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Magnetic Cohesion 1.3



All charm and warmth, Chakotay offered his arm.  “May I escort you to dinner?”

Supremely conscious of B’Elanna’s raised eyebrows, Janeway briefly patted his shoulder.  “Just a moment, Commander.  Lieutenant Torres and I were considering the need to increase power to the magnetic converters surrounding the warp core.”

Taking the hint, he nodded and clasped his hands together behind his back, stepping down to the main floor a couple meters away.

B’Elanna, whose mag-lock boots had given out earlier that day, swung in Janeway’s direction, using the railing around the core as her anchor.  “I can give you a report with my suggestions, instead, Captain –”

“That won’t be necessary,” Janeway responded, perhaps a pinch more harshly than the situation required.  She took a breath while letting her eyes rest on the pulsing core, then continued in a calmer manner.  “I’d like you to make those modifications, B’Elanna.  If ship systems are going to start failing, I’d rather our engines don’t become one of them.  We don’t want any further rifts opening up in here, either.”

Chakotay’s boots whirred almost inaudibly over the ambient noise of engineering.  He stamped them against the ground to stop the sound; by now, the whole crew was acquainted with the process.  When the whirring started, a few quick stomps would reset the magnetic alignment, but even so it would be a matter of hours before the boots failed entirely.

B’Elanna floated toward Janeway more closely while Chakotay was distracted by the boots.  “Captain,” she whispered, “He adores you.”

Janeway snapped her head at B’Elanna.  It was unusual for her to encourage any sort of romance, regardless of the subjects, but she supposed it was possible B’Elanna was thinking about it because of her desire to have Tom back.  Janeway teetered between wanting to ask questions and closing the subject completely, and consequently, she wound up giving B’Elanna what she hoped was a passively inquiring look.

Maybe it was for the best that B’Elanna seemed slightly abashed by what she had told Janeway – she backed up a bit and continued at a normal volume, “What systems would you like me to divert the extra power from, Captain?”

Noticing Chakotay smiling patiently at her from a couple of meters away, Janeway fought to clear her head at warp speed.  “All the usual non-essentials, plus whatever’s left over from the loss of artificial grav.  Just don’t take any from structural containment or sensors.  How long do you estimate this will take?”

“No more than three hours.”

“Good.  Do it.”

“Aye, Captain.”  B’Elanna glanced at Chakotay again, then gave Janeway a surreptitious smirk.  “She’s all yours, Chakotay!”

Janeway restrained herself from pointing out the breech in protocol – it was the Captain who should dismiss her subordinates, yet B’Elanna had dismissed her.  Given the circumstances, voicing her concerns would probably do more harm than good.  Calling attention to Chakotay’s infatuation with her in front of the crew, however subtly, would have negative effects for both of them.  She shushed the inner voice that accused her of rationalizing again.

As Chakotay plodded up toward the platform, Janeway figured he couldn’t possibly hear a whisper over the ambient noise of engineering, so she quietly asked B’Elanna, “Did he tell you that?”  It was important to determine whether Chakotay was openly discussing the possibility of a relationship with her.

“He didn’t have to,” B’Elanna breathed back, looking startled that she had asked at all.

Janeway didn’t buy it.  She searched B’Elanna’s eyes for the answer.  Chakotay had only been acting this way for a few days, and then mostly in private.  How could B’Elanna have picked up on his feelings after so short a time without speaking to him about it?  Unless Chakotay had alluded to it in conversation – it was possible, Janeway conjectured, that he had mentioned something about velocity last night or the gift he had promised her while talking with B’Elanna this week.  Having known him longer than anyone on Voyager, B’Elanna certainly would have been able to intuit his feelings.

Chakotay reached the platform smiling and held his arm out for Janeway once again.  “I hope you’ll excuse my interruption – I was worried about dinner getting cold.”

With a final discerning glimpse at B’Elanna, Janeway took his arm.  She peeked up at him only briefly; his clean, comforting scent assailed her.  Avoiding time alone with him all day had done nothing to quench her attraction, except perhaps to exponentially increase her anticipation of dinner.  “I’m sure it will be perfect, as always.”

“Shall we?”

As they trekked out of engineering, she became self-conscious of the furtive glances crew members darted at them.  She didn’t catch anyone staring directly, but worried they would draw conclusions from the way Chakotay was escorting her.  However – this was normal, basically.  The crew was used to seeing them walk together in this fashion.

