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Strangers

For all the enduring romantics among us… Thanks for keeping the dream alive.

Pairing: J/7 (eventually)

 

“These suits are heavy. I feel like I’m wearing a car.”

 

Panting under the weight of her own load Alex said testily, “Give it a rest, Max. We’re almost back to the pod.”

 

Alex was tired of collecting ore samples too, and each of the women were carrying twelve kilos of rock in their packs along with the air tanks, but this was the last load. The landing pod had been set down on the Martian surface where it was blocked from the dangerous winds beside a sheer mountainside. Unfortunately the excavation site where the women had been working was two kilometers from there.

 

She could understand the other woman’s complaints; the suits were heavy and walking in the thick red sand was even more of a work out. The muscles in her legs quivered in exhaustion and sweat ran freely over her body, running into her eyes and blurring her vision, but the pod was in sight.

 

“Look at it this way, Captain, we’ll be back on Earth in another fort-eight hours. Then NASA will have the data they need on this planet, and we can finally get a shower.”

 

“Thank goodness,” Maxine responded casually. “I can smell you from here.”

 

Alex was about to respond to the good-natured teasing when her headset squawked with a signal from the orbiting shuttle. “Harowitz to Major Turko. Ma’am there’s some kind of displacement wave approaching the planet. Sensors show it has the destructive force of a hurricane. It’s going to intersect with the surface near your location.”

 

The young pilot abruptly abandoned protocol in his panic and said, “You two have to get out of there, now!”

 

Digging into the sand harder with their toes both women tried to move faster. Alex said, “Try to calm down, Paul. How much time do we have?”

 

“It’s hard to tell…fifteen, twenty minutes at the most.”

 

The astronauts on the surface froze and stared at each other in shock. “It’ll take that long just to run the pre-flight checks.” Max pointed out in fear.

 

Thinking fast Alex ordered, “Drop your pack,” fingers flying over her own harness as she spoke.

 

Without the extra weight maneuvering on the Martian soil would be easier. Still it took far too long to reach the pod. Alex imagined she could hear seconds ticking off the clock, but then they were climbing the ladder and diving into the hatch.

 

“How much longer, Paul?” Alex asked buckling into the pilot’s seat. Max was strapping in beside her and immediately began flipping switches.

 

“About eight minutes.”

 

“Understood. Move the Explorer to a safe distance and wait for our rendezvous.” Not waiting for a response she said, “Forget the pre-flight, Max. The systems either work or they don’t.”

 

“Right, preparing to fire engines.”

 

The engines started with a roar and Alex began navigating away from the surface. A straight ascent wasn’t really recommended but these were special circumstances. They had broken through the ionosphere and Alex was beginning to think they’d make it when Max grabbed her arm and shouted, “Look out!”

 

The wave caught the small two-person pod and shook it hard, blowing out power conduits and shorting out all systems including life-support. An O2 canister ruptured and shot across the cockpit striking Max in the side of the helmet. Alex could hear Paul screaming for a status report as the brunette slumped heavily against her.

 

Then the comm. system failed completely and all she could hear was the hissing and popping of fried electrical equipment. She didn’t know if Max was alive or not, but at the moment it didn’t matter. The pod was being carried deeper into space by the fast-moving displacement wave, all of their systems were off-line and the only oxygen they had was whatever was left in their suits. They were dead anyway.

 

Alex closed her eyes and said a brief prayer that Paul Harowitz would make it home safely. When she opened her eyes a few moments later she thought she was seeing things.

 

“Can this possibly get any worse?”

 

Directly ahead of the out of control shuttle there appeared to be a void in space, a huge black area devoid of light, but definitely with a gravitational center.

 

“A black hole?”

 

The displacement wave seemed to be rushing toward the anomaly with the speed of a locomotive. G-forces inside the pod increased exponentially and Alex felt blood leaking from her eyes and nose as internal pressure built up in the cabin.

 

Next the ship will implode, she thought groggily.

She was unconscious before the pod crossed the event horizon and winked out of sight.

 

                                                                                Chapter 1

 

 

“Red alert, Captain to the bridge.”

 

Janeway heaved a disappointed sigh and cast a longing glance at the cup of coffee she had just replicated.  Chakotay’s voice hadn’t sounded too urgent, merely tense, and the ship hadn’t rocked under the weight of another endless alien attack. So what could the red alert possibly be about?

 

Stepping onto the bridge nothing seemed out of place except a quiet sense of urgency as her crew efficiently went about their duties. Striding across the bridge Janeway sat gracefully in her chair and ordered, “Report,” to everyone in general.

 

Operations was the first to respond. At one time Ensign Harry Kim would have hesitated, but four years in the Delta Quadrant had seasoned him into a fine young officer that Kathryn regularly counted on in a crunch.                         

 

“Sensors show a massive graviton wake emerging from subspace. The anomaly should be visible in….3.6 seconds.”

 

Sure enough, a few seconds later a burst of blue light appeared almost directly in their path. It was a good thing Chakotay had ordered the ship to a full stop before she had come out of her ready room. The anomaly itself was breathtakingly beautiful, but the crew had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving.

 

“Captain, the anomaly has a temporal signature, and there’s something coming out of it.”

 

Turning in her chair with her eyebrows almost to her hairline Kathryn asked, “What’s coming out of it?” Could someone have the technology to use such a phenomenon as a means for attacking unsuspecting ships?

 

Frowning as he checked and re-checked his board Harry finally shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

 

“I have to have a better answer than that, Mister Kim.” She advised him a warning voice.

 

“It is a vessel, Captain.” Tuvok, her Vulcan tactical chief calmly responded. “It does not match any known specifications, but all systems appear to be non-functional.”

 

“The graviton wake is dispersing.” Ensign Kim advised, hoping that he could earn his way back into the captain’s good graces.

 

As the anomaly slowly broke up it released its hold on the small ship, and the bridge crew watched as it slowly tumbled free. Janeway frowned thinking that it looked like an old Earth design, and the look on Tom Paris’ face told her that she wasn’t far off the mark.

 

“Tom, what is it?” she prompted knowing of his fascination with Earth history.

 

The helmsman shook his head for a second and said, “I’m not sure, Captain. But I think that’s a pod. I seem to remember something of a pod disappearing during the early part of Earth’s space program.”

 

“You’re right,” Chakotay said. “I admit I’m not as much of a history buff as you, but I always found the Mars project particularly interesting. In 2094 a mission commander and her second in command were on the surface taking samples when they were warned that an anomaly was fast approaching their position. They managed to make it into the landing pod, and initiated lift off before they were encompassed by the anomaly. Nothing was ever found of the pod, no debris, nothing.”

 

“You think this is that pod?” Janeway asked incredulously, glancing between her first officer and helmsman.

 

“Only one way to find out.” Tom suggested. “How about beaming it into the shuttle bay?”

 

“Or we might try looking at the name of the ship on the outside of the hull.” Chakotay suggested dryly. “The computer can verify if it’s the right ship.”

 

“Do it,” Janeway grinned, her innate sense of adventure given free rein.

 

A few moments later Tuvok was able to increase magnification on the viewer and the bridge crew began to decipher the pod’s name through the blackened metal where an explosion had taken place.

 

“E-n-d…” Tom began, squinting to make out the letters.

 

“…e…vor.” Chakotay finished.

 

“Endeavor,” Janeway supplied helpfully.

 

The ship’s computer quickly confirmed that the name of the pod was the one that had gone missing in the mid twenty-first century.

 

“Now can we beam it into the shuttle bay?” Neelix asked hopefully.

 

Somehow the delta quadrant native had come on to the bridge during the excitement and Kathryn hadn’t even noticed him until that moment. Leave it to Neelix to always know when something colossal was happening.

Grinning, the captain thought it was a wonderful idea. If it was a piece of Earth’s history out here in the delta quadrant, it would help the crew feel closer to home and perhaps take their minds off of day to day stress of being so far away.

 

Harry was listening to the conversation and was interested in exploring the tiny vessel as much as anyone, but he didn’t really have anything to contribute to the discussion. His boards had continued to run scans without his input, and when he glanced down he couldn’t believe his eyes. The captain had just ordered Tuvok to lock on transporters in preparation of transferring the little mystery to the shuttle bay.

 

“No! Wait!” he shouted just in time to keep Tuvok from activating the transporters.

 

Meeting the captain’s eyes he said unbelievingly, “Sensors are picking up life-signs on board that ship.”

 

“What?” Janeway fairly shouted. “That ship is over three hundred years old!”

 

Stammering for a moment he finally said, “I’m reading two of them. Life signs are very faint, but they’re there.” When she still didn’t move he said, “Captain, that graviton wake had a temporal signature!”

 

Coming out of her momentary shock Janeway barked, “Sickbay, prepare for casualties. Doctor, make sure you keep them sedated, I’ll explain later. Tuvok lock onto those life-signs and beam them directly to the medical bay. Harry, lock a tractor beam onto that pod. Stand by before towing it into the shuttle bay. If we really do have survivors, then that ship is theirs and we don’t have the right to tow it in.”

 

Then standing up and pulling down her tunic she said, “Commander, you have the bridge. I’ll be in sickbay…meeting a piece of our history.”

 

Kathryn was preparing to step onto the turbo lift when she heard someone conspicuously clearing their throat from behind her. Her face lit up in a mischievous smile knowing exactly who it was. Not turning around she asked, “Would you care to accompany me, Lieutenant Paris?”

 

There was no reason why not, Kathryn reasoned. With the ship at station keeping in a quiet area of space the helmsman would have little to do. It wouldn’t hurt to indulge the young man a little.

 

“Yes, ma’am!” he replied exuberantly and fairly bounded up the small flight of stairs to the upper level. A second later he was beside her and they climbed onto the lift together.

 

“This is great! Do you realize what an opportunity this is?” Tom asked obviously forgetting that he was talking to his commanding officer as he paced restlessly around the small lift.

 

Resisting the urge to tease him Kathryn allowed herself to be excited by this discovery. “You’re right, Tom. The opportunity to learn about the early space program from people who were actually there is exciting, but try to keep your enthusiasm in check. We still don’t know what their condition is, and if they are alright, how they’ll react to waking up in the twenty-fourth century.”

 

“Of course, Captain.” Tom returned clearly not hearing a word she said. “Did you know that when the astronauts from that mission disappeared they set the Mars colonization program back about ten years?”

 

“How so?” Kathryn asked curiously.

 

Shrugging as he settled into his element he replied, “They were actually on Mars collecting ore samples and mineral deposits…things of that nature when they disappeared. NASA needed those samples to determine the viability of terra forming from inside domes. Another team had to be sent to finish collecting the data that was needed, but NASA was reluctant to lose more astronauts so the project was shelved for about eight years. Finally, the decision was made to go ahead. Earth was getting crowded, and they simply needed the space. The rest is history.”

 

Paris’ information was interesting, but Kathryn realized that he could probably help her with other things that she considered a little more pressing at the moment.

 

“Tom, you’ve obviously remembered more about the Endeavor since we first saw it.” She began. “What do you remember about the astronauts themselves?”

 

“Very little, really.” He answered honestly. “They were both women. I saw a picture of them once, and I seem to remember that one was blonde and one was a brunette. Both were mid to late twenties. They were very intelligent, very courageous, and very beautiful.”

 

Trust him to remember their looks, Kathryn thought dryly. “How about something a little more useful like their names.” She prodded.

 

Shaking his head as he thought about it Tom said, “I seem to remember that the mission commander, the blonde, was Major…Turk or Turko, something like that. The brunette I definitely remember. She was a knockout! Her name was…is…Captain Maxine Clayton. They were Marines so the Major was the ranking officer. Once Starfleet adopted military structure they incorporated naval designations and the rank of Major no longer existed.”

 

The turbo lift stopped and they stepped onto deck five as Paris said, “I may not remember a lot about them, but I’ll tell you this, Captain. They were the bravest two astronauts of the time. There were very few people who wanted to be on the Martian surface exposed to that radiation and high solar winds. These two volunteered and were there for nine months. They never complained. If they do survive, I don’t really think they’ll have much trouble adjusting to what’s happened.”

 

Sickbay doors parted and as Janeway stepped through she said, “I hope you’re right, Tom.”

 

The scene before her was surreal and it took a moment for Janeway’s brain to mesh past and present. The holographic doctor was standing over a bulky white-suited figure lying on a bio-bed. Lights reflected off the surface of his bald head as he bent over with a scanning device. The medical instrument was twenty-fourth century technology, but the red, white and blue patch of the United States of America on the astronaut’s suit was definitely from the past.

 

Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, Janeway slowly approached the scene. Tom Paris was uncommonly quiet and she could only suspect that he was as awed as she.

 

The doctor had removed the archaic space helmets and set them to the side so that he could treat head injuries and administer hyposprays, but that appeared to be as far as he had gone.

 

“What’s their status, Doctor?” Janeway asked quietly; strangely reverent at the moment.

 

In an equally quiet voice the EMH replied, “Minor injuries. The brunette patient had a nasty concussion that was easily treatable, and this one is suffering from some cellular damage caused by spatial pressure. I assure you it is nothing that isn’t easily repaired. It is a good thing that you found them when you did, however.”

 

“Oh, why is that?” Kathryn asked staring at the face of the blonde the doctor was working on at the moment. She was disturbed by the amount of blood on the classic features, but knew too much pressure could cause bleeding.” The name Turko was stitched on the left breast of the suit that she wore. Major Turko, I presume, she said smiling to herself. She was struck by the brilliant beauty of the woman lying unconscious before her. Tom was right. These women defied the current standard of beauty.

 

A certain Borg Astrometrics officer notwithstanding, her unwilling psyche supplied before she shut it down with a squeak.

 

“Because a few more minutes and they would have suffocated. They were almost out of oxygen.” He responded surprising her. For a moment she had actually forgotten that she asked him a question.

 

Ceasing his activities the doctor looked up and asked, “Captain how is this possible? These women are alive and healthy and in our century. It’s amazing!”

 

“I don’t know, Doctor.” Kathryn said honestly. “However they got here, I don’t think we can help them get home. It looks like we have two new passengers.”

 

The doctor smiled and said, “I’m not sure how they’ll feel about that, but I think morale on this ship is definitely about to get a large boost.”

 

“You can say that again!”

 

Kathryn turned to see what Tom Paris was talking about only to find him standing over the unconscious form of Captain Clayton. She only knew the woman's name because it was stitched across the left breast of her suit.

 

“I wonder what Lieutenant Torres would say about your morale at the moment, Mister Paris.”

 

Tom blanched, turned white and suddenly decided that perhaps he’d better return to his duties. Within seconds he was out of sickbay and striding down the hallway.

 

Janeway would have laughed at his response to the doctor’s jibe if not for the seriousness of the moment. Taking in her newest additions she said, “Keep them sedated for now, Doctor. At least until we decide how to handle things from here.”

 

“How long do you think that will be, Captain? I can’t keep them unconscious indefinitely.”

 

“Just for a few hours. After all, how do you tell someone that they’ve been displaced by three centuries?”

 

Sniffing, the holographic physician finally agreed. “I see your point.”

 

A hundred things were going through Janeway’s mind as she left sickbay, thoughts heavy with what to do with two wayward humans. Janeway retired to her ready room with a great deal of research to do and decisions to make. It didn’t take long to determine that Paris had seriously understated these two. The database held a large amount of information on them from where they were born, and their educations, to their military careers up to the point when they had disappeared.

 

Major Turko had several degrees in psychology, and physics. She had been on the fast track from the beginning of her career and advanced quickly through the ranks, often ahead of her peers. In military actions she was among the first to be deployed as a fighter pilot and had been heavily decorated for heroism before being accepted to the joint military space program with NASA. For all intents and purposes she appeared to be a very focused, intelligent woman who carried out her orders to the letter. In essence, she appeared to be a very black and white individual, caring little for shades of gray.

 

Captain Clayton, while also appearing very focused and intelligent, seemed to be a little more light-hearted in her approach. She had degrees in anthropology and Egyptology, and had also been promoted very quickly through the ranks, but she had one documented blotch on her record. Janeway smirked as she read the account of the bar fight Clayton had been involved in as a young Lieutenant.

 

Someone else had actually began the fight but evidently a young lieutenant didn’t like the odds against the stranger and jumped in because they had nothing better else to do. Her statement at the hearing had been that, “The odds were five to one, sir. I couldn’t just stand by and let that other guy have all the fun.”

 

While Kathryn Janeway appreciated a little fun too, she would have to keep an eye on the impish captain. If they were really here for the long haul, Kathryn had a duty to see to shipboard discipline.

 

Soon Kathryn had learned all that she could and decided it was time to greet her guests. She was looking forward to being there when their eyes opened for the first time in the 24th century.

 

Crossing the command station Kathryn said, “Commander Chakotay, please advise the senior staff that a meeting will convene in two hours in the conference room. I know we’re all eager to greet these people, and I’ll let them know what I’ve found out then.”

 

Kathryn knew that her second in command was fairly squirming in curiosity, but to his credit he simply acknowledged, “Aye, Captain.”

 

It was nearing the middle of the alpha shift and Kathryn passed several crewmembers on their way to the messhall as she made her way to deck five. But soon she was entering sickbay to find much the same scene she had witnessed earlier.

 

Two white-clad figures still lay on bio-beds but the bulky space suits had been removed. Medical devices clicked and beeped as vital signs were monitored, but nothing else stirred.

 

“Doctor?” she called out softly.

 

“Ah, Captain. You’re back.” The doctor said coming out of his office. “It’s about time.”

 

Ignoring the last comment Janeway said, “I think you can wake them now.”

 

The doctor bent over Major Turko and pressed a hypospray to her neck. A second later cerulean blue eyes fluttered open. Kathryn had never seen eyes that particular shade of blue and for a second wondered if they were implants before realizing this woman had lived before the advent of that technology. Confusion was the only emotion visible for an instant before those same eyes focused slowly on Kathryn.

 

A blink later the young woman tried to sit up only to be pressed back by the holographic physician. “Not just yet.” He advised. “You need to rest.”

 

She spared him a glance before refocusing on the woman standing beside her. “Where am I?” she said huskily, the unmistakable sound of command training in her voice.

 

Unsure exactly what she should say at the moment Kathryn prevaricated by saying, “I’m Captain Janeway, and you’re on board my ship. You and your companion are in our medical bay. We found you drifting in space.” Well, that was kind of the truth.

 

Upon hearing that she hadn’t been the only one rescued she glanced over to see Max lying beside her. “I thought she was dead.” She said in obvious relief.

 

“No,” Kathryn replied. “She had a nasty concussion, but the doctor says she’ll make a complete recovery.”

 

At that moment the doctor was reviving Captain Clayton. Within seconds she was pushing the doctor out of her way and asking, “Alex, are you okay?”

 

“Fine, Max. Hold on a second.” Then the blonde asked, “Where are we?”

 

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Kathryn asked.

 

Alex sat up slowly, disregarding the doctor’s medical advice and looked around. Kathryn had the distinct feeling that the young woman missed nothing. “We were on the planet’s surface collecting samples. A storm was heading in our direction and we barely managed to lift off before it hit. Next thing I knew we were caught in it and then being dragged into a black hole.”

 

“Systems were all off-line. I thought we were dead. Now please, where are we?”

 

Glancing between the two women Janeway finally decided to take the plunge. “You’re on board the Federation starship Voyager.”

 

“Starship?” the young captain asked with a nervous laugh, “What’s that supposed to mean? That it travels in space?”

 

Being an astronaut she was familiar with space travel, but from the description of the ship they were on it sounded as though it stayed there. That just wasn’t possible unless it were docked to a space station.

 

Taking a deep breath Kathryn said, “Yes. Voyager is an interstellar ship. You see the anomaly you encountered not only displaced you in space, but in time. I’m afraid it’s not the 21st century anymore. The year is 2375.”

 

“What?” Captain Clayton demanded. “You can’t honestly expect us to believe that!”

 

Holding up a hand the major stopped the other woman’s tirade. “Let’s hear her out.” She advised although from the narrowing of her eyes Kathryn could see that she remained skeptical as well.

 

“I know it’s a lot to take in all at once.” Janeway admitted. “But I assure you it is the truth.” Thinking how to convince her visitors that she was telling the truth she finally decided on what was immediately available. Medical technology would hardly be convincing since a lot of societies developed new tools before other cultures, but perhaps something else would work.

 

Finally she waved toward the doctor. “What would you say if I said this man isn’t really a man? He’s a hologram.”

 

“A hologram?” Major Turko questioned. “You mean a projected image of photons and light?”

 

“I see you’re familiar with the concept.” Janeway observed.

 

Shrugging the blonde said, “Only in a Jules Verne, science fiction sort of way. But from what I understand a hologram isn’t real. It has no mass. I’m sorry, Captain, but he looks pretty real to me.”

 

“Some holograms in our century have been programmed with the ability to alter their matrix. Doctor, would you mind demonstrating?”

 

Sighing in exasperation he responded, “If I must. Computer, deactivate EMH.”

 

A second later he shimmered out of view. Clayton gasped in astonishment, but Janeway noticed that the major barely batted an eye.

 

“I always wondered what was on the other side of a black hole.” Turko finally said softly, speaking more to herself than anyone else.

 

“Then you believe me?” Kathryn asked in relief.

 

Flinging back the blanket covering her lower half, the young Marine moved to the side of the bio-bed dangling her legs over the edge. “How could I not? I saw Captain Clayton get whacked pretty hard on the side of the head with an O2 canister, yet now she’s fully recovered. I was suffering from a massive pressure build up as we went through the black hole, and now I feel fine. We don’t have the kind of medical expertise in our time frame to repair that kind of damage almost instantaneously.”

 

Grinning she added, “Not to mention the little light show with your physician.”

 

“Major, you mean to say that you are just blindly believing everything we’re being told?”

 

Putting her hands on the edge of the bed Alex stood up and turned around to meet her companion’s eyes. “I’m not saying I believe everything, Max. But it seems ridiculous to ignore the evidence before our own eyes.”

 

The doctor rematerialized and the Major faced Captain Janeway. “I believe you when you say that we’ve been displaced in time, but you’ll understand if we reserve judgment on anything else.”

 

“Of course,” Kathryn replied. “Frankly, I’d be a little skeptical too in your place. All I ask is that you keep an open mind.”

 

“Fair enough,” Captain Clayton said hopping down from her bio-bed, “in the meantime, unless we’re prisoners that is, is there anywhere around here where we can get some grub?”

 

“Grub?” Kathryn questioned in confusion.

 

“Yeah, you know; chow, food.”

 

“That’s yes, ma’am.” Turko corrected absently. “She’s the commander of this vessel. I’m assuming that your ranking system is based on the naval code?”

 

“I believe that’s correct.” Kathryn admitted. Although the ranking system was at least familiar to them, it was important that they understood that her ship was not a military vessel.

 

“While our ranking system may be based on an old naval code we aren’t a military force. Strictly speaking our mission statement emphasizes interstellar exploration, defense, and scientific discovery.”

 

Before anyone could respond the doctor walked out of his office where he’d been entering information onto the computer. “Captain, might I suggest quarters for our guests?” he asked a bit presumptuously.

 

“Are you sure they’re ready to be released?”

 

“Medically speaking they are fully recovered from their injuries. As for anything psychological, I can only speculate. Other than a rudimentary knowledge of psychology I’m afraid my database is not equipped to deal with such matters. However, I am going to need full medical backgrounds should they remain on board.”

 

“Very well,” Janeway said dismissing the man who could create problems for her with just a statement. She hadn’t even thought of assigning quarters yet. “I’m afraid space on this ship is rather limited, but I think the V.I.P. quarters will be large enough to accommodate you.” She said with an encouraging smile.

 

Alex didn’t return the smile; she simply picked up their helmets, and passed one to Max before turning to face the hologram. “Thank you for your assistance, Doctor.” Then she faced Kathryn Janeway, noticeably avoiding eye contact, before making an ‘after you’ gesture with her free hand.

 

Janeway led the way out of sickbay, her companions flanking her in the corridor as she led the way to the turbo lift. Feeling the need to fill the silence she said by way of orientation, “Crew quarters are on decks six, and seven. The V.I.P. quarters are on deck three, along with my own and those of my first officer Commander Chakotay. So feel free to stop by if you have any questions.”

 

The doors to the lift opened as they approached, and stepping onto the conveyance Captain Clayton asked, “So we’re not to be confined?”

 

Frowning Kathryn said, “Captain Clayton, I assure you that you are both honored guests. We’re proud to have you on board. In fact, we’re going to be hard-pressed to keep the crew from swamping you with curiosity and questions.”

 

Lifting her head slightly Janeway commanded the computer to bring the lift to deck three. The other two exchanged glances before Clayton said, “Well, that’s a handy little trick.”

 

A few moments later they were walking down the corridor on deck three with Janeway pointing out her quarters and those of Chakotay before they stopped in front of another door. Both women had grown quiet and Janeway opened the doors to lead the way inside.

 

As the others stepped into the room Kathryn said, “I’ll have ship’s stores send up a couple of smaller beds and have the queen-sized one removed. That should give you a little more space.”

 

“I’m sure it will be fine, Captain.” Turko assured her.

 

“Yeah,” Max said, “After being jammed in a shuttle pod for months it feels like a suite at the Ritz. By the way,” she said casting a glance at the major, “what are the chances of getting a shower?” Wafting a hand in the air she pretended she was fanning away an offensive odor.

 

Major Turko actually chuckled at the comment, and Janeway was struck at the way it transformed the younger woman’s face. Smiling she realized that the tension had eased slightly. “Only the showers on this deck have both the hydro and sonic settings.” She informed them.

 

“Huh,” the brunette asked in confusion.

 

“Come on and I’ll show you how they work.” Kathryn offered. After a short demonstration on how to use the showers, replicators, and computer to answer general queries such as crew locations or just to play a little music Janeway said, “Well, I’m afraid I really need to get back to the bridge. But I’d like to have Mister Neelix show you around the ship, if you’re interested?”

 

Kathryn didn’t want to be pushy, but felt it would help them feel grounded if they got to know the ship and crew.

 

“Mister Neelix?” Alex questioned curiously. “You have civilians on board?”

 

“A few,” Kathryn responded. “Although Neelix didn’t come on board until a few weeks into our journey. You’re familiar with Vulcans, of course, because of Zephram Cochran’s warp flight in 2063, but we’ve met a lot more species since then. Neelix is a Talaxian. He’s been irreplaceable on this journey. I couldn’t imagine Voyager without him.”

 

Assuming the conversation was over when there was no response Kathryn made to leave the quarters when a quiet statement from Major Turko stopped her. “Captain, before you go I do have some questions for you.”

 

Uh oh, Kathryn thought, here it comes. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to answer any questions; it was just that she wasn’t sure how much she should say at this point. One shock at a time seemed to be enough. Still, she could hardly refuse.

 

“All right,” she said softly.

 

“When do you think we’ll be able to get back to our own time? It’s not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality, but we really do need to get home. It just seems to me that there could be quiet a few repercussions from our being here.”

 

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” Janeway said sympathetically. “You were brought here by a spatial phenomenon, and we just don’t know that much about them. We simply don’t have the technology to send you back to the 21st century.”

 

Nodding Turko said a little ironically, “I was afraid you were going to say that. All right, barring that,” she asked crossing her arms and leaning her hip against the sofa, “When will you be dropping us off on Earth?”

 

When the captain didn’t answer right away Max said, “Oh we understand that you’re on a mission and that it might not happen for a few days, but we have been gone for nine months-give or take three hundred years.”

 

“There’s something you’re not telling us.” Alex said perceptively looking deeply into Janeway’s eyes and trying to read the secrets there.

 

Taking a deep breath Kathryn finally said, “You’re right, but I guess you deserve to know everything. The truth is that we are a very long way from Earth. On the other side of the galaxy, in fact. About two weeks into our mission our ship was abducted by an alien life form. He died before he could send us home. We’ve been on our way back to Earth for four years, now. By our calculations we’re still a good thirty years from reaching the alpha quadrant.”

 

Whistling in shock Maxine said, “This sounds like the voyage of the damned!”

 

“You said this Neelix came on board a few weeks after you left the alpha quadrant?” Alex questioned sharply ignoring her companion.

 

“Yes,” Kathryn replied, “he’s native to the delta quadrant, where we are now. But he’s very friendly. In fact I must warn you that he seizes every opportunity to throw a party. I’m sure he’s organizing one now as we speak.”

 

“Thanks for the warning,” Alex responded not about to be put off from her questioning but acknowledging the statement. “So, what about the other civilians? You said there were a few on board. Are they from this delta quadrant, too?”

 

“One of them is a child, the first one born on board Voyager. The other is human, although we did find her here in the delta quadrant. We rescued her from the Borg. Her name is Seven of Nine and she is my Astrometrics officer. She only came on board a year ago.”

 

“What’s a Borg?” Maxine asked.

 

Smiling Kathryn said, “I could probably stay here all night answering questions, but it might be easier if you read it for yourself. I can show you how to interface with the ship’s logs and they can bring you up to date a lot faster than I can. I’ll be happy to answer anymore questions when you’ve finished.”

 

Nodding the major said, “Thanks, Captain. That’s probably a good idea. But I do have one other thing.”

 

“Yes, Major?” Janeway asked wondering what else it could possibly be.

 

“Since we are so far in the future, I wouldn’t imagine our commissions count for very much out here. And since we’re not technically under your command, I think maybe you’d better call me Alex.”

 

“You’re not just giving up?” Maxine asked incredulously. “You can’t possibly want to stay here!”

 

Frowning Alex said to the other woman, “Of course not, but I don’t see that we have much choice. Even if we could get back,” she said glancing at Kathryn, “which seems impossible, what kind of damage would it cause? Think about it. Our disappearances changed the lives of our families. How could we explain a sudden return?”

 

After a second Max finally looked at Janeway, too. “I guess you’d better call me Max.”

 

Smiling the captain said, “Thank you, both of you. And when I’m not in front of the crew you can call me Kathryn. Now, I really do need to get to the bridge so let me show you how to call up the ship’s logs.”

 

Ten minutes later Janeway had shown them how to pull up the logs in the quarter’s work area. Standing by the door in preparation of leaving she asked, “Should I ask Neelix to come by and show you around?”

 

Looking up from the computer Alex said, “No, if it’s alright I think we’ll shower, get something to eat and check the computer records. I think we should have an idea what we’re getting into first.”

 

“I understand,” Kathryn said, “Call me over the comm. system if you need anything. I’ll stop by after my shift. Oh, by the way, I’ll let Neelix know to give you a few days to settle in before throwing your party.”

