Repair teams had barely touched the mess hall. Chakotay didn’t blame them. Not only was it unessential to the ship’s functioning, but he wouldn’t know where to begin restoring it. The floor extended two meters beyond the force fields because so much of the hull had been torn off, and the kitchen had been sucked clean before the breech had been sealed. Every bulkhead was cracked, buckled, or broken – the only thing holding the room together was the structural integrity field.
He floated unhurriedly to a small open space by the force field and watched warped stars approach and fly past for a few minutes. Like in many parts of Voyager, the environmental controls were slightly off. It was chilly enough for Chakotay to see his breath.
Now that he was here, he found that he enjoyed having a refreshing moment to himself. The images this room conjured were less pleasant: Neelix, again, pried savagely into the vacuous energy; the Delta Flyer, ripped open in one too many places, the hull failing; Tom, Tuvok and Seven torn into multi-dimensional rifts one at a time, watching each other die.
Chakotay knew, without a doubt, that the away team was dead. The evidence against their survival was too strong. Janeway and B’Elanna needed to come to that conclusion on their own… but it might be time for him to help them on their journey there. One might be easier than the other.
His heart started racing when he reviewed his conversation with Janeway from this morning. Was she in denial about the Delta Flyer? More importantly, was she really going to fly solo into the dark energy? And how could that bring back the dead? He decided to keep a close eye on her – the second she showed any signs of preparing to leave, he’d stop her. They’d already lost four senior officers. Losing the Captain as well would ruin the crew, First Officer included.
He heard a long beep from behind him. A pair of hands forced the starboard door open and B’Elanna’s head popped through. “Oh,” she said, once it had opened completely. “Want me to find somewhere else to contemplate the meaning of life, or can I join you?”
“Come on in,” he answered, then turned back toward the force field. “How are you doing?”
He listened as she picked over the debris and made her way to a diagonal bulkhead adjacent to the one he had anchored himself to. “Never better. You?”
She sighed, anguished. “I don’t want to talk about it.” When she saw his skeptical expression, she dipped her head with attitude. “Seriously.”
“I don’t think they’re coming back,” he stated gently.
“That’s… why I don’t want to talk about it.” She crossed her arms and blinked at the stars. “If this is all you have to say, I’ll go back to engineering and punch Ensign Vorik in the face. I came up here to clear my head.”
“Fine. Should we discuss redecorating?”
She breathed a laugh. “Please. It would be easier to chop the whole mess hall off the ship.”
“Unfortunately, that’s the same conclusion I came to, but I’m under orders to fix it without jettison.”
“What’d you do to get stuck on repair duty?” she smirked.
“Don’t tell me you heard it too.”
“Chakotay, everyone’s heard it. She’s pissed. And the crew is probably happy to have something other than their… dead friends to talk about.” B’Elanna’s voice caught on the difficult word, but she plowed through as if to prove she could handle saying it without emotion.
He couldn’t believe his relationship with Janeway was really that interesting to the crew. It was true, a couple of hours after their exchange in astrometrics, she had ordered him off the bridge and into the mess hall to whip it into shape. Now that he was here, he wondered if she had sent him out of anger, or because she hadn’t wanted to be “tempted” by him.
“When does anyone have time to talk about trivialities?” Chakotay asked B’Elanna. “I’ve slept about seven hours total since we escaped the dark energy and other than that I’ve been working non-stop.”
“Do you lose the ability to speak while performing manual labor?”
He had to smile, albeit half-heartedly. “Sounds like I need to crack down on gossip.”
“Come on. Inquiring minds. You could at least confide in me.”
He shot her a glance and saw the miniature clouds of her breath silhouetted against the inky black beyond the force field. He didn’t respond. She had to know he didn’t talk about his friendship – or whatever it was – with Janeway.
“I know you hate to kiss and tell, but –”
“Excuse me?” he said. “Since when does B’Elanna Torres care about other peoples’ relationships?”
“– But honestly, Chakotay, I could use a good distraction.” She sniffed as the cold started affecting her nose. He could tell there was truth to her words. Dark circles had cropped up under eyes lately.
“What did Vorik do to you? Must have been pretty bad if you’re trying to pry into my thoughts.”
She seemed to realize he wasn’t going to divulge. “Told me it was illogical to postpone the acceptance of my mate’s death. And that Tom was probably…” Her mouth slid up to the side and she shook her head. “Well, he told me how he guessed Tom had probably died.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t already punched Vorik in the face.” Chakotay envied the Vulcans at times like these, as he was sure everyone did. But that didn’t make their discourtesy any easier to swallow.