“You’re rather quiet this evening,” Chakotay pointed out in the corridor.  “Is everything alright?”

She sighed.  Letting this insecurity preoccupy her twisted her stomach into knots.  They had started dining together every week to celebrate, so she couldn’t bring herself to the table carrying this baggage.  She really ought to turn it to her advantage.  If Chakotay insisted on flirting with her, what harm would come of simply flirting back?  She could have at least that much without breeching protocol.

She wondered at what point her rationalizing would become deliberation.

Ready to expel her negative thoughts, yet unable to drop them entirely, she looked over her shoulder to the corridor behind them.  They were alone.  “Captain’s stresses.  Let’s leave it at that.  But you know what would make me feel better?”

“I can guess,” he grinned.  “You want that present.”

She playfully bumped his side.  “I’ve waited for twenty-four long hours, Chakotay.  It’s fraying my nerves.”  They entered the turbo lift.  “Deck three.”

“I see.  You’re saying that if I don’t give it to you now, you’ll have a mental collapse?”

“That’s right.”

“And if you suffer from said mental collapse, you’ll be unable to command?”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far.”  She pursed her lips as she made eye contact.

“So you’d attempt to retain the captaincy even while mentally deranged?”

“Deranged?”

“Thereby endangering the ship and crew?  So the fate of Voyager rests in my ability to give you this gift without further delay?”

Her free hand went to her hip and she maintained a straight face.  She gave him a half-nod, just a tip of her chin.  “When I’m deranged, you’re the first person I’ll come after with a phaser rifle, and I ain’t settin’ it to stun.”

The journey from the lift to Chakotay’s door was swift.  “I was thinking of giving it to you tomorrow.”

“By tomorrow, I hope you mean in five minutes.”

He rested his hand on the small of her back while they entered his quarters.  The gesture made her feel a sliver more graceful than the boots usually allowed.  “Or maybe the end of the week?” he said.

“Perhaps a photon torpedo would do the trick.”

“If you blow me up, you’ll never get the present.”  He guided her to her seat and pulled out the chair.  Chakotay’s table setting was more minimal than hers, but the food always tasted better.  He busied himself in lifting the covers off three dishes and setting the heat-preserving items aside.

“Hm.  I’ve reconsidered.  The gift can wait until after we eat – this smells wonderful.  Mmm!  Is that what I think it is?”  One of the bowls held a beautiful, steaming orange liquid under a glass lid with a magnetized rim.

He sat down and pulled a belt out from the chair, fastening it around his lap so he could remain in the seat without using his hands.  She did the same, then removed her shell and set it in the air behind her.  “I remembered,” he said, “Last week you mentioned that cafe on Market Street where you used to drink coffee and eat the galaxy’s best butternut squash soup.  You sounded like you would just about melt into a puddle if you could have some.”

Excited, she tugged the magnetized bowl off the table, lifted the secondary lid, and took a deep whiff.  “Mmm.  I just might.  I don’t know why you ever let me cook, Chakotay.”

“I don’t anymore.  I let you replicate.”

“Touché.”

She could almost believe he’d sensed her unease last night and decided to back off.  Half an hour passed, filled with similar light-hearted conversation and the usual exchange of routine information about the ship and crew.  Because of the unique gravitational situation, they ate the food straight out of the serving bowls, periodically passing a dish across the table. 

Mealtime, Janeway decided at one point, was the best time to be sporting this ponytail.

“You okay?” Chakotay inquired.

“I’m eating your food, Chakotay.  Somehow, you manage to finesse the replicator in ways I can’t even dream of.  I’m better than okay.  Why do you ask?”  She took another bite of the roasted portobello – it was juicy with a balsamic marinade.  “Mm!”

Gesturing toward her head with his salad fork, he explained, “You keep touching your hair.  Did you get it cut?”

“No.”  She shrugged, slightly embarrassed to have been caught in such a silly tic.  “It’s a different style, so it’s hard to get used to.”

He studied her for a moment, chewing on his salad.  “You don’t like it.”

“You know me well.”

“Kathryn,” he said, swallowing and shaking his head against her dislike, “It looks great.”

She gave him a gracious smile.  “Thank you.”  Eager to change the subject, she cast about for something else to compliment, and wound up raising the bottle in her hand.  “This pinot noir is phenomenal, Chakotay.  I’m almost glad for the lack of gravity – drinking it out of the bottle probably isn’t a good idea for a starship captain, but I appear to have no choice!”