 

“Thank you, Kathryn.” Alex said. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

 

Kathryn heard Max mutter, “Speak for yourself,” just before the doors closed behind her.

 

Stopping by her quarters Kathryn grabbed a quick cup of coffee and a bowl of vegetable bouillon before heading to the bridge. She had twenty minutes before the staff meeting and her mind was in a whirl. Both women appeared extraordinary in their own right and although they were certainly not willing visitors, they were definitely to Voyager’s benefit.

 

The biggest regret Janeway had experienced on this journey was the lack of a ship’s counselor. Alex Turko had the credentials to fill that bill if she was so inclined. Maxine Clayton’s degrees in anthropology didn’t necessarily come in handy being three hundred years out of date, but she was also a fairly decent engineer. B’Elanna was always complaining about being short-staffed, perhaps with a little brushing up Clayton could step in.

 

Both women were excellent pilots, and Kathryn had no doubt they would soon want to learn to pilot the shuttle crafts, and maybe event the ship itself.

 

Aside from their possible usefulness Janeway had to admit that they both fascinated her on a personal level.

 

Making her way to the conference room a short time later, she couldn’t help but smile as she noticed an air of excitement from the crewmembers she passed. Eyes were a little brighter, and people seemed to move a little faster with an extra bounce in their step. Good news traveled fast, it seemed.

 

The only thing that troubled her was the effect it would have on the two Marines. She couldn’t just expect them to say, “Oh, well. Things happen. Where would you like us to start working, Captain?”

 

They both undoubtedly had families and loved ones. Possibly they even had husbands and children. The database had contained very little on a personal level. Still Kathryn knew that somehow they had to make the transition. What other choice was there? Voyager was still thirty five thousand light years from Earth, and they were the only humans in the quadrant.

 

Except for the L-class planet where they had discovered Amelia Earhart and a group of humans that had been abducted in 1937, Janeway thought with a frown.

 

Their descendants had prospered and built new lives for themselves on the planet. But that was out of the question. Voyager had left that planet a good twenty thousand light years behind, and there was no going back.

 

No, at this point, Kathryn thought, all she could do was try and ease the passage. She knew that her crew would do the same.

Chapter 2

 

Alex finally allowed the frown of confusion to cover her features as the pneumatic doors closed behind their host. Looking around their assigned quarters and thinking about what they’d see since waking up she knew Janeway was telling the truth about when they were. Her instincts told her that since the captain had allowed them full access to the computer logs, she was also telling the truth about where they were. But her heart was arguing strenuously with what her head was saying.

 

“Well?” Max prompted. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”

 

“Unfortunately, yes.” Alex replied heaving a sigh. Then shaking her head and walking over to the view port to stare into space she said, “It just doesn’t feel right. To know that I’ll never see my family again is too horrible think about. What’s even worse is I know that the reality hasn’t even hit me yet.”

 

Max walked up behind her so that Alex could see her reflection in the transparent aluminum. Staring at her commanding officer she realized it was probably much harder on the other woman. Max had no real family, growing up in an orphanage in western Montana. The Marine Corps had been her family, her career one adventure after another.

 

But Alex had a huge family. Both parents, three sisters, a brother, countless nieces and nephews, and even a few grandnieces and grandnephews. Max had always wondered why Alex hadn’t married and had a couple of dozen kids of her own. But as much as she knew the peripheral facts of the blonde’s life, Alex was very private and didn’t easily share the details.

 

“It’s alright.” The captain assured her softly. “If any one can get us home, I’m sure these people can.”

 

Smiling a bit ironically Alex said, “I’m sure you’re right, Captain. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to try out that replicator. Maybe I can come up with something to wear besides this uniform. Then I’m going to take a shower.”

 

“Hey, that’s a great idea!” Max said enthusiastically following the other woman over to the device. “Say, how come you let Janeway call you by your first name, but we’re still using our ranks with each other? That doesn’t seem fair.”

 

Alex couldn’t help smiling at the wounded tone in Max’s voice. Pausing before trying to figure out the alien technology she asked, “Haven’t you ever heard the old expression ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’?”

 

“You really think Janeway and her crew are our enemies?” Max asked startled at the idea. She hadn’t gotten that impression at all.

 

Holding the other woman’s gaze Alex couldn’t resist stringing the other woman along a little. Sometimes she was just so much fun to tease. Finally she relented with a sigh.

 

“No, I don’t think they’re a threat to us. To be honest, I’m not sure why I allowed her that familiarity. The military is all the adult life I’ve ever known, and I’m comfortable with the command structure. It has always allowed me to keep a distance from people while putting a polite face on it. But we’re alone out here. We’re going to need the friendship these people have to offer.”

 

“So you figure it would look better if we were the first ones to offer the olive branch?” Max clarified.

 

“Yes, but even though I think we can trust them enough to offer our hand in friendship, I don’t want to pull back a bloody stump.”

 

Chuckling Max said, “I understand. We still need to be cautious.”

 

“Right. Now,” Alex asked, “What would you like to lounge around in? Silk shorts? A long, modest house dress?”

 

“Oh, ha-ha. You’re very funny.” The blonde bantered back. “How about just a nice set of sweats?”

 

Nodding Alex thought about how to give the instructions to the machine. Janeway had told her that she would have to be very specific. “Computer, one sweat suit size…six,” she said after looking measuringly at her companion, “dark blue.”

 

Beep-beep, the computer responded before a feminine voice asked, “Long or short sleeved?”

 

“Long sleeved,” Alex clarified immediately.

 

A second later the requested garments materialized on the replicator shelf. Alex picked them up in wonder. Something from nothing, she thought.

 

The material was thick, and soft suggesting durability and comfort. “Wow,” she said softly before handing the pile to Max. “What do you think of that?”

 

“Pretty sweet.” The other woman said taking the sweats. “Now, what about you?”

 

“Hmmm,” the blonde thought for a moment. “Computer, another set of sweats, same parameters, but dark green.”

 

Again the garments seemed to materialize out of thin air.

 

“I’m never going to get tired of seeing that.” Alex said taking her new clothing. “Now, you can have fun reading the computer while I take a shower.”

 

“Hey, how come you get to go first?”

 

Chuckling Alex quipped, “Rank hath its privileges,” before striding toward the bedroom and the attached ensuite.

 

Before she managed to reach the doorway Max asked, “How about if I try to get some chow from this thing? What do you say to a little spaghetti?”

 

“Only if we can have meatballs with that.” Alex said turning around.

 

“I’ll even try for some garlic bread. But don’t be long. I don’t want it to get cold.”

 

“Great,” Alex groused heading for the bathroom. “My first shower in nine months and I have to hurry.”

 

Leaving the brunette to struggle with the machine Alex walked through the tastefully furnished bedroom and into the bathroom. Happily, she began to peel her uniform off. Along with it went the stench of Martian dust, sweat and the acrid smell that was universal to all medical bays. It took a few minutes to figure out the settings for a hot shower, but soon she was standing with her head directly beneath the heavenly flow.

 

As her muscles began to un-kink under the hot water her thoughts drifted back to the conversation with Max. Everything she had said was true, she did believe these Starfleet people were trustworthy but there was more to it than that.

 

When she had opened her eyes in sickbay to find herself staring into a pair of blue-gray ones something strange had happened. The entire room seemed to recede around her and all that existed in that moment were those eyes. For a moment she had thought she was hallucinating until the reality of the moment came crashing back down. Although she would never admit it, she had been instantly attracted to the redhead. From the electricity she had felt at that moment it was possible Janeway felt the same.

 

It was not in her nature to invite someone to call her by her first name so quickly, but she had allowed her hormones to make that offer for her. Now she berated herself for that.

 

“Stupid!” she spit whacking her forehead gently against the shower wall. She had to be a little more careful than that.

 

“What’s taking so long in there?” Max said, cracking the door enough to rush the other woman along.

 

Jumping slightly Alex said, “I’ll be right there.”

 

Soaping up she finished her shower quickly before ordering the computer to shut off the water and reaching for a towel. It certainly did go faster when you could turn the water off with just a word, she thought.

 

In just a few moments she was walking out in her new sweats with the towel around her shoulders. Max turned away from the replicator to see the other woman standing there in her bare feet. “You look comfortable.”

 

“I have to admit I feel a lot better.” Alex said rubbing at her damp hair with one end of the towel. “Something smells good.”

 

Sitting the plates on the coffee table Max indicated the spread with the sweep of her hand. “Spaghetti…with meatballs…garlic bread, and iced tea. I would have tried for wine, but I didn’t know how you’d feel about alcohol right now.”

 

“Good choice,” Alex said nodding in approval. “I’d really rather not let down my guard so soon.”

 

Sitting down the blonde tucked into her food with enthusiasm. After a few bites Alex said through a mouthful, “This is good! I didn’t know you could cook.”

 

“Who needs to know how when you have a replicator?” Max asked with a snort. “That thing does it all.”

 

The rest of the meal passed quickly, each of them content to eat silently occupied with their own thoughts. When they finished Alex offered to clean up while Max took her shower.

 

“Sounds good. Do you mind cleaning my uniform while you’re at it?” Max asked stripping off her uniform in front of the major without blinking an eye. “Janeway said you just put them in and tell the thing to recycle and return.”

 

Turning toward the machine Alex ignored the uniform that landed at her feet and placed the dirty dishes into the replicator. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that a lady should be modest?”

 

“Let me know if you see any.” Max returned saucily walking away buck-naked.

 

Alex just shook her head and finished cleaning up. When she finished she recycled both uniforms. Taking the clean clothes from the replicator she took them into the bedroom. There was a nightstand on each side of the large bed. Alex placed her uniform in the one closest to the living room before putting Max’s in the other. She only hoped ship’s stores showed up soon with that other bed. Max probably slept in the nude, too!

 

On a whim she walked over to the replicator considering ordering a drink. She was waiting for Max before reading the computer records so they could discover this crew together, and didn’t think the brunette would be much longer. Military people didn’t tend to take very long showers at the best of times.

 

“Computer, coffee, black.” A second later the drink materialized and she took the metal cup from the shelf. Tentatively she sipped at the hot beverage and was impressed. Not bad, she thought.

 

“Got one for me?” Max asked from behind her where she was busy toweling her sable hair.

 

“Sure,” Alex said glancing over her shoulder. “What would you like?”

 

“Coffee, but with half a cup of milk.”

 

“Ewww,” the blonde shuddered before ordering the drink. “How can you stand that?”

 

“You just don’t know what you’re missing.” Max assured her taking the cup out of her hand and taking a large swig. The heat hit her almost instantly and her eyes bulged as she fought the impulse not to spit the mouthful across the room. After a brief, but intense struggle she managed to swallow the scalding drink.

 

Panting she said, “Oh! That was hot!”

 

“What did you expect, Einstein?” Alex asked almost doubled over with laughter.

 

Max frowned, “Usually the milk cools down the temperature!”

 

“The only problem is that I didn’t take the milk out of a refrigerator.”

 

“Yeah, thanks for pointing that out.” Max quipped fanning her injured mouth with her free hand.

 

“Come on,” Alex said changing the subject. “Let’s get started on those logs.”

 

Some time later Max looked up from the computer screen and rubbed her burning eyes. “Wow, they sure have been busy. From reading this stuff, the delta quadrant is a death trap.”

 

“You can say that again.” Turko agreed. “Kazon, Vidiians, spatial rifts…it’s a wonder they’ve survived at all.”

 

They’d been looking over the computer records for two hours, beginning with Voyager’s original pursuit of the Maquis into the badlands. There had been some discussion about researching what had happened after they’d disappeared from the Mars mission, but they had finally agreed that their present situation was a more pressing issue. Now, Alex was glad they’d made that decision. Janeway had said her crew had been in this quadrant for five years. After reading for the last few hours, she and Max had barely scratched the surface.

 

“At least we know they’re the good guys.” The brunette observed.

 

“I suppose so.” Alex agreed hesitantly. “When they started out they were two separate crews engaged in a civil war of sorts. Yet, somehow, they were able to put aside their differences and work together.”

 

Nodding Max said, “Commendable, but not really surprising is it?” Looking at the woman seated next to her she said, “Most civil wars seem to be caused by political or religious reasons. But, regardless of what kind of spin is put on it, the people themselves tend to be very similar morally and ethically. Considering how little choice they had, I guess they made the best of a bad situation.”

 

“Maybe,” Alex replied, “But I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Janeway’s shoes after destroying that array.”

 

Max was about to agree when an odd tone sounded throughout the room. Both women looked around in confusion wondering what it could possibly mean when the tone sounded again. A moment later there was a knock at the door.

 

“Oh,” Alex said, “Come in.”

 

The crewmen from ship’s stores had finally showed up with the smaller beds Captain Janeway had promised. Setting up the new furniture and removing the old bed took longer than Alex thought it should have and had a hard time concealing her amusement. The crewmen obviously found them fascinating and kept tripping over their own feet trying to carry out their assignment while glancing surreptitiously at the newest additions to the crew. To their credit they didn’t ask any awkward questions and were unfailingly polite.

 

Eventually they managed to get everything straightened out and left the quarters without banging up the walls too much under the load of the old queen-sized bed.

 

“That was fun!” Max said as soon as the doors closed. Then she burst out laughing, while Alex chuckled. “Did you see their faces? I can’t imagine what they thought of us.”

 

“Probably wondering if one of us is a long lost relative.” Alex suggested while Max wiped at her eyes.

 

“You mean like a great, great grandmother or something?”

 

The whole idea threatened to set the brunette off again. Alex thought it was funny too, but was really curious about what else was in the logs. “Ready to get started again?”

 

Shaking her head Clayton suggested, “How about a break? Coffee?”

 

Alex sat back down at the computer but said ‘yes’ to the coffee. “I want to read a little more. I’m curious about Janeway.”

 

Sitting down on the sofa Max caught the reference to the captain. Alex hadn’t said she was curious about the crew, only Janeway. Sensing the opportunity to tease her friend a little, and illicit some information she knew she shouldn’t have Max asked, “Say, you’re kind of sweet on her, aren’t you?”

 

“What?” Alex snorted turning away from the computer. “Are you from the sixteen hundreds or something? What kind of expression is that?”

 

“That’s not a denial.” Max pointed out holding up a hand and lying down on the cushions.

 

“I don’t even know her. I barely know her name.”

 

Max didn’t respond feeling the muscles in her back begin to unbind. It had been so long since she had lain on something soft that she felt as though she were sinking into the cushions. Her mind was beginning to drift, slowly easing down a downward spiral that she knew would lead to a deep, restful sleep.

 

Her slumber was dreamless, and healing. When she finally began to emerge from her nap she knew that at least an hour had passed, but she was cranky and not too happy about waking up. For a moment she couldn’t understand what had caused her to wake up, but then she heard it again. Alex was mumbling aloud while looking at the computer screen.

 

Max was about to ask her why she was still reading the logs when she glanced over to see that the other woman had altered the display. It seemed to be kind of visual display, but she couldn’t really see what was happening from where she was lying down. Sitting up, Max craned her neck trying to see over Alex’s shoulder, but couldn’t quite make out the details.

 

Without realizing it she had somehow stood up and moved over behind the blonde. Bending over she put her hands on the backrest behind Alex’s shoulders.

 

“Do you see that?” Alex asked in a tight voice.

 

“Yeah,” Max said breathlessly. “Is she hot, or what?”

 

Alex had grown tired of reading endless Starfleet logs and finally accessed the computers visual display security logs. She had happened on a playback of a very large germ that had multiplied and run rampant on board the ship a few years ago. Janeway and Neelix, now that was a strange looking individual, had come back from an away mission to find the crew missing and the ship drifting in space.

 

At the moment the log was showing Janeway stripping down to her undershirt and loading up with ammunition and a wicked looking gun. Turko had already heard the captain tell the Talaxian that plasma from the warp core was causing an increase in ambient temperature, but for the moment Max’s question confused her drooling commander.

 

“Yes. Definitely hot,”

 

Max caught the reference immediately and looked away from the screen to see Turko’s face. Grinning indulgently she reached up and whacked the back of the other woman’s head.

 

“Tell me what’s going on,” she requested sitting in the previously unoccupied chair.

 

“Unh,” Turko responded unintelligibly. Then said, “In a minute.”

 

Together they watched the rest of the display with Turko explaining who Neelix was, through to the part where the captain had used a knife to dispatch a particularly wily and aggressive bug. Finally Janeway had distracted the creatures into the holodeck with fake biological bait and detonated a photon grenade to destroy them.

 

When the playback ended both women stared at the blank screen for a second then looked at each other.

 

“Whew!” Max said. “Do you think she’s available?”

 

Alex grinned in complete agreement, but refrained from commenting.

 

“Okay, you were going to fill me in on what I missed.”

 

“Oh sure,” the blonde said. “You leave me to do all the work while you take a two hour nap, and then want me to fill you in on the details.”

 

“Two hours? Was it really that long?”

 

“Yep, but I’ll have mercy on you if you make dinner.”

 

“Deal,” Max said readily, then listened in while the other woman filled her in on Hirogen hunting parties, and the episode where Janeway seemed to die and come back to life over and over only to discover that it was the work of an alien lifeform. He wanted Janeway to come into his matrix, but the doctor had managed to pull her back from the brink of death. Janeway had refused to willingly go with the alien and eventually he had left empty handed.

 

“Oh, that’s not all,” Alex warned her. “Better brush up on your acting and singing skills.”

 

“Huh? Why?”

 

“Because once in a while Neelix likes to organize a little talent night.”

 

“Oh, no.” Max groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s all we need.”

 

“Well, I think that’s enough for now,” the brunette said standing up. “You’ve been at it all day, and that image of Janeway in a tank top has me too distracted to think. How about knocking off for now, and I’ll make us some dinner?”

 

Reaching over to power down the computer terminal Alex said, “Sounds good to me. What’s on the menu?”

 

The door chime interrupted them, but this time they knew what it was. Alex invited in their visitor almost immediately wondering, and hoping, that it was the captain. Unfortunately the doors swished open to reveal a remarkably colorful …man…in orange and white suit that made the eyes hurt. The strip of hair on his head and the tufts of whiskers on the sides of his cheeks were the same exact shade of orange, causing Alex to blink for a moment.

 

Taking in the spots on his skin and the cat-like eyes, Max thought he was adorable. “Ah, how cute!”

 

“You can’t keep him,” Alex said in a low voice, then louder and in a friendly tone she asked, “Mister Neelix, I presume?”

 

Sputtering for a moment he said, “Well, yes. However did you know?”

 

“You’re reputation precedes you,” she said smiling. “Please do come in. Can I help you with that?”

 

The Talaxian was loaded down with a heavy tray, and from the smells coming from the covered dishes he had brought dinner. Alex wasn’t sure if she liked the aroma of the meal or not. It was slightly pungent, but sweet at the same time.

 

“No, no, I’ve got it,” he assured them placing his burden on the coffee table and lifting the lids with a flourish. “I’ve brought you some pot roast with some potatoes and steamed carrots on the side. Not knowing how much of an appetite you had I also brought a nice leola-root soup.”

 

Undoubtedly this soup was the cause of the obnoxious smell, Alex thought but her manners prevented her from saying anything. A quick glance over at Max was almost her undoing. A look of disgust covered her dark features, and a frown from Alex made the other woman clear her expression.

 

“That was very thoughtful of you,” Alex said sincerely. “Don’t tell me you do this for everyone?”

 

“Oh no, this is a special occasion.” Whipping out a bottle that he had somehow concealed until then he said, “I also took the liberty of bringing you a bottle of Talaxian spring wine. It’s one of the few remaining.”

 

“Now this is more like it,” Max stated walking over to the replicator. “I’ll get some glasses.”

 

“No need,” he said. “I’ve brought everything.”

 

Indicating that they should sit Neelix opened the wine and poured a small measure into one glass. Alex picked up the glass, sniffed it and took a small sip. She allowed the wine to sit on her tongue for moment before finally swallowing.

 

“Oh! That’s really good!” she enthused holding out her glass for him to fill up. Neelix obliged before filling up the other glass for Max.

 

“Hey, how come you got the first taste?” the brunette groused before taking a sip, her eyes widening appreciably a moment later.

 

“Because I’m the boss,” Alex returned before turning back to the alien. “Care to join us? It looks like you brought enough for an army.”

 

“Oh no, I have to get back to my kitchen. Then crew relies on me to create a sumptuous repast for their evening meal,” he stated proudly. The comment was said with a merry twinkle in his eyes that made it seem less narcissistic and more a statement of fact.

 

The Talaxian stayed only a few busy moments, but in that small amount of time managed to impart a significant amount of information. They learned that the crew attempted to conserve energy by the judicious application of replicator rations and reuse or reconfiguration of worn out parts and circuitry. With a crew of almost on hundred and fifty the astronauts could understand how the friendly alien would be busy supplying three meals a day, as well as the odd snack.

 

“How does he do it?” Max asked honestly mystified after the doors had parted behind the furry little man.

 

“Guess these people don’t believe in down time,” the major answered absently lifting the stasis lid off her plate and bowl of soup.

 

The brunette merely lifted her eyebrow in response as she tucked into the roast beef. “Um, this is good!” she said before glancing over as Alex tried the soup.

 

“Oh my God,” Alex mumbled in disgust as her hand flew to her mouth. For a second it was a close call but somehow she managed to not spit the offending mouthful across the room. Instead se washed the moldy tasting soup down with several healthy gulps of spring wine.

 

“Perhaps you should stick to the roast beef,” Max suggested helpfully while refilling Turko’s glass. She wasn’t tempted to laugh considering that caution trying food prepared by someone with non-human taste buds might be wise.

 

At least the soup didn’t go to waste Alex considered later as she recycled the mess. From what she understood the food was converted back into energy for later use.

 

Stretching she prepared herself for another round at the computer when Max reminded her that she didn’t need to catch up all in one night.

 

“I know,” Alex replied softly. “But there’s just so much we don’t know; what these people have been through, what technology’s been developed in the last three hundred years, and there’s one question that’s been nagging at me since Janeway left.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“She mentioned that this Seven of Nine was a Borg. The look in her eyes says that she’s proud of this person for some reason, but it also says she’s afraid of these Borg.”

 

“So?”

 

“So, Janeway doesn’t strike me as the type to scare easily. Who the hell are these guys?”

 

“So why not just skip ahead?” Max asked sitting down in front of the computer. “We’ve already established that these people are brave and trustworthy. Why not just skip ahead a few years and answer your questions? I’m sure if there’s anything else we want to know we can look it up later.”

 

“All right,” Alex consented; dropping her hands from where she’d been rubbing her neck she sat beside the brunette.

 

“Computer,” she began excitedly, “display all known information concerning the Borg.”

 

Immediately the image of a cybernetic creature popped up on the display and Alex felt a shudder go through her. As they scrolled down through seemingly endless data her apprehension only grew. As soon as they had finished reading all they could on the Borg Alex pulled up Seven of Nine’s personnel file.

 

By the time they had reached the end of the data files Alex was completely horrified that something like this could happen to anyone.

 

“No wonder the captain is so proud of her,” Alex said her heart aching at what had been stolen from the young woman.

 

It took Max a moment to respond and when she did her voice was a little shaky. “Assimilated at six years old, and then suddenly, after almost twenty years of thinking and acting like a machine severed from the hive? How could anyone deal with that?”

 

“The only way they knew how,” Alex said thinking like a psychologist. “You’d deal with the situation with the emotions of a six year old. Of course having gotten used to being an automaton would temper some of that, but still…”

 

“Still,” Max interrupted, “there would be a lot of anger, not to mention a sense of betrayal toward her parents for getting her assimilated.”

 

“She must harbor some resentment toward Janeway for taking her away from all that she’s ever known,” Alex speculated.

 

“Yet she’s still managed to become an important member of this crew.”

 

“At least important to Janeway,” Alex pointed out. “The rest of the crew are probably afraid of her, but Janeway seems to have a soft spot for the former drone.”

 

“Well, have you seen her picture? She’s a knock-out!”

 

“Seriously,” Alex continued, “I don’t know that her feelings are puerile. It may be more of a maternal thing. The captain is quite a bit older and has had a lot to do with Seven of Nine’s attempt to regain her individuality.”

 

“Maternal,” Max muttered raising her eyebrows and walking over to the sofa. “Right,”

 

“Anyway,” Alex pointed out turning off the terminal. “I’ve had enough for one night. How about some music?”

 

Max flopped gratefully onto the cushions. “Finally,” she said in a suffering tone. “I wish this place had some television.”

 

“I don’t think they even know what that is,” Alex said as she stood and stretched. “And since we can forget the boob tube, I think I’ll replicate a book. I’m thinking…Shadows after Dark.”

 

Max snickered; she was constantly amazed at the major’s taste for lesbian vampire stories. “While you’re over there how about another glass of wine?”

 

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough of that stuff?” Alex frowned as she poured the glass.

 

Shrugging Max said, “It’s not like we have refrigerator to keep it cold.”

 

“That sounds like an excuse.”

 

“Yeah, well at least I’ll sleep tonight,” the brunette pointed out watching Alex at the replicator. “What is that, your fifth cup of coffee? You know you drink too much of that stuff.”

 

“Maybe,” Alex returned easily, walking over to the sofa with drinks in each hand and a book under her arm. She nudged Max to move over and sat next to her. “But when you get used to the caffeine you can’t hardly sleep without it.”

 

Smothering a huge yawn the young captain asked, “What time is it anyway? I feel like I’ve been awake for six months.

Alex laughed and poked Max in the side with her elbow. “You had a two hour nap, remember?”

 

“That just made me more tired. Computer, what time is it?”

 

Obediently the computer responded informing them that it was 1830 hours.

 

“Wow, 6:30 already,” Max said automatically converting the military time.

 

“Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to get to bed a little early,” Alex said. “It has been a fully day, and beside it’s always night in space.”

“What about your book?” Max asked considerately.

 

“I can always start it tomorrow.”

 

The door chime sounded just as Alex stood up. “For strangers we certainly are popular,” she said with a lop-sided grin. Inviting the visitor to enter she ignored the internal voice that hoped it was a redheaded captain. To her surprise, that’s exactly who it was.

 

“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” Kathryn Janeway said walking into the guest quarters. “I just wanted to see how you were settling in.”

 

“Please, have a seat,” Max invited politely, standing up in the other woman’s presence.

 

Kathryn took in the change of attire, and approved of how it softened the women’s features. Major Turko, Alex, looked especially cute running around bare-foot in the dark green color. Looking away so that her expression wouldn’t give away what she was thinking, Kathryn sat on the corner of the sofa and noticed the empty coffee cup on the table in front of her.

 

“Got another one of those?” she inquired in what she hoped was a casual voice.

 

Raising an eyebrow Alex said, “Sure,” and headed toward the replicator. “How do you take it?”

 

“Black,”

 

“Great,” Max interjected, “another coffee addict.”

 

Grinning Kathryn turned to look at the brunette. “It’s the finest organic suspension ever devised. I beat the Borg with it.”

 

“And the Hirogen, and the Vidiian, and some very large germs,” Alex added feeling like some of the tension in her shoulders was draining away for the first time in hours.

 

“Here you go,” she said handing Kathryn a mug of hot coffee and then sitting in the adjacent chair.

 

Max sat next to the captain and turned toward her, drawing one knee up slightly onto the couch. “Are you just getting off shift?” she inquired curiously.

 

Nodding after taking a sip of her beverage Kathryn said, “Yes, it was a very busy day as you can imagine. After briefing the senior staff on our latest additions,” she looked at the two women significantly, “I had to fend off requests to interview you by the archeological department, fill out paperwork, and only then was I able to start my normal routine.”

 

“Sorry to create so much work for you,” Alex grinned, obviously anything but sorry.

 

Smiling as she looked into the major’s blue eyes Kathryn said, “I have to admit, I’ve never been so happy to have so much to do.” Then looking at Max she said, “You just don’t realize what a joy it is to have the two of you on board.”

 

“Thank you,” Max said. “It’s nice to be welcomed by your crew, and Neelix is such a doll!”

 

Kathryn laughed out loud asking, “Oh, did he already manage to drop by? I’m sure he made it look like a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do, when all he really wanted was to meet you.”

 

“He brought us dinner, and let us know where the messhall was. He was so cute!”

 

Frowning at the captain’s enthusiasm Kathryn looked over to Turko for clarification.

 

“Don’t worry Kathryn, she isn’t interested in him romantically. I think she wanted to keep him like a little puppy.”

 

It was all Alex could do not to place her hand on Kathryn’s knee in reassurance. She didn’t really want to comfort the other woman, she was just dying to touch her in some way and make it look incidental. Mentally shaking her head, Alex squelched the urge realizing she was acting like she had a crush.

 

“Well,” Kathryn said carefully, “if you did have romantic feelings for him…you could certainly do much worse. Neelix is a wonderful man and a very dear friend.”

 

“I’m sure that’s true,” Max said trying to keep in mind that although the Talaxian was very unusual looking, he was still a perfectly respectable mate in this time frame. “But my tastes tend to run to the less…eccentric.”

 

The women chuckled for a moment and then Kathryn decided to ask the question she had on her mind so she could let the women get some rest. “Not to change the subject,” she said, “but I have a bit of a dilemma and I need your opinion, Major.”

 

“Alex,” the other woman corrected automatically. “What’s your question, Kathryn?”

 

“It’s about your ship. I’m not quite sure what to do with it. On one hand it’s a monument to humanity and should be in a museum, but on the other we don’t exactly have the resources to tow it around indefinitely. Do you have any ideas?”

 

Kathryn knew that the pod was hardly capable of space travel, primitive by current standards, but it had to be the major’s decision. Eventually she would have to let go of it, but the captain wasn’t willing to push her about that decision just yet.

 

Weighing what she had learned from the logs, and Neelix’s comments on scavenging parts Alex didn’t have to think long before making her decision. “It’s obvious that by being so far from home that you have to utilize whatever resources are at your disposal. The pod isn’t really useful for anything from our current perspective. I can’t see that there is any other choice. You have to scavenge her for parts.”

 

“You want to destroy the Endeavor?” Max asked softly. In a way it was like losing a member of the family. She and Alex had lived aboard the pod for nine months. But still, she knew it was the right decision.

 

“First I have some things I want to get off of her,” Alex said. “And it might sound strange, but I’d like to say goodbye.”

 

Kathryn understood how the women felt but was proud of them for making the hard call. “It doesn’t sound strange at all. I would imagine that I feel very similar about Voyager.”

