Quadrant. The people who were listening were primarily crewmembers who had joined after Voyager's return. The Doctor's interest was piqued, he walked the rest of the way to join them.
Kathryn clutched onto Kiara's shoulders as the young girl squeezed her back. She planted a kiss on her granddaughter's forehead. She was surprised when Yasmin hugged her from behind so abruptly. A smile appeared on her face, her spare hand moved to clutch one of her arms.
Neelix's stories peaked with ones revolving around the bizarre first encounters with Damien and his band of idiots, which got the audience laughing at the ridiculousness of it. The ones he followed them with were about Lena's arrival on Voyager and her discovery about Kiara, or the demon attacks from Deck Thirteen. Some were entertained by them, but the mood was significantly lower. Neelix tried to rescue it with a tale about Annika's rise to insanity. It was a little too late by then.
It had gotten so quiet compared to how it was at the beginning. Too many people sat in silence, fretting about later.
What started out as a carefree get together, felt like it had turned into a funeral.
Sensing that, Tom changed the program to start a firework display. Crowds gathered on the beach to watch, some opted to stay in the cafe's and bars and watch from there with their food and drink. Bryan noticed his little sister jumping up and down near him, trying desperately to see around people's legs. He knelt down to pick her up and put her straight on his shoulders. Her face brightened up before she saw any of the fireworks go off.
Tom held his youngest son in his arms, pleased that the idea had helped a little. He found himself hoping that it wouldn't be his last good command decision.
Lying straight ahead of them was a field of darkness. Nothing seemed to be in their path. The three starships slowed their momentum to an almost stop. A blue shimmer surrounded the two Starfleet vessels, forming a diamond bubble around them. The final ship slowed to a standstill.
Tom watched the nothing on the viewscreen, trying desperately to ignore the butterflies the size of the ship doing evasive maneuvers in his stomach. He took in a deep breath, then glanced around at every person on the Bridge.
"Normal shields a hundred percent, the system is online. We're ready," Craig reported from Tactical.
"Three way channel between the ships are open," Faye said.
Tom nodded. "Paris to Katane." He forced a cheeky smile on his face and lightened his voice, "it's not too late to join in the fun."
The crew heard a few people chuckling over the comm. "We must have missed our invitation," Ersa's voice responded lightly.
Harry laughed as well to hide his nervousness. "I wouldn't worry, Tom's being sarcastic." Tom stared at him, bemused. "It'll be pretty dull if everything's gone right. I'm planning on taking a pre-rift nap."
"Oh Harry. That's a rookie jinx move," Tom commented.
"It's been quite an... interesting ride, Mr Paris," Ersa's voice said. "On behalf of the majority of my crew, I thank you for all you've done for the Erayan people. The rest..."
"Are deeply sorry for our first encounter," Yana's interrupted. There was a good pause between the two, so the Bridge crew knew Ersa expected her to.
"Losing your home isn't easy," Harry said.
"Yes and we don't blame you for the actions of your previous commander," Tom added on.
"We all wish you well. Good luck," Ersa's voice said.
Harry smiled, hoping it would help him feel better about any of this. "Same to you. Safe journey."
"You as well." There was a tiny bleep indicating their side of the commlink had ended.
"All right. Helm, take us in," Tom said before his throat closed up.
Voyager and the Enterprise picked up speed, toward the vast black ahead of them. The Katane remained where they were. They watched as the two ships were swallowed by the beast.
The lights dimmed, a gentle amber softly lit up the corridor on and off. A blue shadow fell onto the two people standing by the window. They had watched as Voyager entered. A blue fog gradually took over the black, drowning out all of the stars. This blue mist seemed to be moving with them, churning at their touch.
It seemed a brighter colour to Lena than the last time they were here. Her shoulders slowly raised, her body tightened as she drew in a large breath. She didn't notice she had done it until there was the need to exhale.
In the distance they could make out the faintest hint of a nebula, only spotting it as its purple interior swirled away from its own shell.