“You can make a note in your log that the First Officer advised you to do so in the interest of preserving the cleanliness of your uniform.”

“Are you more interested in my uniform than my ability to command?”  After another small swig, she re-corked the bottle, plugged it onto the table and picked up the salad.

He grinned widely.  “Kathryn… you’re already feeling the wine, aren’t you?”

She was.  “No.  Not at all.”

He scooped up the bottle.  “I have some catching up to do.”

“Chakotay.  Be reasonable.  We’ve been sitting here for… what.  Ten minutes?”  Beginning to chuckle, she ignored his quiet insistence that it had been thirty.  “How could I be tipsy after ten minutes?”

“Would you like me to count the ways?”  His free hand went up in a fist, and as he tagged each reason, a new finger sprouted.  “One: you’re drinking out of a bottle.  Two: that’s not synthehol, it’s the real deal.”

“You didn’t tell me that!  Where have you been hiding this?”

He cut over her objection, still clearly enjoying himself.  “Three: it’s been half an hour since you started drinking alcohol out of a bottle.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“Four: you have a very low tolerance for alcohol.”  His head tilted at the four fingers.  “I rest my case.”

She snapped the salad onto the table, leaned back, and crossed her arms haughtily.  “Alright,” she said while he was mid-sip.  “You’re into your cups too, Chakotay.  I cite all the same reasons.”

He licked his lips.  “You’re reaching.”

“Oh, you think so?”  Turning her head slightly, she picked one shoulder up for a second while running her tongue over her teeth.  “Then why are your pupils ever so slightly dilated?”

“It’s dark.”

She leaned forward and placed her elbows on the table.  “Not dark enough.  And why would you interrogate me about the possibility that I’m intoxicated?”

“It’s my job.”

Doubtful, she narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion.  Chakotay attempted a straight face, but couldn’t seem to keep hints of a smile from popping up.

Pressing her advantage, she raised her eyebrow.  She had no intention of losing this battle.  The seconds ticked by as she stared him down, waiting for him to crack.

Finally, he swung the bottle up to take a giant gulp.

When she burst out laughing, he nearly choked as wine sprayed out of his mouth in uncontrolled mirth.  He corked the bottle and half-coughed, half-chuckled while they both used napkins to catch the stray droplets that shimmered above the candlelight.

Once her laughter subsided, she inquired, “Tell me, Chakotay, what’s your motivation for serving alcohol this evening?”

His smiling eyes traveled from her own down to the table while he considered.  “I suppose… I wanted to hear you laugh.”  He looked back up at her.

Through the haze of the wine she retained enough common sense to know she must be very careful of her next words.  If only he would tell her why he was suddenly behaving like this now after five years, she might be more at ease.

Then again, it was entirely possible she was reading too much into this supposed odd conduct, and Chakotay had sincerely felt a change of heart.  Except she couldn’t believe that he’d only just developed feelings for her – deep down, she knew he’d always wanted her.  So why act on it now?

The silence had stretched for too long.  She traced the shape of the soup’s lid with her finger.  “I do enjoy a good laugh.  Thank you.  This dinner is, as always, phenomenal, both in food and in company.”  She raised her gaze to meet his and walked the line, pulse racing.  “If I had a wine glass I would offer you a toast, Chakotay.”

The moment glowed with the warmth between the two of them.  “I’ll drink to that,” he quipped, and took another sip.

Her laughter was easy and genuine.  “Leave some for me!”

“Is that an order?”

“Absolutely.”

He corked the bottle and gently propelled it at her; she caught it and took a small swig.  This time the silence was comfortable as she replaced the wine on the table and leaned back to pat her stomach.

“Mind if I ask you a personal question?” he said in a way that made her suspect he had been waiting to pose the query for some time.  It sounded too artificial to be offhand.

“By all means.”

Chakotay scratched his neck and addressed the table.  “… Kashyk.”

She waited for a question, but to no avail.  Interesting, how Chakotay’s obvious jealousy could jolt her with such a deep rush of affection for him.  If she was honest with herself, the feeling was more than simple affection.  She couldn’t help smiling, though she tried not to let it show.  “You want the full story?  All you ever had to do was ask.”

“You wouldn’t believe the rumors that went around about the two of you.”  His eyes climbed slowly, from the table, to her torso – she felt her face burn – to her neck, mouth, and finally eyes.  “I worried you’d be offended or closed-off if I brought it up.”