 

Looking around at the room and out the view port Kathryn said, “This ship is more than an assemblage of bulkheads and duranium alloy. It’s our home. It’s carried us and nurtured us throughout this voyage, and kept us safe. I feel as close to her as I do to any of my crew.”

 

Finally she looked back at Alex and said, “I’ll have her towed into the shuttle bay, but if it’s alright with you we’ll wait a few days before recycling anything. I think the crew should have the chance to see her, too.”

 

Smiling Alex said, “I think they’ll enjoy that. Thank you, Kathryn.”

 

Finishing her coffee, Kathryn stood up. “Is there anything else you need before I say goodnight?”

 

Alex stood too, saying, “I can’t think of anything. Max and I will be having breakfast at the messhall in the morning, and then we’ll get our things off the pod. After that, maybe we could get together and discuss where we go from here. One thing about being part of the military is that we’re not used to a lot of leisure time.”

 

“I’ll give it some thought,” Kathryn assured her before turning to Max. “What about you? Need anything?”

 

Pleased at being included Max said, “Not really. I guess we’ll figure out the rules as we go, but what about these replicator rations Neelix mentioned? How do we get them, and how many have we already used? I want to make sure I’m not using too much of the ship’s energy since I have no intention of getting out and pushing if we run out of gas.”

 

“I don’t think there’s any threat of that,” Kathryn grinned. “But I’ve already given you both a replicator balance. It’s kind of large right now since you’ll need a lot of things like toiletries, and clothing. After that you are allotted an installment each month. Sometimes rations are cut depending on the situation we get into, or how short on deuterium we are, but for the most part it’s consistent.”

 

“What’s deuterium?” Alex asked curiously.

 

Smiling Kathryn answered, “I’m sorry. It’s so easy to forget that you don’t know about some of the things that we take for granted. Deuterium is what we use to power Voyager. It’s derived from a crystal and integrated into our warp core…sort of the engine of the ship.”

 

Turko nodded in vague understanding and Janeway asked if there was anything else they needed.

 

“That’s all I can think of,” Max said reaching up to slap Kathryn on the back.

 

Kathryn hadn’t been expecting the contact and took an involuntary step forward while Alex’s eyes widened in shock.

 

“Yes, well, I guess I’ll be going,” Kathryn said, trying to pass the incident off as no big deal.

 

After the doors closed behind the captain Alex asked, “You slapped the captain of this ship on the back?”

 

“What?” Max shrugged innocently. “She didn’t think of anything of it.”

 

Alex could only shake her head as the brunette walked away into the bathroom to get ready for bed. The major stood there for a moment before finally retrieving her book and walking into the bedroom.

 

Listening to Max banging around in the bathroom, Alex suddenly flashed on a pair of blue-gray eyes and felt her heart flutter a little with excitement. This was certainly turning out to be a very interesting adventure.

                                                                                           Chapter 3

 

Waking before the alarm the next morning, Kathryn stretched for a moment before throwing back the covers and getting out of bed. The displaced Marines were the first thing on her mind and she smiled a little thinking about how to introduce them to the crew. Maybe she would hold a small senior staff meeting for introductory purposes only. It would help break the ice and give the women a bit of a support system when Janeway herself wasn’t available. Then maybe they could observe the workings of a starship from the bridge for a while.

 

Finally finished preparing for her shift, Kathryn left her quarters headed for the messhall. Not a breakfast person by nature her quest was not for food, but for the largest cup of coffee available. She could have gotten a cup from the replicator but the morning ritual gave her a chance to observe and connect a little with crewmembers she rarely saw.

 

When the doors to the mess opened she was a little surprised to see the astronauts there ahead of her. Both were wearing olive green jump suits complete with black, lace-up combat boots. Kathryn surmised that they were what the women had been wearing under their space suits. No doubt these were not traditional day-to-day uniforms.

 

After collecting a cup of coffee Kathryn smiled as she noted the curious looks cast toward the strangers by her crew, but most were too polite to interrupt their guests. There was one exception whose open green eyes and innocent face caused the intrepid captain to smile as she watched the interaction over the rim of her cup.

 

The small half Katarian child boldly approached the table where the astronauts were sitting. The conversation between them ceased immediately as they watched the girl stop next to them at a modified parade rest with her hands behind her back.

 

“Good morning, my name is Naomi Wildman,” she began in a friendly, well-spoken voice. “Allow me to be the first among the crew to welcome you on board Voyager.”

 

Kathryn was so proud of the little girl that her chest felt tight, but she was also pleased to see the expressions of delight on the astronaut’s faces.

 

“Thank you, Miss Wildman,” Alex said formally, in the most serious voice she could muster. “Are you the official welcome spokesman?”

 

“Oh, no,” Naomi answered. “But as captain’s assistant it is m y duty to meet all new arrivals.”

 

“Well, that’s very responsible of you, Miss Wildman. Would you care to join us for breakfast?” Max invited grinning widely.

 

Naomi looked around quickly before confiding, “No, I have a biology lesson scheduled with the doctor. He gets upset when I’m late. I should go.”

 

The switch from official greeter to little girl touched Alex. “We wouldn’t want to keep you from your duties, but feel free to join us anytime, Naomi.”

 

Blushing in her pleasure the little girl scampered away allowing Kathryn to approach the smiling women. “Delightful, isn’t she?” she asked by way of greeting.

 

Automatically scooting over on the bench seat to allow room for the captain Alex said, “She’s absolutely adorable. Were those horns on her forehead?”

 

“Yes,” Kathryn nodded sitting next to the blonde. “She’s half Katarian. Her human mother is a member of my crew. Naomi was the first child born on Voyager, but I suspect that by the time we reach home she won’t be the last.”

 

Looking at the table Kathryn noticed Alex was only drinking coffee, but Max had a bowl of some offensive looking gruel. “What are you eating? She asked thinking it must be the latest in Neelix’s unsuccessful culinary attempts.

 

“It’s oatmeal,” Max answered before stuffing a huge spoonful into her mouth.

 

Frowning Kathryn said, “I’ve never seen oatmeal look like that. It’s so thin.”

 

Max swallowed before responding. “That’s because I added a stick of butter and a cup of sugar to it. It’s good!”

 

“I can hear my arteries hardening just thinking about it.” Kathryn laughed.

 

Max chuckled and admitted, “Okay that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but it really is good. Here, try some.” She scooped up a smaller spoonful and held the utensil toward the captain.

 

Kathryn looked helplessly at Alex who raised her eyebrow in obvious challenge and remarked, “What can I say? She never was very good with the concept of a command structure.”

 

“Sounds like someone else I know,” Kathryn quipped before heaving a resigned sigh. Reaching out she took the spoon from the amused young woman. She studied the oatmeal briefly before finally putting it in her mouth. Kathryn had been prepared to swallow quickly and wash the oatmeal down with a large swig of coffee, but she was surprised by the sweet, buttery flavor.

 

“That is good,” she said in surprise handing the spoon back to Max while the women laughed.

 

“It’s better with buttered toast,” the brunette said.

 

A heartbeat later Alex offered, “Would you like me to replicate a bowl for you?”

 

Kathryn ignored the tingle that went through her at the slightly intimate offer, and had to remind herself that the other woman was talking about food. “No, thank you,” she said softly. “I’m not much of a breakfast person.”

 

The doors to the messhall opened breaking the awkward moment and a tall, statuesque blonde in a blue body suit entered the room. First glance gave the impression of cool arrogance as the beauty glanced around the slightly crowded room quickly. For an instant ice blue eyes took in Captain Janeway and her companions before the woman turned away, walking to a nearby replicator.

 

“Is that the former Borg we read about?” Alex asked softly trying not to be overheard. The silver metal over the left eye had given away the woman’s identity and the major was curious.

 

“Yeah,” Max added staring intently at the blue garbed back. “Is that Cat-o-Nine tails? She’s gorgeous!”

 

Kathryn snorted and choked on her coffee at Max’s descriptor for the young woman. Alex slapped her helpfully on the back and the captain finally managed to clear the offending liquid from her lungs. “Seven of Nine,” she corrected wiping tears from her eyes. “Her name is Seven of Nine.”

 

“Right,” Max said absently before finally looking away from the other woman. “Her crew photo doesn’t do her justice.”

 

“Her demeanor on the surface seems quite haughty and arrogant,” Alex said in a carefully neutral voice.

 

Janeway felt her figurative hackles go up immediately. It seemed that people were always judging Seven in a visceral way without bother to get to know the young woman first. Either they reacted lustfully to her outward appearance as Max had, or they instantly perceived her as some kind of a threat. “Seven is a remarkable woman,” Kathryn said in defense of her friend. “She was Borg, it’s true. But I can assure you that I trust her completely. As for her outward demeanor, I believe it’s a shell to mask a very sensitive heart.”

 

Clayton and Turko shared a look, clearly exchanging information before the major spoke to Janeway. “You misunderstand, I think. From reading your logs the Borg are a force to be reckoned with, destroying entire worlds and assimilating thousands of cultures. I guess it would be natural for people to react to her in a negative way. But we don’t share your history, at least not in this case.”

 

“Quite the opposite,” Max assured the captain.

 

“In fact,” Turko continued, “we don’t fear her at all. To us she was a victim. She had no control over her actions, and her entire life was stolen from her. It takes an incredibly strong person to come back from that. If anything, she has our sympathy.”

 

Kathryn looked down at her coffee cup for a moment before meeting the other woman’s eyes, truly touched by what she’d heard. “Thank you. I guess I’ve defended Seven for so long that it’s just reflex. Not many people are as forgiving. They just can’t give her a chance.”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Max said sincerely. “But we’re not them.”

 

“I’ll have to keep that in mind,” Kathryn said reminding herself that unless someone had actually survived a Borg encounter it was impossible to appreciate the horror.

 

“So,” Alex began, changing the subject,” do you come by the messhall every morning or is this a special occasion?”

 

Max listened in on the conversation at that point, but was too intent on finishing her oatmeal before it got cold to contribute.

 

Kathryn shook her head, “No, I stop by for a coffee on most days. It saves on replicator rations. But, I’m glad I ran into you since I wanted to ask you something.”

 

“What’s that?” Turko asked.

 

“How would you two like to spend some time on the bridge today? Just to see how things run and give you a chance to get familiar with the crew. I thought we’d start with a short meeting in the conference room to introduce you to the senior staff.”

 

Turko glanced at her silent companion but already knew her answer. “Sure, that would be great. I think the sooner we start learning our way around the better.”

 

“Great,” Kathryn said smiling. Taking a final sip of her coffee she stood up with the empty mug. “I’ll have Neelix show you the way to the bridge when you’re finished, but I should get moving or my first officer will wonder what’s happened to me.”

 

Although the captain had said she needed to get to the bridge, Turko noticed that she still took a moment to speak to the blonde sitting by herself in the corner. The way the blue eyes lit up when the redhead spoke to her was obvious, and left Alex wondering at the exact nature of their relationship. But since it wasn’t any of her business she didn’t say anything to Max who was so intent on her food that she didn’t notice anything.

 

The meeting to introduce the women to the senior staff was brief but insightful. Max Clayton’s eyes were as wide studying Seven of Nine as tom Paris’ were in his examination of Captain Clayton. Kathryn just wasn’t sure if the Marine’s interest in Seven was curiosity or desire. The last thought disturbed the captain for some reason she couldn’t quite nail down. If the brunette was attracted to the former drone there was nothing wrong with that. It might even be good for Seven to become involved with someone, assuming she returned the interest. There were certainly worse choices for a partner. But the whole idea of her friend becoming romantically involved with anyone was unsettling. Pushing the thought to the side Kathryn glanced around the bridge realizing she had allowed herself to become distracted thinking about the earlier meeting.

 

Things were going quietly so far and Janeway mentally crossed her fingers hoping it stayed that way. Clayton and Turko were standing on the upper level between tactical and operations observing as the crew went about their normal duties.

 

“Anything interesting on sensors, Mister Kim?” Janeway prompted. She knew that the young man would inform her of anything unusual, but what he considered ordinary might be of interest to their visitors.

 

“Sensors are reading a mutara-class nebula approximately a parsec away.” He answered casually. “Other than that this region seems to be fairly empty.”

 

A mutara-class nebula, Kathryn thought. Well, that might be something. It was a sure bet that the astronauts had never seen anything like it. On the other hand they didn’t want to get too close to the anomaly as they had a nasty habit of making sensors useless.

 

“Set a course, Mister Paris,” Janeway ordered. They would just have to keep their eyes open. The ship was a long way from being defenseless and they hadn’t found an inhabited planet in weeks. According to Seven’s astrometric reports there weren’t any M-class planets for light years.

 

“Aye, Captain,” the helmsman said pushing buttons on his console. “ETA to the nebula is seventeen minutes.”

“Continual scans, Harry,” Janeway said expecting nothing exciting.

 

“Scanning the anomaly,” he returned as Max wandered over to watch what he was doing. Glancing up in acknowledgment he indicated his board. “This readout shows the composition of the nebula gas. The data will become more detailed the closer we get.”

 

“Can we actually go into the nebula?” Max asked thinking nervously about the anomaly that had brought them three hundred years into the future.

 

Shaking his head, Harry said, “That’s really not a good idea. Sensors and weapons are useless inside a nebula. An enemy could be right on top of you and you wouldn’t know it until the last second. Then you’d really be in trouble because you’re reduced to maneuvering thrusters inside the cloud.”

 

“So you wouldn’t be able to get away very fast,” she surmised.

 

“Right,” he said then took in the readings on his board to update the captain. “The sensors are showing heavy concentrations of ionized gas. No signs of other ships, and no planetoids within two light years of the nebula.”

 

Acknowledging him with a nod Janeway said, “Steady as she goes, Mister Paris. I want to stay at least five thousand kilometers from the cloud.”

 

“Understood,” he replied easily.

 

Alex watched Tuvok work at his tactical station, and after a moment he began to explain the weapons systems and how they tied in with other ships functions. Explaining the ship’s defensive capabilities, he began to demonstrate on his board how they functioned and were relayed through the main computer.

 

A few minutes later the nebula was on the forward view screen and the astronauts got their first look at a spatial anomaly.

 

“It’s beautiful,” Major Turko breathed looking at the swirls of bright yellow and deep purple. Splashes of red, green, and white were mixed in for good measure and the whole thing seemed to be in constant motion.

 

Max placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder as she took in the vision. “It looks like a mixed up, jumbled rainbow.”

 

“A deadly rainbow,” Kathryn added, “But yes, beautiful.”

 

It really was amazing how a fresh pair of eyes could remind you of the beauty in what had become commonplace, Kathryn thought. Glancing around the bridge she noticed all eyes fixed on the viewer and where before she would have seen boredom, now she found awe.

 

Smiling Kathryn gave them all a few more moments before saying quietly, “Resume course, Tom.”

 

The fair-haired helmsman blinked and responded, “Aye, Captain. Returning to our original course.”

 

Tom had just begun a lazy turn to port when Alex said to Janeway, “Do you think I could learn to fly this ship eventually?”

 

Kathryn smiled thinking she had known the younger woman would be interested in piloting, but almost as though the question had been rhetorical Alex asked about Voyager’s maneuverability. “If you’re attacked isn’t the ship a little cumbersome? It seems that it’s just so big it would be hard to move quickly.”

 

“Not at all,” Kathryn assured her. “The ship is equipped with bio-neural circuitry. Bio-neural gel packs have been incorporated into the ship’s computer systems to speed up response times.”

 

Turning in his seat to horn in on the conversation Tom said, “I wouldn’t mind teaching her to pilot the ship, Captain. If that’s all right with you,”

 

“Say, I wouldn’t mind getting in on a little of that action,” Maxine said.

 

The eager expressions on the two faces made Kathryn smile. Why not, she thought. “That sounds like a good idea, Mister Paris. If it won’t cut in on your free time too much,”

 

“Not at all, Captain,” he returned grinning good-naturedly at her teasing.

 

“Good,” Janeway said. “But why don’t we start with something small so they can get used to the controls? What about starting with the shuttlecraft?”

 

Nodding Tom said, “I can program the holodeck for flight training like I did when Kes was on board.”

 

“When can you start?” Kathryn asked.

 

“I’ll start today after my shift. Since it’s just a matter of pulling up an old program it won’t take long. I can probably have it ready tomorrow.”

 

Harry interjecting cut off Kathryn’s response, “I’m picking up a small ship on sensors, Captain.”

 

“There was no sign of a ship before. Where did it come from?” Chakotay asked perking up a little from where Janeway had been sure he was sleeping.

 

“I believe it was hiding in the nebula, Commander,” Tuvok supplied helpfully.

 

“They’re firing!” Kim warned suddenly just as the ship rocked violently and several crewmen were thrown to the deck.

 

Kathryn was barely able to hang on to the arms of her chair as her precious ship shuddered violently. “Report!”

 

Tuvok responded immediately, “The ship is heavily armored and armed with six pulse cannons. They are continuing to fire.” He reported, stating the obvious as Voyager rocked again under another barrage. Ensign Kim was thrown to the ground as his console exploded. Getting up he ignored the trickle of blood on his temple and re-routed operations through the aft science station.

 

“Hail them!” Janeway shouted.

 

“No response,” Kim returned.

 

“Shields at 87%, Captain,” Tuvok added, ratcheting up Janeway’s anxiety another notch.

 

“Evasive maneuvers, target their weapon’s systems and fire,” Kathryn ordered quickly.

 

Paris threw Voyager into a roll as the tactical officer fired the phasers. A second later Tuvok informed her, “No effect.” Then added, “Their weapons fire is concentrated on deck eight; the cargo bay.”

 

Another volley of weapons fire struck the outer hull and the computer intoned, “Warning, outer hull breach on deck eight.”

 

“Erect emergency forcefields,” Janeway said quickly. “Evacuate that deck!”

 

“Forcefields inoperable, Captain,” Harry reported. “The cargo bay doors have been sealed to prevent depressurization.”

 

Finally angry and fed up Kathryn said, “Tuvok, lock torpedoes onto that ship and fire.”

 

But before the dark-skinned tactical officer could move a beam shot out from the renegade ship and struck the outer hull rupture of Voyager near the cargo bay.

 

Suddenly Chakotay reported, “Captain, they’ve just transported half of our supplies from cargo bay two including a Borg alcove.”

 

“Firing torpedoes,” Tuvok announced.

 

Two of the torpedoes struck the other ship causing visible damage and finally the marauders retreated.

 

Heaving a sigh that it was over Janeway said, “I want a full damage report. Send a repair crew down to seal that breach and I want a list of what was taken.”

 

Chakotay shook his head to clear the fog and looked down at his board. “Initial reports coming in now, Captain. A few cuts and bruises, Lieutenant Nicoletti broke her arm falling from the second level of engineering during the initial attack. There were no fatalities. Other than the hull rupture on deck eight there was only minor damage to the ship. The secondary power grid was hit, but no critical systems were affected.”

 

“Get repair crews on it,” Kathryn ordered, angry that someone had dared attack them without provocation. “I want to know who they were and why they attacked us. Did we cross into someone’s territory without knowing it? Ask Seven and Neelix if they have any information.”

 

“Aye, Captain,” Chakotay answered quickly.

 

“Captain, if I may?” an unexpected voice called from the rear of the bridge.

 

Kathryn turned with flashing eyes ready to take someone’s head off but was stopped by the look of resolution on the Major’s face.

 

“We’d like to help with those repairs. Captain Clayton and I may be new around here, but we’re a quick study.”

 

Janeway contemplated the offer for only a heartbeat. Both women were very intelligent and how hard could it be to learn how to use a tricorder and a hyper-spanner? They might as well start learning now. With a sharp nod Kathryn said, “Harry, set them up with a repair team on deck eight and then get to work on those back-up systems.”

 

“Yes, Captain,” He answered leading the way into the turbolift.

 

Janeway sat back in her chair visually calm, but seething internally at the audacity of the attack. Looking at the main view screen she thought, I hope this little reception isn’t normal for this part of space.

 

***********

 

“I think I’m too tired to eat,” Max said looking down at the mystery dish on the table in front of her.

 

Alex and Max both felt as though they’d been flushed through a plasma conduit. After several hours helping make repairs to the ship they knew exactly what those were. Who knew learning new technology and making repairs could be so exhausting? But learn they had, receiving a crash course in 24th century technology and engineering techniques. The repair team they’d been assigned to hadn’t been near the cargo bay on deck eight but they’d been close enough to see crewmembers coming and going. Alex figured the captain hadn’t wanted to risk her newest and most ignorant crewmembers being sucked through the hull breach that had been punched in the side of Voyager by their attackers.

 

One of the crew that they had seen coming and going from the heavily damaged area was the former Borg drone, Seven of Nine. The young woman looked a little the worse for wear, her biosuit torn at the shoulder and soot covering her face and hands. Alex wondered if she’d been near the explosion.

 

“You?” Alex asked teasingly, but she was too tired to make the attempt convincing. Heaving a heavy sigh she took a sip of Neelix’s soup of the day and shuddered only a little. “Either my taste buds have been assassinated already, or the soup’s actually palatable.”

 

“Think the captain would let us add a small kitchen to our quarters?” Max asked hopefully.

 

“I doubt it, it would probably use up too much energy. Besides,” the major added, “I know who would end up doing all of the cooking.”

 

The brunette grinned acknowledging the charge as the doors to the mess hall opened. Seven of Nine entered the room looking freshly showered with no visible injuries.

 

“She must not have been near the blast,” Alex mused allowed.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Earlier, she was pretty dirty and I thought she might have gotten hurt in the initial attack. But I guess not. I don’t see any injuries,” Alex explained.

 

“Maybe she was just dirty from working,” Max suggested with a shrug. “In any case she sure does clean up well. Why? Don’t tell me you’re interested in going for her. You’d make quite a pair, both being tall, blonde and …built.”

 

That comment did get her attention. “You think I’m built?” Alex wasn’t about to admit that she was pleased by the comparison, or the fact that the former drone wasn’t the one that had captured her attention.

 

“Oh come on,” Max scoffed. “You know you could have anyone you wanted with a figure like that. Man or woman,”

 

Ignoring that last bit Alex watched the doors open again and the minute chief engineer sauntered into the room. The feisty young woman had impressed Alex. During the repairs B’Elanna Torres had seemed to be everywhere at once, overseeing repairs without micromanaging. Alex considered that a difficult feat for anyone, much less someone blessed with a temper rivaled only by her intelligence. The exotic beauty of her Klingon forehead ridges and musculature only added to her appeal.

 

“If you really want to get involved with someone,” the blonde advised, “I think you should look in a different direction.”

 

Max followed the other woman’s gaze to see whom she was talking about. “Lieutenant Torres?” she asked considering. “I don’t know, she doesn’t really strike me as inclined; if you know what I mean. Besides, I thought I heard she was involved with Paris.”

 

“The helmsman?” Alex asked in surprise. “He doesn’t seem like the faithful type. Especially with the way he’s been following us around.”

 

Max had to admit the truth of that. Everywhere they went the sandy-haired man seemed to show up within a few minutes. This was the only place they’d managed to escape his intentions. But Max didn’t think he meant anything by it.

 

“He’s harmless,” the captain said taking a bite of her sandwich and talking around the mouthful. “He’s just curious. I won’t deny he likes to look at the female form, but I can hardly blame him for that. I like to look too. Actually, I kind of like him. At least he knows how to have a good time. He was talking to me about something called a holodeck and a program called ‘Captain Proton’. Apparently, they can make fictional characters seem real and interact with them, kinda like the holographic doctor only on a larger scale.”

 

“How does it work?” Alex asked curiously when Max finally stopped talking to swallow.

 

Shrugging Max admitted, “I don’t know. Guess I’ll find out though,”

 

“Hi. Mind if I join you?”

 

They glanced up to see the chief engineer had made it through the line and was standing beside them with her tray. Seeing the young woman as just being friendly, the pair didn’t realize they were in the company of the biggest gossipmonger on the ship.

 

“Sure,” Max mumbled around another mouthful and waved at the empty seat beside her.

 

Both of the visiting astronauts were fairly bursting with questions but the other woman beat them to the punch, starting a conversation and simultaneously distracting them from their thoughts. “So,” she began with a grin. “How’s your first day on Voyager? Bet you didn’t think you’d be making repairs on a 24th century starship when you got up this morning.”

 

Grinning back Max said, “Boy, you can say that again. I feel like I’m in the middle of an incredible dream and I just can’t wake up.”

 

Pausing with her mouth open in mid-bite B’Elanna looked at the brunette like she’d lost her marbles. “Incredible? Most people waking up unexpectedly three hundred years in the future would be hard-pressed to keep their sanity much less think of the experience as incredible. Just what is it you find so fascinating?”

 

“Everything!” Max returned instantly. “This ship, the technology; I’ve learned so much today my head is aching!”

 

Not one to let the woman off lightly Alex had to add, “Of course, that’s not the only thing she finds fascinating.”

 

B’Elanna followed Alex’s stare across the room to see whom she meant. Snorting in disgust she growled, “You can’t be serious! Her?”

 

The venom in the other woman’s voice surprised Alex. She didn’t strike the blonde as vindictive or petty. “Why not? What’s wrong with her? She’s intelligent, hard-working, beautiful,”

 

She was cut off abruptly by Torres adding, “Arrogant, cold, calculating, superior…”

 

Taking a breath B’Elanna tried to adopt a less aggressive tone. “Besides, aren’t you two a couple?” she asked curiously taking a bite of her stew.

 

“No way!” Max said forcefully surprising the other two with her vehemence. “Sorry,” she said with an apologetic half-smile cast toward Alex. “No offense.”

 

“None taken,” the blonde returned in amusement.

 

“Why’d you think we were together anyway? Not that I’m disappointed that lesbianism isn’t seen as a disease in this century.” Max said.

 

Shrugging B’Elanna said, “I hope we’re a little more enlightened in this day and age. After all of the different species we’ve encountered why would sexuality even matter? As to your question, it’s just that you seem so comfortable around each other. It’s like something that only happens when you’re with someone for a very long time.”

 

“You try spending nine months alone on a planet with one person. After a while you don’t hardly even need to speak to communicate,” Alex pointed out.

 

B’Elanna nodded in understanding while Max tried to restart their previous conversation. “Back to what we were talking about earlier,” she said not so subtly changing the subject. She had finished her meal and was ready to discuss some things that had been on her mind. “Alex and I were discussing the fact that we have to find a place to fit in here. If we really are stuck, I’d rather feel useful doing it.”

 

“What did you have in mind?” B’Elanna was in a good mood now that she was sure the two women were gay. At least they wouldn’t be chasing after Tom. With the way he’d been mooning over them B’Elanna had been concerned. She couldn’t say much for their tastes, though, if they were considering the Ice Queen as a possible mate.

 

“I was thinking about something in engineering,” Max said watching the lieutenant’s reaction carefully.

 

Torres bit back her instinctive retort that the other woman was hardly qualified. But memories of Captain Janeway taking a chance with a rebellious Maquis and making her a chief engineer flooded into her mind. Most people practically grew up around starships and knew the basics going in. But beyond knowledge there was raw talent, and she had seen Max working with tricorders and hyper spanners earlier in the day. It hadn’t taken her long to start using the equipment like a pro. Using a hyper spanner was a far cry from calibrating a warp conduit, but what did it hurt to give her a chance?

 

“Sure,” she said finally. “Let me talk to Captain Janeway about it. Of course you’ll have to study a lot in your off time, and be paired up with someone else until you have a full understanding of how a starship works.”

 

“Great,” Max said her eyes widening in surprise. “You won’t be disappointed.” Maybe this future thing wouldn’t be so bad after all.

 

So far she’d put on a carefree, no worries face but she’d really been terrified. Being yanked away from everything familiar was really hard. The only things making it bearable were the friendly people on Voyager, the excitement of a new challenge, and Alex. Although Turko was technically her superior officer she was also one of the best friends Max had ever had. She figured she would have lost it without Alex being there for moral support.

 

Now Max had to start getting grounded in her new reality by learning as much about it as she could. That plan included making new friends and getting to know this ship and crew. She wondered if the holodeck could be made into a classroom with an instructor to fill her in on everything about engineering basics in this time frame. She would have to ask Mister Paris.

 

Speaking of Paris, Max glanced at her watch realizing she had twenty minutes before she was supposed to meet him on deck six.

 

Can Captain Proton possibly be as cheesy as it sounds, Max wondered.

 

“I have to meet Lieutenant Paris in twenty minutes,” she told the others, standing and picking up her tray. “But before I do that I think I’ll go introduce myself to someone arrogant and condescending.”

 

Wagging her eyebrows suggestively Max sauntered over to the replicator to dispose of her tray before walking over to where Seven sat alone in a corner.

 

“Is she always like that?” B’Elanna asked.

 

“What, charge in head first and take no prisoners? Yes,”

 

Both laughed at the younger woman’s audacity, before B’Elanna turned her attention to Alex’s future. “So what about you? Aspiring to be an engineer, too?”

 

“Not so much,” Alex admitted smiling a little to take any sting out of her words. “Beyond learning to pilot the shuttles and maybe even Voyager, I haven’t really decided. There just seems to be so much I don’t even have a clue about yet. I don’t want to jump into something and regret it later.”

 

“That’s probably a smart move,” B’Elanna assured her. “If you want, you can come to engineering and watch whenever you have some time. I’m sure the rest of the department heads onboard would feel the same way.”

 

“Thanks,” Alex said. “That’s very generous of you.”

 

The truth was that Alex didn’t want to get completely ensnared in this century, as her compadre seemed to. She was also trying to put on a brave face, but there was little here that held enough appeal for her to want to stay. The future was very intriguing and if she had to stay she would adjust, but she wanted to go home. A spatial anomaly had brought them here lending weight to the theory that another one could take them home.

 

It suddenly occurred to her that if that should happen, she would need a ship. She needed to speak with the captain before they melted down the Endeavor.

 

“Uh, sorry B’Elanna,” she said standing. “It just occurred to me that I need to see the captain. Any idea where she’d be right now?”

 

Blinking in surprise the Klingon said, “Well, if she’s not on the bridge she usually has lunch in her ready room.”

 

A quick inquiry to the computer proved that the captain was still hard at work on the bridge. Alex left the mess hall giving Max a reassuring smile as the other woman shot her a worried look.

 

*****

“Hi, mind some company?”

 

Seven looked up in surprise. No one ever asked to sit with her in the mess hall except for Captain Janeway or Naomi Wildman. She hadn’t even formulated a response when the brunette astronaut sat in the chair across from her.