The ship mildly vibrated beneath their feet, at the same time the view began to shimmer.
"The shield," James said.
Lena hoped he was right. In here, anything could happen.
"The new shield system is drawing power," B'Elanna reported. Her relief was all over her voice. "It should be working."
Chakotay slowly approached her, "why is the ship shaking?"
B'Elanna wasn't worried. She passed him a smile to prove it. "The anomaly is a lot stronger than that brief spot we entered two days ago. What you're feeling is the inertia from the shields resisting its effects."
"I guess we won't know it's working for certain until we make some decent progress without incident," Kathryn said. Her lips curled slightly, "although we could be confusing it by wanting to stay inside."
"That's true. Nothing really happened the last time until we tried to leave," B'Elanna said.
Chakotay found himself staring toward the viewscreen. The sight of a very faint spherical object in the distance, or so he hoped, put him on edge. He gritted his teeth together.
"How long until we reach the rift?" Kathryn questioned.
"Ten minutes," was the nervous answer.
Kathryn made her way over to Tactical. "We have to be prepared for the possibility that the rifts are destroyed or closed when the anomaly consumes the area of space. Get the subspace..." she directed her next words to Chakotay, "detec-opener ready."
Chakotay almost let slip a grin. "We're not going with Damienator? Colour me shocked."
"If we open up our own door, we may trigger another anomaly expansion," B'Elanna reminded them both.
Kathryn nodded, it didn't spoil her mood. "If it does, it won't be for long. We'll destroy that bridge when we come to it."
Lena slowly glanced to her left, her hand firmly gripped the strap across her shoulder. "Final sweep. Which side do you want?" she asked.
"I was thinking one of us could check the Enterprise. B'Elanna seemed really worried about their shield," James replied.
"Hmm. Do we have the time?" Lena said warily. She made a few light groans while she thought about it.
"No, probably not. Lets hope the shield does work," James said. He gazed outside for a few seconds. "You can have whatever side you want."
Lena shook her head while smirking, "great thanks. You can have the lower decks, and back of Deck Eight. Deck Thirteen's more your territory than mine."
James sighed, it did nothing to calm his nerves. Lena watched him closely, feeling the exact same way. He gave her a smile anyway, "see you on the other side."
Lena rivaled his smile with a confident glint in her eyes. "Please, this'll be a piece of cake."
"Well you are good at that," James said.
"Duh," Lena laughed, it wore off pretty quick. All that was left was a fear that she wouldn't see him again. James' smile remained as he leaned forward to give her a hug. She hung onto him tightly. It couldn't last, they had to part. They soon went their separate ways.
Tom squinted his eyes, desperate to see anything. All he could see was the blue mist that they had been subjected to for a long twenty minutes.
"It's there all right. Sensors are picking up the sub space readings," Faye said.
Harry appeared by Tom's side, staring curiously at the viewscreen. He thought he imagined it, an extremely faint cut in the darker shades of blue. "If it's there, is it big enough for us to go through?"
"Now you ask," Craig commented.
"It might be a tight squeeze for the Enterprise," Faye answered anxiously.
"Should we try using the subspace opener to stretch it a little?" Chakotay's voice asked.
"It's possible. As it hasn't been tested since Damien used it, I'd advise avoiding it unless it's necessary," B'Elanna's voice replied.
Tom walked over to the helm to take a look for himself. He scoffed, then smirked confidently "I could fit her through that with my eyes closed." He instantly regretted it as soon as Danny started sniggering rudely. "Shield strength?" he asked Tactical.
"Regular shields a hundred percent. Anomaly defence seems stable, power levels are high," Craig replied.
"Same here. No reports of anything weird. We're good to go."
Tom glanced backwards at Harry, he nodded. "Red alert. Weapons at ready. Take us in," Harry ordered.
"Here we go," Tom said in a long drawn out breath.
TO BE CONTINUED
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