“Not if you asked me, Chakotay.”  She crossed her arms on the edge of the table and leaned toward him.  Grinning self-mockingly at the memory of her conduct with Kashyk, she offered, “I was… deluded.  Terribly.  I had gone without a relationship for so long, and when I realized I wanted to be close to someone – well, you know me, I make an irreversible split-second decision based on the available evidence and my gut feeling.  I went for it truly believing his façade in my heart, but not in my head.  We shared one perfect kiss…”  The words trailed off as she tried to remember it, but she couldn’t meet Chakotay’s eyes.  “And after that, you know the rest.  Tricking him was undeniably satisfying.  But I wish I could say I had been faking those feelings.  Part of me is ashamed.”

“You certainly can’t help feeling fond of somebody, Kathryn.  The way I see it, it’s how you act on those feelings that matters.”

The wine sat forgotten on the table.  When she re-established eye contact with him, he was leaning in her direction, close enough to reach out and touch.  “What would you have done?” she asked.  “I hardly know the ropes half as well as you.”

For some reason, this question inspired Chakotay to grin.  “I don’t know them half as well as you think.”

She let her eyebrow do the talking.

He sighed.  “If I were Kashyk?”

She’d meant if Chakotay had been in her shoes, but she held her peace.  It was easier to remain silent and allow him the possibility of breaking the barrier than it would be for her to make the decision herself.

“I would have taken you up on your offer to stay onboard.  I would have been more than happy to be in your company.”  His eyes glittered in the candlelight.  The extra words he was refusing to say were written on his face.

“And if you had been me?”

He tilted his head slightly.  “That’s tricky.”

The corner of her lip curled upward.  “Oh?”

“I’d have to walk the fine line between being a real person with desires of my own, and being a superhuman captain in charge of the safety of an entire starship.”

“Sounds about right.”

“And that would make me feel trapped, like I couldn’t acknowledge my own feelings and had to wait for the right person to come along and take the first step.”

She swallowed.  Her palms were slick against the table and she could feel her heart thrumming.  Terrified and exhilarated, she spoke words she would never have uttered if she were sober.  “What if the right person never took the first step?”

The unhidden yearning in his eyes took her breath away.  It was as though it had been there all this time, for years, but only now did Chakotay remove the screen that hid it.  His brows were raised slightly over low, blinking eyelids.  His lips were barely parted and closed after a loud swallow.  “I’m sure he would never forgive himself.”

She beamed, a tidal wave of adoration coursing through her.  “Now you finally understand how hard it is to be the Captain.”

He reached for her hand and began to say, “Kathryn,” when her combadge erupted with finality.  “Torres to the Captain.  You’d better get down here.  We’ve got another rift, and it’s growing in size.”

He gave her one last look so filled with longing that she nearly ignored the call.  They unhooked themselves from the chairs and rose together.  She swiftly pulled her shell back on.  In a move that seemed so very Chakotay, he offered his arm like nothing had changed and said, “It’s even harder to be her First Officer.”

Once again, she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and cocked her head.  “Acknowledged.”  Then, to Chakotay, to whom she wished she could say so much more, she simply stated, “You owe me a present.”

Before leaving, they caught sight of the window – all the stars had vanished.


+

“Based on our readings just before we entered the dark energy,” said Harry, floating at one of the astrometrics consoles, “We should be halfway through it by now.  The Delta Flyer should be here, about a third of the way in.”

“Have you taken its increasing rate of expansion into account?”  Janeway crossed her arms.  Harry’s prosaic tone still surfaced every time he spoke.  She felt compelled to comfort him, yet the sentiment would likely be unwelcome, even if he pretended otherwise.

“Yes,” Harry replied, “But we don’t have enough data to accurately predict its current size.”

“So I heard,” Janeway said, looking up at Chakotay, who hovered behind her shoulder.  Since last night, he had been stealing eager glances at her as though they had slept together.  To the best of her knowledge, they hadn’t, but she appreciated the sentiment.  As long as Harry didn’t notice.

She nipped her smile in the bud and wrenched her head out of the clouds.  “When we entered,” she elaborated, “I was looking forward to polishing our understanding of dark energy, but I’m getting a bad feeling about this.  First we’re plagued by inter-dimensional rifts, then we start losing magnetic cohesion in the boots, our antimatter containment spikes sporadically, the shields peter out, and now you’re saying we may not be where we think we are.  I’m inclined to agree.  Have you made any progress with sensors?”