 

“Captain Maxine Clayton,” she said holding her hand out.

 

The former drone frowned slightly as she looked at the outstretched appendage and then into the waiting face. Not having any idea what to say Seven merely raised her left eyebrow, or more accurately her ocular implant over where her left eyebrow would be.

 

“It’s customary to shake hands when you introduce yourself,” Max prompted.

 

Quickly Seven calculated a response to the challenging look in the brown eyes. She had to admit to a certain amount of curiosity, and an antagonistic reception would probably prevent her satisfying that curiosity. In addition few people approached her in such an open and friendly manner. Seven understood they were afraid of her Borg nature, but she still felt lonely at times.

 

Finally she reached over and gently took the offered hand. “I am Seven of Nine,” she said simply with no expression.

 

“So what’s that you’re drinking?” Max asked with a glance at the vile looking drink sitting on the table. She tried to ignore the clammy feeling from shaking hands with the other woman. Seven’s glass was wet with condensation and someone had obviously failed to tell her that you should wipe your hand off before shaking hands.

 

“It is nutritional supplement number forty-three,” Seven responded wondering why everyone asked that same question.

 

Reaching over Max plucked the glass off the table. “It looks gross.” She said before sniffing the contents. “Whew! How can you drink that?” she asked in disgust, sitting the glass back down.

 

“Taste is irrelevant,” Seven said. Her expression remained neutral but she thought it was cute how the small brunette wrinkled her nose. It reminded her of Captain Janeway. Seven had always thought of the captain’s mannerisms as elegant and sophisticated. It had only been after hearing Naomi use the word cute that she realized it could also apply to many things the intrepid captain did.

 

Thinking of Captain Janeway, Seven realized it would probably please the older woman if she were friendly to these strangers.

 

“How do you figure? Why don’t you try something that tastes better?” Max asked curiously.

 

Considering how best to explain to the other woman Seven asked, “You are aware that I am Borg?”

 

“You mean that you were Borg,” Max corrected gently.

 

“Correct. As a drone I did not consume nutrition as a humanoid does. Rather I drew energy directly from the ship’s power by using a Borg alcove. A great deal of my implants have been removed since I was disconnected from the hive, but I still draw most of my energy from the alcove.”

 

“So, you don’t eat much,” the brunette guessed. “But how do you still draw energy from an alcove? You’re not on a Borg ship anymore.”

 

“Five of them were installed in cargo bay two approximately four years ago.”

 

“Ah,” Max said knowingly, “when Captain Janeway forged a temporary alliance with the Borg.”

 

“I see that you have been reading the ship’s logs,” Seven said with approval.

 

Max grinned. “Guilty as charged. Listen, since you’re almost finished with your…uh…meal I’m too late this time. But how about having dinner with me later? I’ll make sure I pick something light, but I’d be willing to bet it tastes better.”

 

Again the other woman had managed to surprise her. Seven was pleased by the invitation, but disappointed at the same time. “I do not require additional nutrients for another twenty-six hours.”

 

“It’s not about additional nutrients, Seven. It’s about enjoying a meal,” Max told her.

 

“Now you are beginning to sound like Neelix.”

 

“Hey, I like Neelix. Come on, what do you say?”

 

Thinking for a moment Seven said, “I am scheduled to play velocity with Captain Janeway at seventeen hundred hours.”

 

“After that,” Max persisted and was delighted by a very small smile she saw on the blonde’s face.

 

“Very well,” Seven relented. “But how may I contact you? You have not yet been issued a communicator.”

 

“Well, I’m about to meet Paris in the holodeck. He’s going to show me something called Captain Proton. But after that I’ll be in my quarters. Why don’t you just swing by when you’re finished with your game?”

 

Max wasn’t planning on giving Seven a chance to change her mind and had already stood up. But she could have sworn the former Borg had stiffened rather suddenly, although you couldn’t tell by the lack of expression.

 

“What?” she asked.

 

Must be losing my touch if the idea of a dinner turns her off so much.

 

“Captain Proton?” Seven questioned disdainfully.

 

Whew, Max thought. She didn’t change her mind.

 

“Yeah, why? Have you tried the program?”

 

Seven cocked her eyebrow and remarked, “It is a juvenile re-creation of an ancient Earth television program, set in a monochromatic environment. I believe Lieutenant Paris continues to participate in this program so that he may ‘get the girl’ without incurring the wrath of Lieutenant Torres.”

 

“Sounds like you don’t care much for Paris,” the captain grinned.

 

Seven blinked as though she hadn’t considered such a thing. “I believe I may have given you the wrong idea. Lieutenant Paris was among the first of the crew to offer his friendship to me. I merely find his behavior predictable.”

 

Max reached out to touch the woman lightly on the shoulder ignoring the slight flinch. “I’ll keep that in mind. See you later?”

 

“Agreed,”

                        

Gotta watch the touchy-feely, Max thought. She hadn’t meant anything by it; she was just a tactile person. She had to remember that some people weren’t used to that.

 

Seven sat frowning after the other woman had left the room. Captain Clayton had touched her on the shoulder causing her to twitch in surprise. Captain Janeway touched her casually like that, but her touch generated a very different response.  Seven found that she anticipated those moments of contact, sometimes deliberately standing close to the other woman to encourage a touch or a pat on the arm. Sometimes she wondered if the captain was being more than friendly with her. She didn’t seem to touch other members of the crew as much as she did Seven.

 

As much as she enjoyed the warmth she got from being touched by the Janeway, Captain Clayton’s physical contact had not drawn the same response.

 

I hope that she is not attempting to flirt with me, Seven thought. If she is I shall have to inform her that I am not interested.

 

There was only one person onboard Voyager that the young woman wanted to have flirt with her. Unfortunately it seemed that would never happen. At least Captain Janeway was concerned enough about Seven to check on her after the attack.

 

She had known Seven was working in the cargo bay when they had been attacked. Seven had just been going back into the cavernous bay after taking some supplies to Neelix. As the double doors began to open an explosion had ripped into the side of the ship knocking her back out into the corridor.

 

Seven’s biosuit had been torn and soot covered her from top to bottom. Her only injury had been a gash on the forehead, but she had been knocked unconscious. A few minutes later she had awakened in sickbay with her injury already healed.

 

“The captain was asking about you,” the holographic doctor told her with a cheery grin. “She seemed quite concerned until I told her you were already mended. I thought for a minute I was going to have her invading my medical bay.”

                                                          

She does not invade the medical bay for many other injured crewmembers, Seven thought. Perhaps there is hope for us yet.

 

With a pleasantly warm feeling in her stomach Seven recycled her glass and returned to duty in Astrometrics. She would test her hypothesis concerning the captain’s feelings during their velocity match.

 

She noticed Lieutenant Torres openly watching her as she left the mess hall and completely ignored her.

 

B’Elanna had switched into Major Turko’s chair after the other woman left. She wanted to see if Max got shut down by the former drone as so many others had.

 

What is it about her anyway, she growled silently. I’ll admit she’s attractive in a cold, calculating sort of way, but why would anyone want all that ice? Is it just the challenge?

 

 

 

 

After a bit of a rocky start they actually seemed to be having a friendly conversation. A few minutes later Max stood up to leave but was stopped by something the Borg said. Then Max grinned and touched the other woman on the shoulder before she left.

 

I wonder if I should warn her about Janeway? If she fools around with the captain’s pet Borg she might find herself thrown out the nearest airlock.

 

B’Elanna knew how seriously the captain took her role as mentor. She was very protective of Seven, who was perfectly capable of looking after herself. B’Elanna often wondered if Janeway thought of Seven as the daughter she never had.

 

Speaking of Janeway, B’Elanna wondered why Alex had suddenly rushed off to see her. She had seemed pretty agitated, which only made the Klingon curious. Hmm, wonder if I can get her to tell me what’s going on?

 

*******

Alex took the turbolift to the bridge. She spotted the captain sitting in her chair and had a few seconds to appreciate the shining highlights in the auburn strands before the older woman turned her head and spotted her.

 

The look of bored curiosity was immediately replaced by a crooked smile. “Hi, Alex. What brings you to the bridge?”

 

“Captain,” she said respectfully in front of the crew. “I know you’re busy, but I was wondering if I could speak with you.”

 

Alex noted the look of irritation that flashed over Chakotay’s face before he schooled his features into impassiveness.

 

Should I have gone through him first, she wondered. Then she dismissed him. Maybe he thinks I’m after his woman.

 

It was pretty obvious just in the short time she’d known him that he fancied something more with his commanding officer.

 

As if! Janeway has better taste than that dime store Indian.

 

“Sure,” Kathryn said standing up. “Why don’t we go into my ready room?”

 

Alex wasn’t sure what a ‘ready room’ was, but if it would get her away from the second in command she was more than willing. Following the smaller woman through the automatic doors, the inviting warmth of the captain’s office struck Alex. Rather than the stark furnishings of a military facility the blue and silver décor managed to impart a homey feel while being sophisticated at the same time.

 

A lot like the woman behind the pips, she thought.

 

If she were honest she had to admit that there would be one good thing about staying in this time frame.

 

“Would you like some coffee?” Janeway offered already standing in front of the replicator.

 

“Yeah, that would be great.” Alex said. “By the way, did I just breach some kind of protocol? Your first officer seemed a little put out that I spoke directly to you.”

 

Kathryn was a little surprised that such a small thing could irritate Chakotay. He’d been as excited by the astronauts’ appearance as the rest of the crew. “No,” she said handing Alex a mug and leading the way to the raised sitting area. Settling onto the sofa she invited the blonde to sit beside her. “I’m glad to see you anytime my duties permit. As for Chakotay, he’s probably just disappointed you didn’t speak to him. Everyone around here is just hopping at the chance to get to know you.”

 

Nodding Alex sipped her coffee, “Ah, that’s good.”

 

Kathryn grinned at the other woman enjoying her hot beverage. “It seems there’s finally someone on this ship that enjoys coffee as much as I do.”

 

The major smiled as they just took a moment to enjoy their drinks.

 

“Now,” Kathryn said, “was there something you needed, or did you just come to rescue me from the dullness on the bridge?”

 

“Things getting a little boring up there?” Alex asked realizing Janeway was a woman of action. “Well, I suppose that’s better than all the explosions from this morning.”

 

“No argument there.” The captain said. “I can certainly do without my people being hurt. It just seems that in the delta quadrant it’s all or nothing. Don’t get me wrong; I love my job. But a little stability along the way would be nice.”

 

The blonde looked at Kathryn strangely for a moment before saying, “No time to let your hair down and just be a woman?”

 

A little tingle shot through Kathryn with the question, but she pushed the feeling away. There had been nothing sexual about the question. Deciding on the light approach she asked with a grin, “What’s a captain to do?”

 

Alex seemed willing to ease the tension and asked, “Do you know who they were or why they attacked?”

 

“No,” Kathryn shook her head. “They came around the nebula while we were having trouble with the sensors so Harry never had the chance to scan them. Then they fired on us while our shields were down and took a lot of our supplies. I guess they were just another bunch of thieves.”

 

Janeway could see that the anger in her voice had caught the other woman off guard. “I’m sorry. It’s just not only did they fire on and steal from a defenseless ship, but several of my people were also injured.”

 

“I didn’t realize.” Alex said. “Are they going to be all right?”

 

Kathryn took a sip from her mug trying to squash down her residual fury. It was over now, just a memory, and getting angry wasn’t going to resolve anything. “Yes, the doctor treated them and everyone is fine now. They were minor injuries; a broken arm, smoke inhalation; that sort of thing. Seven of Nine was knocked unconscious when the hull breached on deck eight and got a pretty nasty gash on the forehead.”

 

“I just saw her in the mess hall.” Alex said. “She certainly didn’t look as though she’d been hurt.”

 

Smiling Kathryn said, “The doctor does take pride in his work.”

 

“Oh, that’s an example of some of that advanced technology, isn’t it?” At Kathryn’s nod Alex said, “I guess I’m going to have to spend some time down there and watch him work.”

 

“I’m sure he would be more than happy to show you how everything works.” Kathryn said thinking how pompous he could be.

 

Mentioning Seven’s injury had distracted Kathryn more than she realized and the comment came out more seriously than she had intended.

 

“Is something troubling you, Kathryn? You seem like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.” Alex said perceptively.

 

At least the weight of Voyager, the captain thought. Normally she would never admit to doubts or concerns with any of her crew. But Alex wasn’t really a crewmember, at least not yet. Kathryn didn’t really want to talk with Chakotay because she knew what he would say. Maybe a fresh perspective would be a good thing.

 

“I guess I’m just a little worried about Seven. You see she still has to draw energy from a Borg alcove to replenish her cybernetic implants. We had several alcoves in cargo bay two, five to be exact. Only one of them has been kept operational for her use, but during the attack one of the other alcoves was taken. It’s bad enough that these individuals have that kind of technology in their possession, but if something happens to the one Seven uses, we’re going to be short on replacement components.”

 

“I see. But from what I understand Seven is more human than Borg now. Couldn’t she just try sleeping?”

 

Kathryn nodded, “I know she has tried sleeping under the doctor’s supervision, but I don’t believe she’s been very successful.”

 

“Ugh, do you blame her? How would you sleep with the doc standing over you? And how much worse would it be for someone who is very private? Can’t you just assign her quarters?”

 

“That would be the logical conclusion.” Kathryn admitted. “But as I’ve said before space is limited. What would I say, ‘move over, Chakotay. You have a roommate’?”

 

Alex snorted, “I bet he’d love that! No, I guess you have a point. Since she’s technically a senior officer she can’t bunk with the rest of the crew.”

 

“Yes, and she needs the alcove. Without it her systems would eventually shut down. She would die.” Kathryn finished in a strained voice.

 

And I’m starting to get the feeling that would hurt you more deeply than if it were anyone else on this ship, Alex thought frowning slightly.

 

Then she had an idea. “What about deck three?”

 

“What do you mean? There are only three quarters on that deck; Chakotay’s, yours and mine.” Kathryn had to swallow against a suddenly dry throat.

 

The image of a tousled Seven of Nine climbing out of her bed flashed briefly across her mind. She was saved from those distracting thoughts when the major presented her idea.

 

“Why can’t you create more quarters on that deck? I mean basically it’s just an assemblage of bulkheads and power conduits, plumbing and the like. Why couldn’t a maintenance team re-route anything essential and construct additional quarters? Let’s face it, there is an awful lot of wasted space on that deck.”

 

“You mean to build quarters especially suited for Seven?”

 

“Sure,” Alex said. “But not just for her. Max and I have taken over the VIP suite. While the crews are at it, they might as well build some new guest quarters.”

 

It’s a good idea, Kathryn thought and wondered why she’d never thought of it herself. While the three living quarters already there were much larger than standard crew accommodations they were all on the same side of the corridor. That left the other side completely available for the project.

 

Just imagine; I could simply walk across the hall anytime I wanted to see her.

 

Kathryn could see it now. She’d never get any sleep since Seven often dropped by for a late night discussion. How much worse would it be when she didn’t have to travel five decks?

 

I take it back, Kathryn thought. It’s not a good idea. It’s a great idea!

 

“I’ll have the teams get started right away.” She said. “But do me a favor? Would you keep it to yourself? I’d like to surprise her. To sort of make up for not thinking of her privacy before,”

 

“Sure,” Turko answered. “I’ll talk to Max and make sure she keeps her mouth shut. But how are you going to get the maintenance crews to keep quiet? You know how fast news on a ship travels.”

 

“All they need to know is that we’re constructing additional guest quarters. I’ll talk to Chakotay and let him know what’s going on. Maybe between the four of us we can keep it quiet.” Janeway smiled thinking it would be close to impossible to hide anything from the inquisitive young woman for very long.

 

“Maybe between the five of us.” Alex offered making the captain look at her questioningly. “It’s just an idea of course, but since you are basically building from scratch why not put her alcove in her quarters?”

 

“I see,” Kathryn said in understanding. “B’Elanna would have to do the installation on the alcove.”

 

“Right, and if the alcove were in her quarters every Tom, Doc, and Harry couldn’t watch her sleep.”

 

That idea did bother the captain. She had watched Seven regenerate countless times, but she had felt tender protectiveness toward the younger woman. It was doubtful that the men on Voyager felt those things if they had the opportunity to watch her, especially the three Alex had mentioned.

 

“I’ll see to it right away.” She said a little more sharply than she had intended. Trying to steer the conversation away from Seven and her utter lack of privacy Kathryn said, “So, you never did say why you needed to see me.”

 

“Can’t it just be enough to want to see a beautiful woman?”

 

Alex could have bitten her tongue off when Janeway flushed deeply at the remark. What was it about this woman that brought out the raging hormonal teenager? “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”

 

“It’s all right.” Kathryn said recovering quickly. “Thank you for the compliment, but I doubt that’s why you really stopped by.”

 

Grateful for the deflection Alex said, “Actually I wanted to see you about the Endeavor.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Now that she’d managed to bring it up Alex wasn’t sure how to proceed. She didn’t want to sound thankless.

 

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done for us, but it occurred to me that if an accident brought us here…”

 

“Another one might take you home?” Kathryn finished softly.

 

Alex could feel the heat in her cheeks but plowed ahead. “Quite simply, yes.”

 

The older woman didn’t respond right away. Instead she stood and walked over to the viewport. Hands clasped behind her back Kathryn stood staring out at the stars streaking by. She could hardly blame Alex for wanting to go home. This ship was far different from anything she’d ever know. But Kathryn had wanted her to embrace it. Just moments ago the other woman had been flirting outrageously with her, and Kathryn had felt something between them from the start. Now, here she was practically laying in a course for home.

 

Kathryn knew the lure of a distant home. As soon as Voyager’s crew had discovered they were stranded in this quadrant they had set their sights on Earth, and wouldn’t stop until they got there. But she was still disappointed.

 

She realized she’d been quiet for too long when she felt the warmth of Alex’s body right behind her. Soft hands descended to rest gently on her shoulders.

 

“Not that there aren’t certain perks about being here.” Alex said softly. Taking a chance she stepped closer until she was right up against Kathryn’s back, and her cheek rested against the side of the smaller woman’s head.

 

Kathryn closed her eyes fighting the pull of physical attraction, but it had been six long years since she’d let herself feel desire for anyone. Holograms just weren’t real and you could only fool yourself for so long.

 

Finally she relaxed into the other woman relishing the feel of long arms reaching around to fully embrace her.

 

“I had hoped you’d want to stay.” She said opening her eyes to regard the younger woman’s reflection.

 

Alex was tempted to place a light kiss on the small ear beside her but thought that might be pushing her luck. She considered herself fortunate to just be allowed to hold Kathryn. “That may yet happen.” She admitted hoarsely.

 

The two stood that way for a few minutes just enjoying the way they fit together. Finally Kathryn said, “All right, we’ll keep her as she is for the time being. I still have Neelix’s ship in the shuttle bay and that’s been there six years. What’s one more ship?”

 

Alex’s arms tightened slightly as she hugged Kathryn. “Thank you.” She said softly.

 

Moving slowly Kathryn turned in Alex’s embrace and rested her hands on the slender waist. Looking up she stared deeply into the light blue gaze. Alex moved closer until Kathryn could feel warm breath ghosting over her face, then cornflower eyes fluttered closed and she welcomed the kiss she knew was coming.

 

“Chakotay to Captain Janeway,”

 

For some reason Alex had stopped a millimeter from her lips, and Kathryn didn’t understand why.

 

“Chakotay to Captain Janeway.” The hail repeated.

 

Clearing her throat Kathryn stepped back in embarrassment realizing she hadn’t heard him the first time.

 

“Go ahead,” she said missing the amused look on Alex’s face. What was wrong with her, behaving that way when she was on duty?

 

“Repairs have been completed. I’ve just sent the reports to your terminal.”

 

“Thank you, Chakotay.”

 

Kathryn picked up her mug and recycled it before walking over to sit behind her desk. It wasn’t Alex’s fault that she was embarrassed and she didn’t want the major to think she was angry with her. “I’m sorry about that.” She said looking up at the other woman. “But I really should get back to work.”

 

Alex knew a dismissal when she heard one. She was also enough of a military woman to sense something of what was going on behind the command mask. “No worries, but what would you say to some dinner later? You do eat, don’t you?” she asked teasingly.

 

Pleased by the forgiving attitude Kathryn allowed a smile. “Yes, I do eat. But I’m a horrible cook.”

 

“Well, you’re in luck because I am a master. I think I was a chef in another life. In fact, Max was asking me at lunch if I thought you’d allow us to add a kitchen to our quarters.”

 

“In that case, you’re on.” Janeway said smiling. “I’d hate to let all of that talent go to waste.”

 

“Great,” Alex said heading for the door. “I’ll cook and bring it to your place since I don’t know what Max has going yet.”

 

“All right,” Kathryn agreed wondering if it was wise to dine alone with the alluring young woman. “Anytime after eighteen thirty hours? I have a velocity match scheduled with Seven before that.”

 

“That sounds perfect. You’ll have to fill me in on this velocity later.”

 

With a wave of her hand Alex was gone leaving Kathryn with a smile on her face.

 

Major Turko’s own smile wavered as soon as the doors closed behind her. Her steps took her automatically to the turbolift, but her thoughts were so filled with the compact captain that she didn’t see the bridge crew looking at her curiously.

 

When she’d first gone into the ready room Kathryn had been talking about Seven of Nine. Her concern for the other woman was clear, but Alex had thought there was something else going unsaid. If it weren’t’ for the kiss they’d almost shared she would have sworn the captain had feelings for the other woman, romantic feelings.

 

But if those feelings did exist they’d obviously never been acted on. It could be that Janeway had never acknowledged them to herself, or maybe she thought she couldn’t get involved with a member of her crew.

 

Or she could be completely wrong, Alex thought. Remembering the smoldering look in the captain’s eyes Alex just knew she was a passionate woman. If she ever had recognized amorous feelings for someone Alex doubted that she would be able to hold back for long.

 

Oh well, she thought. Seven hasn’t been there yet, and if she’s too blind to make a play then that’s her problem. As for now, Alex had an evening to plan.

 

Chapter 4

 

Captain Kathryn Janeway, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Voyager had dealt with many demanding situations over the course of her Starfleet career, especially since being stranded in the Delta Quadrant along with her crew four years ago. She had faced down Kazon sects, Maelon freighters, and Hirogen hunting parties, but somehow those encounters hadn’t seemed as fraught with personal peril as the one she was now engaged in.

 

Playing velocity with Seven of Nine had become a weekly ritual that the captain looked forward to almost as much as the hot bath that she usually enjoyed afterward. The younger woman with her quick reflexes and Borg enhanced strength was also the only one on board Voyager that could give the captain a run for her money. But even with the superior speed and agility Kathryn still maintained the title as the best player on the ship.

 

All of that seemed to be in jeopardy at the moment and the captain realized she was in very real danger of losing to the other woman. It wasn’t that Seven was playing better than she had in the past, but she was certainly playing differently.

 

Kathryn had known that something was different from the moment Seven had taken her first phaser shot at the blue tinted disc flying toward her. Usually the blonde carefully took aim at the disc, calculating trajectory and speed trying to make Kathryn’s return shot as difficult as possible. But she usually avoided running into the captain during the game play.

 

When the disc materialized on the hologrid it hovered for a moment before turning red, Janeway’s designated color. Kathryn had fired immediately, sending the projectile flying and ricocheting off of two walls before it changed color and zoomed back toward Seven.

 

Instead of stepping around the captain to take her shot, Seven casually leaned over the smaller woman’s shoulder, faces so close together that Kathryn could feel her hot breath on her ear, before she returned fire. Janeway was so surprised that she almost forgot to take her own shot. Seven had been close enough that Kathryn had felt her full breasts pressing firmly against her back.

 

The whole game went that way.

 

Velocity was by nature a very intense and physical game, but Kathryn felt that Seven was bumping into her quite a lot. Not enough for the computer to call a foul, but enough to throw the captain slightly off her game. At one point Seven had dropped to the floor and fired at the game disc from between the captain’s legs instead of simply stepping around her.

 

What is she playing at, Kathryn wondered as she lunged for a shot that should have been easy.

 

In the end she managed to hold on and fire the winning shot, but only just. Seven had very nearly beaten her.

 

“Good game,” she complimented panting slightly as the equipment disappeared into the holo-matrix. “You almost had me. That’s an interesting new strategy you’ve come up with. But you do realize that I’ll be ready for it next time?”

 

Seven dipped her head accepting the compliment. Her eyes shone brightly and Janeway attributed her excitement to the thrill of having almost beaten the captain. Most people considered Seven to be unfeeling but Kathryn found her slight nuance of expression surprisingly easy to read. She had been up to something by playing the game in this way, but Kathryn couldn’t figure out what.

 

Probably more research on human infallibility, Kathryn decided. Trying to make me lose by distracting me. Well, it isn’t going to work, she thought willing to take up the friendly challenge.

 

“Thank you, Captain. I believe that I shall be able to defeat you next time,” she said and watched the redhead wipe at her sweaty face with a white towel.

 

Seven had no need for a towel since her cybernetic implants kept her body regulated. Instead she enjoyed the sensual way the cloth slid over the flushed skin. Her nostrils quivered slightly as she inhaled the slightly stronger musky scent of the overexerted woman. Seven realized that she was becoming aroused by the captain’s scent and decided it was time to end this for the day.

 

She had gathered a great deal of information from this game, but her experiment wasn’t a complete success. Captain Janeway hadn’t reacted as Seven hoped she would, proving that she didn’t return Seven’s romantic feelings. At least Seven didn’t think she did. She wasn’t an expert on human romance, but even if the Captain did feel something, Seven did not believe the other woman was willing to act on those feelings, or even acknowledge that she had them.

 

The information she had was enough for now. Since Janeway hadn’t downright chastised her for being so physical during the game, at least she didn’t repulse Janeway. Seven believed that if she moved slowly enough to allow Captain Janeway to adjust then she might see her as more than a friend or crewmember.

 

“I must go,” she informed Janeway. “Captain Clayton has invited me to have dinner with her in the mess hall. I must go to her quarters to inform her that our game is complete before I dress.”

 

Kathryn was a little confused at first. Why did Seven have to go by her quarters?

 

“Because I haven’t issued them combadges yet,” she realized. “I’ll take care of that later tonight. I’m having dinner with Alex so I might as well give them to her then.”

 

She did not want Seven to get in the habit of going by the astronaut’s quarters with her little surprise about to get underway. Kathryn had talked with Alex and had decided to have additional quarters installed on deck three. One of those quarters was planned as a gift for Seven of Nine, built specifically for her special needs to include the installation of a Borg alcove. Kathryn didn’t want Seven to find out about that until it was complete. Of course the whole ship would know that additional guest quarters were being added to the deck, but that didn’t mean Seven needed to know that one of them was for her.

 

She was glad that Seven seemed to be developing a friendship with the other woman, very aware that the former drone spent a lot of time alone. Seven had few friends on the ship. Those included the captain, Naomi, and the doctor.

 

Kathryn wasn’t aware of any other close friendships and knew that most of the crew regarded the younger woman with animosity.

 

She smiled and thought that even she might even be developing a special friendship with one of the astronauts. She slung the towel around her neck, picked up her water bottle and headed for the turbolift that would carry her from deck six to her quarters on deck three.

 

*****

“You’re what? You can’t be serious!” B’Elanna said loudly. Not thinking, she stood up quickly in the confined space of a Jeffries tube and whacked her head on the ceiling. She rubbed at the bump gingerly, turned in the enclosed space and asked, “You’re having dinner with her?”

 

Amused Max said, “Yeah, so? She seems very nice, and if you don’t mind me saying so, more than a little lonely.”

 

“We are talking about the same woman, aren’t we? Seven of Nine, you know the tall, physically imposing, cold as an iceberg, emotionless drone?” the Klingon growled.

 

Max frowned at the other woman’s reaction. Why did B’Elanna dislike the other woman so much? Seven obviously wasn’t interested in Tom, so why the jealousy routine? Did the former drone in some way threaten her? She didn’t think Torres was afraid of assimilation, but if not that then what? Then she had an idea.

 

Maybe B’Elanna felt inadequate around the tall, majestic Seven of Nine. She supposed that the Klingon might feel small and ungainly next to the stunning blonde, and Seven was brilliant to boot. But Max didn’t think the engineer was giving herself enough credit. Her small, musculature frame, fierce intelligence and sultry looks made her a beauty in her own right. Max’s compassionate heart tugged at her slightly.

 

Reaching over she patted B’Elanna on the arm. “Why don’t you finish showing me how to realign those gel packs?”

 

For the rest of the afternoon she watched the other woman work, taken by the ease and dexterity she used in handling even the bulkiest of equipment. B’Elanna was also the type of department head that didn’t ask anything of her people that she wasn’t willing to do herself. She got down in the muck with them, up to her elbows in lubrication and dirt right along side the lowest crewmember. It didn’t matter what the job was, Max came to understand. The Klingon was willing to do anything to keep her precious ship in tip-top condition. By the end of the afternoon, she was beginning to comprehend why her crew had so much respect for the chief engineer.

 

It seemed that no time at all had gone by when Torres was telling her it was time to log off duty. Max glanced down at her watch, shocked to see that it was half past five. “I’ve got to go.”

 

“Yeah,” B’Elanna snorted. “I’d hate for you to keep the Borg waiting.”

 

 Max frowned and asked, “What’s with all of the animosity anyway? Is she really so bad?”

 

“She’s a Borg drone,” B’Elanna pointed out as if that should be reason enough. “Do you know what Borg do for fun? They go around assimilating anyone in their path, murdering thousands in their wake.”

 

“She’s not a drone anymore. I may be new to this century, but you’re not. You know as well as I that what she did as a member of the Borg wasn’t by her choice. She had no control over her actions.”

 

“Now you sound like Janeway,” The Klingon said shortly, almost snarling.

 

“Is that what this is about?” the other woman asked. “Are you jealous that Seven and the captain are close?”

 

“No, that’s not it. Why should I be jealous?” B’Elanna asked in confusion. She didn’t think that was it. The Klingon cared a great deal for her captain and would do anything for her, but she didn’t have any romantic aspirations for her. “I just don’t like Seven, okay?”

 

“All right,” Max said with a shrug. “But I wish you’d think about it. By treating like she’s still a member of the collective you only help turn her into what you hate so much. Give her a chance.”