“I… may have chucked a damaged plasma manifold at his head.”
“He dodged it!”
Chakotay eyed her sternly. “You can’t go around throwing heavy objects at crew members. If you need time off, take it. Better that than injuring somebody.”
Her shoulders traveled up to her ears. “Voyager can’t afford to give me time off!” She brought her voice down and seemed to regain some confidence. “It won’t happen again. Like I said, I came up here to cool down. Once that manifold left my fingers, I knew I had to get Vorik out of my sight for a while. I’ll be fine.” She winced. “You gonna tell the Captain? I don’t want to stress her out any more than she already is.”
He turned back to the force field, contemplating whether there was any answer he could give that wouldn’t lead to B’Elanna asking further questions about what had transpired with Janeway. He settled on a simple, “No.”
“You must not be telling her much of anything lately, huh?”
A brusque tilt of his head was all the reply he gave her.
“You would feel better if you got it off your chest, Chakotay. I saw the way you were buttering her up a few days ago. What happened? She douse your advances with the Starfleet protocol wet blanket?”
“Not exactly. I’ll tell you, but this stays between –”
“I won’t tell a soul.”
He tucked his numbing fingers under his arms. She had figured most of it out already, anyway. So, in a quiet voice, he told her, “She has feelings for me, but she believes they distracted her into losing the fourteen crew members. She’s avoided me like the plague since we cleared the dark energy.”
“Wow.” B’Elanna sniffled and rubbed her hands on her crossed arms. “She must really want you badly if she has to avoid you just to focus on the ship. I’m sorry, Chakotay.” He heard the pain in her voice as she tried to separate her grief from her sympathy for him. In her view, it must have been unfair – how even though Chakotay couldn’t really have Janeway, at least the one he wanted was alive and well.
“It’s not so bad,” he said, shrugging. It was a lie, but given the circumstances, he felt driven to say it anyway.
“Yes, it is,” she replied vehemently. “You deserve to be happy.”
Sometimes Chakotay felt he was getting kicked around no matter what he did. He shook his head.
“You love her, don’t you?”
He didn’t have to respond; he knew it was written all over his face.
“I’m picking up an object riding the edge of the dark energy,” Harry announced from the ops station, a fair amount of excitement in his voice.
Chakotay and Janeway whipped their heads around to Harry. “An escape pod?” Chakotay asked at the same time Janeway said, “On screen.”
Through a haze of exhaustion, Chakotay blinked at the viewscreen. “Magnify.” He scratched his stubble, wanting to make certain he wasn’t seeing things. Indeed – the object was unmistakably a photon torpedo casing sporting the blinking light of an escape pod.
“Who’s inside?” Janeway demanded. She set her magnetic mug on the armrest, her sleeves rolled up almost to the elbows and her shell unzipped. Chakotay had lost count of how many times she’d refilled her coffee since the night shift began. Both had elected to forgo sleeping, Janeway presumably because they were so close to the time when the dark energy would catch up with them, and Chakotay because he wanted to make sure she didn’t escape in a shuttle. His frantic desire to devise her plan had faded into a tired sense of failure. He hadn’t made a micron of progress, and he kept coming back to that fact like a tongue to an aching tooth. He felt totally helpless; he really might lose her.
“It’s Tuvok,” Harry answered, suddenly with a low, husky tone. “He’s dead.”
Chakotay watched Janeway’s face fall. She slipped into stunned silence.
“Beam him directly to sickbay,” Chakotay ordered. “Lock onto the escape pod with a tractor beam and tow it into shuttle bay two.”
As the beam shot out and carried the pod in, Chakotay saw how many fissures, dents, and holes peppered its casing. Harry was careful to avoid contacting the dark energy with the tractor beam.
“Captain, there’s a message embedded in the pod’s computer.”
Janeway seemed too buried in shock to speak – she nodded to Harry, who routed the message through to the bridge.
“Tuvok to Voyager.” His voice sounded uncharacteristically rough. “Seven and Mr. Paris have regrettably perished. I am sure Voyager encountered the same difficulties with inter-dimensional rifts and structural integrity failures that crippled us. Suffice it to say, both Mr. Paris and Seven of Nine performed their duties with admirable bravery until the end.” Chakotay observed floating tears sparkling in front of Janeway’s eyes. He wished he could take her hand.