“Harry, B’Elanna and I have tried everything we can think of,” Chakotay answered.  “Even your reverse polaron idea didn’t work.  The bottom line is that we’re flying blind.  We also don’t know where the Delta Flyer really is.”

“That’s not all, Captain,” Harry added.  “Based on my calculations, if our algorithm for the rate of expansion is off by a few seconds –”

“The phenomenon could be pushing Voyager backward,” she finished, “Regardless of the fact that we’ve been at warp six for four days?  I’ve been doing some algorithms of my own, and the results aren’t promising.”

Harry tapped a few controls, and the screen showed the dark energy expanding.  “In this map, I’ve added the telemetry based on Tom and Seven’s reports the other day.  As you can see, by now the dark energy could be growing faster than warp four.”

“A great deal faster.”  Chakotay leaned toward her very closely and placed his hand on the small of her back.  Her world shrank to the size of his eyes and he continued in an intimate, familiar tone that made her highly anxious at Harry’s presence.  “I recommend a full stop, Kathryn.”  His mouth traveled to her ear and hovered a few centimeters away.  She felt his hot breath on her skin – it gave her goose bumps.  “We should wait for the away team here; it’s the best chance they have of catching up with us.”

Her eyes flashed to Harry, whose body faced her and Chakotay.  Luckily – thank goodness – Harry was focused on the panels.  Janeway deliberately took a step away from Chakotay and shot him a warning look, thankful for the first time that her mag-lock boots hadn’t given out yet.

Damn.  Harry had seen!  She caught the beginnings of a smirk as she turned back to him.  He lowered his head and pretended he hadn’t noticed anything, but the discovery had lit up his face.  Now how long would it take for the entire crew to hear about this?

With difficulty, she prevented her ire from boiling over.  If only she could reprimand the hell out of Chakotay right this instant!  She knew that sending Harry out to give Chakotay a verbal thrashing would only add to the rumor mill.  She imagined the entire ship talking about how Harry had been excused so the Captain and Commander could get it on in astrometrics.  Instead she had to settle for another withering glare in Chakotay’s direction.

She tugged her shirt down.  “I agree, Commander,” she bit out in response to his suggestion that they cut engines.  With a tap to her combadge, she ordered, “Janeway to bridge – full stop.”  The Voyager on Harry’s star chart halted as well.  “Ensign Kim, anything more to report?”

Any smile Harry may have been concealing faded away as he saw her expression.  “One other thing, Captain.”  His eyes flickered to Chakotay.  “As you know, many of the ship’s systems are beginning to show signs of stress.  Based on the number of trans-dimensional micro-fissures that have started to appear within the previous hour, we believe the next thing to go might be structural containment, followed by the hull, in roughly ten hours.  I have to stress that it’s merely an estimate – we could implode in an hour, or not at all.”

“According to your projections, how long until the Flyer reaches our coordinates?” she asked.

Harry fiddled with the panel.  “Based on our entering velocities and our current standstill, about two and a half hours.”

“Good.  We’ll wait at our present location for three hours, and if they haven’t shown up by then, we’ll get the hell out of here, whether we have to backtrack or not.  We’ll try to rendezvous with them on the way.”  She very pointedly did not look at Chakotay.  “Continue working on the sensors, and send a transmission on all Federation subspace channels to let the Flyer know we’re changing the plans.  Even if our chance of communicating with them is slim this far into the phenomenon, I want to give it a shot.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Harry, the very model of protocol.

Without acknowledging Chakotay, she stormed out.

It took seconds for him to catch up with her anyway.  “Sorry about that,” he offered, floating horizontally a few centimeters to her right, just above eye level.

She did him the honor of a glower.  This was the first time in four days he had voluntarily apologized for his conduct.  If she’d been thinking, she would’ve reprimanded him that first time in sickbay.  Since the corridor was empty she said, “What exactly are you apologizing for, Commander?  I’d like to hear your side.”

He had the grace to look ashamed.  “For embarrassing you in front of a crew member.”

“And?”  Oh, how she longed for artificial grav.  She had half a mind to airlock these boots, as they prevented her from achieving a faster pace.  Ensign Jenkins approached from the other direction.

“... Kathryn?” Chakotay tried.

Thank goodness they had reached the turbo lift.  “Deck one.”  The acceleration pushed Chakotay’s feet to the floor as she lit into him.  “That’s the second time you’ve unnecessarily called me by my first name in front of crew members.  Do you realize the entire ship will be talking about this within the hour?  You are acting monumentally unprofessional,” she stated, gesticulating wildly, “And you’re the goddamned First Officer!  Not only that, but you’ve been playing some kind of game with me these past few days and, frankly, you are lucky that I haven’t documented your disorderly conduct.  What the hell is going on in your head?”