 

Heaving a sigh B’Elanna capitulated with a nod. Seven had been on the ship for four years now, and hadn’t tried to assimilate anyone yet. Still that didn’t mean that B’Elanna was willing to forgive her prior crimes against humanity. She thought that once you got killing in your blood, it was there for good. Just look at Torres’ own Klingon heritage. But she decided to try and be a little more antagonistic, if only to appease Max. “I’ll try,” she finally relented.

 

Grinning Max said, “That’s all I ask,” before walking out of engineering.

****

“How was Captain Proton?” Alex asked walking into the living quarters with a towel wrapped around her lean form. She was using another one to rub her long blonde hair dry.

 

Max had just walked in from engineering with a huge smile on her face that made Alex wonder what she’d been up to all day. She could always count on the junior officer to find pleasure in anything she did. Frequently her good mood rubbed off on Alex, and it was a joy just to be around her.

 

“Cheesy! But I really liked it. Tom wanted me to play the part of Constance Goodheart, his secretary,” the brunette added when Alex looked at her in confusion. “I refused to wear that archaic dress and run around screaming like a ninny at every little thing.”

 

“How chauvinistic!” Alex laughed picturing the whole thing. “I bet Paris was disappointed that he couldn’t rescue you as the damsel in distress.”

 

Laughing back Max nodded, “You should have seen his face when I told him I wanted to be Buster Crabb, the sidekick.”

 

They both got a hoot out of that and Alex asked, “What else did you do today? I haven’t seen much of you.”

 

“B’Elanna, or should I say Lieutenant Torres, invited me down to engineering. I spent the whole day watching her get dirty.” Max wagged her eyebrows suggestively.

 

Confused Alex asked, “What happened to Seven? I thought you were interested in her.”

 

Nodding Max said, “We talked for a few minutes during lunch and she seemed very pleasant, although a little reserved. I asked her if she would have dinner with me, and she said she would. She said she had a game of some kind scheduled with Janeway first and that she would come by to let me know when they’d finished. I’m going to meet her in the mess hall after that.”

 

“But,” Alex prompted. “You haven’t said why the sudden switch to Torres.”

 

The brunette shrugged and said, “I just don’t get that kind of vibe with Seven. She’s nice, but I get the feeling something else is going on with her. Besides you ought to see how shiny that little muscled body Torres has gets when she starts sweating.”

 

“Max! You saw her body?”

 

“Well, not really,” the other woman answered. “She took off her jacket and she had on this little gray t-shirt that left nothing to the imagination when she started working. Anyway, it hardly matters does it? She is already seeing someone, a man at that.”

 

“You do pick the hard ones,” Alex agreed. “So why the dinner with Seven?”

 

“She seems like she needs a friend,” Max said noncommittally.

 

Raising her eyebrows the other woman said, “Well, you might want to watch inviting her to our quarters for the next few weeks.”

 

Alex filled the other woman in on her discussion with Janeway about the construction of new quarters. She also went into detail on the rest of that meeting in the ready room knowing that Max wouldn’t spread around her personal business. That didn’t mean she would let Alex off without teasing her about it, though.

 

“Wow, trying to make a move on Janeway! You’re pretty brave. But at least one of us is having fun. Is that where you’re getting ready to go now?” the brunette asked with just a trace of envy in her voice.

 

Alex nodded, and said, “Yes, and now I have to figure out what to wear. Since Kathryn was generous enough to give us a stock of replicator rations to get settled at least I won’t have to go to dinner in my jumpsuit.”

 

The major went through the replicator files and finally settled on a long-sleeved shirt in robin’s egg blue, and a pair of black slacks. The shirt was made of a satiny material that moved pleasantly over the blonde’s form when she moved, and she hoped Kathryn would like it. A pair of black slip on shoes and a hint of perfume to her pulse points completed her wardrobe.

 

“You look dressed to kill!” Max complimented her, when she walked back into the living quarters from taking a shower. The brunette was wearing a robe and a towel.

 

Smiling Alex asked, “Do you think she’ll like it?”

 

Captain Clayton looked at the other woman for a moment and then asked seriously, “You’ve got it bad, don’t you?”

 

Max wasn’t sure she liked that idea. She’d known Alex for less than a year, but they had grown very close, especially with their current shared predicament. She cared for her and didn’t want to see her get hurt. Jumping into something with Janeway had all the earmarks of potential disaster waiting to happen.

 

“I don’t know,” Alex admitted. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

Noticing the small frown Max asked, “What are you not telling me?”

 

Alex shook her head and said with a smile, “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

 

The door chime went off interrupting the conversation. Max called for their visitor to enter and Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg Collective walked into the quarters. She was still wearing her velocity outfit, and Max thought the short, half shirt showed off the flat tummy nicely. Black shorts covered her lower half extending to mid-thigh and a silvery implant was visible, winding down from the top of her right leg to wrap around behind her knee before disappearing. Wisps of her golden hair had come loose from the austere bun and softened her appearance.

 

Seven offered a very slight smile to Max before sweeping Alex with a completely cold look. “I have come to inform you that I have finished velocity with the captain. I shall meet you in the mess hall in twenty minutes.”

 

“Uh, okay,” Max mumbled and struggled to keep up with the other woman’s get-to-the-point attitude.

 

Then Seven shot the major another disdainful look and was gone.

 

“What was that all about?” Alex asked looking at her friend.

 

Max shrugged. “I guess she doesn’t like you.”

 

I wonder why, Alex thought picturing a certain red haired Starfleet captain.

 

*******

 

Kathryn Janeway stood with her hands on her hips staring around at her quarters in absolute dismay.

 

It looked like she was planning a seduction!

 

Candles flickered gently in the lowered illumination, soft music played in the background and the coffee table had been set for an intimate dinner for two. A silver ice bucket sat on the low table, and condensation covered the sides while a bottle of wine chilled within.

 

The captain wore a shimmering gown of emerald green. It had a low, scooped neckline and was held up by spaghetti straps at her shoulders. The gown fell to just below her knees and was casual enough for a meal between two people, or formal enough for a night out. Suddenly convinced she had over done things Kathryn took two steps for her bedroom intending to change back into her uniform when the door chime sounded.

 

Too late, she thought as her heartbeat tripled. Feeling clumsy, she swallowed her trepidation and called for her visitor to enter.

 

Alex walked into the room her arms loaded with food and came to a dead stop. Her eyebrows nearly shot off her forehead as she looked around at the setting. Meeting Kathryn’s gaze she could see the anxiety, and decided not to comment.

 

“Dinner is served,” she said instead.

 

Visibly relaxing Kathryn made a sweeping gesture toward the table and said, “I can’t wait to see what you made.”

 

Alex sat the heavy tray down and corrected, “Well, not really made since I don’t have a kitchen. But I did figure out how to work the replicator well enough.”

 

“I see that,” Kathryn commented her eyes taking in the other woman’s appearance. “You look wonderful.”

 

“You clean up nicely yourself.”

 

The comment was light, but Kathryn could see the appreciatively smoldering look in the pale blue gaze. She felt her own slow burn of anticipation begin and was happy to take things slowly with both of them knowing where it was going to end.

 

“I thought we’d dispense with the coffee tonight,” Kathryn said.

 

She pulled the bottle of wine out of the ice bucket and showed the label to Alex. “It’s Talaxian Spring wine. Neelix brought a few bottles on board with him a few years ago, and he gave me this one. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”

 

Alex seemed pleased that Kathryn considered her being here a special occasion. Her cheeks flushed slightly and a shy smile graced her lips. The younger woman reached out to accept the wine and their fingers brushed.

 

Kathryn sat down on the sofa and Alex sat down beside her, close but not quite touching. For a moment the silence was awkward, and Kathryn didn’t know how to break it. Alex sipped a little of the wine and made an appreciative sound.

 

“It’s very good,” she complimented looking deeply into Janeway’s more blue than gray eyes.

 

Kathryn was enjoying the moment, but wasn’t quite sure where to go next. It had been a long time since she’d had a date, and it seemed she was a little out of practice. Making alliances with the Borg, or evading the Vadwar seemed easy in comparison.

 

Finally Alex looked away and sat her glass down. She reached over to deactivate the stasis lid on the tray. The aroma that hit Janeway was heavenly.

 

“Oh, what is that?” she asked in delight.

 

Alex grinned. “I hope you like it. I made salmon in lemon and avocado, some spiced rice pilaf, and fresh bread with a balsamic vinaigrette dipping sauce. This wine is perfect with it. Good choice.”

 

Kathryn took a bite and the fish practically melted in her mouth. “This is wonderful.”

 

She dug in enthusiastically and knew Alex was watching her in amusement before she started to eat.

 

“Oh,” Kathryn said as she put her fork down and reached over to the edge of the coffee table. “Before I forget, here are some communicators for yourself and Max.”

 

Alex took the devices and looked at the back of one of them for a moment trying to figure out how they worked. Then she put one of them on her shirt in the same approximate location where Kathryn’s was.

 

“Good timing,” the younger woman said. “Seven of Nine came by to get Max for dinner. Now Max can just contact her over the con and we won’t have to worry about her showing up on deck three unannounced.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Kathryn said and picked up her fork. “She told me she was having dinner with Captain Clayton.”

 

A strange look came over the other woman’s face and for a moment Kathryn was sure she was going to say something. Then she seemed to change her mind and said instead, “So, you were going to tell me about velocity. What is that?”

 

Janeway filled Alex in on the rules of the game and how it was played. She even let slip the fact that she was the best player on the ship but that Seven had almost managed to beat her for the first time earlier in the evening. “I don’t know how to explain it exactly. She was just a little more tactile than usual.”

 

“Maybe she just got tired of losing,” Alex suggested.

 

“Maybe,” Kathryn agreed then smiled a little mischievously. “But it didn’t work.”

 

Alex grinned back at her and then asked, “When are the crews starting work?”

 

“Tomorrow, but I still haven’t had the chance to speak with B’Elanna about moving Seven’s alcove. I’ll have to try and catch her right after the staff meeting tomorrow morning.”

 

“Then that means that you were able to get the ship repaired from whoever it was that attacked?”

 

Kathryn nodded. “The damage was pretty minor. Believe me, Voyager has been through a lot worse than that.”

 

“Did you find out who they are?”

 

“From the limited scans we’ve been able to get, their ships look like a conglomeration of technologies. Undoubtedly, it’s technology that’s been stolen from other cultures. But their weapons are impressive, and their shields are virtually impenetrable. Really, they seem to be just a bunch of pirates.”

 

Both women had finished their meals and sat back to enjoy the wine. After a little while Kathryn noticed both of their glasses were almost empty and reached for the bottle that sat in the ice bucket. Alex’s fingers met hers as they closed around the neck of the bottle, and Kathryn realized they’d had the same idea at the same time.

 

The contact of their fingers was a catalyst. Somehow the wine glasses were on the table and Alex was leaning slowly toward her. Her eyes slipped closed as their lips touched tentatively at first. Then Alex’s tongue touched her lips and Kathryn felt passion overwhelm her. She reached up to grasp the blonde head and pulled Alex to her almost harshly, kissing her avidly.

 

Her eyes opened during the kiss and she could see the wisps of blonde hair from the corners of her eyes. Alex’s eyes were closed, but Kathryn knew they were cornflower blue. The only thing missing was the shape of a metallic eyebrow and a starburst implant on a cheek.

 

Kathryn closed her eyes against the image of Seven of Nine and tried to concentrate on Alex, on what was happening now. But the kiss became something different than it had been. Her lips gentled as she kissed the woman in her eye’s mind. Her senses sharpened as her pulse rate soared and her respiration increased.

 

No, she thought. It can’t be Seven.

 

Kathryn sucked in a frustrated breath and surged closer to Alex trying to force the former drone from her mind. She straddled Alex’s lap and buried her fingers in the long blonde hair, kissed her deeply and tried to force herself to feel passion for this woman. But she finally had to admit that the feeling just wasn’t there.

 

Finally she pulled away to look at Alex with something akin to disappointment. Alex slowly opened her eyes when Kathryn moved away, and the captain could see the confusion in her passion-filled gaze.

 

“What…what is it?” Alex gasped huskily.

 

Kathryn pressed her fingers against her bruised lips, not really seeing the other woman. “I’m sorry. I thought I wanted this.”

 

She climbed off of Alex and backed away. The look of confusion warring with anger on the other woman’s face just made her feel even worse, like she’d led Alex on somehow. But she was honest enough to admit that she had. Not intentionally, but the result was the same.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said again, and knew it wasn’t enough.

 

Alex dragged a hand through her hair, obviously trying to shift gears. “It’s Seven, isn’t it?”

 

Kathryn flinched at the accusation, but wasn’t quite prepared to admit it. Just because Seven had come to mind while she was kissing someone else didn’t mean anything. She was just amazed that Alex had picked up on something even close to what she was feeling.

 

“Seven?” she temporized. “What are you talking about? There is nothing between Seven and I.”

 

“No, but you’d like there to be, wouldn’t you?” Alex flared and stood up. Her fury was evident from the tension in her body and her closed face. “I should have known by the way you’re always talking about her, and from the way Seven looked at me when she came by my quarters earlier. If you were involved with someone else, why did you feel the need to drag me into it?”

 

Kathryn was sorry she’d hurt Alex and knew that was where the anger was coming from. The other woman had made it very clear that she was interested in Janeway, and Kathryn had allowed herself to respond. Alex’s reaction was perfectly normal, but there was really no need to get personal. And it was starting to make her angry.

 

With a cold tone that Kathryn knew made anyone hearing it feel like they were two centimeters tall she said, “For the last time, there is nothing between me and my Astrometrics officer. And I did not drag you into anything. In fact it seems to me that you were pretty willing to go along.”

 

“Fine,” Alex finally said, obviously struggling to bring her temper under control. “I’m sorry I accused you of something underhanded. If you say there is nothing between you, then there is nothing between you.”

 

Alex picked up the other com badge from the table and started walking toward the door. She stopped just before the sensor that would open the automatic portal and said, “Look, I can’t force you to return my feelings, and I would never try. But as your friend I do want you to be happy. Even if that happiness is with someone else.”

 

Kathryn opened her mouth to interrupt and repeat that she didn’t share a relationship with a member of her crew, but Alex stopped her by holding up her hand.

 

“I’m not trying to force you to recognize your true feelings, so you don’t need to argue with me. But, Kathryn, it’s pretty obvious that you feel something for someone, even if I’m wrong and it’s not Seven. All I am saying is that you deserve to be happy. Don’t spend years ignoring something that could be wonderful by being the captain. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a very cold shower.”

 

A second later Alex was gone, and Kathryn was left with unexpended anger tightening her chest. She wanted to tear something apart, or ram her head repeatedly into the nearest bulkhead to relieve her frustration.

 

How dare Alex accuse of her of being involved with Seven of Nine? Kathryn would never take advantage of Seven’s innocence; Seven wasn’t ready for that kind of thing. She’d barely been liberated from the collective for one year. She was a child before she’d been assimilated and she was just not ready for something so intimate.

 

Kathryn would never force her feelings on someone so naïve.

 

Impotent with fury she picked up Alex’s wine glass and flung it across the room where it shattered against the wall. The sound did little to ease her anger, but she did suddenly feel childish for the outburst. She would never have tolerated such behavior from a crewman.

 

For a moment she stood with her hands on her hips and then realized how she must look. She was wearing an evening gown, her lips were bruised from being kissed, her hair was mused, and she was madder than hell.

 

She growled to herself at the unfairness of the universe and then threw up her hands in defeat. Kathryn tore the gown over her head but carried it to the recycler to be cleaned. She dumped the garment in while she kicked off her shoes.

 

Alex had mentioned a cold shower and she thought that was a very good idea. At least she could wash the other woman’s perfume off her body, even if she couldn’t wash away this simmering fury.

 

Kathryn had walked halfway across her bedroom when suddenly the ship rocked and red alert sounded. As soon as she felt the jolt she reached into her closet and was pulling on a fresh uniform before her com badge chirped.

 

“Captain Janeway to the bridge. We’re under attack.”

                           **********

Captain Kathryn Janeway was still fairly seething with anger when she stepped off the turbolift a few minutes later. She could feel sparks fairly shooting from her eyes and the bridge crew instantly knew she was furious, trying to crouch over their workstations and fight the attackers.

 

The bridge crew seemed to overflow with crewmen since several junior officers were appointed there during an emergency. They would automatically fill in if one of the senior officers was incapacitated or reassigned. Janeway allowed herself a measure of comfort she gained from a well-trained crew.

 

Kathryn had changed back into uniform quickly after the red alert had sounded, but the short ride in the turbolift had done little to calm her fury. On top of being accused of molesting Seven, someone was attacking her ship again.

 

“They are coming around for another pass,” Lieutenant Commander Tuvok reported from his tactical station as Janeway stepped off the lift.

 

The ship was rocked as another burst of red energy from the alien vessel impacted with the hull, and Kathryn had to grab hold of the upper railing to keep from being knocked on her butt.

 

“Return fire!” she ordered and watched in satisfaction as phaser fire from Voyager’s weapons array struck the alien ship on the view screen.

 

“Minor damage to their outer hull, Captain,” Harry Kim reported. “But they’re not backing down. I’m showing two more ships converging on our location. They’ll be here in two minutes.”

 

“Mr. Tuvok, full spread of torpedoes. Mr. Paris, as soon as those torpedoes detonate jump to warp eight,” Kathryn ordered. They might have a chance against one ship, but not against three.

 

Both men acknowledged their orders and a second later Janeway ordered Tuvok to fire. The torpedoes detonated and caused a shockwave that briefly got the better of the inertial dampeners. The bridge crew staggered for a second, regained their footing, and then Tom engaged the warp engines.

 

For a few blessed seconds it looked like the plan would work. The alien vessels were left behind as Voyager streaked to warp eight, and Tuvok reported that the alien ship had been disabled. Then a major explosion ripped through the aft engineering station throwing sparks into the air, and a shudder ripped through the belly of the ship.

 

Voyager was thrown abruptly out of warp and most of the crew ended up tumbling helplessly around the deck, Janeway included. The lights flickered and main power went off-line. All was dark for a few moments before emergency power illuminated the bridge with a weak yellow glow.

 

Kathryn tried not to groan, and staggered to her feet before she stumbled over to her chair.

 

Well, that got rid of my temper fit, she thought dryly.

 

“Report,” she tried to order briskly, but it came out more like a squeak.

 

Her first officer knew better than to comment on that or the fact that she was cradling her left hand. Either that or he was more concerned with the blood flowing into his eyes from a gash on his forehead.

 

“Secondary power grid was hit again,” Chakotay began briefing her as she sat down in her chair. He tapped buttons quickly on his console to find the information she wanted and she knew it was preliminary. The localized departments hadn’t had the time to make a report yet.

 

“Shields are holding at sixty-five percent capacity, and warp drive is off-line. Somehow those aliens were able to penetrate our shields just as we went to warp. They beamed an explosive device into engineering and managed to transport more of our supplies out of the cargo bays, and a few other locations throughout the ship.  It looks like we still have thrusters.”

 

“Casualties?” she asked and tried to ignore the pain in her swelling wrist.

 

Chakotay tapped a few more buttons and said, “Sickbay is being filled with injured crewmen, several of them critically. I don’t know about any fatalities yet.”

 

“Get hold of engineering,” Kathryn said a heartbeat later. “Tell her to concentrate on the power grid. Without it we’ll never get the shields working properly, and I don’t think we can withstand another surprise attack.”

 

The first officer nodded in understanding, wisely keeping his mouth shut as the captain continued barking orders in a surer tone.

 

“Tom, get down to sickbay. No doubt the doctor can use your expertise and I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Harry, divert power from non-essential systems to the shields. Have you figured out a way to detect these aliens before they fire on us?”

 

Peripherally she watched Ensign Baytart slide into the helmsman’s empty chair. The young man was a fair pilot, and usually filled in on the alpha shift on the few occasions when Paris was assigned elsewhere.

 

“Uh, no ma’am,” Harry answered afraid of getting his head chewed off. “But I’m working on it.”

 

“Well, work harder.”

 

“I believe I have discovered why we have not been able to detect them, Captain,” Tuvok said calmly. “During the last attack Ensign Kim was able to make a partial scan of the ship.”

 

Old news, Janeway thought. How do you think we know they’re pirates? “Tell me something I don’t know.”

 

“I believe their ships are equipped with some type of phase compensator. They are able to take their vessels slightly out of our space/time. In so doing they are already within firing and transport range before we are able to detect them. It would take several hours of modifications to the deflector array before we could compensate.”

 

“Don’t tell me what we can’t do, Tuvok,” Janeway ordered. “It’s your first priority. Mister Kim can help you.”

 

“Aye, Captain.”

 

Standing with a short jerky motion Kathryn tugged at the hem of her tunic and shot Chakotay a glare. She was thinking about Alex’s accusation, and her anger still burned slightly within her. She couldn’t be right.

 

“I’ll be in my ready room.”

 

Because Janeway was already standing and had lifted one foot to exit the bridge she was thrown off balance when a pirate ship materialized right on top of them and opened fire. Sparks flew from Chakotay’s panel signing his fingers as he pulled away from the overload.

 

Kathryn landed hard on the deck plating feeling the bones in her left hand crunch as she tried to stop her fall. Now the sprain was a break.

 

“Evasive maneuvers,” she shouted and climbed back into her chair with difficulty.

 

She heard Baytart respond from the helm where he’d taken over the empty post as she ordered Tuvok to open fire with phasers.

 

“Phasers are off-line,” the Vulcan responded.

 

Then the familiar sickly beam of the alien transporter penetrated the hull of the bridge.

 

“What about torpedo launchers? Can you fire those?” she asked, blinking against the harsh glare.

 

“Yes,”

 

“Do it!”

 

A torpedo flew into the side of the pirate ship and a small explosion showed on the viewport. It was enough for the other ship to break off its attack and phase out of sight.

 

“Damage report!” Janeway ordered.

 

Kim answered,” That last volley took out weapons, sensors, and long-range communications. The secondary power grid has been destroyed and will have to be rebuilt. Shields are non-existent. There are multiple hull breaches on decks four through fifteen.”

 

“They also got the rest of our supplies from cargo bay two and the aerponics bay,” Chakotay said taking over the briefing.

 

“Tell the crew to go to emergency rations, and get that grid up. We have to have shields,” Kathryn said starting to feel the pain of her broken wrist. “Baytart, see if you can find us a place to hide so we can make repairs. A class nine nebula would be nice.”

 

Chakotay waited until she was finished giving orders and then reached up to tap his com badge. She didn’t understand what he was doing until he said, “Bridge to sickbay.”

 

Once the doctor responded the first officer said, “Doctor, when you have a minute we need some assistance on the bridge. The Captain has a broken wrist and a lot of other crewmen have been banged up a little.”

 

“I’ll be there right away, Commander,” the medical hologram’s voice assured him over the comm.

 

Harry Kim swallowed audibly from his station and Kathryn turned to him curiously. With all the damage they’d suffered, how could it be any worse? But she knew it must be since he was visibly bracing himself before he looked at her.

 

“There’s more, Captain. Two members of the crew are unaccounted for. They must have been taken by that last transporter beam.”

 

Kathryn met the young man’s sober gaze and knew who one of those crewmembers were before he told her.

 

“Seven of Nine and Captain Clayton.”

 

*******

Three days after the attack Voyager sat deeply in the crater of behemoth asteroid while the crew desperately made repairs. Most of the systems had been repaired, and the secondary power grid was almost ready to come on-line. Sensors had been down since the last attack and they hadn’t been able to scan for their missing crewmembers. But at least they were safe for the time being cradled within the asteroid. It was composed of polytrilic compounds and was resistant to conventional scanners.

 

Kathryn sat in her ready room and silently contemplated what a mess everything had turned into in the space of an hour. It had only taken an hour to go from dinner with a beautiful woman to the attack by a pirate ship that left Voyager cowering like a whipped dog inside a mountainous rock.

 

Three days ago Major Alex Turko had accused her of having romantic feelings for her friend and crewmember, Seven of Nine. Kathryn had adamantly denied the accusation, even grown furious for the audacity of the young woman’s charge. Now she sat here wishing she had acknowledged then what had become so painfully obvious over the last three agonizing days.

 

She did have feeling for Seven, strong ones. And since she’d been forced to be completely honest with herself, they were more than those of a captain for her crewman.

 

She’d broken the cardinal rule of a Starfleet Captain and fallen in love with her Astrometrics officer. The thing that irked her most was that Alex had been able to spot the attraction and she was a virtual stranger on board the starship. How much more obvious had her feelings been to a crew that had become like family? Had every one else known how she felt except her?

 

Now it may very well be too late to do anything about that. Seven of Nine and Captain Maxine Clayton, a displaced astronaut from the 21st century, had been kidnapped by a group of pirates, and the warp trail of that attacking ship had long since dissipated.

 

Commander Tuvok and Ensign Kim had been able to determine that the two women had been transported from a turbolift after finishing a meal on deck two. The ship had been under attack at the time, and Kathryn could only surmise that Seven had been on her way to her post while the captain was returning to her quarters.

 

Where were they? Were they hurt? Seven must be exhausted by now, and Kathryn knew that she needed the Borg regeneration alcove to continue to live. How long could she survive without it? A week? Two?

 

Kathryn knew she needed to pull herself together. A staff meeting had been called for an hour from now so they could go over their options, and she still hadn’t read the padd.

 

She looked down at the data padd she had been in possession of for the last few days and still hesitated to open it. Tuvok had found it on the turbolift after Seven and Max had disappeared. It was sealed with a Borg encryption code, but would respond to the captain’s command codes as well. The guilt she felt for not protecting Seven better had prevented her from opening it before now.

 

It was irrational, but Kathryn felt she had let the woman down because the pirates had transported them off the ship so easily. It was only after she was gone that Kathryn realized how much she had meant to her. Now she felt the deep, aching void in the pit of her soul that she knew would eat at her a little more every day until she rescued her.

 

And what of Max? She was completely out of her element in this century. Even with the survival training Alex told her they had gone through, she thought the captain was out of her league with these pirates.

 

Finally she looked down at the padd she’d been tapping against the desk.

 

It’s probably just an astrological survey anyway, she thought. She ignored the little voice that asked why it had a privacy seal on it then.

 

She punched in her command codes and the padd obediently relinquished its information. For a second Kathryn didn’t realize what she held, and then a sad smile touched her lips. So Seven had listened to some of her suggestions it seemed.

 

She had progressed enough along the road to individuality that she had felt a need to verbalize some of her more private thoughts. Captivated, Kathryn read the opening lines of the padd.

 

Since my arrival on board Voyager, both Captain Janeway and the doctor have encouraged me to express my individuality through various art forms. The captain has suggested sculpting as a form of expression while the doctor leans more toward verbal expression through singing. While I have tried both and find them moderately entertaining, I have found an alternative means of expressing my individuality. My research has been inconclusive concerning my accomplishment with this genre and I can only conclude that perfection, in this instance, is subjective. Nevertheless, I shall try. The venue I have chosen to pursue is in written form and follows herein.

 

But this writing is not merely a form of entertainment for me. It is an expression of my deepest desires that I must recognize may never be fulfilled.

 

A story began from there, Kathryn was able to surmise by the title, and began to read with ever increasing surprise.

 

                                                                               The Encounter

 

We are both exhausted on this planet but there is no time to rest. We have been here for two weeks and the business of survival is a tiring one without the 24th century amenities we have grown accustomed to.

 

There is an attraction between us, one we have both attempted to ignore during this trying time. Unfortunately, we somehow keep ending up alone, which makes it that much harder to ignore the ache in my stomach when I see her looking at me.

 

But we do ignore it. We have to because it would be inappropriate if the others interrupted the captain in the arms of a would-be lover. Yet, I cannot help wonder why we are always alone. The other three seem to look for excuses to go into the woods together. Is something going on between the three of them? Do I care? It gives me time to be alone with the captain.

 

Once again we are alone. The others are out looking for nutritional supplements and firewood. Somehow we have run out although only yesterday I believed our surplus was sufficient. They have been gone for hours and the sun is starting to set. The temperature on this planet plummets at night. It is so cold that we huddle against each other shivering.

 

Finally she concedes defeat and suggests we lie down and share a thermal blanket. Eagerly I comply. I know that nothing untoward will happen; the others could be back any moment. But I cannot resist the temptation of lying close against her body beneath the intimacy of a blanket.

 

Once beneath the covering she wraps her arm around my shoulders and encourages me to cuddle against her. The captain knows that I am beyond exhaustion since I have been unable to regenerate for the last two weeks. Attempting the human form of sleep has been fairly unsuccessful and I grow weaker with each passing day.

 

The commanding officer in her seeks to encourage rest for the welfare of a valuable crewmember. But I feel the acceleration of her heartbeat beneath my cheek, and the tightness of her chest as she attempts to slow her respirations. The woman who is so strenuously resisting the attraction between us cannot ignore her body’s response to being so close.

 

Her arms tempt me, the scent of her skin beguiles me and I am lost. Weariness crumbles my resolve to wait until she is ready. Raising my face slightly I rub my cheek against a soft breast. Breath bursts from her lungs at the rush of arousal even as she shifts slightly from beneath me. The movement is a half-hearted request to stop, but is not discouraging. Quite the opposite since I know she wants me to continue.

 

Encouraged, I massage the soft mound of flesh gently with my face, planting small kisses there. I feel the nub of a nipple as it hardens beneath the turtleneck and her underclothes. I open my mouth to take her breast into my mouth.

 

“Wait,” she breathes. “You’ll get my shirt wet.”

 

Not a rejection!

 

Slowly I begin touching her stomach, caressing the body I have desired for so long. I feel the muscles in her abdomen contract as she grunts in pleasure. Whispering in her ear, I state my intentions.

 

“I am going to unfasten your trousers so that I may un-tuck your shirt.”

 

The words were stated so that I would not frighten her, but I am surprised at the opposite reaction they elicit.

 

“Yes,” she moans swallowing hard.

 

Her blue eyes are closed tightly and sweat beads her upper lip, but she does not attempt to assist me.

 

Still kissing her quivering form I move to the other breast unsurprised to discover that the other nipple is rock hard. My hand moves slowly to the waistband of her trousers, unfastening them quickly once I’ve reached my destination.

 

All pretense is gone as I unfasten the front clasp and push aside the offending fabric. Then my mouth is full of sweet, soft, pliant flesh as she cradles my head closer to her breast.

 

“Yes,” she groans. “Harder…”

 

My head is filled with the scent of this fully aroused human female and I suddenly realize our positions have shifted slightly. I am lying on top of her. Her legs have risen slightly and cradle me between them. Strong arms encircle me as slender hands hold the back of my head encouraging me closer. Moving to the other breast I take the mound into my mouth sucking hard as she seems to like. Then, because I cannot resist, I turn my head to chew on the delicate tip.