“I abandoned the Delta Flyer,” the transmission continued, “Once it became clear it would not survive the dark energy. I provided my crew members with the best space burial I could conjure under the circumstances. I’m afraid I don’t hold much hope for my own safe return to Voyager. I’d like the crew to know that I have enjoyed serving with you all for the past five years. To Captain Janeway, I offer my sincere regrets that I am unable to finish the journey with an honorable, intelligent… highly illogical… captain, and friend, such as yourself.” Janeway’s lips curled upward sadly. “I wish you all a safe, timely quest home. Tuvok out.”
Allowing himself a moment for his own grief, Chakotay closed his eyes and said a silent prayer for the spirits of Tuvok, Tom, and Seven. If only they could go back in time and avert this crisis…
In a stroke of fate, her plan became clear to him. His fatigue sloughed off him like dead skin from a snake. He knew what he had to do, and the end result would be more than worth the effort. The details began fitting together in his mind, although he anticipated some pieces of this puzzle would be more complicated to orchestrate than others.
His buzzing mental preparation was interrupted by the comm system. “Doctor to the bridge. There’s… nothing I can do for Commander Tuvok. I’m sorry. I’ll have a report ready in a few hours.”
With a glance at Janeway, it became clear she wouldn’t be responding, so Chakotay did the honors. “Acknowledged.” If everything worked, the Doctor wouldn’t need to write that report at all.
When Chakotay turned his eyes back to Janeway, he was surprised to find her staring at him. Her look hit him in the chest like a plasma surge, and he knew with every fiber of his being that the moment had come. He had only seconds to stop her from leaving.
He weighed his options. If he tried to persuade her not to go, there was no way she would bend her will. But if he let on that he knew her plan, she might provide enough details for him to slip around her and escape before she did. All he needed to do was delay her departure. That was it – as long as he got to the Sacajawea first, he’d be home free. Of course, he realized unpleasantly, he’d still have to act like he wanted to trade places with her. Otherwise she’d get suspicious.
“Don’t,” he said to her softly as his palms began to sweat on the armrests.
Her brows knotted together. “In my ready room, Commander. Harry, you have the bridge.” She kicked off in haste; Chakotay leapt to her side swiftly.
They turned to face each other just inside the door. “How much do you know?” she asked, crossing her arms. Although she didn’t appear to harbor any frustration toward him, the grief – surely superficial, like his – seemed to give her pause. Her tears had stopped, but her tone fell uncharacteristically flat.
“Let’s just say I know enough.” The flickering lights and cold air ratcheted up his anxiety. In the absence of any logical argument, he opened the dams and shunted all the furious worry and love into his voice. “Let me go instead.”
Her eyes softened and her brows raised. “I can’t let you do that, Chakotay. I’d be sentencing you to death.”
“I can’t let you go for the same reason.”
She shook her head. “You can,” she answered conversationally, as though they were discussing lunch options, “And will, allow me to complete my mission, because I am the Captain and you are my First Officer. I want you on the bridge when I go. The crew will need you.”
A glimmering tidbit snagged at his brain, and before he could think twice the thought shot out of his mouth. “A Captain always goes down with her ship. You’re needed here.”
“Nice try,” she said, smiling crookedly under a furrowed brow. “But suicide missions are always the Captain’s prerogative.”
He considered highlighting how slim their chance of success happened to be. He guessed no better than 10% or 15%, and doubted she had a more promising estimate. Broaching the subject out loud might exacerbate their collective apprehension, he decided. Talking about her death and the prospects of somehow surmounting the dark energy with a grand total of three senior officers and barely enough hands to run a severely impaired starship struck him as valid, but unnecessary, pessimism. They had no other options.
He switched tacks. “At least let me come with you.”
She drew herself up and responded firmly. “Commander, you will take command of Voyager when I disembark. This is not up for debate.”
He nodded and closed his eyes for a moment, feigning acceptance of her order, hating himself for deceiving her. “When are you leaving?”
“Since I have a chance to brief you first, I’ll depart at 0300 hours.” That would give him at least forty-five minutes, which should be plenty of time. She continued, “I’ll exit the bridge and hand over command quietly. I trust you understand that this is classified information – the crew is not to discover my mission.”
“Aye, Captain.” And now for the tricky part – the subterfuge that would grant him access to the shuttle bay before she noticed his absence. “I’ll run a diagnostic on the Sacajawea for you in case it needs any basic repairs.”