“Halt,” Chakotay said.  He grabbed the side panels to prevent himself from floating up.  “I’m sorry, Captain, but I don’t understand why you’re this upset.”

Her hands went to her hips.  “I don’t believe this.  Are you blind?”

The expression on his face was difficult to read, almost blank.  “I didn’t think I was.  What exactly –”

She shook her head and lifted her chin.  “Uh uh.  You owe me an explanation first.”

His shoulders drooped, his head lowered slightly, and he raised his eyes to meet hers.  He took a big breath.  She began to feel that she had gone too far.  “Well... I have feelings for you.”  His hands clenched and released at his sides.  “I’m sorry that it had to come out like this, but it’s true.  And I believed you felt the same.”

Every sound vanished except a faint ringing in her ears.  For having expected something like this, she felt utterly tongue tied.  “Resume, deck three,” she said.  They could continue this in her quarters.  “I know this is difficult, but...” she risked a small smile.  “Hold on a minute.”

As they reached deck three in silence and traversed the corridor, bits and pieces of her emotions over the past few days came back to her.  Including the anger from a few minutes past.  Why hadn’t he said so?  Why suddenly start coming on to her four days ago after all these years?  Something was still off.  The possibility of an alien inhabiting his body was definitely on her list.

Halfway through the hallway, her mag-lock boots began the telltale louder whirring noise that heralded their imminent failure.  “About time,” she muttered, and used the last cohesive steps to moon jump to the door of her quarters.

He caught up momentarily, and as soon as the door was shut behind them, he took her hand.  She began to lift off the floor and was glad for the anchor.  “Now.  Chakotay.”

His brows rose hopefully.

“Your behavior hasn’t been normal lately.  Even if you have been... courting me.  Do you agree?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”  She felt certain he was lying.  She couldn’t tell exactly what led her to this conclusion, but she knew.  Whatever he was concealing must be extraordinarily sensitive information.  Her hand slipped out of his.

“Why did you act that way in astrometrics just now?”

“Captain, that’s a rather...”  He licked his lips nervously.  “You’re a very attractive woman.”

“Are you trying to tell me,” she said, beginning to lose patience, “That you felt so overcome with this – this attraction to me that you literally couldn’t stop yourself from touching me, whispering to me, and coming within centimeters of...”  Her hands flew through the air.  “You’ve never had a problem taking my lead before, and god knows I’ve tried to make it clear that our relationship is to remain platonic –”

“I never wanted to cause you any pain –”

“Stop skirting the issue.  You’d better tell me what’s going on right now, or I’m sending you to sickbay to have your head examined.  That’s an order.”

“Okay!”  His hand snapped out to grab the bulkhead at the edge of her door.  “I get it.  I’ll stop.  No more flirting with the Captain.”

When he made as if to leave, she tapped her badge.  “Janeway to sickbay.”

Apparently deep in thought, he pressed his lips together and slowly shook his head at the floor.

“Sickbay here,” came the Doctor’s voice.

“I’ll tell you,” Chakotay said, finally, defeat practically rolling off his shoulders.

She narrowed her eyes at him.  “False alarm, Doctor.”

As though hoping she would have a change of heart, Chakotay balefully stared at her.

“Well?”

He continued to stare.

Their combadges broke the stillness with Harry’s voice.  “Captain and Commander to the bridge.  Red alert.”

“Acknowledged.”  Sure enough, the ship seemed to be vibrating softly.  The hull must be under enormous stress.  Selfishly, she considered what Harry must have assumed when he’d reached the bridge and neither she nor Chakotay had arrived yet.

They didn’t move.  The red lights illuminated them somewhat appropriately in their silent battle of wills.  Several seconds passed.

“Look,” she attempted.  “I can’t let you onto the bridge until you tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m not being inhabited by aliens, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

She studied him, his face drawn, eyes glimmering darkly.  “Will keeping it to yourself protect the safety of the ship and crew?”

“No.  I screwed up, that’s all.”

The tremors of the ship became worse.  “Damn,” she whispered, then, “In the turbo lift, Commander.  After you.”

“You’re not going to like it,” he ventured as they floated back through the flashing corridor.

She shot him a wry look.  “Believe it or not, that much I’ve already ascertained for myself.”