 

Her response is immediate. Now she grabs my head and pulls me up away from her tender flesh. At first I think I have somehow harmed her, but then her lips smash into mine and her mouth opens to consume me. Her hips undulate beneath me in an instinctive search for release from this burning passion.

 

“Touch me,” she says tearing her lips from mine and taking the shell of my ear into her mouth. “Please, before I explode!”

 

There is no hesitation as I slip my fingers beneath her waistband. I have fantasized about touching this beautiful woman for too long. I will not be denied the sensation of her release by the untimely arrival of our companions.

 

I find her more than ready, her arousal bathing my fingers and the palm of my hand with the first touch. Savoring the feel of desire-slick flesh I slowly explore her crease and feel her tremble as my thumb brushes the hardened cluster of nerves at the top. Then I am sliding my middle finger deeply into her as her hips push back impaling her more fully.

 

“Seven,” she breathes, pushing closer against me, holding me tightly.

 

Her body begins a rhythmic push-pull and I counter the motion with my questing hand. Then because it feels right I add a second digit. Her respiration bursts into my ear as she groans and moves more frantically.

 

“Kathryn,” I groan, my own arousal almost unendurable.

 

I know she is almost at her peak and I push into her harder still. Her body tenses and she groans deep in her throat as her orgasm rushes over her. All too quickly it is over and she slumps against the hard ground exhausted. Her sweet lips are parted as she pants for breath and her heartbeat begins to slow.

 

Feeling tenderness I have never known before I brush back the hair from her dampened forehead. In this moment of peace, before she can gather the remnants of the shield she keeps in place, I must tell her the truth.

 

I nuzzle her cheek and plant a soft kiss there. Then I whisper to her, “I love you, Kathryn Janeway.”

 

                                                                    End of Story

 

She has always been there for me, and she is larger than life. She is captain to this crew, a guiding light in a sea of darkness and indecision. She holds life and death in the palm of her hand. But more than all of these things she has been my friend. I do not worship her in the traditional sense, yet I do cherish her. But the one thing I can never do is tell her how much I love her. I say the words and while they sound incredible they are true. Yes, a Borg drone can feel love.

 

Kathryn blinked slowly, and felt the burn of arousal from reading the romantic fantasy. Because that’s what it was. Seven had learned to fantasize, and she dreamed about making love to Kathryn Janeway. Not only that, but she was proud of Seven for finding her own means of expression, even if she were the one to benefit from that voice.

 

She read the story again before all of the implications finally hit her. She feels this way for me? She has wanted me for so long? She thinks I’m beautiful?

 

Captain Kathryn Janeway wanted to stand up and shout to the world that Seven of Nine loved her. That of all the people that would give their right arm for this gift, Seven loved her.

 

Then she remembered that Seven was no longer on Voyager. She couldn’t just go down to the cargo bay and tell her what a beautiful story she had written. She couldn’t tell her that Seven didn’t have to worry that her feelings would never be returned, because they were. And in that instant, with yearning in her heart, she realized what was staring her right in the face. It was something that a former Borg drone with less than a year of individuality under her belt had more courage to admit than a Federation human being that had been dealing with emotions all her life.

 

“I love you too, Seven of Nine,” she said into the cold emptiness of her ready room.

 

“Conference room to Captain Janeway,” Chakotay’s voice came over the com system. “All present and accounted for, Captain.”

 

“On my way,” Kathryn said. She stood up and keyed the padd closed before she resealed it with her command codes.

 

This was between herself and Seven of Nine. After she got the other woman back, she would tell her how very proud she was of her. Kathryn would make sure Seven knew how much she was loved in return, and hopefully not be angry with her for reading the story without permission.

 

She grimaced realizing that Seven didn’t always react as expected and hoped she wouldn’t see Kathryn reading her story as an invasion of privacy. After all, how else would Janeway have known that her feelings were returned?

 

A steely look came over her face as Kathryn walked toward the conference room. It was time to get her people back.

                                                                Chapter 5

 

 Seven of Nine, late of the Borg Collective and now the Astrometrics officer for the Federation Starship Voyager, opened her eyes and immediately closed them again. Intense pain throbbed at her sinus cavities and along the base of her skull. It caused her eyes to water briefly, but the ache in her temples was like a gong between going off inside her head.

 

Was this a headache? She had never felt such an awful sensation before and suddenly understood her crewmates’ aversion to getting one. It was now her firm belief that she knew what the term a ‘splitting headache’ actually meant since she currently felt that the clanging in her head threatened to permanently deafen her.

 

Fortunately her nanoprobes kicked in and within a few minutes the pain began to recede. With her eyes still closed she reached up to touch her communicator in the hope that she could contact Voyager, but she discovered it was gone.

 

She opened her eyes again, and waited for the room to cease to spin before she was finally able to sit up.

 

The room where she was held was circular and appeared to be made of some type of stone. A window was cut into one of the granite-like walls, but it was a small window and positioned very high. Seven approximated the height of the window to be at over seven meters. Even with her Borg-enhanced reflexes and strength she could not jump that high.

 

If somehow she did manage to reach the portal it would make no difference. The window was too small for her to climb out of. It was barely large enough to allow some weak light to filter into the dark cell.

 

The ground shook slightly, causing the cell’s door to rattle a bit in the frame. At first she thought she might be imagining the sensation and that it was another side effect of being drugged by the pirates, but then she realized it was a small quake. It passed quickly and she looked around the room.

 

A groan sounded from behind her and Seven looked over her shoulder to identify the source of the noise. Captain Maxine Clayton, a time-displaced astronaut from the 22nd century, lay against a wall with her knees drawn up to her chest and had both hands clasped to the sides of her head. Seven knew the captain must be experiencing a headache like the one she had suffered, but the other woman had no nanoprobes to help her recover.

 

Seven stood up and a brief wave of dizziness hit her. It caused her to stumble a little on her high-heeled boots but then it was gone.

 

“Captain Clayton,” she said and squatted down next to the other woman. “Are you functioning properly?”

 

“Do I bloody look like I’m functioning properly?” Max asked loudly and then hissed in pain.

 

Her words seemed to cause the headache to pound even worse and for a second her skin went an odd shade of green. Seven had once seen a crewman that was suffering from space sickness. His skin had also been green and he had expelled a great deal of biological matter from his mouth. The doctor had told her that the action was called ‘vomiting’. She wondered if Captain Clayton would vomit now, and felt slightly revolted at the possibility.

 

To her immense relief the captain resisted the urge and sat up somewhat gingerly.

 

“What happened?” Max asked. “The last thing I remember is being in a turbolift and then some kind of …yellow light swept through it.”

 

“That was a transportation beam. Someone took us from Voyager. My memories are also incomplete, but I do recall rematerializing in front of a group of aliens for a moment.”

 

“That’s right,” Max said as she remembered a little more. “But, I don’t think they meant to get us. The look of surprise on their faces was too authentic for it to be an act.”

 

Seven nodded. “I concur. It is more likely they are part of the same group that attacked previously and transported supplies away from Voyager. Their scanners no doubt detected my implants and they sought to obtain more Borg technology.”

 

“Yeah, that’s probably it. Do you know what happened next, how we got here? All I remember is they didn’t even try to talk to us, and they didn’t hang around for very long.”

 

“I believe they deployed a neural anesthetic,” Seven supplied as she remembered her earlier symptoms and how she had awakened on the damp, stone floor.

 

“They gassed us,” Max said and growled in anger.

 

The sound reminded Seven of Lieutenant Torres and for a moment she wondered if the captain might have some Klingon blood in her before she dismissed the idea. Earthlings hadn’t even known about Klingons during Captain Clayton’s time.

 

“So what now?” Max asked. “Any ideas how to get out of this dungeon?”

 

“Dungeon?”

 

Seven was unfamiliar with the word even though she had the accumulated knowledge of thousands of species to draw on. Undoubtedly it was a reference the collective had deemed irrelevant and discarded.

 

“It’s a word used to describe a place like this,” Max said with no hint of impatience in her voice. “They’re usually identified as a dark, underground prison cell, and are generally made of brick or some other kind of stone.”

 

“Then this is indeed a dungeon,” Seven agreed as she looked around the depressing structure. “The only points of entry that I have discerned are a window that is too high to reach and a heavily barred door that is no doubt guarded from outside.”

 

“Is it locked?”

 

“Is what locked?”

 

“The door,” Max supplied. “Is it locked, and are you sure it’s being guarded from outside?”

 

“I do not know, to both of your queries. I can be sure of nothing since I only regained consciousness a few moments before you. However, based on available data it is unlikely they would simply allow us to walk away.”

 

“I guess so,” Max said with the first hint of sharpness in her voice. “But do you have to be so pessimistic about it?”

 

The anger in the woman’s voice made Seven stop to analyze the captain’s behavior. She quickly understood that Captain Clayton was still feeling the effects of the gas the bandits had used on them, and she was feeling helpless. Seven had observed that most strong-willed individuals did not react well to feeling helpless.

 

“Pessimism is irrelevant,” Seven finally said. “We will escape.”

 

Max’s anger seemed to dissipate quickly. She smiled a little and said, “All right, do you have a plan?”

 

“Not yet. At present our options are limited. We have no weapons, nor any way to contact Voyager since our combadges have been removed.”

 

Max considered the situation and said, “Well, they have to feed us sometime. When they come in we can try to overpower the guards.”

 

“That is a dangerous plan. No doubt they will be armed. I suggest we wait to observe their patterns. If we appear incapable or unwilling to challenge them, they may become careless.”

 

“It’s probably just as well,” Max admitted. “My head still feels like it’s going to explode and I’m still not sure if I’m going to puke all over you.”

 

“That would be inadvisable,” Seven warned her. “If you puke all over me, I would have no choice but to render you unconscious. I do not believe that would improve your headache.”

 

Max stared at her for a second before she laughed out loud. “And B’Elanna says you don’t have a sense of humor.”

 

“She does not like me,” Seven admitted and thought since the captain didn’t know her very well she would miss the slight sadness in her voice that she hadn’t meant to convey.

 

Max reached out and touched her hand softly. “That’s her loss.”

 

Captain Clayton had grasped Seven’s left hand and didn’t appear to notice that her thumb was unconsciously stroking the Borg mesh. It pleased Seven that she didn’t shrink in fear from her implants and reminded her again of Captain Janeway.

 

Captain Janeway also accepted Seven for who she was and didn’t try to avoid her implants. Janeway was compassionate and tactile; both were traits she appreciated in the older woman. It seemed Captain Clayton shared these traits and she knew this was an individual that she would like to consider a friend.

 

A brief memory stirred of earlier on the turbolift before the pirates had taken them. Seven had held a padd at the time and a quick look around informed her that it wasn’t here. The padd contained a romantic narrative that she had worked on while she waited for Captain Clayton in the mess hall. She had hoped to present the completed story to Captain Janeway some day in the unforeseen future.

 

If that padd had been discovered on Voyager there were only a few people that would be able to open the sealed document. Commander Tuvok was one of those people, and although she preferred that no one else but the captain read it, she knew she could count on his discretion.

 

It would take Harry Kim and B’Elanna Torres working in tandem to break the Borg encryption code she had placed on the device. It was unlikely they would be concerned about such a project since they were no doubt occupied with ship repairs.

 

The only other person that would be able read the data was Captain Janeway. Seven had set the padd to respond to her command codes in the event that she would one day have the courage to let her captain read it. The thought that Captain Janeway might read it made Seven feel…warm. At least then she would know how Seven felt about her in the event that she did not survive their current predicament.

 

Without weapons or a way to contact the ship their chances were not good.

 

“A penny for your thoughts?” Max asked gently.

 

“Captain?”

 

The brunette grinned and Seven thought she might be feeling better.

 

“It’s Max, and what I mean is, what are you thinking about?”

 

“Captain Janeway,” Seven answered honestly, but before she could elaborate a loud noise came from outside the door.

 

********

 

Max was disgruntled to see that Seven was right. The guards were armed. Two thin, waif-like humanoids leveled energy rifles at the women while a third sat a food tray on the floor. None of them looked away from their captives for a second and it was clear they were considered a threat.

 

Not much wonder, Max thought.

 

Although they towered over Seven of Nine their thin gray skin gave them a fragile appearance. The only thing they seemed to have in their favor were their weapons.

                                                                                                      

Small tentacles hung from the sides of their mouths and waved around obscenely as one of them spoke. “Do not try to escape or you will be eliminated.”

 

The alien spoke in a thick, gravelly voice that Max had trouble understanding. She stood up on legs that felt like jelly and used the wall for support.

 

“What are you going to do with us?” she asked.

 

For a moment the gray bandit just looked at her and Max wasn’t sure he would answer. Then he said, “We have no use for you. We will sell you for supplies, but first the metal shall be removed from that one.”

 

He pointed at Seven and Max gasped at the mental picture he had just painted. She was no xenobiologist but if Seven’s implants hadn’t been removed before now, then she couldn’t live without them.

 

That supposition was supported when Seven said, “That would not be advisable. If my implants are removed they will go off-line. They and I would no longer be functional.”

 

Max was amazed by her composure. Seven’s comment was made very calmly and she had quirked an eyebrow at her captors. Obviously she wondered at their mental capacity since they hadn’t figured this basic thing out on their own. Clayton prevented the grin that wanted to curl her lips with difficulty. She didn’t think it would help their situation any if these aliens thought they were being laughed at.

 

Again there was a brief pause while the pirates appeared to decipher what she said. Suddenly it occurred to Max that without their combadges they shouldn’t be able to communicate at all. How was this possible?

 

Finally the alien responded. “The strange metal will be removed. Your death is not important, but the metal has tiny machines that can be manipulated.”

 

“Manipulated for what purpose?” Seven asked curiously, seemingly unaffected by the announcement of her pending demise.

 

“That does not concern you.”

 

The pirate was clearly through with them and the three started to back out of the room, still not looking away.

 

“Wait,” Max said. She had more questions she wanted answers to, but the aliens ignored her and slammed the door.

 

The same sound of scraping metal was heard and Max understood that a heavy bar had been slid into place to lock the door.

 

“Well, that was fun,” Max said flippantly. Then she staggered a little as she crossed the room. “Shall we see what’s for dinner?”

 

Before she could take a step the ground lurched beneath her, and she was thrown off balance slightly. The shaking stopped a few moments later and she looked at Seven.

 

“I believe this planet is seismically active,” Seven reported. “However, the seismic disturbances do not appear to be severe.”

 

Max nodded and stepped toward the food again. From the way her stomach rumbled she figured they had been unconscious for quite some time. She sat down on the cold floor and picked up the tray.

 

“Guess we’re supposed to share,” she said and looked at the alien cuisine. “On second thought, you can have it.”

 

The food resembled a lump of thick paste along with two hunks of what she thought might be the pirate’s version of bread. Two small cups of water completed the meal.

Seven looked over her shoulder and her expression was definitely one of mild disgust.

 

She picked up one of the cups of water and said, “I will not require supplements for another twenty-two hours.”

 

Max’s face tightened while she searched for flaws in the Borg’s comment. She wasn’t about to eat this nasty stuff by herself.

 

“You know Seven, this is a survival situation. You should eat when the opportunity presents itself.”

 

The look Seven shot her let her know she was are of being manipulated. But she couldn’t argue with the logic. Seven reached down and took one of the chunks of ‘bread’.

 

“This shall be sufficient for my nutritional needs.”

 

“Great,” Max said sarcastically. “Thanks for leaving me the rest.”

 

“You are welcome.”

 

Max signed and scooped up some of the gruel on the bread. She shoved it in her mouth and shuddered.

 

“Oh my God,” she said as she fought the urge to spit the mouthful across the room. She chewed and swallowed quickly. “This is worse than Neelix’s cooking.”

 

But she forced herself to eat it all. If they did get out of this hole she would need every ounce of nutrients she could ingest. She tried to think of something to distract her from the offensive meal, but all she could think of was the aliens.

 

“Any idea who these guys are?”

 

Seven nodded. “The N’hydrin, species 10106. They were partially assimilated by the Borg, but were deemed unremarkable in all areas except linguistics.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The N’hydrin are unable to bond into large communities. They lack the necessary skills or knowledge to form a society, and tend to form small cells that raid passing ships for necessary supplies. They are however, gifted with languages. That includes the language of mathematics, and binary code.”

 

“Well, that explains how they can communicate with us without universal translators,” Max commented.

 

“Yes, as well as how they are able to utilize my implants once removed from my body.”

 

The remark about Seven’s body was enough to quiet Max for the moment. She concentrated on finishing the last bitter mouthful, and then chugged down the water. At least water was water, she decided.

 

Seven interrupted her thoughts a few moments later by saying, “I believe that I have a plan.”

 

********

“We still need to go outside and make some repairs to the hull,” Chakotay, Voyager’s first officer, said in the staff meeting. “The rest of the repairs are coming along and we should have the secondary power grid back on-line in two hours.”

 

B’Elanna interjected, “Since the rest of the crew is busy I was wondering if the engineering team could use Major Turko to help move some equipment around outside while we finish those structural repairs.”

 

Janeway thought about the suggestion for a second. Alex was used to space walking and was unlikely to be asked to assist with anything she couldn’t handle. The asteroid didn’t boast an atmosphere so environmental suits were necessary. “What do you think Major?”

 

The younger woman had been invited to attend the staff meeting as an olive branch of sorts by Captain Janeway. The two had embarked on a very short personal encounter where Janeway had known after the first kiss that her heart belonged to someone else. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate that less than ten minutes after she made that discovery that the object of her love had been taken by the pirates that had plagued her ship.

 

Alex had also been invited because her friend and fellow astronaut, Max Clayton, had been kidnapped as well. She deserved to know what was happening.

 

“Sure,” Alex said. “I’m glad to help out.”

 

B’Elanna’s request concluded ship’s business. Kim had already told them that operations were back to full capacity and Tuvok had weapons back on-line. Once outer hull repairs and the last of the internal matters were completed they would back track to the scene of the latest attack.

 

Kathryn didn’t have much of a plan beyond tracking down one of the ships they had disabled and questioning the marauders. If they were lucky, they might find a resonance signature and be able to directly track the kidnap vessel itself.

 

It was bad enough that all of their supplies had been taken and the crew was on emergency rations, but going after their missing crew took priority on restocking their food reserves.

 

“Fine,” Janeway said. “I think I’ll give you a hand too, Lieutenant.”

 

She didn’t have to help the chief engineer’s team, and she didn’t want B’Elanna to think she was looking over her shoulder, but she needed something to keep her from going crazy. Seven was gone and Kathryn was terrified for both her and Max. She didn’t know how long it would take to find them, but from reading Seven’s padd she knew the woman could survive for a little over two weeks without regenerating.

 

A sour look crossed B’Elanna’s face and it looked like she thought that was exactly what Janeway was doing. But a moment later it passed and she said, “I was thinking of going out the shuttle bay exit to make the rest of the repairs. The exit is large enough to haul any equipment through we might need, and there’s an environmental suit locker close by.”

 

“Good idea,” Janeway complimented. “Will fifteen minutes be enough time to get your team together?”

 

“Yes, Captain.”

 

Janeway dismissed everyone but stopped Alex with a softly spoken word. It had been three days since their abortive attempt at dinner and she wanted to know if Alex held a grudge. Although it would bother her on a personal level if she did, Janeway’s need to find out was more professionally motivated. She just wasn’t quite sure how to bring it up.

 

“How are you holding up?” she finally asked.

 

“I’m all right,” Alex responded in a tight voice.

 

The response was clipped, and Janeway heaved an internal sigh.

 

“Alex, I’m sorry about what happened between us, but as captain I need to know that I can count on you.”

 

Alex stood up, and looked at Kathryn quietly before she said in a softer voice, “You’re right. You do.”

 

She turned away and said; “You know when you turned me down the other day I was really hurt and angry. I tried to tell myself it was because I felt you’d led me on. After Max and Seven were taken I realized I was wrong. I was upset because my pride was hurt.”

 

She turned back around and gave Kathryn a small, sad smile.

 

“What prompted this realization?” Kathryn asked curiously.

 

Instead of answering the question directly Alex said, “Max is my best friend. We were on Mars for a long time, just the two of us. I thought we were so close because of our shared experiences. I didn’t understand how I really felt until she was taken. I guess it’s true what they say. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

 

Kathryn understood exactly what Alex was saying. Until someone else had pointed out her own feelings, she hadn’t understood the depth of passion she had for Seven of Nine. Now it might be too late.

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

“Help you get them back.”

 

“And then?”

 

“Be a friend. I’m not under any delusions, Kathryn. I know Max doesn’t return my feelings, but it’ll be enough to have her safe.”

 

The computer beeped an open com-channel that interrupted their talk.

 

“Torres to Janeway. We’re ready down here, Captain.”

 

“On my way,” she said softly and closed the channel.

 

“Let’s go get them back,” she told Alex. “We’ll worry about missed opportunities later.”

 

Kathryn led Alex to the turbolift. The younger woman waited until the doors were closed and Janeway had directed the lift to deck ten before she started speaking again.

 

“What about you and Seven? Have you given any more thought to what I said?”

 

Janeway was tempted to not answer, but she had started this discussion and Alex had been very honest with her, even to the point of admitting some very unsettling feelings. How could she do any less?

 

“Constantly,” she answered. Then she said, “Seven has always been very special to me. From the time I saw her on a Borg cube I was fascinated by her. Later, as she started to regain her humanity I found that I wanted to spend every minute with her. I told myself that it was because we were becoming such good friends. I could be myself with her, not just the captain.”

 

“And now?”

 

“And now,” Janeway said dryly, “You’ve made me look at things in a different light. I’m just not sure Seven is ready for her captain to come on to her.”

 

Even though Janeway had read the story Seven had written she was not sure if the younger woman was prepared for the reality of a romantic relationship, although she had the concept down perfectly!

 

Kathryn felt heat start in her neck and prevented her face from flushing by an effort of will as she remembered the shear passion of the narrative.

 

“She cares for you, too,” Alex assured her misunderstanding Kathryn’s remark. “You don’t see the way her eyes light up when she sees you or the look she gave me before we had dinner. But one of you is going to have to make the first move. I doubt if Seven has any idea how to do that.”

 

“So it would have to be me.”

 

The doors opened and Janeway walked into the shuttle bay, happy to leave the conversation in the lift. She hadn’t quite dealt with the reality of getting involved with Seven even though she had admitted to her feelings. There was still the problem of interacting personally with a member of her crew, and how overall ship’s functions would be affected by such a relationship.

 

A small group already stood near the shuttle exit. Janeway looked past the forcefield into the blackness of space, and the surface of the asteroid. They were deep in a crater and sheer rock walls rose enormously all around the intrepid class ship.

 

Kathryn saw Tom Paris in the group and guess he had been drafted to help out. Since he didn’t have anything to do at the helm at present, she didn’t have a problem with that. He tended to get into trouble when he had too much free time on his hands.

 

Alex looked at the clunky boots and the square box on the front of the suits with a strange expression on her face.

 

“Something wrong, Major?” Janeway asked.

 

“You want me to wear that? I’ve worn space suits before, but that thing will make me look like the Great Gazoo!”

 

Paris snorted and fell against the bulkhead consumed with laughter. Even B’Elanna had a grin on her face and Kathryn definitely felt left out somehow. But Tom’s mirth was contagious and Kathryn couldn’t help smiling.

 

“I don’t understand what that is,” she admitted.

 

“It’s a cartoon, Captain,” B’Elanna told her. “You’d have to see it to understand.”

 

The small team finished getting dressed to step outside. Alex grumbled some under her breath when she put on her helmet while Tom snickered from time to time.

 

Kathryn was glad to see the amusement in her people and allowed it as an improvement on morale. She showed Alex how to magnetize her boots, and the woman said something about now feeling like Frankenstein’s monster.

 

Finally ready, Kathryn waited for Torres to depressurize the shuttle bay. The air had to be gone from the room before the forcefield could be deactivated or they would be blown into space by the explosive decompression.

 

The forcefield went down and the necessary equipment picked up. Then they stepped out onto the surface of the asteroid to finish the last repairs to Janeway’s precious ship so they could finally go after the equally precious missing members of their family.

                                                                        ******

 

Seven’s plan was simple, but silence was the key to success. Her Borg enhanced senses allowed her to deduce that only one guard had been left outside the heavy stone door. It appeared that with the bar across the entryway, they were no longer considered as much of a danger. Through the small window set inside the door she could see the guard where he leaned negligently against the wall and stared at nothing.

 

His rifle dangled uselessly in a one-handed grip, and he didn’t hear when Seven moved over beside the door. Her eidetic memory negated the need to keep an eye on the bandit since she knew where he stood and her hearing would allow her to know if he moved from the spot.

 

She stood at approximately the same position from the man on the inside of the cell. Then she quickly reached through the window and around the corner to grab him by the collar with her left hand. A startled gasp was the only sound he made before she yanked him away from the wall, and then slammed him back against the unyielding stone.

 

The fragile alien’s head impacted with the wall and he slumped quietly to the ground. No alarms had been raised and no one else came to assist their fallen comrade. Which meant, Seven decided, that no one else was present at the moment.

 

“Brilliant,” Max complimented dryly. “Now what, Sherlock. The door is still locked.”

 

Seven’s arm was still stuck through the small window and she turned her head to raise an eyebrow at Max.

 

“It will not be locked for long.”

 

Seven grasped the metal bar with her Borg enhanced left hand and pulled it back through the slot in the wall, releasing the door with the same loud noise they had heard previously.

 

The former drone didn’t flinch, but she did hesitate slightly to see if the sound alerted anyone who might be nearby. When no one responded, she let out a silent breath and pushed the door open. It swung open quietly, and Seven took a moment to peer down two separate hallways. Then she turned to look at Max.

 

“Are you coming?”

 

Max grinned and said in a low voice, “Lead the way.”

 

Seven decided on the hallway to the right rather than the one that led straight away from the cell. Since she could see daylight from the window set high on the dungeon wall, the right hand tunnel had the greatest chance of leading to an exit. They already knew they had been moved from a ship and taken to a cell on a planet. The high window had no glass or forcefield, which meant that the atmosphere was breathable. All they had to do was get outside and be able to elude the aliens until Voyager found them. At least she hoped it would be that easy, but there was no need to share defeatist thoughts with the captain.

 

She realized that Clayton had stopped and turned to see why. The other woman had bent over to take the alien’s energy rifle, and was patting at his garments quickly. When she saw Seven’s confused frown she said, “It was worth a look to see if he had our communicators.”

 

A moment later Max finished and the two women walked quietly down the hall, keeping a sharp lookout for unwelcome company. No one disturbed them, and soon Seven was pleased to see another large, stone door at the end of the corridor. The weak daylight coming through the small window assured her that they had succeeded in finding a way out. This door was not locked, but it took her a second to assess how to open it.

 

Then they were outside.

 

Two suns shone overhead, one of which was about to set and while the other followed lazily behind. The terrain was extremely rocky, and where the ground was bare there was nothing but sand. It appeared to be a desert-like planet, and it was much hotter out here than it had been inside the stone cell.

 

Heat prickled her skin, and Seven felt a burst of nanoprobes release to compensate. Unfortunately Clayton didn’t have that luxury and a light sheen of sweat glistened on her face, and beaded her upper lip.

 

Seven heard a shout from inside the structure and shared a quick look with Clayton.

 

“Guess they found our friend,” Max said. “Run,”

 

The stone stronghold sat in the center of a small valley. Around every side sheer rock elevated into the darkening night. Seven chose a direction at random and began to climb as quickly as possible. Her high-heeled boots made her ascent more difficult as she slipped and skidded over boulders as small as a pea and others as large as a shuttlecraft.

 

Captain Clayton’s boots were thick and treaded, which made it easier for her to maneuver over the rocky terrain. She stopped when she began to pull ahead of Seven and looked back toward the alien compound.  Clayton’s eyes widened and she ducked down quickly beside Seven, encouraging the former drone with her own actions to stay low. Max reached around Seven’s waist to help her scramble up the uneven slope while she slung the strap of the rifle over her shoulder.

 

The few minutes head start was the only thing that kept the N’hydrin from immediately seizing them.

 

“Stay down,” Max said in a soft voice, but pulled on Seven’s torso to keep her moving.

 

Seven used her hands on the ground in front of her to climb. She allowed Max to help her, but was abashed that she needed any assistance. Her Borg enhanced strength and reflexes should have allowed her to make the ascent with ease. It was only her footwear that caused her difficulty, and in the current situation it could mean life or death.

 

They crested the hill, and followed a slight decline before the ground began to steadily slope upward again.

 

“How close are they?” Seven asked.

 

“We’re lucky they went straight out of the building, about thirty degrees west of us. But I don’t think it will take them long before they search this whole area. They looked like they can climb pretty fast. A lot faster than us, at any rate.”

 

“Yes,” Seven agreed. “Their light frames and large lower appendages make them particularly well suited for climbing.”

 

Max nodded. “Well, I suggest we find somewhere to hole up until they give up the search.”

 

“Unlikely. The N’hydrin do not give up easily.”

 

Her memories from the collective gave Seven a unique insight into the mind of this species. The N’hydrin may be physically weak, but they were extremely resilient mentally and did not give up a potential resource without significant resistance.

 

Their situation was dire, but if they could avoid the bandits long enough she knew Captain Janeway would find a way to rescue them.

 

Seven noticed she had unconsciously adjusted her visual acuity to compensate for decreased lighting. She looked up and saw that the first sun had disappeared behind the horizon, and the second was following quickly. A weak moon had climbed into the night sky. It was small, but the moon was full and would give them some light to navigate by until they could find concealment.

 

As the night deepened Captain Clayton slowed. She still tried to help Seven, but had started having trouble seeing in the dark. Eventually Max let go and Seven was free to move on her own.

 

They moved steadily, although slowly away from where they had been held. The moon rose high, and the ground finally leveled off. Here and there buttresses of rock loomed and created deep, hulking shadows before they dropped away again.

 

If the pirates did catch up to them, they might be able to use the shadows to elude them. The ground shook slightly, and presented the alternate possibility of rockslides versus potential hiding places. Truly the ledges of stone could be either a boon or a curse.

 

Seven noticed that Captain Clayton had begun to pant with exertion. They had been climbing for over two hours and it wasn’t surprising that she had started to experience fatigue. Seven noticed that her own leg muscles had started to quiver slightly, no doubt due to the added strain of her footwear.