“Good. And…” She put out her hand, palm up, completely trusting. Was she finally ready to treat him with affection again? When he enclosed her hand in his, she warmly intoned, “Thank you, Chakotay.”
Never did she look so lovely as when he couldn’t have her. His stomach twisted painfully at the thought of this impending goodbye. He steeled himself; this would have to be fast if he wanted to retain control.
A bold impulse struck him, but he figured she might indulge him: he hooked an arm around her waist to pull her close. On the way into the embrace, surprise flickered across her features, but he clutched her against him almost tightly enough to crack her ribs and received no complaint. As the air squeezed from her lungs she emitted a breathy noise that warmed his neck, then wrapped around him just as fiercely. He planted a soft kiss on the crown of her head and buried his nose in her bound hair.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured into his chest. He felt her voice reverberate through him. “To hell with protocol. I’ll strike the reprimand from your record.”
“If your mission succeeds, you won’t have to,” he replied, suffused with tempered joy. Her arms loosened, so he unwound and held her at arm’s length. “Good luck, Kathryn. I might not see you again.”
She slipped her fingers around his elbows. “You’ll see me on the other side,” she whispered, attempting to smile.
He left before the temptation to stay with her forever swallowed him whole.
In a daze, he floated and pulled his way down to the shuttle bay wondering why he hadn’t kissed her. The question was as slick as a velocity disk; no answer would stick to it and the very asking made his mission a thousand times more difficult. He would have turned around and redone that farewell if not for the knowledge that this was Kathryn Janeway. If she had wanted to kiss him, she would have kissed him. End of story.
At least he had planted her gift.
The shuttle bay doors stuck, so he spent a few minutes at the control panel. His desire to return to her blossomed into a tender ache. With each passing second, he became more convinced he should go back. The thought so distracted him that before he knew it, the console had erupted in a shower of sparks. He cursed under his breath and set to work on prying the door open with his hands. If it wouldn’t give, he could opt for the Jeffries tubes – or her ready room.
He grunted with frustration and exertion as the heavy portal finally gave way.
The Sacajawea floated ominously inside. Chakotay braced himself against the doorframe and peered up and down the dark corridor, unwilling to commit quite yet. Voyager seemed eerily hushed with so many systems down and most of the crew asleep.
He heard a door swoosh shut from just around the bend, where the turbo lift was. Janeway’s voice carried around the corner. “Chakotay!”
His heart leapt into his throat. “Kathryn?” He shoved himself toward her, unable to see her around the curving hallway. He couldn’t get to her fast enough.
When she appeared, she wore an expression of blazing determination and desperation. He imagined he looked much the same. “Kathryn,” he said again, just to say it, as they pulled themselves together at top speed.
The distance closed and his breath caught at the electricity in her bright eyes. As soon as they were within reach of each other, her outstretched hands dug into the fabric of his uniform and she yanked his mouth down to hers.
The kiss was passionate but frantic, their manic anxiety about the looming mission tainting what should have been a perfect, carefree moment. He felt her arms behind his shoulders, fingers clinging to his neck. His hands fastened to her back and hair and he gave himself up to his feelings, kissing her like she was water and he was dying of thirst. When she moaned into his mouth, as she had when she’d first tried his butternut squash soup, he shuddered with desire. He had known she would moan from the first time he’d shared a meal with her.
He tossed his fantasy of taking her in zero-g aside. This was better. And through it all, their feet didn’t touch the ground.
“Torres to the Captain,” came B’Elanna’s tortured voice.
They broke apart and their foreheads bumped together like magnets. B’Elanna must have heard about Tuvok and the away team. Her pain, although a serious concern, wouldn’t last very long if everything went according to plan.
In a fit of daring, Chakotay pulled back a little and tapped Janeway’s combadge for her. Her eyes flickered up to his with a grin he hoped would haunt his dreams.
“Request permission to be relieved of duty immediately.”
“B’Elanna, I’m on my way to engineering. We’ll discuss this when I arrive. Janeway out.”
“She’ll be okay,” Chakotay said, still breathing heavily. “I’m glad you came down.”
“I am too.” She ran a thumb over his stubbly jaw line fondly, a gesture so simple and caring that he wished he could relive it every day. Her eyes followed the motion, then danced up to meet his gaze. She beamed for a second or two, a heart-stopping display of happiness that upended his sense of gravity all over again. She seemed to fight the expression down and compel herself to say, “I have to go, Chakotay.”
He tucked a strand of her hair back. “I’m really going to miss this when the timeline resets.”