It was probably an accident, but on their way in through the door of the turbo lift, his arm bumped against hers.  The intensity of her desire for him even now, at the height of fury, surprised her.  She realized she might soon have to face the possibility of a severe limitation to their friendship.  If what he was about to tell her was as awful as he seemed to think, it may be inappropriate for them to spend such a great deal of free time together.  Her heart wrenched; it was a bleak prospect.  Fifty years would be one hell of a long journey without his constant companionship.

The door whizzed shut.  “Deck one.”  Their feet hit the floor.  “Talk.”

With a quick, deep breath in, he began.  “You remember our conversation over dinner last week about whether or not Harry had the right to be with Tal.  Well, what I would have told you that day if we’d had time to finish speaking is that I worried about your personal take on the issue.  Were you jealous of Harry because you hadn’t had a lover for five years?  I figured you and I had a firm enough foundation, and that you might need that kind of relationship.  So I tried to create it for you.”

The door slid open.  After a few seconds, she remembered to breathe.

Chakotay’s eyes alighted on the bridge for a nanosecond, then went back to Janeway.  “I’m so sorry,” he finished.  And he looked it.  She had never seen him so drowned in longing and self-loathing.  “But my feelings for you are, and have always been, genuine.”

She blinked.  “Commander,” she said flatly, gesturing toward the bridge.  He appeared to put every emotion into one last glance at her, then pushed off to take his seat.  She followed.

Chakotay’s pity would have to wait until later.  They were both committed enough to their duties not to let a personal issue interfere.  He was in for a severe penalty later, but she knew she must command now with a clear head.  “Report.”  Even so, the transition gave her whiplash.

“We’re losing structural integrity, Captain,” Harry said urgently.

“What’s the probability that we’re closer to our entrance point than the other side of the dark energy?” she demanded.

“61%.”

“Reverse course, maximum warp.  Reroute emergency power to structural containment.”

Ensign Hargrove tapped the console.  “Captain, engines aren’t responding.”

“Janeway to engineering.”

“I know, Captain,” came B’Elanna’s voice.  “I’m working on it.  The magnetic containment fields in the warp core are failing.  I’m trying to reinforce them with ionic bonding.  It’ll be a couple more minutes.”

“Make it fast.”

Blinding sparks flew from several consoles as Voyager bucked – Janeway almost lost her seat.  The viewscreen suddenly showed warped stars, as if the ship were already traveling toward them.  “Reinforce structural containment with any available power.”  She tapped her badge.  “This is the Captain addressing the entire crew.  Evacuate all areas along the hull immediately.”  To Harry she said, “I want automatic force fields in place the instant there’s a hull breech anywhere on the ship.”

A sick feeling manifested within her.  She had let her personal issues interfere with the safety of the ship and crew over a matter of days.  Why had she allowed this to happen?  If she had been tuned to the dark energy and less stuck on Chakotay, she felt confident she would’ve gotten Voyager to safety before this happened.

“Janeway to Torres,” she tried.

“Almost got it, Captain!”

Harry bellowed, “Hull breeches on decks three, seven, and fourteen, implementing force fields to compensate.  Five casualties in sickbay.  Structural containment at 30% and falling.”  The ceiling began to groan while all its lights blew in a massive flash.

This was it.  It wasn’t going to work to blame her own ineptitude on Chakotay.  She was the one who had let him act that way, and she was the one who had become distracted by him.  Looking back on everything Voyager had been trying to tell them, she could see that if she had only paid a little more attention, she would have gotten them out of this mess.

Janeway was going to be responsible for the death of her crew.  She had been so careful until now...

“Cut life support to minimal and divert power to structural containment,” she ordered.  “B’Elanna!”

“Hull breeches on all decks!”

A massive crack ripped open the ceiling, along with a deafening metallic cacophony.  A force field buzzed to life, but the disconcerting image of immobile warped stars beyond jarred them all.  The chill that accompanied minimal life support didn’t help either.  Goosebumps sprang up all over Janeway’s skin.

“Torres to Janeway – we have warp power!” B’Elanna cried, barely audible over the sounds of the ship’s contorting.

“Go!” Janeway yelled at Ensign Hargrove.

His fingers flew over the console.  “Course laid in –,” the stars beyond began to move, “We’re at warp nine point seven, Captain,” he said, clearly relieved.

“Captain,” Chakotay said quickly, pale as a ghost, the red lights flashing against his skin, “We can’t expect Voyager to hold together at warp speed with structural integrity at 30%!”