 

“We should find somewhere to shield us from the N’hydrin so that we may rest.”

 

Max simply nodded and sweat dripped off her nose. The small drop landed on a rock and Seven could clearly see it evaporate in the heat. Even with the sun down, the temperature had cooled only slightly. A closer observation revealed that Captain Clayton’s shirt clung damply to her slender frame, and her hair was matted with sweat. They would be in severe danger of dehydration if they didn’t find a water source before long.

 

“There,” Max croaked and pointed at another outcrop of rock.

 

The ledge was small, not more than a meter high but it would provide temporary concealment. Seven nodded her agreement and led the way up a sharp rise toward the rock shelf.

 

Another seismic tremor hit and both women stumbled slightly. Small rocks tumbled and bounced, but the tremor steadily grew worse than the previous ones Seven had experienced. Larger stones started to shift, but still the shaking increased.  Eventually boulders began move, and tumble down the incline.

 

Seven and Max couldn’t get out of the way, nor could they avoid the beginnings of a rockslide. Seven lost track of Max as rock and shale hailed down over them. She lost her balance when a boulder the size of a replicator struck her in the side and knocked her off her feet. When she landed on her side debris washed over her and she slid a few meters, skinning her hands and face, until her right let snagged in the uneven terrain.

 

But the quake didn’t stop and the rocks bounced down the slope to hit her with unfailing accuracy. A particularly large boulder rumbled down the incline. Seven saw it coming toward her, but with her foot caught in the stone snare she couldn’t avoid it. She flung her arms up as she instinctively protected her head, and tried to curl into a smaller target. The boulder bounced into the air and smashed onto her trapped extremity.

 

The unfamiliar and excruciating sensation of snapping bone elicited a short, strangled cry from the former Borg. All of the breath left her body in a rush and her fingernails dug into the unyielding flint, threatening to splinter under the force. All she could do was try to breathe past the agony as the bones shifted in her leg because of the ground that continued to move.

 

Eventually, the shaking began to diminish until only the smaller pebbles bounced around. Then the ground stilled, and left the women battered but mercifully still alive.

 

Seven sat up carefully and blinked away the moisture that leaked into her human eye. She noticed Captain Clayton pick herself up through the cloud of rock dust as she raised a hand to her forehead. Her hand came away stained with crimson. It was only a small cut, and Seven ignored it in favor of the pain in her leg. A moment later Captain Clayton knelt beside her.

 

The brunette’s jacket was ripped and she had a few scratches, but she seemed relatively unscathed.

 

“Seven!” Max said. “Are you all right?”

 

She didn’t seem to expect an answer as she started to move rocks off Seven’s body. That was good, Seven decided, because she wasn’t sure why she was having trouble speaking. When Clayton got to the larger boulder she stopped and looked carefully at Seven’s face.

 

“It’s broken, isn’t it?”

 

Seven looked at her in astonishment. She was not aware of any psychic abilities the captain possessed. “How did you know that the appendage was fractured?”

 

“Because you have this stunned look on your face like you just stuck a fork in a toaster,” Max said dryly.

 

*********

Max tried to move the rock without hurting Seven anymore than absolutely necessary. It was harder than it sounded because the size of the stone. She ended up having to put her shoulder against it, and dig in with her feet as she heaved it off of the other woman. Seven gasped in pain and for a moment Max thought she would pass out.

 

Somehow she remained conscious, but her face was tight and pale in her anguish.

 

“What the hell would possess you to wear shoes like this anyway?” Max complained when she’d dug the other woman free. “They don’t seem like you. They’re not very practical.”

 

“The doctor designed them. After I was severed from the collective I required a suit that would help regulate my Borg systems. He designed my clothing and stimulated my hair follicles.”

 

Well, that was news. Stimulated her hair?

 

“You mean you were bald?”

 

“Yes. The Borg consider hair to be inefficient.”

 

Max frowned. “These shoes are not efficient. Of course there’s no way to be sure, but if you didn’t have these heels making it so hard on you, you might not have gotten trapped to begin with. Maybe you should consider designing your own?”

 

“Indeed,” Seven responded.

 

Max sat back to think about what to do next. She would have to stash Seven somewhere while she found a safe place for them to hide. Since she could hardly drag the drone around in search of such a place, there was really no other choice. How she wished Voyager would suddenly show up and whisk them to safety. Speaking of Voyager…

 

“How long have we been gone from the ship?” Max asked clearly thinking Seven should have some sort of concrete answer.

 

“I do not know.”

 

“What? Why not?”

 

Seven frowned. “Captain, how would I know exactly how long we have been removed from the ship?”

 

Max shrugged. “Don’t you have some sort of internal chronometer or something?”

 

“Where would I keep such a device?” Seven asked with a slightly raised eyebrow and a hint of a smile on her full lips. “I am not an android.”

 

“Right. Sorry,” Max blushed. “It just seems that you’re always so…punctual.”

 

“It is not difficult to be prompt on board Voyager and while carrying out ship’s routines. However, I have also been recently incapacitated and am unaware how much time has passed.”

 

“Well, we know we were out for three to four hours when we woke up earlier because I was hungry again, and we’d just had lunch on Voyager before we were kidnapped.”

 

“I was unaware that there was a time when you were not hungry,” Seven added helpfully.

 

Max stared at her then she burst out laughing.

 

“Was that a joke?”

 

Seven was smiling a little, although she still undoubtedly experienced a great deal of pain. Max just figured she was trying to ignore it as best she could since there was little they could do about it at the moment.

 

“It seemed appropriate,” Seven admitted a little shyly.

 

The smile stayed on Max’s face, but she was a little distracted. She blew back a lock of dank hair from her eyes. “I would guess it’s been at least six or seven hours since we were kidnapped. In any case, we have to find somewhere to hide. We’re sitting ducks here, and you’re hardly in any shape to fight back. But I can’t carry you. Any ideas?”

 

“I believe I saw an entrance to an underground formation approximately one half kilometer back toward the alien structure.”

 

“You mean a cave? Yeah, I saw it too. But don’t get your hopes up. With all this rock, it might just be an open space not big enough to get your head in.”

 

Max thought they were fortunate not to have been found by now, and looked around quickly to make sure they were still alone. She felt pressure against the inside of her thigh and looked back down at her companion.

 

When Max had stopped shifting rock and squatted down next to Seven she had placed her foot on the ground behind the other woman. Max had her other knee on the ground and Seven basically sat between her legs. Her arm was around Seven’s shoulders in a gesture of comfort, and Max noted with pleasure that Seven seemed comfortable with her. The former drone was leaning back against the inside of her thigh, and there was absolutely nothing sexual in the interaction.

 

But it was unusual for the other woman to show any signs of weakness. Her injury must have taken a lot out of her after expending so much energy in their climb. Max could tell this planet was very desert-like, but didn’t know if that meant the temperature would drop sharply during the night. It was a possibility, and it was imperative that they get under cover and out of sight.

 

She made her decision.

 

“I’m going to help you get to that outcrop. Since none of those rocks shifted during the quake I think you’ll be safe enough under there. Hopefully the N’hydrin won’t see you if they come along while I’m gone. Just try to be quiet and still if you see anyone until you’re sure it’s me.”

 

Seven nodded and they began the excruciating task of moving her to the rock ledge. Max tore the hem off the bottom of her shirt and wiped the blood from Seven’s forehead. Then she grasped the other woman under the arms from behind and pulled her toward the temporary shelter. There were no sticks or undergrowth of any kind to make a splint with so Seven’s leg shifted frequently on the uneven ground, and caused her to gasp and wince in pain.

 

Seven pushed with her other leg and tried to ignore the sharp stabs of splintered bone that dug into nerve endings while the captain moved her. By the time they reached the ledge, both of them were panting.

 

Max blotted at the perspiration on her forehead with a forearm, and rested for a few seconds. She was starting to feel exposed, and felt a need to hurry. “I don’t like leaving you here, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. It shouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to find the entrance. It’ll take a few more minutes to make sure it’s safe, and then I’ll be back. No more than thirty minutes,” she promised.

 

Seven nodded. “I understand.”

 

Before Max left she walked back down the incline to where she had stood before the earthquake and picked up the N’hydrin rifle. She carried it back up to where Seven sat under the outcrop and handed her the weapon.

 

“I’m no expert in these kinds of things. Do you think it will still work?”

 

Seven looked the rifle over and noticed the various dings and scratches from the rockslide, but the energy cell and rifle casing appeared to be intact.

 

“Yes, I believe that it will.”

 

Max said, “Good. I want you to keep it in case these pirates show up while I’m gone.”

 

She stopped Seven before she could protest by saying, “You’re injured, and you can’t run or hope to fight them hand to hand. At least I can run away. Please, keep the rifle.”

 

Seven nodded in acceptance and Max looked at her wordlessly for another moment before she walked away.

 

They had walked for over two hours before Seven’s accident, and night had settled in completely by this time. But the artificial lights of the alien compound in the distance kept Max on track as she walked back toward what she hoped was a cave entrance. She made good time, but when she reached the area where she thought she would find the cavity it was a great deal harder to locate than she thought it would be.

 

Max stumbled around in the moonlight before she finally found the entrance. If there had been any undergrowth she never would have found it, but the white of the rock helped to outline the large opening underneath.

 

All she could think about was hiding until Janeway found them. Alex must be beside herself with worry, and Max just wanted to get back to them safely. She knew it would be a great deal harder now with Seven injured. She would have to find a way to splint that leg, and locate some food and water. In addition, if this cave proved to be viable they would have to have materials for a fire. That would be a miracle in itself since she hadn’t seen anything they could burn.

 

On her hands a knees Max stuck her head into the hole. It was a very small opening and she had trouble squeezing her shoulders into it. But it did seem to be at least a tunnel of some kind on a slight downward slope. She crawled on her belly with stone pressing in on every side for what seemed hours but could only have been a couple of minutes. Just as she started to get claustrophobic and considered giving it up as a lost cause, the tunnel opened up a little more.

 

She could get up on her hands and knees now and moved a little faster. To her immense satisfaction the tunnel did lead to a cave. She should have known that Seven’s implants gave the woman a better sense of what she saw than the normal humanoid.

 

The chamber wasn’t large by any means, but by stumbling around in the dark she was able to ascertain that it would be large enough for two desperate women. In addition other natural gaps in the rocks allowed some weak moonlight to seep into the cavern and it wasn’t completely pitch black. Now that her eyes had begun to adjust to the gloom she could see that the floor was made of sand instead of stone. It was fairly even, and over near the far wall was a small pile of something she couldn’t quite make out.

 

Max froze thinking that she had stumbled into an animal den. She kept very still, but the lump didn’t move and she finally walked carefully toward it. The smell of decay from the mound was very faint, and she realized it was the carcass of some animal that had wandered down here. Since the odor wasn’t overpowering she could only guess that it had been here for quite some time.

 

She nudged it with the toe of her boot and saw the white flash of bone. An idea formed in her mind and she ignored her disgust as she knelt to prod at the remains. From what she could tell, the animal had been something closely related to a dog although very large. The bones had been stripped clean of flesh over time, and two of them would make a pretty good, if slightly repugnant, splint.

 

Too much time had passed since she’d left Seven alone, but she was pleased with her findings. She grabbed hold of the rest of the dry remains with her free hand and started back out of the tunnel. Even though the smell wasn’t so bad there was no reason to leave the carcass in the hollow and it would make a good marker for when she got back with Seven. She could leave it at the mouth of the tunnel, and not have to worry about searching for the entrance again.

 

When she got back to the entrance of the tunnel Max spent a few precious minutes trying to widen the opening enough for Seven to get through comfortably. Then she positioned the animal remains and took off up the slope with two bones in her hand. After being in the underground chamber the moonlit night seemed like day.

 

Max had to avoid two separate patrols in the half-kilometer back to her companion, but finally she recognized the overhang where she’d left the other woman. There was no sound to indicate she’d been heard and she started to worry.

 

“Seven,” she said in a loud whisper. “Are you there?”

 

A brief pause and then, “Yes, Captain. I am here.”

 

Max jogged the last few feet toward Seven and dropped down beside her in the shadows. “Would you please call me Max?”

 

“Very well, Max.” Seven agreed and then seemed to notice what the other woman was holding. “What is that?”

 

If there was a hint of disgust in her voice Max decided that maybe it was called for.

 

“Don’t get squeamish on me, but I found some animal bones that I thought would make a pretty good splint.”

 

Max didn’t wait for a reply as she tore another strip from the bottom of her shirt and reached for Seven’s injured leg.

 

“If you keep tearing your garment you will be left with no outer covering at all,” Seven pointed out.

 

Max flashed a grin. “Thanks for noticing, but I still have my jacket. Now this is going to hurt, but I have to try to straighten your leg.”

 

“It already hurts. I cannot imagine it being any worse.”

 

As slowly as she could Max straightened the leg, wincing when she felt the shifting bones. Then she placed the animal bones on each side of the leg and tied it in three places with strips of cloth.

 

“It’s crude,” she admitted, “but it’ll have to do until we get you back to Voyager. Did you have any trouble while I was gone?”

 

“No,” Seven answered. “I heard voices on several occasions, but they did not come near my location.”

 

“That’s fortunate.” Max said and positioned herself near the blonde’s shoulders. “Now hand me the rifle, and we’ll get going.”

 

“Then it was a cave?”

 

“Yeah,” Max nodded. “It’s a pretty tight squeeze to get inside the tunnel, but it opens up to a good sized hidey hole.”

 

Seven didn’t comment on her diction and Max started to help her up when she changed her mind.

 

“Before we go any further hand me your shoe.”

 

“Why?” Seven asked confused.

 

Max took the shoe and knocked the heel off before handing it back to her with a rock. “Because we are not going to have a repeat performance of break the Borg’s leg.”

 

“Efficient,”

 

Then Max helped her to stand with Seven’s arm around her shoulders and Max’s arms around the other woman’s waist. It took a lot longer than Max’s previous trip, and Seven was fairly unconscious on her feet before they had traveled the half-kilometer. But she thought it could have been a lot worse. There could have been N’hydrin waiting for them.

 

Seven rested for a few minutes before she tried to crawl down the cave entrance. It was very painful and Max heard her gasp several times as she dragged her damaged leg behind her. Max followed the other woman and soon they came out into the hollow. Seven was just able to make it and pulled herself to one side of the entrance to allow Max to enter behind her. That was as far as her tortured body would allow her to go.

 

Max squatted down beside Seven and took off her jacket. She laid it gently over the other woman and then reached up to rest a hand on her forehead. Seven felt like she had started to run a slight fever, and that made Max frown in concern. Her nanoprobes should have kicked in to prevent any kind of infection, but she knew they had been working overtime for most of the night. It could be that they were severely depleted. She just didn’t know enough about Borg physiology to come up with any first aid ideas. All she could think of was to try and keep her warm and find some water.

 

The jacket should help prevent a chill, but Max would have to leave her again to find water. There was only one place nearby that could offer what she needed and she didn’t look forward to going back to the alien compound.

 

“Try to sleep,” she told Seven. “It’ll help you get some of your strength back.”

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“I have to find us some water and hopefully something for a fire. We need to keep you warm.”

 

Seven sat up and indicated the rifle Max had slung over her shoulder. “A blast from the energy rifle will heat up the galacite in the rocks. They cannot be used for cooking as there is no flame produced, but it will provide heat and light.”

 

Grinning Max asked, “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

 

She looked around for a few good-sized stones and piled them together a few feet away from Seven. Then she aimed the rifle at the rocks and fired. A ruby light shot out from the end of the weapon and caused the stones to glow red-hot. Best of all there was no smoke so they wouldn’t have to worry about asphyxiation. It wasn’t very pretty, and in no way reminded her of campfires back home, but it was better than nothing.

 

She encouraged Seven to sleep again, and tried to leave the rifle behind, but this time Seven stopped her.

 

“I do not need it now. I am concealed and I have warmth. The N’hydrin will not think to look underground, and you will be safer entering their structure if you are armed.”

 

“How’d you know that was where I was going?”

 

Max hadn’t shared her plan with the other woman because she didn’t want her to worry. Now she guessed it should have been apparent since there weren’t exactly another other signs of civilization near here.

 

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll take the rifle, and I’ll be back before you know it. Maybe I can even find some food. What would you like for breakfast?”

 

She was only teasing but she tried to convey a bright outlook for them now that they had found a place to wait for Voyager. To her pleasure Seven responded, “I like blueberry pancakes.”

 

“Really?” Max asked touched by the child-like qualities Seven displayed in the most unexpected times. “Well, then I’ll see what I can do.”

 

She turned and headed back out of the tunnel for what she hoped was the last time this night. Things were looking up, barring Seven’s injury, and she had started to think everything would turn out all right after all. Her elbows, knees, and hands were abraded and raw from climbing back and forth over the rocks, but she decided that if that was all she had to worry about, then she really had nothing to worry about.

 

Moonlight showed at the mouth of the tunnel and she was about to emerge when a pair of booted feet suddenly stopped right in front of her. Max froze and held her breath while she listened to the hiss and clicks of an alien language she couldn’t understand, praying that they wouldn’t think to look under what could surely be just another rock ledge.

*********

 

Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager sat in a corner of the dark, smoky tavern as they waited to meet their contact. Only three others made up the rest of the away team, Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok, and Alex Turko. Each of them had special abilities, and was heavily armed with disruptor rifles, and type three hand phasers.

 

Their uniforms would have drawn too much unwanted attention so they had changed into more appropriate attire. Since this was a barren, desert type world they wore lightweight but sturdy trousers with reinforced knees, sleeveless tank tops, and long-sleeved jackets with zippered fronts. They wore their uniform boots since they worked well for all types of terrain, but Kathryn had opted for a shorter heeled version for these harsh conditions. Their com-badges were hidden under their jackets in case they had to try to contact the ship.

 

Weapons seemed to be the order of the day on this world that she had learned was controlled by a species known as the N’hydrin. It made it easier on her away team that they could openly carry weapons. She had a feeling they would need them.

 

The N’hydrin seemed to be a very nomadic people, incapable of forming a working society, but very talented with languages. Unfortunately they were also the type to take advantage of anyone they could raid or manipulate.

 

Voyager had learned about this planet once repairs had been finished and they had backtracked to the scene of the previous attack. All of the smaller pirate ships had left the scene but sensors had picked up a recent ion trail. It hadn’t taken long to find the damaged vessel. It was limping along at warp two, headed for a place to sit down for repairs. With the looming silver form of Voyager hanging over them it hadn’t been hard to convince the pirates to cooperate.

 

Kathryn was aware of time flying by, and worry for her missing people increased with every minute. It had been two days since Voyager had been disabled, and Seven and Max Clayton kidnapped. She glanced over at Alex and almost smiled. When she’d planned this mission to come to onto the pirate’s home world she hadn’t expected to be inviting Turko. Then she’d discovered that Alex had been trained in advanced survival tactics. Even though it was far in the future for her, survival techniques changed very little. The fact that Alex had adamantly refused to let them go without her was beside the point.

 

K’plath, pilot of the N’hydrin raider they’d cornered had directed them to this planet. He had denied any knowledge of the kidnapping, insisting that he only stole food and medical supplies to keep his family from starving. He informed Janeway that many times raiders would band together temporarily to form a triad. By attacking all at once they were able to breech the defenses of more powerful vessels. Then they would energize their transport beams simultaneously, take what they wanted, and leave the assaulted ships drifting or damaged.

 

Scans of the small raider revealed that their missing crewmembers were not on board, and in exchange for their freedom K’plath had led them to this planet. He said that many of the more profitable N’hydrin had hidden structures where they concealed their acquired wealth.

 

But Janeway was no fool.

 

K’plath had no choice but to take them to his home world and act as their go-between for the duration of the mission. Meanwhile his crew was being held in a cargo bay aboard Voyager under heavy guard, and Tuvok had transferred all of their stolen supplies back to the Federation Ship. Kathryn had disappointed that they’d only gotten back a third of what had been stolen on the last attack.

 

Voyager maintained a discrete distance from the planet, using a moon as a shield between them and any space faring vehicles. While Chakotay had protested heavily that the captain shouldn’t go on this mission, Janeway had over ruled him. There was just no way she could stay safe and secure on board the ship knowing that members of her crew were alone on the surface and possibly injured.

 

Now Kathryn and her crew sat in the smoky bar waiting for K’plath to return. They had heard rumors of a daring bandit who had stolen a machine woman during an attack on a formidable opponent. They hadn’t learned what had happened to this supposed machine woman, and K’plath had gone to see if he could learn anything more.

 

Janeway picked up a cup of thick, sweat mead and stopped before she actually took a sip. She was nervous, and more than aware of how outnumbered they were if K’plath decided to reveal their identities.

 

“He’s here,” Alex said softly.

 

Kathryn looked up, almost surprised that he had bothered to return. She supposed he was more concerned about getting his vessel back than ratting them out to a bunch of other pirates.

 

K’plath slipped into an empty seat between B’Elanna and Kathryn.

 

“Well?” Torres prompted showing her teeth.

 

The pirate shivered a little in fear of the Klingon woman and said, “They say a pirate called Tamar extracted the metals from the alien’s flesh. Then he threw her body over the Cliffs of Goereth. I heard nothing of another female.”

 

Kathryn’s blood ran cold. Was Seven really dead? Where was Max? If someone really had killed Seven why had no one seen the body? Things weren’t quite adding up. If this person really had taken Seven he would have taken Max too, and why would he brag about taking one and not the other?

 

“Did you find out if this pirate has a stronghold?” It was only years of command experience that kept her voice from shaking.

 

K’plath nodded. “His fortress is forty clicks west of here, in the galacite mountain ranges. But he has many guards, and many weapons. He will not hesitate to kill you.”

 

“Kill us, you mean,” Janeway corrected. She refused to have pity on this sniveling coward. Because of him and his cohorts Seven and Max could be dead. Kathryn would not let him go until they had explored every possibility.

 

“Please,” he begged. “I have done what you wanted. I have obtained the necessary information for you. You’re crewmember is dead and there is no reason to expose ourselves to this kind of danger. Let me go.”

 

B’Elanna growled, “If it wasn’t for you and your friends we wouldn’t be here. You’re lucky I don’t gut you where you sit.”

 

“Belay that, Lieutenant,” Janeway said in a level voice. Then to K’plath, “Until or unless I see a body, I refuse to believe that anyone is dead. Lead us to the fortress. If you are very lucky, and my people are in one piece I’ll think about letting you and your crew go. If they are dead as you claim, I will turn you over to the nearest law enforcement affiliation I can find and destroy your ship.”

 

The pirate nodded unhappily, and the five aliens stood up to leave. Kathryn wasn’t unaware of the attention they had drawn. It was rare to see a species other than N’hydrin on this planet, even more so to see four different species congregating together. But she pointedly ignored the curious eyes of other patrons as they left.

 

K’plath’s vessel was capable of atmospheric and space travel. For that reason they had used his ship so that they wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. They would take it to this mountain range, and check out the N’hydrin fortress.

 

Voyager had already tried to scan the planet from orbit, and Kathryn knew that the galacite in the rocks prevented sensors from working properly. They just couldn’t detect any clear life signs. The results were the same on the planet, which left them with having to do things the old fashioned way.

 

********

Max had to wait for the pirates to leave the mouth of the cave, and then she waited another ten minutes just to be sure they had really gone before she finally climbed out of the hole. The air had grown considerably cooler since she and Seven had climbed into their underground burrow, and she shivered slightly in the cool air. The strange calls of alien night creatures sounded all around here, letting her know how truly far from home she really was.

 

The funny thing was that on Voyager Max hadn’t felt so isolated, and knew that had been the result of having humans all around her. With Alex there, she hadn’t felt displaced at all, and had been ready to make a home on board the Starfleet vessel. This upside down journey to the wrong side of the galaxy had left her with a sudden longing that she couldn’t quite pin down. And, she supposed, now was not the time to reflect on the decisions she’d made that had brought her to this place. Right now, she had a friend who was seriously hurt, and depended on her.

 

Max held the alien rifle at the ready and started back toward the fortress. She followed the lights in the distance and before long the actual structure came into view. Artificial lights blazed all around the pirate compound, and she dropped onto her belly at the top of the ledge to absorb the details.

 

While she counted the number of patrols, and guards that walked the perimeter, she took the opportunity to rest. Her stomach rumbled, and she tried to ignore it. She noticed the sound of an engine, and looked over the horizon to see a small transport vessel approach. It sat down on the ground a few meters from the main entrance and then the engines shut down.

 

Probably bringing in more stuff they’ve stolen, she guessed.

 

Night would be the right time to do such a thing since it would help conceal them from prying eyes. All of these aliens seemed to be pirates so they must worry about stealing from each other as well as raiding innocent bystanders.

 

Max watched a group of N’hydrin leave the building and head toward the transport. A few more of the aliens left the small vessel and walked toward the back of the craft. Minutes later they began carrying cargo containers from the back of the vessel toward the structure.

 

The astronaut carefully climbed down the hillside and circled around toward the back of the alien ship. While they were inside she would try to get to the vessel and see if there was any way of following them in. She needed to get food and water for Seven, and would have to take a chance on getting caught. Since she had the rifle, and the element of surprise she considered that she had the advantage.

 

She had just reached the ground by the back of the vessel when she heard the N’hydrin coming back for another load. Max bit off an oath and dove behind a large rock while she waited for them to leave again. A couple of the aliens got into a bit of a shoving match until another one pushed them apart. She couldn’t understand their native language, but they sounded pretty angry.

 

Max couldn’t have cared less for their differences of opinion, but the small disagreement allowed her to look into the back of the ship to assess her chances. At the most, they only had two more trips needed to carry all of the supplies inside, and since she didn’t look like an N’hydrin she would need to think of an alternate plan…fast.

 

The aliens settled their squabble and loaded up again with more supplies. When they left Max crept toward the back of the ship and looked inside for somewhere to hide. Then an idea hit her. If she couldn’t follow the aliens into the fortress, and she didn’t have time to search the containers for what she needed in the cargo hold, she would let the N’hydrin carry her into their supply storage area.

 

She leaned over a large crate and opened the lid. It was full of electrical components and there was no way to empty it so she could crawl in without being obvious. She checked two more crates that were equally full and was moving toward a third when she heard voices.

 

Her heart pounded while she opened the third crate. It was only half full, and without thinking she jumped inside and pulled the lid closed. She barely fit. The lid banged her in the head and she saw stars while the muzzle of the N’hydrin rifle she had been carrying jabbed painfully into her armpit.

 

Max tried not to move or breath too loud because she could hear the pirates booted feet as they entered the hold. Her container was hefted off the ground and she almost cursed aloud when something sharp jabbed painfully into her back.

 

The aliens never looked inside the crate for which Max knew she would be eternally grateful, and could only surmise that this was such a common occurrence that they had no desire to look at the contents. Later, someone would undoubtedly have to inventory the containers, but she doubted that would happen in the dead of night.

 

While she was carried she tried to keep track of where she was being taken. It was a little like being blindfolded, and trying to memorize steps, and turns. But the only steps she could count were those of the N’hydrin. Eventually the crate she was in was deposited, and the aliens withdrew. Again she had to wait, to ensure that they didn’t come back before she climbed out of the crate. The night was late, and it had been a long trying day. Max had been kidnapped, gassed, overexerted, and was hungry. It was all she could do to stay awake while she waited until it was safe to come out. The only thing keeping her awake was all the sharp points pressing into her body.

 

After what she estimated to be about twenty minutes she deemed it safe enough to venture out. The N’hydrin hadn’t come back, and a few minutes before she had heard the engines of the transport vessel as it took off.

 

She eased the lid of the crate back slowly in the gloomy darkness, unsurprised to find the room empty. What she found astonished her.

 

The room was another circular one, and was filled with cargo and supplies of every size and shape imaginable. The N’hydrin had been very organized with the placement of their materials, they had to be or there would have been nowhere to walk. Rows upon rows of cargo filled the chamber from floor to ceiling. A great deal of markings covered the outside of the containers. Most of them were in alien languages she couldn’t hope to understand, but one section of shelves was filled with barrels and receptacles bearing a mark she understood only too well. These were things that had been taken from Voyager.

 

Max was thrilled. She had been uncertain what kind of foodstuffs to take back to Seven that might be compatible with their biology. Now she wouldn’t have to worry about it. Voyager wouldn’t have kept any nutrients their crew couldn’t ingest.

 

Sounds of N’hydrin approached the door and Max dove into the Voyager stockpile. A second later the door opened and two men entered with rifles slung over their shoulders. They didn’t look overly concerned as they walked over and opened a container very near the door.

 

They took out some electrical gear before they closed the crate and exited the room again. Their conversation never stopped, and Max guessed that this room was frequented night and day. With that in mind, she needed to find what she had come for and get out of here quickly.

 

After the door closed Max heaved a sigh of relief and turned around to start searching the equipment containers. Then she found herself face to face with a Borg alcove.

 

She recognized it from a trip to cargo bay two, and remembered Alex saying how concerned the captain had been that they’d lost one. From what she understood this kind of technology in the wrong hands could have devastating repercussions. It also meant that most of the ship’s missing supplies would probably be found here. When Janeway came for them, she would make sure the captain knew of this.

 

Max went to work. With an economy of movement she was able to locate some Starfleet rations, some thermal blankets and even some fuel cells they could use to cook with-assuming she could find something they could cook. Even if she didn’t the rations would be able to sustain them indefinitely. Farther back in the stack of crates she found a large one she thought might be promising. She opened the lid and gasped in pleased surprise. It consisted of survival packs, canteens of water, and several other items she couldn’t fathom.

 

At least she had a pack now to put all of her supplies in. Max didn’t empty the pack of what it already contained, merely shoved the other items she had gathered on top and snapped it closed with difficulty. Something at the bottom caught her eye and she withdrew a silver package with some writing on the label. Her eyes twinkled when she saw what she held. It might not be blueberry pancakes, but maybe Seven would like it.

 

The door opened suddenly and Max froze with her back to it. She hadn’t heard anyone coming and the rifle lay just out of reach. All she could do was stay still and hope she wasn’t seen. A light came on overhead, and she automatically crouched down to make a smaller target.

 

Niphtahalia,” One of the N’hydrin spoke and pointed at various places along the room.

 

Max could just make him out from her vantage point and saw several other bandits move past her and into the room. A couple of large crates were removed from the room, and Max started to wonder if all of this would be moved somewhere else. If that happened she would quickly run out of places to hide.