She kissed him sweetly, though her distress burst onto her face once she pulled away. “Have a little faith. Our intrepid Captain has found the right man,” she said, her voice serious and low with what sounded like forced control. “And regardless of which timeline she’s in, I think we’ll find that she’s loath,” she added a headshake, “To let him go.”
He began to panic as the moment ground to a halt. What if she suddenly figured out that he intended to defy her orders? She disentangled herself from his arms without breaking eye contact. In a frenzy, he tried to come up with something meaningful to say. He held onto her arm until she removed his hand herself, and all he could think about was how much he wanted to protect her, how immensely he loved her, and how much this goodbye was going to hurt.
Her last touch: a squeeze to his hand.
Her last look: eyes bright with tears that wouldn’t fall, full of profound sadness.
Her last words: a whisper, “You owe me a present.”
Heart hammering and stomach roiling, Chakotay opened the airlock. Through the view port of the Sacajawea, beyond the shuttle bay doors, he could see nothing but the crackling liquid-like wave of dark energy on Voyager’s tail.
He had never been so frightened. His only shred of comfort was that Janeway was safe, instead of alone in this shuttle like he was. Quickly, before he lost his nerve, he guided the Sacajawea out, engaged the shields, and flew toward the energy.
His combadge beeped. “Janeway to Chakotay.” Damn, that had been fast.
He wiped his clammy hands on the thighs of his pants and tapped the badge. “Chakotay here.” His own voice sounded like it was a light year away. He continued on an intercept course. It wasn’t hard; virtually any vector would have gotten him there.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She didn’t sound angry, despite her choice of words, but very much on edge.
Oddly, he felt relieved. There was nothing Voyager could do to get him back now. “I guess you could say I’m pulling a Janeway.”
“Chakotay, I want you to listen very carefully.” She paused, and when she continued, she used the same pained tone, voice breaking. “I order you to return to Voyager. Immediately.”
He took his hands off the console and slumped his shoulders. “I can’t do that, Kathryn. If I come back, you’ll lock me in the brig while you race out in a shuttle and blow yourself up.”
Again, a short pause. “Exactly. Now return, or you get a formal reprimand.” She must have been on the bridge or in engineering; if she were in private, she would’ve referenced the first censure.
“I can’t.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Even though I would only be aware of your death for an instant before the explosion destroyed Voyager, it would be the most painful instant I can imagine. I’ve watched you nearly die before, and I’m not keen on repeating the experience.” He wished he could tell her more, but she wouldn’t want the crew to hear anything else about their relationship.
Gauging the distance of the dark energy proved to be tricky; his sensors were already blinded and it looked the same as it had when he’d set out from Voyager, though the stars on his sides had begun to still into warped blurs. “You owe me a present,” she responded quietly.
“I left it in your ready room.” His shuttle began to vibrate, though he hadn’t entered yet.
“Wait,” she said desperately, emotion pouring into her voice. “Wait until I find it!” Was she on the bridge, saying that in front of the crew?
“I will,” he answered.
The seconds stretched. How strange, to be floating inside a tremulous craft without being whipped around himself.
“A book,” she said, “Jane Eyre!” Silence, presumably as she inspected the artifact. “And – the smell! You must have used a week of replicator rations on this. It’s like an original copy.”
He swallowed. It was getting closer. “Do you like it?”
Rather than replying directly, she read to him, though the transmission started breaking down. “‘I have known you Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you forever,’” for a second he lost her, “‘It is like looking on the necessity of death…’”
“Kathryn,” he interjected urgently, cursing himself for not saying it sooner, “I love you!”
Only static came through, so he tried again. “I love you!” He wasn’t sure if she’d heard him. He swatted at the tears that glistened in front of his eyes. “Damn it!” he hissed.
With difficulty, he keyed in the sequence that would grant him a view of Voyager. His small screen showed the rear, heavily damaged even after two days of repairs. Enormous sections of the hull plating gaped open and in places he could see into corridors and quarters. Everyone he cared about was on that ship.
He steeled himself as the shuttle penetrated the edge of the dark energy. The shaking increased, but he was in, nothing but featureless black ahead.
The computer chimed in. “Warning: structural integrity at 50%.” The Sacajawea hadn’t been equipped with the proper shielding like the Flyer had. He only had one shot at this.
His fingers flew over the console. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and hit the final button. The shuttle released a photon torpedo into the dark energy.Then, everything was white.
1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 2.1 | epilogue