“Better than sitting around and getting pulled apart!”

Voyager bucked again.  This time Chakotay lost his grip on the chair and was propelled toward the force field on the ceiling.  Instinctively Janeway bounded off the floor, grabbed the railing behind her chair, and swung her legs up to him.  “Grab my feet!”  It was difficult to make herself heard over the groaning of the hull.

He got the picture quickly enough, and they rapidly made their way back to their seats.  “Thanks,” he offered breathlessly.

She couldn’t think of anything to say.  The ship continued to whine as though ready to break apart any second.  “Status, Harry.”

“Sickbay is reporting several casualties, three fatalities.  According to the computer, seven crew members are missing, including Neelix.  Structural containment is at 15%, but holding.”

“Janeway to Neelix.”

Chakotay made eye contact with her.

“Neelix, respond,” she tried again.

The only sound was the ship’s creaking.  Her fingers were stiff with the falling temperature, curled around the armrests as they were.  And the more she stared at the stars on the viewscreen, the less certain she became that they were moving.  A glance at the opening in the ceiling showed her that although the stars were still warped, they were merely crawling by.

“Computer, locate Neelix.”

She received only a garbled reply with traces of the feminine voice.

“Captain,” said Harry, “Structural containment is continuing to hold, but various systems are failing ship-wide.  The computer is visual only,” at which Janeway began trying to locate Neelix on the command console, “Life support is steady at minimum power, the Doctor is offline, and warp engines are functional, but it’s only a matter of time before force fields begin to collapse with the strain of the ship.  It’s warping, Captain.”

Neelix was gone.  The computer was unable to locate his combadge or a Talaxian bio-signature.

“Options?” she asked desperately.

“Evacuate,” Chakotay replied immediately.  “The escape pods have a better chance of making it out than the entire ship.”

“Agreed.”  She sighed.  What a colossal mistake she had made!  How could she have been so arrogant, to put her own desires above the needs of the ship?  “Captain to all hands.  Voyager is in imminent danger of collapse.  Proceed to escape pods and take Voyager’s current heading.  Rendezvous with the Delta Flyer if possible; if not, set the safest course for the Alpha Quadrant.  Good luck.”

How strange, she thought, as she watched the crew leave the bridge.  Chakotay remained.  The turbo lift doors shut behind the last of them, and still the ship groaned and trembled.  Two bulkheads on the starboard side of the bridge buckled and crashed together.  The stars on the view screen seemed to be getting closer now, but she knew they wouldn’t make it.

“Commander, evacuate!  That’s an order!”  She had to shout over the sound of the ship.

“It’s my fault we’re in this mess.  I refuse to leave you here to die!”

Gripping ever harder on her chair, she turned her head toward him.  A deep well of love for him opened, stretching back through all the warm looks and caring words over the years, and she smiled sadly.  For everything they had gone through, they hadn’t shared so much as a kiss.  Against the background roar of the hull, the idea was unreal; she could almost believe that they had.  “There’s plenty of blame to go around!  But if you don’t leave, I’ll kill you!”

He smiled, somehow.  “Nice try!  Then you’ll never know what your early birthday present was going to be!”

She tilted her head to approximate good humor.  “You might as well tell me now!”

“You’ll have to wait and see – I’ll give it to you tomorrow!”

She turned to her console, unable to respond to his optimism.  Structural integrity had begun falling one percentage point every few seconds.  Tapping the correct icons in spite of the ship’s bucking required every ounce of concentration she possessed.  “I’m preparing to divert all life support and force field power to structural containment and the bridge!”  She knew full well that such a tactic could collapse the entire ship, including the bridge, in a matter of seconds.  Even so, it was her best option.

He spoke, but she couldn’t hear him over the increasing racket.  The railing behind them came loose and swung sternward into the console with a small white explosion.

“What?!” she cried.

“Don’t divert yet – the pods haven’t disembarked!”

And then – silence.

Stars whizzed past them.  “Computer, status,” she tried.

Clear and concise, the computer answered.  “Traveling at warp nine point seven.  Escape pods ready to disembark.  Structural containment at 54% and rising.”

“Full stop!”

She and Chakotay stared at each other.

She watched him blink, then tap his combadge in a daze.  “Chakotay to all hands: evacuation cancelled.  We’ve left the dark energy.”


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1.1 | 1.2 | 2.1 | 2.2 | epilogue