 

No one saw her and a few minutes later the room went quiet again.

 

You’d think these guys slept sometime, she groused internally. It would certainly have made it easier for her to find her way out of here without being spotted.

 

Max quickly gathered up as much as she could carry in the pack, slipping the final item inside before she strapped it onto her back, ignoring the way the straps chafed. If she still had her jacket on it wouldn’t have been an issue, but she had left it to cover Seven. Then she picked up the rifle and headed for the door. She eased it open and looked both ways down the hall before she stepped out. She must have timed it just right; Max thought as she headed back toward what she hoped would be the exit.

 

There were a few close calls and once she had to hide in a supply closet for a few minutes after getting turned around and almost running smack into an N’hydrin guard, but eventually she managed to get out without being seen. Then she was up the hill and running as fast as she could with her load strapped to her back.

 

When Max finally got back to the tunnel entrance daylight had started to break on the horizon. She loosened the sling from one end of the rifle and tied it to the pack. Then she dragged both of them behind her all the way back down to the cave.

 

Seven of Nine didn’t stir when Max entered the cave, and she frowned in worry. The astronaut left everything where it was and went over to where the other woman lay unmoving on the ground. From what she could see Seven hadn’t moved since Max had left. She squatted down and put a hand on the blonde’s forehead. She was burning up, and her face was even more pale than usual.

 

Sometime while she had been gone the galacite in the rocks had cooled, and the cave was quite cool. Max was distressed that she had been gone so long, and she berated herself even though she knew there was nothing else she could have done. Had she been any less careful the N’hydrin would have captured her and they wouldn’t have the supplies they now did.

 

Max left her side and returned a moment later with a canteen of water from one of the packs, stopping only a moment to fire another rifle burst at the rocks to warm up the dank cave. She slipped behind Seven’s shoulders and raised the woman into a sitting position.

 

“Come on, Seven,” she said softly. “You have to wake up. I need you to drink some water.”

 

Seven’s blue eyes fluttered open, glazed with fever and confusion. “Kathryn?” she asked.

 

“No, sweetie,” Max said her heart fluttering as all her unasked questions were answered by Seven’s confused query. “It’s Max. I need you to drink some water. Can you do that for me?”

 

She smoothed lackluster blonde hair away from the other woman’s face and held the canteen to her lips. Seven took only a few sips of the liquid before she pushed the canteen away. Then she snuggled down against Max’s chest and closed her eyes again. Her actions were those of a normal, fallible human seeking comfort in the warmth of another.

 

Max felt tears sting her eyes as she held the injured woman close to her and said, “Only for a minute. Then I need you to try and eat something.”

 

“You found food?” Seven questioned softly.

 

“Yeah, I’ll tell you about it later.”

 

She held onto the Borg that some people actually had the audacity to think that she was a threat to them, and tried to warm her with her own body while she waited for the cave to heat up to a comfortable level. But she was exhausted, and her body was demanding rest. With all of her chores finished, and nothing to do but survive until they were rescued she started to nod off. When her head fell forward she jerked awake with an effort.

 

They both needed to eat something, and she wanted to cover Seven with one of the thermal blankets before she allowed herself to sleep.

 

Max eased Seven to the ground and tried not to groan at all of the various aches and pains in her body. She was so stiff she could hardly stand, but she grabbed the survival pack and carried it back over to her companion.

 

After digging around for a moment she found the tin of Starfleet rations and pulled them out. Then she encouraged Seven to wake up again and try to eat the dry, flavorless discs of supplements.

 

Max braced Seven with her own body and handed her one of the ration discs.

 

“This is a Starfleet ration,” Seven observed listlessly before she bit into it. “Where did you find it?”

 

Max swallowed and said, “That place we escaped from. It had an entire storage room full of stuff, and a lot of it was from Voyager. Here,”

 

She held a ration disc between her teeth and pulled out a silvery blanket, which she spread over Seven’s reclining form. “I think you’ll be more comfortable now.”

 

Seven smiled her thanks with a slight lift of her lips, and tried to eat some more. She balked at the next disc Max pressed into her hand, but the astronaut was insistent. “You need to eat, and get some strength back. You have a fever, and you need the nutrients to help you fight it off.”

 

“I have never had a fever before,” Seven pointed out disturbed. “My nanoprobes should have prevented such an occurrence.”

 

“Maybe with everything you’ve been through, the alien gas and breaking a leg, it was too much for your body.”

 

“Maybe,” Seven allowed, but didn’t sound like she was convinced. “It is far more likely that my human physiology has reasserted itself to the point that I am now capable of this weakness.”

 

“You don’t sound like you like that idea very much,” Max said with a grin.

 

“I don’t. It is inefficient.”

 

Max just chuckled and made Seven finish her rations. Then she encouraged the other woman to drink more water before she let her lay down. She balled up her jacket and put it under Seven’s head for a pillow. Max took another thermal blanket and lay down beside her to try and rest. She was asleep in seconds.

 

                                                                    Chapter 6

 

Seven awakened a few hours later feeling much better than before. She still felt sluggish from the need to regenerate. Although she could survive in a normal situation for a few weeks without regenerating, these were not normal conditions. Her systems had been severely depleted and her nanoprobes were having a hard time keeping up. First they had compensated for the alien neural gas, then their escape during the difficult climb over rock, and then later after she had broken her leg. Undoubtedly they were still trying to heal her injury, and had been called on again to help fight off this fever Max had mentioned.

 

She looked over and saw the pack that Max had removed the rations from a few hours earlier. To her surprise it was a Starfleet survival pack. Seven wondered if Max had looked inside at the equipment it contained. Somehow she didn’t think so. The other woman had been extremely weary when she’d come back from the N’hydrin base. They had eaten and then Max had fallen asleep.

 

The pack was barely in reach, and Seven grasped one of the straps with her fingertips to pull it over to her. The movement caused her injured leg to shift and she grimaced at the pain that was still sharp, but not as white-hot as it had been.

 

She had tried to be quiet and allow Max to sleep some more, but her movements awakened the brunette. Max sat up with a weary sigh and rubbed a hand over her face.

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Do you know what this is?” Seven asked instead.

 

“A pack?”

 

Seven spared her a glance and wondered if she was trying to be sarcastic. If so, she decided it didn’t work very well for her.

 

“It is a Starfleet survival pack. It contains all of the necessary supplies for a crewmember to survive for one month, except for water.”

 

Max appeared to contemplate the words. “Makes sense. It would be hard to fit six months worth of water into a pack.”

 

Seven lifted the flap and began to remove the items inside. When she found the silver package and read the contents she raised an amused eyebrow toward her companion.

 

“Uh,” Max flushed. “It’s not exactly blueberry pancakes, but I thought you might like it.”

 

Seven thought it was a very considerate gesture. “Thank you. I enjoy strawberry pie as well.”

 

It was a Starfleet ration pack. The contents usually consisted of a variety of meals that would heat when the lid was removed. This one was ration pack number 225. The label announced that it contained chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli and cheese and for dessert, a small slice of strawberry pie.

 

“It is too bad you did not obtain more of these.” Seven noted. “They taste better than emergency rations.”

 

“I was a little pressed for time,” Max grinned.

 

Seven merely returned the look and continued to remove items from the pack. When she reached the bottom she pulled out a medical kit and a small round metal disc. She sat the disc to the side for the moment and opened the medical kit. It contained a dermal regenerator, a hypospray with a broad-spectrum antibiotic and an analgesic, and an osteo regenerator.

 

“Come here,” she said and pulled out one of the objects.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Max sassed, but there was no fire in her tone, merely curiosity.

 

“This is a dermal regenerator. It will repair your damaged tissues.”

 

She ran the device back and forth over Max’s abraded hands and elbows. Then she gave her an injection of the analgesic with the hypospray. A small medical tricorder was also in the kit and she checked the woman over briefly for any unseen injuries. Finally she snapped the lid closed and watched Max flex her fingers.

 

“Well that feels a lot better. Now let me do you.”

 

Max healed the visible injuries on the Borg’s face, neck and hands. She also gave her an analgesic, though Seven didn’t mention that it was unnecessary since her nanoprobes had already repaired any internal injuries sans the broken leg.

 

“I guess that’s as much as I can do for you.” Max said. “I wish I could help you with that leg.”

 

Seven nodded. “There is an osteo regenerator in the med kit that can heal broken bones, but we cannot use it. The bones in my leg would have to be set first or I would be permanently crippled.”

 

“Why can’t I set the bones for you?” Max suggested, squeamish at the idea but willing to try.

 

“You cannot. You do not have the strength necessary to set the bone and with out the proper equipment, there would be no way to ensure that it was set correctly.”

 

“So I guess you still have to rely on me.”

 

The astronaut’s tone seemed to indicate she felt incapable of performing the task of caring for Seven adequately.

 

“Max,” Seven said using her name freely for the first time, “you have saved my life, twice. First you brought me to safety here in this cave, and then you risked your own life to procure supplies. If you had not brought me here the N’hydrin would have found us, and terminated my life by extracting my implants. If you had not risked your life by returning to the compound we would not have food, water or medical supplies.”

 

“Thanks, Seven,” Max said after a minute. “That makes me feel a little better. Now, what is that round thing?”

 

She pointed to the metal disc Seven had set on the ground earlier. The former drone picked it up and said, “This is what shall assist Voyager in locating us. It is a transponder.”

 

“Like a homing signal?” Max asked, her face lighting up.

 

“Precisely. I shall set it to emit a frequency that only Voyager can hear, but you will have to transport it to the surface. It will have to be concealed from the N’hydrin, but the galacite in the rocks prevent scans of any kind.”

 

“No problem,” Max assured her. “I’ll just hide it in the animal remains I found last night. That won’t block the signal, will it?”

 

“Animal remains will not mask the signature.”

 

“Great. You set the frequency and I’ll make breakfast. I’ll put it out after we eat.”

 

Max definitely had the quicker of the two tasks. All she needed to do to heat the food pack was peel back the lid. The contents heated automatically while Seven set the frequency on the transponder.

 

It might have looked a little odd to the outsider to be eating a chicken dinner for breakfast, but Seven and Max happily shared the chunks of simulated protein. When it came time for dessert Max insisted that Seven eat every bite of the strawberry pie. She insisted that the other woman still needed all of the nutrients she could get until they were rescued or her leg healed. Secretly she enjoyed the expression of pleasure on Seven’s face and wouldn’t have missed it.

 

After they had eaten Max grabbed the transponder and headed for the surface. It was easy to conceal the device in the animal carcass, but Max took her time. She needed some time to herself to consider their future. Neither of them had spoken with anything but optimism, but Max knew that with every hour that passed their chances of being found lessened.

 

Voyager couldn’t remain in the sector forever searching for them. Max didn’t even know if there was a way for Captain Janeway to find them. Eventually they would have to resume a course for home, with or without them. If the worst happened, Max and Seven would have a hard decision to make.

 

Either they would stay on the planet and try to find a way to survive in the harsh conditions, or they would have to steal a spacecraft somewhere and try to go after the Federation ship. No matter what happened, they would have to wait until Seven healed. Until then, they would have to stay right where they were. The cave was fairly defensible, and Max would just have to accept the fact that she would have to periodically raid the pirate stronghold.

*******

 

The N’hydrin vessel carrying Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager during an undercover away mission to find two missing crewmembers had just taken off. Janeway, Commander Tuvok, B’Elanna Torres, Alex Turko, and an N’hydrin pirate, K’plath, were using the alien’s pirate ship to attempt to track down Seven of Nine, and Max Clayton. Both of the women had been kidnapped from a turbolift by an N’hydrin transport beam during one of the frequent pirate attacks the crew had suffered since entering this sector.

 

Janeway’s crew had tracked an ion trail to the bandit’s vessel and commandeered it. Then the captain of the small craft had been forced to help rescue the women. It wasn’t Kathryn Janeway’s normal mode of operation, but in this case she didn’t feel there was much of a choice. Only the pirates knew where her missing crew might have been taken, and she had every intention of letting their alien guide go as quickly as possible.

 

As a Starfleet captain, Kathryn would never have left a member of her crew behind without doing everything in her power to rescue them, whatever the cost. Her professionalism, and sense of compassion demanded nothing less. With one of the missing in question being Seven of Nine, her heart demanded everything more.

 

To her immense surprise and consternation she had discovered in the course of the last few days that she was in love with the other woman. With the discovery of a narrative Seven had written concerning her own feelings toward Janeway, Kathryn now knew that her feelings were returned. How ironic and cruel it would be if something had happened to the former drone.

 

According to the information they’d just obtained in a seedy, smoke-filled bar on N’hydrin Prime Seven of Nine was dead, and there was no word on Maxine Clayton. The words of Seven’s demise had hammered directly at Kathryn’s heart. She had drawn on every bit of strength she had to keep going until she found any visual proof of the veracity of these claims.

 

She refused to actually consider the possibility that it might be true. If it were, she was afraid of the empty, cold shell she could see herself become. She had often been told that she had given Seven’s humanity back to her, but the opposite was in fact the case. Until Seven appeared on the scene Kathryn had operated on duty and protocol with more and more of the woman disappearing behind the uniform.

 

Seven had brought the passion back into her life, first in rescuing her from the Borg and then with all the struggles they had been through together that had led to the bond between them. Now, there was a possibility of passion in another respect that made shivers track down her spine. Seven had to be alive.

 

A sudden jolt forced her to focus intently on the present.

 

“Report!” she shouted from where she’d strapped in at the center of the N’hydrin vessel.

 

B’Elanna Torres, Voyager’s chief engineer, had taken over the pilot’s position while the N’hydrin pirate sat next to her. Even though it was K’plath’s ship they weren’t about to let him fly it for fear that he would lead them into a trap.

 

“We’re under attack! It looks like we attracted the attention of some of those aliens in the bar. Maybe that Tamar we heard about somehow knows we’re looking for him.”

 

“Doubtful,” K’plath spoke up. He was holding on to the chair arms tightly while the little ship rattled under weapons fire. “It is more likely they simply see you as an alien species to be exploited.”

 

“But this is one of their own types of vessels,” Kathryn pointed out. “Surely they wouldn’t attack one of their own.”

 

“The vessel configuration is immaterial. They saw you board.”

 

B’Elanna snorted at the N’hydrin. “Besides, they’re pirates. They don’t care who they steal from.”

 

Alex spoke up for the first time from where she sat beside the captain. “In other words they think we are as mercenary as they are. They think we stole this ship and they intend to raid us?”

 

“Yes,” K’plath responded.

 

Janeway’s command mask slammed down into place with perfect precision. These annoying bandits were not about to stop her from completing her mission. “B’Elanna how many ships?”

 

“One in flight behind us,” she responded as they were rocked by another volley. “There are two more taking off from around the bar, and shields are down ten percent.”

 

“Evasive maneuvers, try to circle around behind the pursuing vessel and take out their weapons.”

 

Torres was no Tom Paris at the helm, but she was still a Starfleet officer, and a fair pilot on her own. In a few seconds she had managed to get behind the other vessel.

 

Tuvok, firing from the aft weapons console, had taken out their weapons before they were able to evade Torres’ piloting skills. Janeway noticed that her security chief had managed to get more than their weapons as a series of explosions ruptured the entire port side.

 

B’Elanna snarled, and Kathryn’s lips curled in a feral smile. Then Torres set a course and shot away from the other alien vessels, but kept an eye on the sensors. A few seconds later she reported, “The other ships are breaking off their attack and going after the damaged vessel.”

 

“Vultures circling the prey,” Alex observed in disgust.

 

Kathryn agreed with the sentiment but was pragmatic enough to be grateful that they had been distracted. There was no way to know what condition Max and Seven were in and any delays could be a matter of life and death.

 

“K’plath give B’Elanna the coordinates to Tamar’s stronghold. Lieutenant, lay in a course at top speed. Something tells me we need to hurry.”

 

“Aye, Captain,” B’Elanna said smartly. “Course laid in, engaging engines at maximum velocity. We should arrive in six minutes.”

 

Kathryn sat quietly and maintained an air of composure, but inside she chaffed at the delay. It had only been two days since the women had disappeared, and she knew that Seven could take care of herself in normal circumstances. But, she had to admit that love wasn’t always logical, and her heart insisted that they reach the coordinates now!

 

Her communicator chirped and gave her something to do.

 

“Voyager to Captain Janeway,” the voice of Chakotay sounded over the communications channel.

 

“Please tell me you have some good news, Commander.”

 

“We’re picking up a Federation distress signal coming from a short distance to the west of your current location.”

 

“B’Elanna?”

 

“Sensors aren’t showing anything, Captain.”

 

Chakotay must have been monitoring the exchange between the women because he spoke up. “I doubt your sensors are capable of picking it up. This is on a Starfleet emergency frequency. We’re sending you the coordinates now.”

 

Janeway checked the board over Torres’ shoulder and realized that was where they were already headed. “Why didn’t Voyager pick up the transponder signal as soon as we came into orbit?”

 

“Perhaps there was too much interference due to the galacite deposits, or the transponder was only recently activated,” Commander Tuvok speculated.

 

Kathryn nodded, and realized that guessing was pointless. “Commander Chakotay, maintain your orbit. We’ll contact you as soon as we have anything further, Janeway out.”

 

“Coming up on the coordinates now, Captain,” B’Elanna said from the helm. “I’m not reading any life signs, but the transponder signal is clearly detectable from here.”

 

Janeway had already un-strapped when she had gone to check the coordinates Chakotay had sent so she headed for the aft transport area of the small pirate vessel. “K’plath, Turko, and Tuvok you’re with me. B’Elanna I need you to stay on the ship in case we need an emergency beam-out or cover fire.”

 

The look on B’Elanna’s face said she wasn’t happy with being assigned to the ship. She was a warrior and didn’t like being asked to stay out of the fight. But she accepted the necessity of having someone familiar with the controls and she had already been piloting the ship. Instead of arguing with the captain she nodded once and said, “I’ve got your backs.”

 

“Try to stay out of sight, Lieutenant.” Kathryn ordered and stood with the others on a small transporter pad. “Energize.”

 

The sensation of being transported sparkled through her nerve endings and a few seconds later she rematerialized on the dusty, rocky terrain of the N’hydrin mountains. Kathryn had learned early on to set her feet before transport and not move for a second after re-solidifying. Unfortunately Alex hadn’t yet learned that lesson and Kathryn saw her stumble a bit as the group was suddenly facing down a steep decline.

 

Tuvok instantly produced a tricorder and began to scan the area. “This way, Captain.”

 

A few seconds later they all saw the desiccated remains, and froze for a horrified instant. Then Alex was off at a run shouting, “Max!”

 

She had acted so rashly and unexpectedly that Kathryn couldn’t stop her. With her breath frozen in her lungs, she wasn’t sure she would have been able to anyway. She followed until she was standing over where Alex squatted in the white dust.

 

Alex looked up in relief and said, “It’s only an animal.”

 

“The transponder signal is coming from the animal remains,” Tuvok said. He bent over the carcass, and peered at it intently. Then he reached into the dry husk and removed a silver disc that emitted the emergency signal they had tracked.

 

Finally he stood up, still watching the tricorder readings. “I am detecting another energy signature. I believe it is coming from below ground.”

 

“How can that be?” Kathryn asked, confused. “The galacite would prevent any kind of scans.”

 

Alex was looking around from her position squatted on the ground. Kathryn watched her stop and peer closely for a moment at a spot underneath a low rock ledge. “Not if it’s coming from some kind of tunnel,” she pointed out in an excited tone.

 

Kathryn’s eyes widened suddenly as she understood. “You mean like a cave.”

 

She squatted next to Alex and said, “Tuvok,”

 

He saw where they were looking and walked over calmly to the spot in question. Then he leaned down to casually take a reading. Kathryn could have shaken him in that instant to show a little bit of excitement.

 

“It is a Federation tricorder signature that has been altered to emit a high frequency tone if the beam is broken.”

 

“A burglar alarm,” Kathryn said.

 

Janeway stood and quickly walked over to the ledge before she lay down on her belly and started to crawl into the tunnel. She had only managed to crawl a half a foot into the hole when she suddenly found herself on the business end of an N’hydrin disruptor rifle.

 

*******

“Did you hear something?” Max asked as she looked around suddenly.

 

She and Seven of Nine had been enjoying a discussion concerning the crew of Voyager. They had nothing better to do and Max found Seven’s assessment of some of the individuals amusing, colorful and extremely accurate. It was only when Max brought up the subject of Kathryn Janeway that the younger woman’s face had changed expression altogether.

 

It hadn’t taken long to deduce that the former drone had a serious crush on the intrepid captain. Max was just about to pin her down on some detailed information when the sound of rock sliding caught her attention.

 

“Yes,” Seven stated and looked toward the tunnel. “Someone is at the entrance of the cave. I can hear them speaking, but not clearly enough to ascertain what they are saying.”

 

Max reached over for the N’hydrin rifle that Seven quickly relinquished. “Guess I’d better check it out.”

 

The tricorder Seven had found in the bottom of the pack had been altered to emit a shrill whistle if its beam were broken. Then it had been placed in the tunnel as a sort of early warning system if someone invaded their stronghold while they were sleeping. But Max and Seven had heard the intruders before that had occurred and it would hopefully give them the advantage of surprise.

 

The brunette held the rifle ahead of her and crawled with difficulty up the tunnel. Her hands and arms were battered and bloody, and she would be glad when this ordeal was over.

 

She neared the edge of the tunnel and could only make out the booted feet of a couple of individuals but from the excited tones she knew they had found the entrance. Someone dropped down at the mouth of the tunnel and slid inside with the obvious intent of discovering exactly what was in this hole. With the individual between her and the sun Max couldn’t make out the features and she had actually begun to squeeze the trigger when she realized she was face-to-face with Captain Kathryn Janeway.

 

Max started violently trying not to fire and almost ended up ramming the tip of the rifle into the captain’s face.

 

“Captain Janeway!”

 

The look on the captain’s face was one of intense amusement and not a little relief.

 

“It’s good to see you too, Max. Is Seven alright?”

 

“She’s injured,” Max blurted out and was astounded at how pale the other woman suddenly went. 

 

Well this is interesting, she thought before she elaborated, “It’s nothing serious, she just broke her leg wearing those damned heels in all this rock!”

 

Kathryn grinned and said, “Well, why don’t you come out of there. I’ll get Seven and then I think we’d better vacate the area before we have company. No doubt someone has noticed our arrival.”

 

“I think that’s a good idea.”

 

Max grabbed the tricorder and flipped the lid closed before she started to move toward the surface. Captain Janeway had already wiggled backward out of the hole and was waiting for her.

 

When she stood up she was surprised by Alex grabbing her in a bear hug and didn’t see the amused look on Janeway’s face.

 

“You scared the hell out of me,” Alex admitted thumping her hard on the back.

 

Embarrassed, but touched at the display Max pulled away and could feel her face burn. “Sorry about that.”

 

Captain Janeway relieved the moment by saying, “Tuvok, please get everyone back to the ship. I’ll get Seven and we’ll follow right behind you.”

 

“With all due respect, Captain, I shall stand guard here until you return safely to the surface.”

 

Tuvok was right, of course, Max thought. The captain couldn’t possibly stay on the planet without security, and for once she didn’t seem inclined to argue with him.

 

Janeway activated her combadge and said, “Lieutenant Torres we have Captain Clayton. Seven of Nine is injured in a cave beneath the surface. Transport everyone in this group back to the ship except for myself and Commander Tuvok.”

 

“Understood, Captain.”

 

Janeway had already squatted down in preparation of entering the tunnel when Max felt the sickly sensation of bugs crawling all over her skin from the transport beam before the captain sparkled out of sight.

 

********

“She’s injured,” Max said and Kathryn felt all of the blood drain out of her head. Fortunately, before she could pass out, the captain continued. “It’s nothing serious, she just broke her leg wearing those damned heels in all this rock!”

 

She’s alive, Kathryn thought and actually felt giddy. She suggested that Max come out of the tunnel and scooted back out to allow her room. As soon as the young woman climbed to her feet Alex was on her, and Kathryn had to smother a grin. If she thought she could actually remain friends with the brunette without revealing her true feelings, Kathryn thought she was deluding herself.

 

The love and worry on Turko’s face was plain for anyone to see.

 

A few minutes later everyone had transported back to the N’hydrin vessel except for herself and Tuvok. Kathryn got down on her hands and knees and started down the tunnel.

 

It wasn’t a long tunnel, but with her fear for Seven’s condition and all of the worry she’d gone through the last few days it felt like it was three kilometers long. Within a few seconds she came to the edge of the cave and Seven’s alto voice washed over her like clean, pure breeze.

 

“Max?”

 

Kathryn looked around the edge of the tunnel exit and knew she would never forget what she saw in that instant.

 

Seven sat on a Starfleet issue silver blanket next to the bright illumination of heated galacite rocks. One of her legs was curled up slightly and her hair was tousled from lying on the ground. But it was the look of vulnerability that made her heart clench and she suddenly understood why Alex hadn’t been able to maintain the façade of strict friendship in the face of the first glance that told her the woman she loved was alive and well.

 

“Seven,” she breathed and ignored the prick of tears that stung her eyes.

 

Before she knew how it happened she was across the cavern and somehow on her knees where she pulled the startled woman into her arms. She was gratified to feel Seven’s long arms embrace her in return and Kathryn clung to her like a life raft.

 

She had held the other woman before during times of great trial such as when Seven had picked up a homing signal from her families ship, The Raven, but this was different. This time she didn’t offer comfort as a friend rather she sought it. Kathryn needed to feel the heat and strength of this precious form, and feel the heartbeat against her own to truly know that Seven was safe.

 

Maybe Seven felt the trembling in her body, but whatever the reason she suddenly tightened her arms and allowed Kathryn to sink into her.

 

“I am all right, Captain. It is merely a broken appendage.”

 

Kathryn laughed a little and pulled back to look into Seven’s eyes. “I know, but I was so worried about you, Darling.”

 

Kathryn’s admission was atypical for her, and she knew as soon as she said the words that things had just changed between them. Her feelings, along with the knowledge of Seven’s own and the ordeal the young woman had just been through made it possible for this to happen, and Kathryn didn’t want to put things back where they had been.

 

Gathering all of her captain’s courage she leaned forward to press her lips against Seven’s. Her eyes closed involuntarily at the sensation of soft, full lips, and she felt Seven gasp against her mouth. Then Seven relaxed and returned the kiss eagerly.

 

Kathryn’s right hand released her hold around the other woman to caress the back of Seven’s head, and then around to touch her soft cheek. Kathryn caught Seven’s moan in her mouth as the other woman’s lips parted involuntarily, and she took advantage of it seeking out warmth and moisture as her tongue gently stroked Seven’s own.

 

The moment could have gone on forever, but Janeway’s combadge chirped, and her security chief interrupted her.

 

“Captain, Lieutenant Torres has informed me that a group of fifteen N’hydrin will arrive at our location in less than four minutes. Do you require assistance?”

 

“No, Tuvok,” Janeway said still looking into Seven’s eyes. “We’ll be up in a minute.”

 

Janeway ended the com-link and noticed for the first time that Seven wasn’t wearing her communicator. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was disappointing that she would have to expend time to recover Federation technology before they could leave this blasted sector of space.

 

She looked down and noticed Seven’s bandaged leg. “Do you think you can make it back to the surface on your own?” she asked gently.

 

There was a stunned look to the former drone’s face and her lips were decidedly swollen from the attention they had received, but the light of happiness in her eyes made Kathryn happy that she had taken the chance and kissed her.

 

“I am finished with this planet. I will make it.”

 

Kathryn laughed at the imperious tone and began to gather up the Starfleet equipment. Fortunately Max and Seven had been prepared in case they had to move quickly and not much was lying around. What there was Kathryn quickly stuffed into the survival pack.

 

Then she helped Seven over to the tunnel and waited while she began to crawl up the entrance. When she had decided that her love could indeed handle the climb she went back and grabbed the last of the supplies before she followed.

 

Janeway had just exited the tunnel and climbed to her feet. She noticed that Tuvok had one arm wrapped around Seven’s waist to help her stand when a group of N’hydrin slunk into view. “Tuvok, duck!”

 

She grimaced at the sound of Seven’s grunt of pain, but swift movement was necessary as the security chief took cover with his charge.

 

Janeway slapped her communicator. “Torres, get us out of here!”

 

A second later sparkles filled her eyes and she found herself crouched in the back of the pirate vessel along with Tuvok and Seven of Nine. It was definitely a tight fit with all of them crammed into the tiny vessel.

 

“Tuvok, help her get strapped in. Let’s go, Lieutenant Torres. We got what we came for.”

 

Captain Janeway was strapping herself into a seat behind Torres when Max interrupted her. “A moment, Captain. I thought you might want to know that I found a lot of the stuff that was stolen from Voyager in the alien stronghold where we were kept at the bottom of the mountain. I even saw a Borg alcove.”

 

Kathryn barely spared Max a glance and said, “You heard her B’Elanna. If we can get our supplies back instead of wasting months procuring more, let’s do it.”

 

“Aye, Captain.”

 

Torres followed Max’s directions and within minutes they were over the alien compound. N’hydrin guards fired at them from the ground, but the hand weapons had no effect on the ship’s shielding.

 

“That thing is made of galacite, Captain, but there are so many openings that I have no trouble picking up our supplies on the scanners. There’s a lot of stuff in that storeroom. Shall we take it all?”

 

Kathryn couldn’t really blame the other woman. They had been attacked repeatedly by these thugs with no provocation, but her principals wouldn’t allow her to respond with tit for tat.

 

“No, Lieutenant. Just take what belongs to us.”

 

“But, Captain…” B’Elanna began to argue.

 

“We’re not thieves, B’Elanna.” Kathryn said in a tone that the other woman knew better than to disagree with.

 

Visibly biting her tongue, the half-Klingon activated the ship’s transport beam and reported a second later, “The cargo hold is full, Captain. We got back about three quarters of what was taken from us.”

 

Kathryn spared a glance back at Seven, unsurprised to find a warm gaze resting on her face. “That’s good enough, Lieutenant. Take us home.”

 

******

“Seven’s nanoprobes were so depleted they couldn’t mend the leg fracture, a fortunate happenstance as he bone were out of alignment. Both Seven and Captain Clayton were a little bruised and battered but their injuries weren’t life-threatening and were easily repaired.”

 

Max listened with half an ear to the doctor as he briefed Captain Janeway on their condition. The other half of her mind was occupied by how Alex had acted during the rescue operation.

 

First there had been that hug on the planet, and then on th